How do I back thee up, let me count the ways…

Ah, my fellow scribes, your friend, and humble narrator back once again. Verily, there is no worse feeling than opening the file containing your magnum opus only to discover that it doesn’t leave off where you are sure it should. Or that it is corrupted, or disaster of disasters, it is gone altogether. Hopefully, you have a backup and the worst-case scenario is that you may have lost a day’s worth of work. Tragedy, to be sure, but recoverable. So let’s look at the myriad methods that we writers can save ourselves some pain and secure our treasures.

[Author’s Note: I’ll apologize right up front and concede that the majority of these solutions apply to a Windows PC-based environment. (I’m a PC). That’s not to say that these might not apply to Mac / Linux / Ubuntu / etc… It’s just that I have no personal experience with those.]

Software.

There are a finite number of word processors out there, but which one you choose to write with often comes down to ease of use, ease of accessibility, and familiarity with the software. If you’re writing a novel or short story, you’re probably using Microsoft Word, or WordPerfect, or a variant thereof like OpenOffice’s Writer. If you’re dealing with screenplays, you’re most likely using Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter. All these programs offer a way to do a form of timed backup. Be sure to go to the options and set it up. I’m not familiar with Writer, WordPerfect, or Final Draft. I use Microsoft Word extensively and Movie Magic Screenwriter.

Screenwriter has a nice feature where, not only will it save your timed backups, but it can save the timed backups to a different location. This is critical in case of a hard drive failure. You definitely don’t want all your eggs in one basket and many computers come with multiple hard drives now. It is best to save your work in multiple locations just in case of a hardware failure. Having software that does this automatically and transparently is ideal. That way we’re not interrupting the muse with a left-brain activity like figuring out which directory to save a file to and changing the naming convention to reflect which version of the file we’re saving.

To my knowledge, Microsoft Word does not inherently provide a method to save in multiple locations automatically (if someone out there knows of a way, please let me know). You can easily rectify this by adding a convenient macro to your Word program. While not automatic, it at least takes it down to one mouse click. There are many different ways of doing this. This is the macro I use (where X is the name of the drive I want to use and DESTINATION is the name of the folder):

Sub SaveToTwoLocations()
Dim oDoc As Document
Dim strFileA As String
Dim strFileB As String
Dim strBackupPath As String
‘Define the backup location
strBackupPath = “X:\DESTINATION\”
On Error Resume Next
Set oDoc = ActiveDocument
With oDoc
‘Mark the cursor position with a bookmark
.Bookmarks.Add Range:=Selection.Range, Name:=”OpenAt”
.Save
strFileA = .FullName
strFileB = strBackupPath & “Backup ” & .Name
.Close ‘Close the document
End With
FileCopy strFileA, strFileB ‘Copy the document
Documents.Open strFileA ‘Reopen the original document

 

ActiveWindow.View.Type = wdPrintView
‘and restore the cursor position
ActiveDocument.Bookmarks(“OpenAt”).Select
End Sub

This is a brute force method but it does work and has actually saved my bacon in the past.

There is another program out there that is sort of the new kid on the block, at least as far as Windows machines are concerned. Mac users have had it for a while. I’m talking about Scrivener (You can find the Windows version here: Scrivener for Windows). They are on version 2.0 for the Mac and the Windows version is a very late stage beta that ought to go to release sometime this summer. (Since the time of this writing Scrivener for Windows has gone live and is a very affordable solution.  Once they have an iOS version, it will be a critical factor in my workflow).

Scrivener saves often. The default is configured to save every time it detects 2 seconds of inactivity. Scrivener also has the capability to save in multiple locations, but again, it does not do this automagically. The software also saves all your words in a RTF format, so even if your file is corrupted and won’t open in the program, your actual words are still accessible (albeit with no formatting). I haven’t yet used Scrivener extensively. I’ve just tinkered around with it, but I was very impressed. It has the potential to be the go-to software for creative writing. I’ll have a more detailed review after I write my next novel using it over this summer. (One feature I’ve already grown fond of is the ‘typewriter’ scrolling so that your eyes aren’t constantly glued to the bottom of the monitor.) Another feature is that you can run Scrivener from a flash drive, so you can have an integrated writing solution that fits in your pocket. Another bonus is that both the Mac and upcoming PC version retail for less than $50. Even less if you’re a NaNoWriMo winner. It is cool enough that I felt I should mention it in this discussion. Check it out.

 

Hardware

 

 If you’re going to bother saving to multiple locations and that other location is not another internal hard drive, we might want to examine some of the hardware that’s out there. What do I mean when I say hardware? I’m talking about USB hard drives, flash drives, SD cards, and everything in between. Hardware has some innate pros and cons.

Pros: portable, separate device, avoids cascading hardware failure.

Cons: Can still physically fail. Depending on size, could get lost. Costs money (depending on the solution, it could cost a lot of money).

Flash drives and SD cards are cheap, but they are prone to physical failure and can get lost. Out here in Colorado, there is a lot of static electricity, I can’t even count how many flash drives I’ve gone through because of this. If you want to go with a hardcore flash drive that is a bit on the expensive side, I recommend the IronKey. Here we’re talking about a physically rugged, waterproof flash drive that offers hardware enabled military grade encryption (Get the entry password wrong too many times and it physically destroys itself – mission impossible style). You can configure it to a read only mode if you fear a virus has infected your machine, and it comes with a Firefox browser you can run from the drive itself. Frankly, it’s overkill, but I’m fairly sure it’s the best flash drive you can probably get. But be prepared to pay for it.

What about USB hard drives like the Western Digital Passport drives or the ubiquitous MyBook drives? Personally, I prefer the smaller Passport style drives. They are portable, which means that you can slip it in a side pocket of your laptop bag and not even notice it. The MyBook drives are cheaper and bigger in both storage space and physical size. The downside to the MyBook-sized drives is that they require an additional power source beyond the USB port. They are also not very portable. They are a better solution if you’re writing on a desktop computer and are not going to move them around. Also, from my experience, they can fail if not unmounted from the system properly. (Do not simply yank out the USB cable from your computer! Make sure you ‘eject’ it using your operating system first.) That goes for all these external storage methods, but it goes double for these USB external hard drives. Of the larger external MyBook style drives, I can recommend the MyBook Studio edition. It comes with two separate hard drives configured for RAID 0, but it is easy enough to configure it for RAID 1. In doing so, you will lose half the storage capacity in order to do the mirroring, but it provides redundancy should one of the drives fail.

There are many other excellent storage/backup solutions such NAS storage machines and hard drive arrays such as the Drobo. But these are overkill for the average writer and they are also expensive.

Backup Software

The perfect backup software does its job quickly, efficiently, and transparently. Ideally, it backs up your work to a separate location. Even better if it can do it securely and off site. There are numerous software packages that do this and they often do it at an affordable cost of around $5 a month. Two that come immediately to mind are Carbonite and Mozy. Personally, I use Carbonite on all my machines. I have friends that use Mozy. We’re all very happy with the performance. The downside to these programs is that they do cost money (even though they’re not that expensive), and they are no help to you if you have no access to the internet. They serve as good insurance however if your machine or file should go kaput, that you’ve only potentially lost that day’s work and nothing more.

Poor man’s version: If you’re just looking to back up your one file, you can always email it to yourself on one of the free web-mail based services, such as Hotmail or Gmail and leave a copy on the server. You have to do it manually obviously, and you don’t have the additional benefit of backing up all your other files and photos, but it’s not a bad idea anyway.

 

To the Cloud!

 

 The push by the large corporations towards cloud computing is offering us little guys some pretty cool tools. Of course, the big downside to cloud computing is internet connectivity, if you don’t have it, you’re done.

The first thing to talk about is online-based software suites such as Google Docs and Office Live. Both will work with almost every word processor format you can conjure. Both allow you to work online directly with very capable web-based tools. If you have a Gmail account, you have access to Google Docs. Google gives you a gig of free storage with the capability to add more should you need it. For most writers that’s more than enough.

[As an aside, if you’re going to be using the generous Google Apps, I recommend setting your Google account to use Two-Step Verification and setting different passwords for the majority of your apps. I really hope that Microsoft is going to incorporate a similar solution to their Windows Live services.]

Not to be left behind, Microsoft offers a lot of power for free once you sign up for Windows Live. With their Office Live suite, they provide web-based versions of Word, Excel, and Powerpoint. Signing up for Windows Live also grants you access to Microsoft’s SkyDrive, which gives you an impressive 25 gigabytes of storage for documents and photos. If you’re using an offline version of Word, you can still save your file directly to the Skydrive. A few extra seconds buys you an off site online backup!

As for Google docs, yes you could always save your file to your harddrive and then upload it to Google Docs. Or you could install Google’s free plug-in if you’re a Microsoft Office user. Google Cloud Connect for Microsoft Office is extremely cool. It even allows collaboration between multiple users, if you were writing a novel with multiple authors, or perhaps going over edits with your agent/editor, it could be extremely useful. It keeps track of each revision of the file and it can either sync automatically or manually. Google does a better job of talking about it than I do, so check out this video:

 

If you’re feeling paranoid about storing your masterpiece online, most word processors will allow you to password protect the file. Failing that, you could always make a zip archive of the file in question and then password protect the zip archive. Personally, the risk of my file getting corrupted or lost is far higher than someone deliberately hacking my account to get a hold of my novel/screenplay. Honestly, I think unless you’re J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or another author of their popular level, this isn’t really a big concern for the majority of us. I’ll worry more about this when I get a title on the New York Times Bestseller list. In the meantime, I don’t want to lose my work.

Microsoft’s SkyDrive offers an additional benefit. If you download Microsoft’s Windows Live Essentials suite (also free) you can put Windows Mesh to work for you. Windows Mesh is for syncing folders across multiple computers. If you have a desktop computer and a laptop, windows mesh makes it easy to keep key folders synchronized once you set it up. Once you have Windows Mesh set to start with Windows and configured, it does this transparently and very easily. But here’s the beauty of it. Even if you only have a single computer, it will allow you to set a folder to sync with Skydrive. In this configuration you no longer have access to the full 25 GB of the Skydrive, but only a mere 5 GB. This is more than enough for hundreds of iterations of your creative writing works. And if you’re syncing your working writing folder, it’s synchronized whenever your computer is turned on. Of concern here, is that you do have to make sure that the folder is finished syncing with Skydrive before you shut down the computer. A handy progress indicator lets you know when Windows Mesh is done.

Along the same lines is DropBox. Dropbox sets up a folder that automatically syncs to online servers and other computers. Even if you have one computer, it is an easy way to set up an off-site, online backup. If you can access the internet with a browser, you can access your Dropbox folder. Dropbox gives you 2 GB free to start, but you can ‘earn’ more storage by referring more people to use the service. So, for instance, if you don’t have DropBox yet, and think it is something you could use, and you got a referral from me, we both get more storage. Like the Skydrive/Windows Mesh solution, make sure that DropBox is finished syncing before shutting down your computer. This is especially important if you’re going to be opening the same file across multiple computers.

A bonus to many of these cloud bases services is that you can gain access from many different methods and they are generally not platform dependent. You can access your data from your smartphone or tablet or just about anything that will run a common internet browser.

We’ve covered a plethora of backup solutions for your creative writing masterpieces. So which one is the best? I would say a blend of all of them. It all starts with robust software and file-saving discipline. Branch out from there with saving your file to multiple locations, preferably not on the same hardware in order to avoid a single point of failure. Incorporate the implementation of off-site online backups either through backup software services or cloud computing and you should all but guarantee that if you suffer a data loss, you shouldn’t lose too much of your data. If you’ve done all this and you still lose your entire file with no way of recovering your work, take it as a sign that you’re either having a really terrible day, or that your work was too good for the universe at large to experience and the powers that be had to take action in the interest of self-preservation.

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