Blank

by Rob Gregory Browne

Stop reading this post right now.

I mean it.

Okay—wait, not yet. Because I have something important to tell you before you do. I want you to learn from my mistake, you see. I want you to understand what I went through one panic-filled day not long ago, in hopes that you won’t ever in your sweet life have to go through it yourselves.

So don’t stop just yet. But when I’m done here, you’d better do exactly what I’ve told you. Because you may not get a second chance.

He’s being cryptic again. I friggin’ hate it when he’s cryptic.

Here’s the story:

It started on a nice summer morning. The air was chilly, but not cold, at least where I live. I sat down to work on my latest manuscript—which I’d made significant progress on—and when I opened the file…

…it was blank.

Wait a minute—did he say blank??

Yes, you read that right.

Completely, utterly blank.

Now, I have no idea how the hell it got that way. It wasn’t as if I’d gotten drunk and erased the entire manuscript before saving it. I can only assume it was a glitch in the software that somehow corrupted the file and wiped away every single word I had spent god knows how long writing.

I didn’t panic, however. Because, hey, I’m not stupid or crazy. I always back up my files. I was using something called Windows Live Sync, which is a great little free program that uses the Internet to sync whatever files you choose to all of your computers.

I have five computers and at least three going at any given time, and they had all been set up with Windows Live Sync—even my Mac. So that’s a good thing, right?

Well, not really.

See, the thing synchronizes your files every time you change them.  So when whatever happened happened, rendering my manuscript blank, the blank copy was synchronized and every single computer had that same corrupted file.

Blank.

But it still wasn’t time to panic.  Because, folks, I really do have a brain, and I also used another backup system called Mozy.  

Mozy backs up any files you choose to their online servers.  It’s a free service up to 2 gigabytes of data, and I highly recommend them.

I set Mozy up to only do backups when I told it to.  And apparently I told it to backup the file right after it got corrupted

So guess what?  The file I restored was… you guess it—

blank.

This is around about the time that tiny little knot in my stomach became a giant fucking lump in my throat. Because, folks, I had just lost a crapload of work.  

Many thousands of words.

Gone.  Completely.  Vanished.  

And I did not, did not, did not—oh my FUCKING GOD—have a back up.

What I had was a blank screen.  A very, very blank screen. And the moment I realized I now had to start writing my book over—completely from scratch—I thought I would cry.

Did I make that clear?  COMPLETELY FROM SCRATCH.

Now I know I’m blaming computer error here.  Because, after all, I had backed up to the cloud and to all of my computers.  I did what I was supposed to do.

But the one thing I hadn’t done that I always do, is email myself a copy.  I don’t know why I didn’t, but I didn’t.  And if I had, I would have had my manuscript back.  Simple as that.

But my manuscript was gone.  Along with all of the great scenes I’d written.  All the the brilliant scenes and pithy dialogue (see, I could think that because I couldn’t read the thing to find out if I was deluding myself).

So now my job was to start at the beginning and see if I could recreate the magic.

A word of advice:  never try to recreate the magic.  Never sit there and try to remember all the witty shit you wrote, because you won’t remember it, or even if you do, it won’t be quite the same, have that same snap. It’ll just lay there on the page looking like the stalest, most awful crap you’ve ever in your life written.

Why?

Because you can’t recreate the magic.  At least I can’t.  Your mileage may vary.

I worked a full eight hours and guess how much I managed to write?

Two paragraphs.  Two really lousy paragraphs.

Needless to say, I was feeling a little depressed.  And I seriously considered just giving up on the book, because…

Why oh why didn’t I email myself a copy?  Why why why????

I got all kinds of sympathy from my friends.  And I appreciated that.  I got people telling me they were horrified when they heard what happened and I’m not surprised.  Because what happened to me is, frankly, every writer’s nightmare.

In addition to writing those two lousy paragraphs, I also spent the day running hard disk restoration software, scouring my hard drives looking for remnants of the erased file.  I was ready to pay a lot of money to purchase that software if it actually found anything.  But it didn’t.  Neither did the other demo I tried.

I had to finally face facts that the file was gone and gone forever.  So back to those two lonely paragraphs I went.

But then, late that night, I thought, why don’t I go back to Mozy and try to restore one more time.  This time I decided not to restore on my desktop.  I went directly to my login on their site to see if I could restore it there. Chances were pretty good that it would be the same blank file, but I figured one last try wouldn’t hurt.

I then learned something about Mozy that I hadn’t realized.  Not only do they back up your files, they don’t overwrite the previous day’s copy.  And there, sitting on their server, was a copy of my manuscript which I had backed up the morning before!

Oh my God.  I couldn’t believe it.  I quickly restored the thing, opened it up and lo and behold, I’d only lost the previous day’s work—seventeen pages.

Seventeen pages!!!!

Any other time I would have been very depressed about losing so many pages, but when I saw that decidedly not blank file, I started jumping for joy.  Literally.

Okay.  So now we get to the lecture part of this post:

Always back up your files.  Don’t rely on your memory to do it, make sure you have an automated system. Make sure you not only back up to another drive, but another computer, a thumb drive, an online server, two or three different online servers.

Because you can never have enough backups.  And to avoid what I went through with all of the back ups I had, make sure you use software that creates a new dated and timed copy every time it runs a task.  You may wind up with hundreds of copies of your manuscript, but believe me, that’s better than none.

Here’s what I now use, all which are FREE:

1. JaBack.  A brilliant piece of software that allows you to create thousands of tasks and run them automatically.  JaBack sends date/timed copies of my manuscript every hour into—

2.  My Dropbox folder (thank you, Toni).  Dropbox regularly backs up all of those copies to its server and shares them with my other computers.  I also use—

3.  Mozy, as mentioned above.  Mozy does its thing a couple times a day.  And—

4.  Since I’m extremely paranoid, I also use SpiderOak, another online service, and—

5.  I still email myself a copy every day.  I created a special macro for my word processor that I simply have to click and it sends my manuscript as an attachment to my google account.  I use gmail because it stores all of those attachments on its server and not on my computer.

I think I’m pretty safe now.  The worst that could happen is that I lose a day’s work again, but it doesn’t seem likely.

Okay.  If you made it this far, it’s time for you to go now and start backing up your data.  Don’t put it off until later.  Do it NOW.  Seriously.

Because the last thing you want to find yourself facing is a blank page.

——-

In today’s comment section (come back after you’ve done your thing):  Tell us all about your data disaster! 

33 thoughts on “Blank

  1. Barbie

    OMG, that started out as such a horror story. I was pretty much trembling by the middle. I’m no author, and I completely freak out when I lose something. I just can’t imagine the horror you felt.

    I always email my stuff to myself to, like, four different email accounts.

    I’m glad there was a happy ending! πŸ™‚

  2. Debbie

    That has to be the shittyist story I have ever read – not the writing – the content (or lack thereof). I only once faced a blank page and panicked. I was new at writing and am not computer savvy. My husband found a time save that recovered all but two paragraphs. My stomach turned reading your story and an enormous wave of relief swept over me at the climax. Thank you for this post – I’m changing my habits. Each time I write, I currently alter the doc. name: Ie. Story, Story1…. It is backed up with timed saves, and I will now e-mail it as well as copying it to my USB drive. Thank you.

  3. Spencer Seidel

    Yes!! This post teaches us all a valuable lesson: backing up garbage is not helpful. You need to keep incremental backups. I love Time Machine for this purpose (I write on Macs).

    I back up after every writing session to: (1) a flash drive, (2) an offsite server that I control, and (3) my Time Machine drive, which stores incremental backups.

    I have not yet experienced a data disaster because I’m VERY paranoid about backups.

  4. tess gerritsen

    Every time I finish a day’s work, I email the file to myself, at two different addresses. So even if my house burns down, that file is sitting out there somewhere in cyberspace, waiting for me to retrieve it. It’s free and it offers me archived versions of the manuscript, since each different email is dated.

  5. Robert Gregory Browne

    The problem with email, Tess, is that you have to REMEMBER to send it (as I failed to do). If you’ve got your routine down, then you’re safe. But if you forgot one day, you could potentially lose the day’s work.

    It’s best to have more than one system, as I discovered. And it’s best that it, for the most part, be automated, requiring no input from you other than the initial setup.

    Data redundancy is the key, here.

    Oh, and a warning, I’m turning into an evangelist about this. I am truly converted.

  6. Chevy Stevens

    I also use Mozy and it’s already saved me once.Mine is set to back up three times a day. In addition to that I have a flashdrive. I save my book to it a couple of times a day when I’m working on a draft and I try to remember to email myself. I’ve heard way too many horror stories.

  7. Dana King

    I’m a believer that the simplest backup strategies are best. I wrote a batch file that backs up specified folders to an external hard drive. It’s set up so that it only copies files that have been changed since the last time it ran. I keep its icon on my desktop and only have to double-click it for the program to run. (I did have to do some manual copying and re-organizing before I set it up the first time, mainly because entropy had set in on my filing system.)

    This will overwrite older versions of files, but there’s an easy way around that, too. If working on something where you might want to keep multiple versions, create a sub-folder just for that. Do a Save As and as soon as your open the document and append the date to the file name. (For example, today’s version of my WIP wold be Worst Enemies 20100811). The date format yyyymmdd (or yymmdd) works best, as the files will then always appear in chronological order.

    There are a few key benefits to doing it this way:
    1. You can run the backup as often as you want.
    2. Restoring a file is easy. (I don’t know about anyone else, but restoring a file from Microsoft’s backup program is a pain for me.)
    3. You can replicate your own filing system and just do as much or as little as you want.
    4. You’re not dependent on network connectivity to backup or restore files.

  8. Robert Gregory Browne

    But you see, Dana, what if that hard drive fails? I’ve had many hard drives fail.

    Also, what if you forget to click that button? I know you probably wouldn’t, but *I* surely would.

    What you’re doing is a great idea, but it shouldn’t be the ONLY form of backup you use. The key here is to use multiple methods and, again, make them automatic, so you don’t have to worry about human error.

  9. Eika

    I already use DropBox for all my writing, and e-mail myself back-ups the first of the month. (Because of your panic, I did it again.) I also have a flash drive and, if all else fails, I have an alphasmart neo. It’s a keyboard, a tiny, tiny screen, a crudload of memory, and it can do nothing but type. Any file I save on there before transferring to my computer will STAY on there, because I can’t find the instruction book or remember how to delete files.

    JaBack sounds like it might be something nice to add, but my computer’s already complaining about being overworked and slowing down sometimes, so I hesitate. Does it take up much space?

  10. Judy Wirzberger

    I am so glad I don’t live in your mind. I can say that smugly because I can back up my stuff to my system at work. Now I know why I still am working at 97 – it’s to save my stuff.

    Seriously, so happy you found what you had lost and what wonderful information I will need when I do retire at 110.

    I think Louise needs to write comedy.

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I always e:mail to myself, and my wife downloads each day’s work to her computer, too. And I have a thumbnail thingymajigger. I need to do a whole hard-drive back-up, though.
    Thanks for scaring the shit out of me.

  12. Robert Gregory Browne

    Eika, according to my activity monitor, JaBack takes up about 100 megabytes of memory, so not a whole lot of drain, there (I have 4 gigs).

    That’s on a Mac, however. It might be different with the PC version.

  13. Alafair Burke

    I got really stressed out reading that! I had a similar experience where somehow my ms reverted to a previous version — on all my computers and the time capsule! Now I back up to a thumb drive and also send the manuscript into a different document with a different name so it doesn’t get magically morphed.

  14. Allison Davis

    I am so paranoid, I also print out a draft every few days just to have around in case all the electronica dies. I use a thumb drive so it’s off grid in a safe little device. It’s hard enough getting it all out the first time, I so had the stomach ache until the end of the blog. Luckily, I have not suffered as you did, but I am grateful for the lesson. Using cloud as the next back up.

  15. KarinNH

    I’ve occasionally lost minor stuff–anything major I usually email to myself. But I once had a grad student in my research course who lost her entire semester’s work a couple weeks before the end of the semester, a course where 75% of the grade depended on one paper they worked on for the entire 12 weeks.

    I think she cried every day and called the computer repair place every hour checking to see if they’d recovered her data. When they finally did, right before a class, she burst into the room, telling all of us that they’d found her paper, and then burst into tears. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone happier.

    So, thanks, Rob, for the reminder that I ought to back up my entire hard drive right now!

  16. Dudley Forster

    Better a good scare than a real disaster. As a computer consultant I encounter this issue all the time. The business that has lost six months of QuickBooks data or someone overwrote or deleted that critical spreadsheet .The hardest one I had was a weeping grandmother who had lost all the photos of her family. Sometimes, if the drive will still spin up and be seen by the system I can use recovery software. If not, the only solution is to send the drive to a data recovery service like OnTrack. I had a doctor who was backing up his database of claims & billings, but someone had not set the database index to backup so the backed up data was useless. Since the data was worth over a 100k it was an easy choice for him to pay the $10,000 recovery fee. Most of us won’t be able to do that.

    My data protection plan is threefold. First, on my desktop I always run RAID 1 or drive mirroring. This won’t protect against data corruption, deleted or overwritten files, but will protect you against a single drive failure. Secondly, I use drive imaging software, which makes an image of your entire hard drive so if there is an unrecoverable crash you just boot from the CD and restore the image. Those images are kept on an external 1TB drive. The program I use is Acronis, which also makes restoring single files easy, and has an option to back up selected files to a zip format so you can easily take them off your backup drive and move them to another pc. If you have the Acronis Tools add on you can even restore the image to dissimilar hardware. The recovery program asks for the new drivers and slipstreams them into the image. The last brick in my recovery plan is BackFire. It is a service like Mozy and Carbonite, I like the server farm they use, which is also used by companies like Sun Micro and CNET. This plan is for Windows OS. If you use a Mac then I’m not sure what methods, outside of services like Mozy, are available.

    One important thing to remember about any of these offsite backup services, depending on the amount of data you have, the initial backup can take days or weeks. The small app that runs in the background for these programs takes a small amount of your bandwidth and trickles the data in HTTPS format to their backup servers. Once all the data is backed up then it is a simple matter of backing up added or changed data (unless you dump 40GB of mp3s on your drive)

    Laptops compound the problem since loss, theft and damage are exponentially higher. If you do your work on a laptop, especially when you travel, use as many backup options as you can. Back the whole drive up at home before you leave, use offsite backups, use an offsite hard drive service like Mobile Me, email your important work, use a flash drive and keep it on you person etc. Also, I have noticed the use of the iPad is becoming more popular for writing (with a Bluetooth keyboard). Besides syncing to iTunes I am not sure what other backup methods there are for the iPad, but I wouldn’t keep something as an important as a manuscript on it if it cannot be backed up often.

  17. Dao

    Losing data is a writer’s worst nightmare. Your post brought me back to the time I was about to complete my master’s thesis. I heard so many horror stories that I found about 6 ways to back up my data. I had a USB, a portable hard drive, 2 email accounts, a rewritable CD, and last but not least, a friend who was willing to receive the manuscript from me via email. Luckily, it didn’t happen but my last laptop managed to cash out its 401K early and retired about two weeks before my defense. Needless to say, I went to Best Buy on Black Friday just to get a new laptop so I could complete the manuscript. The whole event still sends shivers down my spine every time I think about it.

    Thank you for bring up this issue. It is essential yet we almost always forget about it. Now, let me go and back up my novel in progress before the computer does anything funky.

  18. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Can’t be said enough, Rob – I just emailed some stuff to myself just in case.

    I love Mozy, but you and others here have some other backups I’ll have to get. Thanks, everyone!

  19. Cornelia Read

    I’m with Gar, here… SEVENTEEN PAGES IN ONE DAY???

    And I’m so fucking glad you got it all back, Rob. I email every day’s work to myself at the end of the day, usually back up to a thumb drive, too.

  20. Tammee

    This so happened to me, but without the happy ending. I lost over 200 pages of my first novel and was never able to retrieve it. I had saved to two different computers and a thumb drive. Lost the thumb drive and for some reason the computers only kept the old copies ( needless to say i did something stupid , but still). I found a printed copy of about 100+ pages, but it was original stuff minus all my upgrades and I finally gave up. Lesson learned. I not only e-mail and all the other crap, but I print out a full copy of everything frequently.

    I’m glad you did not suffer my fate πŸ™‚

  21. Robert Burton Robinson

    In the past, I wrote all my books and short stories online, using WordPress. So, I didn’t have to worry about backups. WordPress does it for you automatically every few minutes.

    But now I’m up there walking the tightrope without a net. And I didn’t think much about it you yelled up to me and scared me half to death.

    Actually, I have had a net. A very tiny one—a flash drive. But now I realize it’s just not enough.

    You start thinking, "What if the house burns down?" Of course, if that happens you’ve got much bigger problems to deal with. But after the smoke settles, you’re gonna be going, "OH CRAP! MY BOOK!!!"

    So, thanks for scaring me. I just signed up for Mozy. I’ll probably use another service as well.

    Love the way you told your story, Rob. Great thriller! You really freaked me out. πŸ˜‰

  22. mary lynn

    I used to tell my programming students "Blessed are the pessimistic for they hath made backups"

  23. JT Ellison

    Rob, are you willing to share that macro? I have about 5 backups at once, including mailing it to myself, Dropbox and Mozy. But it’s never enough, is it? And now that I’m using Scrivener, I worry myself sick that I’ll lose stuff. Glad you recovered most of yours though. Horrible feeling, I know. I lost the synopsis for Judas Kiss, and there was still one little plot point I wanted to do but could never recreate properly.

  24. Robert Gregory Browne

    JT, I can share it with you, if you use OpenOffice.org. It's a macro specific to that program. I'm sure if you check Scrivener, there's a way to create similar macros.

    Usually, you'll find a place under the File menu where it says "send to" and gives you several options. I simply recorded a macro as I chose the "send as email attachment" option, then went in later and tweaked it a bit, creating a button on my toolbar.

    Hopefully Scrivener allows you to do this as well.

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