There’s no harm in asking

Well, rather than miss another day of posting, here I am again, writing from another person’s computer. No, my computer isn’t still down, precisely: my mail program got damaged, and my little Mac is busily reindexing all of the — are you sitting down for this? — 6,445 e-mail messages I have received this year. (That’s not counting junk mail, incidentally.)

See why I keep expressing a VAST preference for your asking me questions via the comments function of the blog, rather than e-mailing them to me?

The primary drawback to posting from someone else’s computer — other than the obvious fact that I have masses of writing and editing work that I’d really like to resume after my two-day hiatus – is that if I respond to comments from here, I get billed as someone else, a random person of whom you have never heard. So all of you who have been posting comments this week: I haven’t forgotten you; I would just prefer to respond as myself.

I spent much of last evening chatting with my computer guru friend (who shall remain nameless, as he works for a large, fruit-associated computer company) while he was running diagnostic programs on my poor, injured baby, and he told me the type of horror story that would make any writer’s blood run cold:  recently, a lovely young woman had brought her computer to him, its hard drive utterly fried. All she cared about retrieving, she told him, was her novel.

My friend’s heart went out to her: it was fairly obvious that her computer was burnt as bacon. “Do you have any back-ups?” he asked.

She didn’t.

“Everyone thinks,” my friend opined, sighing, “‘It can’t happen to me. I see it every day.”

After I had stopped hyperventillating in the face of this lurid tale of woe and trauma, I inquired tenderly after the fate of the writer. Was she in a mental health facility someplace, receiving the best in bereavement care? Or at least in a nice, white-sheeted convalescent hospital on 24-hour suicide watch? Or had she returned to her studio space to try to reconstruct her novel, painfully, from her most recent hard copy?

I don’t want to depress you, but put yourself in that writer’s shoes for a moment: if your hard drive suddenly gave up the ghost right now, how recent a version of your book-in-progress would you have with which to replace your current version? A week old? A month old? That hard copy of the first three chapters that agent sent back in your SASE?

Hands up, everyone who felt the chill realization that you would not have ANY version of your novel or NF book. Don’t be ashamed; there are apparently millions of you out there.

Not to induce raging paranoia in anyone, but computer malfuctions CAN happen to you. It can happen to anyone. (Yes, even those of us who work on Macs, who are inclined to get a trifle smug because our computers don’t get viruses.) Computer files are not among the permanent things of this earth, and yet most of us treat the contents of our computers as if we were dealing with something as solid as the Pyramids.

It’s just not a good idea.

I asked my computer-fixing friend why so few people make back-ups, and he told me something jaw-dropping: most computer users, he said, don’t understand how easy it is to make a copy of a file on a computer. They don’t understand the difference between saving a document (which makes the newest version REPLACE the one before it) and copying it (which makes a DUPLICATE of the already-existing file. Many people have never been told that making a copy for back-up actually doesn’t change the original file at all.

Let me repeat that, because it’s important: making a copy of the computer files that contain your book does NOT change the original files, any more than making a photocopy of a page of manuscript changes the original page.  Duplicating a file means just that: making a clone, and just as one twin does not start hopping down in anguish when the other twin stubs his toe, NOTHING you subsequently do to the copy will affect the original.

It’s true. You can copy it onto a disk, take that disk to the zoo, and feed it to a crocodile, and all that would happen is that the poor croc might get indigestion. Your original file will be at home on your computer, safe and sound.

So if you are nervous about making back-ups directly from your documents, why not make a duplicate of your book’s file (from the desktop, just highlight the file and then select COPY or DUPLICATE, depending upon your operating system), and then move the copy onto a back-up disk? That way, the original never goes near anything that might conceivably eat it.

The other way to make a duplicate copy in Word is to go to the FILE menu, select SAVE AS…, and follow the directions to make a new file. (Hint: it’s a good idea to give it a different name, so the two don’t get mixed up.) If you save it to the Desktop, it will be apparent where you can find it later. Then quit Word, so you don’t inadvertently start working on the wrong one (a rather common mistake). Then, you can copy the new file onto a disk or e-mail it to yourself as an attachment without fear of losing your original.

Once your back-up file is on a disk or in storage (see Wednesday’s post), all you have to do in case of disaster is go back to it, open it up, and copy it onto your newly-wiped computer.

See? Easy as the proverbial pie.

Brace yourself, however: not having a back-up is not the only way writers have been known to lose days, weeks, or months of work on their computers. A very common cause of loss is transferring files by overwriting. This, for those you who have never done it (and be grateful if you haven’t) is when you have worked on a document on one computer, and then move it to another, either on a disk or by electronic transfer. Once it is on the second computer, many writers then replace the older version on computer #2 with the transferred one from computer #1. When this is done correctly, the older version vanishes, never to be seen again, only to be replaced by the newer one.

The problems come, typically, when writers try to REPLACE the older version with the newer one: sometimes, they get mixed up and delete the wrong one. The result is that all of the changes the writer made on the older version in order to create the newer one. (In other words, the file on computer #1 was an updated version of the one on computer #2, but the writer accidentally deleted the transferred one from #2, thus losing all the updates.)

There is a rather simple way to prevent this hair-raising problem: when you import the updated file, DON’T replace the older one with it; just save the newer version onto your hard disk under a different name, something easy to identify, such as “New Chapter 2.” Then re-name the older file “Old Chapter 2,” or something similarly descriptive. Move New Chapter 2 into your book’s folder, and move Old Chapter 2 elsewhere — say, into a folder entitled, “Former versions.”

The last step is the crucial one: don’t delete ANYTHING until you are POSITIVE that the version in your work-in-progress file is the one you DEFINITELY want to keep. Or, heck, don’t delete either version; save each subsequent one to gladden the hearts of your biographers and graduate students who will be writing their master’s theses on your writing.

Because, you see, there really isn’t any reason you need to have only one copy of any Word file on your computer. If you name your files descriptively (and as a writer, you have no excuse for doing otherwise), you’re not going to mix them up, and you radically reduce the probability of deleting a week’s worth of revisions by mistake.

Why? Because computer memories are really, really big now. It’s the programs that take up loads of space, usually, not the documents, so most of us can afford to have a dozen different versions of our chapters lingering on our hard disks.

Heck, if you really got desperate for document storage space, you could copy versions of your novel to your teenage daughter’s iPod. (It’s true: nifty, eh? If you’re interested in doing this, go ask the fine folks at an Apple store how.)

My point is, a very, very small investment of your time can make a world of difference in the event of a computer meltdown. Don’t make me visit you in that nice, soothing convalescent hospital where writers who have lost entire manuscripts softly moan into their pillowcases.

You can do this. Just don’t be afraid to ask for help.

If all that I’ve just said sounded to you like the, “Wah-wah wah-wah” speech of the adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons — as I know discussions of computers does to some people — I implore you, find someone computer-savvy to walk you through how to do it ON YOUR OWN COMPUTER.  (Learning on a different system can be very confusing.) Have someone else show you, and then observe you while you make copies and back-ups by yourself. Repeat until you feel comfortable.

Trust me, your skateboarding nephew will probably be THRILLED to be giving advice for a change, rather than taking it. (Especially if you ask for a couple of hours of his time as a holiday present.) And if you feel a little dopey for making him watch you make back-ups 42 times in a row, just to make sure that you’ve got it down cold — well, he probably won’t come away with any dimmer a view of adults than he already has, and you will have given him an ego boost.

If you don’t have anyone answering this description in your immediate circle, consider giving your local junior college a call and asking if you can pay a senior 20 bucks to spend an hour walking you through how to do back-ups. (Hey, if you file a Schedule C as a writer — and you don’t need to get paid for your writing in any given year in order to do so, usually — it would even be tax-deductable, as a professional service.)

Or call up your local computer store and ask if they would be willing to give you a crash (no pun intended) course in how to make sure you don’t lose your files. The Apple stores, for instance, have people on staff whose job it is to help people like you (at least the ones who own Macs and/or iPods) use their computers better. Believe me, they would much rather help you BEFORE there’s a crisis than after.

Even if you feel a trifle silly asking for help at your age (and people do feel like that, regardless of what their ages actually are), remember: the momentary twinge will be nothing compared to the AAARGH of losing a chapter of your book permanently. In the long run, this will decrease the stress in your life, not add to it.

There’s no harm in asking. Think of it as a way your community can help support your writing career. And keep up the good work!

5 Replies to “There’s no harm in asking”

    1. I’m thrilled to hear it! This is a way in which I would really, really like for my readers to be savvier than the general public…


  1. With the proliferation of contest deadlines looming, can you tell me which are the most prestigious non-fiction (memoir) contests? I’m already planning to enter PNWA. I recently found your blog and have read all your archives. I have learned things here I haven’t seen elsewhere and your friendly attitude is refreshing compared to other writing blogs. Your efforts are appreciated! PS–I’ve forwarded your site on to my writing buddies.

    1. Thank you! I like to think I’m helping people.

      PNWA has a pretty good track record for its memoir winners, as does the Essay category of the Wisdom/Faulkner awards. (Yes, the latter is for an excerpt, rather than the whole thing, but one of the best memoirs out there, Barbara Robinette Moss’ CHANGE ME INTO ZEUS’ DAUGHTER, got its start in this category, so memoir agents and editors pay attention to it.

      Those would be my top picks, but let me ask to see if agents have come up with a new favorite while I wasn’t looking.


    2. Okay, I’ve been asking around for the last few days, Afisher, and literally every agent I tried to get to answer the question responded as though it were a trick: they refused to name even one. And each followed that advice with a diatribe on how no one is buying memoirs right now.

      How I would translate all of that: editors are less interested in memoirs than they were a year ago (due to the A Million Little Pieces scare), so agents would be less likely to recruit a memoir writer at a conference now than in previous years. So the agents I asked (who all routinely represent memoirs) were probably trying to avoid all of the justifiably frustrated memoirists in the country from stampeding to whatever contest they name.

      Since the contests’ own hype is obviously useless as a means of finding out, we’re forced to fall back on the pre-computer way of determining your best bets: pick up one of the standard agency guides, one that indexes the agents by specialties, and take a quick glance at a dozen or so with good track records in memoir. In their listings, see what conferences they habitually attend (this info is usually available on agents’ websites, too). Then check and see if the conferences they name have associated contests — most do, since it’s such a reliable moneymaker. Agents usually pay quite a bit of attention to who wins the big prizes at the contests they attend.

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