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.

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. 😊

Learning Curve

I need a balloon. Mylar balloons have a way of easing stress for me the way chocolate or beer might for other folks.

Night to Dawn 35 is ready for publishing, and I’ve started processing orders for contributors to get copies. Things worked out well with Lulu. They do an excellent job on the cover, as I can promise by the looks of the proof. CreateSpace no longer exists, and all of its books transferred seamlessly over to KDP. So why do I want a balloon? KDP paperback printing is not as user-friendly as CreateSpace was.

For starters, none of the templates Lulu and CreateSpace used are compatible with KDP. CreateSpace and KDP (both working under Amazon) had an arrangement which facilitated the transition of the paperbacks. That arrangement went bye-bye, and KDP has its own templates.

That means I’m on my own, and I have to reformat NTD 35 on a KDP template. KDP reports “problems with uploading your file—please send another,” but don’t tell you what the problem is. They don’t accept my PDF files at all and manage to butcher the Word files, and the proof will have skipped pages. It could be that the problem lies with KDP. ” /><

A writer buddy suggested distributing through Barnes & Noble. You can publish your print books directly through Barnes & Noble if you use a separate ISBN number. What’s more, the CreateSpace/Lulu templates are compatible with Barnes & Noble. The cover takes some work, but for the magazine, I can upload the front and back cover, and do the spine online. font:m

There is still the issue with KDP. I’m glad NTD 35 will be available through Lulu Book and Barnes & Noble. However, people like to order from Amazon, especially if they have prime memberships. So I finally bit the bullet and contacted someone who does formatting. Maybe I can learn a way to make a file KDP ready. I still want a balloon.

In the meantime, I’d like to know if any of y’all used Amazon KDP for publishing your paperbacks. How was the process for you? What problems did you run into, and how did you fix them?

Barbara Custer loves Mylar balloonsand horror fiction.
Quest for a friendly KDP template

Life Got in the Way

science fiction tales by Barbara Custer

Well, here we are in mid-November, and my Mylar balloons reminded me that I hadn’t blogged since the October Frights promo. The promo went well, and I settled into a routine with Night to Dawn, working from noon to 8:00 p.m. most days, with weekends off. I started some work on the website, cutting expenses and was about to install a different, more reasonably priced SEO. All that changed on October 30th when I had my car accident.

First up, I’m okay; my bruises and abrasions have mostly healed. I’ve gone back to the gym twice and was able to do the Pilates plank for the first time. I can’t say the same for my car; it was totaled. This means time spent with insurance agents and online researching cars. There are also trips to the doctors, to the stores to test drive cars and follow-ups with the insurance people. That meant cutting hours back to 4:30 to 8:30. I’ve had to hold off any work on the website, except for posting announcements and doing updates. Night to Dawn 35 is on schedule – I’ve always been obsessive-compulsive about getting the stories edited, so this helped.

My takeaways: If you’re ever in an accident, see a doctor fast. When you’re in shock, you don’t feel pain, and the docs may catch a problem before it gets out of hand. You can replace a car. Second, if you’re contemplating retiring from the day job, think twice. No matter how much money you’ve saved, it’s never enough. I had no choice on retiring because the lack of night vision and other health issues prohibited my working at the hospital, but I do plan on signing on with upwork.com once the dust settles.

I hope to be back in business fulltime in December. I’ve got a blog in mind on revising, too. We’re supposed to have a harsh winter—Pennsylvania winters usually are—which means I will have my butt in a chair working on Night to Dawn projects and routine chores, and my Mylar balloons to supervise me.

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.

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