The Balloon Experiment

The other day I stumbled across an article called “1000 Verbs to Write By.” Basically it lists common verbs and gives a list of stronger verbs, that is, verbs that show rather than tell the action. The “bad boy” verbs include: walk, jump, touch, take, pull, push, had, put,  hit, was, reacted, sat, look, stood, smell, thought, said, heard, lay, lie, felt, entered, left, and turn. It doesn’t mean you can’t use those verbs now and then, with “now and then” being the operative cliché phrase. Too many of them, and you’ve got a blah manuscript.

My beta readers noted occasional repetition in my WIP, which means there’s probably a lot more to fix. So I tried my balloon experiment. Why do I call it “balloon?” Because as I edit manuscripts, I make notes inside a balloon, like the balloons coming from a character’s mouth in a comic. Using Word’s “find” feature, I typed in the “bad” words to see how many my manuscript contained. Well, my tale was riddled with them. I’m halfway done streamlining my verbs, and I’ve eliminated over 1000 words from the manuscript. I’m aiming for tight writing, where I get your point across in one sentence instead of two paragraphs.

One thing I disagree with, and have no intention of changing. There is nothing wrong with writing “he or she said.” Better “said” than cluttering up a manuscript with saidisms like interjected, exclaimed, gushed, etc. Using “said,” though, may indicate a necessity for dialogue tags that attribute an action to what your character is saying, as shown in the following example.

Fair: “If anything crawls from that grave, I’ll destroy it,” Johnny promised Carol.

Better: Johnny pulled Carol into his arms. “If anything crawls from that grave, I’ll make it take a long dirt nap.”

When I typed “have” into Word’s Find feature, I discovered that half of my “haves” weren’t necessary. The sentences read better without them. Ditching “tell” words like put, walk, etc. enabled me to tighten my sentences and make them look better, as in the next example.

Fair: Tyrone put one hand around Alexis’ shoulder.

Better: Tyrone grasped Alexis by the shoulder.

Later on, an editor or I may decide the latter sentence doesn’t work, but at least I’ve eliminated a repetitive verb.

Do you struggle with repetition in your stories? How do you get around it?

My balloon experiment meant making all my repetitions float away.

None of my balloons look alike, so why should my words?

Healthcare Workers and Zombies

Barbara Custer included lots of zombies in When Blood Reigns.Before I wrote Steel Rose and City of Brotherly Death, I wondered how healthcare workers would handle zombies. What would my role as a respiratory therapist entail in a zombie invasion?

Let’s consider a brain-dead patient, someone whose heart still beats, but the lack of brain wave activity defines him as legally dead. The patient breathes through a tracheotomy tube with mechanical ventilation until he goes to the operating room for organ donation. My duties would include keeping his airway clean and making sure his ventilator works. Supposing I did my job, never suspecting that the “dead” person could be a zombie waiting to feast on someone?

Let’s backtrack to possible events before the patient’s admission. Perhaps our patient gets assaulted by a zombie, and he blows its head apart. All well and good, but the zombie bites him. Our guy’s shaken up and has no business getting behind the wheel. But he does anyway and drives to the police station. Instead, he winds up in a horrible accident that leaves him with traumatic brain injuries and broken bones. The severity of his wounds necessitates a tracheotomy. The unsuspecting paramedics put him on a ventilator and rush him to a hospital. The doctors may not notice the bite until too late. They’re more worried about the patient’s possible brain death.

Hours later, the zombie’s bacteria infiltrate Trach Man’s system, most likely before the hapless therapist or nurse come in to suction him. Mr. Trach Man yanks out his breathing tube, lurches out of bed, and chases his caregivers, all the while spewing bloody secretions from his tracheotomy before feasting on someone’s brains and flesh. Other staff may hear the screams. Because guns are banned at most hospitals, most people will stand by wringing their hands while their coworker(s) dies. The braver ones might tack the zombie, mistaking him for a combative patient, and get bitten themselves.

Of course, the staff therapist can run. He could call Security or try to fight back. His tools (scissors and a screwdriver) won’t protect him from zombies. If he’s lucky, he’ll be employed undercover by the zombie squad, using the therapist’s uniform as a beard because that’s the only way he’ll survive.

Hospitals are supposed to have surveillance cameras, security officers, and training to handle such situations. They are supposed to be able to handle terrorists, right? Perhaps they could stop a would-be child kidnapping in progress? That may be; but given the potency of the zombie’s bacteria, most staff won’t figure out what’s going on until it’s too late in the ballgame for a lot of people.

For the respiratory therapist’s sake, I’m hoping that Mr. Trach Man started to turn on his way to the hospital, while the paramedic is administering CPR or inserting an IV. That would be disastrous, but most ambulance vehicles are equipped with a kind of circular saw, along with the standard life-saving equipment. The paramedic could ditch the ventilator and resort to sawing and tossing bits of the former patient out the backdoor. So much for the Hippocratic Oath department.

Suppose the zombie outbreak happened because of an alien conspiracy. Instead of bacteria, perhaps the aliens installed a computer chip or robotics to make the dead body come to life. In this case, whacking the zombie with a portable oxygen tank would disable the computer and immobilize him. If the therapist, nurse, or are other worker decides to fight the zombie this way, they had better strike true, or else end up as the zombie’s next meal. Of course, given most hospitals’ policies on violence, the caregiver might face termination of his job. But he could always even the score by pushing an administrator toward the zombies, right? The plot thickens.

 

 

The Elusive Ending

Barbara Custer struggled with an elusive ending in some of the tales in City of Brotherly Death.Recently, I received a jewel of a submission for Night to Dawn. Every word counted; every line urged me to keep reading. I was revving up to write a nice acceptance letter. Then the story ended, but the ending stopped me. A part of the plot was left unfinished. I wondered, where’s the rest of the story? So I emailed the writer, requesting a revision. Most of the time, when I request a rewrite, it involves the ending.

What makes the ending so tough to write? Because sometimes our characters take us in unexpected directions, and so the perfect ending we had envisioned doesn’t sound so good after all. For my WIP, I cheated and wrote the ending, but something tells me I’ll need to revise because of the changes in my characters. It means tying up the subplots and showing that my character has changed. “Twist” endings are nice, but they have to be believable. The ending has succeeded when, upon arriving at the last word, you and your reader feel satisfied. I once read a complaint about a book, saying that the author must have been awfully tired when he wrote the ending. I admire writers with published anthologies because they’ve had to come up with a passel of meaningful endings.

Beginnings and endings can be a bear to write. My worst experience with endings happened with “One Last Favor,” one of the stories in City of Brotherly Death. That book went to an editor. “One Last Favor” had a less than satisfactory ending and she called me on it. A flurry of emails went back and forth with the editor making suggestions. I still felt lost, so I took the ending pages to my writers’ group. More suggestions. I decided that characters Tara and Chris were going to marry. The editor did another read through, and noted that I had to tie up Tara’s pursuit by the revenants stalking the town (“One Last Favor” is a zombie tale). Back to the writers’ group again, and another round of emails with my editor. We finally reached a conclusion that worked. Toni demonstrated the patience of a saint, helping me improve my ending.

It took almost a month plus three of my best curse words to get through the ending of “One Last Favor.” I can empathize with people who struggle through the ending pages. So when an author submits work that has an unsatisfying ending, I’ll work with them to help make it better.

Do you find yourself struggling to get an ending that works? I’d like to hear about your experiences.

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Wake versus Waken versus Awake versus Awaken

While editing an eBook, I stumbled over the “wake versus awake” dilemma. The sentence was “he’ll go into a sleep from which he’ll never waken.” This was my first suggestion. Then I stopped and thought: should I have used “awaken?” I thought all three words meant the same thing. Not quite – each word has different slivers of meaning. I looked up awaken in the dictionary and got this definition: cause to stop sleeping, rouse from a deep sleep. It carried a literary meaning, too, so awaken wasn’t the word I wanted. Didn’t think it would get so confusing.

Let’s look at the four words and what they really mean. It gets more interesting when you examine their past tenses. All of these words can be used transitively or intransitively. I’ve used some of my best curse words struggling through this conundrum. Is it wakened or woken? I sometimes wish I had a cheat sheet for all my issues with grammar.

Events in Barbara Custer's City of Brotherly Death caused the zombies to awaken.

Has this zombie awakened, woke, or wakened? Either way, he’s dangerous.

Awaken (past: awakened, have awakened)

Transitive: rouse from a deep sleep. Example: The onslaught of zombies awakened Alexis’ warrior instinct.

Intransitive: to arise or spring into existence. Example: I awakened during the night when I heard the scratching.

Awake (past: awaked or awoke; have awaked, have awoken)

Transitive: To rouse (someone or something) from sleep. The alarms awaked (or awoke) him from a deep sleep.

Intransitive: To come out of the state of sleep. Example: The zombie awakes and he’s getting hungry. Very hungry.

Wake (past: waked or woke; have waked or woken)

Transitive: to make alert. Example:  The shushing sounds of the balloons woke her gently.

Intransitive: to stop sleeping or remain awake. When the zombie woke, he bit the nearest person.

Waken (wakened or have wakened)

Transitive: to rouse (a person or animal) from sleep. Example: The poisonous chemical wakened the zombie.

Intransitive: to wake; stop sleeping; to become awake. Alexis wakened during the night after a bad dream.

Looking at these definitions, I have my choice of verbs. I went with “waken,” but I could have used “awaken” or “wake.” Wake, wake up, and waken are the most commonly used words to describe rousing a sleeper. Awake and awaken carry a literary and theologian connotation that wake and waken does not. Examples: The teacher’s methods awakened creativity within me. The sinner awakened to his misdeeds. Another important difference: for past tense, always use the weak standard with awaken and waken. So it’s awakened, have awakened, but never awokened; and wakened, have wakened, respectively.

Do you find yourself struggling with look-alike words?

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Where Paul DeBlassie III, Author of The Unholy, Gets his Ideas

UnholyThe_Unholy_Banner_copyIdeas come from the deep repository of the collective unconscious mind that inspires images and symbols during the fantasies of waking life and during dreams and nightmares. Mainly, it’s the nightmare stuff that bodes best for writing psychological thrillers and dark fantasy such as is in The Unholy. When I wake up in a cold sweat with the characters of the novels threatening me (I remember when Archbishop William Anarch, sinister prelate in The Unholy tormented me for nights on end, demanding that I not write the story) that’s when I know that real inspiration is flowing and that to listen to it and follow the images and symbols that emerge from my deep, unconscious mind during sleep and during the reverie of writing the story will end up in the development of spine tingling realities that jettison both me as the writer and the reader into phantasmagoric realms that have a way of shaking up conscious mindsets and get our heads blown out in a very, very unsettling but ultimately useful way. My writing, in other words, comes from an inner place of torment that needs to be let out so it can be set right. When mind stuff is set right inside me I can feel it by sensing a quality of being at peace, that I’ve written to the best of my ability and been true to the deep, archetypal energies swirling through my mind during the narrative. It really is a trip to listen to ideas, let them become images, and suddenly have them take over a page. It’s like the pages catch fire and everyone has come to life and things become disorderly, fraught with conflict, and danger looms.

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The Unholy contains psychological suspense.

BLURB: 

A young curandera, a medicine woman, intent on uncovering the secrets of her past is forced into a life-and-death battle against an evil Archbishop. Set in the mystic land of Aztlan, The Unholy is a novel of destiny as healer and slayer. Native lore of dreams and visions, shape changing, and natural magic work to spin a neo-gothic web in which sadness and mystery lure the unsuspecting into a twilight realm of discovery and decision.

Excerpt:

Lightning streaked across a midnight dark sky, making the neck hairs of a five-year-old girl crouched beneath a cluster of twenty-foot pines in the Turquoise Mountains of Aztlan stand on end. The long wavy strands of her auburn mane floated outward with the static charge. It felt as though the world was about to end.

Seconds later, lightning struck a lone tree nearby and a crash of thunder shook the ground. Her body rocked back and forth, trembling with terror. She lost her footing, sandstone crumbling beneath her feet, and then regained it; still, she did not feel safe. There appeared to be reddish eyes watching from behind scrub oaks and mountain pines, scanning her every movement and watching her quick breaths. Then everything became silent.

The girl leaned against the trunk of the nearest tree. The night air wrapped its frigid arms tightly around her, and she wondered if she would freeze to death or, even worse, stay there through the night and by morning be nothing but the blood and bones left by hungry animals. Her breaths became quicker and were so shallow that no air seemed to reach her lungs. The dusty earth gave up quick bursts of sand from gusts of northerly winds that blew so fiercely into her nostrils that she coughed but tried to stifle the sounds because she didn’t want to be noticed.

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Paul De Blassie is the author of The Unholy

Author Information:

Paul DeBlassie III, Ph.D., is a psychologist and writer living in Albuquerque who has treated survivors of the dark side of religion for more than 30 years. His professional consultation practice — SoulCare — is devoted to the tending of the soul. Dr. DeBlassie writes fiction with a healing emphasis. He has been deeply influenced by the mestizo myth of Aztlan, its surreal beauty and natural magic.  He is a member of the Depth Psychology Alliance, the Transpersonal Psychology Association and the International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy.

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Buy Links:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Unholy-Novel-Paul-DeBlassie/dp/0865349592

The Unholy contains psychological suspense by Paul De Blassie

 

Horror, Balloons, and Chekhov’s Gun

One of the most frequent questions I get from people is, “How can an innocent person who loves balloons write such graphic horror?” I’ve heard it from other writers, my buddies, and sometimes reviewers. So how can I write graphic horror? Balloons and horror fiction go together like spaghetti and meatballs.

Think of Pennywise the clown in Stephen King’s It. It had a lot of balloon scenes and King wasn’t trying to be cute. Pennywise lured his victims by popping through the gutter, brandishing a bouquet of balloons. “C’mon, Bucko. Don’t you want a balloon?” he’d ask his victim Georgie in a leering voice. “When you’re down here with me, Georgie, you’ll float, too.”

Jonathan Maberry’s book, Fire & Ash, features a scene where a character was getting bored blowing up balloons. I remember smiling until I found out the purpose of those balloons. They had a darn good reason being in the story. I don’t want to say more lest I give away spoilers.

Steel Rose has a balloon scene…or two. The balloons enable us to know Yeron better and how helium will affect people like him. I guarantee you that the helium from a balloon will poison someone later in the story. Ditto for “Echoes of a Distant World” in the Alien World anthology Tom Johnson and I cooked up. Why? Because the helium in the balloons are deadly to the alien attackers. You can also find balloon scenes in City of Brotherly Death (“Darkness Rising”). The balloons symbolized the protag Brianna’s humanity. Much as I like balloons, I would not use them in my tales without a reason.

Why? Because of Chekhov’s gun. I learned about Chekhov’s gun at the first writer’s conference I attended, and that information has stayed with me. Chekhov suggests that if you introduce a loaded gun on stage during the first act of your play, the gun should be fired during a later act. Otherwise, the gun shouldn’t be shown at all. Basically, he’s warning the writer not to put too much emphasis on unnecessary details. You can have guns, knives, balloons, or any other object, but they had better go into action before the story ends.

I’d also like to mention the MacGuffin. The MacGuffin is a goal, object, or person that motivates the protagonist in the beginning of the story, but becomes less important as the struggles play out. In It, Bill Denbrough decides to battle the monster that killed his brother Georgie, but as the battles continue, and the characters mature, Georgie’s death starts to fade into the background. If you’re not sure of your ending, you can use the MacGuffin to create a delightful story. But the Chekhov’s gun can be tricky. After you’ve finished your draft, go through it for any Chekhov’s guns, in case something you focused on turns out to be unimportant. Ask yourself, will the details advance your plot or tell us something about your characters?

Do you use the Chekhov’s gun and MacGuffin in your writing? How has these techniques influenced your tales?

Barbara Custer loves her Mylar balloons and zombie fiction.

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