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.
Having come up with a handful of habits and strategies that have so far protected me (and, more importantly, my wife) from any more data disasters, I thought I’d put them into a simple guide for any other authors out there who might have careless partners, overeager toddlers, or keyboard-strolling pets wandering around the house.
Lifesaving Tip #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_02_01_10), or number it (e.g. MyLifeStory_backup1, MyLifeStory_backup2, etc.) or add your own special code (e.g. MyBestseller_DanBrown, MyBestSeller_ToniMorrisson, etc.) This prevents you from overwriting one copy with another, and makes it easier to find a previous version when you need it.
Lifesaving Tip #2: Auto-Backup — It’s On!
Most word-processing programs have an Auto-Backup feature 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 later that day you discover your creative instincts were complete crap, you can get your original un-mangled version back instantly.
Another option, Auto-Save, saves your open files at regular intervals. If your computer crashes while you’re riding a creative tsunami, you’ll only lose as much work as you did between the last auto-save and the crash.
Turn both of these on. Now!
Lifesaver Tip #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.
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. 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 (ginormous!), 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 set up, and has enough room to hold whatever you’re going to backup. A 100 gigabyte drive can easily hold all your scrivenings. If you want to backup your entire computer, you’ll need an external drive about 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, from Microsoft’s own backup program, to software included with external hard-drives and third-party software.
Lifesaver Tip #4: Here, Hold This For Me
So what happens if your house catches fire or sinks into a swamp one night and all your disk drives go with it? The best backup is always an off-site backup (meaning someplace other than where your computer is), and the two easiest and cheapest (i.e. free) ways to achieve this are web-based email and on-line document storage.
If you have a web-based email account such as Yahoo or Gmail, you can email your files to yourself every day. They’ll sit on those nice, big, conveniently remote servers for as long as your account is active, and if you ever need to retrieve them, it’s as simple as flipping through your in-box from any computer, anywhere.
For an even simpler solution, take advantage of the free on-line file storage offered by Google Docs, Windows Live SkyDrive, and other services. Just create an account, upload any documents you want to store online (up to whatever their maximum is), and presto! Free off-site backup.
Lifesaver Tip #5: Fortress of Certitude
There are a lot of things you won’t get with free on-line storage: unlimited space, security, encryption, version control, automatic backups, etc. So for the ultimate in safety and convenience, consider using one of the paid backup services. 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), and has an easy to use interface. Incremental backups (i.e. where the software 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 your files from that day, or any day.
So there you go: the secret to creative (and possibly marital) survival.Chris Abouzeid is the author of the Young Adult novel, Anatopsis. His short stories, poetry and book reviews have appeared in The Boston Globe, Agni Magazine, The Literary Review, Epoch, Southern Review, New England Review, Other Voices, and Literal Latté.