Being an account of how I survived the Great Flash Drive File Overwrite Catastrophe of 2010.

Dateline: Redmond, Washington, August 25, 2010.

There I sat, in the cafe of the local Borders store, sipping my tasty non-fat mocha, laptop atop lap, writing away. And boy, was I writing. I wrote like the wind. The words poured out of me—a whole new scene added after I realized that in the outline I’d introduced a character who came out of nowhere, did something convenient, then went away. I hate it when other people do that, so I had to fix it. A brilliant idea presented itself, and off I went. It was a thing of beauty, a masterpiece of contemporary urban fantasy. I was firing on all cylinders.

I don’t know how much time went by—maybe an hour and a half. Not long. That’s how well it was flowing. Flowing like the mighty Mississippi. No, more like the eternal Nile—that will make more sense if the book is actually published.

I was so happy with the 3500 or so words I’d completed that I took the rest of the afternoon to finish reading Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente—a brilliant novel that I wholeheartedly recommend. Then I left the mall and went to Trader Joe’s to pick up something for dinner, and went home. There I told my wife how awesome an afternoon’s writing it had been. I’m about a third of the way through this book, a point where normally I would be hating it, doubting that it’s actually possible that any human being, much less me, could possibly actually finish a novel. I mean, it’s inconceivable. It’s the hardest thing ever. It was easier to go to the moon.

But with this one, it’s all good. The words fly out almost unbidden. I’m surprising myself, exploring new characters, tapping into some seemingly limitless wellspring of creative energy. It’s bliss. I’ve caught fleeting glimpses of this feeling before. It’s what keeps me writing through the long, dark nights of the soul when the very thought of it is just absurd—why would anyone even try to do this?

As I was telling my wife all this happy unicorns and shiny rainbow stuff, I turned the laptop back on, plugged in my little USB flash drive, and copied the revised file onto it so I had it in at least two places. The plan was then to save it onto the desktop computer upstairs so I would have it in three places—triple redundancy. Just like NASA.

I’ve pontificated about this before, you know, right here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook.

That process complete, I shut down the laptop, hung out for a little while, made then ate dinner, then wandered upstairs to transfer the updated file to the desktop computer.

It was at this point that my life descended into a nightmarish hellscape of desperate regret.

On the desktop computer’s hard drive was the file CleoBook.doc, dated August 23, 2010, 6:09 PM.

Okay, I took a day off from writing, so sue me.

Then on the flash drive:

CleoBook.doc, August 23, 2010, 6:09 PM.

Wait—no, that’s not right.

I run downstairs, open up the laptop, suffering through what felt like interminable hours for it to start up. There in the folder Cleo Book is the same file: August 23, 2010, 6:09 PM.

Though I so, so, so didn’t want it to be true, I knew what I’d done right away. I’d moved the old file from the flash drive into the folder on the laptop instead of moving the new file from the laptop to the flash drive. Distracted by my story of how awesome a day’s writing I’d experienced I must have hit okay when the computer asked me if I wanted to overwrite a newer file. The dialog box looks exactly the same as when it goes the other direction. It depends on the operator actually paying attention.

That was it, the whole day’s work—3500 words, and chapters moved around and renumbered—gone in the blink of an electron.

Holding out some vague hope that the data was recoverable, I went on a Google bender, scouring the internet for any advice, and found a few message boards on which people who’d done exactly what I’d just done cried out for help. The responses included language like “you’re hooped,” and, “you’re just boned.” Some said maybe I could pay hundreds of dollars for someone to try to piece it together from fragments on my hard drive, but that probably wouldn’t work.

I’ve never heard that expression, “hooped,” but I’d been “boned” before. If “hooped” is worse than “boned,” I felt hooped.

I was utterly and completely demoralized. From the high of joyfully writing a book I’m coming to really enjoy—enjoy maybe more than anything I’ve ever written—I was crushed down to the ultimate low. Irretrievable creative manna surrendered to the void by one blind, boneheaded mouse click.

I went into a state of such deep mourning, it was literally as though someone had died. I was inconsolable. That work of maybe ninety minutes suddenly took on this overwhelming, epic significance, and I just didn’t know what to do. All day the next day I moped around, barely mustering the energy to check my email and keep up with the world around me. The thought of having to write it again from scratch seemed like the most painful thing in the world.

Finally, I forced myself into action by making a Twitter promise that I would recreate the lost text and write another new chapter on top of it, that day. The rest of the afternoon I wandered around engaged in the pettiest of petty work-avoidance strategies until it was time to make dinner.

But after dinner, I did it. I dragged myself—and I mean dragged myself—upstairs, sat down, and wrote.

Well, first, I revised my whole system of organization, then I wrote. I rewrote from memory and from fresh inspiration everything I’d lost. I did it. It’s back. The book is still good. I still love it. I lived.

Okay, but by then I was too tired to write a new chapter, so that part of my promise I failed to keep.

So what can you learn and how can you benefit from my hideous, painful experience?

I’m a highly organized person. I’m borderline obsessive-compulsive in some ways, and this is one of those ways. I’m insane about how I organize files, back them up, and transfer them. Usually, I have files on four separate systems: a laptop computer, a desktop computer, a portable flash drive, and a 500 GB external hard drive. I’m nuts about folders inside of folders, and clear file names.

And that’s part of what got me screwed up.

In a pathological need for symmetry, I recently went through my flash drive and both computers and made sure that all of my folders had the same names and the same contents. And ultimately I think that’s what screwed me up.

When I’m paying very, very strict attention—and that usually is the case—I know which folder window is which, but when they both have the same names, I really have to watch what I’m doing transferring the file CleoBook.doc from the folder Cleo Book to another folder named Cleo Book, overwriting a (hopefully) older file also named CleoBook.doc.

One of the tips from the message boards that told me I was hooped was to rename the file every time you open it. That seems like a lot of work.

But yeah, people, it’s less work than rewriting 3500 words of creative prose. In every other way I’ve shed my old computer habits of worrying about conserving disk space. The Word file I’m working with is tiny in the greater half-a-terabyte scheme of things, even a third of an ~80,000 word novel. There’s no reason not to have multiple versions of the same 392 KB text file in multiple locations when the smallest of the drives (the flash drive, of course) can contain 4 GB. Writers really don’t need massive hard drives.

I then went through the flash drive and added the prefix USB- to every folder name, so that now when I have a folder window open from the flash drive, I’ll know it’s the flash drive and will have a layer more information to help me move the file in the right direction from the folder Cleo Book to the folder USB-Cleo Book, or vice versa.

The file I now have saved in three places: the desktop computer, the flash drive, and the back-up hard drive, is named CleoBook082610.doc. When I write the next chapter later tonight, I’ll save it as CleoBook082710.doc, so it will never be overwritten by the one-chapter-less version CleoBook082610.doc. (Though posted on August 31, I’m writing this on Friday the 27th.)

Am I nuts? Am I just paranoid? Am I making myself save things like some kind of OCD-addled madman, tapping the light switch five time before I can leave the apartment?

Permanently lose a day’s work, and let me know how nuts I am.

The fact is, I was lucky it was only one chapter I had to write again. Those message boards that told me I was hooped? There were stories of whole books lost.

Consider that for a moment, and quiver in abject terror.

Be careful out there.

—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, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
This entry was posted in Publishing Business, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, SF and Fantasy Authors, Writing, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to DISASTER!

  1. Three thoughts that might help:

    1) Use GoogleDocs to backup your work on the web. As near as I can figure, it doesn’t have an overwrite feature. It just puts the file on with a new date. (Maybe at some point in the future I’ll figure out how to overwrite there, but I’m not sure I want to.) GoogleDocs is now my triple redundancy: computer, flash, GoogleDocs – a CD version makes 4 (but I don’t do that every day). As Lester Smith once said, “Trust the Cloud.”

    2) When you’ve done a major chunk of work, don’t just save, save as a new version – V1, 1a, 1b, etc. I probably started doing that after some overwrite disaster of my own. Thus, I have many versions of some files, but too many is better than losing a day of great work.

    3) Not sure what system you’re using, but there may be some autosave version of the file you worked on somewhere on the computer as a temp file – that hasn’t been “cleaned up” yet by Windows. These files can sometimes hang around for days, months, or even longer. Search for temp files on the same day you were working and lost the file. It might not get you the whole chunk of work back, but it might get some. Often, such temp files are hidden in the same file as your original document. (But, if you don’t have the right settings on your Explorer, you can’t even see them.)

    Finally, I feel your pain, brother! Good luck recovering – both literally and spiritually.

    • Philip Athans says:

      Great tips, Steve. I’m working on two Macs: the laptop is totally obsolete now, the desktop is rapidly joining it. I’m planning on a new Mac in the next month or so, with the Time Machine feature that might have helped me.

      Another tip: Email the file to yourself. You can even set up a free email account (yahoo, etc.) that can act as a file archive, with older versions of files sitting in your inbox. It’s a little Old School, but it works and is free.

      • sdsullivan says:

        Yeah, I’ve done that, too.

        More often, though, it’s email to first readers/friends/consultants than to myself – which, conveniently, shows up in my email archive, too.

        Just in case I need it.

  2. srosegots says:

    15 years ago I had something similar happen to me in college on my word processor (just in case saying ’15 years ago’ wasn’t dating myself enough). Because I accidentally overwrote a disk, I had lost an entire year of journal entries. I cried for 45 minutes. I was a sobbing, snotty mess. So I know what you mean by mourning a loss. It’s awful.

  3. koleoptero says:

    At least now there are options. Imagine typing for days on a typewriter and then having the manuscript somehow destroyed. Pure horror.

  4. Kevin T. Stein says:

    It might be possible to recover your original file if you can find the application’s temp folder. It’s possible…

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