Robert Gryphon blogs on learning the novelist's craft to pay for better quality cat food. All writing-related conversation welcome.
Guest post by Wil Forbis
Lately, I’ve been mired in the more technical aspects of eBook production. One area of study has been the specifics of how Tables of Contents are presented by various eBook reading devices and software. Details about this are scattered about the web and I thought it would be useful to capture the relevant points in one blog post.
The first curious lesson to learn is that eBooks can have two types of TOCs. One type is the content TOC (sometimes called the HTML TOC) which usually appears as a series of links for each chapter at the beginning or end of a book. The second type is the metadata TOC (sometimes calls NCX TOC) which usually appears in a menu of some sort on the eBook reading device or software. The Go To menu on the Kindle is an example of a metadata TOC.
That’s all we really need to know for a cursory understanding of the two TOC types but more information can be found at this FAQ node on the web site for the Calibre software.
Next, be aware that the generation of the metadata TOC is automatic in most eBook production tools. That leads us to two questions: How do I create a content TOC? And should I do so?
The first question has many answers, of course, depending on how you are generating your eBook. Below, I discuss and screenshot the tools I’m familiar with (with one exception.) I’m using the Mac versions of these programs but you should be able to find something equivalent in the PC version if it exists.
Now for the second question: should you add a content TOC? If the metadata TOC could be counted on to be available in every situation it would be easy to answer no. Sadly, this is not the case. I came across two instances with MOBI files where the metadata TOC was not enough: the Kindle reader app running on the iPad and an older e-ink Kindle (4+ years) I have lying about. In these cases, not including a content TOC doomed the book’s reader to have no ability to jump to a specific chapter.
It’s something of an odd twist that for these cases (e.g. the older Kindle and the iPad Kindle app) the content TOC, not the NCX TOC, is used to populate the Table of Contents link on the Go To Menu. You can include the content TOC for these cases but you can hide it in the back of the book. There are several ways to do this but the easiest is by using the Calibre software. By default, Calibre generates MOBI files with TOCs at the end. If you find it’s placing them at the front you may need to uncheck the relevant setting in the Output Options screen shown above.
EPubs can work fine with just a meta TOC. You are of course free to add a content TOC if you see fit.
Having said all this, it’s debatable whether you need a TOC at all. Fiction books often avoid them, especially if using uninformative chapters titles like “Chapter One, Chapter Two” etc. However, there are reports of users receiving “warnings” from Amazon that their book has no TOC. Keep that in mind when deciding.
After 13+ years I sold my house and will be moving by the first week of April, probably to somewhere in the northwest. This process, along with the specific elements I’ve been working on adding in, has thrown off my productivity on the book lately, and may continue to do so for a while yet. But I think once I get established in a new place things will pick up quickly.
I hope to find a few different spots (coffee shops, etc.) within walking distance from wherever I end up, which I can rotate through instead of going to the same place every day as I do now. Habits are important to productivity, but there’s a fine line between a productive habit and a rut.
Lately I’ve been stuck on trying to work exposition dumps into parts 4-5 (total 6 parts) of the book. There’s a lot of revelations about the story world and behind-the-scenes plot machinations that need to be put in just the right places, and it’s tedious and difficult to get it done well. It’ll take as long as it takes, but it should be worth it in the end.
Once I’ve got that done and have incorporated all the alpha readers’ feedback that’s been coming in, as well as a bunch of my own notes that I have yet to work in, I’ll be able to move on to the more major rewrite effort required for the second half of part 5 and part 6: basically the whole lead-in and unfolding of the climactic sequence; plus the denouement afterward, which is rather long since the whole book is. At that point it should be at a draft 3+ level across the board, and I can do a widespread beta.
The beta is what I’m really working toward. It will be quite an exciting event for me, and hopefully an enjoyable one for the participants. Unlike with the alpha, there will be no limit to the number or type of people who can be involved, so whoever wants in will be welcome. However, with the increasing difficulty of the bits that remain to do, plus the move, it could easily be 3-6 months before that time.
So it’s onward to scout for my first new home in 14 years. See you on the other side. Figuratively speaking.
Now is the time of year where we give thanks that our least favorite time of year is over. That may or may not be the editorial “we,” contingent upon your own proclivities. For our part—i.e., my part—I haven’t been a fan of the holidays since age 15 or so, when I started making my own money to fund a tendency to materialistic excess. Then at 16 I got a credit card, and things really went wild. But I digress; that’s ancient history, and this is now, so let’s focus on the latter for a moment.
The slowdown in original content for this blog is a direct result of the slowdown on productivity on the book. There are a few reasons for this, beginning with the fact that it’s been difficult to maintain a fast pace for so many months at a stretch, and further aggravated by the angst I’ve been building up about certain side effects of hyperfocus, chief among them the long slow process of engineering a major move (not sure where to) and the correspondent absence of a sufficiently active social life. But overall, I think the reduced pace is rather more closely tied to the type of work I’ve been doing on the project lately. It boils down to the fact that I haven’t really been doing much writing at all.
Over the course of a year and a half, I’ve built up a massive bank of notes about characters, situations, the story world, holes in the plot, loose ends that need tying up, cuts that need to be smoothed over, and various other varieties of patches that need to be applied. It’s not always possible to work these ideas in during the actual writing part, or even in the course of a concerted rewrite of a given segment. As such, the notes have built up to the point where it takes a lot of work to work each one in. It’s worth doing, because the story grows richer and hangs together better with each tweak. But it’s slow going, tedious, often boring, and generally not suited to my inherent impatience and tendency to work best in bursts of exuberance.
If there’s a lesson here, it’s probably to not let your project evolve in a direction such that the bulk of it is wordsmithed and tuned while remaining unfinished in terms of the narrative, plot drivers, character traits, or other major underlying ingredients. There’s a bit of a catch-22 at work, though, since the actual writing part becomes much less fun and much more work, at least for me, if I put too much structure in place first. Feels like tiptoeing through a minefield instead of gamboling over a grassy dell.
On the plus side, I’m making progress, step by step. And I do like what the tweaks are adding up to. Of course, more of them keep cropping up, often appearing on the notepad by the bedside in mornings.