I suffered over this one a little, re-reading and re-writing it a few times. I worry that it’ll be seen as a reaction to a particular author at this particular time, but that is not the case. I’m not mad at anyone right now, and no one is in trouble. I offer this as advice to aspiring authors, not to scold a specific working author. Enjoy, or cringe, as the case may be.

Last week’s entry had me thinking maybe I should come up with something less strident and feet-to-the-fire, lest I frighten away anyone thinking of ever writing anything, but there’s just one more bullshit excuse I gotta get off my chest. This isn’t one you tell yourself. It’s the one you tell me, and here it is, my blanket rejection of same:

My hard drive crashed.

It’s the “my dog ate my homework” of the 21st century.

I’ve heard the hard drive excuse dozens of times, with creative details thrown in to make it even more “believable.” These are writers, after all, and can be forgiven for the occasional illumination. Over the years I’ve been regaled with tales of puffs of black smoke (which in one case changed from black to gray, then to white over three different retellings), all sorts of tortured sounds ranging from nails being scratched across a chalkboard to a steady ringing squeal like a fire alarm, and a panoply of smells from the burning [insert something here that you can imagine would smell particularly bad if it were on fire] category. I’ve worked with more than a hundred authors, and at least five or six times that many of their hard drives.

Hard drives, by the way, never seem to fail three months before your first draft is due. They always fail two weeks after it’s due and you’re being bothered by your long-suffering editor. I know, everything always breaks at the least convenient time, but, yeah. Come on.

Last week I recommended laptops for anyone who really wants to do this for a living. To help you avoid being forced to appear to be a liar if you ever find your hard drive having gone more hard than drive, I’ll recommend a few other bits of hardware, too:

A flash drive.

These groovy little devices plug into your USB port and allow you to quickly and easily swap files. I have one that rarely leaves my person. If you save your working files onto a flash drive as you go, your hard drive can crash, but you won’t have lost your book. I’ve seen these for $9.99.

CDs and/or DVDs

Back your stuff up onto a disk from time to time. They last a long time, don’t take up much space on a shelf, and are getting cheaper all the time.

More than one computer.

Do you have a computer at work? Like me, a laptop and a desktop computer at home? Save your book to as many places as you can, as often as you can, so if one computer goes the way of all flesh, your book won’t go with it.

Plug-in hard drives and other solutions.

For less than $200 you can buy a huge hard drive that will plug into your computer and backup everything. Use this for more than your iTunes library. And look around at various web storage solutions. There are a number of services that will basically rent you server space to backup your files.

Backup is out there—it’s everywhere—and it’s getting cheaper all the time. There is no reason you would ever have to lose more than a few hours’ work if your computer goes belly up. If waiting to get the computer fixed is going to eat up a lot of time, borrow a friend’s computer, rent one, or go to the library and work on one of theirs, from the file on your flash drive. The file is the key, not the computer. If you’ve kept your file safe, you can work on just about any machine.

So, yeah, I know, hard drives do occasionally crash. Laptops have been stolen, cars broken into, houses burned down, but you know what else has happened?

On rare occasions, adult professionals speak to each other on that level and say things like: “I got behind, thought I could get caught up, but I’m still behind. I need another couple weeks.” Believe it or not, as an editor, I’m delighted to hear that—just exactly that, with that level of detail, which is to say, very little. I know that the authors I work with are real people, with real lives, and real challenges. They get sick. Their loved ones get sick. There are deaths in the family. There are injuries. There are issues with kids. There are houses being bought and sold, marriages formed and dissolved.

It’s not that I don’t care. I really do care. But that doesn’t mean I can just sit in limbo and wait, or feel okay being lied to or strung along. Talk to your editor as though he or she is a real person who actually cares about you, your book, and your career, because that’s almost certainly true. We aren’t all qualified psychotherapists or divorce lawyers, but almost all of us can steal a day here or a week there from our schedules to get you over an unexpected hump.

I’ve seen a lot in the last twenty-three years since I first started editing the small press magazine Alternative fiction & poetry, then moved on to TSR and Wizards of the Coast. I have an author who lives in Moore, Oklahoma who stood on his front lawn and watched the most powerful tornado ever recorded by science wipe his town, literally, off the map. A TSR author accidently shot his finger off. I’ve had an author disappear off the face of the Earth, leaving no trail at all, so I had to resort to contacting her mother just to find out if she was alive. I’ve had an author write a book while in a full body cast, after narrowly surviving a near-fatal car accident. I’ve had a really freaked-out stalker call me and try to get an author fired. I’ve had an author have a major heart attack. I’ve had authors just give up, throw up their hands, and tell me they can’t finish the book. Authors have called me crying, and not always because of something I’d said. I’ve heard of an agent who didn’t pay her clients for months because she was hit on the head and suffered memory loss. We’ve had an author actually die.

Life happens, and things like tornados and cancer don’t give a crap about your deadlines, or mine. I know that, and I’m ready to work with anyone in any way I can to make everybody happy, and get a great book out to eager readers as close to on time as we can.

Just tell me the truth. And tell me just as much of the truth as I really need to know so I know you understand that I need this book on time, but there’s a reason it’s not going to happen and we need to move to Plan B. And there’s always a Plan B. Sometimes even a Plan C. D is hard. E? Please, let’s not try. But the sooner we start on Plan B, the easier it’ll be on all of us, and the fewer silly excuses you blow at me, the happier I’ll be to work with one more in a great stable of creative, professional fantasy authors whose careers will survive any number of burned out hard drives, or, for that matter, hungry dogs.

And next week, I promise, something less accusatory.

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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1 Response to MY DOG ATE IT, 21st CENTURY STYLE

  1. Pingback: DISASTER! | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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