The eBook nears after a few detours

Current Draft of Book Cover - Copyright 2015 M. Q. Allen
Book Cover – Copyright 2015 M. Q. Allen

It’s been a longer road than I expected (silly me, I believed Amazon’s FAQs on publishing) but I think I have the eBook recipe ready. A final proofread is still in progress but Prince of Leaf and Stone should be live by end of the month.

The main problems I encountered had to do with getting a TOC (table of contents) in my doc, getting a TOC that comes up from the Kindle menu, getting that TOC to look right, and getting the book to open in the right spot. None of those are showstoppers but getting those right can make a book look more professional.

My experience has been with Scrivener for Windows, which is much less featured than the Mac version, in particular missing a feature that lets you set the start of doc.

Things You’ll Want

You definitely want the Kindle Previewer, which despite it’s name, not only let’s you preview your book, it will convert html and epub files to Amazon’s .mobi format.

You’ll also want Send to Kindle which is both a stand-alone app and something that you can get to from your file browser on a right click, which let’s you upload files to your Kindle (or a friend’s Kindle). Thing to remember: it will only appear on a right click for those file types it can upload (.mobi, .doc, .pdf) and not for others, like .epub.

You may also want KindleGen which is not needed for one-off mobi conversion (Kindle Reader does that) but can be used for bulk conversions. More importantly, if you want to write out .mobi directly from Scrivener, you’ll need KindleGen.

What Doesn’t Work: Scrivener -> MS Word -> HTML

Amazon suggests editing your book in MS Word (Scrivener writes out .doc and many other formats), adding an MS Word TOC, adding bookmarks for where your TOC and start page are, then writing it out as Web page, Filtered (html). You then use Kindle Previewer to convert the html to mobi. This does get you a mobi file and there is a TOC embedded in the document but you don’t see the TOC in the Kindle reader menu nor does the start page get set.

I found lots of kind posts on the web saying this does work or ways to directly edit the html to add the start and toc tag but none of that worked for me. Start and TOC remained stubbornly absent. From the posts I found on this, I’m not the only one who can’t get that to work.

What Also Doesn’t Work: Scrivener -> Mobi

Scrivener can write directly to mobi so I tried that. The table of contents does appear in the doc and from the Kindle menu but the starting position is second page of my TOC. This is apparently an issue of at least 2 years standing, not just an odd quirk of my doc.

The Kindle TOC also puts some but not all of my front matter (copyright, dedication, etc.) under a collapsible header.  No matter how I organize my front matter in Scrivener, it doesn’t seem to group all of the front matter under the header.

Still more failure: Scrivener -> epub -> Kindle Previewer

Scrivener can also write out epub files. Tried that, converted them in Kindle Previewer. Same as the direct mobi path.

What does work: Scrivner -> epub -> edit epub file -> Kindle Previewer

After more research, I discovered that an epub file is easily editable because it is just a .zip file. Rename it to .zip, extract the files– which are all plain text– and rezip it when you are done. It’s surprisingly easy.

What you want to do, according to a forum post here is find the guide part of the file content.opf. This file can be edited with any text editor such as Windows NotePad. You will probably find something like the following at the bottom:

<guide>
<reference type=”cover” title=”Cover” href=”cover.xhtml” />
<reference type=”toc” title=”Contents” href=”contents.xhtml”></reference>
</guide>

Before the </guide> (in html <xxx> is like an open parentheses for a particular object type and </xxx> is like the close parentheses), add the following lines (in bold), replacing body3.xhtml with the chapter you want to start with (you can open the .xhtml files in NotePad or Word or your browser to figure out which one is your chapter one):

<guide>
<reference type=”cover” title=”Cover” href=”cover.xhtml” />
<reference type=”toc” title=”Contents” href=”contents.xhtml” />
<reference type=”text” title=”Text” href=”body3.xhtml” />
<reference type=”text” title=”Start” href=”body3.xhtml”></reference>
</guide>

Actually, I didn’t find a source that said to add both of the bold lines (the various pages I found recommended one or the other) but the first one of the two only seems to fix the front matter grouping problem for me, the second one actually seemed to move the start page.

Full disclosure: this didn’t actually move the start to where I told it to go but it did move it to my title page which is much better than the second page of my TOC. So I’m declaring victory.

The steps that worked for me are:

  1. Write out a .epub file from Scrivener
  2. Change the .epub file to a .zip file and extract it to a temporary directory
  3. Find the content.opf file (which is usually in a sub-directory) and edit it
  4. Add the two extra lines (above) to the guide section and save the file
  5. Make a new zip file
  6. Rename the zip as .epub
  7. Use Kindle Previewer to convert the .epub to a .mobi
  8. Check it out in the previewer (where the start page for me is actually where I want it)
  9. Upload it with Send to Kindle and check it on a real Kindle (where the start page is not where I want it but is in an acceptable place)

This all seems like it is a lot harder than it should be because how hard can it be to specify a TOC and a start page? But there you have it; it is still pretty clunky. And probably buggy: pretty sure the start page should not be different between the Previewer and the Kindle: Amazon has something broken.

You can probably have Kindle Previewer convert the html files directly without making a .epub (i.e., skip steps 5 and 6) but I didn’t try that.

Also, if editing the html is daunting, there is a free program called Sigil that lets you edit .epub files. I didn’t try it because after many hours of messing around, I wanted to write the html exactly as I wanted it.

There are folks who will do all this for you for a fee. I didn’t price it but it shouldn’t be all that much since this process isn’t that hard once you know your way around it.

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Semi-colons; No Place for Them in Fiction?

Kurt Vonnegut speaking at Case Western Reserve...
Kurt Vonnegut speaking at Case Western Reserve University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week, as part of a critters critique, I passed on some comments I’ve received from many critters and from a few professionals as well: don’t use semi-colons in fiction. Per critters guidelines, I didn’t present it as a rule, more as a “here’s what response I get when use them.”

You see, I love semi-colons. They are a natural form of expression for me.

Here’s what Kurt Vonnegut had to say about them in A Man without a Country, according to The Quotations Page. I’ve seen it referenced many times so it’s probably an accurate quote.

Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

Kurt was entitled to his opinions and he was no doubt on firmer ground than I am but that seems overly dismissive to me. Semi-colons have a recognized role in non-fiction. While they may not be the convention in fiction, they clearly mean “soft end of sentence, following sentence related to previous one.” Or sometimes, they are used in place of a comma between clauses if the clauses contain a lot commas for other reasons (and-lists, multiple adjectives, etc.)

After passing on my wisdom, such as it is, in my critique, I thought I’d double-check my current novel manuscript for them. Again, I’m kind of fond of them, but why buck convention? It’s a style thing that seems to rub editors the wrong way. It’s not like they are absolutely necessary (the semi-colons, not the editors).

So I fire up Scrivener and find that ‘fond’ doesn’t really begin to describe my preference for them. They were everywhere, not every scene but probably two-thirds of them, and in many scenes, multiple places. And this is after I had already made a decision to avoid them before I started my last revision. Ugh. Imagine if I hadn’t decide to purge them already 🙂

For the record, Scrivener’s global search is kind of lame: you get a folder of the scenes containing the search phrase. Within a scene, you can search for next occurrence but to go to the next scene, you need to click on it in the search results folder. Worse, if you do a ‘next’ in the search pop-up and there are no more instances in the current scene, you have to clear an annoying pop-up warning before you can do anything else.

That makes an irritating task all the more tedious because removing semi-colons is not trivial. Sometimes it is no more than replacing with a period and capitalizing the next letter, which doesn’t exactly roll off my fingers on the keyboard. But often, more substantial re-work is required to avoid the construct: turning the sentence pair into a compound sentence or even re-writing the pair entirely.

I’m about two-thirds finished after several hours. A funny thing has happened as I purge semi-colons, though. While I don’t agree with Kurt that they have no meaning, I am starting to truly appreciate why they aren’t typically used in fiction because I think my semi-colon-less prose is better than it’s predecessor. I’ve removed a few unnecessary sentences in some places. In more, I’ve reworked the sentence into something that seems more interesting to me.

Now, if I can only avoid putting them in my drafts in the first place, I’ll be all set. It’s tough: I don’t notice them any more than a comma or period these days. It’s probably a manifestation of my engineer-think.

How about you? What’s your opinion on semi-colons?

Halfway through draft 2!

Milestones help me write and one goal I’d set for myself was to post at the 50% point in draft 2 of my current project. Monday I was tooling along, wondering why the halfway point seemed so far away so I counted my chapters again and… I was already past it 🙂 Turns out in addition to counting chapters I had counted a layer of hierarchy I had added above chapters (it’s a non-printing layer but tracks turning points). So a good oops, since I was farther along than I thought.

Scrivener (software)
Scrivener (software) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As part of the half-way pause, I’d thought I’d share my own-going adventures with Scrivener. That makes it sound negative but actually, I love the tool. They came out a few months ago with an update that added some of the features missing from the windows version (hurrah for outline export!) I’ve also gotten used to the Scrivener way and come to enjoy it but most importantly, the level of abstraction it provides has proved to be just right for me.

While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this for those on a tight deadline, for me, being able to manage the novel as a series of scenes has been a big win. While I plot at the turning point (or pier) level and structure things at the chapter level, when it comes to massaging a novel, I found being able move scenes and, just as important, add scene placeholders a huge win. For this draft, I took a MS Word version and converted it to Scrivener. Converting it by chapter is trivial and takes just a few minutes but I wanted to try the scene level organization with appropriate tags. That took me about a month, although I did some re-writing as I worked along.

What I really like about the scene level is that I can attach notes at a natural level of granularity. In my MS Word days, I’d have to either keep a separate list of notes or mark up the copy (paper or electronic). The problem with the latter was that I’d have to hunt for the right spot to place the note when all I really needed in most cases was a way to say “when I’m explaining the childhood of this dragon, be sure to mention he ate all his siblings.” That sort of note isn’t really a comment for a specific sentence but when marking up copies, I’d typically have to find some sentence to stick this onto. Now, with Scrivener and my manuscript organized by scenes, I can just use the handy note field of each scene and stick it there. As I get to each scene, I check the notes. Before marking the scene as “final draft”, I make sure I’ve addressed all the notes. With this level of abstraction, instead of looking for a page or sentence where I append the note, I look for one of a hundred or so scenes: much more manageable. Another benefit for me of the scene structuring is that it is easy to check scene and chapter length for balance.

In-line annotation and comments are also available but I find those of limited use for the most part, just a way to mark where I stopped editing, for instance.

If you start your story in Scrivener with scenes in mind, it isn’t a big one month hit like it was for me but it isn’t for free either. Managing a story  in this way probably will add noticeably to the project time, especially if you make use of keywords (so you can easily find an object, person, place, theme, magic effect, whatever you want to make a tag for). But for me, being able to look at the story at different levels of abstraction, from the level of a few turning points to chapters all the way down to scenes is a huge boon.

Color me more excited about Scrivener than my earlier posts indicated.

To keep this somewhat balanced, Scrivener is not without its nuisances. As far as I can tell, you can’t get chapter numbers and total chapter count without compiling (thus my earlier miscount). And it is a lot less portable than MS Word or one of the cloud word processors. The Scrivener license does allow multiple copies but so far it’s something I haven’t installed on my work laptop because I don’t like adding personal software to a work machine. That means, no Scrivener on business trips 😦

Scrivener: A Second Impression

Scrivener (software)
Scrivener (software) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Time for a second impression of Scrivener now that I’ve converted my first draft and blocked it into scenes. This took about 12-15 hours, but that includes creating keywords for many characters, places and objects, writing scene synopses, and doing a little editing here and there (I doubt I’m the only writer that can’t keep from tweaking the text once its open!) So, my thoughts still represent an early impression of the tool but I thought I’d share them anyway. In short, the tool still seems quite useful but the blush is off my earlier “Wow!”

Were I using the Mac version of the tool, the wow might have remained but with the Windows version, it’s more like looking through the toy store window at all the things you can’t afford to have. The Windows version is still a net-improvement for a writer and I still plan to use it but between the little things I’ve come to expect from MS Word and features available only in the Mac version, the experience is not without a sizable amount of frustration. First the positives:

  • Converting from MS Word to Scrivener was a fairly smooth process. While it took longer than I had planned, that was because I took advantage of the scene-synopsis features and also tagged all my characters, objects, etc. If you are in a hurry, I think you could convert it into chapters and scenes in a few hours and tag/describe everything later but for my next step, I want to review the story structure so I wanted the synopsis now.
    • The tool will automatically break your manuscript into chapters if you used a major heading for Chapters in MS Word. If you don’t care about breaking it further into scenes, you are pretty much done already.
    • Breaking it into scenes is a manual process but if you use a blank line (or a ‘#’) between scenes, this is pretty painless. You can type the scene name into the manuscript in place of the line break, highlight it and then split it into a scene named for the highlighted text with a keystroke. (Note to the devs: it would be handy to have the scene name text disappear from the new scene doc because at present, the final step is to delete the scene name from the new doc.)
  • The outline view is very handy: you can expand or collapse partially or fully. It provides a nice way to see word counts and scene titles/synopses at a glance with a few key items also shown (I chose to use some standard tags in a way that lets me see POV and location for each scene but you can customize that to whatever you want to see there).
  • The compile feature is a god-send. There are many useful presets that you can also customize for your own needs. With just a few clicks you can export to standard manuscript format (with smart to straight quote converts, em-dash to –, etc.) and a bunch of other useful items. This alone makes the tool almost a must-have for the writer.
  • I do critters.org reviews and my previous process was tedious:
    • Previously, I would copy the doc to MSWord, review it using revisions and comments with a separate .txt file in Notepad open to create my note to the author. Then I’d copy the .txt to MSWord to check it for spelling and grammar, fix the items in the Notepad view and upload. The reason for this is that it was a real pain to get MSWord to create a true .txt file of real plain text: even turning smart quotes off, I’d get weird symbols once uploaded to the site.
    • Now: I copy the text to be critiqued into a scrivener doc under my critters project. I create a sub-doc under it that will be my note to the author. I split pane so I can see both at the same time. I read the manuscript, making notes in the side pane (or sometimes annotating the manuscript). The side pane has live spell checking (but no grammar checking yet in the Windows version). When I’m done, I duplicate the critique, drag it to the manuscript folder and compile it for text. It is much more streamlined and a much more pleasant critiquing experience.

The not-so-good:

  • The corkboard is near-useless once you have multiple levels of hierarchy in your doc because you can only look at one level at a time. You can drill down into a chapter and see its scenes but you can’t look at your collection of scenes. This is not an issue in the MAC version where there are several ways to look at the scenes. The corkboard seems like it would still be useful early on before you divide things into chapters. It may also be that given both, I would prefer the outline view (which works fine) to the corkboard view but I really wanted to play around with the corkboard. So, call me disappointed on that point. And one assumes the Windows version will be upgraded to the Mac features at some point so here’s hoping it is sooner than later.
  • Comments and annotations are clunky. In the Mac version I believe you can get “offline” comments (on the side, not in-line in the text) but in the windows version it is all in-line, which I really, really don’t like. There’s a notes section you can use for each doc and that in the end will probably be what I make most use of but, even so, the in-line feature is a little clunky (also if you are used to the MSWord method of highlight the text to comment and then type your comment- don’t do that: Scrivener replaces the highlighted text with your comment.)
  • The Scrivener folks don’t have the hundreds of developers and tens of years behind it that MS Word does but, even so, I still miss things like the smart drag-and-drop that fixes spaces around what you are moving or the double-cap correct (THe -> The). Although maybe not having the double-cap fix will improve my typing 🙂
  • The outline view is nice but there’s more I’d like to do with that view. The Scrivener’s team has kindly provided a way to do that: you can export the outline to a csv file that you can read into Excel (or the equivalent). There, you can easily count your scenes, color code by chapter, determine min, max and average scene length, whatever your nerdy little statistical brain wants to do. The trouble is, this export feature is Mac only. In the Windows version, you’re out of luck. At some point I’ll manually count my scenes because I’m curious as to how many I have but at the moment, I’m just annoyed I can’t do it in excel where I could also get a lot of other information I’d like to have.

Scrivener is still a nice improvement over a general word processor and I have no intention of reverting to MSWord. There’s even a version of it out there that addresses most of my nits (the Mac one). But while my wife perked up when I mentioned how much nicer the Mac version is, I’m not going to buy two Macs just so we can use a full-featured Scrivener.

So, a recommended tool but if you are a Windows user, be aware that many of the features that the long-time Scrivener users rave about are not available to you. Not yet, anyway.

Scrivener: A First Impression

Scrivener (software)
Scrivener (software) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My wife found Scrivener while I was halfway through my first draft on my current project. As a long time MS Word and MS OneNote user, it didn’t really appeal at first. However, she really liked it and some of the concepts she mentioned sounded intriguing so I decided to give it a look after the first draft was finished. Despite being eager to start the next draft, I’ve done that it and– wow! It doesn’t just look interesting, it looks fun and indispensible. I’ve just started using it for real (after going through the tutorial highly recommend completing that) so this really is just some first impressions.

Here’s what appeals so far:

  • Ability to look at the story at different levels of abstraction: each element (your choice what an element is but a scene is a natural mapping) has both its text and meta data. The meta data can be keywords (anything you want but obvious things are characters, locations, objects, plot elements, themes, etc.), synopsis, notes, POV, completion, etc. You can look at elements as index cards with synopsis, title and color code from keywords or you can look at the actual text. There’s also an outline view that can show any or all of these elements. As an engineer who really appreciates being able to change levels of abstraction as necessary for the task at hand, this is a huge deal.
  • I mentioned keywords already but being able to tag scenes by POV, characters, objects, places, makes me tingle. Sure in Word or any word processor, I can search for something but that isn’t the same. For one thing, I can’t search at all for POV but also a mention of an item isn’t the same as finding a scene tagged for that object.
  • The compile feature is a huge time saver. Today, when I want to share a manuscript for a professional critique or a critter critique or friends (maybe for print, maybe for e-reader), it is time-consuming and messy. With Scrivener’s compile, I can pick my target format and boom, it’s pretty much done. Now switching from standard manuscript to e-reader to something that looks more like a novel is trivial.
  • I’ve enjoyed using MS OneNote for my notes but having that integrated into my writing project is even better. It’s already been a big help on some additional character development I’ve started.
  • Collections let you save searches and searched can be vanilla or they can be meta-data. For instance, you can have a saved search that finds all the scenes tagged for a particular character’s point of view. Want to find those scenes? Just click on that collection tab and they are all there.

Not so good things:

  • I’m Windows based and this is originally a MAC tool. The Windows version is reasonably featured but missing grammar check, doc templates (but project templates are mostly what you need and are there), and various other things. This isn’t terrible but one of the annoyances is that the Windows tutorial still reference some of the Mac elements (mostly it is correct but in places the descriptions are wrong: a button doesn’t highlight the way they describe for instance). Plus if you are also using a reference book like the Dummies Scrivener book you can get frustrated looking for non-existent features. Case in point: doc templates. The Windows project template has a doc template folder. Spiffy but just try to use it (as a real template, not just by copying the file). You look up doc templates in the manual. No reference to them at all. You look it up in the Dummies book: clearly says how to use them. Try to find them it in the program. Not there. Check the forum where they list differences between Windows and Mac versions and deep, deep in the list you find it is one of the unimplemented features. Granted for marketing purposes companies don’t like to call out not-yet-present features but given the doc templates appear in the project templates, it ought to have been mentioned.
  • Keyword application is manual. Would be nice, especially if importing an existing draft, to have a way to have it suggest at least some of the keywords. It would take some cleanup but a simple heuristic would get 90% of it right.
  • No local dictionaries. For a writing tool, this omission is rather odd but each novel comes with its own set of character names, and for fantasy novels, much else. I’d really like to be able to have a dictionary unique to my project.

Interestingly my immediate impression was actually somewhat negative. Just opening it up and looking around, it looked “unbaked” or half-finished but I think that is because the Windows port still has the look-and-feel of the Mac version and to a windows user, the simpler Mac layouts look like some freeware, lightweight app. Anyway, that first impression quickly faded as I worked through it. It seems very nicely implemented to me now.

As for importing my existing draft, my first thought was that I wasn’t going to do that because I’m a strong believer in re-typing early drafts so that laziness does not cause me to carry forward text that really ought to be completely re-written. I am still going to do that for the pending draft but I may also import the original draft because it seems fairly straight forward to chop it up into scenes and the ability to analyze my current draft at scene-level abstractions seems quite appealing. Still trying to decide whether to do that or not. On the one hand, it might help me plan some additional POVs and scenes I need to add. On the other hand, it might be an “attractive nuisance,” something that distracts me from working on the next draft.

Trying it out is easy: you can get a trial version and the license is quite generous: it’s a household license so you can put it on your desktop and laptop. My son uses it now for some of his school projects.