What Happens to your story before Publication

So, ever wonder what happens to your story in-between the submitted Word document and the final output? Here is a quick overview of what I do.

  1. I copy and paste the story into plain text. This strips out all formatting, all styles, but most importantly, all of the sins of the word processor used to create it.
  2. It is Find and Replace time! Remove the Tabs, and double spaces after punctuation. Change it so ultimately it is two hard returns after a paragraph, with no hard or soft ones in-between.
  3. Quotes are straightened, single and double. Each dash and hyphen is inspected to ensure it is the correct punctuation mark.
  4. Any spacing between sections is normalized. I use either * * * or just blank space.
  5. I open up the original again, and reformat any italics in the piece. I check to make sure the paragraph breaks are correct, all the section breaks were marked.

And now I have a clean and correctly formatted version of your story in a TXT file. From here, I can convert it to DOCX or EPUB or just about anything I want without formatting worries. If there is a change to be made, I can make it in the TXT file, and it is changed everywhere.

Plain Text Story Formatting, Part Two

This is the nerdy one. I talked previously about how I use plain text to write these days, but left the final formatting out of that discussion.

The fact is you can do formatting in this manner as well, you don’t need to copy paste into Word. There are a few things you will need, however: Some basic HTML / CSS knowledge; a program called Pandoc and comfort with the command line; and an app called Marked.

To start, this is Macintosh centric, as that is what I have. Pandoc will work on Windows and Linux too, which is good, as it is very useful. Marked, however, is just for the Mac. While I suspect there are Windows and Linux equivalents, I can’t speak to how they work.

First lets look at Marked and take about what it does. When I write, I used a syntax called markdown. It uses things asterisks to designate italics and bold, pound signs (hashtags…) for headings, etc. It is very simple, and since for the most part the only real thing we use in fiction is italics and possibly headers, there are very few things to remember.

Now, in principle what Marked does is similar to what your browser does when you look at a web site. Websites are just text files as well, but when the browser gets it, it renders it into a webpage. Marked does the same thing with your markdown syntax.

So instead of *this* it looks like this, which is what you wanted.

Now Marked also has a large collection of style sheets. This lets you change how your file will look, and hey, one of them is even standard manuscript format. That’s nice.

With a simple click your story is all formatted, ready to go. Need it changed? Marked comes with 9 pre-set style sheets, and since they are just CSS, making your own (or tweaking what is there) is quite easy.

It isn’t an editor. You will need to still open up your text file in whatever application you were writing in (I may have suggested Byword once or twice…) to change things.

But, for those following along at home, you may have question. When I talked about my story format, I had all of these other sections, like Notes and Characters in my file. What happens to those sections?

The nice part about markdown is that it is open to HTML as well. We will take the “comment” tag from HTML and fix this right up. As you recall, the layout I use looks like this:

Title: (title here)
Author: (my name)

To-Do

Summary

Characters

Locations

Notes

Story

Archive

Now, we will add comment tags, which look like this:

<!--
comments go here
and you can’t see them
-->

Which, when rendered in HTML, looks like this:

(That was a programming joke.)

So, what do we do? We enclose the parts that we don’t want to show in the final version in those comment tags, like this:

<!--
Title: (title here)
Author: (my name)

# To-Do

# Summary

# Characters

# Locations

# Notes

# Story
-->
# Title
## By Me

Once upon a *time*...

~fin~
<!--
# Archive
-->

And, since we don’t show comments, Marked passes over all of that. All we will get is:

Title

By Me

Once upon a time

~fin~

Thus, allowing me to keep all that information where I want it: in the file with the story itself, AND also have a well formatted document. (that other stuff is still there, if you looked at the source code of this post you would see it)

Marked lets you change the CSS if you want, so you can adjust fonts, spacings, indents, etc. Simply export from Marked to quite a few formats, like DOCX, PDF, and RTF

Pandoc

Pandoc provides a more versatile set of tools for those comfortable with the command line. For me, the feature I use the most is converting files into ebooks. Pandoc will convert my mess above into a full epub with a table of contents.

It makes it quite easy to add things as well. So if your file was mystory.txt and you had a bio.txt file of your well crafted biography, you can make an ebook like this:

pandoc -o mystory.epub mystory.txt bio.txt 

Simple, no? The -o tag is for output file name, which is in this case mystory.epub. Pandoc can tell what the file is by the extension, but you can also designate, like this:

pandoc -o mystory.epub  mystory.txt bio.txt -t markdown -s

Now, if you want to be more hands on, you can be. Pandoc lets you change the stylesheets, set a cover, add in the metadata.

You can do something similar with DOCX files. If you make a Word file that is formatted the way you want yours to be, Pandoc will use the same styles for your file. like this:

pandoc -o mystory.docx mystory.txt bio.txt --reference-docx=myotherstory.docx

And now your new mystory.docx file will have the same styles as myotherstory.docx has.

And this is just a drop of what Pandoc can do. If you need a quick powerful tool to convert files, this one is worth looking at.

Why?

Why? why do this? Why not just have piles of Word documents? All of this was spawned from the need to have so many different file formats for one story. The story starts off any way you want, but once complete, you will need an ebook, a PDF, a print version, Kindle one, etc.

And then you find one mistake, and now have to make sure you fix it in all of those.

I’m in the process of incorporating this structure into the creation of LampLight as well, allowing me to format once, and produce four files at the push of a button. (well, a few because I have to type, but still).

It also allows for greater control over the epub output, and mades it easier to spin updates if needed.

But the important part–important to me, that is–is the file format. As plain text, I know those story files can always be opened up. The work done to format, to clean up the files, to make these things will not be lost simply because a new version of some other software comes out.

And that, the future proofing of these files, is worth the extra effort.

Plain Text Story Format

So, I have thing with file formats. Call it a rocky past, if you will. Lately I have been, as much as possible, using plain text files for my writing.

(I still use Excel for Excel things because plain text spreadsheets aren’t really a thing–which is a shame. But I do use plain text for my to-do list, which is turning out well.)

I use a format called Markdown, which I’ve rambled about before, but I wanted to post about how I organize a file overall.

The nice thing about this format is this will work in any program–Word to plain text–as it is just a manner of organization. Now to be clear, this is primarily my working file, and while you can use this as a final with some tweaks (for a later post), for now think of this as what you are using to draft.

The layout is simple, really. I put the infonotes at the top, break, and the story, with a slight tail of word storage at the end. A blank layout would look like this:

Title: (title here)
Author: (my name)

To-Do

Summary

Characters

Locations

Notes

Story

Archive

To use this, all you would need do is copy/paste that into a fresh document. These headings (which I usually format as Heading 1 just for visual effect), provide a skeleton to the file, and some guidance to the chaos that usually filled my stories.

The To-do section is as it sounds. I’ll make a list of items for the future. If I am feeling proper, I’ll use todo.txt formatting. I’ll mark done items with an “X” in front

# To do 

- change main character’s name
- move the setting from Mars to London
- look up fashion from 1870’s @library
X read about Inuit and Aleut +mythology

I use the same formatting both for the Characters and Locations sections: a Heading 2 style for the name of the character / place, and then followed by a description (or important details)

# Characters

## Victor Frankenstein

Smart guy, but kind of a jerk. He knows what he wants, and isn’t afraid to go get it. Love interest of main character. 

Blue eyes, tall, hiding a bald spot. 

## Jean Renee 

Lone wolf type character, she is traveling but won’t say to where (Stockholm). carries a blade in her umbrella. (or really an umbrella on her blade.)

likes crepes

# Locations

## Victor’s House

London, 85 Baker street. There is an exit out the side only he knows about, and a secret basement he doesn’t

## Warf

Three pubs, Ego Alley, Jones’ and The Lost Lady

For characters, you can set them up in groups. I had a military story, for example, and had them sectioned off by fire squad and rank to keep the names straight. Have ships? group them based on who is on what boat.

Locations, same idea–organize by city, then location; by planet, then continent; chronologically by when they come up in the story. However you want.

Notes is free form for a reason: sometimes you need free form. I’ll usually try to space them out by headings or white space, but overall, anything goes here.

Story is just that. Write here like you always do.

Archive is for things I wrote which, naturally, are brilliant, but for whatever reason don’t fit into the story. This is an archive of deleted sentences and paragraphs I want to keep, but not be a part of the published text.

And that’s it.

This structure allows me to have the spread of information I want. I can open a file and world build, or I can write away, knowing that I can keep things that don’t work as well.

The best part? This isn’t a program. So if something isn’t working, it is easily adjusted. For example, you are writing a short story, set in a single location, BUT the main character is a chef, so you have to keep recipes handy? Scratch ‘Location’ and ‘Recipes’ it is. Change things to work for you.

Now some may say, isn’t this what Scrivener does? Why not just use that? And yes, there are similarities in ideas. I do own Scrivener, and while I love it, not everything I write fits into its scope. Scrivener is a big app, and offers a lot of functionality, and sometimes you just need a single file.

This text file I can store in my dropbox and work on anywhere–on my phone, my computer. It is small, light, easy to read and future proof and completely customizable. I don’t have to fight a program to get something I want, just change a header.

And then get back to writing.