Romancing the Balloons

Barbara Custer's brand

Since April, when I wrote my first post on the pandemic, gyms and hair salons have reopened, albeit with restrictions. Some of my friends are jumping into activities full force. Others remain in quarantine. Per the discussions with my Mylar balloons, the activities are okay if I can take the risk from a level 10 to a level two. The balloon brigade at the supermarkets and pharmacies hasn’t stopped; my balloons deemed that activity a level two.

I’ve gone back to my hairstylist, but not the gym. I do ZOOM workouts while Daisy, my Mylar butterfly, becomes my trainer, coaching me on which weights to use. If she thinks I’m slacking off, she lets me know about it. I contemplated getting a traditional trainer, but I have what I need at home.

The pandemic has colored the way I write. My WIP involves a highly contagious virus that had a way larger death toll than corona. This means that, as in real life, my characters have to struggle to find a store that sells toilet paper, disinfectant, and other supplies they need. As in real life, my protagonist has Mylar balloons to guide her on her daily activities.

Since the pandemic started, I’ve noticed that driving’s gone downhill. I’ve seen people blow through red lights and make U-turns on four-lane thoroughfares, despite heavy traffic. Friends tell me that some folks think nothing of driving 100 miles per hour on the turnpike. About a month ago, a van came up to my right to make a U-turn and almost plowed into me. I had to get off the road. So I’ve used the back roads and avoid rush hour traffic as much as possible. The Mylar balloon principle applies: take the risk from a level 10 to a level two.

I never know when I’ll find a unique Mylar balloon. Maybe I’ll go to CVS to pick up a prescription, and a Valentine’s day balloon with lace will beckon from the card aisle. Perhaps I’ll go to the supermarket for bread and milk. If supplies hold up, I’ll get them, but a balloon, soft as a kitten paw, will make its way into my shopping cart. The balloons go into an isolation area for 72 hours at home, then joins the others in my living room.

How are you getting through the pandemic? I’d love to hear your experiences.

A $10 Amazon gift card will be sent to a random commenter after the bloghop.

Killing your Darlings

This year, I’ve been taking Your Novel Year with Kathryn Craft, and among other things, I am learning what it means to kill your darlings. No, not my balloons. My Mylar balloons are darlings, and they’re staying right where they are. I’m referring to the darling scenes I have in my WIP. 

The trouble was, my WIP had two protagonists. I started the book with one, Alexis. Maddie was a bit character who sought help from the underground Kryszka people with treatment for her husband’s sickness. However, Maddie wound up stealing the show and became a protagonist. I tried writing with two protagonists, but you can only have one, I found out. Readers will usually sympathize with the character they meet first. I had introduced the villain first, and after a class or two under my belt, I realized I couldn’t do that. So I started with Maddie kicking zombie ass.

After consultation with Kathryn, I saw that I had to completely restructure my book. Several good scenes had to go, as they had nothing to do with Maddie’s goal. What’s more, I had 114,000 words in the book, and genre books shouldn’t be longer than 100K words. So a love scene between Alexis and her partner went. So did a scene where Maddie visits her nephew in prison. It was a touching scene, but it didn’t further the story or relate to Maddie’s goal. 

However, new scenes have cropped up that I like better than the discarded scenes. For starters, Maddie develops a spine and tells off her heartless boss. Now, I may have to change that scene again, but we’ll see. And the Mylar balloons in the story get to stay. There is that. I strongly recommend Kathryn’s course. She’s been running it once a year.

How many times have you had to kill your darlings? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

A $10 Amazon gift card will be sent to a random commenter after the bloghop.

horror fiction by Allan Heller

The Great Pumpkin—Exploring the Senses

horror tales by Barbara Custer and other authors

Amidst my counting masks, paper products, and other supplies to wither the Great Pandemic, my butterfly Mylar balloon whispered, “How about baking a cheesecake? A pumpkin cheesecake. After all, it’s that time of the year.”

“What time of the year?” I rolled my eyes.

“The Great Pumpkin’s coming.”

My balloon had it right. So I started the balloon floating with a pumpkin-flavored latte at Starbucks. Next, a trip to Bath & Body Works for pumpkin-scented soap and hand sanitizer. If I have to use it, I might as well smell like pumpkin.

I’ve got pumpkin-flavored coffee, pumpkin muffins, and pumpkin Cheerios. The pumpkin cheesecake tasted better than I remember. I will make a stop at Wawa for the pumpkin smoothies. I’m going for all the senses, so I’ve got room deodorizers and beads to keep the pumpkin scent going between baking brigades. There’s pumpkin-flavored ice cream for sale somewhere. I’m also contemplating a recipe for pumpkin soup. Last year, when I volunteered at the Ben Wilson Senior Center, someone made pumpkin soup. It smelled oh, so good, but it was made with regular flour, so my version will be GF.

Why the fixation with pumpkin? The smell of pumpkin is associated with Thanksgiving and autumnal harvest — a historically prosperous time of year. Pumpkin connotes comfort and warmth as we head into fall and colder weather. Pumpkin pie has become a traditional family recipe, so I think family and love when I smell pumpkin. Contemplate a famous scene in Proust’s masterpiece, “Remembrance Of Things Past,” where the narrator eats a madeleine cookie, and it seems as if he’s transported back to another time and place. Perhaps this happens to me when I have my pumpkin treats. Pumpkin spice takes me back to Thanksgiving as a child, when my mom baked pumpkin pie from scratch. In those days, we didn’t have to worry about Corona. Mom and Pop stores were thriving, and you didn’t have to go through a lot of rigmarole to buy stuff so long as you had the cash.

It could be I just love the smell of pumpkin spice.

With that in mind, I’ll keep my eyes open for pumpkin-shaped Mylar balloons, and I shall continue to enjoy my pumpkin treats through Thanksgiving. Do you have any favorite pumpkin treats? I’d love to hear your stories.

A $10 Amazon gift card will be sent to a random commenter after the bloghop.

A Lift to the Apocalypse

Many folks stare and gasp when I inform them that a Mylar balloon has found its way into my shopping basket. “The balloon’s contaminated,” they warn me. True, I don’t know where that balloon or any other product I buy has been. This is why I wear a mask and gloves to the supermarket. At home, the balloon goes into a separate room for three days. It takes that long for viruses to die on Mylar and other plastics. After washing my hands long enough to sing my balloon song, I wipe down my other groceries. As I patiently explained to one person, I’m giving a lift to the Corona apocalypse.

Meanwhile, others, such as the writer I wish to talk about, are Birders, also known as Twitchers. The sky everywhere is their domain, and like a hawk after prey, it does soar into this particular Australian’s work, representing hell as well as hope for a distant future.

Rod Marsden’s recent release, 50 Dragons, features an apocalypse after a nuclear war. The time set is the 23rd century. The human population has gone way down, and many areas of the earth are uninhabitable due to radiation. There are no balloons, but folks in this world have all the cleaning and paper products they need, unlike our present world. However, Marsden’s citizens have far more serious concerns than balloon acquisitions or toilet paper supply. In 50 Dragons, one centralized government of priestesses runs the world. Religion is mandatory, but you don’t get to choose which one. Attendance at the temple is compulsory. No one need protest because robots armed with guns patrol the streets, and they’ll shoot just as soon as look at someone.

This government practices population control by eliminating people they consider inferior. Five classes of people exist: priestesses, mavericks, maidens, knights, and dragons. In school, thirteen-year-old boys are tested. The ones who pass muster become mavericks, meaning they go to college, get a career, and have a good life. The others train to become knights who will slay the dragons, thus a short life. Being a maverick doesn’t ensure longevity. If he attracts unfavorable attention from the authorities, he can be demoted to knighthood without training. They have tournaments twice a year featuring knights versus dragons, and the government calls these biannual events the “culling.”

50 Dragons was not meant to be political, but I can see governments heading in this direction if we allow them. Already, one governor said that older people should volunteer to die to save the economy (shades of the high priestesses). I don’t want a government telling me how to worship. Perhaps the coronavirus is a wakeup call to appreciate, have, and pull together to avoid a nuclear war. So I’ll tell my relatives and friends I love them when we speak. If one day, we can go out and eat, I’ll savor every moment. And I’ll continue my “Mylar balloon chases” at the supermarket. I am, after all, giving a lift to the apocalypse.

PWC2019 Days Two and Three.

Barbara Custer loves Mylar balloonsand horror fiction.

When I got on the train on Saturday, the conductor said hello. I smiled and shouted, “Choo choo!” The other passengers burst out laughing; then someone noted that new lines were being painted on the parking lots. I piped up with, “Yes, and they’re also painting Mylar balloons on these lines so that people can see to park between them.” If Mike were here, he’d smile and say, “That’s my Balloon Lady,” but you see, anticipating the second day of PWC2019 had put me in a jolly mood.

The jolliness prevailed because I started the day in Jonathan Maberry’s master class on action scenes. I once believed that martial arts would enable anyone to defend themselves. However, I learned differently in that class. Martial arts have too many rules, said Jonathan, and they don’t teach the physics involved in a fight. Your character can use common items for self-defense weapons, but there’s a way to turn to apply torque to make that weapon more effective. 

Saturday night, Jonathan was the keynote speaker, and he told everyone how he started out with teaching martial arts and writing nonfiction books. He then moved onto fiction, starting with Ghost Road Blues; he described how different writers have influenced him and his writing. In that speech and his Writer’s Business Plan class, he emphasized the importance of professionalism: don’t slam other writers, don’t put people on a pedestal, approach politics with caution on social media, and avoid negativity. As my mom used to say, if you don’t have anything kind to say about a person or organization, don’t say anything at all (at least on social media).  

Sunday morning, I got up, tired, but I greeted everyone with a smile and “Top of the balloon to you,” for I anticipated more good things. And I got them in Brian McKinley’s class. He provided a lot of great material on horror, specifically log lines, elevator pitches, and book blurbs. One formula given: protagonist must do something brave to achieve a goal, with high stakes. There should be a time limit given, for example, a ticking bomb. For a one-sentence plotline, the formula is: in a setting, a protagonist has a (problem) caused by (antagonist) and faces (conflict) as they try to achieve a goal.

I also got plenty of good material from Shirley Hailstock’s class. The most important takeaway: the protagonist must do all the work. I can’t have God working miracles or the cavalry rescuing her. She also gives a tool for managing the ending, something I have difficulty writing. Have the story come full circle. So I’m thinking that if my book starts with a monster wreaking terror, perhaps the book could end with the protag slaying the beast or watching it die.

I owe the Liars Club and the PWC board a 50- balloon thank you for the hard work that went into this writing conference. This had to be one of the best I’ve attended, and I hope to go to many more.

PWC 2019: Day One

featuring zombies, vampires, demons, and human monsters

Day One of #PWC2019 was everything I thought it would be and much more. I took classes with Shirley Hailstock, Jonathan Maberry, and Brian McKinley. I’d like to share some highlights from the conference.

Shirley discusses the types of plots, protagonists, and villains and recommends avoiding superhuman qualities unless I’m prepared to put them in situations that challenge these qualities. She reminded that most villains should have at least one streak of kindness and a favorite pet. In my current WIP, I have my protagonist being rescued. In the rewrite, my protagonist will still be rescued, but she will have almost finished her escape before the cavalry arrives. I’m thinking now that villain should love birds the way I do balloons. 🎈🎈

Brian discussed trends and advises that zombies have gotten old and recommended biological means as a way to craft good horror fiction. Thankfully, my previous job as a respiratory therapist helps this cause. He also recommended Dean Koontz’s rules on good fiction. To summarize, Koontz suggests multi-dimensional characters, anticipation to create suspense, avoiding something other than their own survival.

Jonathan discussed the business end of writing, query letters, and the technique of pitching a book. If I query someone, I will skip the cuteness and be professional. Save the Mylar balloon stories for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, for balloons are my brand or uniform. Maybe allow a week to type that query letter because it needs to be strong. As for verbal pitching, I know now that I’ve been going about it wrong. Jonathan recommends noting five things that the book is about and five things that the book is not about. For example, Steel Rose has zombies, Mylar balloons, and fighting scenes between humans and hostile aliens, but that’s not really what the book is about, so I might not mention them. It’s about Alexis struggling with health problems and learning that she’s stronger than she thinks she is. She’s finding out that the world isn’t what it used to be. It’s about a Kryszka doctor trying to fit into a human environment. It’s about two people learning to love again.

For pitching, he recommends having feeling in your voice. That is something I struggle with. Perhaps I’d best practice with my Mylar balloons. In the meantime, I will prepare a follow-up blog with my thoughts on day two and three.

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