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WD Author Interview: Nancy Ellen Dodd

The Writer's Compass author Nancy Ellen Dodd talks about writing and the writer's life in this exclusive Q&A. 
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When did you first know that you wanted to be a witer?

As a child I was writing stories in my head all of the time. In those stories I was always the star. At the time I thought I wanted to be an actor, but then one day, sometime in junior high or high school, I started writing and I realized that was my bliss.

What was the first thing you ever wrote?

I believe it was a story about an interracial relationship, which didn’t happen where I grew up. So it was something very daring. But the writing project that really moved me forward was a play I wrote in high school about the Vietnam War called “The Hero.” My teacher told me that I should do something with it, if I didn’t he would. Over the years I worked on it as a short story, then as a play. A friend of mine read it and said, “We are going to produce this.” I was asked to update it to the war in Afghanistan and we produced a 37-minute film, which received recognition in some film festivals. I’ve since expanded it to a feature-length screenplay. I guess the moral to this is that if you are passionate about a story, don’t give up on it.

What are your five favorite books and why?

I don’t think I can name only five. All of the Sherlock Holmes series by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, several contemporary authors who write action adventure and intrigue, as well as authors from the 1800s and as varied as Janette Oke. And of course the Bible, which has everything from adventure to romance to history to intrigue. I like books where people strive to be better than they are, strive to be heroes, to help others, to overcome adversity or their own weaknesses. Give me books that are clever and make me see the world in a new way or give me utterance for experiences I don’t know how to verbalize.

What piece of advice have you received over the course of your career has had the biggest impact on your success?

I’m not sure I can point to one thing. I have about 500 sayings and thoughts I’ve collected and printed on 5x8 cards that I call “messages of persistence.” These have been a continuing source of inspiration and nourishment for my hopes, dreams, and personal growth over the years.

The one thing that comes to mind was said by Alistair Begg… that it is the herald’s job to go into the Throne Room of the King every day and see what message he has, then to take it out to the people; if you are a herald, be a herald, don’t be just a dreamer. While this relates to the role of a disciple, I think it very much applies to writers too. All too often we dream rather than write.

What message do you find yourself repeating over and over to writers?

To develop an internal compass so that you know what you are writing about and can express what you want to say in the best way possible. Your compass tells you when something is right or when it may be taking you in the wrong direction.

What's the worst kind of mistake that new writers, freelancers, or book authors can make?

Listening to critiques that cause them to delete ideas or lines in their writing prematurely. Some critiques are about how someone else would write your story, and some critiques are suggestions to remove so-called “bad writing.” I have found that if you remove something that you may agree, or are persuaded, isn’t good writing, or that you are confused about, you may delete something important that you haven’t yet discovered its purpose. Too often writers buy into the criticism and cut something their gut tells them they want to keep. If you keep working at it, you’ll find its purpose. Sometimes that bad writing evolves into some of the best writing in your story if you search to understand why it is important to you.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I usually wake-up early, which is the time of day I get the most accomplished. This is the time I try to set aside for my devotional, writing, or exercise, and I check my schedule and list of “must be done” items and set priorities, often I handle email then. Then my granddaughter knocks on the door, crawls into bed with me, and asks for her morning hot chocolate. Because my best time of day is early morning, I cram as much into it as I can. If there’s time, my daughter makes breakfast for the three of us (sometimes the three of us walk on the beach), then I commute to my day job as an academic editor for the Graziadio School of Business at Pepperdine University. On Monday evenings, when I’m teaching, about mid-afternoon I commute to Seaver College at Pepperdine’s Malibu campus, and commute home sometime after 10:00 pm. During all that commuting I listen to unabridged audio books, usually fiction in a variety of genres. On the nights I’m not teaching, I divide my time between my girls and working on projects for writing or editing. I usually end my day between 11 pm and 1 am, then I’m up around 6:00 am again. My biggest problem is getting balance into my day and not just work.

What’s the one thing in your writing life you can’t live without?

My devotionals. That’s what keeps me centered and inspired and thriving and fills me with joy when I’m running on empty.

In what way (if any) has your writing/publishing life changed in the past 5 years?

One day, after a very bad vacation, I had a mini-crisis that involved my going through papers in boxes stored in the garage to look for a form. I also had books in some of those boxes, which I was discovering again. While doing this, I was listening to audio books and was reminded how much I loved writing and teaching. It suddenly occurred to me that I was spending all of my time helping other people with their writing projects, and fulfilling their dreams. What happened to my dreams? The mini-crisis was resolved and I immediately began canceling work on other people’s projects and the consulting I was doing. A few weeks later I had developed the book proposal for The Writer’s Compass, which Writer’s Digest immediately became interested in publishing.

Do you have any advice for new writers on building an audience?

Someone recently told me that writing is a circle: we write so that we can find an audience to enjoy our writing, thus we find fulfillment through their appreciation of our writing. My experience is that the audience doesn’t have to be large to give us that satisfaction.

Right now we are in a major revolution in the publishing industry. This revolution has created amazing opportunities for finding an audience through independent publishing, self-publishing, eBooks, videos, blogs, et cetera. The argument is that there are a lot of bad writers out there who will be able to publish crap and undermine the value of the industry. I believe there is already a lot of crap out there, some of it has an audience, and there are a lot of great writers who can’t get through the gatekeepers. This is the writer’s chance to find out whether they are any good and if they can create a niche for themselves. But it takes work—you have to find out where your writing fits; seldom is an audience handed to you.

What about advice for writers seeking agents?

That’s a tough one. The percentage of agents is much smaller than the number of writers. Agents receive far more submissions than they can handle. Every minute they spend on a book they can’t sell deprives them of an income from working on something they can sell. They also have their own biases and preferences for what they want to represent. The writer needs to educate themselves about each agent and avoid rejections that solid research might have prevented, rather than being deluded into believing an agent will love your book because you do.

One of the current buzzwords is “platform.” Who is currently reading your work or following you or where is your expertise valued? If you are known or have a following, you are more likely to attract an agent because there is less work to sell you and your ideas. I suggest using the Internet, magazines, journals, or other publications to develop your writing career and build your platform. Then approach an agent who really might be interested in what you are writing.

Any final thoughts?

I love writing, talking about writing, teaching writing. My book is about teaching process and writing skills and giving writers hope. It is also about learning to believe in oneself and to express a vision through one’s writing voice.

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