Pre-Production Check List: Cleaning Text

Hi, folks! Popping out of my mole hole for a breather. With so many writers getting ebooks ready for the holiday rush, it’s time for a quick refresher course in that most essential step: Cleaning up the text to get it ready for formatting.

Clean text is the key ingredient for a good looking ebook that works the way it’s supposed to. Over the course of doing a LOT of ebooks (seems like a thousand this week alone, heh) I’ve come up with a little check list to take me through the steps.

  • CHECK: Copy the file
  • CHECK: Tag special formatting–italics, underlining, bolding
  • CHECK: Scan for special styling–quotes, song lyrics, poetry, letters, etc.–tag those instances

Tagging. Because I use several different programs when working on one project, I’ve come up with tags that transfer from program to program without giving search functions fits. It doesn’t matter what tags you use as long as they are easy to find and don’t contain any characters that cause program meltdowns.

  • CHECK: Kill any tabs (I do this in Word because it’s so easy–one global search for ^t and a global replace with nothing. All done.)
  • CHECK: Turn ‘soft’ returns into ‘hard’ returns. Soft returns do funny things when copy/pasted back and forth. Easier to deal with them now. (UPDATE: It was pointed out that I didn’t explain how to do this. Oops. In Word, it is very easy. Search for ^l (lower case L) and do a global replace with ^p.)
  • CHECK: Copy/paste the entire file into a text editor

Why a text editor? Unlike a word processor, a text editor doesn’t add anything to the file unless I specifically tell it to. No hidden codes, no surprises. I use Notepad++, freeware that is powerful, easy to learn, and makes formatting ebooks in html a breeze.

  • CHECK: Eliminate extra spaces. Between sentences, after paragraphs, before paragraphs, between words. All must go.
  • CHECK: Tag scene breaks. Blank lines show up in manuscripts, often for no reason at all. I want to make sure a blank line is supposed to be there, so I tag all deliberately blank lines.
  • CHECK: Eliminate extra paragraph returns. Don’t need them, don’t want them, make them all go away. I usually leave a blank line where there is supposed to be a page or section break. All the rest go.
  • CHECK: Clean up special formatting tags. Rewriting and revising often leaves artifacts–italicized blank spaces, for instance. Also, when formatting with html, styling should be within a paragraph. There are rules. Making sure all the special formatting follows the rules makes my life easier.
  • CHECK: Search for inappropriate paragraph breaks. This is a real problem with books that have been scanned from print and restored via OCR. I search for paragraphs that begin with lower case characters or end without punctuation, and that finds most of the inappropriate breaks. (the rest are found in the final proofread)
  • CHECK: Search for reserved characters: straight quotes, straight apostrophes, ampersands, greater and lesser than brackets. These don’t always cause problems, but sometimes they do and that can cause interesting hiccups in an ebook. Easier to just turn them into named entities.
  • CHECK: Seek out non-ASCII characters and symbols. These will turn into question marks or bizarre symbols in the text editor. Ebook readers will not render them, so they must be turned into named entities.
  • CHECK: Standardize punctuation. Ebooks are real books, and require real printer’s punctuation. I go through and make sure em dashes are em dashes and not quickie writer shorthand, that ellipses all look the same, that apostrophes and quote marks are turned in the correct direction.

That checklist takes care of almost everything. Even though it sounds like a lot, most of the steps can be taken care of in one or two Find/Replace operations. Most manuscripts I work on can be cleaned up in less than an hour.

Even if you are formatting your ebook in a word processor or in Scrivener, this is good practice for every project. (Skip the steps about using named entities, but do check for non-ASCII characters) It will clean out the junk the programs put in and go a long, long way toward making your ebook look professional.

Have fun! (I’m headed back to the mole hole)

 

Format A Nice-Looking Novel For Smashwords

Everybody knows, or at least regular readers know, I don’t like using Word to make ebooks. Just about all distributors allow you to submit a doc or docx file to be converted into an ebook. You shouldn’t. You really, really shouldn’t. An ebook converted from Word will not work properly on many ereaders.

But. One major distributor does require Word files–Smashwords. They have their reasons and until they change those reasons, Word it is.

Rather than bitch again about the sheer silliness of using Word for ebooks, I’ll be constructive. Here is a quick primer on how to make a Word document that will make its way through the Meatgrinder without too much damage. (This is for fiction only. Trying to shove complicated formatting through Smashword’s Meatgrinder will give you hives and bald spots, so if you want to give it a shot, you’re on your own.)

I recommend before you do anything that you go in to TOOLS on Word and turn off all the auto-correct and auto-format features. This will cut down on Word’s “helpfulness” and make a better ebook. I also recommend that you turn on the SHOW feature so you can see the paragraph returns and extra spaces (in the menu bar it looks like a pilcrow).

STEP ONE: START WITH A CLEAN FILE

This is imperative. You will prevent 95% of ebook glitches by making sure your document file is clean. By clean I mean free of the excess or extraneous coding that Word inserts at every opportunity. You must use a text editor for this. I use Notepad++, which is a free downloadable program. Easy to use once you get used to the way it looks.

After your text is edited in Word, go through this checklist:

  1. Make sure your curly quotes are turned the right way.
  2. Get rid of tabs and extra spaces, including those before and after paragraph returns. Including those between sentences. You do not want double spaces between sentences in an ebook.
  3. Get rid of extra paragraph returns.
  4. Tag your special formatting such as italics, bolding and underlines. (VERY IMPORTANT: Your special formatting will disappear in the text editor)***
  5. Make sure you have proper em dashes and ellipses.

Now COPY/PASTE your text into the text editor. This makes a txt file (text). Go through your file and make sure you have gotten rid of all your extra spaces and hard returns. It will look a little odd, but don’t worry about the lack of formatting–you DO NOT WANT any formatting at this stage. If you are using Notepad++, open the Character Panel (it’s in the Edit drop down menu). That will give you ASCII characters. If you need to change your double or single quotes, em dashes, special characters, etc. use the characters and symbols from the Character Panel.

STEP 2: MAKE YOUR STYLE SHEETS

Smashword’s Meatgrinder is set up to work best with certain stylesheets already built in to Word. If you are not familiar with using stylesheets in Word, now is the time to learn. You’ll find them under FORMAT in the main menu. For most fiction, all you need are four stylesheets.

  1. NORMAL
  2. HEADING 1
  3. HEADING 2
  4. center

NORMAL: This is what you’ll use for the body of your text–the main style. You will find listed in style sheets. You can modify it. My recommendation is to stick as close to ereader defaults as possible. So don’t modify too much. Safe settings are:

  • Font: 12 point Times New Roman
  • Align: Left
  • Level: body text
  • Indent: 0 for right and left
  • Special: First Line by 0.3″ or 0.4″ (this is the paragraph indent)
  • Spacing: Before 0; After 0
  • Line Spacing: single

HEADING 1: This is what the Meatgrinder will look for to title your book. For most projects, you only need to use it once. Here you can increase the font size (don’t go higher than 16 points and use the same font as for the rest of your book) and bold or italicize it. You can also center your text, drop it down on the “page” and add some space between your title and the author name. A set up might look like this:

  • Font: 16 point Times New Roman, bold
  • Align: Center
  • Level: body text
  • Indent: 0 for right and left
  • Special: (none)
  • Spacing: Before 12; After 6pt
  • Line Spacing: single

HEADING 2: This is what the Meatgrinder will look for to find your chapters so it can build the toc.ncx (very important).

  • Font: 16 point Times New Roman, bold
  • Align: Center
  • Level: body text
  • Indent: 0 for right and left
  • Special: (none)
  • Spacing: Before 12; After 3pt
  • Line Spacing: single
  • Page Break Before (check this box under Format > Paragraph > Line and Page Breaks)

CENTER: You don’t have to have a style sheet for centering text, but it makes life easier since you don’t have to remember to get rid of the indent. Set it up exactly like NORMAL, except:

  • Align: Center
  • Special: (none)

STEP THREE: Open a new Word file and apply the NORMAL style sheet. COPY your text from the text editor and PASTE it into Word. Your text should be formatted in NORMAL style with indented paragraphs. (Just in case a hiccup occurred, scan through the text and make sure there aren’t any extra paragraph returns–look for blank lines and delete the extra paragraph return)

STEP FOUR: Use FIND/REPLACE to restore italics, bolding and underlining. Then use FIND/REPLACE to delete your special formatting tags.

STEP FIVE: Make your title page. Highlight your book title and apply the HEADING 1 stylesheet. A nice title page for Smashwords will look something like this:

SW Title PageOnly the title uses HEADING 1. With everything else I used the CENTER stylesheet.

STEP SIX: Do your chapter heads. Select (highlight) your chapter and apply the HEADING 2 stylesheet. If you set up stylesheet the way I recommended, it will give you a page break.

STEP SEVEN: If you used scene breaks, go through and select whatever you used to indicate scene breaks and center them. I also like to add a paragraph return before and after a scene break just to make them stand out a bit more.

SW scene breakCHAPTER EIGHT: Add links and/or make a table of contents. Both are optional. Links and hyperlinks are something Word handles very well and generally cause no problems with Smashwords. Use the INSERT HYPERLINK command from the menu. If you make a table of contents, use the BOOKMARK option, and bookmark the chapter heads then link within the document.

And there you go. A simple format, rather generic, but it will go through the Meatgrinder, have minimal formatting errors and be readable on the platforms Smashwords distributes to.

Have fun!

***A word about tagging special formatting. The text editor will strip out your special formatting, so you must tag it. All you need are unique strings of text that you can search for. I use hyphens and all caps to make sure the tags don’t get mixed up with my story text.

  • Italics: -STARTI- and -ENDI-
  • Bolding: -STARTB- and -ENDB-
  • Underlining: -STARTU- and -ENDU-

To tag quickly–for italics–in the FIND box, ask it to look for italics but leave the box empty. In the REPLACE box type -STARTI-^&-ENDI- and do a REPLACE ALL. That will wrap all your italics in tags. To reverse the process, toggle on “wild cards”, type -STARTI-*-ENDI- in the FIND box and toggle on “italics” in the REPLACE box, but leave it empty. Do a REPLACE ALL and your italics are restored. Then do a FIND/REPLACE to delete your tags.

QUICK UPDATE: NOW Smashwords is kicking back files if there is leading (extra space) after a paragraph (indented paragraphs only, not block style). So let us cross our fingers that Apple has fixed whatever it was that caused them to squish paragraphs. grumble grumble grumble…

 

Is Good Enough, Good Enough?

A while back Darling Daughter #1 and I went to a restaurant that had just opened in our neighborhood. It’s part of a big chain (Rhymes with Billy’s) and our expectations weren’t high, but what the hell, we might be surprised. As per corporate policy regarding female diners we were seated way back in a dark corner and our server, also per corporate policy, treated us like shit (this is based on hard data proving that female diners do not tip well, so might as well treat them like shit from the get-go because you know, they don’t tip well). The server failed to bring my cheese toast. I asked her for it, she gave me a blank look. I asked again, she sighed–I must have been keeping her away from texting “Wurk sux” on her cell phone or something–and she finally returned twenty minutes later with a plate of two charcoaled pieces of toast. I asked her, “Would you eat this?” Another blank look, a slight shrug, and she wandered away to ponder if she’d put in enough hours to qualify for unemployment compensation.

Needless to say, I haven’t been back to a Rhymes with Billy’s restaurant since. I never will eat there again. Neither will DD1. If friends or family ask for a recommendation, part of my response will include, “Just make sure you never go to Rhymes with Billy’s.”

The irony is, this chain of restaurants spends millions of dollars advertising on television. If they’d put those millions of dollars into training employees and maybe printing a sign that says, I dunno, DO NOT SERVE BURNT TOAST TO CUSTOMERS, they wouldn’t have to advertise.

What does this have to do with ebooks? Plenty if you think about it.

This week Mark Coker wrote an article for the How to Successfully Self-Publish site: “Amazon Is Playing Indie Authors Like Pawns,” says Smashwords founder, Mark Coker.” The main point Coker makes is a good one. Writers should not limit their market to Amazon. (My feeling about KDP Select is that exclusivity is a good idea for some books, but not for others, so writers should do their marketing research, and no I don’t want to discuss it right now, so take any conversations about it elsewhere, m’kay?) Coker unfortunately misses another big point, namely that the ebooks his Meatgrinder produces are burnt toast. When a writer jams a Word file through Smashwords, the very best result they can hope for is a generic, bland looking block of text. Try anything visually interesting and the ebook will break or wobble. (This writer, me, refuses to use Smashwords anymore because ebooks generated with Word offend my sensibilities)

It’s good enough for some folks (the bland, generic part, not the wobbly or broken part).

It’s not good enough for me.

Bland and generic ebooks are born of the same attitude and self-fulfilling prophecy that many restaurant servers have about women. Everyone knows women don’t tip, so it’s okay to treat them like shit, and they should shut up and be grateful they’re even allowed inside the restaurant. Too many writers and publishers seem to have the same attitude about ebook readers. The cheap bastids don’t care about real books, so it’s okay to give them crappy looking ebooks. They should shut up about quality and presentation and be falling-down-on-their-knees grateful to have anything at all to read on their Kindles and Nooks and high-tech toaster ovens in the first place.

Yet the same publishers putting out those lousy looking ebooks are spending a lot of time and effort ADVERTISING and MARKETING and endlessly tweeting and facebook spamming BUY MY BOOK!

Sorry, folks. The book, the story, the writing, that’s the meal in this scenario. Presentation matters. If you don’t care how it looks, how it feels, neither will your customers. At best they won’t give your next book a shot. At worst they’ll tell their friends, “Oh that one? Sucks. Don’t bother.” (There are entire publishing houses from whom I will not purchase ebooks–no matter what the price and no matter who wrote the book–because their ebook formatting sucks rocks, and yes, I do tell friends to not bother)

This is new territory for everybody. Mistakes will be made. Ebook producers are still learning. Right now many consumers are still in the delighting in their devices stage and not being terribly picky about content. ‘Ware, though, to the publisher who blithely believes consumers will happily keep picking up the tab for “good enough.” Once that device-delight wears off, consumers will not be satisfied with a dark corner and burnt toast.

I told you before and I will tell you again why I am spending so much time and energy on learning how to properly format and design ebooks. It’s because I love books and I think ebooks are real books and I truly believe ebooks can be as beautiful in their own way as printed material.

I don’t accept “good enough.” If you really care about your books, you won’t either.

More About Ebook Formatting, Source Files and Tales of Tagging

First an apology for not answering every comment this week. On the “Source Files Update” post there were some great comments. People are coming up with solutions and solving problems. So go read the comments over there. One commenter in particular is hard at work on the subject of formatting ebooks from word processor files. I’ve been corresponding with William Ockham regarding his efforts to create a program that will make it easy to format a word processor file into a good-looking ebook. I’ve sent William some grotty files and he’s been problem solving. I’ve brought one of his comments over to this post so you can get a better idea of what he’s doing:

Wow, I’m flattered. I’ve been busy with my guest blogging stint over at http://www.thepassivevoice.com and didn’t see all these comments. Since there is some interest here, I’ll share what I can of my plans. I firmly believe that writers should use whatever tool works for them. For most people, that’s Microsoft Word. Some folks are using Scrivener and almost everyone else is using some word processor (a flavor of OpenOffice or those WordPerfect holdouts).

The first thing I’m going to release is a free document to source file converter service (to use Jaye’s terms). You save your manuscript in RTF format (pretty much every program supports RTF) and upload it to my service. My program will go through and do all the stuff that Jaye talks about. It will strip all the formatting except bold, italics, and chapter headings. You get back a nice clean source file in RTF format. You load it up into your tool and save it back as a .doc file and you have a source file suitable as the input for ebook formatting. It’s not much, but it is a nice little timesaver and your ebook formatter will thank you (even if you DIY). Did I mention it would be free?

I really appreciate all the expressions of support. I hadn’t really given much thought to a Kickstarter, but I am thinking about it now. In the meantime, there is something you could do to help. I need test cases. That is, I need real manuscripts before they’ve been given the Jaye Manus treatment. If anyone has copies of their novels (or short story collections) that they wouldn’t sharing with me, I would really appreciate it. I promise not use them for anything other than perfecting my software. I will send you the cleaned up version and destroy or return the original when I’m done.

If you can help in this way, save your gnarliest files (smart quotes, em dashes, paragraphs indented with tabs and spaces, whatever) in RTF format and
email them
to razoroftruth at
gmail dot
com

Let me know what program (i.e Microsoft Word) and version (like 2000 or 2007) and whether you are using Windows, Mac, or Linux (or other Unix variant).

Which brings us to another problem I’m working on with source files–tagging. One of the things keeping me so busy this week is learning HTML. Turns out it’s kind of fun and quite the challenge. I also discovered that my resulting ebook files are much smaller–why? Who knows. But that’s a plus since I love using graphics for headers and such. Anyhow, the biggest challenge has been doing an ebook in screenplay format. It’s not difficult. It requires essentially three styles: Centered, Block Quote and Hanging Text. Since it ran about 120 pages in manuscript form, the real challenge was making sure every style was properly applied. I also wanted a way to NOT have to go in and tweak every line of text.

Now me, I happen to think FIND/REPLACE is the greatest invention since the light bulb. I’ve stated before that Word’s F/R is a powerhouse. Indeed. I also made some very interesting discoveries about Word and text editors and how they interact re formatting tags.

Le sigh…

Let’s talk about the two most common special formatting tags in the writing universe. Asterisks to indicate bolded text and underscores to indicate italics. Most editors and agents understand what those marks mean. Sending an e-query with those tags in place would be perfectly acceptable. Except… Even if you turn off the auto-formatting features, Word treats them like special characters and so does a text editor. Meaning, a text editor will strip them out. So those are out. You can use them if you like–they are easy to read–but if you ever have to copy the file into a text editor, you’ll lose the tags and your special formatting.

Anyhow, I’ve been using my own little special formatting tags–ii for italics, BB for bolding, and UU for underlining. Nobody but me sees them or has to read them, so no big deal. BUT, I am in the process of creating a cheat sheet for Source Files, and need to come up with tags that One) Make sense; Two) Are easy to remember and use; Three) Don’t activate “helpfulness” in word processors; Four) Work well in FIND/REPLACE operations. Number three is a bitch. I popped around in different programs to see how they handle various tags. Turns out non-letter characters are a problem when created in strings–Word, especially, kept getting wobbly and persnickety. Plus, some can cause problems in HTML coding because it uses so many characters for commands. For instance, I tried i/TEXT/i for italics. That seems fairly straightforward, right? It didn’t make Word go all wobbly either and it translated into a text editor. Problems arose when I did F/R operations in the text editor. I needed characters that are NOT used in coding. Which leaves out almost all of them.

Ah ha, most FIND operations can be made case sensitive. And there is one non-letter character that gave me no problems at all–the lowly dash/hyphen. So here are a few of the tags I ended up with:

  • -ITAL-   -NOITAL-
  • -CTR-     -NOCTR-
  • -BQ-        -NOBQ-
  • -NBSP-

Those might seem a little “wordy” but they are pretty self-explanatory (italics, centered text, block quote, no break space) and they don’t cause interpretation wars between programs. When I paste the Word file into the text editor, all I have to do is run FIND/REPLACE operations to insert the coding. (ex: -ITAL- becomes <i> and -NOITAL- becomes </i> to make italicized text) Most fiction doesn’t require every paragraph be tagged. So I won’t go in to the nifty little shortcuts I found.

The really important thing I’ve discovered is that not all tagging is equal and some of the old printer’s tags will not work because the programs want to do something with them and it’s not always what the writer intends.

So how about you, folks? What nifty tricks tricks have you come up for tagging the special formatting in your files?

You Say Documents, I Say Source Files

A manuscript formatted for print, complete with header.

I’ve been creating manuscripts for well over twenty years. I can rattle off the formatting in my sleep. Double-spaced, one inch margins, header with page number top left corner, drop to middle of page to start a new chapter, blah blah blah. It’s a manuscript. A document to be printed and stacked and tucked in a box or an envelope and put in the mail. Who does that anymore? Oh sure, some agents and editors still insist on hard copies, but they’re in the minority and growing rarer by the day. Even though most agencies and publishers have gone digital, even though more and more writers are finding markets online and many are self-publishing either ebooks or POD, old habits die hard. Writers are still producing documents when they should be producing source files.

Whatever do you mean, Jaye?

Many writers, especially those who’ve been around a while, treat word processors like typewriters. We want to see on the screen what we want to appear on paper. Word processors are very accommodating that way. Most aren’t WYSIWIG, but pretty close. If we center text on the screen, it centers in the printout. If there are 24 lines on the screen, 24 lines print on the page. The printer doesn’t care if we indent lines with tabs, first line hanging or hit the space bar five or six times. It prints as an indent. If all you ever intend to do is create printed documents, then you can quit reading now. If you intend to submit electronically or create an ebook or a POD book or make pdf files, then listen up. It is time to break the document/manuscript habit.

You see, a clean source file can be copied indefinitely and used to create printed manuscripts, digital files for electronic submissions, ebooks, pdfs and POD books. With a clean source file an agent or editor can read your submission on a computer, smart phone, iPhone, iPad, Kindle, Nook, tablet or whatever else they might happen to have and your work will be readable. With a clean source file you can easily make a copy to create a professional looking printed document for that guy still living in 1973. And with a copy of that same file you can format an ebook that will convert cleanly for Smashwords, Amazon, Nook or whatever–or send it to a professional formatter who can turn it around in a matter of hours. Then you make another copy and format that for a slick pdf to send to reviewers. And you can snag a template off CreateSpace or Lulu and load it with your nice clean file and create a POD book. All the while that source file is sitting on your computer, nice and clean, and ready to be turned into whatever you happen to need next.

A Clean, Plain Jane, No Frills Source File, Created in MS Word

There is nothing difficult about creating source files. They are straight text files, nothing more. The difficult part is getting out of the mindset of seeing it as a printed document living on your screen. I know, I know, old habits die hard and writers, especially fiction writers, get a bit freaked out by the lack of page numbers, headers, page breaks and centered chapter heads. Trust me, get into the new habit of creating source files and it could save you from rejections (I wonder how many agents and editors have rejected submissions out of hand just because they couldn’t read the text on their iPhone or it turned into gobbledegook on their computer screen and rather than walk the writer through how to set up a file, they just said to hell with it); it can save you from the frustration of having Amazon or Smashwords reject your ebook (you followed their instructions!) or worse, getting it through the conversion process only to discover your ebook is live, but horribly corrupted; and it can save you money if you hire someone to format your ebooks or your POD book and they have don’t have to charge extra to clean the junk out of your file.

To create a clean source file:

  • Turn off all Auto-Correct/Auto-format functions in your word processor (especially if you use MS Word). Turn off widow and orphan control.
  • Set up a simple style sheet to take care of the font, line-spacing, and indents. Apply it to every source file before you begin a new project and use it religiously.
  • No tabs. NO tabs! NO TABS EVER NEVER NOT EVEN ONCE!
  • No extra spaces between sentences or at the ends of paragraphs.
  • No extra paragraph returns (if you have a scene break, indicate it with the pound sign or three asterisks). Do not use paragraph returns to drop your chapter heads to the middle of the page or to create a page break.
  • No page breaks–of any kind.
  • No centering text–not chapter heads, titles, poetry, nothing (easy way to track chapter breaks, use all caps CHAPTER ONE or bolding)
  • No special characters. Use “typewriter” characters such as two dashes to indicate an em dash and a slash mark for fractions. Avoid super- and subscript characters. If your text contains foreign characters, Anglicize the spelling and track the usages so the special characters can be inserted when the file is formatted for whatever purpose.
  • Even in Word, italics, bolding and underlining don’t seem to screw up a source file. Those are safe.

I’ve had people tell me, “But I need page breaks or nobody will know how many pages there are!” Nobody will be able to tell anyway unless you intend to print out the file on 8.5 x 11 20# bond. And then I’ve been told the writer knows how they want the document to look, so it’s okay. Trouble is, they know how it looks on their screen and how it looks coming out of their printer. They do not know how it looks on an iPad or iPhone or Android or Nook or Kindle or an agent’s Mac (you use a PC) or vice versa. Trouble is, every bit of formatting they do adds code to their file and that code can be misinterpreted or corrupted by another device. If you hire someone to create an ebook, they will look at your wonderful page arrangements, and tack on extra charges to the estimate because the first thing they have to do is get rid of everything you’ve done.

It takes some conscious thought to break old manuscript habits. You can get used to it. Just keep repeating: Source File, Source File, Source File…

Scrivener and the Ebook

I heard about the Scrivener writing program last year. I followed a link to Literature and Latte, roamed the site and got interested. What finally hooked me was the promise of a new way to organize a writing project. So in January I purchased the program. (Why so long? Because I’m scared of hardware. Go ahead and laugh, the old man does. Then again he’s a mechanical genius and never worries about the damned things eating him while he sleeps. When he starts fiddling with things, I have to leave the room, freaked out about him pissing off the machines. Because I’m convinced my computer is just waiting for me to do something stupid, it takes me forever to work up the nerve to install new programs. Now you know.)

As a novelist I’m not exactly tidy. My process involves notebooks, Post-it notes, scraps of envelopes, colored pens and pencils, sketch pads, clippings, piles of reference books bristling with place markers and file folders. Rolls of butcher paper, colored Sharpies, white boards and reams of printed manuscript also play a role. Clutter is part of my process. I need to see it, need to have it where I can put my hands on it. That’s what Scrivener does. It digitizes my clutter. Instead of having it scattered on my desk top, it’s on the screen, available with a click of the mouse.

Scrivener is not a word processor. It’s a writing program. It’s not for generating printed documents, it’s for generating files. (You can use it to create printed documents, but using Scrivener to write a letter to your mom would be like using a bulldozer to dig a post hole.) It very easily and quickly generates lots of different types of files, including PDF, RTF, Word, epub and mobi (Kindle) files.

Me, being me, I got ideas. Once I got interested in self-published ebooks, I had to try it for myself. I’m always interested in how things are made. Since I read almost exclusively on my Kindle now, I see a wide range of quality in ebook production. When I see a problem, I try to figure out the source of the problem. If you’re a regular reader, you have seen my obsession with em dashes and spacing issues and ways to exploit the ereader vehicle. To me, the two biggest concerns for any ebook formatter should be: Readability and easy navigation.

There are many ebook formatters who are familiar with programming, coding and HTML. I’m not one of them. I have no idea what goes on behind the screen. Because of the limitations of MS Word and the often interesting glitches that occur when converting Word files, learning ebook production increased my vocabulary (children, cover your ears). I also had problems organizing layouts. Every change made in Word offers the program new chances to screw things up. So I was figuring out HTML and basic programming, but slowly.

Then came Scrivener. It speaks my language and doesn’t require me to memorize codes and commands. With its organizational capabilities, I saw a way to make more than a simple ebook. I could make beautiful ebooks. It took me a few tries to figure out the possibilities until I achieved something that came close to matching my vision. You can see my latest creation here.

I also discovered a few quirks and limitations. BUT, by using Word’s powerhouse Find and Replace feature to take care of spacing issues and oddball punctuation, then stripping the file in a text editor, I can produce a squeaky clean file ready for layout in Scrivener. (And yeah, I know, it’s not particularly efficient, but I can do it very quickly and it makes sense to my peculiar way of thinking.) Scrivener’s special character map is far better than Word’s, too. So while I’m proofreading it is very easy to make a little cheat sheet off to the side for any special characters needed, then a simple search and replace takes care of those. Also, Scrivener’s formatting is basic, without all the desktop publishing features of Word (full of cute little traps that can make a total mess of an ebook). Since ebook formatting (for fiction) is quite basic, too, Scrivener’s simple design is perfect. I created a template so all I have to do is break up the main file, then move sections around to get the layout I want. I can send an RTF or PDF file to the writer for their approval, and if they want things changed around, no problem at all. Minimal risk of screwing up the formatting.

Graphics are a breeze with Scrivener, too. I’m not talking about covers. I’ve tried my hand at making ebook covers, with decidedly mixed results, but that’s a whole other project I’m working on. I’m talking about such things as fancy font chapter heads, scene break indicators and illustrations. Graphics open up a whole new world of possibilities to make an ebook visually appealing. I have only dabbled in graphics thus far, but I can see the potential and have several interesting experiments in mind.

Granted, not every indie author is interested in learning how to format their ebooks. Formatting isn’t difficult at all, but there is a learning curve and a million and one little details to track. If you want to focus on the writing and hire out the production jobs, that’s fine. Formatting isn’t terribly expensive and won’t break any writer’s bank. If, however, you’re a die-hard do-it-yourselfer, but you aren’t adept at programming and coding, Scrivener is an excellent way to go.

If anyone who uses Scrivener has tips and tricks for ebook production, or would like to know exactly how I created Beauty and the Feast, leave a note in the comments. I can write another blog post.