Friday, January 22, 2010


By John Gilstrap

In my non-writing life, I am a safety engineer. My job--my nature, actually--forces me to look at any given situation at any given time, and project what can go wrong. We don't burn a lot of candles in our home because open flames are essentially nacent conflagrations. We have an artificial Christmas tree because I know from my fire service experience how explosively combustible live (actually dead) evergreens are. I am all about controlling risk.

It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that I am paranoid about losing data. Think about it. As an author, I create people and places out of my imagination, and the only place where they exist is on the page. If the pages burn up, everything goes away. Even the DNA is gone, because no DNA ever existed outside of the controlled psychosis that is writing.

It's worse than that, though, because in this day of the computer, the characters that exist only on the page aren't really ever on the page until very late in the process. They exist exclusively on a disk--magnetic media that I don't begin to understand. If the computer drive fails, everything on it fails with it. I can't imagine the emotional trauma of losing 100,000 words and many months' work to a power surge. It's the stuff of nightmares.

My hedge against the nightmare is my flash drive. I bought this USB storage device five or six years ago, and it literally contains every word I've ever written professionally. All seven books, plus the first twenty pages of Book Eight--the untitled third book in my Jonathan Grave thriller series. When I settle in for a writing session, I call up the version of the manuscript that is stored on the flash drive, and I write away, saving frequently. When that writing session is finished, I save that version to the hard drive of whatever computer I'm working on (home, work or laptop). That way, if a disaster happens, a current copy exists on at least two points of storage. The flash drive remains in my right front pocket all the time. All. The. Time. My flash drive has seen every corner of the world.

Last week, I lost the flash drive. I wore a new pair of slacks that happened to have shallow pockets, and when I got home, the flash drive was gone. I called the hostess of the party, but no, she couldn't find it. Crap.

And wouldn't you know it? I had violated my own long-standing personal rule to always back up to the hard drive, and thus, the entire first chapter of my new book was gone. No back-up anywhere. Okay, it was only 20 pages, but they were a really good 20 pages. Damn.

Title of this blog entry notwithstanding, I'm not one to panic over anything. I truly am the person you want to be with in an emergency. I am, however, one to cuss and kick at the floor when I get caught doing something stupid. What the hell was I thinking, not backing up the beginning of a new story? Sometimes, God gobsmacks the guy who takes his eye off the ball. It's what you call one of life's sobering moments.

I'll certainly never do that again.

Good news: three or four days after I'd lost my flash drive, the hostess of the party called and told me she'd found it. I'd dodged a bullet, but the lesson was learned.

So, what about you? Share your paranoia with us. What do you do to protect your data as you write a new story? If, God forbid, your house burned to the ground, would you be able to continue on with your book?


  1. I'm paranoid about losing my writing, too. Nowadays I email my draft to myself at the end of each major writing session, so I use the email server's storage capacity to save the draft. I can go back and retrieve the drafts from stored emails, even if my computer goes south.

  2. I try to write at work at lunchtime when the madness there permits. So I e-mail my work back and forth to myself.

  3. When I did technical writing, I had a 200 page document corrupt. Not only that, I had a week's of backup files, but each one of those had corrupted (the table of contents corrupted). We were able to finally recover it in WordPad, minus all the screen shuts I'd put it, but at least the writing survived.

    So, each day, I resave the file with the new date and then drop it into the backups folders. I also have online backup which backs up the hard drive every couple of hours.

  4. I use a Mac, so I also use Time Machine with a dedicated hard drive. Every hour, it backs up quietly and automatically everything new. The great part is if I have changed a document or trashed one, but need the draft I had two months ago, I can go snatch it in Time Machine. I've done that more than once.

    You can do that, or you can pay around fifty bucks a year for an online backup service. Or do both.

  5. John, I'm really glad to hear you found the flash drive. Words are hard to come by--losing them is even harder. Here's a solution that my co-author and I use. It's called DropBox. It's free and can save your butt.

  6. I'm a survivor of two hard drive failures, believe me when I say I know how to back up data.

    I employ two seperate backups. First, I use a program called dropbox which automatically saves a copy of whatever I'm working on to the hard drive on my work PC (and visa versa). Then I also use a file back up utility that runs every night to copy files (new or altered) to a completely seperate external hard drive.

    I would say I sleep soundly at night because of those measures, but I'm usually tossing and turning over plot twist that look more like knots. :)

  7. Wowsers, that's painful scary. Glad you found your usb. Like others I always email copies to myself back and forth from work to home. Stored on two servers that way. I also keep a copy on a CD in a folder, and another on my ftp server. At milestones I print them. The reason I print them is simply because I am an IT guy in my day job. That means I know how volatile computers, ram, silicon and electricity are. And if all else fails soda pop and magnets will get you.

    The mantra of IT world wide: BACKUP DAT THANG UP!!

  8. I'm paranoid, too. I not only save my work about every five minutes on my laptop, I save to a flash drive and email it to myself every day. Then I save a copy on our desktop.

  9. I have an external hard drive connected to my laptop. (Except when mobile, of course.) IWindows does a periodic backup for me, and I also have a little batch file I write than I can click to manually back up key folders.

    This is the second blog to talk about this in as many days, and it's got me to thinking I should periodically back all important writing to a flash drive for off-site storage, as well.

  10. I had a similar experience two weeks ago when I started my Mac and got an icon of a folder with a question mark on it. I freaked. Taking out the battery and restarting worked, but I felt like I was building a house of cards in a breezy room when I had it going. I called my Apple tech pal and he helped me download a program to reformat my box and it said all was okay. I have started emailing attached copies of my WIP to myself and put it in a folder on Yahoo as a backup because I have had disks crash and lost everything on two prior occasions.

    My friend in New York suggested using an off-site storage company for all of my files, so if anything did happen, I'd be able to download everything to a new box.

    Long story short I went to and purchased two years of storage for $100.00. Their downloadable program uploads everything you add automatically, although the upload (in the background) initially took four days to suck in the 10 GBs of files. Now I have everything in here in one safe place and I can go in and download any of the files I've accidentally trashed. All my pictures, videos, my art, my documents are safe. It only uploads raw data, not programs, but I don't care.

    Now I can sleep. I suggest it and there are several sites that offer off site storage.

  11. Like Jim Bell, I use a Mac and depend on Time Machine to back up my entire hard disk every hour onto a 1 gig external hard drive. However, in a burst of additional paranoia, when I finish each chapter of a book, and sometimes just each long section, I take a moment to back the work up to a flash drive, which is stored in another room of the house.
    In medicine, there's a saying that unless something is charted, it wasn't done. In writing, something isn't written until you can retrieve it.

  12. Glad your data eventually turned up! All it takes is one instance of losing your work to become paranoid.

    I back up daily on a thumbdrive and a separate file on the hard drive. Every week or so, I email the files to myself, and every month or so, I back up to an external hard drive. Paranoid? Maybe a little. Careful? Hopefully careful enough!

  13. I have an external USB hard drive that I drag-and-drop to every time I get up from the machine, and a USB drive that lives in my pants pocket, and gets a fresh copy every time I leave the house.

    But the human mind is a funny thing. A year or so ago, I started a project, and after several days of work and several thousand words, I was pretty unhappy with it. I decided to stick it in a storage spot and ignore it for a while. The next day, I realized I had deleted it instead.

    I checked my backups to see if I could recover it, and I discovered that what I felt upon seeing it there was a mild dismay. So I deleted those, too.

    Problem solved.

  14. I'm very paranoid. I use a Mac with Time Machine as a backup drive. I also use a USB drive to backup my data, and I email significant revisions to myself.

    The one weakness of backup drives was illustrated by a neighbor's unfortunate incident a few years ago. His house was broken into, and not only did the burglars steal his computers, but they took his backup drives as well. So now I keep a backup in a totally different place not easily discovered in case we ever have a break-in. I also have a fire safe where I keep a USB backup because a fire would take care of a backup drive as well.

  15. Losing data is a huge fear of mine. Just reading your post and everyone's comments makes me a little sick to my stomach. So glad you found your flash drive.

    My laptop has 2 hard drives, and last year one crashed. I was able to retrieve all the data, but it made me paranoid.

    Now, I back up to an external drive using Windows back-up once a week. When I significantly change a document during the week, I save it on a flash drive. When I complete something, I mail it to myself. But my newest "find" is Mozy. It's an off-site storage backup that runs automatically throughout the day, backing up the files I instructed it to back up. I'll be away from my computer for awhile and when I return, a little message says that my files were backed up. Love that! The first 2 GB are free. I'm almost maxed out, but not yet, so it hasn't cost a dime.

  16. I've had two computers crash on me, and spent thousands of dollars to get fragments of information (including family photos and videos) salvaged. I learned that lesson the hard way. Now at the end of every day, I email the file of whatever I'm working on to two separate email addresses. Everything is also automatically backed up to an online service called "carbonite"- $50/year, and you don't have to worry about physically backing things up yourself (I was never good at remembering to do that). I know that feeling, John- so glad you got those pages back!

  17. oddly - I'm paranoid that my laptop will be stolen. I guess I don't back up often enough. AND on top of that - my dog chewed the cap off of the usb drive that I do I can't put it in my pocket because I'm afraid it'll get dust inside and not work...

    and I could just solve that problem by buying a new flash drive. And resaving everything.

    I guess that's what I"ll do.

  18. Also, John, I suggest you get a flash drive that hooks onto your key chain. That way it's not as easily lost.

  19. My lovely hubby bought me a mega-terrabyte external hard drive. Happily running backups every couple of days. Hmm. That reminds. Gotta go make a backup!

    P.S., My DH was a safety manager. Not so engineery, but woe-betide anybody at the plant who ran with scissors.

  20. After nearly losing everything a couple of times, I use Mozy and it's already come in handy when my computer got a virus. But even though I know Mozy is saving everything, I still use a flash drive and e-mail myself stuff. Which is good because my flashdrive just died!