An active member of American Christian fiction Writers, Terri Main often taps into her decades of writing experience to help other authors strengthen their own skills. Today, you can learn even more from her as you take a peek at her writing style and habits.
Welcome! Let’s start with the basics: what do you write? How/why did you pick your genre?
It’s easier to say what DON’T I write. Seriously, my models of authors included the likes of C.S. Lewis, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov. They wrote everything – fiction, nonfiction, books, articles, short stories.
Over the past fifty years (I can’t believe it’s been that long), I’ve written newspaper articles, documentaries, radio drama, stage drama, magazine articles, how-to’s, investigative reporting, Bible studies, fantasy, science fiction, mysteries, even a romance story. Recently, I’ve been working with a ministry writing fictional accounts of some stories based on their counseling. We just created an online magazine at TheCatchMagazine.com
I am drawn mostly to science fiction and mysteries. I love the what-if factor in science fiction, and I love the who-done-it factor in mystery stories, but just about anything can send me running to my keyboard. I just have too much curiosity to be bound to one type of writing.
How long does it take you to: write the book? Edit it? Finalize it?
That depends on the book. Nonfiction is easier to write and goes faster. In nonfiction, you are just organizing information; you don’t have to create anything from scratch. One time I accepted the challenge to write and publish a book in a week. It was a short Bible study guide for the book of Colossians.
My novels tend to be between 50-80,000 words. I write at about 1000 words an hour, so the first draft takes about eighty hours. Prep time varies. If it is a series, the first book takes a lot of prep time (up to 100 hours or so). But once I have the first book done, the rest may have little or no prep time other than thinking through the basic story line.
Editing is about the same as writing, so that’s another eighty hours. So, an average novel is about 160 hours. That would be about eight weeks if I don’t have any other projects getting in the way.
I’ve done the National Novel Writing Month challenge and wrote four of my novels in one month each. It took longer for me to edit those. It takes longer because it tires me out; I can’t sustain editing for long periods of time.
What’s your writing day like?
It varies a bit, but mostly I get up about 10 a.m. (I go to bed at 2-5 am so don’t judge me). I start by checking email; what I’m doing will depend on what’s in the mail from my clients.
I have chronic pain, fatigue, and asthma, so I have to pace myself. When I don’t, I lose productivity. I write for fifteen minutes and rest for twenty, or write an hour and rest two hours (or maybe the rest of the day). I’ve set up a routine on my Alexa Echo to tell me when to start writing and when to rest. And five minutes after it tells me to stop writing, it says “I mean it stop writing,” as a reminder that I’ll pay the price in my body if I don’t keep my regimen going.
I do that until about 1 p.m., when I get lunch and take an hour’s rest. Then Alexa gets me back to writing for another three hours. During the breaks, I listen to books on tape. Sometimes I watch videos on graphic design and video editing.
At about 4 p.m., I usually take a nap. There is something about it that helps me re-energize. Also, I’ve had three novels begin as dreams I had during naps.
At 5 p.m., I get up and do another hour of work. Then I fix dinner and take another couple of hours off.
About 10 p.m., I start in again and keep going off and on until 2–4 a.m.
How do you combat writer’s block?
I consider “writer’s block” to be a myth at its best and a dangerous delusion at its worst. Unless you have a neurological defect that prevents you from learning how to write, you can write. Period. Exclamation Point! End of Discussion. So stop whining about some mythical ailment and get writing.
Does that sound harsh? It’s intended to be. Once you convince yourself that you are incapable of writing, that creates a type of voluntary paralysis that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It becomes a malady, like the flu or malaria, to be endured instead of a problem to be solved.
I had a revelation about writer’s block back in college. I went to an instructor to whom I owed a term paper. I pleaded for time citing writer’s block. Unfortunately, it was a journalism professor. Someone who had written for newspapers and knew what it was to meet a deadline. He said, “I’ll give you an extension of two hours. That should be enough time to break up that block.”
We have made writing into an almost mystical experience. We talk about “the muse” and “inspiration.” But at the end of the day it’s like any other profession – a lot of hard work.
Instead of caving to the idea of “writer’s block,” I problem solve. I ask three questions.
- Is this project worth writing? Sometimes a “block” is simply your mind telling you this is not really a very good idea and should be abandoned.
- Am I unable to write or just unable to write something “good”? Usually, it’s the latter. Writing “good” is irrelevant. “Good” writing comes from good editing. The first draft is supposed to be bad in parts.
- What’s wrong with this section, and what are five ideas for fixing it?
Writer’s Block is for dilettantes and hobbyists. Professionals recognize that writing sometimes flows and sometimes it has to be dragged up from the depths, but either way it’s our responsibility to do the work.
How do you prepare to write your books: pantser, plotter, both, something completely different?
It depends on what I’m writing. With nonfiction, I start with a basic idea, narrow that idea down to a single theme or focus, then divide that idea into sub-topics (which usually become my chapters). I then outline each chapter.
Fiction is different. I don’t build a story as much as I discover it.
It usually begins with a concept or premise. Right now, I am working on a novel about a murder that takes place at a writer’s conference in a small town located on the moon. I’m working mostly with a set of “stock” characters who have appeared in seven other books and a small cast of “new” characters.
I start by asking myself who gets killed, by whom, and why? Then, other than the murderer, who else has the victim offended or would profit from his or her death? Finally, what else is happening in the lives of my main characters that provides a context for the story? These are either subplots or parallel plots.
I don’t write any of this down. I either know it or I don’t. If I don’t, I need to move on to another idea. Then I lay down, clear my mind, and watch the story unfold (kind of like watching a video that is running really fast). I don’t get all the details, but I see the whole story in overview, including the clues, the red herrings, the personal challenges of the main characters, and the final unveiling of the killer.
Once that’s down, I begin to outline the plot, which ends up being about 200 pages long. It’s otherwise known as the first draft. I don’t know what you call that crazy process.
If you’re self-published, why did you decide to go that route? If you’re traditionally published, why did you decide to go that route?
Up until ten years ago, I was a traditional published snob. I had written everything for someone else. Self-publishing was for people who couldn’t write or didn’t have the discipline to work with a publisher.
Then I moved into novel-length fiction. I wanted to write science fiction with a spiritual spin or secular style stories with Christian characters. Unfortunately, major Christian publishers before digital publishing (ebooks, print on demand, short run printing) controlled access not only based on quality but also genres and publishing philosophy. Meanwhile, the major secular publishers didn’t see the demand for “religious” science fiction.
I began to understand that self-publishing was not simply a matter of not being good enough to write for publishers. It was the fact that there was no place for the niche writer or for the writer whose works don’t fit into a neat little marketing category.
Then came Kindle. The big drawback for most self-published authors was distribution. You just couldn’t get your books into the bookstore. Now, you have the biggest bookstore in the world ready to publish and sell your book without you having to put up a dime up front.
The digital publishing revolution brought with it several smaller publishers willing to take a chance on new authors or niche authors because they didn’t have to invest thousands of dollars in each book; only a few hundred for editing and formatting.
I found a secular publisher who liked my books. Then came early retirement and my income was cut in half overnight. I could no longer wait a year to see my books published. I couldn’t get by on 15-20% royalties, so I went indie. My income went up. My reach increased. I published sixty books over five years. Most of those books would be too specialized for any traditional publisher to publish.
What does your revision process look like?
I generally go through four stages: macro-editing, content editing, line editing, and proof reading.
I read through the novel and flag things that need attention. Then I go back and look at each scene and make sure it serves a purpose in the story. Finally, I look at the structure of the scene: Was the entry to the scene smooth? Was there enough conflict to add interest to the scene? Was the conflict resolved? Did the scene set up the next scene? Then I look for factual errors, character development, and consistency.
I look for ways to shorten the prose. I get rid of long descriptive paragraphs that don’t advance the story. I get rid of data dumps, long internal monologues, and unnecessary backstories. This is also where I tighten up the dialog.
This is where I fix the style. I get rid of “weasel words,” check for cliches, add power to my sentences, reduce wordiness, and break up long complex sentences into shorter ones.
This deals with the mechanics of spelling, punctuation, and grammar. I begin with running it through Grammarly. Then I run it through the native MS-Word grammar checker. Then I read it myself and make more changes. Then I run it through the grammar checkers a second time, and I read it a second time.
What advice do you have for new authors?
Think about your reader first, last, and always.
I’m not talking about chasing after trends or fads or “writing to the market.” but respecting the person who is actually taking 20-30 hours of their time to read your book. Ask yourself: Is my writing understandable? Am I choosing words that clearly communicate the story or am I choosing them to show off my vocabulary? Am I’m accurate? Finally, am I being true to the word of God enough that I don’t mislead them in terms of doctrine?
Thank you so much for being here and sharing so much of your experiences with us!
Terri is a retired college professor. She taught written and oral communication for more than thirty years. She continues to teach writing and is creating an online Writing Academy that will launch in February 2020. In addition to writing and teaching, she helps authors create websites, pursue digital publishing, and optimize their presences on social media.
She is single and lives in Reedley, California with her three cats. “I’m the last of a dying breed,” she quips. “I’m an old maid retired school teacher with cats.