Editor and award-winning writer Nancy Ellen Dodd, M.P.W., M.F.A., teaches at Pepperdine University and has had extensive experience working with authors, including indies. In this interview she touches on her work, what she’s learned during her career, and how to write your best work possible.
1. Describe your educational and writing backgrounds.
For more than 25 years I’ve invested thousands of hours of studying writing, including two graduate degrees: a master’s in Professional Writing (MPW, which is a multi-discipline approach to writing) from the University of Southern California and an MFA in playwriting at USC’s School of Theatre. I have received numerous awards for my writing and some of my stories have been read on public radio. I’ve also studied writing with several successful, award-winning writers.
My book, The Writer’s Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages, covers the full creative writing process. I’ve also published more than 130 articles and been editor of two print and two online publications. Presently I’m academic editor of the Graziadio Business Review, a business journal for the Graziadio School at Pepperdine. Currently, I teach screenwriting at Pepperdine University to undergraduate and graduate students.
2. Tell me briefly about The Writer’s Compass.
The Writer’s Compass is what I’ve learned after thousands of hours of studying writing and two graduate degrees. Through this process I developed a story map based on the 3-Act structure chart and Aristotle’s and Freytag’s principles of dramatic writing to use as a tool for understanding your story. For years I have been collecting and developing questions that writers should ask about their stories and I evolved these into a 7 Stage process for writing more efficiently with fewer drafts. I’ve been using this method, teaching it in workshops, and using part of it to teach my screenwriting students for years. I finally turned it into a book.
3. You do a lot of work with indie writers. What are some specific concepts and skills you teach them?
I learned early in my writing that you don’t have to be a great writer to be an effective writer. You also don’t have to have a huge audience to impact people’s lives.
The more writers know about how to write and have the tools for properly analyzing their own work, the more they can figure out what their problems are. The more writers understand what they are writing about at the deepest level, such as the theme, the more they can stick to their own guns and not be as influenced by inappropriate advice that may derail their story. All of this is part of “the writer’s compass.”
As for self-publishing, get a good editor and don’t release material with proofreading or factual mistakes. You don’t have to have a publisher or an agent, but you do have to make your work the best it can be.
4. What are some of the most common mistakes you see writers make?
A big one is letting someone else derail your story. Not all critiques are good, especially when they come from someone who appears to know all the answers or is very cryptic in their comments. Most of us have had the experience of following someone’s advice and then losing interest in the story. You have to remember, maybe that is the way they would write it, maybe it would even be a great story, but it’s not necessarily the story you are writing. You have to understand what you are writing about, what you are trying to say, and who the characters are at the deepest levels to know when you are getting good feedback.
Another mistake is trying to “write about what you know” literally. It is very difficult to write from firsthand experience. Incorporate what you know about in your stories, but try not to make the story too personal or it becomes about you and not about the characters.
5. Think for a moment about the mindset of a new writer embarking on his or her first literary project. What three things should that writer do first?
1. Consider every line, every idea a placeholder; in other words, don’t think “this is perfect!” but rather this is what I’m trying to say and when I know my story better I will say it better. When you get to the end of the story, make sure that you replace those placeholders with the best ideas and the best writing you can create.
2. Don’t listen to everything everybody says about your story. If several people tell you the same thing, there is probably a problem you need to address, although remember, they may not know how to identify the problem for you. If lots of people give you conflicting advice, it could mean you’ve got a story that really gets people going, which is what you want. As I noted above, know what you are writing about and write the story your way. Follow the feedback that truly helps your writing, ignore the rest.
3. You have to have discipline. Find a time and a place that is your space to write and create a serious routine. My best mental time to write happens to be when I usually get the most interruptions, so take that into consideration. You may have to pick a time to write that is less than creatively ideal, but has fewer distractions. In that case, prepare in advance so that you can give your creativity a head start.
6. When a writer does well, what stands out most to you? In other words, what tells you a particular story or essay is well-written?
Probably the biggest thing that will tell me if it is well-written is if the language is rich with details, words that create the perfect image, or vague and everyday nonspecific language.
Actually, it isn’t whether it is well-written as much as that it is engaging. As an editor, I do go nuts when there are lots of mistakes, but I also know that not all good storytellers are good at grammar and punctuation; yet, that individual may have something new to say in an unexpected way that good editing can improve.
With my students I know that what I see the first time around is just getting the ideas down. It takes time to shape it and understand what you are writing about and want to say.
7. Criticism, constructive or not, is something all writers should expect at one point or another. But we don’t always want to hear it. What advice do you have for a writer to deal with criticism, negative reviews, and suggestions for improvement?
We touched on this above, but this is something I believe is really important. If you really understand what you are writing about—the theme, the dramatic question, the premise, all the ways people describe what their story is about—then when you get feedback that doesn’t apply, you are more likely to know that in your gut.
As far as negative criticism, I once read a scathing NY Times review about John Grisham’s A Painted House, in which the reviewer went on and on about how Grisham obviously didn’t know what he was talking about in regard to cotton farming. My father was a cotton farmer, the reviewer obviously didn’t have a clue about it, while from my experiences, Grisham was right on target. Someone who didn’t know better probably believed the reviewer’s negative criticism because he spoke authoritatively.
Once I was in a grad course, in which the rest of the students were younger and had a different life view than I had and they didn’t like my subject. When it came time to critique my work, it was a real blood-letting, each comment worse than the last. The instructor should have stopped it, but didn’t. She did however tell me that I never had to bring anything else into class again. On another occasion, a student got up and started mimicking my work and shimmying around mocking what I’d written. The instructor immediately stopped it and called for her work next, then demolished her. Even I felt bad for her. Both of these examples say something about how the person in charge handled the situation inappropriately.
A third more recent experience was in a group of actors and writers. The actors had just performed a few pages of my work and the moderator’s first comments were completely negative. I mean where do you go from there? It was a group of about 40 people and several hated the work and just as many loved it. I then figured I had something very controversial worth pursuing.
All of these stories are to say that it happens to everyone and it can be devastating. Some people are asses and their criticism is more about their arrogance and negative opinions of the world and less about your work. You just gave them a platform to spout their vitriolic opinions. More than once I have said, “I will never write again.” And I know people who have stopped writing because of criticism they didn’t know what to do with. Basically you have to learn to flush it. Listen for what rings true, don’t go against your gut instinct, and don’t knowingly share your work with people who are destructive.
8. Returning to your own book, what sort of marketing techniques are you using to promote it?
I am on LinkedIn and Facebook. I have a website and a blog and another blog about my spiritual contemplations. I also send personal emails out to creative writing and English instructors. Finally, I look for places where I can do presentations and writing and workshops. That’s about all I can fit in to the time I have.
9. Are there any marketing techniques you intentionally avoided or discontinued, and if so, why?
Twitter. Not because I’m against it, but because I think you have to show an interesting personality in very few characters that people want to follow. There’s a saying about the less you write, or the shorter the time you have to speak, the more time you have to put into saying something meaningful.
10. What do you hope to accomplish with The Writer’s Compass?
I want writers to have the tools at hand to help them to write better, to have more confidence, to learn how to say what they want to say, and to follow their gut instinct—their compass.
11. What projects are you currently working on?
I always have several fiction and nonfiction projects going. My emphasis right now is in different ways that storytelling techniques can be used to enhance other areas, such as developing business ideas and writing sermons and case studies. My creative writing is focused on a play, a screenplay, and a novel, plus a collection of short stories.
12. How can readers learn more about your books and other work?
At The Writer’s Compass I focus on writing techniques and tools. On my blog I post about a broader variety of topics. At my other blog I write about reflections of a more spiritual nature. I also post some work here, which includes a short story, my personal experience with breast cancer, and tips for homeschoolers. And of course my Facebook page.