We’ve all experienced the sickening dread when computers crash mid-email or mid-project. Did I save it in time? Did I lose everything?
Now imagine that this happens to your novel or manuscript. If you’re like me, it instantly fills you with terror. So how can you make sure that your manuscript is never lost?
In this post, I’ll talk about local storage, the cloud, and how to save your novel from the malevolent vagaries of computer hard drives.
Eliminate single points of failure
In addition to being a writer, I’m also a consultant for a cloud company. The most frequent question I get from big companies is: how do I protect my data from data loss and hackers?
The answer is that you need to design a system that anticipates failure. You should assume that every individual component of a system will eventually break or get hacked.
In other words, plan for the worst.
Let’s say you’re writing your manuscript in Microsoft Word or another text editing program. You save copies of your novel in your Documents folder (in other words, on your local hard drive). As you write, you keep pressing “Save”, which is overwriting older copies of that file with your new draft.
In this scenario, you’ve got a single file, in a single location on your hard drive, on a single physical computer. If any of these components fail, you lose your novel. In the IT world, we call these all “single points of failure” and they’re not good.
How do we build resilience into each step? Here are the basic principles:
- Single file → Multiple files. Protect yourself against the corruption of a single file by saving multiple copies of your work rather than overwriting one file.
- Single hard drive → Multiple drives. Protect yourself against the failure of a single hard drive either by using an external hard drive, a second computer, or the cloud. This is what we’ll focus on in this post.
- Single physical location → Multiple locations. Protect yourself against flooding, fires, or other acts of God by separating your files and drives into two geographically disparate locations.
Now, this can seem overkill for most of your personal files, but I’d argue that implementing at least #1 and 2 on this list is critical for your novel.
The most common way to protect yourself against computer meltdowns is to have an external hard drive. This is a very effective way to ensure you have multiple files in multiple drives, and you can get enough storage to host 10,000 drafts of your novel for like $90.
An external hard drive is essentially a storage device that plugs into your computer. When you go to save your file, you can save it both on your laptop (i.e. in your C:/ drive) and a second copy on your external hard drive (usually listed as an E:/ or F:/ drive). If you have a Mac computer, you can use Time Machine to automatically backup your entire C:/ drive; that way you don’t have to manually save your files in two locations all the time.
The problem with an external hard drive is that it’s yet another physical item that could potentially break. If there’s a power surge that kills your laptop and your external hard drive is plugged in, it’ll probably fry your external hard drive too. This is why it’s not a bad idea to keep your external hard drive unplugged and do backups once a week.
Enter the clouds
The other option for backing up your novel is to save it in the cloud. Think iCloud, Google Drive, Dropbox, etc.
The great thing about these programs is that when you pay for them and set them up once, they automatically backup your files without you having to manually save files to the cloud. Just download an application that syncs your Google Drive, periodically check that everything’s working, and you’re good to go.
Now, you may ask — what is the cloud anyway? Where will my file actually live, and who has access to it?
Think of the cloud as a giant external hard drive owned by a corporation and accessible to you over the internet, rather than a private external hard drive owned by you. Google owns millions of square feet of server space all across the world, and when you store your file in Google Drive, you’re really asking Google to store your file on one tiny portion of one server in one of its global datacenters. You could be sharing a server with my Aunt Suzie’s photo album or some small business’ invoices, but all of that is abstracted from you and handled by Google.
TLDR you’ll never know where in the world your file lives exactly. It’s just…there. But the good news is that Google’s server is almost guaranteed to be an entirely different city than your personal computer. That’s an extra level of protection against disasters vs. storing your files in an external hard drive in your house.
So who has access to your file in the cloud?
The first thing to understand is that even though you and Aunt Suzie share the same server, you don’t have access to each others’ files. There’s some very sophisticated technology on the backend of the cloud that prevents users from accessing each other’s files. Google itself can only access your files as the result of a court order, and can’t claim ownership over anything you store in Google Drive. Same goes for other major cloud providers.
Why choose cloud over an external hard drive? Because it’s cheap and the risk of hardware failure falls to almost zero. Since Google is able to provide storage for millions of people at scale, you can “rent” space in their server for much less than it would cost you to purchase a similarly-sized external hard drive.
Ransomware & other hacks
We’ve all seen it in the news: a hacker accesses a business’ network and shuts them out of their own files, demanding a “ransom” to release the files back to the company.
Now, chances are that most hackers go after high net-worth individuals and businesses, who are willing to pay more to get their data back. But ransomware or any other type of hack can affect anyone.
All the methods we already discussed in this post are also a great way to protect yourself from ransomware and other hacks. If you’re backing up your files, it doesn’t matter if a hacker takes your files hostage. You’ve already got another copy. If a hacker corrupts your laptop and makes it unusable in some way, you’ve got another copy.
Just remember, if you store your files in the cloud, the password of your account is your only true protection against hacks (unless you’re also encrypting your novel, in which case, *nerdhighfive*). Don’t use really common password combinations or reuse passwords from other services.
Less-optimal options for the technically disinclined
If all of this seems too hard, then there are a few less-good options that still provide more protection than saving your novel on your laptop:
- Email your novel to yourself on a regular basis
- Email your novel to yourself and save it on a second computer
- Save each new draft as a separate file rather than overwriting the original file (you should do this anyway)
- Print out your novel and stash it somewhere
- Acquire photographic memory (kidding)
In order to not lose your manuscript, start thinking about worst case scenarios. You don’t need to obsess over it or stay awake at night imagining tragic book loss; just set up a system right now and stick to it.
The rule is simple: multiple copies of your files in multiple drives, either physical or cloud-based. If you do that, the chance of you losing your novel is basically zero.
Art: Still Life by Anonymous