Doing my darnedest to prevent your having to learn from experience

Yes, yes, I know: I’m not supposed to be writing new posts for the foreseeable future; my plan for convalescence very clearly includes directives merely to re-post some earlier writings with the addition of a scant few bon mots, and certainly, after my spotty posting schedule earlier in the month, it would behoove me to stay on-topic for the nonce.

But I’ve been thinking about all of those smoldering houses in Southern California, and obsessing about how many computers have been lost in the blazes. Not to minimize any of the terrible damage on every level, but I can’t help but picture the additional pain of the displaced aspiring writers. How many of those bereft writers, I wonder, either had an easily portable back-up ready to snatch up at a moment’s notice or stored a back-up off-site?

Those poor, poor people. As anyone who has ever lost an entire document can tell you, trying to recreate even a few pages from memory can be a nightmare. Imagine losing an entire novel.

I don’t want to depress you, but put yourself in one of those writers’ shoes for a moment: if something happened to your primary computer AND your filing system right now, would you have a copy of your book? One that incorporated your most recent changes?

If not, how long would it take you to reproduce it from scratch?

Or, to take a less drastic example, 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. Please, please don’t make the mistake of thinking that computer failure, theft, or — heaven forefend — a larger disaster could not happen to you.

I was fortunate enough to learn the value of compulsive back-up generation young. When I was in college, my thesis advisor had been working on his dissertation for years. Every time we met, he used to present me with a disk containing his latest draft, requesting that I keep it in my dorm room. If he kept his only copy of his back-up in his house, he explained, and something awful happened to his home, he did not want to be left without a copy of the latest version.

Truth compels me to admit that my initial response to the notion was disrespectfully flippant. But in light of this week’s events, was he really being over-cautious? Or merely far-sighted?

To be on the ultra-safe side, he asked me to keep each week’s version in my dorm refrigerator, just in case my dorm AND his entire suburb were somehow simultaneously engulfed in flames that miraculously spared both of our lives. “The insides of refrigerators seldom burn,” he explained, “unless someone opens them during the conflagration.”

Looking over the footage of San Diego today, I wondered if he was right about that. There certainly doesn’t seem to be much left of some of those buildings.

Even though I did, in fact, keep his work in my tiny fridge, I used to smile secretly at the intensity of his fear that his work would disappear. Until I was in graduate school myself, and I was approached by a knife-wielding mugger on my way home from the library. “Give me your backpack,” he advised, none too gently.

“No,” I said, astonishing myself. I then explained at great length that I had a draft of my master’s thesis in my bag, and that it was positively covered with hand-written notes and footnotes-to-be that I had not yet entered into my soft copy. It would take me weeks to recreate all of that material. Would he accept the contents of my wallet instead? What if I made the cash my gift to him, a little token of my thanks for leaving my thesis intact, and didn’t file a police report?

The mugger, who apparently had never attempted a major writing project, was quite astonished by my vehemence; I gather he thought I simply did not understand the situation. He reminded me several times throughout that he could, in fact, kill me with the knife clutched in his hand, and that only a crazy person would risk her life for a bunch of paper.

But tell me: if you were holding the only extant copy of your book, would you have been similarly crazed?

The story ended happily, I’m glad to report: I ended up with both a whole skin and my draft. And to tell you the truth, I no longer remember if he got my money or not. (I do, however, remember him begging me to stop telling him about the argument in my thesis — I had become embroiled in an especially juicy part of Chapter Two — and admitting that he would, in fact, just be dumping the manuscript into the nearest trash can rather than turning it in for credit.)

The dual moral of these stories: it’s ALWAYS a good idea to have more than one copy of your manuscript, just in case the unthinkable happens. And the best place to keep a back-up is NOT immediately adjacent to your computer, or in your laptop case along with the laptop.

My thesis advisor’s strategy is sounding less and less zany to you, isn’t it?

I back up onto CDs these days, having become disillusioned with the stability of Zip disks, and carry the current version with me — unless I’m taking my laptop with me, in which case I leave the back-up at home. Yes, it’s a bit time-consuming, but at least I don’t have to worry about running into a literary-minded mugger, right?

Your method does not need to be complicated — in fact, it’s better if it isn’t, since simple procedures are easier to work into your daily life. Playing it safe can be as simple as burning a CD once a week and popping it into your purse (crude, but effective), copying your files onto your iPod (hey, that thing is essentially a hard drive, right?), or just e-mailing your chapter files to yourself on a regular basis (effectively turning your ISP into a remote storage facility).

Many writers prefer an off-site back-up method, such as saving to storage space online. Check with your Internet provider.

Don’t panic if you’re not very computer-savvy: this really does not need to be difficult. For an easy-to-follow, well-explained run-down of back-up and security options for the PC, I would highly recommend checking out longtime reader and computer whiz Chris Park’s blog post on the subject.

However you decide to make your back-ups, I would recommend getting into a regular schedule as soon as possible. The best way to protect your writing is to save it often, after all, and any security system works best if it is applied consistently.

How often is often enough to save your work? Well, think back to the scenarios above: how much are you willing to try to recreate from memory?

It’s a good idea, too, to save more often while you are in the throes of revising a manuscript — and to save both before and after copies of each major revision. Yes, it takes up space, but as most of us who have lived through serious revisions can tell you, it’s not all that uncommon to decide a week, month, or year down the line that a cut scene is indispensably necessary to the work. (Or for the editor, agent, or writing group that advised a particular cut in the first place to change his, her, or its mind.)

And please, don’t put off getting into the habit of making frequent back-ups. Large-scale disasters are not very frequent, thank goodness, but computer meltdowns are. A few minutes of preparation every week or so can save you a tremendous amount of pain down the line.

Here’s devoutly hoping that my fevered imagination is radically overestimating the number of manuscripts currently being lost in Southern California. Be safe, everyone, and keep up the good work.

4 Replies to “Doing my darnedest to prevent your having to learn from experience”

  1. Anne,
    Great idea to bring this up in light up the fires in southern California. I definitely hope that people aren’t losing too much invaluable personal property down there, manuscripts or otherwise.

    I’ve been holding off on making comments in recent weeks, just to try to keep your “workload” of reading comments down, but I do hope you continue to feel better (despite your recent slight slide backwards).


  2. Thank you for reminding us to back up. I’m a bit behind. It’s not just the novels, but the historical essays I write. Rather good to have them in a safe place for checking on format, resources other than hard copy. I keep some of my disks (they should be CDs now) in a safety box at my bank.
    Right now I’m writing about early 20th century cows and creameries. Ice cream, anyone?

  3. Truer words never spoke, m’dear. It can happen overnight. Just last week, our trusty Dell gave us the blue screen of death and gave up the ghost. Fortunately, I’d emailed myself my completed novel a month ago, but I hadn’t backed up my copywriting clients recently. Bad bad writer. In another fortunately, we were able to salvage the C: drive and put it into our new computer. But sheesh. It might not have worked. BACK UP EVERYONE!!!

  4. Anne,

    Thank you for this post! I always back up my work, but the copy was always just a few inches from the computer. I never thought of having one outside the house! Good call! I will do that now, because the thought of trying to rewrite everything… (shudder)… no thanks.

    Glad to hear you are feeling better!

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