Oldie but Goodie Writing Techniques

 

featuring horror and SF by Barbara Custer

Lately, the sequel for Steel Rose and When Blood Reigns has been haunting me. Okay, I’ll confess, I used the pantser style for writing this book. I tried to outline—actually summarized chapters but then found myself lapsing into writing scenes, and I couldn’t work from an outline. The balloon lady in me wants to work on everything else—chapters for Darkness Within Magazine (love doing this); blogging, documenting my latest Mylar Balloon adventure on Facebook.

Why this sequel should give me a problem I can’t say. One of the protags thinks about, buys, and sleeps balloons, but she can quiet zombies in short order. When you get down to it, a book consists of nine types of scenes. The opening is the hook should be written within the first few paragraphs. This will set your story in motion. For the Night to Dawn magazine, I’d better see some tension on page one—you can’t pussyfoot around with a short story. All the same, I find opening scenes the hardest to write, and each book requires multiple revisions for the opening scene.

Set-up scenes are used to feed in primary background information such as the characters’ careers or motivations. It’s nice to know where your protag works, especially if the bloodletting takes place at the work site. What’s more, your protag’s career and family life may influence how he or she approaches the horrors in your story.

Verifying scenes establish the evidence for others you’ve set up and will reinforce the information you already included. I’m thinking along the lines of foreshadowing, but also if you mention that your protag is a nurse on page one, you might want to include reminders especially if that detail is essential to the story.

historical fiction novel by Michael De Stefano

Conflicts are critical for every fiction work. The battle could be with another person, an inner demon, or nature—perhaps a snowstorm, hurricane, or earthquake, and your character’s reaction to it. It must come across natural; with what you know about your character, ask if he/she would really act in a given way.

In the hindrance scene, your protag takes one step forward, then one or two steps back. Every time he/she making progress, throw a wrench into it. For example, maybe your protag finds an escape route, but the villain, being one step ahead, plants a minefield along that path.

In your turnaround scene, you’ve got the darkest moment. The character thinks he/she’s come thus far when something horrible happens, and it appears all is lost. For example, the serial killer traps the protag, their spouse, and children and pulls out a gun.

Flashback scenes should be used only if necessary. Perhaps something happens which causes the protag’s mind to flash back to previous events. This should appear in the early part of the story and have more dramatic action than what is happening in the present. If the flashback is too long, you may have started your story in the wrong place. Consider weaving this information into the story some other way.

During the climax, all conflicts are resolved. Perhaps the protag managed to slay the villain responsible for releasing the zombie infection; in a romance, the hero and heroine reach a commitment.

You’ve got your conclusion once you’ve reached a satisfying ending and have tied up all the loose ends. Endings are really tough to write. I’ve used up two or three of my best curse words, plus several Mylar balloon purchases to get the ending right.

Your thoughts?

I will be sending a $10 Amazon gift card to a random commenter.

 

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Editors Have Wounds, Too

featuring horror and SF by Barbara Custer

In June 2018, Author Kelly Simmons gave a talk on characterization at the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference. She listed the traits that a sympathetic character should have: desire, spunk, resilience, foolishness, disbelief, and wounds. That last stuck with me in particular as I worked on my material.

Fast forward six months later, I went through the Night to Dawn submission pile and read someone’s first chapter. His letter reported that he had already gotten rave reviews. However, I couldn’t get beyond the first page. The protag started off by declaring an urge to kill his teammate, who happened to be a class clown, maybe overly talkative, but basically harmless. I got the image of the protag as a bully straightaway, and I said so to the author in no uncertain terms. The author asked why, and I could tell from his letter he was hurt.

Damn, girl! I scolded myself. You’re a balloon lady. Balloon people are sweet, not mean.

psychological horror written by Gerald Browning

Then I realized what had gotten into me. When I was in grade and high school, I was that class clown – and I’d gotten bullied in school. Junior college wasn’t much better. Those memories came to mind as I read, and that’s why I had to stop reading. So in my second response, I encouraged the author to keep submitting. I owned up to having been bullied in school, explaining that this may have biased my opinion, and assured him that another editor may have a different take on his work.

The takeaway? When workshop leaders tell writers to quit taking rejection personally, they’ve got it right. It would help, though, to explain why so here goes. Editors (and agents, for that matter) will arrive at the submission party with wounds of their own, just like your characters. Someone who’s been abused as a child may not appreciate a tale told from the abuser’s point of view. Alas, this type of information isn’t something you’ll find on AgentQuery Connect or the company website. Occasionally, if you’re going to a workshop run by said editor or agent, he or she may admit to a wound or two. Otherwise, if you’re submitting cold, all you can do is send and hope for the best, but have other publishers/agents in mind as well.

Your thoughts?

I will be giving a $10 Amazon gift card to a random commenter.

Leaving the Day Job

Barbara Custer included lots of zombies in When Blood Reigns.

Yesterday, I retired from my job as a respiratory therapist. I worked at the hospital for 34 years, and much of what happened provided grist for my fiction. A lot of mixed emotions went into my decision, not the least which involved my struggles with night vision. Pennsylvania’s wet climate means rain and snow most nights, making getting to work in the dark, early mornings difficult.

I worked with a fabulous group of people and was amazed by the outpouring of love and support I received. But the decision to stay or go is never simple in real life, any more than it should be for our characters. All the same, retiring will mean exciting things for Night to Dawn Magazine & Books and my writing.

For starters, overhauling my website. The website needs work which requires more time than I had after working during the day. I’ve already consolidated the spam and backup, saving money. I’m contemplating Yoast and a premium template.

I’ll be doing a promo with the October Frights blog hop in the coming days. I have two book submissions I’m reviewing, I have in mind to start looking for people to review the magazine and books. There are also short story submissions and work on the layout of Night to Dawn 35. That, and my writing. As for that night vision problem, I’m working from home with plenty of light. Unlike the computer at work, mine has a zoom feature to enlarge the print.

One of the books needs overhauling to meet Smashwords’ requirements. The merge between CreateSpace and Kindle seems to be going well but may affect royalties.

I’m going to miss working with my buddies at the hospital, but I won’t miss the long hours. And I look forward to this next chapter with Night to Dawn.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on quitting the day job and, if you’ve taken the plunge, what it meant for you and your writing.

Battle of the Covers

psychological horror written by Gerald Browning

The cover war started during Smashwords’ July promo. Because Smashwords had changed its formatting guidelines, two of the books that had been out awhile didn’t meet specs. I noted that Gerald Browning’s Demon in my Head had drawn attention, so I reformatted his book and ran a Facebook promo on it. During the process, I got to thinking, this is a darned good read. How come it doesn’t get more sales? That was when someone gave a vague criticism of the cover.

Designing covers are not my strong suit. The cover design is more straightforward for the Night to Dawn magazine because its cover has more real estate than the trade paperback books. I decided to apply the following maxim: if one person tells me I’m a balloon, I will ignore them. If two people call me a balloon, I’ll listen. If three people call me a balloon, I’d better get a ribbon and float.

I posted the cover image on the Facebook page for The Writers Coffeehouse. Many of my writer buddies belong to this group. Whenever I can, I go to their monthly meetings in Willow Grove. These folks recognize a good or bad cover, and I received a lot of constructive criticism with suggestions on what I could do to improve the cover. It was time to grab that ribbon and float.

After fortifying myself with a Mylar balloon purchase, I approached Gerald with the suggestions about his cover. He’d heard similar sentiments from people who read his book and was glad to get a new cover. Next an email to Teresa Jay, the cover artist for his book. She started with several ideas, and two of them looked good. Enthused, I took them back to my Writer’s Coffeehouse and got more helpful suggestions. One included using a filter to get rid of the cartoonish look on one of the images. Where I live, filters are for coffeepots or air conditioners, and I mentioned the same to Teresa. Thankfully, she has a great sense of humor. After going back another time, this is the final new cover for Demon in my Head.

I got four takeaways from this: first, if you read eBooks, you can get a great deal at Smashwords during July. Sometimes, the books are free. Second, Demon in my Head is a darned good tale, and folks who like psychological horror and the occult would find this a must-read.

Third, I want to thank Teresa Jay for her patience and good humor with making the changes. She does the back cover for my Night to Dawn magazines, and wraparounds for some of the books. I’m glad to have her. Finally, to the folks at the Writers Coffeehouse, I owe you guys a lot of thanks and balloons. I’ve proud to be a member, and I look forward to going to future meetings. To aspiring writers, I strongly recommend you go to some meetings. Initially established by Jonathan Maberry and other literary greats, the Writers Coffeehouse I attend meets the last Sunday of each month at the Willow Grove Barnes & Noble, from 12 to 2:00 p.m. Jonathan later established one at the Galaxy Bookstore in San Diego. There are meetings in Rosemont, PA, and other locations too. In any case, it’s about writers helping writers.

Barbara Custer loves Mylar balloonsand horror fiction.

A Good Reason and the Real Reason

science fiction tales by Barbara Custer

Yesterday, I headed to the supermarket to take advantage of the sales. Well, that was a handy excuse. The real reason I went was because I’ve contemplated the colorful Mylar balloons on their display shelves. Perhaps someone might cite ill health or better opportunity as a reason to quit a job, but deep down, they were simply unhappy working at their company. In both cases, we have our good reasons and our real reasons.

This principle applies to writing, too, so I have a confession to make. A while back, I blogged about The Forgotten People, citing my reasons for rewriting and publishing the stories. My post didn’t ring true. The reasons I gave were valid—the stories feature timid, bullied people who didn’t fit into society. I started working on spinoffs of these tales after the Termite Invasion of 2017. Along the way, I stumbled and needed the help of a good editor.

My real motive kept me going through the tough edits: our unstable political climate.

In particular, healthcare. The two last stories in The Forgotten People anthology, “The Forgotten Ward,” and “Good Samaritan” take place in 2050. Medicaid no longer exists, and due to the high costs, hospitals will not treat you without insurance or cash card. When your insurance runs out, better hope you have money. You can’t barter with real estate or other valuables unless you can find a buyer fast. Without money, all treatment stops. The protagonists in these tales find a way to smuggle life-saving medicine to indigent patients, but they pay dearly for their efforts.

I got to thinking about Trump’s proposed 2019 cuts to Medicare, SNAP, and Medicaid. His pending changes include Medicare enrollees paying the same copay on every doctor visit, whether it be routine or a specialist. This could shortchange specialists who may in turn refuse to treat Medicare patients (shades of “Forgotten Ward”). If I met Mr. Trump, I’d ask, “Since when did age and money define someone’s right to life and medical care?”

Granted, I took plenty of artistic license. In “The Forgotten Ward,” the sickest patients are warehoused into a dirty ward where they’re left to die. In reality, if we continue on this slippery slope, the hospitals of the future may simply discharge patients who run out of funds. But there you have it, folks: my real reason for publishing this book.

My Mylar balloons, who have an opinion on everything, from politics to writing, suggested that focusing on the real reason for telling a story may result in better writing. Methinks they have it right; it did, after all, motivate me to complete the book. Your thoughts?

Tale of Two Word Programs

Some of y’all might have read my post on Facebook about having Word 2007 and Word 2016 on one computer. Dat’s wight, wabbits, two different Word programs, one computer, and no, my quest for good PDF software hasn’t caused me to lose it. On Word 2016, I’m finding a better quality of photo when I save. According to a coworker, it has a “PDF maker,” and what’s more, if I need to make small changes on the PDF, I can do so. I plan to use 2016 for the books I send to CreateSpace and Lulu.

So then, you may wonder, why am I hanging onto to Word 2007? Well, because I process my eBooks through Smashwords. Its Meatgrinder software requires Doc files, the kind produced by Word 2003 and 2007. Now Word 2016 is capable of producing a Doc file, but you have to keep remembering to save as Doc, and according to some folks, it may cause changes to your file. At first, I felt like the Biblical person trying to serve two masters. After a discussion with my Mylar balloons, I decided to keep Word 2007, but get 2016. My computer repair person cheerfully installed the new software without overriding the old.

If my Mike were alive, he’d be smiling and nodding, then say, “Yep. That’s my Barbara.”

This blog is my first go at Word 2016. I’ve been nosing around the ribbon and found a lot of cool gadgets, but not the Adobe add-in (PDF maker). However, I found that I can set my dpi to 330 when I’m working with files that have images. I think I can reset the dpi with Publisher 2016, which I love. It gives you some nice ways to highlight and shadow your pictures. I’m really grateful for the generous dpi allowed, as Adobe wasn’t user-friendly. The other PDF programs hand trouble handling files my size.
When I get my Night to Dawn proofs, I know full well there will be tweaks needed, and if I’m right, I’ll make those tweaks with Word 2016 on board. However, I’m redoing two books for Smashwords, which necessitates Word 2007.

Do you work with more than one Word program? How has this worked for you? I’d love to hear about your experiences. 🙂

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