Romancing the Balloons

Barbara Custer's brand

Since April, when I wrote my first post on the pandemic, gyms and hair salons have reopened, albeit with restrictions. Some of my friends are jumping into activities full force. Others remain in quarantine. Per the discussions with my Mylar balloons, the activities are okay if I can take the risk from a level 10 to a level two. The balloon brigade at the supermarkets and pharmacies hasn’t stopped; my balloons deemed that activity a level two.

I’ve gone back to my hairstylist, but not the gym. I do ZOOM workouts while Daisy, my Mylar butterfly, becomes my trainer, coaching me on which weights to use. If she thinks I’m slacking off, she lets me know about it. I contemplated getting a traditional trainer, but I have what I need at home.

The pandemic has colored the way I write. My WIP involves a highly contagious virus that had a way larger death toll than corona. This means that, as in real life, my characters have to struggle to find a store that sells toilet paper, disinfectant, and other supplies they need. As in real life, my protagonist has Mylar balloons to guide her on her daily activities.

Since the pandemic started, I’ve noticed that driving’s gone downhill. I’ve seen people blow through red lights and make U-turns on four-lane thoroughfares, despite heavy traffic. Friends tell me that some folks think nothing of driving 100 miles per hour on the turnpike. About a month ago, a van came up to my right to make a U-turn and almost plowed into me. I had to get off the road. So I’ve used the back roads and avoid rush hour traffic as much as possible. The Mylar balloon principle applies: take the risk from a level 10 to a level two.

I never know when I’ll find a unique Mylar balloon. Maybe I’ll go to CVS to pick up a prescription, and a Valentine’s day balloon with lace will beckon from the card aisle. Perhaps I’ll go to the supermarket for bread and milk. If supplies hold up, I’ll get them, but a balloon, soft as a kitten paw, will make its way into my shopping cart. The balloons go into an isolation area for 72 hours at home, then joins the others in my living room.

How are you getting through the pandemic? I’d love to hear your experiences.

A $10 Amazon gift card will be sent to a random commenter after the bloghop.

Killing your Darlings

This year, I’ve been taking Your Novel Year with Kathryn Craft, and among other things, I am learning what it means to kill your darlings. No, not my balloons. My Mylar balloons are darlings, and they’re staying right where they are. I’m referring to the darling scenes I have in my WIP. 

The trouble was, my WIP had two protagonists. I started the book with one, Alexis. Maddie was a bit character who sought help from the underground Kryszka people with treatment for her husband’s sickness. However, Maddie wound up stealing the show and became a protagonist. I tried writing with two protagonists, but you can only have one, I found out. Readers will usually sympathize with the character they meet first. I had introduced the villain first, and after a class or two under my belt, I realized I couldn’t do that. So I started with Maddie kicking zombie ass.

After consultation with Kathryn, I saw that I had to completely restructure my book. Several good scenes had to go, as they had nothing to do with Maddie’s goal. What’s more, I had 114,000 words in the book, and genre books shouldn’t be longer than 100K words. So a love scene between Alexis and her partner went. So did a scene where Maddie visits her nephew in prison. It was a touching scene, but it didn’t further the story or relate to Maddie’s goal. 

However, new scenes have cropped up that I like better than the discarded scenes. For starters, Maddie develops a spine and tells off her heartless boss. Now, I may have to change that scene again, but we’ll see. And the Mylar balloons in the story get to stay. There is that. I strongly recommend Kathryn’s course. She’s been running it once a year.

How many times have you had to kill your darlings? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

A $10 Amazon gift card will be sent to a random commenter after the bloghop.

horror fiction by Allan Heller

The Great Pumpkin—Exploring the Senses

horror tales by Barbara Custer and other authors

Amidst my counting masks, paper products, and other supplies to wither the Great Pandemic, my butterfly Mylar balloon whispered, “How about baking a cheesecake? A pumpkin cheesecake. After all, it’s that time of the year.”

“What time of the year?” I rolled my eyes.

“The Great Pumpkin’s coming.”

My balloon had it right. So I started the balloon floating with a pumpkin-flavored latte at Starbucks. Next, a trip to Bath & Body Works for pumpkin-scented soap and hand sanitizer. If I have to use it, I might as well smell like pumpkin.

I’ve got pumpkin-flavored coffee, pumpkin muffins, and pumpkin Cheerios. The pumpkin cheesecake tasted better than I remember. I will make a stop at Wawa for the pumpkin smoothies. I’m going for all the senses, so I’ve got room deodorizers and beads to keep the pumpkin scent going between baking brigades. There’s pumpkin-flavored ice cream for sale somewhere. I’m also contemplating a recipe for pumpkin soup. Last year, when I volunteered at the Ben Wilson Senior Center, someone made pumpkin soup. It smelled oh, so good, but it was made with regular flour, so my version will be GF.

Why the fixation with pumpkin? The smell of pumpkin is associated with Thanksgiving and autumnal harvest — a historically prosperous time of year. Pumpkin connotes comfort and warmth as we head into fall and colder weather. Pumpkin pie has become a traditional family recipe, so I think family and love when I smell pumpkin. Contemplate a famous scene in Proust’s masterpiece, “Remembrance Of Things Past,” where the narrator eats a madeleine cookie, and it seems as if he’s transported back to another time and place. Perhaps this happens to me when I have my pumpkin treats. Pumpkin spice takes me back to Thanksgiving as a child, when my mom baked pumpkin pie from scratch. In those days, we didn’t have to worry about Corona. Mom and Pop stores were thriving, and you didn’t have to go through a lot of rigmarole to buy stuff so long as you had the cash.

It could be I just love the smell of pumpkin spice.

With that in mind, I’ll keep my eyes open for pumpkin-shaped Mylar balloons, and I shall continue to enjoy my pumpkin treats through Thanksgiving. Do you have any favorite pumpkin treats? I’d love to hear your stories.

A $10 Amazon gift card will be sent to a random commenter after the bloghop.

Amazon KDP Versus Lulu

Thing is, once I’m done laying out the magazine, the time comes to order proof and contributor copies. This time out, I’m packing at home and then mail all the issues because several times, Amazon has marked certain items “undeliverable” and then refunded me the money. This necessitated going through the ordering process again. I suspect that some drivers get sick along the way, so whatever’s in the truck goes back to the facility. What’s more, the USPS is under new management, which means streamlining costs and eliminating overtime, causing the delay in shipping. I think I really needed that balloon!

I needed a Mylar balloon, at least in principle. I just ordered a print run for Night to Dawn 38, not from Lulu like I’ve done since 2008, but from Amazon KDP. Lulu reports longer shipping times, and I expect some of this with KDP because many postal workers have gotten sick; ergo, fewer people are available to do the job. What’s more, certain countries put a ban on international shipping. In theory, COVID shouldn’t affect NTD’s process unless I get sick. Thankfully, with practical coaching from my Mylar balloons, I’m staying healthy.

I was pleased with the proof, but that’s not the only reason I went with KDP. Lulu has changed its website. The first proof looked good, but after I made some minor changes, an issue came up with the print extending full bleed to the edges of the page. Several tries and swear words later, I found Lulu’s new templates and margin requirements. This will necessitate redoing the layout. I have in mind to rework the file after I mailed all the contributors their issues.

The KDP proof looks good. I don’t have double columns like I did with Lulu, and the cover looks different. When I went through my changes with KDP initially, they wanted an author name on the cover, so I tucked in “Presented by Barbara Custer” in small letters. Copies for the print run will cost a little over $2.00 each—not bad. The reduced price per issue will make up for the increased cost in postage. If things go smoothly with shipping, I will start sending issues through the distributor again.

I never thought I’d see the day I’d choose KDP over Lulu for the Night to Dawn 38. But Night to Dawn 38 is now available through Amazon. So today, I went out and got the Mylar balloon posted below.

featuring Barbara Custer's Night to Dawn 38

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.

Ode to Tom Johnson

Author of the man in the black fedora
Author of The Man in the Black Fedora

I met up with Tom and Ginger in the early 2000s via letters, telephone calls, and email. At the time, I was adding to my Mylar balloon collection and short story writing. Tom and Ginger published Weird Tales, Detective Mystery Stories, Alien Worlds, and other magazines through their enterprise Fading Shadows. They published many of my stories, and in time became mentors.

I started out writing horror; but after discussing with Ginger and Tom, I gravitated toward science fiction. Tom and Ginger recommended me to publishers, and later, after I assumed ownership of Night to Dawn, recommended Night to Dawn magazine to aspiring authors and readers.

Tom and Ginger talked me through the printing and layout process during the first few issues. They mentored other authors, as well. They’ve been married 58 years and have the patience of ten saints and a sense of humor. You need patience and good humor in the army, and Tom spent 20 years as a law enforcement officer. He had an infectious laugh, and when I first talked to him on the phone, he impressed me as carefree. It wasn’t until later that I learned about Agent Orange and the scorched earth policy it used on Tom.

When the book publisher folded, several folks came to me, asking if I would print their books under the Night to Dawn imprint. Tom came on board, and we co-authored three books, with Ginger doing the edits. We stopped after that because Tom loved his pulps the way I do my balloons, and I was getting deeper into the cross-genre science fiction and horror. Tom was the Stephen King of pulp fiction. He loved his reading and has wrote 80 books.

Around the beginning of August, Tom approached me with The Man in the Black Fedora, and he was hoping to bring it to a book signing. I found the story a page-turner, so I decided to publish the book. I then learned just how sick he’d been—Tom had contracted several serious illnesses, all complications of Agent Orange. I got the sense that he didn’t expect to survive much longer. So I hurried through the editing and printing processes so that he could be here to see his last book in print. It was the least I could do for someone who mentored me. On September 26, 2019, The Man in the Black Fedora went into print.   

Thankfully, Tom got to see his book in print and the five-star reviews that followed. He never made it to the book signing because, by that date, he was too weak to go out. On November 5, Tom Johnson passed away peacefully.

The book will continue to be available for the length of the contract. I am sure that right now, he’s watching over Ginger from Heaven and enjoying his books.

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