Category Archives: Software Tips and Tricks

Ellis’ Writing and Publishing Toolbox

office 2Powered by coffee, Hello Kitty, and Left 4 Dead.

Hey again! I thought I’d give you a behind-the-scenes peek at everything that contributes to my production process, from draft to finished book/story.

A room in my house serves as my dedicated office. Up there you see my desk: MacBook Air, laptop stand, cheap mouse, expensive keyboard that makes neat clicky sounds. And omg COFFEE, two mugs a day. Next to the desk is my laser printer, which comes in handy for printing off drafts and review copies. In the drawers, you’ll find things like staples, envelopes, and oodles of pencils (mostly mechanical) and pens (ballpoint and felt-tip). I also draw with these on occasion.

Most of the magic happens on my computer. Here are the programs I use from start to finish. With the exception of Scrivener, these apps are all free to download and use:

Scrivener – This program has spoiled me to the point that I can’t draft things anywhere else. The way it lets me split up, organize, and notate things is unparalleled. Plus it lets me save snapshots of old drafts, which I fall back on from time to time.

OpenOffice – I use this to take my Scrivener draft and create PDFs for paperback interiors and free ebooks. While Scrivener has its own conversion tools, I trust myself more. This program performs really well, and lets you do just about everything Microsoft Word can do. That’s way more than I can say for Pages, which I find unacceptably slow and hobbled.

MacDown – I’m currently experimenting with Markdown to see how well it streamlines my conversion from draft to HTML, important for making ebook files. MacDown happens to be one of many free apps out there for Markdown editing.

Komodo – If I need to do heavy-duty HTML editing, I do it here. This is also the program I use to maintain my website.

Sigil – Great tool for creating EPUB files, once you get past its learning curve. I make ebook files manually because (a) I have a good understanding of CSS and HTML, and (b) I can ensure they’ll come out exactly the way I want at the smallest file size possible. I don’t like crossing my fingers and hoping a compile or conversion will work out. I also don’t trust the cruft that gets added to files in that process.

Epubcheck – Lets me validate my EPUB files. Was quite a helpful troubleshooting tool in the past when I couldn’t figure out why my conversion from EPUB to MOBI was failing.

KindleGen – Lets me convert my EPUB into a MOBI that Amazon will accept. It also gives you compression options to ensure the file size is as small as possible. This is important because Amazon charges you delivery fees every time someone buys your ebook. These fees are dependent on your ebook file size, and can eat into your royalties if you’re not careful!

GIMP – This is what I use for designing paperback and free ebook covers. I have experience with Photoshop and InDesign, so I don’t have much trouble using GIMP. Plus, there are tons of tutorials and docs online in case you’re ever not sure how to do something.


If anyone has suggestions of things I should be using, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

EpubCheck To The Rescue!

sigilSIGIL is a popular tool for generating EPUB files. I’m still getting the hang of it.

“Hey, I know CSS and HTML. I’ll make my own ebooks! How hard could it be?”

Famous last words… :)

Anyone who creates ebooks from scratch- without using a tool that promises to handle it with the push of a button, and doesn’t let you see what atrocities it’s actually committing- knows it can be a, um, trying process. Usually a multi-day slog that involves a good bit of cursing and/or breaks away from the computer before your welling frustration vents in irrevocable ways.

Ebook creation is far more finicky than creating a normal document, or even a webpage. There are so many things that must be done to ensure proper positioning and formatting from one ebook-reading device to another, because there’s no standardization across devices. There’s also little to no documentation on what each device renders, ignores, or expects to see inside each ebook it opens.

Even when you anticipate every quirk you know about, you might never figure out why your title gets split across three pages on the Nook, but looks fine everywhere else.

If you have any web development experience, recall what it was like to build webpages back when you had to account for every web browser’s interpretation of HTML being wildly different. Ebooks are on the same level- with a healthy dose of crack mixed in.

However, once you grind through bizarre CSS kludges and generate an EPUB file that displays properly in every device/program you have on hand, you’re in the home stretch! EPUB works nearly everywhere- everywhere but Amazon/Kindle, which uses its proprietary MOBI format instead. But hey, Amazon provides a free command-line tool called KindleGen that converts EPUB to MOBI! Great!

So you try to convert your EPUB…

…and the conversion fails…

…and KindleGen won’t explain why, even when you ask for “verbose” output.

You Google the error codes it gives you. Hey, if they went to the trouble of defining error codes, surely they’re documented somewhere!

Nope. You find one whole post on the entire Internet. In Japanese.

kdp_japaneseSumimasen! Nihongo o sukoshi dake hanashimasu!

I was at this point last week, after hours of fighting with broken hyperlinks and non-centering titles, and quite ready to smash things. Fortunately, I came upon this post first, which recommended running the EPUB file through a free Java-based utility called EpubCheck.

Thank you, EpubCheck! If your EPUB is broken in some fashion, it tells you exactly what’s wrong in plain English.

In my case, it turns out I’d forgotten to define some required metadata. The display devices I tested with didn’t care about the missing metadata, but KindleGen wanted it. (It would’ve been nice if KindleGen had told me that itself, but oh well.) When I added the metadata to the EPUB, I was able to convert it to MOBI without an issue.

I wanted to call out EpubCheck this week because this is the first time I’ve ever heard of it, despite a ton of prior effort and research on ebook generation. Anyone who makes EPUB files and wants to be 100% sure they’re ready for prime-time will want to install and use this tool.

There’s tons more I can say about ebook generation, but I’m not sure what might be useful to you guys. I’m also not sure if you’re fellow computer nerds, or need extra hand-holding. I’d be happy to write any how-to you might request, at any tech level. I’m familiar with creating EPUBs and MOBIs, and very experienced with CSS and HTML in general.

If you want help with something, request it in the comments and I’ll write a post for you!

Find Something To Automate This Week

robotLet’s see if this little guy is up for some vacuuming…

If you have a WordPress blog, or frequent the comments section of any high-traffic site, chances are you know all about comment spam. This blog doesn’t get much traffic, but boy, spammers love it. At one point, I was getting upwards of 30 spam comments daily- comments I’d clear from my WordPress dashboard and from my email several times a day.

What a waste of time! But I embraced that chore, and stuck with it for weeks.

Why? Because it was there.

Here are things human beings are good at:

  • developing good habits
  • developing bad habits
  • inventing chores for ourselves
  • despairing we don’t have time for everything we want to do

Think about the latter two. Have you ever taken on tasks you didn’t have to? There may be chores you can reduce in frequency or eliminate outright. If you can, do so.

For the stuff that has to be done: could it be set on automatic?

My tedious spam deletion, for instance. Did I really have to delete all of those messages, several times a day? Heck no- there are plenty of WordPress plugins for filtering spam. I installed one that’s been working great so far. No more garbage comments cluttering up my inbox, and a few extra minutes added to my day!

What one chore might you be able to automate this week, thus freeing up a little more time to focus on stuff that matters to you?

For instance: do you have automatic payment set up for every utility/bill that supports it? That saves you a ton of stamps and check-writing.

Do your appliances have any timers, schedulers, or other automation features you’re not taking advantage of? Is there an affordable upgrade or technology out there that would eliminate a hated chore? I’m not quite sold on a Roomba-like device yet, but I’m keeping an eye on them because vacuuming is easily my least favorite bit of housework.

Email can be a giant pit of time-wasting, too. Good inbox filtering and automated responses can act as the secretary or bouncer you wish you had. Set up folders, and rules to route emails to those folders. Then- if you have the discipline– choose one time period per day when you’ll focus on email. For the rest of the day, close email and disable notifications.

If you have money to spare, but not time, you can hire help: a housekeeper, a babysitter, maybe even a remote executive assistant who’ll handle pretty much anything you want them to. Some people swear by Brickwork and the like! As a frugal hands-on writer type, that’s too extreme for my tastes, but it’s an interesting idea.

Identify one thing to automate away this week. If it works out, challenge yourself to come up with more time-saving tricks!

What are you so glad you don’t have to do anymore, thanks to automation? Let me know in the comments!

Why I’m A Draft Packrat

roughdraft_finaldraftI miss college.

In the five years I’ve been writing this novel, I’ve done everything you’re not supposed to do. I let things sit for weeks or months, until I “felt” like writing. I wrote slow, under the misguided assumption that the words had to come out perfect the first time. I edited, edited, edited well before I ever had a first draft done. Don’t feel much like writing today… I’ll polish that last chapter I wrote! Only to have to cut the chapter later, and feel like a jerk for wasting my own time.

Plus, plot and characters changed so many times mid-draft that there were several drafts I abandoned entirely to start over from page one. That happened, oh, four or five times. Nearly every scene in the book has existed in so many different permutations, I sometimes forget what “version” I’m favoring currently.

And yet, I’ve never thrown any of it away. I have folder upon folder of draft discards: deleted lines, deleted scenes, the full drafts abandoned midway through.

Why? Because, even when I’m sure that what I’m cutting is best destroyed for the sake of mankind, I often find myself missing a certain description or scene later, and wanting to add it back. Fishing through earlier drafts spares me the angst of having to write it anew!

Even better, I eventually switched to writing in Scrivener, which made my packrat behavior much easier to manage. One of the main reasons I favor Scrivener over other writing tools is its snapshot feature. I can take a snapshot of any scene before I change it. That snapshot is then preserved for all time. I can go back and pull lines out of it- or revert back to the snapshot version wholesale.

snapshotThese are just for my first chapter…

The only problem is remembering to take a snapshot before I make changes- which I usually do, but occasionally I’ve forgotten. It’d be nice if Scrivener had an option where it prompts you to snapshot the first time you start typing in a scene. Not a big deal, though; I’ve never lost anything I couldn’t recover from.

Along with the snapshots, I also maintain a special file of cut lines/dialogue/etc. that I still like- just in case I might have use for those lines elsewhere.

If you don’t have Scrivener, I recommend keeping a folder or file of your discards. You never know when they might save your butt, and you can always delete them after the book is done! Of course, you should also be backing up all of your files on a regular basis.

Do you keep your discards? Or do you prefer a different system of retrieval? Let me know in the comments!

The Easiest Way to Back Up Your Files, Right Now

timemachineQuick, let’s go back and save fourteen year-old me!

When I was a middle-school teenager, back in the era of one computer per household, my dad got mad at me for something- I don’t recall what.  Shortly thereafter, I logged into the family computer, and discovered my personal folder on the hard drive- the repository for everything I did- missing.  Not in the trash, not in a different folder, just gone like it never existed.

“You must’ve downloaded a virus,” Dad told me, matter-of-fact.

I wasn’t studying Computer Science yet, but even then I knew that was bullshit.  Nothing else on the computer was missing, no programs were acting up.  The computer was fine.  As revenge for whatever I’d done, Dad had deleted my personal folder and emptied the trash.

I’d never backed up any of my stuff.  Homework assignments, stories, pictures, music, personal website- gone.  I cried, for days.  Dad continued to maintain it was my own fault… while quietly ordering a disk recovery program out of guilt.

I don’t know if disk recovery programs suck now, but they sure sucked back then.  All I retrieved were a few sentences here and there from works in progress, littered with garbage symbols.

The approach was malicious and immature, but ultimately, Dad taught me the important lesson of taking computer backups seriously.  Back then it meant hiding boxes of 3.5″ floppies in my bedroom closet, but I didn’t care.  Many years later, a total hard drive failure on my school computer proved no big deal at all.

Most people never consider making backups until they lose something important.  Granted, most people never have to worry about someone in their own household erasing their data and then lying about it- but if you store anything of importance on your machine, don’t wait for a harsh lesson.  Don’t wait ’til you read more about the best methods, or save up for new hardware, or any of that.

Log into your personal email.  Right now.  Compose a new message- subject and body don’t matter.  Attach whatever files you’d die without, as the max file limit allows.  (For me, that’s my manuscript.)  Put your own email address in the To bar, then click Send.


Voila- a backup now lives in your inbox.  Huge peace of mind for only a few seconds of effort!  This method doesn’t work for everything- only items small enough to fit in an email- but if you’ve never done any backing up at all, this is a good start!

Here are some other ways I back up important files, all much less clunky than having to track and inventory 50 floppies (hooray for the future!).  The hardware mentioned below is easily found on Amazon, and gets cheaper all the time:

  • Copy files to USB thumb sticks.
  • Copy files to a USB external hard drive, which is stored within a fire-proof safe.
  • Store notes/small pieces of text in Simplenote, which has the added advantage of being accessible anywhere with an Internet connection.
  • Use Time Machine on my Mac to store whole-computer backups on the hard drive built into my wifi router.  Time Machine performs the backups automatically.  Set this up once, and you never have to worry about it again.

There are also utilities like Google Docs, Dropbox, Evernote, and a slew of others for the types of things listed above, but I don’t have personal experience with those.  Most of them involve storing data “in the cloud” – in other words, on someone else’s servers.  This is also true of our simple email example, and of Simplenote.  The advantage is you can access your files from anywhere, and don’t necessarily have to store them on your own computer.  The potential disadvantages: trusting a third party to hold sensitive info for you; the possibility of said third party going out of business, having server downtime, or getting hacked and having their data stolen.

It’s also important for me to back up this very blog, should something happen to the server it’s hosted on.  Since my blog is powered by WordPress, I use their recommended procedure.

One recommendation I have with saving text files: along with saving copies in whatever proprietary file format you use (ex. DOCX for Microsoft Word), save rich-text or plain-text versions as well (file extensions RTF or TXT respectively).  Copying/pasting your text into Notepad (Windows) or TextEdit (Mac) and saving it out of there is usually sufficient.  Just in case something bad happens to the proprietary software/format you’re using, or that file gets corrupted somehow, you’ll have a “clean” version of the text you can easily import into a different program.

Are there other backup methods you swear by?  Drop me a line in the comments and let me know!

Bob Ross on Editing: “Don’t Fiddle It To Death”

I love watching The Joy of Painting at the end of a long day.  Bob Ross is relaxing, entertaining, and has much wisdom to offer artists of all stripes.  Near completion of a painting, one of his favorite bits of advice is, “Now, don’t fiddle this to death.”  You risk ruining your happy little trees by endlessly tweaking and fussing over them.

The same thing applies when we writers put on our editing caps.  We second-guess word choice and sentence structure.  We worry whether we’re doing something the best way it could be done.  Taken too far, these reasonable concerns become paralyzing self-doubt. Endless edits and re-edits are a hamster wheel many writers are too afraid to step out of.  As a result, we never see their work.

This is especially true of editing novel-length works.  There’s no such thing as one quick pass and I’m done!– not unless you’re deluding yourself.  You must cut scenes, draft new scenes, then smooth out all the resulting rough edges and continuity errors.  So at minimum, you need one pass to cement the scenes in the order they’ll occur, then a second pass to pretty them up and make everything make sense.  (This doesn’t count editorial or beta-reader passes.  Incorporating recommended edits may constitute yet another pass.)

Inevitably, you’ll find things to change on your “final” pass.  Sanity-check that pass- oops!  More changes.  If you’re not careful, you can easily end up in that hamster wheel.  After this pass, I’ll be done.  No wait, one more… until the words on the page disgust you, and you can’t remember how to spell “the.”  You run the risk of eviscerating perfectly good scenes, simply because you’re sick of looking at them.

Perfect is the enemy of good.  At some point you have to put down the sandpaper, throw the red pen away, tie on a bow and hope for the best.

How do you know when enough’s enough?  The answer’s different for everyone, but in my experience, designating cutoff points keeps me from over-obsessing over any one passage.  On the first editing pass for my novel, I’ve imposed a one-week deadline per chapter (this was when I was working a full-time day job; the time limit may change as I transition to full-time writing).  However good I can make it in one week, that’s good enough.  I know I’ll be back on another pass, and the imposed separation will help me return to the chapter with fresh eyes.

Of course, shit happens.  Maybe I had to break one chapter into two and add a whole bunch of new material, or my wonderful beta-reader-slash-spouse isn’t available to provide feedback for a few days.  I don’t sweat it, because sometimes, the opposite happens and swings me back ahead of schedule.  Early in editing, for instance, I crunched my first five chapters into three.  Instant two-week buffer!

To track editing progress, I abandon the word-count spreadsheet, since my daily word count’s often negative at this stage.  OneNote is now a free download for Mac (yay!!), so I use it instead, creating a new page for each week.

onenoteNothing fancy, but I adore OneNote for to-do tracking.

Happy editing- and don’t fiddle it to death!

What tricks do you use to avoid overkill when editing?  Drop me a line and let me know!

Word Abuse: Accentuate Your Bad Habits


I’m in the throes of heavy editing at present, still trying to hammer out a process that works best for me.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned thus far, it’s that even after you think you’ve gotten your prose as pretty as it can possibly be, there’s something wicked lurking in there to which you’re completely oblivious.

One example is unintentional repetition of certain words and sentence structures. I didn’t know it until recently, but I abuse the hell out of […], and […] and […], but […].  See?  I even did it just now, two sentences ago.  It’s not something to completely eliminate from the manuscript, but (ugh!) multiple times in the same paragraph is a no-go.  The sentences all start to sound the same, and (crap, not again!) the prose turns boring.

Let me be clear: in a first draft, it doesn’t matter.  Get your thoughts down, however they come to you.  It’s while you’re editing that you have to worry about this stuff.

If you don’t know you’re doing it, how can you avoid it?  You need more eyes on your manuscript, human or mechanical.  My spouse alerted me to the and/but problem.  At first I was skeptical, but (!!) when I went back and looked again, I was shocked at how bad it was.

Even the best beta reader can miss things, though.  That’s when I turn to AutoCrit.  You need a paid membership to use it, but (shoot) I deem it money well spent.  Among many other things, AutoCrit can highlight commonly overused words, and (sigh) recommend how many of those repetitions to remove.  This is Autocrit’s default word list:

  •  “ly” adverbs
  • that’s
  • look
  • maybe
  • had
  • have
  • was/were
  • gerunds (“ing” verbs) at the start of a sentence
  • conjunctions (ex. and, but) at the start of a sentence
  • could
  • feel/feeling/felt
  • hear/heard
  • it/there
  • knew/know
  • see/saw
  • smell/taste
  • watch/notice/observe
  • just/then
  • that

If you have a Professional account, you can set up custom searches.  I don’t, so I can’t add “, and” and “, but”.  However, now that I know I have this problem, I can go into Scrivener and perform a find on a scene, chapter, or manuscript (CTRL+F, for those who love keyboard shortcuts as much as I do):

scrivfindI use the “whole word” option just to be safe.

I click Next through every instance found.  For each one, I manually highlight it in orange, my color for flagging repetition.  If I see too much orange in any one location, I know I need to rework what’s there.

Sadly, this is pretty tedious.  I’ve not found a way in Scrivener to say, “Find all occurrences of ‘XXXX’ and highlight them.”  If anyone knows how to do this, please let me know!

If you happen to use MS Word, a one-stop mass formatting is easy:

  1. Hit CTRL+H to bring up the Find and Replace window.
  2. Type the word/phrase you’re looking for in both the Find What and Replace With boxes.
  3. Click the More button.
  4. Click inside the Replace With box so your cursor is blinking there, then click the Format button.
  5. Choose whatever formatting options you want.
  6. Make sure your choices appear under the Replace With box (ex. “Format: Highlight”).
  7. Click the Replace All button.

wordfindThe only time I will ever admit Word is superior at something.

I utilize a rainbow of highlight colors in my manuscript.  This is my own personal system- I’m not saying it’s what everyone should do, just that it has served me well so far:

  • Yellow: “Needs work.”  Stuff that’s not yet in sentence form, or a word I don’t like that I want to replace with a better word later.
  • Orange: Repetition, excessive use of pronouns, words/phrases I overuse.
  • Green: Subordinate clause words.  Rewriting these can be rewarding in terms of crafting more interesting sentences.  I don’t look to eliminate every single one, rather ensure they don’t get out of hand.
  • Pink: Stuff I’m considering deleting.  I like to give myself time to decide whether it truly deserves the axe.

My manuscript looks like a paintball massacre, and (GAH) I often have to comb through and re-highlight after a round of editing, but (I give up) the eventual result is prose that’s more deliberate and varied.

I used to be a technical trainer for all of the MS Office products.  If you’re interested in more fancy Word tricks, let me know!  I’m not as deadly with Scrivener, but I’m also glad to post what I know about it, if so desired.

Are there any words/phrases you abuse?  What tricks do you have for dealing with them in your editing phase?