MA: My special guest today is Nancy Ellen Dodd. She is a writer with many voices, a university instructor, and an editor. She received her master’s in Professional Writing (MPW, which is a multi-discipline approach to writing) from the University of Southern California with a concentration in dramatic writing/screenwriting and her MFA in playwriting at USC’s School of Theatre. Having studied writing for more than 25 years, Dodd currently teaches screenwriting at Pepperdine University to undergraduate and graduate students.
Her book, The Writer’s Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages, covers the full creative writing process from which she draws lessons for her classes. The Writer’s Compass teaches the writer how to develop and focus their ideas, the use of a story map, and building the story through 7 productive development stages. Published by Writer’s Digest Books, the book was released in June 2011.
Dodd has received numerous awards for her writing, which includes screenplays, plays, short stories, short films, and novel-length works, as well as inspirational writing. Some of her short stories have been read on public radio. She also studied writing with several successful, award-winning writers: Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Paul Zindel; playwrights Velina Hasu-Houston, Oliver Mayer, David Milton, and Lee Wochner; screen and television writer Sy Gomberg; and international poet James Ragan.
Currently on faculty at the Graziadio School of Business at Pepperdine University, Dodd serves as academic editor of the Graziadio Business Review, an online peer-reviewed business practitioner’s journal with over 500,000 page visits per year, 35% of those international. She also produces and edits video and audio interviews for the journal. Dodd’s journalistic career includes publishing more than 130 articles in local and national publications including interviews with celebrities and business leaders.
Well, that’s a pretty impressive background! It’s obvious that writing has been a major part of your life.
NED: For more than 25 years I’ve studied writing in all forms. This led me to having several articles and some short stories published, then to two master’s degrees in writing. From there I’ve had some of my work produced and received several awards and acknowledgements for my writing. It also led me to two stints as editor of two magazines and now academic editor of a peer-reviewed journal as a faculty member at Pepperdine University. Plus I teach screenwriting to undergraduates and graduate students there. I write in all forms: fiction and nonfiction; novels, screenplays, plays, short stories, and some inspirational prose. Most recently I’ve written The Writer’s Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages, about the creative writing process for developing stories based on what I’ve learned from thousands of hours of lectures, books, seminars, and two graduate degrees. The book teaches how to use a story map as a tool for developing your story and how to write your story more efficiently in seven stages.
MA: You have such a variety of writing experiences. Tell us, from your perspective, what is the difference between writing a novel and other forms of writing?
NED: People often ask me what my favorite form of writing is. I think it is always whatever form I’m writing in. That being said, there is something special about the novel. You can really evolve and develop the characters and the setting and the emotions in a novel. You can write it however you want. It can be formulaic or completely different from anything else out there. You can write sequels to infinity, or confine the story to a couple hundred pages. A novel gives you an intimate look at the story and characters in a way no other form can quite match. Other forms of writing have more rigid requirements for how the story is written on the page and different challenges and are much more restricted.
MA: How do you see character development, and do you address it in your books about writing?
NED: I’ve heard it said that most of our writing is a reflection of the people we know, of our selves, and also from our own experiences. Characters are often compilations of characteristics that we find interesting from what we’ve seen in others, or read, or watched on television. Unfortunately, if you draw your characters too much from fictional sources, as opposed to real people, your characters are flatter and more two-dimensional. In The Writer’s Compass there is a large section on characterization to help you draw out a fully rounded character that feels real—like someone your readers could know.
MA: What is your advice to writers about how to approach developing their protagonists?
NED: The development of the protagonist is something that takes time. We start with a glimmer of who the character is, but to write the truth about how he or she would behave takes knowing your character better than you know anyone else, perhaps even yourself. To write a gripping character you have to know what motivates her or him, what would destroy the character, what would force the character to take action, and what the character would do when their back is to the wall. When you know your character that well, and you have developed that character in your writing, you can take the story to the next level and surprise your reader with what your character does next, instead of the expected, and make it believable.
MA: How important is it t have strengths and weaknesses when developing characters for a novel?
NED: The strengths and weaknesses you give your character are critical to making your story believable. I recently read a book, published by a major publishing house, in which the author kept telling me that the protagonist was this disciplined martial arts expert and showed me the character spending time every day practicing with a sword in the back yard and freaking out the neighbors. However, the character did not act or react with the discipline that someone this focused on martial arts would have. His daily routine was to get drunk and eat poorly. He couldn’t stay focused on the task of finding his kidnapped girlfriend and his decision-making process was very faulty. The character and the book were totally unbelievable because the author told me who this character was supposed to be, but the entire novel showed me that the character’s behavior did not match who the author wanted me to believe the character was.
A hero should have weaknesses or a vulnerability, even Superman was allergic to kryptonite, but those weaknesses should be organic and make sense in the context of who the character is supposed to be. And the hero’s strength or weakness can be the opposite to what the reader anticipates or even the unexpected, as long as the writer gives the character a strong reason for having that flaw or that strength. If the reader doesn’t buy what you are saying, then neither your hero nor your story will have credibility. Which, of course, takes us back to knowing your character well.
MA: Great insight! You must have something to say about developing an antagonist.
NED: Creating an antagonist or a nemesis for a story is an interesting process. Often my students will say they don’t have one, and it’s true, some stories don’t need a particular “bad guy.” However, having a specific nemesis usually brings more tension to the story and creates obstacles for the hero to overcome or fight against, creating the action in the story. It may not be a person. It could be natural forces such as a hurricane or being lost in the heat of a desert. It could be an animal like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park or a bear in the Alaskan wilderness. It could be the protagonist is her or his own enemy, fighting addictions or emotions or a change in their life. It can be an organization that is trying to destroy the protagonist or that the hero is trying to stop from doing something bad. The antagonist could also be a good person trying to keep the protagonist from making a “mistake” or wrong decision in their life, even if it turns out not to be one. When you turn a vague problem into an actual thinking (or appears to have the power to think) enemy, you will find more ideas for building your story.
MA: What about using real-life experiences in the plot?
NED: Writers often have interesting stories to tell or to interpret through fiction, but it can be very difficult to have the perspective needed to tell the story, without the passage of time and the benefit of knowing the outcome down the road. I think it is very difficult not to incorporate some facet of our real lives and experiences into everything we write, even if we fictionalize them. Which can be a way of working through the incident or changing the outcome.
My students sometimes want to write about real events that happened to them or their family. I try to discourage them from doing so. The problem is that in one semester they only have time to scratch the surface of what can be a very traumatic experience for them. I don’t want my class to end and one of my students to be in the middle of an emotional crisis. In some cases I tell them that I will only allow them to write that story if they agree to get some counseling while they are doing so.
MA: What are you planning for your next writing project?
NED: Currently, we are in pre-production for one of my screenplays. I’m also working on a final rewrite of one of my plays and of a novel I’ve been working on for some time. I’m also putting together a collection of short stories. There is no shortage of projects, it is time I find difficult to come by.
MA: Any final thoughts or advice for my readers?
NED: This is an amazing time for writers. There are so many ways to get your stories out there. Cut yourself some slack. If you read successful authors’ work consecutively from their first published piece to their most recent, you will see development and growth in their writing. Unless you are a genius at writing, you will have to go through that same process of development—writing, learning, writing, learning. Don’t be like I’ve been in the past and always have one more draft that keeps you from putting your work out for public consumption. On the other hand, don’t put your work out before it is the best you can make it; and had a good edit.
MA: Thanks, Nancy! I appreciate the time you took to be my guest today, and I know my readers will enjoy reading your advice and insights.