A scene has to have a rhythm of its own, a structure of its own.
Lazy minds are like Jello, they need a mold for structure and to avoid brain spillage on the floor.
A Writing Primate
In a few days, the New Year will be upon us: 2012. This is the time for resolutions, right? So, here is an interview to help you with your creative efforts. I’ve asked Ms. Dodd for the interview, because structure has always been a elusive goal for many writers, including myself. Structure as in discipline (write, write, and write), and structure as in building upon an idea into a complete story.
Nancy Ellen Dodd is a writer, university instructor,and an editor with two master’s degrees in writing from the University of Southern California. She currently teaches screenwriting at Pepperdine University and has studied with a number of award-winning authors. Back in May, 2011, she did an interview with Writer’s Digest Magazine. (Click here).
She is the author of The Writer’s Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages, which gives ideas/insight on mapping your novel from idea to final draft.
Tell us what you mean by developing a “mind-set” for writing, and how important is it to the creative process?
Sometimes it’s difficult to shut out the rest of the world. The problem for too many of us is that we let too many other things interfere with our writing. Without a discipline or a mindset, we find that day after day goes by and we aren’t accomplishing what we wanted to in our writing because we haven’t prepared ourselves to see it as important as other things that we allow to interrupt us.
Getting into a creative writing space, or really any type of writing space, usually means preparing yourself, your mind, to sit down and start working. For many of us just saying it’s time to write, then doing it, isn’t how it works; we have to prepare our “mindset.”
One of the ways to do this is to have a consistent time to write so that your mind and body rhythm knows that every day, or whatever days you choose, at this time you will write. Another way is to have a certain place you write or certain music you write to or certain writing implements just for this type of writing. Again, when you get into that place or use those implements, your mind knows that it’s time to be creative. The more disciplined you are about writing, the more your mind will know when it’s time to focus on just writing and to let everything else wait.
You equate story-telling with building a house: foundation, adding structure of walls and roof, the flooring, painting and adding designer touches. Elaborate for us the use of the 7 stage process described in your book which maps out the writing of a story with beginning, middle and end.
Through years of studying writing I found that there were many questions a writer should ask themselves to help them develop ideas, character, structure, and so forth. I began to organize these questions and tools into stages that would help to build a story organically and more efficiently, much like a house, and in ways that you see the details as you need them.
I recently watched a show in which the contractor finished the walls in the kitchen and was getting ready to put in the cabinets when he realized he had overlooked allowing for the electrical and venting components of the range hood—something he should have done before dry walling. His comment was that even the most experienced sometimes overlook an important detail. The same is true for writing, when you work in stages it can be much more effective, and helps you not to overlook so many details. I suggest the following stages:
Stage 1 – Developing Ideas
Stage 2 – Building a Strong Structure
Stage 3 – Creating Vibrant Characters
Stage 4 – Structuring Scenes, Sequences, and Transitions
Stage 5 – Increasing Tension and Adjusting Pacing
Stage 6 – Enriching Language and Dialogue
Stage 7 – Editing the Hard Copy and Submitting
As you develop your story, in some ways you will be working on these simultaneously throughout the process, you create and introduce new ideas and you work on language. However, by focusing on what a particular stage requires, you address the particular issues for that stage. How I do this is when I feel I have enough ideas for a story in Stage 1, I create a story map and then I work on structure, going from the beginning to the end of the material I have.
During that stage I’m adding more material and ideas to develop the structure of Stage 2. Once I’ve gone through all the work I have, answering the questions and filling out the story, I then go to Stage 3 and work on developing my characters, getting to know them, again filling out the story with more details that focus on characterization.
When in Stage 4, I tear apart the story and develop each scene, determine where I have left out scenes that would add to the story and condensing what I thought was a scene, but really doesn’t have all the components of one, and I make sure all of my transitions are clear and won’t lose the reader. Then by State 5, I go back through the story and I look at tension and pacing and increase it or slow it down as needed.
Now I’m ready to do work on the language and dialogue and by the time I’ve gotten to Stage 6, my story should be well-developed and nearly complete. Finally it’s a matter of printing out the hard copy and editing, then submitting or prepping for publication Stage 7.
What recommendations can you give to a writer who is blocked about writing a certain idea, but can’t seem to get a handle on it?
Understanding what you are writing about, what the theme and/or dramatic question of your story is, can help with getting a handle on an idea. Having a clear theme really helps in making decisions about the story and can help to overcome being blocked.
Along completely different lines, finding what inspires you to write the story, what event, idea, activity, image, music, or whatever stimulated writing this story, then going back to that source, can help get the writer back into the story.
Another method would be to ask yourself, “What if it didn’t happen that way, what if it happened this way?” and seeing if changing direction can get you excited again.
What if you already have a rough draft or even a completed manuscript, how can your book, The Writer’s Compass help the writer?
Having a rough draft or completed manuscript means that you can skim through the questions to see what you may have missed or what you can add to further develop the story. The questions will help you to see where you might have problems you can fix. Using the story map at this stage is a tool that helps you to see where there might be holes in your story. I create a new one after every stage to see what I should change to make the story more dynamic or if I can’t answer a particular element on the story map, then I know precisely where I have a weak spot or a hole.
Building tension is important to any story line. What tools/ideas would you recommend on how to do this naturally in developing this sense of urgency?
People often confuse tension and pacing. Pacing is created by moving things quickly, putting in fewer details, making dialogue shorter, using less narrative. However, this may or may not increase the tension. Sometimes tension is better served by adding details and slowing down the pace. Which is more frightening: running through a haunted mansion, or going slow and being forced to see every shadow, hear every creak. In my book I give an example of a knife fight and how by showing each individual’s movements versus, just getting stabbed increases the tension in the scene. It also helps when the reader is going to guess the outcome. If the reader knows you probably aren’t going to kill off your protagonist halfway through the book, then showing how the protagonist feels and his or her fears, helps draw the reader into the tension of the moment. When you shorten it to something like, “…then he stabbed him.” The sentence goes by so quickly the reader may not catch the significance of what just happened.
Tell us a little about what you are currently working on?
I always have too many projects I’m working on. Three of the areas I’m pursuing include: how using storytelling tools to create ideas helps businesspeople to develop business ideas; how ministers can use storytelling tools in developing sermons; and using story telling techniques to develop case studies.
In my creative writing I’m working on prepping a screenplay for pre-production about a minister whose son is murdered, forcing him to reconcile his own past as a boxer who killed a man in a prize fight; the screenplay has already received awards. I’m also doing a final draft on a play about a clueless father whose wife leaves him and he has to raise their autistic child alone. I’m also trying to finish the final draft of a coming of age manuscript called “Wake-Up! Henny.” And I’m working on a creative nonfiction story on how my friend had to be smuggled out of the mid-east to escape execution for a crime he didn’t commit.
Please give us an eight-word description of your life.
God, family, writing, surviving, and learning to live.