Thursday, August 19, 2010

Guest Post: "Honey, I Deleted Your Novel!": An Author's Guide to Avoiding Disaster

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.

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. 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.


  1. Something I have been thinking about but have never done anything about. Thanks for this timely reminder.

  2. I lost 7,000 words just a few weeks ago, because my auto-backup was saved on my desktop backup folder and NOT on the external drive like I had intended. (When your desktop folder is named Writing:E/ there can be some confusion.) At the suggestion of the nice ladies at Romance Divas, I signed up for Dropbox, which is a combination program and webspace. You get 2 gigs for free, which is more than enough for my writing for now. And I never have to worry about losing anything ever again.

  3. Dropbox, guys, really.

    After losing twenty pages of a book last year to a bricked thumb drive (and despite regular email backups), I turned to cloud storage and never looked back. It's infinitely better than any of the (well-intentioned) solutions here--it automatically backs up your files on any computer you use, is accessible from any computer with internet, is compatible with virtually any OS, can roll back your files to previous versions. It's awesome. Really, so much better than a thumb drive or google docs.

  4. Oh, and most importantly: no uploading. Just save like you would any other file.

  5. I vote with Phoebe.

    Dropbox all the way. (Though I also use a thumb drive. If the internet disappears some day, I'll still have my novel on my thumb drive.)

  6. I think hard copies are great creative survival tactic, too. Investing in a fireproof safe os a good idea if possible, and giving hard copies to a trusted friend or family member comes in handy.

  7. Dropbox is the way to go. Plus I do a little bit of everything else, just to be safe. Now that I make my living writing, I can't afford to lose my output.

  8. After losing a large chunk of a manuscript (I can't say how much because it still makes me cry) I save to flash drives and I email to a trusted friend. I am going to check out this Dropbox thing. Thanks.

  9. There's actually a website that will hold your data for you on their own server. Though unnecessary with all of the other options available, it does serve as another possibility.

    Check out

  10. Putting dates in the title is a good tip. I have been know to forget to save in all places. Doing a line by line check of the two different versions of the same wip taught me to date and delete obsolete versions periodically.

  11. Another cool thing about Dropbox is that you can tie both your desktop computer and your laptop (or your work computer, or whatever) to the same account, and then both places will always have the latest copy, assuming they're connected to the internet. Every once in a while, I'll get out of sync when doing this and accidentally save an older copy over a newer one, but since Dropbox lets you roll back to previous versions, it's always fixable.

  12. I Use the OpenOffice2Google extension to automatically save a backup copy in the cloud. It's pretty dang convenient and doesn't rely on any external hardware or additional software. Just click and you're safe.

  13. Another very simple recommendation: get a first reader and e-mail them each chapter as soon as you finish it, even if they live in the same house as you.

    Not only do you have an e-mail backup of all your chapters (assuming you save your sent messages, of course), but you get valuable feedback on the direction your story is heading.

  14. Thanks very much for this – especially the back-up programs. I love my FreeAgent Go, but not the software.

  15. Agree with those above. LOVE Dropbox! You'll always have a copy somewhere, even if somehow every computer you have crashes. It's a great way to share online with crit partners as well because you can make a folder they have access to.

  16. Pretty good ideas are being thrown about.

    But what about the old-fashioned one of printing out your work in sizable chunks after you finished with your latest writing session?

    Granted I do have an online backup with my Norton, but I also print out sizable chunks whenever I finish my latest writing session. That way I have something to 1) refer to while writing and 2) something to edit during my down time.

  17. Let's see... I have my primary copy of everything on my hard drive, a backup on my laptop, a backup on my wife's computer, a backup on DVD, a backup on my media server, a backup on a secondary hard drive and a backup uploaded to Mozy Online. I think I'm covered.

  18. You forgot It allows you to do all of your creating online, save online (ie somewhere than on a physical computer/drive in your house) and has the added bonus that you can access it anywhere where there's a computer - so you don't always have to take your laptop with you to continue writing.

  19. Great tips! Helpful article! A few years ago--when I was just starting this writing thing--my computer crashed, and I lost everything that was on my laptop. It was a horrifying experience. Luckily, I'm a quick learner.

  20. Dropbox has saved my butt more times than I can count. It works great. I can use any computer and it will update my files to a central server. 2gb is the free option.
    The latest was a corrupt file on my netbook. I went to my dropbox online and downloaded an earlier copy of the file, only lost 100 words.

  21. GAH deleting a novel that would be horrible.... sigh. yeah.

    i use google docs... but i have to make them files instead of converting them to google editing mode, because google won't load a document that has 80,000 words and let you edit it.

  22. Coming in late, but Dropbox is really the thing here. I save all of the documents I'm working on in my Dropbox folder. Changes are instantly updated and backed up, and accessible from anywhere — you can proofread on your phone on the bus on the way to wherever!

    Dropbox. Dropbox. Dropbox.

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