EPUB progress

I had a number of kludge approaches to creating EPUB versions of my books (largely documented on my blog, particularly during 2012. Look under the “Self-Publishing” tag). Mostly, I was converting from Adobe InDesign to mobi with the Kindle InDesign plug-in converter, and from mobi to EPUB with the Calibre e-book management program.

The resulting files were good enough for many applications, but routinely failed the EPUB Validator check on a few issues.

After my Smashwords publishing experience, I began trying to perfect my technique for converting from Word files to EPUB. Unfortunately, outside of Smashwords, this still required an intermediate HTML step to make an EPUB file on Calibre, so I was still getting some bugs.

Now, Calibre has come up with an update that allows direct import of Word .docx files for conversion. When I combined this new tool with the techniques for building easy-to-convert Word documents that I learned from the Smashwords Style Guide, the result was a nice, clean EPUB file that passed validation with flying colors. And about frigging time, too.

This is all probably a big yawn for the HTML wizards out there who already do a great job by grinding through the actual code, but for code idiots like me, it was a godsend.

I’ve updated my buggy Nook file and sent it off to Nook Press.  Now I could probably do a direct upload for iBook too, and finally pass their strict checks, but I’m not sure it’s worth the trouble to chew through the whole Apple Author program and everything when I’ve already got iBook access through Smashwords.

As usual, a lot of the hassle for me was making sure the table of contents worked right, as well as the endnotes. Then there were annoying bugs like a missing blank line under one (and only one!) chapter heading, or two chapters that had no nice gap between the end of one chapter and the start of the next (chapter heading shows up in the middle of a page). This was all particularly bothersome since I had to submit the Word file to Smashwords and their “Meatgrinder” converter, and then make sure all the file types were readable. If all the formats worked except one (usually the mobi), I’d have to tweak the Word file and upload the whole thing again.

It’s much easier when I’m doing all the conversion work locally. I can debug before I send the final product out.

And now, Smashwords

At the suggestion of a fellow writer, I decided to look into Smashwords to distribute Castle Falcon to some venues I don’t have yet (like iBook and Kobo).

The Smashwords site was simple enough. They have an e-book conversion engine they call “Meatgrinder.” It translates a Word file (.doc, not .docx) into multiple versions, including EPUB, Mobi, LRF, PDP, and others.

The annoying catch is that you have to sign up with them to publish before they let you use it. I’d gotten used to being able to tweak my conversions at places like Amazon before actually tossing the book out there for publishing, so having the “conversion” and “publish” step be simultaneous was a little sporty for me. I’m guessing this is because Smashwords doesn’t like the idea of their fancy conversion engine being used to create all these nice e-book files and then have people download and run off with them.

The first step was creating a Word file that was formatted properly as input for Meatgrinder. This was new for me, because I’d used Adobe Indesign and special plug-ins to generate all my previous printed and e-book files. I won’t go into the details, but the free Smashwords Style Guide was immensely useful for someone who’d never created a Word e-book file before.

I spent an evening on the Word file, tested the hyperlinks for Table of Contents and Endnotes, grabbed a .JPG of my cover (a requirement), and then filled out the online form to sign up for Smashwords.

I uploaded the Word file and cover file, and watched as Meatgrinder did the translations in front of me. It was kind of cool to watch each file version in the list turn green and say “completed.” I was done, and published. All in one go.

There were a few more things to clean up. I priced the book the same as my Kindle and Nook versions. I added some information to my Author Page, like a bio, my website links, and a couple of other things. I went to the Channel Manager link on my Dashboard, and opted out of distribution to Amazon and Nook. I added an ISBN number, which is required for distribution to Apple and Sony (I still have a supply of my own, but Smashwords will supply one with them as publisher for free).

When things settled down, I downloaded samples of the various files from my new book page to put in my reader software and make sure everything worked. The formatting on EPUB and Mobi was just fine, except for one thing:

All the text through the whole damn book was blue.

Next time: Invisible Goofies and Blue Meanies.

“The Annotated Version.”

You sometimes see annotated versions of favorite books, old classics, or even graphic novels.  There’s the original text on the page, and in the “sidebar” of the page, there are all kinds of interesting things about what you’re reading.

When I write a new book, the very first draft is annotated.

A while ago when I was starting out at writing for publication, I decided to do a critique of someone’s work on an online writer’s website (Litopia.com).  I don’t do this very often–I’m no Newbery winner myself, and I get nervous picking at somebody else’s stuff.  I started out by looking at other people’s critiques on the website, which were almost always Microsoft Word documents.  I noticed that many of them had comments in a sidebar pointing to specific phrases.  I thought this looked very useful, but I had no idea Word did things like this.  I’d updated to newer versions of Word over the years, but most of the time I was still basically using it as a fancy typewriter with spectacularly easy correction features.  So I figured out how it worked (“comments” under the “Review” tab), and did my critique in that format.

Later I realized how useful this would be in my writing, particularly in my draft manuscripts.  I’ve used it ever since, along with many other Word features I discovered over time.

I’m now up to almost 65,000 words in my third book.  It doesn’t look anything like a final submission version should.

The manuscript is single-spaced, to get more words on my screen at a time.  I have spaces between paragraphs, and two spaces after periods, which makes navigation easier for me.

To the right, there’s a sidebar crammed with annotations.  Dates a scene is taking place.  Background information on a particular word, location, or character.  Photos of objects, maps, phases of the moon, you name it.  Where I got an idea.  Why a change was made.  If it’s information or research related to what I’m doing, I pop it into a “review comment” pointed at the sentence or word in question, and put it there for my reference.

Headers in a red font flag scenes for easy flipping back and forth through the manuscript.  I use the “yellow highlighter” feature to mark text I want to look at later or that has some other significance. Anything that helps me with plotting, continuity, character consistency, and avoiding silly mistakes (wasn’t the last sequence in this scene at night instead of noon?  Did this guy just take his hat off twice?)

If I make a lot of changes, enough for a new draft, the annotations all come along into the next draft.  Then I get to use Word’s “compare” function, also under the “Review” tab.  This function takes an old draft and a new one, and generates a third document that shows, in detail, the exact differences between them.

Other computer tools are useful too.  Computer-generated calendars show me sunrise and sunset, moonrise, and other things about the location I’m using on a particular date.  All of my stories have a timeline based on a real year and real dates.  The specific year almost never shows up in the final version, and the dates aren’t usually mentioned either, but I know what they are and that I don’t have time conflicts.

Another Word document has the actual timeline of the story, the details for which these calendars are mostly a visual aid. I’m still developing this, but it’s essential to keep close track of time. Some parts of the timeline are just marked off in days. I’ve had action sequences involving parallel plot lines where the timeline is marked off in minutes. I use Mapquest and other programs to find out distances between places, and how long it takes to drive from one place to another.

Google Earth’s “street view” lets me “travel” to a location where I can look around and actually get a feel for where I am and what the scenery looks like. Not like being there, but the next best thing.

And then there’s my writing diary, another Word document.  A day-to-day account of what I was thinking about on a particular day.  What scenes I wrote, or mistakes I found.  What brilliant idea came to mind while I was in the shower.  And of course, how many words I got done that day. Some of this commentary will end up in the annotations, too.

That word count also shows up on an Excel spreadsheet, where I can put down how many words I got done on a particular day and get an automatic tally of how many more words there are than the last time I sat down to write.  The spreadsheet also displays the guilt-generating gaps of days where I produced no words at all. Or those “major revision” days where the added word count for the day is actually a negative number!

Naturally, when the time comes to submit my work, I generate a shiny new version of the manuscript that’s “clean” and formatted correctly.  Future changes (if any) get made to both versions at the same time.

I don’t know how I’d be able to write without a computer.  When I think of some of my favorite authors working on typewriters, or even longhand, I am actually awestruck.

I’m old enough to remember when the correcting Selectric typewriter came out, and how much easier it made things for me.  It’s only natural I believe that today is an Age of Miracles for writers.

Of course, the real miracle is getting published.