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“Honey, I Deleted Your Novel!”: An Author’s Guide to Avoiding Disaster (Part 1)

Several years ago, in trying to transfer some files, I accidentally deleted my wife’s novel.  The fact that I’m still alive says more about the lack of loaded weapons in our house than about my wife’s forgiving nature. (She did forgive me, eventually.  I think.  Maybe.)

Once I got past that horrible, “Oh god, I am so totally cut off from the marital bed!” feeling, the first order of business was to make sure nothing like this ever happened again. I came up with a handful of habits and strategies that have so far protected me (and, more importantly, my wife) from any more data disasters.

So for all you authors worried about having your life’s work destroyed by a careless partner, overeager toddler, or keyboard-strolling pet, here’s a simple guide to making sure everything you write stays written.


Step 1:  Copy, Copy, Copy

The simplest way to make sure you never lose your manuscript, or any version of it, is to make copies.  Every time you go to edit your work—whether it’s an entire novel, a chapter, short-story or poem—save a copy first.  To distinguish one copy from another, put the date in the filename (e.g. GreatAmericanNovel_01_01_2009), or number it (e.g. MyLifeStory_backup1, MyLifeStory_backup2, etc.)  or add your own special code (e.g. MyBestseller_DanBrown, MyBestseller_JohnIrving, MyBestSeller_ToniMorrisson, etc.)  This prevents you from overwriting one copy with another, and makes it easier to find a previous version, if you need to.


Step 2: It’s On!

Most word-processing programs have auto-backup features that you can turn on or off in the Options or Preferences panel.  One option makes a backup of your file every time you open it.  If you discover your creative instincts are complete crap that day, you can go back to the original un-mangled version.

Another option saves your file at regular intervals.  If your computer crashes while you’re riding a creative tsunami, you won’t lose much.

Turn both of these on.  Now.


Step 3:  Drive, Baby, Drive

Backup drives are cheap, easy to use, and come in a variety of formats and sizes—from huge, networkable disk arrays to tiny thumb drives that fit on your keychain.  My suggestion?  Get one thumb drive, and one external hard-drive.

Thumb Drives

Also known as “flash drives,” they come in everything from black rectangles to colorful animal shapes.  There’s even a SpongeBob Squarepants version, if that’s what you’re into it.  The smaller sizes (e.g. 2 gigabytes) are fairly cheap, but big enough to hold everything you’ve ever written.  The larger sizes (e.g. 16 gigabytes or more) will hold everything you’ve ever written, plus your book trailers, author photos, and favorite time-wasting games.

Since thumb drives are small and easy to lose, they’re best suited for temporary storage. When you finish that climactic scene in your murder mystery, stick a thumb drive in your computer’s USB port, copy the files and voila!  Your laptop can crash, a coffee-shop bandit can make off with it, you can spill RedBull into your keyboard—it doesn’t matter.  You’re backed up.

External Hard Drives

Storage sizes range from about 250 gigabytes (big) to a terabyte (gianormous!), and physical footprints can range from little bricks to cubes the size of your bread machine.  Most of them connect via USB or FireWire, but some are networkable.

Choose an external drive that is reliable, easy to setup, and has enough room to hold whatever you’re going to backup.  A 100 gigabyte drive can easily hold all your scrivenings.  To backup an entire computer, you’ll probably need an external drive the same size, if not bigger, than your internal hard-drive.

Once you’ve got the new drive connected, look for software to perform regularly scheduled backups for you.  The Mac (OsX 10.5 and above) comes with Time Machine already installed.  Not only does this program work beautifully, it’s incredibly easy to setup.  For PCs, there are a world of options: Microsoft’s own backup program, software that may be included with the external hard-drive, and third-party software.


Step 4:  Fortress of Certitude

If you want the ultimate in safety, consider using an on-line backup service.  For a fee, these companies will let you backup whatever you want, whenever you want to their servers.  If your computer crashes, you’re covered.  If your house burns down, you’re covered.  If there’s a nuclear attack—well, some of these places might even survive that.

Look for a service that works with your operating system (Windows services, Mac services), has a good reputation, and an easy to use interface.  Incremental backups (i.e. where the service tracks changes between one backup and another) should also be a priority.  That way, if you decide to ditch your third-person narrative and go back to the first-person version you had three months ago, you can get the exact versions of the files you need.

So there you go:  the secret to creative (and possibly marital) survival.  Stay tuned for Part 2:  What to do (or not do) when disaster strikes.

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