Everyone surely knows this, but I suppose the observation bears repeating: your printout of what you see on your computer screen may not look the same when ebook conversion programs transform your file into an ebook. Conversion programs—and there at least seven of them, including Amazon, NookPress, and epub—transform your file’s format, not its appearance.

As a traditional print author, it took me a while to completely understand this. In an ebook, you never, ever use the Tab key to indent paragraphs or the Enter/Return key to create space between chapter titles and text the way you usually do when you’re composing a manuscript. It’s best not to use Word Alt+ commands to create special formatting, either.

Instead, in MSWord (the gold standard of ebook creation in my estimation), you go to the Home toolbar at the top of the screen and format everything—font type, font size, bold, italic or underline, left, center, right, or justified margins.

After you do all that, click on the Paragraph Settings arrow at the bottom right of the Paragraph section. There you will be able to adjust margins. There, and only there, you set how far you want to indent paragraphs (or no indent at all), choose the space you want before and after paragraphs, and choose single spacing, double, or 1.5.

If all this sounds complicated and boring, never fear. Once you become accustomed to formatting text using the Home toolbar, it’s a snap to set up your document and individual elements within it. I never even prepare manuscript to go to a publisher using tabs and returns anymore. I just format the document so the editor needn’t become distracted by format marks. The production editors on the other end are conversant in all this stuff, so if they want to change your choices, they just do the same thing—go to the Home toolbar.

[Back in the Dark Ages a few years ago, authors were instructed to underline words they wanted in italics, use certain kinds of dashes for certain kinds of punctuation, and so on. So much easier now!]

However!

All this ease and speed becomes a lot more complicated when you’re preparing a screenplay, play, poetry, or a book with lots of special features, such as blocks of text set off from the narrative (as in Summer of Love).

Everyone also surely knows that simplicity is best when formatting an ebook. Smashword’s excellent Style Guide–which I highly recommend and which you’ll find at Smashword’s website for free—drives this point home. Because there are so many different conversion programs, your book will look fine across many different platforms if you keep the format simple.

But what about a screenplay?

Traditional print screenplays have lots of moving parts: the narrative, which they used to want you to indent left and right by half an inch, single space justified with no introductory paragraph tabbing, and double space between narrative paragraphs. Characters’ names centered, and characters’ speeches block indented and justified by an inch and a half, left and right.

Whole chapters in screenwriting books are devoted to format issues, and writers are warned that if they don’t follow the conventions, their scripts will be recycled, unread.

That will put the fear of Hollywood in you!

Screenwriting computer programs purport to automate these mechanics so you, the writer, can concentrate on the material.

As well you should!

It should come as no surprise that these screenwriting programs are incompatible with every ebook conversion program I know of. You’ll have to dismantle a programmed script and start over with a .doc file in Word.

When I was preparing my Tesla Screenplay as an ebook, I found most of the traditional format easy to set up using the Home Toolbar. I indented the narrative lines left and right to 0.5 inch. I didn’t justify the margins because I was instructed two years ago by a reader, fan, and professional ebook formatter always to left justify margins. (Smashwords says the same thing.) A lot of conversion programs will justify text for you, so you don’t want to mess with their automation. Also, researchers discovered that people with certain vision problems have trouble reading justified text. So even though the text in print books is justified, don’t go there. Leave text at the left margin.

But what about the characters’ speeches? I hit upon the solution of indenting speeches by one and a half inches, left and right. As recently as April when I reuploaded Tesla, the speeches looked fine in the Previewer and looked the same when I downloaded the Kindle book.

So I was shocked when I reuploaded Tesla (with an updated Author’s Bio listing the links for the latest book I added to my List, Strange Ladies: 7 Stories) that all my nicely indented blocks of speeches came out like this (this is an example, not an actual line from the script):

T

E

S

L

A

I’m

an

in

ve

ntor.

Smashed flat as the proverbial pancake! And my 0.5 inch indented narrative lines got smashed into the center third of the screen.

Well, hell!

It took us four full days to reformat all those lines (it’s a long script), and here’s what we did. Took out ALL the indents. Allowed narrative lines to stretch to the page margins. And centered the speeches. At first, that didn’t look very good either, so to set off speeches from narrative, we set a 0.3 margin, left and right. (I’m leery of 0.5, which places way too much white space around the line.)

The example above came out like this:

TESLA

I’m an inventor.

The longer speeches still have to contend with the limitations of centering (they don’t come out as a nice, neat, justified blocks), but we could figure out no safe way to block indent them that wouldn’t run afoul of the conversion process. (If anyone has conquered this, by all means, let me know and post your solution in a comment!) On the Previewer, the speeches look quite acceptable and legible. (Anyway, you the reader are supposed to be concentrating on the material!)

So there you have it, my friends. The new Amazon conversion is blindingly fast and good, and the Previewer is terrific compared to a few short months ago. But mess with your margins at your peril.

Tesla, A Worthy of His Time: A Screenplay is on Nook, Kindle, Smashwords (Apple, Kobo, Sony, and Diesel), and UK Kindle!

New! Strange Ladies: 7 Stories is on Nook, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, and Smashwords (all other readers including Kobo, Sony, and Apple). Short fantasy and science fiction by Lisa Mason published in magazines and anthologies worldwide.

From the author of Celestial Girl, The Omnibus Edition (A Lily Modjeska Mystery) on Nook, US Kindle, UK Kindle, and Smashwords, The Garden of Abracadabra, Volume 1 of the Abracadabra Series, on Nook, Kindle, Smashwords, and UK Kindle, Summer of Love, A Time Travel (a Philip K. Dick Award Finalist and San Francisco Chronicle Recommended Book) on Nook, Kindle, Smashwords, and UK Kindle, and The Gilded Age, A Time Travel (a New York Times Notable Book and New York Public Library Recommended Book) on Nook, Kindle, Smashwords, and UK Kindle.

Visit me at Lisa Mason’s Official Website for books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, forthcoming projects and more, on my Facebook Author Page, on Amazon, on my Facebook Profile Page, on Goodreads, on LinkedIn, on Twitter at @lisaSmason, at Smashwords, and at Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

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