What Motivated Close Liaisons?

Close Liaisons features Mylar balloons and evil aliens.In a word, balloons. I’m referring to “Familiar Stranger,” which takes up two-thirds of the novella. Like me, the protag Cassandra can’t pass a gift shop without stopping in to buy a Mylar balloon. Her apartment is a rainbow-colored forest. It contains balloon trees in each room and Cassandra admires the Mylar fruits that grow on them. At night, nightmares about her uncertain past trouble Cassandra unless she’s got six to eight balloons surrounding her head. Their soft feel and shushing sounds lull her to sleep. Believe me, I know. I used to have a lot of nightmares about Mike’s health until I started sleeping with balloons around my head.

People have said they’re looking for a good juvenile balloon tale from me. I’ve got balloons galore in “Familiar Stranger,” but it’s not a kiddie tale. The helium in them serves as a lethal weapon. Good thing, too, because the bite of the alien centipedes, or hydeons, carries a deadly poison. “Familiar Stranger” originally appeared as “Echoes from a Different World” in Alien Worlds. The anthology got a four-star review; but thought nagged at me that Cassandra developed this close friendship with Yarol, and he traveled all the way to Earth to warn her about the evil Kronos. Cassandra, a nurse, didn’t have political connections. Why didn’t he contact the President or other US official? There had to be some romance to motivate his approaching her. Cassandra and Yarol didn’t exactly play Tiddlywinks when they were alone.

“Familiar Stranger” explores the romantic angle, but the danger remains. Cassandra’s survival depends on whether she’s willing to face her past. To find that out, you’ll have to read the book.

Close Liaisons is available on Kindle. You may download it here.

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.

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?

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.

Does Alexis of Steel Rose Like Balloons?

Barbara Custer's Steel Rose features a character who likes balloons. That’s a good question. After all, I can’t go into a supermarket without buying one. The balloons take on a life of their own when I arrive. My balloons have a way of creeping into all my blogs and seminars about respiratory care and writing. The characters in Alien Worlds and City of Brotherly Death have had a thing for balloons. Why not the denizens of Steel Rose?


Let me put it this way. Alexis doesn’t mind having balloons. She stockpiles them the way I do because she believes that the helium in them will protect her from Kryszka renegades. Yeron counts thirty balloons during his initial examination, and this doesn’t go over well at all. The helium in them is deadly toward his species. The balloons threaten Yeron, and an imaginary conversation plays through his mind:

Balloons: That’s right, Yeron, you don’t belong here.

Yeron: I do not like you either, so the feeling is mutual.

When Yeron contemplates his next approach to Alexis, the balloons grin at him. Is that so? You don’t know as much as you think you do, buddy.

On that last, Yeron hurries to his suite where he keeps his helium-proof mask. Initially, Alexis fears Yeron the way she does all men, and the balloons make an effective barrier. How then can Yeron and Alexis get romantic with all those balloons in the way? Well, folks, you have to read the story and find out.

Outside of protection, Alexis does not have a fixation on balloons, but she appreciates the sentiments written on them. She knows someone who has a thing for balloons. One of the other doctors has a wife who fancies balloons, and Alexis thinks it’s cute. Later on, the balloons will play an important role. They have to, just like Chekhov’s gun. You can’t introduce a loaded rifle into your story without using it, and the same goes for Mylar balloons. Much as I love my balloonies, I would not have put them in Steel Rose without a good reason.

In the sequel, the balloons will go bye-bye. Alexis will be too busy kicking zombie ass.

Steel Rose has just gone live, and you can read some excerpts here.

 In Barbara Custer's Steel Rose, Yeron finds his way toward Alexis despite all the balloons in his way.

Book cover by Dawné Dominique; Promo by Cyrus Wraith Walker

Balloon Ambush

It was Staples’ fault. Granted, my balloon purchase happened at the Giant, but my fall from grace began with Staples. I started my week with the most frugal intentions. For one thing, the book trailer I’d like for Steel Rose will cost a few dollars, and so will the editing services I’ll need for my WOP’s. That, and the price for winter supplies.
Why winter supplies? Every fall, I try to purchase enough dry and frozen goods to last me through the winter. I’ve grown tired of shopping during the winter months only to find that the store has run out of the items I need. Worse, during a severe winter, the snow piles up so high around the sightlines in the parking lots that I can’t navigate safely. Besides, two weeks ago, I’d acquired ten balloons so I decided to hold off balloon purchasing for a while.
At the Acme, I took advantage of strategic sales on tomato sauce, and left the store sans balloons. Two days later, I headed to Staples to purchase CD envelopes, and that’s when the balloon decorations caught my eye. Multiple trees with huge latex balloons in rainbow colors sprouted in every aisle. Shiny ones, no less. I stopped to admire the balloons, paid for my purchase, and asked if I could buy a balloon. “No,” the cashier said, smiling, “these balloons are for our Columbus Day promotion sale.”
Hmmmm. I wonder if I should display balloon trees when I have a book signing.
Those shiny balloons made an indelible imprint in my mind. The next day at work, I briefed everyone on Staples and its balloons. Happily, my peer workers have a great sense of humor.
Yesterday, I went to Giant with a long list. Baking season is upon us with the holidays and Halloween coming. I was in a hurry to get through the shopping as I needed to get to the car repair shop before 5:30. So I moved fast. No time for balloons. Besides, it was bitterly cold outside, not the ideal weather for hauling balloons.
At the self-checkout, a Mylar green seahorse caught my eye. “No,” I told myself, “I’ve got no time.”
Still, a look at the seahorse wouldn’t take long. So I went behind the register to peek. Capital mistake. A dozen Halloween balloons leaped out from behind the seahorse, ambushing me. So much for my good intentions. One of them, a smiling pumpkin, made it into my cart. He’s in my living room now. After all that, I made it to the shop, and my car passed inspection.
It’s never too cold to buy balloons!

Mylar balloons and zombie fiction go well together for Barbara Custer

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