There is no substitute for a current backup

PanicFaceLineArtThere is nothing quite like the feeling of opening your novel’s working document and discovering it’s an old version, and all recent changes and additions are lost. First comes disbelief. You check your hard drive to make sure you opened the right file. You open the novel again to see if the changes magically reappeared. You scroll around to see… who knows what, maybe to see if the changes are hiding on the wrong page. You stare stupidly at the screen, too blindsided to even think for a few minutes.

After disbelief comes anger and frustration. Where are my changes? They were there, dammit! You know you made them. Did you make them in the wrong file? This question is followed by closing the working document yet again and looking, yet again, for another version lurking in a different folder. How it may have ended up in the wrong folder, and the unlikeliness of that having happened, are both thoughts you squash with the intensity of stepping on a blister beetle. You simply cannot allow your brain to be logical at this stage. Every possibility, no matter how bizarre, is worth exploring. Of course, each possibility quickly proves incorrect, which leads to…

PanicButtonThe third stage, which is some degree of panic. Your mind swirls through four primary thoughts: What am I going to do? I can’t remember everything I’d already done! Nothing I recreate will possibly be as good as what I’d already done. I’m so totally screwed. The doubt spirals goes down from there, and can lead some writers to actually abandon the work, at least for a while. For most, though, the final stage of resignation and determination is usually reached at this point. And the difficult task of rewriting and recreating changes and additions begins.

I had this experience a few days ago. It all started when I stupidly spilled half a glass of water on my laptop’s keyboard. I immediately saved my working draft of Virgilante and copied it out to Dropbox. We have an old MacBook that my husband Eric uses for editing videos of flights in his small plane. He upgraded the OS and Pages app to compatible versions so I could use it while we ordered a new keyboard assembly for mine.

SleuthI copied my draft of Virgilante from Dropbox onto Eric’s computer and got back to work. One week later my computer was repaired and I copied from Eric’s Mac across Dropbox and back to my Mac. I again got back to work. I didn’t discover a problem until I was ready to submit my next chapter to the Lockhart Writers critique group. The last chapter they’d read was 25. I searched for the last sentence of that chapter and prepared to print the next chapter for their review. Except it was chapter 16, not 26. Wait… what?

It took some real research to figure out what had happened. I had an older version of Virgilante already on Dropbox. When I copied the newer version on the day of the water disaster, I put it in a different Dropbox folder. But it was the older version I moved onto Eric’s computer. After that, every place I moved the file, I was systematically overwriting all the newer versions that existed until I’d wiped them all out.

Dont PanicThis is where being married to a total computer geek pays off big time. Eric got me calmed down (my panic actually triggered a migraine) and started researching solutions. First, he discovered that Dropbox keeps archives for even deleted files. He found a deleted version of Virgilante that was newer than the one I’d been copying everywhere. He then found a cool program call Kdiff that compares two documents and lists all differences. He ran Kdiff between multiple versions of my novel and created two master lists of differences: between the PDF I created the day I first typed THE END, the working copy I’d been editing on for the past two weeks, the deleted copy from Dropbox. and an older version I still had on my computer. All of these together, along with a printout of the entire novel where I’d made notes as I read aloud to him (one of my editing steps), got me to 90% recovery. I still have to recreate that last 10%, but that feels doable. It sure beats the heck out of trying to recreate 100% of the changes I’d made over a two week period.

Dont Panic OrganiseI spent 25+ years in tech. I KNOW the value of backups. I was working in a database clearing house for a large corporation when a woman ran into a power pole in the street and took out all our power, causing 100 large-capacity servers to all crash simultaneously. Without backups, our company would have been screwed – there’s no other word for it. So why hadn’t I been backing up? Typical wishy-washy excuse: My external backup drive is clunky and its cord was always getting in the way. Yada, yada, yada.

I’ve now come up with a couple of simple solutions that are convenient and easy. First, I copy to a folder on Dropbox at the end of EVERY day. To ensure I don’t overwrite the wrong file, I alternate names (appending an A or B) so I always have two versions. Second, I’ll plug in and backup to the external drive AT LEAST once a week. The backup program copies everything on my computer that has changed, including emails and graphic images, as well as my manuscript files.

Thanks to daily Dropbox backups, I’ll never lose more than a few hours work, no matter what might happen to my laptop in the future. And thanks to weekly backups, I could restore my entire computer if needed. Now back to that missing 10%…





  1. Kat Parks:

    I also change the name of working drafts with the current date appended to the file name. Filename_Draft_20150817.docx for example. There’s an Archive subfolder saving previous drafts, so that I have record of not only what was added, but also taken out.

    I don’t know about novels, but had to maintain version control over 55 work instructions I was responsible for keeping current. I maintained a list of all my work instructions with title, doc serial number, last edit date, and brief description. Technical writing is more rigid than the flow of a novel, but these tricks may help you in your novel, or if not this novel, then maybe your next novel or someone else’s writing.


    • Kat Parks:

      But, then, you know more about technical writing than I do…


    • janet:

      Kat time stamping in the name is a good idea. If I was saving more than two at a time I’d do that. The file itself is time-stamped even if I don’t add it to the name. Alternating A and B in the name lets me quickly save each day, over-writing the day-before’s save with the new one. If I time-stamped, I’d end up with many, many backups. And I’m happy enough with just two — one from today, one from yesterday.


  2. Tam:

    Great advice and a great lesson. Thanks for sharing your experience. I’ve had that happen as well, but not with so many pages. It’s funny though, how when I go back fix, the edits come back to me like magic. Best of luck with your fixes!

    ~ Tam Francis ~


  3. Connor Rickett:


    That’s terrible! I had a sudden hard drive death a few years back, and ever since then I’ve gone out of my way to prevent a recurrence.

    I try to back up all my work in three places (computer, external drive, and GoogleDrive [automatically]), and I regularly change version numbers. It’s not as much of a pain as it seems like, since it’s all set up to happen automatically.

    Hope that helps,


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