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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Author, Nancy Dodd, Shares Advice to Writers in Her Book, The Writer’s Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages

 I grew up in California, on the other side of the hills along the edge of the San Joaquin Valley, in a very small town called Avenal. The schools had been built during the time when there was local oil production so we still had great schools. My father was a farmer and I was one of five daughters. When I was 14 I ran away to get married and had my first child at 15. I went back to high school and graduated with my class, then went to West Hills Junior College in Coalinga, a nearby town.

My high school graduation
at 17  with
my little girl, Shawn 
wearing my cap.

Since high school I have focused on learning the skills for being a good writer, in between working full time at various jobs and raising seven his, mine, and ours' kids. I spent several years working on my bachelor’s degree while working full time and raising children. Although my preference was fiction, I wrote lots of nonfiction articles and interviewed entertainment and business personalities for regional and national magazines. I also had a few short stories read on public radio and published, and I wrote a couple of novel-length manuscripts. Eventually I became editor of a lifestyle magazine.
Years later, at my daughter
 Shawn’s wedding,
my lace got stuck on her
sequins and beads.
I wound up starting my master’s degree and finishing my bachelor’s at two different universities in two different cities at the same time. I went to work at the University of Southern California (USC) and became editor of an alumni magazine at the Marshall School of Business. I also received several awards for my writing and had a couple smaller productions of a play and screenplay. My first master’s was an MPW in Professional Writing, which covers all the writing formats. While at USC, I finished a second master’s degree in playwriting. During that time, all of my years of studying writing finally clicked into a process that I started using. After graduation, I had friends in the program who asked me to teach them the creative writing process I used. I left USC and went to Pepperdine on a faculty contract as an academic editor, then had the opportunity to teach screenwriting to undergraduate and graduate students. I sometimes co-teach with professionals in the entertainment industry.
Tell us about the genre of your work.  Why did you choose this genre?
I love writing in any format: screenplays, plays, short stories, novel-length and in several genres including action-adventure and romance. However, students and writing friends kept encouraging me to write about the creative writing process I teach, which resulted in The Writer’s Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages. This is a culmination of 25 years of studying writing in classes, at seminars, workshops, reading books, listening to audio, and of course two degrees.
How is writing in the genre you write, different than other genres?
Writing nonfiction is much different than writing fiction. In fact, I find the mindset so completely different that I cannot write both in the same time span. A writing book is, of course, reaching out to a very special audience. You are not only putting yourself out there and becoming vulnerable, you are subjecting yourself to a group with very different ideas, experiences, and theories. The hope is to show writers that what you have is a different approach to the creative process that will help them develop their writing to a new level.
What are some of your books, stories that have been published?
I have published short stories and a couple of inspirational pieces and my stories have been read on public radio. I am also in the process of publishing other short stories on eBooks. I have received awards for screenplays and other work. In The Writer’s Compass, I use my short story “The Bus Boy” as an example, which can be linked to from my website at I also have a blog at that links to some of my other work.
Can you give us a synopsis of this book?
The Writer’s Compass teaches writers to visualize their story by creating a story map based on the 3-act structure chart. The map helps writers to see the essential elements of storytelling, what they know about their story, and, perhaps most importantly, what is missing. This book simplifies Aristotle’s and Freytag’s elements of good writing into easily applied concepts. Writers are shown how to form stories and develop ideas, build strong structures, create vibrant characters, and craft scenes and transitions. Thought-provoking questions and exercises help writers more objectively assess their story’s strengths and weaknesses by thinking through what they are writing, why they are writing it, and what they want to say, setting the compass for the story the writer wants to tell—in 7 stages.

How does a writer tell the story he or she wants to tell and capture an audience’s heart? Regardless of genre or format, to tell a story effectively writers must first sort through all the ideas they have been toying with—organize them, whip them into shape, and turn them into great writing. The Writer’s Compass shows the writer how to do that. Through the 7 stages, the writer learns to focus on one aspect of the story at a time for more efficient story development. The book also addresses navigating the creative world by developing a writing time, space, and mind-set and addresses the importance of setting goals, quality writing, and how to map the writer’s lifestyle.
You will learn to:
  • develop your ideas into a finished story by working through revisions in 7 efficient stages
  • evaluate and improve your work by mapping out your story’s progress and structure
  • assess your story’s strengths and weaknesses so you can write the story you want to tell

Whether you’re writing a novel, a short story, a play, or a screenplay, the 7 stage approach shows you how to focus on one aspect of your story at a time—including forming and developing ideas, building strong structures, creating vibrant characters, and structuring scenes and transitions.
The Writer’s Compass offers 3 levels of development to suit the needs of every writer:
·         Reading through the book will teach you skills and offer insights into writing
·         Answering some of the “Exploring Ideas” questions and doing some of the exercises will give you new insights into your writing
·         Working through all the suggestions, exercises, and questions will advance your writing to a new level

The Writer’s Compass simplifies a wealth of writing advice into easily applicable concepts that will help writers improve their craft.
Where do you get your ideas for writing?

Ideas come from everywhere. I have boxes of folders and 5x8 cards full of story ideas in various stages. I wrote a play titled “Guit,” about an autistic child whose father keeps him in a cage, from an idea that occurred while a friend and I were playing a game. He would point out objects in his apartment and I would tell him a story about it. “Guit” came from his guitar and the idea of a father who learns to communicate with his son through music.

Another story came from walking past the pool in front of the apartment where I lived at the time. I needed a story and the words “pitter-patter” came to mind. I asked myself, “What is pitter-patter?” and the answer came back, “drips from a faucet where your toe is stuck.” I kept asking myself questions until a story evolved.

What is your favorite thing about your book?
I love writing and I love teaching. The Writer’s Compass is my opportunity to share what I have learned and to encourage other writers.
Why and when did you begin writing?  Is there any one person who had a big influence on you or encouraged you to write? 
Throughout my childhood, I constantly wrote stories in my head. I do not remember writing them down until probably junior high and high school. It was in high school that I actually realized how important writing was to me. I wrote a play about a couple of soldiers in Vietnam that a teacher encouraged me to do something with or he would. Over the years, I wrote a short story from the idea and then a few years ago, a producer and director asked me to update it to Afghanistan and we produced a short film titled “The Hero” that can be linked to from my website
Another influence was Joel Henry Sherman who had published a couple of sci-fi books and was teaching a short story class at California State University, Bakersfield.
After my children were grown, I was praying about taking the steps that would lead me to what I was supposed to do and a week later, I was given a ticket to a writer’s conference in Mendocino. There I met a television and screenwriter who became my mentor. He taught at (USC) and encouraged me to go there to get my master’s degree.
What is your writing schedule?  What atmosphere do you need to write?
My best time to write is in the morning after my devotional and before I start my day. That time is not always available to me, so I have to find time whenever I can. When I have a deadline, I can write anytime and anywhere. My favorite atmosphere for writing is to play music that fits the mood for what I am writing, sit on my bed (beds are where dreams occur) with a view of trees or the ocean and a pot of hot tea, even better with a side of a few chocolates. In my room I have a five-foot wooden nutcracker and a large copy of a painting of what my family calls “the flying Aztec,” along with a few other pictures and objects that are very story like to me and encourage my imagination to roam.
What projects are you working on now, or plan for the future?
A couple of my friends in the entertainment industry are making plans to independently produce one of my screenplays. I am also working on a series of short stories I want to put on eBooks. And I have a coming of age novel I am finishing and I am writing my play “Guit” as a novel. I am also working on homeschooler and creative writing instructor guidelines for The Writer’s Compass. It seems I always need to be working on several things at once. The good side is that I have plenty to work on; the bad side is that when you work on too many projects at once, it takes longer to finish them and you get sidetracked easily.
What kind of advice or tips do you have for someone who wants to write and be published?
This is an amazing time to find your niche as a writer. There are just so many ways to get your writing out there. Some writers complain that too much crap is getting on the market because publishers, agents, and editors are not vetting it. I contend there has always been crap out there promoted by publishers, agents, and editors, but now some of the better writers do not have to fight their way through the gatekeepers to find an audience. And what if you are writing crap, well, either keep writing and learn the skills to get better or you may luck out and find an audience that likes the same crappy writing you do.
Just because you are not good at grammar and punctuation, does not mean that you are not a good storyteller.
Are there any other comments, advice or tips that you would give to beginning writers?
Know your theme. By knowing what you want to say, you will have a compass to guide your writing and to keep you from getting off track from critiques or ideas that do not fit your story. It usually takes time to figure out what you really want to say, and sometimes it changes, but keep refining your theme until you know.
I would also say to never delete anything from your writing that your gut says needs to be there. How many of us have had the experience of listening to critiques and cutting lines or paragraphs or scenes and then losing interest in the story? Sometimes those bad or unnecessary lines are the heart of something you are trying to say, you just have not figured out what that is or how or its importance to your story, yet.
What do you do when you are not writing?
My daughter, who is the homemaker in our house, and granddaughter live with me and we love to go to Disneyland. I have three other children and more grandchildren I love to spend time with, plus I have church and a full-time job as an academic editor of an online business journal. I also teach a university course one semester a year and do some workshops and conferences.
What “Made It” moments have you experienced in life?
You could hear the shout when I received an email from my agent telling me The Writer’s Compass was going to be published by Writer’s Digest. Being asked to teach at a university felt like all of the hard work and years to earn my education finally paid off. When my friend Kevin told me he was going to produce “The Hero” was also one of those. And of course having my play “Disposable” produced was another, and then a couple of the awards I received felt like I had made it. These are in reverse order, but most recently it was holding the advance copies of The Writer’s Compass. What I found was that each of these things are short lived and they don’t necessarily mean you’ve arrived, they are just sign posts that say you are on the right path.

The cathedral on a hilltop
 in a very old village in
Finistrat, Spain
(After my breast cancer surgery
, my sister and her husband paid
 for me to come to recuperate
 and stay with them in Spain,
 where they were living at the time.)

By far the biggest “Made It” moment was surviving breast cancer within the last few years. During that time, I was writing out my devotionals, and I was asked to give a testimony about my experience, which can be accessed at In reading through my devotionals, I realized I had prayed about publishing a book as much as I prayed about being healed. Shortly after I was given a clean bill of health, I had both an agent and soon thereafter a book contract for The Writer’s Compass.
You can get a link to The Writer's Compass on Nancy's
website at:

You can also visit Nancy's blog at:

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