Biographer Marshall Terrill has written 20 books chronicling the lives of famous people, from a definitive biography on Steve McQueen to his most recent book, Zora Folley: The Distinguished Life and Mysterious Death of a Gentleman Boxer. Terrill pulled away from his busy writing schedule to share how he approaches the process of writing a book.
PB: What’s the best piece of advice on writing someone gave you?
MT: I once met biographer Ray Coleman, a British scribe who had written extensively on The Beatles and John Lennon, back in the 1980s. He has since passed away. I told him that I wanted to write a book on Steve McQueen but had never written anything longer than a term paper. He told me, “If you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way.” I think that’s the perfect advice because it cuts right to the chase. It also gave me hope. He wasn’t judging me; he wasn’t saying no I couldn’t do it; he was basically asking how big is your heart? How badly do you want this? What sacrifices are you willing to make to get there? So for me, it’s not about writing per se; it’s about action and sacrifice.
PB: What do you do to get past the dreaded blank page or screen?
MT: I think that’s a situation that applies more to fiction writers than non-fiction writers, and the only reason I say that is to make them feel better! With non-fiction, there’s no reason to have a blank page because after all the research and interviews are done, you’d better know what you’re going to write. When I get ready to sit down to write, I’m all business.
PB: What is your process for writing a book?
MT: Because I write exclusively non-fiction, the process is usually 1.) research 2.) interview(s) 3.) outline 4.) writing 5.) editing. Of course, each book is a different animal and even though I have given the order in which I do things, the reality is you end up doing a little of everything at the same time.
PB: How do you know when your book is finally done, and how do you keep yourself moving toward that target when life’s distractions break in?
MT: When you have an outline of the book, it helps keep you on target. When you get into the material, you start to have a better gauge of the material. On my last book, I set up the outline for 15 chapters, but I ended up writing 24, and that’s because the material was becoming more familiar to me. So use the outline to guide you along, but know it’s not always written in stone. The best method I’ve found for keeping myself on target is to write a couple of pages a day, finish a chapter in three to four days, take a day off to mentally rest and think about what I’m going to write next. It’s important to keep that flow going. When you’re in the throes of writing, I think it’s dangerous to have a huge gap in between writing sessions. When you have a deadline, you don’t have much time to allow for distractions.
PB: What tips on writing do you have for first-time book authors?
MT: Don’t ever quit. Whenever I start any book, it’s a daunting challenge but then the work materializes and starts to roll … five or six months later, the work is done. It’s so worth it to stick to it. The other bit of advice is don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do it–don’t allow negative forces into your life. The sole reason why I’ve had 20 books published is that I never quit – that’s the only way I can explain my success. I’ve never walked away from anything I’ve ever started. One book took me seven years from conception to book form. I spent two years transcribing 300 interviews, but never did I once think of quitting.