Fun with Drop Caps

I seem to have found the right way to do the interior design of my novels — a necessary precursor to print publication. After thrashing around for a couple of days, I downloaded the 7-day trial version of Adobe InDesign. It’s a complex program, and I’ve gotten more than a bit frustrated at least three times over the past couple of days trying to arm-wrestle it into compliance with my evil schemes. But it does the job, and very nicely. Learning how to use it takes a little time, that’s all.

I’m always a little reluctant to spend money, and Adobe magnifies my reluctance with their subscription-purchasing setup. InDesign is $20 per month for as long as I have it, or until I cancel. (And I don’t think I can cancel for the first year. That’s a discounted price if you subscribe for a year.) But that’s only $240 for the year. Buying interior design for half a dozen books at $350 each — no, InDesign is a bargain.

Fortunately, I have some vague background with page layout software. I never actually laid out a page in QuarkXpress, but during my years at Keyboard I spent many, many hours doing page proof corrections in Quark. I understand the basic concepts — things like tracking a paragraph in slightly to remove a line or tracking it out to add a line so that the chapter doesn’t end with a single line of type on a page by itself.

The keys to InDesign happiness seem to be Master Pages, paragraph styles, and character styles. Also the object inheritance model. These are not things most writers think about. When you’re writing a book, you just write. If you want your chapter heads to be bigger, you just select that line of text and make it bigger using the point size drop-down on the toolbar.

This is exactly the wrong way to work in InDesign. You can do it that way, but you’ll live to regret it. In a nutshell, the correct method is to define a paragraph style with the larger-than-normal type (and possibly centered or with no indent, and with extra space above and below). Then you use that paragraph style on all of your chapter heads. Having done this, if you later decide you want a different font for your chapter heads, or a larger point size, or flush left rather than centered, you only need to make the change in one place (in the paragraph style definition window) and it will propagate through your entire book. This not only saves lots of time, it reduces the chance that you’ll introduce errors (such as putting too much space below one chapter head, or getting the type too small on one).

Pretty much everything in InDesign benefits from this idea. You define your margins, for example, in your Master Pages. You can have multiple master pages and apply any of them as needed to any individual page in the book, but if your other master pages are derived from the primary master, they’ll all have the same margins. Change the primary master, and all of the pages that are based on its children will also change.

When it comes to running heads at the tops of pages, drop caps on the first lines of chapters, and various other niceties of design, InDesign does the job. Your word processor just won’t. Don’t even think about trying to design your book in Word or OpenOffice, that’s my advice.

One tricky bit of workflow was starting to trip me up, until I noticed it. I was making a few tweaks in the text of the novel directly in InDesign. If you assume you’re never going to go back, this is sensible enough — but I’m not sure InDesign is the best choice for ebook formatting. There’s a risk that some of my edits might appear in the print book but not the ebook! Like, oh, correcting a misspelling of the main character’s name, trivial stuff like that.

After realizing what I was starting to do, I took a step back. I copied the entire text out of InDesign and saved it as a .txt file. Then I did the same with the two most recent .rtf drafts (which were already not quite identical) and used a handy program called WinMerge to compare the two .txt files. WinMerge highlights all of the differences, making it quite a simple matter to reconcile the texts.

Moving forward, I’ll have to make a point of editing the .rtf draft whenever I tweak the text in InDesign. Going back and adjusting the Scrivener version, though — I don’t think I’ll bother. Scrivener is wonderful for writing, but when the book is complete it’s time to move on to other tools.

While working on the book design, I whipped out a ruler to check the margins of a couple of 5.25″ x 8″ paperbacks on my shelf. My margins were too narrow, and the type was too large. I reduced the type size by a point and boosted the leading a bit. Now the book looks more professional. Of course, that change meant that my chapter head master pages were now on the wrong pages. I’m still learning to do things in the right order. Next time, I’ll know to figure out the big picture first and then fill in the details.

I’m not going to bore you by listing all of the tweaky little things I’ve learned about InDesign in the past few days. Suffice it to say, I’m making progress slowly but surely, and soon I’m going to have some nice-looking books.

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