Plotting Pantzer

“Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse.” -William S. Burroughs

This idea from Mr. Burroughs has been my creed in writing for a long time. Let the Muse be my guide. I had every faith she’d lead me to words and ideas needed to turn a single “what if” thought into a three dimensional world someone could eat, sleep and love in. This path of letting fate and my muse guide me to the best story possible sometimes classified me as a “Pantzer” in the writer’s world.

See, writers like to classify themselves into two categories, and like the Dr. Seuss story about the war over which way bread should be buttered, these classifications are the root of many great debates, perhaps even more so than the current war over the oxford comma. Many writers are how I described above. These “Pantzers”, so named for the way they write by the “seat of their pants”, claim that plans limit writing and the characters. Many also feel that the planning rarely stays constant from beginning to end, so why waste time on it?

Their points are vehemently countered by the opposite faction, the Plotters. These writers use programs and notes and charts to plan out their book from beginning to end. There are many choices of charts to follow. From the old reliable of Campbell’s Monomyth/Hero’s Journey to the 3 Act structure to the Working W to the 4 Act Progression, which is right to write, and which will ease the path of the young writer. Programs like Scrivener versus the ol’ word processor give different options to think through every nuance of the story and characters. It is also a great way to make sure continuity stays consistent and characters don’t change eye color from one scene to the next. An adage states to write well the two stages of writing someone should spend the most time in are prewriting/planning and revising. Plotters exemplify this to a T.

In my history, I’m the rebel neither group really likes. The Plotting Pantzer. I would plan the major plot turns and characters, then run with it. Normally, turns would change and the characters would lead me to new, most times better, places, I’d never considered before. It was a wild ride every time.

But now, as I am working on book two of the American Scions series, THE SCIONS OF WRATH, I have wadded through new waters.

Plotting, we got your plotting right here.

Plotting, we got your plotting right here.

Yes, dear friends, you are looking at a fully formed W plot structure for my next book. It goes through not just the major plot A, but also the B subplot. There may or may not be some romance (in the most twisted way possible) for our dear Rowan. And adding to the excitement, that is my series Bible there, full of character sheets, histories, emotion tells, maps, secrets, etc.

So, this is me voyaging over into the realm of organization and I feel excited to see it all there like that. I’ll report back on the success of this new approach, but for now Geronimo!

Updating the Character Worksheet: Emotions

Confession time: “Hello, my name is Courtney McIlwain Sloan and my writing Emotional Intelligence Quotient is low.”

“Hello, Courtney.”

There, it’s out there now. What a load off.

What I mean is in “real life” ® I can watch my friends, family, colleagues, etc and read their varied and personal expressions of emotion, interpret them and react accordingly. Non-verbal communication, folks, it’s where all the cool kids are at. Hell, I teach it in my communication classes. People trust non-verbal cues far more than their verbal counterparts. Why? We can’t shut them off and most of us don’t actively control them. If someone tells you something very sincere then rolls their eyes as they walk off, you’re going to believe the eye roll more than the controllable word choice. It’s human nature.

The same applies to our characters in writing. Their non-verbals have to express the underlying truth. As Mark Twain said, “All emotion is involuntary when genuine.” Very often it is the only way to express a character’s emotion and still show instead of tell.

“Jack gripped the wine bottle until his knuckles were white. I was worried the vein in his forehead would explode before he made it out the room.”


“I could see Jack was pissed.”

This hits a new level when writing in first person, as in my latest works.

“My stomach churned at her callused words. I turned away, willing the tears in my eyes not to fall.”


“She upset me.”

Both of these are identifying an emotional state without spelling it out. They also help guide the reader to feel the emotional reactions themselves rather than just stay a casual observer. And words should do that. Choosing the right word does more than paint the correct picture for the reader. It also paints the right emotion behind that word for the reader to experience.

Hence the different picture a someone paints when they describe the young under average weight heroine as “slender” or “bony” or “petite” or “gaunt” or “emaciated”. Each experience is different for the reader. This I get.

BUT this is where my trouble starts. I often go to the same areas of the body for each emotion. One BETA reader a book back actually asked me, “What’s your obsession with backs?” I didn’t know what she meant until I looked back and realized half of all my emotional descriptions were happening with everyone’s back. Boring and inaccurate to human experience. It needed more dimension.

Enter my emotional savior: Vicki Leigh. She saw my conundrum and came to my rescue with the suggestion of one book. That book is Emotional Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman.

"See it, Smell it, Touch it, Kiss it!"

“See it, Smell it, Touch it, Kiss it!”

This book is amazing. 75 major emotions are each broken down in helpful suggestions in the categories of definition, physical signals, internal sensations, metal responses, cues of acute or long-term, and cues of suppressed. So no matter if characters are experiencing emotions personally or observing it in others, this book has great and varied examples of each.

More than giving my books more variety, this is allowing me to personalize each character even deeper than I have before. I am so impressed that I am now also adding a section to my character sheets where I can ID each major characters major tells of different emotions. Thus from the start I can make each characters reaction distinct based on their background, and allow others to learn and respond to emotional cues with a more grown up emotional intelligence.

So, thank you, Vicki, you have helped far more already than you know.

Melting the Teacher

Today I’m going to keep this one short. Since I’ve been picked up by Curiosity Quills, I have had a number of my teaching colleagues ask me, “If you become the next big thing, are you going to give up teaching?”

First, I’d like to say, thank you for you faith in me, but that probably won’t happen. Lightning striking is wonderful and beautiful and very, very rare. So, as much as I love my work getting out there and hope everyone reads it, I’m not holding my breath to have the J.K. Rowling life.

Second, the answer is easy, No. No, I love teaching and would not give it up. I love the power and world I help students achieve through communication and writing. I love how they keep me on my toes with their insight and new world views. I love learning from them as I teach them (today I learned that GPS on planes is not a thing and by God it should be). I love how teaching makes me happy everyday. So, no I would never give it up as long as someone has a class for me to teach.

Also, teaching gives me days like today. Today was the last day of a J-Term course. During J-Term we do the entire semester in 10 days. It’s intense and asks a tremendous amount from the students, especially as this is a group class. They have to do projects and tests and activities with a group of students and learn to communicate and perform well with this group of people they didn’t know before class. Sometimes it can get stressful, especially in such a short class. But today, after their final was done and their grades were in, I had a group come up to me and give me this.

*cues sappy music swell*

*cues sappy music swell*

It is filled with personal notes from each of them expressing their thanks and excitement about the class. I had another student come and tell me it not only helped him already at work, but also in his communication with his fiancee. These students and the ones that will come after them are the reasons I would never give this up. They give me hope that the future will have people who can communicate and solve problems, not get stuck on positions. They are the ones building what others can’t see yet today.

To each of them, I want to say, “Thank you” right back.They are the reasons.

Writing Resolution Return

In my last update, I vague posted all of you.

“Make significant progress professionally on my writing. Result: OF SCIONS AND MEN was completed, revised from BETA readers, and completed fully. More on this on another post.”

I’m sorry. I know this is a horrible way to leave things. But I had to wait until everything was certain. Well, now it’s time to stop being vague.

Tell me now or the computer gets it!

Tell me now or the computer gets it!

OF SCIONS AND MEN, the distopian paranormal I’ve been working on for a while, has been picked up by the ever growing and innovating people at Curiosity Quills through the amazing Vicki Leigh. That means this series has a home to grow and evolve.

So, my immediate future will be full of work for these marvelous people. I can’t wait to share the next steps of this adventure, cover reveals, release dates, and the like, with all of you. In the meantime, I am also working on Book 2, THE SCIONS OF WRATH, to keep this coaster going.

Oh, and don’t mind me as I break out into the snoopy happy dance at random times. Just a bit excited.

That's right. We celebrate in costumes around here.

That’s right. We celebrate in costume around here.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

To Resolve or Not to Resolve

Yes, I know. Bastardizing Shakespeare is a poor man’s wit. Or maybe that was something about Shakespearean punneries. But the question still stands.

We are only ten days into 2015, and I have read post after post about what a crock New Year’s Resolutions are, while the other side is posting promise after promise. Even Forbes had a list of resolutions that will change your life FOREVER! And it leaves a girl wondering what to do.

Resolutions are supposed to be positive affirmations we pledge to ourselves, the universe, God, the dark forces, whatever gets us going. Most people know that they are not going to follow through when they just tell themselves in the dark corners of their mind on New Year’s Day, so they have traditions to make these affirmations more real and boast about them in person and online in the hopes that others will make them more accountable than their own willpower can deliver. And thus are most gyms filled to capacity in January.

And back to business as usual by March. Sigh. So do they work at all?

To decide, I go as my mother has taught me to my elders for guidance. The man of writing and wit himself, Oscar Wilde has a strong opinion on the matter. He said, “Good resolutions are useless attempts to interfere with scientific laws. Their origin is pure vanity. Their result is absolutely nil. They give us, now and then, some of those luxurious sterile emotions that have a certain charm for the weak…. They are simply cheques that men draw on a bank where they have no account.”

Well, there you go. Wilde has spoken, the answer given. Case Closed. End of post. Break the set and see you at the afterparty, folks.

But only a fool would ignore their own experiences in life for the comfort of words from a source who’s never walked a day in their shoes. Crap, okay, time to examine.

Last Year’s Resolutions:

Become healthier & stick with the gym. Result: I have become a regular at the gym so much so that people I still don’t know the name of comment on my progress. I have also lost over 10% body fat.

Finish my current crafting projects & learn a new craft. Result: I am current on my cross-stitching projects from last year and I’ve learned to crochet. Working on my first blanket.

Check off something from my bucket list: I flew a plane for the first time.

Make significant progress professionally on my writing. Result: OF SCIONS AND MEN was completed, revised from BETA readers, and completed fully. More on this on another post.

Action speaks louder than words. (Sorry, Mr. Wilde. I still love you.) Yes, resolutions can make a difference. I felt each of these check marks, and they drove me to do even more than I set out to do. So I’m a girl convinced and will dedicate myself even more this year.

That's my promise to each of you.

That’s my promise to each of you.

Child’s Play

As adults we’re told so many times that games are for children. People roll their eyes and talk of people wasting their lives in fantasy worlds that accomplish nothing. But as writers, that’s exactly what we do. And now we don’t do it alone.

Science has come along and proven there are real benefits found inside the childhood antics of playing games and playacting. This is described in

“Play is often described as a time when we feel most alive, yet we often take it for granted and may completely forget about it. But play isn’t a luxury – it’s a necessity. Play is as important to our physical and mental health as getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising. Play teaches us how to manage and transform our ‘negative’ emotions and experiences. It supercharges learning, helps us relieve stress, and connects us to others and the world around us. Play can also make work more productive and pleasurable.”

For me as a writer and character creator, this is so important. My characters get to do so much more than my mild mannered teacher self could. By turning character creation and writing into a game, rather than just a check list of to do’s and don’ts, I am able to make myself accomplish things I thought impossible. My willpower in writing skyrockets.

Antagonist in the corner pocket.

Antagonist in the corner pocket.

You know why? Glasses off and cowl down…My character’s persona would have done those things. The gaming aspect of writing allows me to step away from a Mary Sue and picture scenarios not because I want to, but because my hero/heroine would not take no for an answer.

Also I get much more enjoyment from the process when I change it into a game as it becomes so much more. It becomes something to immerse in. I can’t let my character down, because she wouldn’t let anyone down. When a battle is lost in my writing (hate those blocks), I know the war still continues for her, so how could I abandon her? I can more easily pick myself up and continue.

This is a part of transforming our negatives. I will try again and beat my enemy (the block) the next day because it was a part of the game, not just something inside me that I could never get away from. So with this transformation, from reality to game, from me to hero, I am able to move into the next benefit of learning from it and relieving stress. And boy, we can all use that.

Now, if you believe me, let’s get ready to create, grow, learn and relax…and write.

“Image courtesy of pal2iyawit/”.

Character Flaws and Casts

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” ~Nietzsche

Yes, it’s true. No hype here. I broke my wrist. An avulsion fracture on my dominant side (if you’re going to do something might as well go whole hog, right?) So, typing has slowed down to a crawl. In fact I’m pretty sure the cast will be off before I finish typing this with my left hand.

But it comes with beautiful 6 year old artwork

But it comes with beautiful 6 year old artwork

On the upside, I’m learning to do so much more with my left hand. From full keyboard typing, to flipping eggs (onto the floor), to doing my hair, I’m learning to adapt. And not to lose what I’ve built I’m still going to the gym.

Through the trainers at the gym I’ve learned about a neat phenomenon. If you work out one side, it actually makes the other side stronger as well, just not as much. When you work out your left bicep, you brain sends out the message to send extra blood to both biceps and work on increasing growth there. Your brain doesn’t discriminate.

I tried it out and sure enough, I pushed my left arm with presses, and not only did it color from the extra blood flow and effort, but so did my casted right who did none of the presses. And so hope is restored that I won’t fall too far behind.

But this got me thinking about character generation. Creating three-dimensional characters that can overcome the trials we subject them to is tricky. The biggest trap I see in a lot of writing is making them too good, too perfect. For the general public “too good to be true” is just that… unbelievable. The passion and desire to see them succeed is born for the worry that they won’t.

It’s the Superman syndrome. Superman has some many powers and invincibilities the writers have to spend half their lives coming up with reasons for him to lose or weaken them to make the story suspenseful or enjoyable to read.

So, let your fireball throwing, too beautiful to be real succubus with a heart of gold be a klutz. Or your hard working single mom who takes care of everyone may always pick the wrong man. Make it real and make it have real effects on their life. Your audience will thank you for it as they root for the character to find new ways to overcome it.

Thus today I lift my cast to the box on my character sheets titled “Character Flaws and Wounds”. Those quirks that make their lives harder, more believable and more suspenseful. May those traits keep their lives always balanced on the head of a pin.

“To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.” ― Criss Jami

Tilting at Emotional Windmills

Today is a selfish day, full of desires that are just for me.

I’m a geek. I admit it. I adore fandoms like Doctor Who, Batman, Harry Potter, Supernatural, Kim Harrison’s Hollows series, etc. I have sat around and discussed the emotional make up, journey and evolution of various characters and when on the screen, how those were portrayed.  I’ve spoken about these characters like real friends with probably more detail than I can with some of my actual friends. And I’m far from alone. The internet and world are full of people who are equally or more so immersed in these characters and worlds.

Me. Every time.

Me. Every time.

As writers, we create worlds and hope to fill them with true characters that our readers will feel real honest emotion about. I have seen it happen time and time again. Even with my own husband author J.P. Sloan. He gave some people a short story of his in the same week the last Harry Potter was released. One of those who read it had more of a reaction and shed tears for his characters more so than Harry Potter. I have had to put down books… okay okay, sometimes thrown down books, when a favorite character leaves us.

An honest emotional reaction. As story writers, isn’t that what we are truly aiming for? In fact, by the very definition of the thirds purpose of writing that fits fiction writers, to “entertain” doesn’t just mean to make someone laugh, it means to stir them to emotion in some fashion.

Thus, as I am wrapping up this belly of the beast and climax for my latest work in progress, let that be my windmill to aim at. I shall fight the good fight and hope to provide a character with enough dimensions that someone reading it will actually feel a true emotion for her.

“Now look, your grace,” said Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.”
“Obviously,” replied Don Quijote, “you don’t know much about adventures.”
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

For the nerd in us all

May everyone have a great Pi Day!

Made for my family's celebration.

Made for my family’s celebration.

Time to Geek it up, baby!

Nerves and Writing

“The mind is a wonderful thing.  It starts working the minute you’re born and never stops until you get up to speak in public.” –Anonymous

As a teacher of both English and Communication, I am constantly impressed by my students. I have to ask them day-after-day to do things that scare them, sometimes to the point of near passing out, and they rise to the challenge and accomplish what they once thought impossible.

For example, my Public Speaking classes are more often than not filled with students who need a communication credit, but are terrified of getting up and speaking before an audience. This is not just a college student occurrence of course. Glossophobia, or speech anxiety, is the fear of public speaking, and the internet is filled with people who are willing to help you overcome this fear, no matter your age or experience. But these are students who just want a college credit. Approaching our first few assignments is a time full of questions and emails to me of why they can’t do it, asking if they should transfer out, and deer in headlight looks when they step up the first time. Yet they all survive it, which surprises the students most of all.

Do I really NEED to graduate anyway?

Do I really NEED to graduate anyway?

This week they had to do their second speech, impromptu. This adds a whole new level of fear to the mix, as they not only have to get up and speak, but they have to pick their topic out of a hat only minutes before. But to get my point across about just getting up there and commit to speaking not reading, I make sure the topics I choose help ease the tension.

“We are cannibals; convince us to eat your buddy first.”

“You are the President, announce to the country that we have made first contact but the aliens are not the brightest lights in the galaxy.”

“You’re Darth Vader. Make a more convincing argument as to why Luke should join the Empire.”

“Explain to Superman why he can’t be in the poker game anymore.”

Batman solved the problem with lead lined cards.

Batman solved the problem with lead lined cards.

Well, you get the idea. Usually, when I hold up the hat the first time I get exactly zero volunteers to start the party off. Then someone gets “volunteered”, pulls their topic and laughs. Everyone else’s interest is piqued. A laugh was not expected. Then they start speaking, and everyone gets it. People start lining up. In fact, one class this week, when they were done, volunteered to do another round for fun. People who were ready to pass out at the start of class have forgotten they were supposed to not be able to do this.

What surprises them even more is when I announce that I will never teach them to stop being nervous. But that’s why they’re there. That, and the grade, were the only things they wanted from me. But I explain scientifically what nerves do for us. They kinda get it. Then I tell them a story from Anthony Quinn.

This prolific actor of the 20th century was asked once if he still got nervous before performing. He responded that he did every time. Every single time. He explained, “If you ever stop being nervous, that’s the day you should quit.” The nerves prove you care. If you’re not nervous, you’ve stopped caring.

The same holds true for writing. I have found myself before, and right now in fact, too nervous to continue on a project. It’s not writers block. I know what I want to happen. But a scene or character has gotten too big in my mind, and I’m nervous that I cannot do them justice on the page. No matter what I write, it will not be as perfect and wonderful as what I’ve imagined in my mind. It is too pivotal to be trust to me, the author.

But that just means I care. I care that this scene needs to be encoded into written word well, so the audience can decode it just as well and experience the magic that I am seeing behind my eyes. I have to remind myself, that if I don’t do it, no one will even have the chance to. Just as my students did, I have to have the courage to commit myself to sharing my words and trust that everyone will get it.

And so with care and nerves, I shall plunge in and brave these pivotal words. See you on the other side of Act III.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / and Stuart Miles /


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