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.

The Website Changes Begin!

Mylar balloons for Barbara Custer, horror author

“Oh, Barbara!” purred a voice coming from a Mylar balloon tree. “Barbara!”

I looked up from the submission I was reading. “Yes?”

“You’re contracting several books and making promotion plans,” my Mylar balloon said. “Isn’t it high time you cleaned up your website?”

Aw, geez, why did they have to bring that up? “I will, eventually.”

“How about now?” the balloons asked. “How are you going to sell new books with the same, tired images?” Then they smiled as if offering a reprieve. “You don’t need a new theme. The one you’ve got gives you plenty of options to make your website look spiffy.”

I started with the header. I like to use rotating headers, and coming up with three headers I could live with took two afternoons. I thought I might need to redo them after I decided on a background, but this hasn’t been the case. Thankfully.

I started looking at backgrounds when my balloons piped up with. “How about getting rid of those advertisements? They’re an eyesore.”

These were WordPress ads – I agreed to run the ads with the understanding that if anything sold, I’d get a percentage. Trouble was, most of the items had nothing to do with my business. The folks at WordPress (I have a self-hosted site, but it works in tandem with my WordPress account) were glad to help, and the ads are gone.

I started looking over new themes again, and was about to download when the balloons got my attention. “Don’t you dare monkey with your theme,” they warned me. “If you do, you’ll make a lot more work and spend money that you don’t have. You’ve got a perfectly good theme that will enable you to change the font and the background. While you’re at it, look at your menus, too.”

My first attempt at changing the font didn’t go, so I installed a Google font plugin. For the menu, I merely had Night to Dawn Magazine & Books, LLC. If people clicked on it, they would get a dropdown menu of all the authors and their books. I rearranged the menus so that the authors have their own link in plan view and a dropdown for their books. One author had no link, but it’s fixed now. I got to wonder how people managed to find stuff on my website. What’s more, it would be helpful for each author and book to have a description to tempt viewers. So … I have more work to do in this area. Not sure if I like the white letters in gray … I’m saving that one for after I see how the new background works.

My takeaways? It pays to review your website every so often to make sure the links, images, and other items work. The balloons had it right about not changing themes. Each new theme presents a learning curve, along with all the work I needed to do on the menu. Later on, when certain issues have settled, I can look at getting a premium theme. Before changing themes, I would ask, what will the new theme give that you don’t have now? And I would back up the website before making the changeover, and consider putting into maintenance mode. And if you don’t know CSS skills, thankfully, WordPress has plugins that can help; but before using them, make sure they’re compatible with your version of WordPress. Do you use WordPress software? How do you approach website management? I’d love to hear about your experiences. 😊

A Mylar Balloon in your Home …

Barbara Custer loves Mylar balloonsand horror fiction.

A Mylar balloon in your home is worth two at the store. Why moon over the balloons on display if you’ve already got a thriving one in the house? Sometimes, the store balloons are either too pricey or not for sale at all. Better to go with the sure thing.

That was my conclusion when I contemplated applying for freelance assignments from Upwork.com. You see, several weeks ago, I contracted with L. M. Labat to publish her second book, The Sanguinarian Schwartzwald, a sequel to The Sanguinarian Id. The Sanguinarian Id was well received by reviewers, and its excellent cover had drawn quite a few readers. I’m editing the book now and loving every moment of it. The Sanguinarian Id was a haunting tale of a woman who battled hordes of Nazi soldiers in her quest to hunt down a dangerous madman. The Sanguinarian Schwartzwald promises all that and much more. Methinks 2019 looks promising.

I’m still mindful of my work on the website. That means redoing a few pages and getting a new theme. Recent unexpected expenses made me hesitate to get a premium theme. That and the need to find a theme I like. A WordPress theme has to talk to me the same way a Mylar balloon does at the store before I’ll consider using, let alone buying. So now, I’ve put upwork.com on the shelf until a later date.

My Mike once said, “Stick with the one who brought you to the dance.” I think he had it right. That saying can be applied to publishers, projects, day jobs, and anything that has worked for you. With that in mind, I’ll stick with the Mylar balloons at home. However, I won’t complain if another materializes in my cart during my next visit to the supermarket. 🙂

L. M. Labat penned science fiction / vampire romance tale of medical malpractice.

 

 

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.

Reunion with the Unspeakable


featuring horror and SF by Barbara Custer

The dead groaned loudly, their fists batting the hospital windows. A deadly prion similar to mad cow disease infested their bodies, but no cure loomed in sight. Serket set her back to the windows, eyes on her computer, charting her evening rounds. In another week, she’d retire. Her home was a townhouse at the Gables, windows secure with bars. Her sister had invited her to her house near the beach, where the dead didn’t bother people. There, Serket could lay low until the doctors found a cure, and if not, then at least she was with family.

For now, Serket had to stay alive. Seven more days …

Serket stood up. As she did so, tingling and a sharp pain knifed through her ankles. She’d worked a four-day stretch on the floors, doing respiratory therapy treatments, and long stretches wrought havoc with her feet. She looked forward to her drive home, even if it necessitated quieting zombies along the way.

An hour later, as she headed toward the time clock, her boss Frank materialized from his office, his face beet red. “Where do you think you’re going?” he demanded.

“Home. My shift’s over.” Serket met his gaze, braced for an argument.

“I can’t let anyone go home,” Frank told her. “I need you for sentry duty.”

Shit! Sentry duty meant four hours of standing post, something not easily done on numb feet. “I can’t. I’m not feeling well. I’ll get you a doctor’s note, okay?”

“Not okay. If you’re sick, don’t come in,” Frank said between clenched teeth. “Since you’re here, take some aspirin and move it. Kristin and another had mishaps on the way here.”

Serket heaved a sigh. “Mishap” was Frank-speak for becoming dinner for the dead. After shooting her boss a scathing look, Serket hobbled to her locker. She swapped her lab coat for a balaclava and donned her gun belt.

Sentry duty took place in the open-air courtyard facing the hospital entrance, several rooms away from the respiratory therapy offices. According to Frank, sentries had to walk the grounds keeping their eyes out for dead visitors. After catching two sentries sitting on the benches playing with their phones, as he put it, he ordered the benches removed.

“Bastard!” Serket whispered. “Didn’t it ever cross your pea brain that they’re worried something happened to their kids?”

Outside, Serket scanned the garden, shining her light. So far, no visitors. She hobbled over to an immense ceramic planter. The rim of the container was wide enough to allow her to sit, and she could watch out for dead visitors in relative comfort. The damaged nerves in her feet had taught her about watching. She had to watch that her shoes and socks weren’t too tight. Watch out for loose mats and sharp objects on the floor. Watch when she wriggled through tight spaces to get to her equipment, lest a loss of balance threatens a back-breaking spill.

Uh, oh. Movement by a crab apple tree, along with the stink of flyblown meat mixed with incense.

Incense? That’s different. Serket’s light washed over the roses and bushes, and to her left, a figure wearing tattered rags. Half of its face looked as if gnawed by rats. She raised her sidearm, barrel trained toward the walker.“Take that, Ank-Soo!” she shouted, and explosive gunfire sheared off the figure’s head. Another figure materialized from the shadows. Ditto silence by gunfire. By the time Serket’s watch ended, she’d lost count of the number of zombies she’d quieted. It was too late to drive home tonight. Instead, she headed to the fourth floor, used by people who needed to sleep overnight. It wasn’t the first time she’d slept on a cot.

At the fourth floor, Frank stood by the elevator, glaring at Serket with eyes of quicksilver. “Why are you here?” he demanded.

“I came up here to sleep.” Serket smiled, but her voice edged with anger. “After all, people do go to bed.”

Asshole, she thought, then collapsed on her cot. In the moments before she drifted to sleep, the musty, spicy smell haunted her. Where had she smelled that before?

****

When Serket was ten, she rushed into the pavilion facing Atlantic City’s ocean, intent on playing Skeeball. Instead, a poster beckoned: See Ank-Soo, a Live 1000-year-old woman. Behind the sign stood a dais enclosed with black velvet curtains.

Inside, the people ahead of her formed a C-shaped ring around an ornate bathtub. Later on, she’d learned that the tub was a sarcophagus. Further ahead, she made out jet black hair and a shriveled face. The aroma of incense and dampness crawled down her throat like smoke, making her cough. Ank-Soo had on a sequined vest, but nothing else. Serket walked up to the tub. Not a live woman after all, but a dried dead body. Gleaming bone peeped between the tears in her skin. Serket stood frozen, gazing toward the exit, but the room was oh, so crowded. The grownups around her laughed and chatted as if they were at a party. Seconds later, the decayed woman turned her head and raised her right arm, extending her hand. She pointed a bony finger at Serket.

“You. You are the goddess,” she said. Her voice sounded as if sand had lodged in her windpipe.

Screaming, Serket pushed through the crowd and bolted from the dais. Laughter echoed behind her, but that seemed so unimportant. What mattered was that a dead body had come to life. On the way out of the pavilion, she darted into a restroom. She locked the door, gasping for breath.

Thumping rattled the knob. “Serket,” a woman’s gravel-chewing voice intoned. “It’s time.”

The fist thumped harder, splintering the wood.

****

Serket ’s eyes snapped open. The knocking persisted, not in a bathroom stall but at the door to her makeshift room at the hospital. The voice faded, replaced by knocking and a panicked cry. “Serket, wake up!”

Damn what a nightmare. Serket rubbed her forehead. She opened the door and found her coworker Kristin standing outside, clad in her work scrubs.

“I’m sorry for waking you.” Kristin blushed. “I heard you screaming. You look like you saw a ghost.”

“I got mandated into sentry duty,” Serket told her. “Frank said you’d had a mishap.”

“What the…?” Kristin shook her head. “I came in late because there were roadblocks, that’s all. Frank gave me a lot of grief about it, so I agreed to do sentry duty this morning. That shut him up. Are you okay?”

Serket nodded, then told her about the nightmare. “Something like that happened when I was ten, but my mom drove me home when she realized how scared I was. The garden smelled like incense last night, and I got to thinking about Ank-Soo. I even called the zombies Ank-Soo.”

Kristin shrugged, then sighed. “This whole place is a nightmare. Steer clear of Frank, Serket. People notice that he’s putting you on sentry duty more and more. It’s not right.”

“Agreed, since I have a doctor’s note in my file that says I can’t work overtime.” Serket shrugged. “I guess with the zombie outbreak, doctor’s notes don’t count. It’s okay. In six more days, I’m out of here.”

“Let me tell you something.” Kristin drew in a sharp breath. “If I were you, I’d go home and stop showing up for work. Your Social Security and pension are guaranteed. The only money you lose is for the last three days and your vacation hours. Better than losing your life!”

“What?” Serket started, then sat on her bed, eyes on Kristin. “Anyone can die when they go outside if they’re not careful.”

“Sending someone outside to fight when they can hardly walk is brutal. He may as well have signed your death warrant.”

“It’s not like he singled me out. He does that to you and Joe, too.” Serket contemplated the last days’ assignment sheets, tracking times she and Kristin had done sentry duty. She regarded Kristin’s features. Gray-streaked hair and fine wrinkles around the chin. “He doesn’t like older workers, does he?”

“You’ve got that right. I overheard him screaming about the budget, and how it was wrong having to pay out millions of dollars in pensions when the hospital needed the money for security.”

Serket ’s brown eyes widened. “But these are vested pensions.”

Kristin shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. Management is too cheap to hire regular officers, so they make the staff buy guns and do the job. I guess they target older workers, hoping the zombies get them and save them money.”

“Well, thankfully, the zombies move slower than me, and …” Serket clapped her head, then understanding dawned. “Frank was furious when I showed up last night. I never got any thanks. Was he mad because I came back alive?”

Kristin nodded. “That’s why I’m telling you to go home and not come back. Joe and I are only 60, so we can’t get Social Security. We have to stay, but you have the option of leaving.”

Serket got up and peered out the window, Kristin beside her. The zombies paraded the streets by the hospital in single file. “Damn.” She lowered her head. “I carry two guns, but I’m getting nowhere this morning.”

“It looks bad.” Kristin nodded with agreement. “Where’s your car?”

“In the garage across the street.”

“Hm. If you go out through the back entrance, you can head through the alley to get to your garage. If you can walk home, you can get around the roadblocks. Things might still get weird, but doable.”

“Not doable.” Serket frowned. “I live too far to walk, so I need my car.”

Frustration crinkled Kristin’s eyes. “Then take your car, but you’ll have the roadblocks.”

“That’s okay. I agree with you about the back alley. That way I won’t have to take any stairs. Thanks for the heads up.”

After Kristin left, Serket donned her gun belt, then headed to the café for coffee and a bagel, and her morning medicines. She went to her locker, praying that Frank wouldn’t be near the respiratory therapy offices. He wasn’t. She put on her jacket, leaving it open to give her access to her guns. After retrieving her purse, she took the rear elevator to the ground floor.

Serket crept out through the exit facing the alley. The area reeked of something dead about to explode in the gases of its own decay. People riding bikes once used this alley, but the narrowing path didn’t accommodate cars. Along the way, she shot down two shambling zombies.

The path continued thinning out until it was barely wide enough for her to pass. Ahead, she could make out her garage. Almost there, but not quite. A pile of leaves blocked her passage.

Shit! Serket did some mental calculations, trying to figure out a way to get around those leaves. After a moment of consideration, she decided that the leaves would break her fall if she had one. Then she eyeballed the skeletal hand poking out from under the leaves. Heart thudding in her chest, she stepped closer to the leaf pile. A mummified dead woman with dark hair and leathery skin lay blocking the exit, her arms and legs straddled across the path. Up close and personal, the leaves only covered her torso. Although they’d met 55 years ago, Serket would recognize this demon anywhere. Ank-Soo had come for another visit.

Screams lodged in Serket’s throat, but she stifled them, lest she disturb a being better off dead. God help me if I stumble. I’ve got to find a way out of here without waking her.

On numb feet, Serket took slow, tenuous steps, hand braced against the brick wall. She focused her eyes toward the garage, intent on getting to safety, ignoring the voice that whispered that security was only an illusion with a zombie apocalypse in progress. One foot went over the other as she chose each step without disturbing Ank-Soo.

Serket lurched and landed on her knees. She’d seen the hand, tried to sidestep it, but lost her balance. Stinging flashed through both knees, but worse, the hand moved. In the next instant, Ank-Soo stood, pitted eyes bearing into hers.

“Your work has destroyed your feelings so you are already dead,” Ank-Soo said in her scratchy voice. “It is time I brought you home.”

Serket struggled to her feet, reaching for her gun. “Go to hell.”

With that, she fired, and though her bullet left a hole in Ank-Soo’s neck, she remained standing. She grabbed Serket by the arms and yanked her forward.

Screams tore from Serket’s throat. She forgot about Frank’s plans to dispose of his older workers. She forgot about her foot pain and need to watch. She forgot about everything except fighting for her life. Despite her thrashing, Ank-Soo was dragging her by the shoulders out of the alley, but not to the garage. Serket didn’t want to contemplate where the destination would be. Hands gripping her gun, she managed to wriggle sideways. She pistol-whipped her assailant, smashing ribs, hip bones, and at last her arms. Breaking free, she ran, loping awkward steps, but fast enough to get away from Ank-Soo.

Her car beckoned from the middle row, a Honda Civic that promised her ride home. Thankfully, the zombies thinned out, and the ones that remained didn’t approach her car. A half-hour later, she pulled up to her townhouse. Once inside her home, she tried to shed her jacket, but the skeletal hands remained wrapped around her shoulders.

“Damn it!” she cried.

Retrieving pliers from her drawer, Serket pried each hand off her shoulder, one finger at a time. She dumped the remains into the trash, then dropped the bag into the incinerator. She then balled up her jacket; another gift for the incinerator. Damned if she’d wear anything that monster touched. Afterward, she sat in her tub for an hour, washing away the stink and grime, but nothing would obliterate the memories. Bruises the size of dishes had erupted on her shoulders and legs. Every muscle in her body throbbed, but she’d made it home.

After she finished, she donned a nightgown. Perhaps she’d watch TV or take a nap. In her bedroom, the familiar stink of rotting tomatoes and incense overwhelmed her. Ank-Soo had left a parting gift.

On her bed lay a cotton draw sheet. Someone—or something—had etched Ank-Soo’s image in blood on the sheet.

The End

Barbara Custer's horror fiction included City of Brotherly Death

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