Add reaction shots to heighten dramatic tension

Description in your stories shouldn’t be limited to landscapes and introductions of characters. While most description in a story will be devoted to those purposes, there are other times when a single phrase or line of description can be inserted amid action and dialogue with great effectiveness.

One such insertion is known as a “reaction shot.” A term commonly used in science fiction workshops and critiques, a reaction shot is a cut away from the narrative to show a character’s emotional response. Consider this example from Benjamin Rosenbaum and David Ackert’s short story “Stray”:

“You smoke?”

Ivan blinked up at him. What was this? “I have,” he said.

The description of Ivan blinking up at the speaker is an example of a reaction shot. It provides insight into Ian’s character by showing his surprise that another would treat him in a friendly manner.

Such cutaways are natural to readers of today, primarily because we see it all the time in movies and television programs. Indeed, the term comes from the filming industry.

When utilizing a reaction shot, be sure to follow a couple of guidelines. First, the character cut away to is the main character. It’s his emotional responses and insights into his personality that most interest readers. Secondly, don’t cut away to an obvious emotional reaction, such as laughing at a joke. If you do, you risk slowing the story. Be selective with reaction shots, using them to further the dramatic tension.

Think about concerns over marketing book

Many writers don’t enjoy promoting, or “marketing” their books. Besides being antithetical to the artistry of writing, promotion is time consuming, reducing the number of hours available to write.

Of course, for self-published writers, marketing is essential to ensure their book sells. Without some promotion, their title likely is to be lost among the more than 900 books published every day (in just the United States alone).

If you’re one of those writers who despise marketing, thinking a little about your feelings regarding this topic is important. Ask yourself, how do you feel about marketing your book? Why do you hold this view? What are your concerns about spending time promoting your book?

You may find that such thoughts help you reconcile your distaste for book promotion with the need to do it.

Two ebook formats dominate industry

When self-publishing an ebook, you’ll likely run into a couple of terms about the “format” that your manuscript must appear in, specifically terms like EPUB and MOBI. While you need not be too concerned about how to create documents in each format, knowing the difference between the two can help you better understand the ebook creation process.

Each electronic device that you can use to access ebooks – a tablet, a Kindle, a Nook, a smartphone – uses an operating system. Because these devices are created by competing companies, they use different operating systems, each with their own benefits and drawbacks. Operating systems only can read information provided to it in certain formats.

Though there are many different formats that ebooks can appear in, generally, two major industry standards dominate.

One is called EPUB. This format is used by most major ebook retailers who produce ebooks, including Nook (Barnes and Noble), iPad (Apple), Kobo, and Sony Reader. The other is MOBI, which is used by Kindle (

When self-publishing, you do need not know how to write software code in EPUB or MOBI. Currently, Kindle DP, Smashwords, and most other publishers of ebooks will reformat Microsoft Word documents into EPUB and MOBI formats for you when uploaded. However, to accomplish that, you may need to follow specific guidelines about how you create and format your Word document; for example, Smashwords does not allow tabs to be used (while Kindle DP has no problem with it).

Center on internal flaw for compelling story

To make a story more compelling, consider structuring it around an internal flaw in the main character. An internal flaw is some personal trait that makes a character less than perfect – perhaps being quick to anger, possibly suffering from jealousy or envy, maybe believing his outlook on the world is the only correct one. As none of us are perfect, an internal flaw makes a character who may otherwise be quite heroic appear more realistic to readers.

In a story, this internal flaw can be put to good effect, Begin with a central problem that sets the story into motion and that only the main character can resolve – except to actually reduce this central problem, the main character must overcome his inner flaw. The story’s plot then centers on the main character dealing with his internal flaw as he fails to adequately address the story’s central problem.

For example, if the central problem in a science fiction story is that an old, virtually invincible war machine has come “back to life” and is preying upon innocent starships and planetary colonies, the only solution may be to enlist the only living designer of the berserker to determine its weakness and stop it. This story can become much more compelling, however, if the only living designer is a hermit and believes his old age and frailty prevents him from being useful or capable anymore. His internal flaw – a lack of confidence and faith in himself – now must be overcome if civilization is to survive.

The central problems gives our main character adequate motivation to address his internal flaw but he does not have the emotional tools to overcome it. The story then may show how his failure to address his internal flaw means he can’t defeat the machine. It may show how when he slightly but inadequately addresses his internal flaw he fails to stop the berserker and takes this as a sign that he is right about his uselessness. The story may show that when he more adequately addresses his internal flaw he almost succeeds in resolving the central problem. The story ultimately, in its climax, must show him making the sacrifice of giving up this sense of uselessness that he’s become “comfortable” with in order for him to actually succeed in stopping the machine.

What makes this story so compelling is that it’s character-based. It shows the character growing. Many readers will be able to identify with and root for this hero. The berserker scenes become the special effects that helps draw readers into the story and that prevents the story from becoming pure navel gazing.

How to create bulleted lists in ebooks

One of the big problems with ereaders is that they lack the ability to translate fancy symbols used to make bulleted lists in Microsoft Word. The result is that a bullet point ends up being a letter or set of numbers, which looks unprofessional and can confuse readers.

The first rule to follow is to never use Microsoft Word’s built-in bullet list function. Most print-on-demand software such as what Kindle DP uses won’t recognize Microsoft’s coding for the bullet list. Instead, you get an indentation mess on the ereader.

Also avoid exotic fonts that won’t translate. For example, if a reader chooses to view the ereader text in an Arial font but you formatted the manuscript so that the bullet points are in Wingdings font, there’s no corresponding symbol in Arial. Instead, the bullet point ends up being a letter (In this case, often a “g” or an “n”.).

Further, avoid the poor man’s approach to bullet points, which involves not indenting the line and using a dash or an asterisk in place of a bullet point. This looks fairly unsophisticated.

The solution to creating translatable bullet points in Microsoft Word is quite simple. On a PC, hold down the ALT key and hit 7 on the keypad (Remember that you need to have NUM LOCK on to use a PC’s keypad.). On a Mac, hold down the OPTION key and hit 8 on the keypad.

Best time to post on LinkedIn

When promoting your self-published book, the social media tool LinkedIn ought to play an important role in the marketing strategy. Further, knowing when to post can maximize your efforts.

According to a number of studies, the best time to post on LinkedIn is Tuesdays through Thursdays, either at noon or at 5-6 p.m.

Of course, these times are relative. If your business is national, you need to post over a longer spread of time than just noon or 5-6 p.m. in your time zone, or you’ll miss the peak times in other parts of the country. For example, if your business is based in Chicago (Central Time), you would aim messages for the East Coast (i.e. New York City, Boston, Raleigh) at 11 a.m. and 4-5 p.m. Central Time and messages for the West Coast (i.e. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle) at 2 p.m. and 7-8 p.m. Central Time.

Bonus points to you if your post links to a site that looks good on mobile devices. That’s because 41% of visits to LinkedIn are from a mobile device with the percentage increasing.

The absolute worst time to post is Monday 10 p.m. through Tuesday 6 a.m. and Friday 10 p.m. through Saturday 6 a.m. Though people are on LinkedIn during this time, the number of users drops considerably compared to the earlier mentioned peak hours.

Pay attention to your author’s bio pic

One of the elements of a self-published book that shouldn’t be overlooked is the author’s photograph. While the photo often is a thumbnail or even smaller, it can subtly affect a reader’s decision to purchase your book. A blurry or a pixelated photo suggests (rightly or wrongly) that the rest of the book is unprofessional; a photo that makes you look mean or physically unappealing tells the reader that you’re creepy and so probably is your book. Further, the author’s bio pic can appear in a number of spots – the back cover, next to the author’s bio at the book’s end, on your website, on web pages selling or promoting your book (such as and Goodreads) and probably elsewhere.

Given this, you want to treat your author’s bio picture with some forethought and care. After all, this is a photo of yourself – if you’re unconcerned with what it looks like, then readers might wonder just how concerned you are with the book’s content.

Some general guidelines for the author’s bio picture include:
• Ensure it is technically of high quality – As with your book cover, make sure the picture is not pixelated or blurry. Ensure its size is large enough to be used for more than just a thumbnail (which includes making it 300 dpi). In short follow all of the rules of good photography.
• Crop appropriately – Usually a head and shoulders shot is enough. The head should fill most of the photo. You can cut a little off the crown of the head if you need to crop it to fit a photo box.
• Focus on personality – Always ask what type of readers will purchase your book and try to be like them. If you’ve written a book about horses, wear a Western shirt rather than a suit and tie; if you’ve written a novel about hikers surviving a surprise mountain blizzard, wear a sunhat like hikers would don.
• Think eyes – They truly are the proverbial “window to the soul.” They should be focused on the camera and full of energy, not appearing dead, glazed over, or bloodshot.
• Smile – You want to appear friendly and inviting. Of course, there are a wide range of smiles, from the subtle Mono Lisa to the toothpaste-selling wide, white teethy smile. Select one that’s appropriate for your book’s topic.
• Pose “naturally” – Look over other author’s pics and see how they stand. Usually the photo is not a straight-on shot, like what police would take at a line-up. The head might be canted slightly to the side, a shoulder turned toward the camera, the chin resting on a hand and so on. Appear as if the camera caught you in your natural state.
• Look clean – Your hair should be combed (Of course, hair can be styled to be mussed up.), your face washed and with the appropriate amount of makeup, and your clothes clean (even if you wrote a book about being a garbage man).

How to build a story from a SF novum

You may have noticed during the past few weeks the written version of this blog has posted ideas for science fiction stories based on novums – inventions or hypothetical concepts that SF writers inject in their tales to show how such an imagined world might differ from ours. The novum might be an mechanical device like robot servants, artificial intelligence, or faster-than-light spacecraft; it also can be a hypothetical idea such as “The Earth is a scientific experiment run by aliens to determine the meaning of life” or “The government outlaws books.” Science fiction stories typically arise from a novum.

Among the problems of many novice science fiction writers is instead of introducing a new novum they rely on used furniture – that is, they borrow novums from popular SF series. After all, how many novels have you read that use starships exploring the galaxy for the Earth-based Federation? Barely changing names to appear as if you are not appropriating – a starcraft seeking M-class worlds for the Earth-centered Alliance – still doesn’t cut it as original or fully using the potential that science fiction offers to examine our culture or humanity. Clearly a list of new, scientifically plausible novums are needed.

Of course, simply describing a world based on a novum is more of an essay than a story. Stories center on conflict, and a novum should generate such clashes that lead to a tale worthy of telling. A novum is the “what if” that allows you to explore humanity.

Consider the following novum – Second Brain. What if everything in the world were catalogued so that information about any item could be instantly accessed? Buy a burger and fries? The tray instantly relays information about their calories nutritional value. Pass an item in the supermarket? Up pops info about its ingredients and cost per ounce compared to other products. See a car driving down the street? The make, model, special features, miles per gallon and sticker price suddenly appear over it. Pull a book from a shelf in a library? A synopses and links to critical reviews rise from the book’s top edge. Sounds like a great universe, doesn’t it – you never need to look up information about anything! Decision-making suddenly becomes easier.

What if, however, a group of teens and young adults revolt against this info-heavy world, and like hippies of the past speaking against capitalism, claim the Second Brain mars the world’s natural beauty, is largely controlled by megacorporations and so is inaccurate and meant to cajole you into making purchases, and is information overload that disconnects us from one another and our own selves. This marks a major division in society – those who want to disconnect from the Second Brain and those who are utterly dependent upon it.

Now, what if this conflict is played out between a college-age daughter and her corporation-managing father? She leaves for the wilderness while he works to further entwine the Second Brain into our society. Of course, their conflict over the novum is merely representative of what truly separates them…she finds his love for her phony (like the Second Brain information) while he finds her ungrateful and unappreciative. How can they ever overcome this divide? That’s the story you want to tell.

The novum, meanwhile, serves as a launch pad to a discussion about our own era, in which people increasingly disconnect from one another in favor of the information and entertainment they receive via their smartphones and other electronic devices.

In short, the list of novums appearing on this blog are merely a starting point. So, when creating a story from them, follow these six simple steps:
• Select a novum you find intriguing
• Imagine how the world would be different if this novum actually existed
• Determine a conflict that might arise between people or within a person in such a world; this conflict is substantive enough that it needs to be resolved
• Create characters (especially a protagonist and an antagonist) who can fight out these conflicts in this imagined world
• Draw an analogy between this imagined world and its characters with today’s society
• Write the story

All right, let’s get started writing the next generation of great science fiction!

Use social media to market your book

Increasingly we interact through social media, a catch-all term for various web-based and mobile technologies that allow the user to generate content (such as text, photos or video). You already probably use a variety of social media, such as FacebookYouTube or blogs. Rather than rely solely on traditional media, such as newspapers and television, to get the word out about your book, consider also utilizing these alternative outlets. Indeed, the advantage of social media is that it allows people with similar interests to connect, share information, and discuss topics, meaning you can directly reach those potential readers who are most likely to buy your book.

Among the most popular social media platforms that you should exploit are:
• Blogs – These are a sort of personal journal published on the worldwide web. They can be on any subject with posts as frequent as daily to once every few weeks.
• YouTube – This is a website in which users can upload, view and share videos. The user uploading the video typically made it.
• Facebook – This social networking service allows members to post updates and photos about their lives and to carry on conversations in real time.
 Twitter – This networking service allows users to “microblog” or send out blog-like entries that are only 140 characters long. Often the “tweets” users send include links to longer entries.
 LinkedIn – Similar to Facebook, LinkedIn focus more on one’s profession and career rather than pure socializing.

As with our entire technological world, social media platforms constantly are rising and falling in popularity as new ones are developed. If this book is still around in a decade, most likely the above list of the most popular social platforms will be different. Still, these are the big shots for now, and in the steps ahead, we’ll examine how you can utilize these significant social media platforms to get out the word about your book.

Crack a joke – but only for a good reason

Just as in real life when humor is used to ease tension in social situations or to bond with another person, so jokes and comedy serves a purpose in your story.

Unfortunately, a lot of novice writers don’t quite know when to inject humor into their fictional tales. The result is they either miss opportunities to use an effective narrative tool or they misuse (and quite often overuse) it.

There are a lot of good reasons to inject humor into your story. Among them:
• Plot device – Comedy can help relieve tension. If a novel, short story or stage play has a number of gruesome murders in it, for example, the reader can become numb to the tale’s intensity. To that end, Shakespeare in “Macbeth” used a short humorous scene (the drunken porter scene) after Macbeth assassinates the king.
• Character development – Jokes can be used to reveal information about characters, such as their foibles (via other characters making fun of them) or their values (as humor can suggest one’s belief system.). These inferred facts about the characters then can be incorporated into the plot for good effect, such as Indiana Jones’ fear of snakes in his various movies.
• Theme – By making fun of an idea or of a character who represents a concept, humor can bring to light a story’s message. There’s nothing quite like a cutting quip to break a protagonist’s knotty reasoning.

Unless you deliberately intend your story to be humorous – such as Douglas Adams’ “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” – be wary of overusing humor. Jokes and comedy that don’t serve a purpose and that work more like asides to fill up space actually slow the story. In such situations, your characters or narrator are just clowning around.