Friday, April 19, 2013

Smashwords rant

I've been working on a project to upload a book to CreateSpace (an Amazon company) to "practice" for my new novel.  This process turns out to be really simple and easy.  The CreateSpace uploader is very simple and they provide a "review" application that lets you view your pages online like a PDF reader.  You can turn the pages and see how they look.  Their "auto reviewer" detects sensible problems like the fact that I hadn't embedded a font in my file.  They also noticed that a list format that I had used with roman numerals extended past the margin and was close to the gutter.

The reviewer app allowed me to see a list of the issues, click them to go to that page where the problem was highlighted in red.  It was easy and intuitive and wonderful.  Uploading a new version to fix and review was simple and easy.  They accepted my manuscript in Word 2010 (.docx) format with no issues or glitches of any kind.

Pro Tip:  Use the "print preview" function of your word processor to do the visual reviews rather than keep uploading small revisions to your file to CreateSpace.  It's faster.

Now let me tell you about my experience with Smashwords for the ebook.  First let me preface this by saying I am not trying to trash Smashwords and I am not trying to speak badly about their service.  I'm just providing feedback on the upload process and my experience with it.  Also, I use Microsoft Word 2010 as my editor so there may be some issues with my particular needs and setup.  I am coming from a place where I am sophisticated enough with the software that there should be no reason I can't keep a single "image" of my book that is formatted well for both print and e-books simultaneously.  This could be my own set of issues that an e-book-only (or print-only) author might not face.

Let's start with the good news first.  The Smashwords site is smoothly designed and has no broken links and while the design isn't modern it is usable and fairly obvious.  There is a great deal of good and detailed inline help (maybe too much -- sometimes it's hard to find things if you've already read through the helpful sections).  Creating my profile and getting ready to upload was quick, easy and painless (not as painless as CreateSpace, but Amazon makes amazing web sites that everyone is used to using).

The clues to the problems occurred early when Smashwords asks for the file to be uploaded.  They only accept Word 2007 (.doc) format.  They also accept epub but I didn't have an epub version yet.  The reason this is a problem is because it immediately stops me from uploading and causes me to go to my manuscript to  downgrade the version.  There wasn't any loss of information but it definitely causes some concern about layout and style and font issues.  Reviewing the two version of the file in the "Compare documents" showed thousands of minor differences (mostly with obscure tags and bookmarks) but it still worries one.

I uploaded the .doc version anyway to continue with the process, figuring I can review it later to make sure it's ok later.  Then the errors started pouring on fast and furious.  I failed all sorts of "Meatgrinder" checks.  None of these were particularly worrisome (more on each later).  But the one major problem was that the document failed an e-pub check.  I was able to click the link that said "find out more about this problem" and read an in-depth article on how to check the file myself and what kinds of common errors could occur.

Thus began the e-pub nightmare.  Before I continue, let me reiterate I'm not complaining about Smashwords as a company, as a provider of a very valuable service, nor as seemingly helpful entity that wants to publish and profit from my book as much as I do.  I believe they are providing a very valuable product.  Their site seems to be extremely friendly and caters to authors.  The problem lies with their automated system and archaic restrictions.  I already mentioned a stupid requirement to upload old versions of Word (.doc) format.  But the e-pub transgressions that follow are egregious.

First, you can't review the epub or other documents in-line.  You have to download each format yourself and check them (there are a lot of them).  Second, the third-party (Google?) e-pub checker gives obscure and ultimately useless information about the "errors" in the e-pub document.  This is not a document I uploaded, but rather one that Smashwords' Meatgrinder generated from a downgraded-version original that I have.  In other words, I can't be sure if an error exists in my original, in the downgraded version, or in the Meatgrinder.

I was able to research the e-pub file format which is basically a .zip format with some special HTML files inside it.  By looking at the pathname the Google checker was giving me, I was able to locate the problem on my own with no helpful clues.  The only thing I had as a lead was the filename of the error and a line number (which wasn't correct).  But I did know it was "somewhere in the top of the file".  The bundled HTML file for that chapter contained a reference like this that I was lucky to spot:

<ol type="I" class="calibre5">

This code if you know HTML looks perfectly reasonable.  It says that you want to specify an OrderedList (numbered bullets) of type "I" (Capital Roman Numerals).  This corresponds to the section in my document I mentioned way at the top.  Nothing looks wrong with that, so why is Google complaining about not liking this "type" specifier?  I am technical, savvy, web-sophisticated and my day job is being around this stuff all do so I know where to look.  I checked out the definition for the class in the .css file for "calibre5" and immediately see the problem:

.calibre5 {
    display: block;
    list-style-type: decimal;
    margin-bottom: 1em;
    margin-left: 0;
    margin-right: 0;
    margin-top: 1em

You see the problem in the class:  Smashwords hardcodes the numbered bullets to be list-style-type:decimal.  Changing my downgraded (and slowly-changing manuscript) to numerals then re-uploading fixed the issue.  This is not my issue, it is Meatgrinder doing this to me.  Also, I can't find any good tools to edit an e-pub and upload the fixed version.  You have to fix your original.  You can't fix their bug and keep your manuscript the way you want it.  Even if I could edit/fix the e-pub files with a tool, I don't want another tool to have to use.  I have MS Word to edit my manuscript.  Not cool.

Smashwords Annoyance:  You can't use roman numeral bullets (and probably not apha bullets either).  You also can't edit (in my experience) the epub file they generate and which you download, so that you can re-upload it.  This isn't documented anywhere I looked.

I still wasn't done.  I found a link to the Smashwords style guide.  It has some really useful information buried in about 30 chapters of rinky-dink 1997 word processing advice.  Stuff like "Don't use more than four consecutive paragraph breaks", "Don't make font sizes larger than 18", "Don't use spaces to centre your text", really ground-breaking stuff like that.  It does have some things that I missed that are apparently mandatory.  In my opinion, many of them are bullshit.

The first is that you have to use a specific set of words in your copyright notice.  I don't think this is a bad thing.  But it is bullshit that it requires you to use a specific verbiage.  For example, if you don't say "Smashwords Edition" in the copyright notice, they'll reject your document.  That's kind of bullshit.  But it's moderate, somewhat understandable bullshit.

Pro Tip:  You do have to read the style guide to match the Smashwords guidelines.  If you're like me, it will be pretty painful to go through them.  It assumes you're not terribly bright and that you got your first computer from your grandchild as a gift last year.  But you can get through it and figure out why some of the rest of this stuff happens.

The second problem is that Smashwords is really anal about the styles in the paragraphs.  This makes sense in the vast majority of cases.  In my case, the defaults from MS Word have a "spacing before" metric that is default and normal, and works quite well for print.  In Smashwords, however, you aren't allowed to use this. When I say "not allowed", I mean, "they don't like it".  So, they complain.  Well fuck them, the document works great in print and it looks fine in HTML and e-pub and Kindle, so fuck them.  Why compain about something that is perfectly acceptable and works?  I'm not going to fix it.  That's bullshit.

Pro Tip:  If you can follow the Smashwords guidelines from the beginning when you first format your document, you should do so.  I spent a while making my document picture perfect so I can't undo a bunch of stuff for their needs.  I know better next time, but once you've set the styles you can't change them.  It's too much work.

The third problem is their insistence on not using fonts larger than 18.  I had a title page with the title in 28 point.  That's kind of large, I admit.  But it's default.  I also had a subtitle on that same page at 20.  That is also the default.  It looks great on page and in HTML.  Smashwords say "no".  Fuck them.  It was easy to change so I did so.  Minor and pissant, but bullshit, nonetheless.

The fourth problem is related to table of contents and footnotes.  Smashwords say they don't support the automatic table of contents from MS Word.  They say that don't support footnotes either.  The style guide in section 27d (or something like that -- fuck that 27d, that is fucking bullshit!) explains how you should "properly" setup a table of contents.  They can't use the standard Word TOC.  They can't even support the industry standard "Headings" format.  Smashwords tells you that you have to make (nearly invisible) bookmarks in your document, name them manually after your chapter headings, then insert hyperlinks to the bookmarks.  WELL THAT IS FUCKING 1994 WORDPERFECT BULLSHIT.

If I need to rename a chapter, then I have to change the heading.  Then I have to find the invisible bookmark.  Then I have to rename it.  Then I have to change my hyperlink.  FUCK THAT.  THAT IS BULLSHIT.

And this is even more bullshit:  The e-pub that Meatgrinder spits out looks fine.  Yes, it was ugly with the default format from Word.  But I could fix the format in one place and reran the upload.  It looks great and works perfectly in HTML, e-pub, Kindle, and so forth.  So why don't they "support" it?  It works!  THAT IS BULLSHIT!  Calibre, a conversion utility I've experimented with, supports it natively (not by default, but you can turn it on).  Calibre even supports the footnotes too.  I assume that they use Calibre, from the example output above.

The fact is that the automatic TOC from Word works just fine.  You have to turn off the page numbers.  But it's fine.  And the footnotes convert to endnotes.  The endnotes are even navigable on the Kindle.  Their report that they don't support it is BULLSHIT.  Chapter 27d in the style guide is BULLSHIT.

Pro Tip:  Don't follow the stupid guidelines for footnotes and chapters and table of contents.  It is supreme, magnificent, over-the-top bullshit.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Tea Bag Potus

The teabag is released from its captive string and sinks softly into the brown swirling miasma in my cup.

There's a metaphor in there, I just don't know what.  I was going through Potus and making sure that every section (or chapter) ties into the next.  The feedback I got from beta readers was that the story was too disjointed and there wasn't a lot of cohesion between some parts.  This is a natural fault of the way I wrote it.  I wrote most pieces slightly out of order and I did not have a full grasp of each overarching theme.  I originally had about five themes in mind at the beginning which eventually became about 15 by the end.  I need to go back and tighten up each theme.

Ideally, I'd distill each thread back to the original five and have a rigorous edit session where I ask detailed questions of each section:  Which theme are you?  Do you have multiple themes?  Which one should you focus most on?

Even more ideally (and this is my plan) I'll choose only one theme and the rest will be sub themes.  They have to tie directly to the main theme in some way or they will be removed.  As an example, the main theme is Potus' hatred of Daylight Saving.  He is also opposed to time zones.  This is a natural extension of Daylight Saving (or vice-versa, I suppose), so it stays.  In one scene, he's meeting with his cabinet.  What's the theme?  Why not make it so he (or someone else) is late due to the time change?  VoilĂ , instant theme tie-in.

Then, it's a simple matter of taking the theme and sub-themes and tying any scenes together with these.  Then, in between the scenes, make sure that there is a specific glue that holds them together.  For example, after the acceptance speech, we move to the inauguration.  This seems obvious, but we can make it explicit:

Aide:  Good luck Potus.  See you at the inauguration!
Potus:  Fuck you too.  Oh, I mean, thanks.

And so forth.  There are a lot of scenes that I didn't glue together.  For example, he goes from the inauguration to the car to meet Johnson.  That's easy:

Aide:  Great speech, Sir.  Please go this way to the car for the parade.

This writing shit is easy!  I'm done!

Another thing that struck me this morning was a horrifying and stunningly sick trick to try to play.  I was trying on different things for the Potus character and the question of strong female characters was on my mind.  The feedback I got was that the First Lady was abusive or too bossy.  I think that is correct because it reverses the power roles and echos sentiments from 42's reign.  It even applies to the former head of state for 44.  (Look it up.)

But then, I thought, what if HE was a SHE?  And the doors just about blew off the vehicle I was driving.  I thought it would make the scene with the bondage equipment even more funny -- except to reverse the genders, I imagine ShePotus would have to be weilding the whip.  And then imagine the First Husband sort of being hen-pecked the way HePotus is.  That is, that the First Husband would be the residue of the current HePotus character.  The ShePotus would be a new character that took over the qualities of HePotus and combined most of the First Lady into one.  There could be some gaffes where people are used to saying "Sir," and they could call her "Sir.  I mean, Ma'am.  I mean, Sir.  I mean, Madam."

Maybe she insists on being called "Mademoiselle" instead of the offensive and matronly "Madam" or "Ma'am".  But there again, I need to tie this into the time zones/daylight saving theme.  Maybe her period is off by an hour so she forgets to change her diaper so she gets cranky.  Naw, too conventional.

Thoughts, questions, feedback?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Case of the Mondays

There is a fellow whom I shall call Demetrious who always greets me in one of several days:  He will either say, "Pascal, it's Monday again" on Monday, or he will say, "Pascal, it's hump day" on Wednesday, or he will say, "Pascal, it's Friday!" on Friday.  On other days, his addle brain is so muddied he has nothing to say to me so he merely smiles and nods as we see each other.  I cannot express the desire that I have to punch him where he stands.  I generally smile amiably and dumbly as this default stance gets me by in most situations.  I'm the dumb blonde of tall lanky white guys.

Today I witnessed the following exchange in the communal social cesspool of the elevator:

Man 1:  Hey guy.
Man 2:  Hey.
Man 1:  Monday.
Man 2:  Huh?  Yeah.  Monday.
Man 1:  Monday is good.  That's good.
Man 2:  Yep.

Fuck you both in the face and die, assholes.  What kind of inane nonsense is held in the statement, "Monday"?  And the confirmation of, "Yeah.  Monday"?  Is there any other kind of brilliance you can bestow on the world?  How about this recreation from the 16th century:

Man 1:  Hello good sir.
Man 2:  You too, kind sir.
Man 1:  One doth proclaim the glories of Monday to one's fellow celebratory attendant.
Man 2:  Indeed.  The glorious day of Monday shall henceforth be commemorated from here to the ends of the four corners of earth.
Man 1:  You say so and it must be.
Man 2:  I quite agree, but humility forces me to give you attribution for the original topic of discussion.

If I had my way, this is how it would go:

Man 1:  Hey Pasc.
Pascal:  Hello.
Man 1:  Monday.
Pascal:  What is that supposed to mean?
Man 1:  You know,  Monday.  Monday.  MONday.  MonDAAAAY.
Pascal:  No, I don't know.
Man 1:  You know, like 'Oh, now it's back to work.  It's Monday again!'
Pascal:  It was Monday last week too.
Man 1:  Yes, that's exactly it.
Pascal:  And it will be Monday a week from now.
Man 1:  Yes, yes.
Pascal:  So of the seven days, why pick Monday from the list of notable days in a long list of days from a year or a decade?
Man 1:  Because it's back to work.  That's Monday!
Pascal:  Unless it's a holiday.
Man 1:  Yes.
Pascal:  Or a vacation.
Man 1:  Yes.
Pascal:  Or unless it's Tuesday after a three day weekend but you think it's Monday.
Man 1:  Maybe.  That still counts as Monday.
Pascal:  So Tuesday could be Monday as well?
Man 1:  Not Monday literally, but Monday in a philosophical sense.
Pascal:  So in the fraternity of days, Monday and Tuesday could be friends, but Wednesday and Thursday are left out of the fun that Friday has?
Man 1:  Exactly, yes.
Pascal:  And these days, each of them and their individual ascription, these days are worthy of praise or scorn based on their sequence and the arbitrary ordering into weeks and months are they?
Man 1:  I don't follow, but yes.
Pascal:  Thank you for enlightening me.  I'll try it with you.  I would just walk up to someone like I am pretending to walk to you and say the day?
Man 1:  Yes, try it.  You'll like it.
Pascal:  Yo, man.  Tuesday, bro.
Man 1:  Tuesday.  Yep.
Pascal:  Not Wednesday yet.
Man 1:  Not yet.
Pascal:  Tuesday, man.  I don't even know where to begin with Tuesday.
Man 1:  That's it, you've got it!  It's great isn't it?
Pascal:  No.

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