How I Wrote A Book

Ok, relax. This is not going to be one of those posts where I talk about the inspiration, background and hilarious stories behind the tales on my new ebook, Untruths, in exhausting detail. That would be dreadful.

Instead, I wanted to answer the question quite a few people have already asked: how difficult is it to get an ebook published? 

The answer is, of course–it depends.

Let me clarify. Writing is a tough gig, filled with uncertainty, loneliness, paranoia and occasional bouts of planet-wrecking egomania. The process of getting a story out of one’s head and onto the page or laptop or scroll of vellum is painful, tedious, astonishing and addictive. I can’t tell you how to write a book. I can’t even really, despite the title at the top of the page, tell you how I wrote my book. It kinda sorta just happened. 

But the joy of being a writer in the 21st century is that when you finally have your masterpiece, it’s un-nervingly easy to actually get it into a place where people can read it and, gods forbid, actually drop you some coppers for it. And that’s what I wanted to talk about in this post. The process that led up to the moment where I pressed the big yellow button marked SAVE AND PUBLISH

Let’s start with an admission. I don’t use Microsoft Word. The bloody thing gives me palpitations. In an office environment it’s fine, I guess, if you need to generate reports or spreadsheets or presentations or newsletters. It’s great, once you get your head round the dizzying array of options, for putting together long, complex documents. It should be perfect for novels then, right?

No. Wrongo. It’s horrible for fiction. There’s no easy way to bolt together all the research, notes, weblinks, pics and folderol that goes into the standard novel. A work of fiction does not spring from the wide brow of the author fully-formed on wings of shining prose. It’s wrestled out, bit by bit, ugly draft by ugly draft, hammering ideas into shape and hammering them some more until they go in the hole you knocked in the drywall for them. A novel is like the scenery for a film. It looks amazing from a distance, but go round the back and you’ll see the struts and jerry-rigging that just barely hold the teetering edifice upright. Writing a book is a messy business, and sadly I’ve never been able to get Word to play nice and do what I need it to do.

When it comes to generating an ebook, Word is even worse. Here’s the point where I have to get technical. Sorry and all that.

An ebook is, at heart, a styled HTML document–the same language you use to write websites. If you have the skills to bang out something for the web from raw materials, then coding an ebook should hold no mysteries. Sadly, we writers are a technically unsavvy bunch. We think HTML is a short way of saying Hotmail. So when we fire up Microsoft Word and see that it can export ebook files, well, that’s great, isn’t it? Hit one button, publish to Amazon, next thing you know they’re calling you the new Stephen King. Simples, meerkat chirp. 

This is what you get for being a fantasist. Word can do the job, as long as you realise that it tucks an awful lot of stuff in the background that can lead to your perfectly-formatted masterpiece look like the aftermath of that time the dog chewed on your keyboard. When you’re coding an ebook, you need to understand the Styles pane, have all the hidden characters in plain view, and be veeeery careful with your paragraph breaks. Failure to do so leads to heartbreak. 

All of which leads up to the answer to the question at the top of the page (look, you can still see it if you squint, way off there in the distance): it’s very easy to get an eBook published–if you use Scrivener. 

Settle down, Readership, I’m about to wax lyrical. Scrivener is the best bit of story-writing software out there. It has the capability to effortlessly take in all your scruff and nonsense, the notes that you’ve banged into your phone and tucked away in numerous dusty “ideas” folders for time immemorial, and allow you to organise them in a way that lets you clearly build up a book. It lets you bang out a first draft in short order when you’re ready, reorganise chapters and scenes with a click, shift stuff around in a view that deliberately impersonates the classic index card and corkboard setup. Your character notes and research are all in the project with you, accessible in a second. 

It takes a little getting used to, because it’s such a radically different way of thinking. Scrivener will not let you see a finished document until you compile all your materials at the end of the job. Then you can export in any format that makes sense, from Epub and Mobi to RTF and even, if you feel the urge, Word. That allows you to tweak a little more if you need to (a bit more on that in a sec) before sending your magnum opus off to Amazon or your editor. There are modules for film and TV screenwriting, comics, scientific reports, poetry, and a blank one for when you feel the need to get your Scrivener-fu on and build a project your way. It’s endlessly customisable and forgiving of your faults and fubars. Sadly, it won’t make the coffee, but apart from that it’s the best friend I’ve got when it comes to knuckling down and banging out the word count. I know we writers are a stubborn, superstitious bunch, and once we find a solution that works, we like to stick with it. But I think you would be missing out if you didn’t give Scrivener a test drive. There’s a 30 day trial, plenty of time to knock out a short story or script. It changed my writing life. It could do the same for you.

Right, gush over. Because I found a weak spot in Scrivener’s export settings. At least, for this project. Here’s Untruths, in Scrivener, ready to be exported.  

 

Scriv

You can see all the stories in their folders, neatly ordered and good to go. The problem is that Scrivener views these folders as chapters, and will label them as such in the final export. All fine and dandy, except I don’t want my stories to be called chapters. I just want the story title at the beginning. There’s no obvious way of doing this in Scrivener. Which means a bit more jiggery-pokery is needed. 

To solve my problem, I have to squirt an ePub out of Scrivener and into Sigil, a free utility for editing that file. In Sigil, I can quickly dig into the ePub, tweak the headings (and while we’re at it, the table of contents; Scrivener helpfully gives each entry a chapter heading too. Which will be great in the future, just not for this project). Once done, it’s just a case of Save As, dump into Calibre, an absurdly well-specced ebook conversion program, and use that to fire out my final Mobi. There’s an easier way of doing this, I’m sure (for example, there’s a Windows-only thing called MobiPocket Creator that’ll let you skip the final conversion step–anyone know if there’s something similar for the Mac?) but for a first crack at it this seems to work. I use Calibre to email a copy of the file to my Kindle for a final check, aaaaand we’re done.

End result: a well-formed file that Amazon accepts without a word of complaint. This is a process that I’m certain I’ll streamline further as I put new stories on, but for now, I’m happy. Let’s put it like this–I have a book, compiled from a stack of different files from different computers and thumb drives, and with a couple of hours work have put it up for sale on one of the principle ebook retailers on the planet. I am enormously pleased with myself.

There’s a fall coming, I know it. Amazon isn’t the be-all and end-all, and I know other outlets are not so forgiving. Smashwords is already wiping the grin off my face. I will prevail. In fact, I already have, to an extent.

Untruths is available to buy through Smashwords.

It’s not on the Premium Catalog that allows the book to be sold through Barnes and Noble, Sony, Kobo and Apple, but that’ll come soon enough. I’ve already learnt so much. And I still have to figure out the print edition.

Who said self-publishing was easy? 

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Published by

Rob

Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

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