When the Writing I Gotta Bug Bites You

In Stephen King’s Misery, his protagonist Paul said the I gotta motivated him to keep writing despite the tortures inflicted by the villain Annie. By tortures, I mean the loss of body parts, starvation, and other horrors. But he had to keep going because of the I gotta bug.

At the time, I thought I gotta was a cool expression. I gave it no more thought until I came down with the bug.

These past weeks, I’ve been revising “One Last Favor,” a tale earmarked for my anthology, City of Brotherly Death. A small press magazine published “One Last Favor” years ago. The story opens with a horde of revenants, people returning from the dead to harm the living, invading Hartland Clinic. My protagonist Tara survives by trading sex for her life. As the story advances, the dead continue their invasion, destroying entire cities. A registered nurse, Tara continues treating the sick until the monsters who bargained with her years before return for another visit. In the original version, Tara (different name in first version) joins the dead because she hates being alone.

When I evaluated the story for revisions, I thought, how trite. Most people in their right minds wouldn’t give up humanity to join a bunch of flesh-eating monsters. Tara enjoys patient care, respect, a decent income, and a comfortable apartment. Why would she give those things up?

I kept the first half of the story, revised the second, and ditched the original ending. It never occurred to me, until I was deep into my work, that I should have outlined my revision. So I got stuck. I sat before a blank screen trying to come up with a brilliant ending. If not that (you can’t win the jackpot every time), an ending that would satisfy the reader.

The thought crossed my mind to scrap the tale and move on to something else. I couldn’t do that, not with all those zombies threatening my protagonist’s life. One of my friends suggested I put the story on the back burner and go with other activities. I tried doing that, but after a couple of hours, that story called to me, demanding that I finish it. If I told you that only the prospect of sales and a contract motivated me, I’d be lying. Diggity-damn, those zombies found a way into Tara’s house, and what was she going to do about it?

My balloons need helium. Forget that. I gotta find out if Tara will live. Will the cavalry arrive in time to save her? Two editing projects are sitting in my queue. They’ll have to wait. I gotta see where Tara will finish up if she survives. I gotta know who will mourn her if she dies. I gotta find out if she manages to destroy the zombies.

Like a pearl necklace that motivates me to save until I have enough money to buy it, the I Gotta holds the promise of a brilliant ending. Chores be damned, I’ll keep going until I find that ending.

It took three tries to get a workable ending. Raising the stakes in the middle opened things up a bit, especially when Tara finds love. However, the ending is subject to change. The tale has gone to the editor. Toni of The Unbridled Editor has edited most of my tales for City of Brotherly Love. I highly recommend her.

While I wait for the edits, I shall fill my balloons and work on the other Night to Dawn projects. Because when the edits come back, I suspect there will be another go-round with the I gotta bug.

Has any of you been bitten by the I gotta bug? How did it affect your writing? Were you satisfied with the results?

Anthology featurings zombie and revenant tales by Barbara Custer, set in Philadelphia

 

Autocrit Revisited: When Your Book Needs More

Some time ago I raved about the merits of Autocrit. I ran Steel Rose and other work through it and became ecstatic when the software ferreted out repetitions, cliches, and problems with sentence structure. I showed up at the PWC with Autocrit-edited work, and learned that Autocrit made a great proofing tool indeed. The extraneous adverbs became history, and so did problem sentences.

But workshop leaders told me the manuscript needed something more. The one-dimensional characters had to go. The villain was all-evil, with no saving graces. Even Dracula had his sympathetic moments. I took a figurative slap on the wrist because my villain turned from a medical professional into a monster who wants nothing but blood. Where’s the conflict?

There wasn’t any. Shame on me.

At the conference, the workshop leaders preached the merits of Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. I got the workbook, started reading it, and got a strong awakening. For starters, my protag Alexis whined too much. Granted she has serious problems, but don’t we all? Not many people sympathize with a whiny character. So I’m whittling down the whining as I go through each chapter.

By the way, Alexis grew up in a strict religious family. During her treatments, she falls in love with and beds down an alien lover. Whaaaaat? This goes against her religious beliefs, not to mention her mother’s feelings. In my rewrite, Alexis will have to fight with her conscience before she agrees to love this fellow.

Maass encourages the writer to think of his protagonist’s defining quality. Then he prescribed the writer to write a paragraph in which their protagonist does the opposite. Okay, in Steel Rose, Alexis loves her mother and would never do or say anything to upset her. As the book reads now, Alexis doesn’t mention squat about her alien romance, knowing her mother would get angry. For my rewrite, Alexis will tell her mom, “Hey, it’s my life, and I’m the one who has to live with him.” Just thinking about this makes me respect Alexis more.

I just did the same exercise with a secondary character. After I rewrote the respective chapter, I saw a big difference in the way it read.

With the chapter on antagonists, I softened villain Laurel a bit, and gave her an extra dimension. Now I’ve got to do the same with another antagonist. I will need to work those exercises a lot more before doing the chapters with the villains.

After I’ve walked through (there’s no running here) each chapter through Writing the Breakout Novel, I will revisit Autocrit for help with proofing.

Has anyone else worked with the Breakout Novel workbook? How did it help you?


 

When Flowers, Kindness, and Coupons Lead to Mischief

A wise coworker wondered if shopping at several different stores just to get bargains was a good idea. I compare prices before going market shopping, but she suggested that I might spend the money in gas.

Giant is having a special where they double the dollar coupons next week, but most of the groceries on my list I needed this week. The thought crossed my mind that I could postpone purchasing some items with dollars off coupons until next week. Then I got to thinking about my buddy’s advice. I don’t use much gas to go to this Giant, but it’s a dicey area for getting nabbed by Mylar balloons.

Right away, as I walked in, a large Disney character balloons tried to get at my cart. I had to run. I think I burned some serious calories fleeing from balloons.

Another work buddy did me a big favor, so it crossed my mind that she would love getting a daisy balloon. The daisy went into my cart. That balloon has her name on it, I told myself.

I picked up food to make for the Aid for Friends. Our church bulletin reported that food supplies had run low, and alas, the recipients do not have the funds or health to go to the store. Some of the recipients are homeless. So I decided to help by cooking a few meals.

I decided to do all my purchasing today, and never mind the dollar-off coupon deal. Good thing I did. After I finished shopping, the daisy started nuzzling my ear. What? I asked.

There are more balloons like me, the Mylar daisy whispered, and you know full well you want one for yourself.

Not this time, I told him. I am watching my budget.

Of course, you are, the balloon told me, and you’re helping other people. That’s great. Don’t you think you should reward yourself?

Oh, well, uh. More rustling from ahead of me. Another daisy waltzed over to my cart. I admit, I badly wanted that daisy. As I approached the register, the Disney character balloon jumped at me. Next time, I’ll get you, he said, smiling.

After I paid for my groceries, I said to the cashier, “This store is mighty dangerous with its balloons.” He laughed.

If I had gone back next week for the double dollar coupon sale, I might have saved on the respective items, but spent more on balloons. My coworker gave me good advice about shopping at one store.Barbara Custer loves her Mylar balloons and zombie fiction.

 

Editing Software, Anyone?

I’ve read good and bad about writing software over the years, and once considered such gadgets a handy way to flush your money down the sewer pipe. About a year ago writer Gregory Frost talked up Scrivener software, which enables you to edit writing and research at the same time. Scrivener works well, once you get through the learning curve, and comes with a reasonable price tag at about $40. I was all set to try it out, until I found out that only Mac computers accommodate it. Both of my computers have Windows. So I cursed in three languages, went back to my editing for Night to Dawn, and forgot about the whole thing.

My thoughts on software changed when arguments developed between me and blurred vision, particularly when I read long passages. I will reserve the matter of my vision for another blog, after I’ve seen the doctor, but I came to realize no writer can see his/her own mistakes. I’ve gone through work done by professional editors and found faulty passages. Do-it-yourself editing, even for editors, is like a physician performing surgery on a family member. Alas, a content editor can cost about $1000, and a proofreader about $400 for a novel. Not many of us have that kind of money lying around. I was grateful indeed that Ginger Johnson edited my Starship Invasions stories. Now I’m back to Steel Rose and my blurred vision. Then I stumbled on Autocrit software, recommended by Writer’s Digest.

I tried out sample passages and was pleased to see Autocrit weed out weak words. The free version will point out repetitive words and sentence variability. You have to pay to edit longer passages and to get the other types of editing. This I did, and was amazed at the repetitions it turned up and cliches too. The readability report offered limited value, since I write for adults, but it did turn up several run-on sentences. When I used words like “look,” “have,” and “was,” the substitution forced me to use more “show” to substitute for the “tell” verb. Ditto for the dialogue tags. I found myself cutting unnecessary words. The people managing Autocrit are fast to reply to technical questions.

You can flush out repetition with Word’s search-and-replace feature, but Autocrit color codes the errant words. Color codes work best for me.

There are several caveats. I don’t believe the sentence variability, pacing, and homonym sections offer much. It might for a first-time writer, but most experienced writers vary their sentence lengths instinctively. Autocrit won’t catch misspellings, and neither will Word’s spell check. Use your judgment for cliches and sentence readability; sometimes changing the passage can ruin it. Autocrit will not guarantee a sale, but it may improve the chance of your story finding a publisher. Caveats notwithstanding, I was glad I purchased the software.

Have you ever used Autocrit, Scrivener, or other writing software? Would you consider trying it? I’d like to hear about your experiences.

The Gunslinger's Companion by Michael De Stefano features historical fiction with its own brand of horror.

 

The Call of the Wild

I never thought I would blog about my balloon collection, but as the cliche goes, never say never. Today was an unusual day for grocery trips. I went to a different supermarket, one that didn’t tempt me to buy balloons. More bad weather was coming our way, so I concentrated on buying supplies. I decided to check out the dollar discount store to see if I could buy some of the things needed for less. The dollar discount had a huge array of paper products, everything costing $1.00 each. Since birthdays are coming up for people I care about, I headed down the gift aisle for wrapping paper and cards.

That was when the balloon trees nailed me.

Actually, the courtship began as soon as I walked in. Balloon trees filled with bright reds, silver, and Valentine messages swarmed toward me. The individual balloons there, plenty of them at that, didn’t tempt me so much, but they might have if the balloon trees hadn’t overwhelmed me. There were so many, they literally ran wild. Even the storekeeper couldn’t contain them. Each tree boasts six smaller foil balloons, plus one large one. It could be a Valentine frog or bear. I went with the frog because of its pretty shade of green. Total: seven balloons for $8.00.

I had to sit my passenger seat flat to fit the balloons in the car. They threatened to break loose, so I shut the door fast. Later, after I’d gone to the supermarket and came back, I noticed balloon ribbons sticking out between the door and floorboard.

Why a balloon tree? Perhaps I am celebrating Alien Worlds, the book that I collaborated with Tom Johnson. Newly released, it will be available on Amazon in a few weeks. Maybe I was thinking of giving a couple to Mike for his birthday, and I will. Maybe it’s just because I love balloons so much and couldn’t resist the call of the wild.

City of Brother Death features zombie tales and horror fiction by Barbara Custer

To Lie or not to Lie; that is the question.

While lying with balloons, Barbara Custer contemplates novel ways to lie to her readers.

We lay in bed all day waiting for Barbara to lie down.

I’m referring to one of the verbs that give me and other writers a lot of grief –  the difference between lie, lay, and laid. That and certain words that mean one thing when used as a compound, and something else when used separately, can mess up an otherwise well-written tale.

And so therein “lies” the problem:

Lie as an intransitive verb: I am lying down with my balloons.

Lay as a transitive verb: John, please lay the balloon tree on the table.

Sounds simple but when we move to the past tense, complications arise. For example, the present tense of lie is lie. Example: He lies on the rug. The past tense is lay. Example: Robert lay on the floor. The past participle is lain. Example: He’d lain in that bed for some time.

The present tense of lay is lay. Example: I lay my purse on the table. The past tense is laid. Example: Barbara laid her balloons in the cart. The past participle is laid. She’d laid the bags on the table an hour ago.

Looking at compound words, I found that certain words, when used separately or as a compound, mean two different things. One example is setup. Is it set up, set-up or setup? So I went to my trusty dictionary.

“Setup” is a noun, while “set up” is a verb. But it’s not quite that simple. You always use “set up” when you’re using it for a verb, so….

You must set up your computer software.

Mary set up her balloon tree.

Frank set up a bank account for his client.

As a noun and adjective, you would use either setup or set-up and each means different things. Setup is the noun or adjective used pertaining to computers and their setup. Set-up is the noun or adjective used pertaining to things unrelated to computers and their setup. So…

This PC setup screen is unique.

The computer’s setup is compact.

But:

That bag of pot was a set-up from the beginning.

Some banks charge exorbitant set-up fees

The set-up of her entertainment center is precarious.

Sometime versus some time. It sounds simple, but isn’t…quite. When “some time” is used as a certain / unspecified duration of time, use “some time.” Example: I spent some time looking for the rose balloon. When “sometime” is used as an adjective meaning “former,” it’s one word. Example: That balloon salesperson is my sometime friend. If we’re referring to an unspecified point of time in the future, either “sometime” or “some time” is appropriate. Example. I plan to travel to the islands sometime / some time next year.

As I continue my work, if I find other compound words that stump me, I will post them in a future blog. For now, I have it clear in my mind which of the above words to use in my work-in-progress. Somehow, though, when I get engrossed in the heat of the scene, I’m liable to forget and mix up the verbs. A wise instructor once told me that English was the most difficult language to learn. I think she had it right.

Do you find yourself struggling with “lie” versus “lay,” or any of the compound words? I would like to hear about your experiences with compounds and words like “lie/lay,” and how you worked your way around them.

 

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