Stop Fiddling, Start Finishing: Julie Berry On Getting Through Your First Draft

Originally Published: Aug. 15, 2011

by Emily Goodman

Author Julie Berry told a fascinated Tuesday Professional Lecture Series audience at the June 14 lecture how she once wrote seven books in a single year—while also working part-time, being married, and raising four children.

“I didn’t plan for seven books to come at once,” Berry said. She had just sold her first YA novel, The Amaranth Enchantment, when proposals for two middle-grade series were also accepted. “As a fledgling writer, I didn’t feel I could say no to any opportunity,” Berry explained. “So I wrote them all. I don’t think I’ll ever do that again, but after surviving that year, I feel I can do anything.”

Berry spoke on “Finish that Novel! Techniques for moving past fiddling to finishing” in the final lecture of this year’s Tuesday Professional Series. Taking your first draft “from begun to done” is really just a matter of “adding words onto the end of your draft until you finish,” she said. “Nothing else I say should complicate this.”

Nevertheless, Berry had many techniques and insights to offer for common problems with finishing first drafts. “Beginnings are relatively easy,” she said. “But it’s gravel-hauling toil to finish your first draft. Writing to the end exposes all the problems with your dazzling beginning – the flat characters, plot loose ends, weaknesses in your world-building, and hidden agendas.”

Berry talked about common problems writers face and how to deal with them. Here are some of her suggestions.
1. You lack motivation and often fail to choose writing over other temptations. Solution: Berry quoted Stephen King here: “Blow up your TV.” She added, “Know your Twitter and Facebook limits.”
2. You find no writing time is left after the day’s obligations are met. Solution: Recognize that writing will cost you something. Decide what you can afford to pay, Berry said. “If you make writing necessary, you’ll get it done.”

3. You fear that you’re not good enough. Solution: Don’t confuse a draft with a finished work. “Drafts,” Berry said, “are like tissues: soft, flimsy, disposable, meant for blowing one’s nose in.” Remember that no one else has to see it, and give yourself permission to write a poor first draft.

4. You feel overwhelmed by all the plot decisions you have to make. Solution: “Dance between writing in the dark and making a plan,” Berry said, meaning, use both the “outline” and the “just write” approaches in tandem. “Write as far as you can, then plan, then write more.” Think ahead to the ending: How should the main character feel on the last page? What should the main character have gained and lost by the end? “It’s a very satisfying plan when the inner and outer quests dovetail in a book,” Berry said. “The inner quest is the emotional one that the character is often unaware of. Often it contains the key to success in the outer quest.”

5. You feel like you don’t care about your book anymore. “Your characters haven’t hooked you yet,” diagnosed Berry, “because somewhere in creating them, you took a shortcut and held back from making them real and true. You will love them if they’re real.”

Some other tips:

1. Create a feeling of urgency to write. “Get obsessed and a little mad,” Berry advised. “Decide to prove you can finish a book and get published before you die! You might get hit by a Mack truck tomorrow—so do it while there’s still time.”

2. Commit to finishing your draft by a certain date. “Set a realistic and challenging deadline,” she said. “Figure out how many pages you can write in a day, and project when you might finish the draft. Then hold yourself to that.” If you can attach that goal to something real in your life, she added, like the end of the year or a birthday or graduation, you’ll be more likely to achieve it.

3. Hunker down when it gets hard. “The writing process is fun at first, but the intensity, fear, and chaos all increase when you hit the middle,” Berry said. “Do NOT slow down! When it gets hard, write faster and work harder.”

4. “Think about big picture issues to get to the end of your first draft,” Berry said. “This is not the time to finesse adverbs.” Finally, “You can get a lot of writing done if you just write,” she said. “The rest of the time, don’t write and don’t fret about writing.”

Julie Berry is the author of The Amaranth Enchanment, Secondhand Charm, and the Splurch Academy for Disruptive Boys series. To learn more about Julie Berry visit http://www.julieberrybooks.com.

Emily Goodman’s picture book Plant Secrets is the Nebraska Farm Bureau’s Agriculture Book of the Year for 2009. Follow Emily on Facebook!

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