When Disaster Strikes: Part Two

When Disaster Strikes—How Writers Can Safeguard their Work

Part Two

Hi, Everyone.

Today we sit down for a chat with author and gallant work-saver, Dan O’Connor. Our discussion will focus on what writers can do to preserve their work before that devastating earthquake (or hurricane or tornado or toddler) hits.

Welcome, Dan! We’ll start right in with questions.

Q: Can you give an overview of your writing backup systems?

A: My manuscript first goes to an external hard drive that is about the size of a small handheld calculator. It would fit in my shirt pocket. From there, it goes a couple of places, one is a 2tb external hard drive that is rotated out of my office (and swapped) to another physical location. Another is back to a partition on my main hard drive that is automatically copied in an encrypted format to Carbonite.

Note: I’ve recently discovered dropbox, a cell phone app. that may be a better offsite storage facility than Carbonite. The trouble with Carbonite is that it is painfully slow, even when set to “fast,” and never gets my system completely backed up.

Every now and then, I clone both the internal and external hard drives and rotate the clones to an offsite location.

Q: Any insight you gained the hard way that you could warn other writers about?

A: I was warned not to put my entire manuscript into one file, which was probably lousy advice, even at the time. Any decent word processing program should be able to manage a single file that contains an entire 150,000 word ms. The problem I ran into was that by having everything in one file, I was vulnerable to the file itself being corrupted all at once. That happened once, when I was in Barbados, working on Spice: An Island Intrigue and I had to go back about three days to a backup. It is the only time I know of that I lost any of my work.

What I do now is start a new file at least once every day by changing the date, when I save the file. For example, I would add a numerical date to the title (e.g., grapes_of_wrath_110405) to the name of the file for April 5, 2011. If I’ve done a lot of writing on a given day, I’ll add a series of letters to the name, e.g., 110405a or 110405b, and so on to the file name during the day.

As I think about it, I’ve never had a file corrupted again, but I have found this very helpful, when I want to see a prior version or resurrect a deleted segment, which happens on occasion.

Why use the numbers?  It will sort the files in perfect order in a computer folder. It gives me an excellent history of what I’ve done and when.

Q: Traps to avoid? Rescue or backup products that don’t perform as advertised?

A: I’d forget about Carbonite and use dropbox, if I were setting up a system at this moment. I’d also use an encryption program though to store my offsite copy. They are easy enough to find. Many are free and they work seamlessly.

Avoid Hitachi and Western Digital Hard Drives. Seagate is the best I’ve found. I’ve had plenty of the former crash, none of the latter.

Q: If you were to recommend one step or upgrade writers should begin now, what would it be?

A: I’d recommend HDClone by Miray Software in Germany. Having a usable clone has saved me tens of times and hundreds of hours by now. Other disk cloning programs I’ve tried were more cumbersome and less reliable. I use ms word and find it fine, albeit cumbersome with far more features than I’ll ever need or use.

Thank you so much, Dan. I hope your valuable insights will prod us all to protect our work.

And thank you for reading. As always, comments are welcome.

Ghost Novel Review: Saving Fish from Drowning

Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan

I so wanted to love this book.

I loved the idea—a novice ghost follows her museum friends on an ill-fated tour through Myanmar. I loved Tan’s trademark fusing of myth to narrative, particularly the satiric vignette detailing how one goes about saving a fish from drowning. I loved the comforting heft of the book as I settled beneath my Tree of Life quilt and snapped on the bedside lamp.

What I didn’t love was the book. The writing lacked both luster and momentum.

I think I made it to page fifty-two.

I made it that far only because of my friend Laurie. Once, while reading The Poisonwood Bible, I felt so discouraged and confused I wanted to chuck the novel into the nearest Goodwill receptacle. Laurie said, “Give it fifty pages.”

I did, and she was right. The Poisonwood Bible is a masterful piece of writing.*

Not so Saving Fish from Drowning, despite the diligently applied Laurie test. Reading the prose—so thickly filtered via a self-indulgent narrator—was akin to diving for freshwater pearls in congealed gravy. One could drown. Or come up empty handed.

Instead of this book by Tan, I recommend her novel The Joy Luck Club for pure reading pleasure. The intertexture of myth and reality, past and present, is so compelling, you can return again and again. You won’t find any ghosts in these pages except perhaps for the metaphorical variety.

*For those interested in the craft of writing, The Poisonwood Bible is one of the two best books I’ve found for the treatment of voice. The other is The God of Small Things.

When disaster strikes

When Disaster Strikes—How Writers Can Safeguard their Work

Part One

Earthquake. Japan, 2011. New Zealand, 2011. Haiti, 2010.

Floods in Australia. Red mud in Hungary. Hurricane Karl in Veracruz.

After disasters such as these, we mourn the lost lives, the terrible injuries, the environmental harm.

But art was lost as well.

In the Pacific Northwest we face earthquakes, fires, and landslides. Other parts of the world endure floods, sand storms, tsunamis, hurricanes, and tornadoes. Assuming we survive whatever disaster befalls, we want the products of our sweat and tears to survive as well.

I read an article about author Maxine Hong Kingston and her experience in the historic Oakland fire of 1991. Most affected people had only minutes to flee; some didn’t make it. The conflagration, fueled by exploding eucalyptus oil, melted even fireproof boxes. Kingston’s home was destroyed, as were her books and writing. All traces of her nearly finished novel The Fourth Book of Peace perished.

She was forced to begin writing with nothing. The result is The Fifth Book of Peace; ironically, The Fourth Book of Peace was never resurrected. Sometimes it’s good to open a fresh page. (I have at least one manuscript slated for a do-over.) My goal, though, is that we as artists make that choice rather than the fates of wind and earth.

Evaluate your workspace. Most people own flash drives. I have one. I rarely use it. Usually, I wait for a pitying family member to manipulate the digital magic for me. (I’m a bit of an e-klutz.) Still, a flash drive can burn, or float away or be crushed.

I also have a hard copy of my work in progress with notes from my writing group meetings. Same potential problems as above. Burn, float, crush.

Here’s my lazy, and, fingers crossed, foolproof solution. At regular intervals, I email my manuscript as an attachment to myself. This method could survive all disasters. I could retrieve my book from any computer in the world. That is, as long as I don’t forget my password. The downside is that because it’s impractical to save all my writing this way, I choose only my most important project. A bit like deciding which child you love best. (It’s you, Sweetie. You know who you are.)

Do you remember the Highlights Magazine characters Goofus and Gallant? For an entertaining article about those guys, read here. As you have probably guessed, I fall out more on the Goofus side. In Part Two of this series, we’ll hear from writer Dan O’Connor (definitely a Gallant) about more sophisticated ways you can protect your work.

Thanks for reading.

Ghost Novel Review: Beloved

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Beloved by Toni Morrison

Publisher: Plume, 275 pages
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased

What it’s about:

Set in the south in the years before and after the Civil War, Beloved tracks the ravages of oppression across one matriarchal line—that of Baby Suggs, Sethe, Denver, and their sons and lovers. The novel depicts in unflinching narrative the horrors that slavery wreaks on individuals and families. There are chain gangs, routinized torture, and callous indifference. We know, for instance, that Sethe’s baby daughter, Beloved, is killed during a slave raid.

Sethe escapes to Ohio and moves in with her mother-in-law Baby Suggs who was deeded the house at 124 Bluestone after she was freed. Sethe and her daughter Denver have been living in Baby Sugg’s house for eighteen years when Paul D., one of the men from the plantation shows up and begins a life with Sethe.

Soon, the venomous spirit of Beloved emerges from the waters “breathing shallow” like the first primordial creature to venture onto land. The ghostly Beloved leaves fingerprints, turns over slop jars, breaks mirrors, and terrorizes the inhabitants. As Sethe muses, “Who would have thought that a little old baby could harbor so much rage?” Once she adjusts to a woman’s form, Beloved taunts her mother’s lover and torments her mother’s soul.

Yet hope resides at 124 Bluestone Road.  As Sethe’s tale circles closer to the terrible moment of revelation, the narrator chronicles the characters’ journey toward emotional evolution. The sage Paul D. nudges Sethe towards her redemption, saying, “You got two feet, Sethe, not four.”

What I thought:

If you forced me at knife point to describe this novel in one word, that word would be astonishing. Or maybe devastating.

Beloved is the grandame by which other ghost novels will be judged. Note: It is possible to read Beloved with an alternate interpretation, one in which no ghost exists. But why would you?

Morrison takes the reader on a journey, circling down into the past in a series of memories and relived experiences until the final, bitter reveal that gives context to Sethe’s past. It’s like looking at a beautiful mosaic one piece at a time until you can step back to see the complete art form.  This book will challenge you as much for its fragmented storytelling as for its searing images, but it is a story you will never forget.

Beloved is not easy to read, not just because of its unique plot circle. It’s not easy to understand on a visceral level a tragic part of American history. Yet the author’s style of writing is breathtaking. It’s deceptively simple, the kind of storytelling you might listen to for hours sitting around a campfire. One sentence flows into the next with a hypnotic beauty.

There are those who hated this book. But I loved it. And I’m not alone. Beloved won many literary prizes including the coveted Pulitzer.  

The eponymous ghost is born of a mother’s tragic response to the depravity of slavery and serves as an anti-legacy that will haunt the reader long after the final word leaps from the page: Beloved.

If you enjoyed this review and would like more supernatural suggestions, please check out my anthology 31 Ghost Novels to Read Before You Die.

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