ZedneWeb / My Experiments With Presenting Stories in HTML
Occasionally, people ask me why I don't put up HTML versions of my Sfstory work (currently Starcruiser Anonymous and Buzz Williams). There are two reasons I usually consider:
This is changing. Browser support for standards like CSS and Unicode is improving, meaning that I can do HTML versions that are sufficiently better than their plain-text counterparts to justify the effort. I've already begun doing experimental HTML conversions. Feel free to check them out, but you might want to look at the recommended browser strength first.
I've currently done three HTML conversions of previously text-based stories.
The Library contains other works presented in HTML (eg. Velvet Evil), but these are a bit less sophisticated in presentation.
For the three experimental titles, the Big Important Thing to have is
Unicode support. More accurately, your browser has to
be able to recognize about half a dozen characters that exist in Unicode
(and in most Macintosh and Windows fonts) but are not present in
ISO Latin-1 (primarily typographers quotes,
em dashes, and ellipses). Some
browsers will display meaningful characters, others will show the
low-level codes I'm using (such as
for a left double quote). The easiest way to check this is to try and
view the pages yourself.
You will also get much better results if your browser supports Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). The big ones are Netscape Navigator 4 or better and Internet Explorer 4 or better. Neither browser supports CSS completely, and IE 4, Macintosh Edition has some irritating bugs, but they all produce acceptable results. If you see paragraphs presented with indentation and blank lines between scenes--like you would in a book--then you have most of the important stuff.
Why choose one format over another? For me, the primary considerations were convenience and formatting power.
Text is simple to work with and allows absolute control over formatting. Indentation, line-length, and paragraph spacing are all under the control of the author. On the other hand, there is no way to vary the font or point size. There's no way to use italics or bolding. There's no way to allow text to re-wrap to the current window width.
HTML solves most of these problems. Text wraps to match the page width, italics and bolding are available, and there is some limited ability to choose fonts. Unfortunately, HTML by itself allows almost no control over paragraph formatting. There's the usual un-indented paragraphs with blank lines between them and, well, nothing else. There are a few ad hoc ways to get around this, but most involve misusing HTML in a way that might not work with later browsers.
Cascading Style Sheets attempt to solve the remaining problems by giving authors a way to control paragraph formatting (and a great many other things). CSS support in current browsers is rather weak, but it's reached the point where it's worth playing around with. For those who cannot or will not use the later browser versions, there is always the text versions which were already available.
I originally decided that I would not do HTML versions of my Sfstory work unless I could make it sufficiently better than the already-existing text versions to warrant the effort. I think I'm mostly there at this point. Here are some of the nice things I can do with HTML and CSS.
Typographers Quotes. I can't stand those straight quotes people have had to use since the introduction of the typewriter. Sure, it's a minor peeve, but it's great to leave it behind. This sort of thing is made possible by HTML 4.0's support for Unicode. It also allows for ellipses and em dashes. Unlike CSS, though, it isn't very backward compatible, hence the stronger browser requirements than on other ZedneWeb pages.
Indented Paragraphs with no blank lines between them. The spacing between paragraphs really does affect the feel of a piece. Plus, it's just easier to read this way. (You might ask why I didn't just stick everything in one big paragraph and use line breaks and spaces to simulate indentation. I felt that if I was going to go to this trouble, I wanted to do it right.)
No Horizontal Rules. Now that there aren't blank lines between every paragraph, I can use them to mark scene changes, making horizontal lines unnecessary. (The tags are still there for browsers without CSS, but I've made them invisible otherwise.)
Italics. You don't see bold much in fiction, but italics have a hundred uses. In keeping with my desire to "do things right", I didn't use the plain italics tag. Instead, I used the more specific tags to indicate emphasis or citation. Standard HTML has no way to indicate ship names, so I used CSS to create a special class of the italic tag. For most people, this has no effect whatsoever on how things look, but it is the Right Thing To Do.
Proportional Fonts. Text-based documents are usually best viewed with a non-proportional font, such as Courier. In a non-proportional font, all the characters are the same width. This is good for typewriters and character terminals, but it just doesn't look as nice. With HTML, I'm no longer dependent on fixed-width characters for formatting, so any font can be used. My style sheet currently suggests Georgia, a free font from Microsoft.
Adjustable Line Length. This is a standard part of HTML, but it's a great leap ahead of the text versions in my eyes. Think there are too many or too few words on each line? Simply change the width of your window. I forget what the optimum range of words per line is, but it's around eight to twelve.
One trick that I'd like to be able to do is adjust the line height. Most browsers have this set too small, making reading more difficult. Unfortunately, Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer both deal with line height differently, and it's not worth it to try and tailor the style sheet to match one but not the other. Sigh.
One trick that I could do but haven't is play with colored text and backgrounds. I've seen a few HTML-based stories that use color to set a mood, but I haven't decided if that's something I want to do. (It makes printing things out more of a pain, for one.)
Will I go back and convert all the older episodes of Starcruiser Anonymous? Maybe. I doubt it will be any time soon. It still takes some work to do, and I'm not convinced it's enough of an improvement to justify the effort. (Feel free to let me know if you disagree.) If I tried, I'd feel guilty for leaving in some of the lamer stuff. I am considering providing HTML versions of any newer work, though. We'll see what happens.