What Will The Writer’s Compass Teach Me?

The Writer's Compass

The Writer's Compass

Disclaimer: The above link goes to Amazon.com. Other book sellers are listed on the Writer’s Compass tab above. The author may be paid a nominal fee for purchases made through this link.


Many of us have a story or stories to tell. As writers we look for answers to:

  • How do I write a whole story out of a single idea?
  • How do I turn the pages that gushed out in a single writing session into a complete story?
  • When am I telling and not showing?
  • What is my story missing?
  • Which critiques should I listen to?
  • Should I follow my own instincts?
  • How do I know what’s working and what’s not working?
  • When do I know I’ve edited enough?
  • How many drafts does it take to finish a story?
  • Can I succeed as a writer?

Most books and instructors can’t answer these questions because the answer lies within you—the writer. The Writer’s Compass (TWC) guides you, to find your own answers by thinking through what you are writing, why you are writing it, and what you want to say—setting the compass for your work. Once you have a compass for your ideas, it is easier to write the story you want to tell, even when you aren’t sure at first what that story might be.

The Introduction explains how TWC is organized and how to use the book to get the most benefit.

Part I, the Beginning, discusses preparing for writing by developing a writing time, space, and mind-set.

The Middle explains story mapping and the 7-Stage process. Charting the key elements of storytelling with your ideas across a story map is like creating an outline or a synopsis, but is easier, more visual, and can be constructed from any point in the story. Each of the 7 Stages addresses an area of storytelling that tends to need more development. Much like constructing a house, the 7 Stages are based on developing the story foundation, then adding the structure, the roof, the walls, the flooring, painting and designer touches, and finally moving in. Each stage adds another level of breadth and depth to the story across the entire story map. 

  • Stage 1—Forming Stories and Developing Ideas:
  • Stage 2—Building Strong Structures
  • Stage 3—Creating Vibrant Characters
  • Stage 4—Structuring Scenes, Sequences, and Transitions
  • Stage 5—Increasing Tension and Adjusting Pacing
  • Stage 6—Enriching the Language and Dialogue
  • Stage 7—Editing the Hard Copy and Submitting

Stage 1 discusses how ideas are formed and the act of brainstorming. The evolution of writing stories takes many forms and starts at many different points. This stage shows the writer how to use that evolution to an advantage in forming ideas. This process also allows for the different ways writers write.

Stages 2 through 6 focus on the process of story development but also continue to expand ideas. Each of these stages addresses a specific area of development in a system that builds rather than crisscrosses efforts. In other words, when relying on “just reading through” to reveal story weaknesses, the writing process is inefficient and there is a crossover of efforts with multiple passes of the same material. When a story is developed strategically using the 7-Stage process, the writing is stronger and does not have to be revised as many times.

For example, Stage 6 is “Enriching the Language and Dialogue.” If this task occurs before the structure is in place or the characters are developed, the writer may need to rewrite, but is hesitant because the language has already been developed to the writer’s satisfaction, which makes it harder to cut scenes or dialogue that no longer work. By waiting until a later development stage to work on the language, the story is already richer, more developed and closer to completion. Time spent on language at this later stage is far more efficient. Think of a potter focusing on the intricate design around the outside of a pot before shaping the pot. The efforts put into the artwork now become distorted or are ruined.

Stage 7 is the final stage of editing, submitting, and continuing to write. Each of the stages grows progressively shorter, like a pyramid, as more writing of the story is completed and less writing and revision needs to be done.

The End is the shortest section and addresses the importance of setting goals, quality writing, and how to map the writer’s lifestyle.

In future blogs we’ll talk more about creating a story map and the 7 Stages and writing in general.


The Writer’s Compass Author Interviewed

The Writer's Compass

The Writer's Compass

I am excited to share with you a link to an interview on WomensRadio.com, “Your Book is Your Hook” show. Jennifer Wilcov interviewed me on the differences between books and screenplays and on The Writer’s Compass, how it was developed and what it can teach writers. Click here to listen to the interview. If listening to the interview raises any questions for you, or you would like more information, be sure to come back to this page and ask them.

Jennifer will also be posting an article I wrote on the differences between books and screenwriting and on graduate programs for writing. I’ll update the blog with that link as soon as I get it.

How to Write the Story You Want to Tell in 7 Stages

The Writer's Compass

The Writer's Compass

Just as surveyors use a compass to map the known world, The Writer’s Compass teaches writers to use their intuition as an internal compass to create their story map. This book simplifies Aristotle’s elements of good writing into easily applicable concepts. Each stage focuses on a major story weakness such as structure, characterization, and creating tension. Through thought-provoking questions, The Writer’s Compass trains the analytical side of the brain to be creative and to write the story the writer wants to tell—in 7 stages. 

Throughout my life, other than my faith and my children, there has been one constant: I love writing. I love teaching writing. I love talking about writing. I love sharing writing with others.

Now, after nearly three decades of grappling with learning to write well and learning to write in many formats, The Writer’s Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages is my way of sharing what I’ve learned with other writers. The Writer’s Compass comes from the culmination of hundreds of classes, workshops, seminars, books, and two master’s degrees in writing.

In the book you will find:

  • Diagrams on the elements of good structure
  • Diagrams for creating story maps
  • The 7-Stage development process
  • Picture maps
  • Exercises and questions to help you develop ideas
  • Examples of screen, television, and playwriting formats and how they differ from novels and short stories
  • Motivation to start writing
  • Ideas about living as a writer

In future posts we’ll look at the elements of good writing, the structure chart, the story map, and the 7 stages.

I’ll be happy to answer comments entered in the Comment Section. Click the link under the date at the top of each post.

What’s Next, Hollywood?

Audio Interview with Larry Tanz, President, COO, and Co-founder of Agility Studios

By Nancy Ellen Dodd, MPW, MFA

Larry Tanz

Larry Tanz

What is an MBA worth in Hollywood? Where do the most opportunities for newcomers lie? What’s in store as the entertainment industry undergoes a radical transition into the digital age?

On January 16, 2009, Graziadio Business Report Academic Editor Nancy Dodd spoke with Larry Tanz, president, COO, and co-founder of Agility Studios, to get the answers to these questions and more.

In 2008 Larry launched Agility Studios, an incubator investment fund that builds and runs entertainment-oriented digital franchises, alongside Scott Ehrlich and Keith Quinn. To learn more about Agility Studios, visit their website: agilitystudios.com.

Previously, Larry served five years as CEO and President of LivePlanet, a multiplatform entertainment company founded by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Prior to joining LivePlanet, Larry was Director of Strategy and Operations at AOL Time Warner and a senior associate at Mercer Management Consulting.

Larry holds an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, a master’s degree in behavioral psychology from Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and a B.A. from Harvard College. He is also a co-founder of H20 Africa, which has raised five million dollars for water projects to date.

Audio Files

To hear the interview with Larry Tanz, please click here and choose the “Full Interview” or the segment you would like to listen to.  Questions in the interview are listed below.

Questions for Larry Tanz

  1. What is the marketing concept of for Agility Studios? How is Agility’s business model different? (1:19)
  2. In a time when most investors are pulling back from “risky” ventures, especially in the entertainment industry, how did you secure financing? (3:22)
  3. Can you explain what Agility’s franchise opportunities look like? (5:30)
  4. The entertainment industry is going through a radical transition in terms of platform, new media, distribution, and target audience. What do you think the future of the entertainment industry looks like? (8:06)
  5. How do you think globalization is impacting the industry? Do you see more joint ventures with oversea firms? (10:44)
  6. What do you think is the future of the large studio system in Hollywood? (12:21)
  7. Are there new opportunities for small studios and entrepreneurs and what should they do to prepare? (15:06)
  8. Do you believe there is ageism in the industry and if so, in what form? Do you think that will change with the growing momentum of the internet? (17:39)
  9. Where do you see the biggest opportunities for newcomers to the industry? (19:41) How should an entrepreneur get started in the entertainment industry? What should they focus on in their business plan? How should they approach finding investor funds? (21:24)
  10. Did you plan to go into the entertainment industry? Did your MBA help you?  (23:22) In Hollywood, most people in the studios and agencies start at the bottom and work their way through many facets of the office before getting to the top. Is that true for professionals such as MBAs and lawyers? (32:13)
  11. What is on your mind these days as you establish a new business model? (35:00)
  12. If I am a creative-type and I have a project I want to bring to you, what should I know first, and how should I prepare to get Agility’s attention? (37:30)
  13. This town is all about pitching and getting someone interested in your ideas, like you did with the H20 Africa clean water initiative and your Running the Sahara documentary. What else excites you? (40:40)

Original article published in the Graziadio Business Review, 2009, Volume 12, Issue 4.

“Undercover Boss” – A Social Makeover for Corporate Executives?

GBR Blog

GBR Blog

CBS network hosts a show that some are hoping will bring about social change. The show “Undercover Boss” portrays a CEO, or other C-level executive, leaving his throne, donning a disguise and going down into the trenches to work in basic and entry-level jobs within his or her company. A cameraman follows the executive documenting the experience. (To explain the cameras following the potential employee around, they tell the current employees that this is one of two unemployed “whatevers” looking for a job and participating in a documentary where one of them will be hired.)

During the boss’s foray into the lowest levels of his organization, where the “real work” happens, they meet employees who are lively and vivacious and very service-oriented, employees with serious family, financial, and health problems, or employees struggling to get a college education while working at low-level, full-time positions so that they can better their lives. Some employees have dreams of working their way into the corporate office where they hope to make a positive impact on the company. Sometimes they meet employees who are failing miserably.

The scenes that make it into the show are obviously going to be the ones that are most dramatic or attention-getting, thus coloring the events to reflect the goal of the producers for gaining an audience. More than one employer has found himself fired for being unable to handle the demands of the job—either not being able to keep up with a conveyer belt spewing out products, or too slow at cleaning bathrooms, or unable to make a decent hamburger for the company’s customers.

At the end of the show individual employees that the boss interacted with are brought into corporate headquarters under the guise of voicing their opinion on whether the job applicant should be hired. Then the executive’s true identity is revealed and he commends the employees for their good work or ideas and often offers them anything from $5,000 or more to partial college tuition for their children, an all-expenses paid vacation, money for charities in the employee’s name or the name of someone important to them, an opportunity to work in some key initiative, committee or training program, or possibly a promotion and pay raise.

I watch the show. I like seeing who the individuals running these companies are and how they respond to the challenges their employees face on a daily basis. As these bosses grow to know their employees, they appear to be changed. They appear to be more aware of the differences between their world and the world of their employees. Instead of “human resources” (a term I dislike intensely), they start becoming human beings. From the boss who went through the entire show fighting tears to the bosses who had never worked up the ranks and decided that all executives need to spend time at the ground level as part of their training. They meet employees who have faced similar life trials and realize, “there but for the grace of God…”

Is it possible that a show like this can bring social change?

There has been much talk for years about the difference in salaries between the executive floor and the ground floor and how that difference has been expanding exponentially as CEOs receive higher salaries and bonus packages far beyond what the lower paid employees receive. In the beginning of most of these shows we see where the boss lives, usually, although occasionally not, in some huge mansion driving expensive cars, sometimes traveling via corporate jet, a life very far removed from most workers. They move into what appears to be cheap motels during the show and wear cheap clothes, giving them a taste of the other side of life. They meet and have to prove themselves to employees who sometimes are barely providing for their families, have children with serious health problems or special needs. Some employees have faced very difficult challenges from homelessness, to children’s deaths, to divorce, to overwhelming bills they can’t get out from under. The boss then throws them a bone, promotes them, gives them a one-time cash bonus or vacation, or helps with medical bills or college tuition.

However, in the end, the boss goes back to his or her mansion and expensive cars, and what happens to the rest of the employees in the company who are battling the same issues as their co-workers, but didn’t have the good fortune to be the one who interacted with the boss? And does the boss truly change his company to make a difference in the lives of all the employees, or do the executives all pat themselves on the back for the good they’ve done, then move on with increasing revenue and profit margins?

One recent CEO was Sheldon Yellen of Belfor, the largest property restoration company in the world, located in 29 countries. Yellen himself grew up in difficult financial circumstances. He proudly stated how he had saved jobs in the company by freezing wages for two years; then he met his employees and learned how devastating an impact that wage freeze was having on them, while he flew between his temporary assignments on a corporate jet. When he returned to his company, Yellen seemed to have suddenly remembered it wasn’t about reaching the golden ring at the top with all of its perks, it was about pulling people up from the bottom.

If there is to be social change, then there has to be a relationship between the lives of the executives on the C-floor and the lives of the individuals on all the floors beneath, not just that handful of employees possibly singled out in advance for the dramatic impact their stories will have on television.

Originally published Monday, January 31st, 2011, in the Graziadio Business Report Blog

Three Ideas for Taming the Whirlwind

Like you, I’m involved in a variety of activities and have more than one career. I’m also a big picture kind of person. The devil may be in the details, but I get lost in a morass of details. I need to be able to pull back and see the big picture in black and white, then color in what immediately pertains to the goals I’ve set.   

Because life is multi-faceted, I’m continually looking for ways to organize ideas, work, and activities, plus figure out how to prioritize and piece it all together. We all need a system that keeps us on top, rather than drowning in unfinished projects and lost to-do lists or sublimating what we really care about doing far beneath what has to get done. Aren’t we all trying to find that magical formula for project management or an activity structure that keeps us moving forward, notes all the details and facts, but cross-links our lives to be more efficient and balanced? Do we ever really succeed at that?  I’ve read the books on getting organized, and every once in awhile I go online and do searches for project or time management. Usually what I find is either too complicated, too time consuming, or is more about managing what other people are doing rather than what I’m doing. There are a zillion forms with lines and boxes and headers that captures all the wrong ideas. So, if you are having these same issues, here are a few simple ideas.  

Idea One: Old-fashioned Paper and Pen  

Don’t feel compelled to use technology if it doesn’t work for you. There really are people who prefer to jot it down rather than key it in. Things to consider: Do you like being able to pull out your calendar or planner to quickly jot something into it or refer to a date without waiting for a light and an image to pop up? Do you hate scrolling and thumbing info on those tiny letters? Do you like archiving used planners and date books? Of course, you can always throw them away once they’ve served their purpose. The key is to find a planner that you’ll use and that you can easily flip through to find the information you need. One or two pages per day if you are a detail person and a big note taker, one to two pages per week if you like less details, but need a broader overview, and one to two pages per month if you want the big picture and just the facts, please. Add pages to create a to-do list and for keeping track of details or addresses and you are good to go. Once you are finished with a task or info cross it off, tear it out, wad it up, and throw it away and be done with it—your mind should be clear—or file it away for future reference.  

A journal, notebook, or composition book in a favorite color and look works well for people who don’t like pre-printed formats. Organize it by topics or use the next blank page to start the next day or next project or next thought. To-do items can be highlighted, crossed out, or check-marked. Choose blank pages if you like the artist approach of drawing the words in a formless manner. If you think more like an engineer, you might prefer a quad-ruled layout. Or choose between college- or wide-ruled pages. Think about how the information on the page would best serve you visually. When you look at a picture or a diagram, how do you scan for information? Do you notice the details or focus on the whole image?  

Idea Two: The Simple Project Overview  

IT offers many solutions for organizing and time managment. One of the ways I’ve used, which I think is very effective and that my former managing editor Danielle Scott left us for ongoing projects, was to create a spreadsheet as a simple project list. Each row is a different project and each column lists something you need to know: date, project, deadlines, next steps, notes, contact people, whatever, but keep it simple. Within the cells of the spreadsheet, hyperlinks direct you to a myriad of other pages that give more explanation, more details, a form, an example a proposal, etc.  

If you use this method, remember to keep your folders intact and together, or at least put enough information in the cell that you can figure out where to find it. The reason I stopped using this method was that sometimes I would move a document out of folder into a sub-folder, or I’d move files to another hard drive, forgetting they were linked somewhere, and of course, losing the link. Then I’d have a hard time tracking the document back down.   

Idea Three: A Time Map  

This is more complicated, but it combines keeping track of your appointments with your projects and to-do items. One day a few years back, I sat down and drew a picture of my thought-flow process and what I needed to be better organized. I incorporated color and design for project topics to structure what the architecture should be for storing, finding, and retrieving. Since I couldn’t build that program, I went online and searched using key words representing my design. Lo and behold, I found a software program organized almost exactly the way I had drawn my idea, including jewel-colored silos and a background map that funnels info into a pool of information. I was so excited I purchased it immediately. Total waste of money. It was not user-friendly, nor were my thought processes intuitive to its functions—like the way PC and Mac devotees argue over the better system. It was complicated to use, and because there were still glitches in the software, I couldn’t trust that once I learned the system it would retain my setup or all the information I put into it.  

However, what I learned from that experience was what needed to be thought through.  

  1. How do you best utilize and process information?
  2. How do you approach problem-solving?
  3. Do you visualize the big picture or are you more detail-oriented?

In my case, I realized I needed a “time map.” A time map allows me to see what my day, month, year look like, what the major events or deadlines for the day are, and what I need to accomplish that day in order  to meet my goals and follow my life plan. I also see at a glance when I am overcommitting myself.  

In the example below, row 3 is any major project or event for that day. Row 4 contains the hours my student assistants are in the office. Rows 5-10 are appointments. Subsequent rows contain my to-do list. Not shown is column H, which is screen-width, where I list any pending items so I can quickly scan them. I also created a secondary time map for the students, putting their names down the first column, with an overview of their assignments and deadlines for Monday through Friday. Now, at a glance, I can see the big picture for the week, and what’s coming up by scrolling down, thus more easily setting my to-do list to plan goals and priorities.  

Time Map

Example of Time Map with appointments and to-do list combined in a spreadsheet.

I’ve also figured out my “tipping point”—I know I’ll stop using the process when there are too many details and I no longer see the big picture. Keep it simple silly.  

So, how do you organize your life? How do you set up time management parameters? How do you prioritize?  

Have your own activity management tips or stories? Share them in the comments!

Originally pbulished Saturday, February 20th, 2010, in the Graziadio Business Review Blog

5 Simple Rules for Better Email Business Communication

I have been teaching with Frances Grimes in the Management Communications program here at Graziadio this fall and so business communication is on my mind.

Face-to-face business communication is difficult—attempting to read body language, facial expressions, and gestures (although some gestures speak for themselves), can be a challenge. Not to mention cultural differences that can blur the meaning to any one or all of the above.

Even more difficult can be written communication when there are no expressions and gestures to guide us. Add poor grammar, haphazard punctuation, and misspellings… well, we all know where that can lead. Then mix in the language of different cultures and disciplines, and you can really have a problem.

I once wrote an email to someone in another department who was handling our IT. Since we were just starting to develop audio and video, I needed extra help with a particular project. In the email I wrote that I just needed a download of the file in a new format for “audacity.” The recipient of the email responded not quite in the way I expected, offering to do something quite different than I requested.

In a brief conversation in the hallway, I later learned that as a non-native English speaker this person was a little hurt by my accusation “of having the audacity to attempt to make changes.” I had not capitalized the word “audacity” nor explained that Audacity is a software program I was using to edit audio, thus the miscommunication. I learned to consider my audience in writing an email and to always ask, “Is what I’m saying in the correct context for the recipient?”

Here are a few tips to improve your email business communication:

  1. Briefer is better. Be simple and direct. You are not writing a paper for school or an academic article; you are trying to get information “to someone” or “from someone.” Make sure you state clearly and succinctly what you want and when you need it in as few words as possible, while still giving essential details. Use bullet points for details that you can list.
  2. Good grammar and punctuation are key. A comma in the wrong place can change the meaning of what you are writing. Not using proper capitalization can confuse the importance of the subject. Poor grammar shows an indifference to the topic and is demeaning to the recipient of the email, but more than that, it diminishes the perceived intelligence of the author.
  3. Load the important information at the beginning. Too often people only read what they see in the email window and ignore that there might be more. If they scan the email and the important information is at the end, it may not be captured in their quick scan. How often have you heard, “You didn’t say that!” when you did—buried three lengthy paragraphs later.
  4. Read it over. Change the word choice to precise language and listen for whether the words sound angry or indifferent or silly. The more important the topic, the more attention should be paid to the tone. Does the email sound stern or friendly, insulting or even angry. BY NOW, EVERYONE SHOULD BE AWARE THAT TEXT WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS IS CONSIDERED SHOUTING.
  5. Which leads to the final tip: Don’t hit send until you’re absolutely ready. Once an email is sent, it is out there somewhere in the ether. Have you ever hit “Send” and immediately regretted it? Although some systems have a “Recall” feature, it does not always recall all the emails. Sometimes therapists suggest writing a letter and letting all your feelings out, but then not sending it. Whatever you do, do not do this in an email. Use a paper and pen so that it is a little harder to send. And when you reply to emails, take a moment to consider whether you mean to hit “Reply All” or “Reply” or even “Forward”—big differences with potentially very embarrassing consequences for clicking the wrong one.

Have your own email writing tips or stories? Share them in the comments!

Originally printed Monday, October 12th, 2009, in the Graziadio Business Review Blog.

Previous Older Entries