Indie Writers: Make MS Word Work for You Instead of Against You

A Quick Primer for Fiction Writers in using Microsoft Word in the Digital Age

It always saddens me a little when a writer sends me an overly formatted Word doc to turn into an ebook or print-on-demand. It’s not that I have to clean it up–I can strip and flip the messiest files in less than an hour. What bugs me is how much thought and effort the writer wasted on utterly useless manuscript styling.

Example of a Word doc that has been overstyled.

Example of a Word doc that has been overstyled.

The majority of writers I work with use Word. The vast majority have no idea how to use Word for their own benefit. I understand. I was a fiction writer for over two decades and even though I have been using computers and a variety of word processing programs since the late ’80s, it wasn’t until I started learning book production that I figured out how those programs worked. Why would I? All I needed was a printed manuscript in standard format to mail to my editor. Word processors made that easy.

Now I produce books for digital and print, and those old ways of “thinking print” make the writer’s job harder. Especially indie writer/publishers who might be doing it all alone or working with contractor editors and proofreaders and formatters.

Since it would take a full book–or volumes–to explain how word processors work, I’m going to urge you all to take what I tell you in this post and play around in your word processor. I will be talking about MS Word, but much of what I show you will apply to almost any word processor.

STUFF YOU DON’T NEED AND NEED NEVER USE AGAIN

  • Tabs
  • Page breaks
  • Headers
  • Footers
  • Page Numbers
  • More than one space for any reason
  • More than two hard returns for any reason
  • Multiple fonts
  • Text boxes
  • Justification
Example of a manuscript that uses NONE of the above.

Example of a manuscript that uses NONE of the above.

STUFF THAT MAKES WORD “WORK” FOR YOU

  • Style sheets (fiction writers can get away with using only two or three, four at the most)
  • Find/Replace
  • Save As
  • Web View
  • “Show” feature
  • Formatting tags
(Left) Basic manuscript formatting; (Right) Overly formatted manuscript.

(Left) Basic manuscript formatting; (Right) Overly formatted manuscript.

See that backward P-looking icon I’ve circled? That’s the “show” feature. Toggle it on and you can see paragraph returns, spaces, tabs and a few other formatting features. With the basic formatting on the left, all I had to do was apply one style (Normal) to the entire manuscript, then apply heading styles to the chapters and sections, and done. To style an entire manuscript takes minutes this way. The manuscript on the right is an entirely different matter. To get it looking the way I want would take hours, if not days, manually lining everything up, trying to get it to look the way I want it. Worse, I have to remember what I’ve done so I can remain consistent throughout. When I’m done, I still have to scroll endlessly through the entire document to find whatever I might need to find.

And what about what is happening behind the scenes? MS Word uses html to control all those features. If you’re printing a document, the only true concern you have is making sure your fonts print properly. If you’re turning your work into an ebook, all that hard work (and useless effort) works against you.

The html in the basic Word doc and how it displays in Firefox.

The html in the basic Word doc and how it displays in Firefox.

The overly formatted file in html and how it displays in Firefox.

The overly formatted file in html and how it displays in Firefox.

So let’s make Word work for you. The NUMBER ONE thing (print it out and blow it up to poster size and post it where you can see it while you work) is:

IT DOESN’T MATTER A RAT’S PATOOT WHAT YOUR WORKING DOCUMENT/SOURCE FILE LOOKS LIKE

(Seriously, if your Happy Place while composing fiction involves Comic Sans font, 22pts, with 2 inch margins, triple spaced, then go for it. The only time it matters what your document looks like is when you intend to print.)

STYLE SHEETS

Set them and forget them; the best tool in the MS Word

Set ‘em and forget ‘em; the best tool in MS Word

Every version of Word has a style sheets feature. If you’re using 2010, you’ll find them in the “Home” toolbar. Word comes with a huge variety of pre-built style sheets. You can use them as-is or modify them. You can create your own style sheets. The most useful styles for the fiction writer are: Normal, Heading 1, Heading 2.

  • Normal: apply to the body of your text. Set your paragraph indents, line spacing, and font. Never worry about spacing, margins and indents again.
  • Heading 1 & 2: apply to titles, chapter heads or sections. Bonus: Word will automatically list your headings in the navigation window. No more scrolling through a long document to find a specific chapter or section. Another Bonus: Ebook conversion programs recognize heading styles. Some, like Calibre, will automatically build a table of contents for you based on headings 1 & 2.

Additional styles fiction writers might find useful:

  • Emphasis: Remember, styles apply to paragraphs. “Emphasis” is italics. If your entire paragraph is italicized, use “emphasis”.
  • Strong: “Strong” is bold.
  • Custom style–“Center”: Instead of clicking on the icon for centering, create a style sheet. Makes life easy.
  • Poetry: For poetry, quotes, lyrics, anything you want with different margins and font style.

FIND/REPLACE

This is the most useful and the most underused tool in MS Word. You can use it to not only find words, you can find special characters, styles, highlighting, and special formatting (such as italics or bold).

Click on the dropdown menus and you can look for anything that appears.

Click on the dropdown menus and you can look for anything that appears.

A few useful search terms:

  • ^& (caret ampersand): Stands for a string of text. Say I want to tag my italics. I would leave the Find box blank, but ask it to search for italics. In the Replace box I’d type -STARTI-^&-ENDI-, do a Replace All and Word will wrap all my italicized text in tags.
  • ^p : Hard return. You can search for them or insert them
  • ^l  (caret lower case L): Soft return (shift enter)
  • ^t : Tab. Working on a document in which you or someone else used tabs and want to kill them all? Type ^t in the Find box, leave the Replace box blank, and do a Replace all. Done.
  • * (asterisk): A string of text. Use as a ‘wild card’ when you’re restoring your special formatting. Say I want to restore my italics. In the Find box type -STARTI-*-ENDI-, click the ‘wild card’ box, and leave the Replace box blank but ask it to replace text with italics. Do a Replace All and all your tagged text is italicized. Then use Find/Replace to get rid of the tags.

SAVE AS

When I’m working on a project, I might have four, five, ten versions of a file. If I’m making major formatting changes, I NEVER EVER mess with my source file. Let’s say I want a printed version. I do a Save As to make a new version that is named Print_Docname_date. Then I apply headers/footers, page numbers, page breaks and modify my styles to make it suitable for printing. My original source file remains unchanged and ready to use. Using Save As is the best habit you can get into while you’re working. (And it’s not like you’re having to save your work to floppy disks–your computer has lots of space. Use it!)

WEB VIEW

Basicformat4Forsake print view and get used to web view while you work. This view is flexible (flow text) and enables you to easily display multiple screens and compare text while you work. You can adjust the width of your screen, too, and not lose chunks of text or reduce the image size in order to see everything.

FORMATTING TAGS

Because I use a variety of programs, and I dislike intensely losing formatting such as italics or trying to remember where I want a block of offset text, I tag my formatting. Now, because Word is html-based, you do NOT want to use html tags in your text. It’s okay if you’re outputting a file to a text editor, but if you’re going to a program that is html-based such as Scrivener or InDesign, or if you intend to bring the text back (you’re ‘nuking’ it, according to Smashword’s style guide), then those html tags are going to seriously mess things up.

My tags are arbitrary. I’ve come up with them because they are unique and easy to search for; they don’t show up in text (normally). Feel free to use mine if you want or come up with something that makes sense to you to use. IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER: Special formatting such as italics or bolding require OPEN and CLOSE tags.

  • Italics: -STARTI- (open) -ENDI- (close)
  • Bold: -STARTB- -ENDB-
  • Underline: -STARTU- -ENDU-
  • For any special formatting such as headlines, poetry, etc: -SPECIAL- (this tag is a note to myself)
  • Placing Images: -IMAGE-
  • Scenebreaks or deliberate blank lines: ##

That’s it. Simple, no? This is MS Word in the digital age, a writing tool you can make work for you instead of against you.

 

Book Production Services: Ebook and Print-on-Demand

Regular readers might have noticed something different about my blog. I had to take down my Ebook Services page. Long story short, life happened and I got tired of telling people, “Sorry, I can’t help you right now.”

quinnmail2I apologize to those people. I’d love to work on every project offered to me, large or small, but that’s impossible right now. (For my regulars, you’re in–no worries, I’ll take care of you.)

Since I have to limit what new projects I can accept, I’ve decided to focus on areas where I can do the most good.

MOBI Conversions for Calibre Files. The number one search term that brings people to this blog is, Calibre broke my Kindle book, or words to that effect. The number one email query I get is, Calibre broke my Kindle book. I’ve tried to help with how-to guides, but it seems I just confused the hell out of a lot of people. I’m getting more cries for help than ever. Not that I want to be in the conversion business, but I really do want to help writers–and readers!–so here goes: Send me ten bucks along with the validated EPUB file you produced in Calibre and I’ll put the fix in and convert a MOBI file that works. Email me at jayewmanus at gmail dot com.

DIY Consulting: My favorite indie writers are those who are invested in learning how to be great indie publishers. They are curious about all aspects of book production and eager to learn. If you’re one of those and you’re stumped by a glitch in your formatting or you want to learn some nifty tricks to kick your production values up a notch, contact me at jayewmanus at gmail dot com. For around twenty bucks, I can troubleshoot your files, show you some formatting tricks, even whip you up a template.

Back List Restoration and Production: If you had the rights reverted for your back list, but you’re putting off reissuing the titles as ebooks and/or print-on-demand because of the complexity of the project, the costs involved or the time it will take, let’s talk. This happens to be something I’m very good at and, I promise, I’m a lot faster than you. :) I can scan old books, restore the text, format the files for digital and print, and even help with the covers. I won’t charge you an arm and a leg, either. We can work out price deals on a case by case basis.

I’m hoping that life settles down for me soon and I can go back to helping out every person who asks me to help. Until then, I’ll try to write more blog posts to make your DIY book production easier.

Managing File Sizes for Ebooks

The majority of fiction writer/publishers will not run into overall file size problems. Text doesn’t create monster files. Using graphics or illustrations can add significantly to the overall file size, but I’ve yet to create an ebook that exceeds –or even comes close to–Amazon’s 50MB limit (which may be changing due to the introduction of the new Fire HD tablets). Even with illustrations and graphics, I do my best to keep the overall file size under 5MB because of Amazon’s delivery fees ($.15 per MB). Those fees are charged against the publisher and can eat up royalties quickly.

As I said, most fiction writer/publishers will not run into problems with overall file size.

Where fiction writer/publishers do run into problems are with the size of individual chapter files within the ebook. When you use <h1> or <h2> tags in html, or the Heading 1 or Heading 2 style in a word processor, you are alerting the conversion programs (such as Calibre or KindleGen) that this is a new chapter and should be split into a new file.* If you don’t use the headings or tags, the conversion programs look for certain words–Chapter, Part, Section, etc.–to determine where the file should be split. What is NOT reliable at all is using page breaks (in a word processor) or the “page-break-before” command in html/CSS. (I have absolutely no idea why those work sometimes, but sometimes they don’t–my best guess is the whims or moods of the Digital God.)

I always split html (text) files into chapters or parts, which manages the overall ebook very nicely. Even though this example is from a novel (Prophet of Paradise by J. Harris Anderson) that is almost 200,000 words long, notice the size of the individual chapters:

File Size

What happens if you don’t use tags or headings and your chapters have titles the conversion programs don’t recognize? What happens if you don’t have chapters at all and your ebook is deliberately one long tract? If it runs up against the 300KB file size limit (approximately 45,000 words), several things could happen:

  • Your file fails to convert
  • The conversion program inserts page breaks whether they are appropriate or not
  • The file converts, but some devices tell the user the ebook can’t be loaded

If your files are less than 300KB, but still largish (over 150KB) your readers could experience serious screen lag as they page through your story. This is an important consideration for genre fiction writers since the chances are your readers are Super-Readers and might have hundreds or even thousands of ebooks loaded on their devices. They will not be happy if your file sizes and their addiction cause several seconds of lag every time they “turn” the page.

What to do?

  • If you are using a word processor to style your ebooks, use the Heading 1 and Heading 2 styles for your chapters, parts and sections. (Do NOT depend on the conversion programs to recognize your inserted page breaks!)
  • If you are styling in html, use the <h1> and <h2> tags.
  • If your project does not have natural breaks such as chapters or parts (it’s long short story or novella) consider a minor restructure. Use the page count as your guide and try to find natural breaks around the 15,000 word mark–a scene break or time or pov shift or even an illustration that sits on its own “page”.

* If you are using Calibre to convert your ebooks, you can check the file splits in Calibre’s EPUB editor. You’ll see the list of individual text/html files and can open each one on the viewer/edit screen. If you are experiencing inappropriate page breaks, you can manage the fixes in the editor.

 

 

When You Are Your Own Publisher

quinnbookI get a lot of emails from people who are just starting out with self-publishing. For the most part I enjoy the conversations. Self-publishing isn’t all that difficult to do, but there is so much information available, so many options, it can be confusing as hell. I like to think I’ve set a few folks on a path that lessens the confusion and takes some of the mystery out of the process.

What I don’t enjoy are the emails that sound fueled by panic. I fear for the panicky folks–fear sets them up to be taken advantage of by overpriced “services” and vanity presses. These folks are easily led to believe that ebook conversion is too hard for less-than-technical geniuses and that distributing ebooks is worth an upfront fee and annual charges on top of retailer commissions. They are desperate for someone to take care of them–and taken they do get.

By emailing me, I can usually steer them away from the predators. Assuaging their fears is more difficult. Especially when they’re prefaced by, “What’s the RIGHT way to do this…?”

The subtext is, “I am terrified of not doing this perfectly and so I need someone else to take responsibility.”

I’ve yet to see a perfect book–and I’ve read thousands. I’ve yet to see a perfect publisher. But that’s okay. Readers aren’t looking for perfection. They’re looking for entertainment and information and education. Publishers–self or otherwise–have a duty to those readers to give them the best value in exchange for their time and money. That doesn’t have to be perfect.

So let’s talk about the reality. When you are your own publisher, you’re in charge. Period. The book is yours. YOU decide how it is written. YOU decide how much editing is required. YOU decide on the packaging and formatting. YOU decide how much to charge and where and how to distribute. YOU broker deals for rights and editions and exclusivity or not.

When you are in charge, you make your own rules. Your contract is with your readers. Those are people you need to satisfy. Or not. Your choice.

Being in charge also requires some courage and conviction. If you’re in a panicky state of mind, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to have either. You also need to be able to tolerate some mistakes. Everybody makes them–you’re no exception. The trouble with panic is that any decision you make will end up being made for the wrong reason and so it will probably be a mistake and there, your worst fears realized.

How does one get over the fear? First and foremost is realizing that with the great responsibility of self-publishing also comes almost unlimited freedom. Part of that freedom involves “do-overs.” If you screw something up–the editing, the cover, the distribution, the price–do it over and do it better. You don’t get that luxury if you turn your responsibilities over to someone else. It’s been my experience that anyone who’s motivated to get better, will get better with time and effort. So whenever the rising panic tells you, “Perfection or die!” shut it down by reminding yourself that you are doing your best this time and next time you’ll do it even better.

Next, and this is really important, find mentors. There are many, many successful self-publishers all over the internet. They blog, they tweet, they facebook, and many engage with readers. Their books are widely available. You don’t have to talk to them directly in order to learn. Read, observe, try some of their methods to find out what works for you. Look for positive messages and genuine success stories.

Find good examples. If you want to self-publish, you need to know what readers like. You need to develop a vision for yourself and your work. Read, browse, collect samples. It’s very empowering when you’re ready to produce a cover if you have a collection of designs that you think are effective. Or you can tell your formatter, “I like the way this book is laid out, do mine with a similar design.”

Build a tribe. Panic is isolating. Fear thinks it is unique. That’s a lie. So make an effort to put yourself out there to find like-minded folks. It might take a while, but you’ll find people who’ve made mistakes and survived to tell the tale. You’ll find helpers and people you can help.

I’ll leave you with a little list of things about self-publishing that I know are true:

  • Everybody has an opinion, but nobody knows everything.
  • Your book matters, but it’s not the most important thing in the Universe, so worlds will not collide if you muck something up.
  • There is no ONE RIGHT WAY to do anything. Find what works for you.
  • Shit happens. Deal with it.
  • Anyone who promises you the moon is staring at your wallet and wondering how much they can take you for.
  • The only people you need to satisfy are your readers–everyone else is just noise, noise, noise. So get your priorities straight.

Hi ho, hi ho, back to work I go…

 

 

Fun With Ebook Formatting: Make a Little List

Did you know that most ereaders handle lists quite nicely? Here are some screenshots from a Kindle Paperwhite of one of my projects:

List1

List2Tidy, eh? The best thing is, lists are very easy to do with css and html.

List3There are two types of lists: Ordered and Unordered. Ordered lists use numbers or letters to mark list items; Unordered lists use symbols such as bullets. The html tags: <ol> for ordered lists; <ul> for unordered lists; <li> for list entries.

List5For some reason ebooks don’t care for type declarations in the html. The EPUB validator issues klaxon call warnings about that. I have found best practice is to declare the styles in the css stylesheet then assign classes.

Styling in css:

List6You can have fun with lists, too. Lists can be nested–perfect for complex Tables of Contents. And take a look at the screenshot where it says Add a Fancy Symbol. The fast and simple way is to make an unordered list with a style declaration of “none” and then insert a named entity (in this case, the right arrow).

List4You can tart up your lists with circles, squares, Roman numerals, and even images. To learn more, the w3schools site has all the information you need. For list type properties, go here. Just keep in mind that ebooks don’t like the “type” declaration, so use either “class” or “style.”

Have fun!

 

Soft Hyphens for Kindle Books

I don’t care for automatic hyphenation in ebooks. The devices are pretty dumb and because they use an algorithm instead of an English major’s sensibilities, we get words like “mi- nute” instead of “min-ute” or “alt-hough” instead of “al-though.” While it is possible to turn on hyphenation for Kindle books, I’d rather not.

But. If a word has too many characters to fit on one line, this is what you get:

shy1Just like an oversized image, characters disappear off the screen. Because there are so many Kindle devices and apps, you have no idea what settings or screen size your reader might be using. Judicious use of soft hyphenation is an easy fix to an annoying problem.

Here is the same text, hyphenated, at various settings on the Kindle Previewer:

shy3shy4shy5What I did was use the named entity for a soft hyphen — &shy;

shy6The above example is a bit of overkill, but it was easy, so I did it. This way, no matter what preferences or screen size the user has, the text will not disappear off the screen.

If you’re building a non-fiction ebook, especially one with many long terms (technical or medical) inserting soft hyphens can prevent those unsightly gaps when a long word/term is jumped to the next page.

Have fun!

 

They Just Don’t Get It…

I tried to resist the fray, but sue me, I’m weak. So here goes.

gatekeeperHugh Howey and Anonymous X published their first report at authorearnings.com. I won’t go into the details (go read it for yourself), except to say I knew it would cause a shitstorm. To see one example, take a peek at the absurd rebuttal from Dear Author PG posted on The Passive Voice blog. All this comes on the heels of a sudden spate of self-publishing bashing by such luminaries as Steve Zacharius, Robert Gottlieb, Donald Maas and others. (Joe Konrath had a great run fisking their foolishness over on his blog. One example where he fisks Mike Shatzkin.)

As interesting as it all is, I’ve noticed a whole lot of “missing the point” going on.

It’s really not about the money.

Oh sure, money is a measure, an easy way to calculate one’s progress. Money is very nice and pays the bills. But every real writer I’ve ever met (and by real, I mean the passionate, even hypergraphic wordsmiths and storytellers who love nothing more than bringing mere words to life) will write and tell stories even there is no money in it. Their real goal is not money, but readers. Because without readers a piece of writing is incomplete. It exists, it is tangible, but without readers it is dancing on an empty stage in a closed theater or singing in the shower. Readers complete the connection.

Publishing houses know this impulse, this hunger. They know writers will endure almost any abuse in order to be read. For a long, long time they were the only game in town and it was their way or the highway.

Self-publishing is nothing new. Anyone with the bucks to pay for it could get their work printed and bound. But what the individual could not do on any scale was find readers. The publishing houses had a lock on distribution. While a bookstore might carry self-published hiking guides or cookbooks from local authors, they wouldn’t touch a self-published novel. Self-publishers were reduced to hand selling every copy. Unless one were selling books via seminars or workshops, there was no feasible way for the self-publisher to connect with readers.

Because the publishers had so much power, they (of course) abused it. Ever seen a publishing contract? It’s ugly and from what I understand, they are getting uglier. Want to know if your publisher is paying all your royalties? Be prepared to pay a CPA and sign a non-disclosure statement. Want input on your cover, editorial, marketing, distribution, pricing and scheduling? Find another job.

Writers endured it because they had no choice. Because they had no choice, writers were afraid. “The publishing world is small, all those agents and editors talk, so don’t make waves! Don’t piss anyone off! Watch out, if you complain, you’ll get blacklisted!” In public writers LOVED their publishers. In private, in hushed conversations, they shared horror stories. You don’t know pain until a publisher has botched your book–and there is not a damned thing you can do about it. Except take the blame for the lousy sales, that is.

Then there’s the soul-crushing despair that the cycle of submission and rejection can cause. On one hand it’s a badge of honor to be able to say you endured the lengthy response times and form rejections before some agent or editor recognized your brilliance. On the other hand it’s humiliating. Even more so when I see all the nasty mockery and snark by agents and editors all over the net. It’s as if they enjoy humiliating writers. Many probably do. That they would show such disdain publicly says a lot about the general attitude in the industry.

Then along comes Amazon and Smashwords and ebooks and something astonishing happens. Suddenly self-publishing is feasible. Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings data proves, without a doubt, that it is feasible. Self-publishing offers the means for any writer, anywhere, to find readers.

And that’s the real point.

Writers can find readers without the humiliations, the shitty contracts, the bad editorial, the lousy production values and high prices. They can do it without the condescending attitudes, disrespect and disregard. Writers can go with a publishing house if they want to. But if they don’t want to, they have the feasible option of self-publishing.

Judging by the sheer number of self-published works available to readers, a whole lot of writers don’t WANT to go with publishing houses.

The publishers have stood between writers and readers for so long they believe they are essential to the process. Thousands of writers and millions of readers are proving that not only are publishers non-essential, but in many cases they throw up unnecessary barriers and actively interfere with the connection between writers and readers.

Publishers are running scared. Fewer writers are demanding entry at the clubhouse door. Many couldn’t care less that the clubhouse even exists. My God, publishers and agents are being *gulp* rejected. Writers no longer fear being “blacklisted” and are talking openly in blogs and forums about publishers and contracts and money and all those other “forbidden” topics that publishers don’t want discussed. The feasibility of self-publishing has proved the trad publishers are non-essential–now they are running the risk of becoming non-entities.

That’s where the nastiness is coming from. This is what has reduced publishers and agents to act like that jerk in the bar who, upon being snubbed by a pretty girl, calls her a “fat lesbo who hates men.” Sorry, fella, she just hates you.

There are some things the traditional publishers are very good at and they have the infrastructure and connections and experience to do them exceptionally well. Unfortunately, for them, a lot of things they do well can also be done very well by the self-publisher. And, the self-publisher can do it faster and more cheaply. Doubly unfortunately, what publishers don’t do well at all is compete. They don’t like being reduced to “an option.” The days are over when they can sit back and wait for treasure to fall into their laps. The days are over when they can say, “My way or the highway,” because nowadays that highway is pretty damned tempting.

This little commentary of mine isn’t about “Us versus Them.” It’s not a declaration of war. As a reader I don’t give a damn who publishes the writers I like. I’ll discuss pros and cons of publishing options with any writer who asks–and there are pros and cons with all options. This is a reality check. My data might be all anecdotal (except for my dealings with multiple publishers and agents and the contracts I’ve signed), but it is twenty-plus years of anecdotes. I can read the signs. I can see with my own eyes what is going on. The question is, can you?