Some weeks, the life of a writer seems to have little to do with actually writing anything, but more to do with mastering the technology that's supposed to be helping make our lives easier – the software to help us prepare our manuscripts and the great programs that online companies have developed to help you promote your work when you've got it ready. The wonder of modern times and its technology; right!
Sometimes it can almost make you miss the days of typewriters and carbon copies. Not in reality, but in theory and sentimental memory, the idea sure does sound good. Especially after the week I've had dealing with printing and uploading. It’s enough to make me pick up a chisel and a hunk of rock a la Fred Flintstone for the rest of my projects.
Did you ever wonder if the world had screwed Bill Gates over in some previous life? How else could you explain the horrors of trying to format anything using his damned software? Come to think of it, how else could you explain his success without there being some sort of huge karmic debt involved?
I was seriously wondering about what I had done to piss him off in a previous life this week when I went and tried to print off the manuscript for my novel. At 340-plus pages, it seemed like a little much to do at home so I decided to put it on a floppy disc and take it down to a good inexpensive printer. That's when I ran into the good old demon of pagination and how documents can change from machine to machine.
Have you ever tried to make your way through the help file that comes with Word 2000? All I wanted to know was how to make sure that chapters didn't jump from page to page whenever they felt like it. When I took the disc to the printers on Tuesday, I knew chapter one started on the top of page three. It even said it did on the computer screen down at the printers when I checked it before hitting the print command.
But somehow or other the first paragraph ended up stuck on the bottom of page two like an afterthought to the table of contents. In fact every single chapter decided it wanted to invade the previous page. I had a complete manuscript with a bunch of hooligan sentences hanging around on the wrong pages smoking cigarettes and getting into all kinds of trouble.
I debated sending it to the publisher like that for two seconds. I could’ve included a note in the cover letter apologizing and making disparaging comments about Bill Gates' parentage and hope they'd be okay with it. I discarded that idea as quickly as I thought about it and realized I would once more have to make an attempt to figure out the mysteries of chapter breaks and pagination.
I quickly discovered the key was in knowing exactly what it was that you wanted to search for in the help file. By lucky happenstance I decided to type the word chapter into the keyword section of the search engine and the first result listed was how to separate chapters.
After only three attempts at reading the section I was able to get the basic gist of how to work it. After only four or five attempts, I was not only getting chapters separated, but I had figured out how to have different headers for each chapter and have the page numbers be continuous.
I don't think I have had a feeling of accomplishment equivalent to this in years. Not even finishing my final draft of the manuscript could compare to the feeling of having put one over on Bill Gates and Microsoft. Yeah I know that's a strange way to describe figuring out how to do something really basic in a word program, but there have been so many times I've felt like help files were written with the intent of preventing me from using the software so that when I did figure it out I felt like I'd won a battle with the creators.
Figuring out my manuscript wasn't the only challenge I was presented with this week. When I had published NaNoWriMo Notes, I had decided to list it with the Google books search engine. This involved setting up an account with the Books Partners program and uploading a pdf version of the text to their server.
I was able to overcome not having a pdf converter program by downloading a copy of the book from my publisher who converts all written text to pdf files upon uploading. Then it was simply a matter of uploading that file to Google. Sounds easy, and in fact it was at that time.
The problems began last weekend when I decided to upload a revised copy of the text and the covers for the book. Before proceeding, I contacted their help people and asked how I should go about it. They said as long as I uploaded a file of the same name as the one they had already, it would simply replace it.
To upload anything to the Google Books Partners service you need to not only have them in .pdf for text and either .pdf or .jpg for images, you have to name them in a certain fashion. Text files have to be called by their ISBN and image files have to be prefixed with the ISBN and followed by either frontcover or backcover. Again, I was able to accomplish this without too much difficulty – except for one problem.
I had uploaded the wrong front and back covers. I only discovered the error when I went to send out covers of my new book, Voices Of Creation: The Blogcritics Inteviews 2005-2006 to those people who had participated in it. I couldn't find them anywhere in the images file on my computer
It was only when I noticed that I still had images files named “NaNoWriMo front and back cover” that I wondered what were the files named with an ISBN that I had uploaded to Google. A quick email to the Google support desk confirmed that as long as I uploaded two more image files of the same name they would be replaced just like the text file had been in the last go round.
Fine and dandy I said. So I proceeded to rename the files appropriately and went to upload the correct image files. By now I guess Google had decided it had enough out of me and refused to recognise my files as being in the proper format. I tried everything I could think of, but after five times of getting the "this is not a accepted format" error notice, I wrote the people at support again. I tried everything they suggested and continued to get the same message and wrote them back again. They just told me to email them the files as attachments and they would upload them for me.
I know I made the initial mistake and have no problem accepting responsibility for that, but what the hell could have happened to make Google decide that a file format that was acceptable one day was no longer acceptable the next day. I even double-checked with the help desk that the format I was using was okay. They said it was fine.
It was when they started talking about downloading a new Internet browser and trying with that instead of Internet Explorer that I surrendered to the inevitable and had them do the upload for me. This was beginning to sound like way too much like work and more than just the simple point-click-upload I'd been promised.
Our concept of work has changed because of computers, and we have heightened expectations about how things should come easily without any fuss and muss. If I were to remind myself what it was like to use a manual or electric typewriter, when no spell check existed and making a correction involved using something that should have been called lumpy paper instead of liquid paper, I'm certain I'd be eternally grateful for all the technology that I have today.
You could go back even further to the days when you had to carve your own quills, grind your own ink, and paper was made from linen or hyde scraped very thin. But I'm sure you'd hear people back then complaining about the consistency of the ink or the poorness of the quality of the feathers and linen. Some things just don't change.
The thing is though, from the guy who complained about his latest shipment of goose quills always splintering to me muttering under my breath about Bill Gates, I hope we're not making excuses for our work. What kind of writer would I be if I said it was the fault of my software that my work sucked? A poor excuse for one in my opinion. It's the poor craftsman that blames their tools for the job badly done.
What does drive me crazy is the that these so called labour-saving tools and assets for writers take so much time and energy away from the actual creative process, even when everything works out the way it's supposed to. They have you jumping through so many hoops to accomplish simple tasks that you are almost worn out before you begin your day's work.
For one reason or another a great many of us have only a limited amount of time we can use for our craft. When you end up depleting that time on trying to take care of the ancillary stuff that is involved with those things designed to make your life easier, it can leave you especially frustrated. There's lots to love about modern technology and what it has done to make my life as a writer easier (I'd be lost without spell check), but at the same time there are occasions when its capacity to frustrate far exceed its capabilities to help.
In the long run, of course, I'm still in a far better situation then any of my predecessors, but that doesn't prevent weeks like the one just past from making me seriously wonder about what sort of karmic debt I'm paying off by having to use the equipment of these modern times.