Writer Insurance

Because of the devastating tornado that shattered Moore, Oklahoma, yesterday, May 20, I did not complete my usual Monday post. All my communication lines crashed shortly after 3:30 p.m. when cell phone towers and phone/internet/cable went out. I’m very grateful to live 10 miles south of where the tornado hit, and even more grateful that I wasn’t driving home from Oklahoma City at the time. The tornado swept through the route I usually take whenever I want to avoid heavy interstate traffic.

As I write this now, thunder is rolling overhead. The weather report keeps telling us that this is just a rainstorm and there’s no tornado activity. The air outside is too cool. There’s none of that heavy, sticky, hot, unsettled feeling to the atmosphere, and that alone reassures me more than anything the Weather Channel might say. One of my dogs is curled by my foot. The other one comes by periodically for a comforting pat because thunder makes him anxious. Friends from out of state keep calling to see if I’m all right.

I have several friends who live in Moore. I’ve managed to reach one–a writer who wasn’t home when the storm hit and didn’t know whether his house was still standing. His family is safe. His house and pets may not be. The last thing he said before we hung up was, “At least I store everything on The Cloud.”

Where is your manuscript in times of crisis or devastation? Family comes first, of course, but beyond their safety, what about your story or your novel or your screenplay or that memoir you’re putting together? How do you protect it? How do you preserve it?

At the start of my career, I worried more about fire–perhaps because I lived in an old house with primitive wiring, a house, incidentally, that burned down a few years after I moved away. In the 20th century before the Internet had been invented and we were still dealing with paper, the manuscript was a highly tangible object that seemed to be in constant peril.

Ceiling fans might blow all the pages around the room or even out a window.

Cats might shuffle pages or trot across a computer keyboard and destroy a file containing the most critical chapter.

The dog could very well eat your best scene.

My solution at the time was to store my book manuscript in my refrigerator. Although I tried to clear paper before a parental visit, there was one occasion when my mother arrived, opened the refrigerator door, and asked, “What are all these boxes doing in here?”

Shortly thereafter, a friend who’d dealt with a kitchen fire told me that the plastic interiors of refrigerators melt and my manuscripts were not safe there. Alas, I was thinking of an earlier generation of appliances made of heavy steel and porcelain enamel.

So I stopped storing paper in the kitchen. Meanwhile, living on the prairie began to get to me. I realized my manuscripts were in more danger of being swept to Oz by tornadoes than probably any other hazard. So insurance became a matter of creating backup copies on small floppy disks and stashing them in my bank safety deposit box. After thumb drives were invented, I would put one in more than one bank on opposite ends of town–just in case. And I have continued to print out paper copies as insurance against computer crash and failure.

Presently, there are several intangible ways and means of protection: emailing the manuscripts to yourself, Cloud storage, Dropbox, etc. These serve–not as replacements to paper copies or thumb drive copies–but as additional layers of safety.

But do you use them? Maybe you use one method, but none of the others. Maybe you intend to set up that backup hard drive, but you haven’t gotten to it yet. Maybe you acknowledge that you need a battery backup, but it costs so much at Staples and wouldn’t a little surge protector work just as well?

At a writers’ conference a few years ago, I attended a talk by bestselling thriller author David Morrell. He urged his audience to save material by several methods and then NOT to keep all those backup versions together in the same room. He moved to another point, but I have always wondered what happened? The voice of experience was clearly talking that day. It was clearly too painful for elaboration.

We can lose portions of our story through our own doofus mistakes. Mother Nature doesn’t even have to help. In the first month or so that I owned a personal computer–my very first–I got overly confident and managed to lose an entire 36-page file.

Gone. Blip. Swoosh.

Gone as though it had never been. Never mind that I had spent all day–a good eight hours–writing that chapter. I had lost it in less than the blink of an eye. There were no notes. There was no printed copy. I was just then trying to save it when I made the mistake. Having worked on typewriters until then, I had never before encountered the ghastly speed with which a computer can obliterate your prose. And there was no hard drive in that machine, no Geek Squad surgeon existent to extract the file. When I finally realized it was gone and there would be no recovery, I had to go lie down. And when I managed to regroup, I called in sick to work the next day because I had to retype as much of that chapter from memory as I possibly could before too much of it faded.

Now we have undo buttons. We have ghost files on the hard drive. We have computers that save files for us while we’re typing so that we barely have to remember at all to be careful.

Yet we must be careful of what we’re creating. It’s no one’s responsibility but our own.

Despite all the modern sophistication of our electronic devices, we can still experience disaster. We can be writing on a cloudless summer day, only to be blitzed by a power spike coming through the electrical line. We can be typing during a thunderstorm–as I am doing right now–and have our open files garbled by a flash of lightning. We can have our home office, our home, our possessions, our laptops, desktop towers, printed copies, and external hard drives crushed by earthquakes or wiped away by tornadoes or hurricanes.

It’s up to us to practice manuscript safety every day. I get lax and I let my good intentions slide. It’s usually in the last month of a novel project, as I’m approaching deadline, that I start to grow extremely careful and paranoid and jumpy. I carry the thumb drive in my purse. I put a paper copy in the trunk of my car, and then I worry about my car being stolen.

When you have to rewrite a passage that seemed perfect, you never recreate it exactly as it was. It could come out better, but the question, what if it’s not the same, never quite leaves the back of your mind.

Get the backup systems. Never rely on just one. And remember to use as many protections as you can.

Because you just never know.


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6 responses to “Writer Insurance

  1. The reason the Ellen Feiss ad for Macs resonated with people was that they all had the experience their data went *poof*. (The reason Feiss became so celebrated was because she was obviously doped on her allergy medicine when filmed, but that’s another story.)

    I had a 25-page paper go up in smoke in the 1980s when some well-meaning person tried to move a desk to make something easier for me, jostled a power cable, and caused the computer’s RAM to blank in the 1/10 of a second power was interrupted. Nobody had invented auto-save yet, and I hadn’t developed paranoid compulsive saving as a protective practice. And there was no cloud, because nobody outside large enterprises had any network at all, much less a network that included large-scale remote storage.

    Dropbox is your friend: http://db.tt/kVKB1vI
    Gigs and gigs of cost-free remote backup – and you can synch your laptop with your desktop so your most recent versions of everything are all on any computer you care to synch. It’s outstanding in reliability, and solves the destruction-of-premises risk to data very nicely.

  2. Yes, we can all relate horror stories from past experience, can’t we? The scars of our profession. Thank goodness technology continues to evolve ways to help us, but we still have to remember to stay vigilant.

  3. The dog could eat the best scene? That had me laughing. In my case, my story wasn’t toddler-proof. I’ve become so used to being paranoid about my work getting garbled up that I wonder if Dropbox will decide to charge astronomically for the service and leave me high and dry, trying to find another option. Google just did that with their Google Reader feature. Awhile back Netflix reneged on their streaming/physical rental package. Facebook has a history of making changes that frustrate rather than improve the experience. These aren’t manuscript-related examples, I realize; but whether you pay for it or it’s a free service, services online are not all that dependable. I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to try my best to work with the tools I have. When I lose something, I’ll rage and cry and try to recreate it; but in the end what happens happens.

    Oh, and the refrigerator/freezer seems to be the place many keep their treasures. I had a friend you used to store coins in the freezer. I told her she could certainly call it cold, hard cash that way.

  4. Oh, TODDLERS! I forgot about them in writing this post, but any small human species unit can be lethal. One of my students was trying to impress his new girlfriend by offering to keep her baby over the weekend while she was gone on National Guard maneuvers. He assured me that this would be a piece of cake, and that he’d have plenty of time to write. In his next session, he arrived looking frazzled and with very few pages. Seems that the baby had crawled under his computer desk and pulled the cord. He was still trying to recreate what he’d lost. And toddlers love to trace cords, don’t they? Or feed Cheerios into the USB port.

    I love the idea of cold, hard cash! Sometimes I fantasize about having my own bank vault, but I’d probably have to buy a historic former bank building to get one. Gringott’s would do, of course.


  5. Bill M

    Glad you were not in the path of the tornado. Even 10 miles away can be too close.

    Good points on data storage. I doubt anyone can be too redundant with storage options. I have back-ups of back-ups at various locations as well as on and off-site. However I do get lazy and the last bout of laziness when a hard drive failed on one of my PCs was, well, no back ups.

  6. Thanks, Bill! As far as I’m concerned, any tornado in the state is too close. As I’m typing this, an insurance adjuster is tramping over my roof to look at hail damage. And my claim is negligible compared to the tornado victims. Yesterday, I drove down a street in Moore where the twister went through. You can see the devastation on TV and with your own eyes, and it’s still surreal.

    But, yes, all the computer backups in the world won’t help you if you’re too lazy or forgetful to use them. Both of which are problems for me. I was preaching to myself with this post.

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