Keeping the Red out of your Manuscript

Close Liaisons features Barbara Custer's balloons and science fiction.During the last month, I’ve been proofing two manuscripts for NTD books and editing short stories that will appear in Night to Dawn magazine. I prefer Word’s tracking feature, which enables the writer to see what I changed and why. He or she can decide whether to accept or reject the proposed change. Questions or suggestions I might have will appear in a highlighted box or balloon outside the margin. Some tales or pages go back to the author with few or no notes in red; others make the manuscript look like I bled on the pages.

It’s hard to see one’s own mistakes. I’m revving up to approach an editor about my Steel Rose sequel and anticipate seeing my pages bathed in red. Here are five things that prompt me to apply the red ink at Night to Dawn:

  1. 1.     Adverbs. The adverb has its place in the English language, but it makes for BAD fiction writing. They clutter up and weaken the sentences. Most of the time, they’re unnecessary. Don’t tell me the music blasted loudly. “Blast” connotes loudness.
  2. 2.     Passive voice. Passive voice is a stylistic issue that may prevent the reader from understanding what you mean. It also includes linking your action with a “to be” verb, which may weaken the writing. For example in the statement “While the city was threatened, Barbara shopped for balloons,” we don’t know who or what was threatening the city. A better way would be “While the snowstorm threatened the city, Barbara shopped for balloons.” Passive voice may work if you don’t know who was doing the action, but use it with caution.
  3. 3.       Clichés. I’m referring to the old, tired phrases that need to kick the bucket (pun intended). Those sneaky little devils creep into the story as often as balloons hop into my shopping cart at Giant. Too many overused expressions make for a boring tale. Ditch them and replace with original images. Authoright publishes a list of clichés to avoid.
  4. 4.       Knowing the difference between “its” and “it is,” “lie” versus “lay,” “anymore” versus “any more,” “farther” versus “further,” and so on. I believe that most people do; but when you’re overtired, it’s easy to confuse the difference between related words. Start off with fresh coffee.
  5. 5.       Parenthesis and run-on sentences. A run-on sentence occurs when you have two or more independent clauses without a conjunction. Example: I love zombie tales I read them all the time. A comma, period, or coordinating conjunction between the two clauses will fix this. I see a lot of parentheses, too, and in most cases, the sentences work without them. The parenthesis has its place in nonfiction writing, and with fiction, you can use the parenthesis to achieve a desired mood. If I can read the respective sentence without stumbling over the words, you’ve done your job well. Otherwise, I get out the red pen.

About a month ago, I invested in Pro Writing Aid, which has a free version and the premium version for a reasonable price. Their software is tough on passive voice, adverbs, idle words that detract from the sentence, and repetition. I struggle with repetition. Though I catch it on NTD manuscripts, I can’t see it on my own pages. There’s a learning curve, but the Pro Writing Aid makes a great tool for copy editing and proofreading. Not so much for content editing. That’s when you turn to your beta readers and a developmental editor.

Barbara Custer got the red out of Michael Destefano's historical fiction.

Where Author Allie Burton Gets Her Ideas

Allie Burton doing her Soul SlamAuthors are always asked where they get their ideas and I’m going to guess for most writers the answer varies from book to book. For Soul Slam, I believe the idea was serendipitous.

I was finishing the drafts of my Lost Daughters of Atlantis series and hadn’t chosen a new project to start. One morning I was reading the New York Times and I saw a full-page advertisement for a new King Tutankhamen exhibit. I don’t live in New York, so I turned the page.

Later that day, I was flipping through the channels on TV and I came across a program about the pyramids in Egypt.

Hmmm. Two similar messages in one day.

When I picked up the mail, I received a flyer about the same King Tut exhibit coming to my local museum. Could this be fate?

Three messages in one day about King Tut.

I’m not a historical writer, so my story wasn’t going to be based in ancient Egypt. But I could incorporate some of the legends into modern-day.

Then the questions started flying in my head. What would happen if King Tut lived in modern times? Or what if his soul got trapped in another person’s body who lived in modern times? What if that person was a girl? How would the male Pharaoh and the female teenager get along? How did she get the soul? And was this a good thing to happen or a curse?

With each question came several answers. And then several more answers. And so on, until Soul Slam was completed.

Now, it’s time to start thinking about another book. What are some of your ‘what if’ questions? Maybe together we can come up with a new idea.

Thank you so much for hosting me today!


Allie Burton doing her Soul SlamBLURB:

A sixteen-year-old on her first heist to steal an ancient Egyptian amulet inadvertently receives the soul of King Tut…and the deadly curse that comes with it.

And Olivia is not alone at the museum.

A member of a secret Society, Xander believes it is his place to inherit King Tut’s soul and justly rule. He knows nothing about the society’s evil plan to control the world or the curse. Now, he must deal with the female imposter who stole the amulet.

Xander convinces Olivia they must form a temporary partnership. The two teens develop a connection, and together they must figure out how to end the curse before it turns deadly. On the run, unable to touch because of the curse, and dealing with a male soul inside her female body, Olivia must learn to trust Xander.

As the mystery surrounding the amulet unfolds, Olivia and Xander start to fall for each other. But is love enough to save them and the world from destruction?

Allie Burton is featuring her dark fantasy Soul Slam.AUTHOR Bio and Links:

Allie didn’t realize having so many jobs would become great research material for the stories she writes. She has been everything from a fitting room attendant to a bike police officer to a professional mascot escort. She has lived on three continents and in four states and has studied art, fashion design, marine biology, and advertising.

When her kids asked, “when are you going to write a story we can read?” she switched from adult novels to Young Adult and Middle Grade and hasn’t looked back.

Allie is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, Romance Writers of America including the Young Adult, Dallas Area Romance Writers and Heart of the Rockies chapters. She is also a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Currently, she lives in Colorado with her husband and two children.

One randomly chosen commenter will win a $50 Amazon/ gift card.


Allie Burton is featuring her dark fantasy Soul SlamExcerpt:

My spot of defiance hadn’t stopped him. My elation plummeted like my spit. X now had the final ingredient.

Smoke rose from the cup. Colors swirled, mixing and combining like a wacky rainbow. My gaze followed the motion unwillingly entranced. I couldn’t take my gaze off of this creation. The contents glowed with a strange aura.

A light flashed sending a bolt of lightning through the room. I flinched from the heat.

The goons’ hold loosened. X watched with an awed expression on his face.

A sphere formed in the cup. Colors of red and blue and yellow shaped the orb. The colors flamed and burned into a bright yellow. The shiny ball rose on a layer of smoke like the sun on a cloudy day.

I’d never seen anything so fantastical. I held my breath as the orb rose above the alabaster cup and floated like a balloon.

X stepped toward the globe. “Did you know glass was first developed around the time of King Tut’s reign?” He angled his head examining the glass globe of sun. “The golden glass will act like a controller.”

“You can’t control a king.” Or a pharaoh. Or me.

“While I was promised to host King Tut, the conditions weren’t right the year I turned sixteen.” X’s voice grew bitter. His eyebrows came together in a straight line mourning the loss of his own power. “The Society didn’t even read the chant, already knowing through advances in science that an eclipse would not happen on the summer solstice of that year. I became a regular person, just another man in the Society.”

Having the power had been cool, but not if I couldn’t control it. Not if I couldn’t touch the people I loved. Xander’s name whispered through my chest.

“I was promised the soul and the power but never told about the burn out until later.” X’s voice rose higher, angrier. “The Society betrayed me, betrayed every Xander throughout the centuries.”

“Then why are you doing this to me?”

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.



Here There Be Monsters

Barbara Custer included lots of zombies in When Blood Reigns.The traditional zombie is a mindless creature that knows nothing except an insatiable craving for human flesh. Perhaps a virus or chemical destroyed key brain cells, the ones that control reason and decision-making abilities. Perhaps a robotic implant causes a dead body to get up and attack. Jonathan Maberry’s Rot & Ruin series features a killer virus that turns the victim’s skin gray. He wakes up from the dead and goes after humans. I read all the books in the series and loved them. Now I’m contemplating books from other authors.

Stephen King knows how to turn the most ordinary things into monsters. If not a monster, it becomes a tool. The beloved balloons I can’t resist turn into a monster’s tool under the influence of King in his story It. Pennywise the clown uses balloons to entice children to the graveyard.

When I was younger, I thrived on the Hammer films, but now, vampires are portrayed as another race of people with good and bad in them. This is good because the old-time vampire meets human-vampire drinks his blood tales have gotten ancient. Woe betide the person who crosses a villain vampire. He’s got fangs, strength, and brains to go with his blood lust. Books featuring great vampire tales include Passion in the Blood and Bloodstorm.

Some people return from the dead to terrorize the living, as in City of Brotherly Death and Blue Plate Special. They might look like shambling zombies, but they know full well what they’re doing and why. They’ve got scores to settle with people who didn’t treat them right. These zombies—a better term would be revenants—are particularly dangerous because they crave flesh and blood, and they’re able to plot and scheme to get it.

The human monsters (Reapers) in Maberry’s Rot & Ruin series frightened me a lot more than the zombies did. Like the traditional beasts, they delight in the thrill of the kill. What’s more, they can scheme, use sophisticated weapons, and employ muscle power to wax people they consider liabilities. A love triangle might incite a psychotic human killer, as in JoAnna Senger’s Betrothal, Betrayal, and Blood. The Mob breeds and trains assassins who thrive on the kill, especially in Tom Johnson’s The Spider’s Web and Tales of Masks & Mayhem V4.

The vampire, revenant, and zombie are monsters to be reckoned with, but humans can be the most dangerous killers of all.


One randomly drawn commenter will receive a signed copy of Steel Rose and a $10 GC for Starbucks.


Also click on the red links on the bottom – these are the links to fellow members of the Coffinhop.  This Coffinhop will run October 24 to 31, including the release of Coffinhop: Death by Drive-in to benefit



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.


You can watch a Steel Rose video here.

One randomly drawn commenter will receive a signed copy of Steel Rose and a $10 GC for Starbucks.


 Also click on the red links on the bottom – these are the links to fellow members of the Coffinhop.  This Coffinhop will run October 24 to 31, including the release of Coffinhop: Death by Drive-in to benefit

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