Writers (and everyone else), backup your work!

When I worked in computer repair, a client once asked a colleague of mine, “Should I back up my data?”

“Well, that depends,” my colleague replied. “How valuable is your data?” The client’s eyes widened in horror. He needed to start backing up his data now!

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My file is gone!
(Photo by StartUpStockPhotos, licensed under CC0.)

Last week, I realized I had lost an entire chapter of my work-in-progress novel. I was working on chapter 21 in Scrivener, and when I flipped back to chapter 17 to check something, I found the text of chapter 19 where chapter 17 should have been. In chapter 19 was an older, unedited version of chapter 19. Chapter 17 was gone!

I know exactly how the problem happened (it was user error), but this article isn’t about the cause. It’s about the solution. It took me less than five minutes to restore my missing chapter and get back to writing.

My work is valuable. Therefore, I back it up. Here’s how I do it.

(Note: I use Windows-based computers, but these concepts can easily be applied to other computer technologies.)

My Backup
Ignore the “Documents” sub-folder of your home folder. The go-to place to save your important files is the “OneDrive” sub-folder. My essential files — like my novel’s Scrivener files — are saved to the local copy of my Microsoft OneDrive cloud storage account, so every time I save the file, it is backed up to the Internet. Besides an instant backup, this also makes it very easy to start working on either my desktop or my laptop, wherever I happen to be at the time. Alternatives to OneDrive include Dropbox.

Benefits: Instant, automatic backup with every save. Easy to restore all your files to a new computer. Easy to work from anywhere, even via a web browser for certain file types. OneDrive is free for limited space and reasonably priced for additional storage.

Limitations: If you accidentally save a file full of “lorem ipsum” instead of your document, your file full of “lorem ipsum” will be uploaded to the cloud. If you accidentally delete a file, it is deleted from your OneDrive per Microsoft’s retention policies.

The Backup of My Backup
I take a “belt and suspenders” approach to backups. One backup is not enough. My backup needs a backup. A chief reason for this is the limitation mentioned above: an automatic to-the-cloud backup will happily backup your mistakes. What happens when you realize what you need is the version from four saves ago?

 

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Carbonite’s Windows Explorer interface for recovery of past file versions.

That’s why I subscribe to Carbonite. All of my desktop computer’s files are automatically backed up to the cloud, including different versions of the same files. This is the line of defense that saved my missing chapter. While OneDrive had the incorrect version of my problem chapter, the version I’d accidentally destroyed was available via Carbonite. I restored it from my cloud-based backup, and my work was back.

 

Benefits: Instant, automatic backup with every save, including past versions of the same file.

Limitations: Carbonite is designed for disaster recovery, not for easy access to the same files between multiple machines. Also, there are retention policies set by Carbonite for both still-existing and deleted files.

(And yes, Carbonite’s name is a Star Wars reference.)

Returning to any past point
If you’ve implemented my suggestions to this point, you have a backup and a backup of your backup. Your data is now extremely well-defended against disaster. You are in the top 1% of data protection. And it might be enough. However, if you need an even more granular way to go back in time to specific versions of files, even the “belt and suspenders” approach might be lacking.

Specific to writing, if you use Scrivener, you ought to be taking snapshots. Snapshots are a feature of Scrivener in which a point-in-time copy of a document is taken and is always available in a read-only state. It’s a no-brainer to take a snapshot of every chapter of your book at the end of each significant draft. You might also want to take a snapshot before making a particularly brutal round of edits, or before revising the entire chapter from the start. I won’t go into the details of how to take a snapshot, but there are plenty of articles on the subject available.

Finally, in the software engineering world, we use version control systems (VCS) to store our code. Every distinct version of a code file is checked into VCS, and therefore any distinct version can be retrieved from it. Different versions from any two time periods can be compared. A version from two years ago can be recovered as quickly as a version from two hours ago (so long as someone deliberately checked in the changes; committing a new version to source control is not an automatic operation).

Best of all, when combined with the “belt and suspenders” approach, the database containing all your version history can exist in multiple places and with multiple backups — or can be stored in a cloud-based VCS provider (like GitHub) that can handle redundant backups for you. And there really is no retention policy, so long as you have enough storage to hold all the past versions you wish to keep.

The limitation of this system is its complexity. If you’re not already familiar with it, there is a learning curve, and it could be steep. Also, VCS may be overkill for most writers. But if you absolutely need to be able to go back to any daily (or hourly!) version of your work from now until forever, storing your writing in Git or another VCS is probably your most flexible option.

No backup isn’t an option
Stop and ask yourself: if your laptop’s hard drive died right now, how much work would you lose? What would be your next step? Would you just need to sign in to a different computer and resume typing? Or would it be time to drink, cry, and bargain with God?

It’s easy to ignore creating a backup strategy because, much like life insurance, it’s something that can be a bit of a hassle to get setup, especially for something you hope you’ll never have to use. But someday, when Future You needs that backup, they’ll be really happy you took the time. Your work is valuable. Make sure it’s resilient to disaster.

(Note: I received no compensation of any kind from Microsoft, Carbonite, or any other company for mentioning their product in this article.)

Should I capitalize Heaven? And if I don’t, do I go to hell?

I’m a traditionalist. I still have a landline. I kiss my bride at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day (when I’m awake for it). Our national pastime isn’t this newfangled foosball nonsense, it’s baseball — and day baseball at that. I lean traditional when it comes to grammar, too. I write text messages using proper spelling and punctuation. When someone tells me they’re doing good, I think, “Superman does good. You’re doing well.” (But I don’t say it out loud because I don’t want to be that guy.)

But I’ve read a lot of Grammar Girl, and I’ve come to see that much of what I’ve always thought of as grammar rules are actually styles. My traditionalist mindset says that rules are absolute, but style? Style is very personal. I must obey the speed limit, but don’t you dare tell me what I should wear. My clothes are an expression of me, man. This has led me to be much more accepting of new grammar styles than I once was. I’m cool with leaving the periods out of an abbreviation. I’ve accepted that, in typed text, it’s OK to put a single space between sentences instead of two. Singular “they”? It hasn’t always been my thing, but I’m open to giving it a try.

It’s from this perspective of English as a living language, and not something that stopped evolving with the death of Noah Webster, that I want to talk about heaven and hell. Or is it Heaven and Hell? Turns out that while organized religion might be considered one of the most traditionalist things around today, the grammar style used by many sects of Christianity is actually pretty modern.

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Credit: cocoparisienne via Pixabay. Licensed under CC0 1.0.

His pronouns are simply divine
God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are all capitalized because they’re proper names. I think pretty much everyone agrees on that. And despite the fact that the entirety of my education was in secular public schools, I was always taught the traditional style that pronouns referring to God are to be capitalized. My children’s Catholic homeschool English textbooks still teach this style. But I’ve noticed that this is no longer universally observed, even in some fairly pious places… like the Bible itself!

Here’s Matthew 2:2 from the New American Bible, the translation of the Bible used in the Catholic Mass readings in the United States: “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” Under traditional style, “king,” “his,” and “him” all should have been capitalized in that sentence, but they’re not. And this isn’t just a Catholic thing. A Bible translation comparison tool shows most Bible translations do not capitalize divine pronouns.

While the “capitalize all divine pronouns” style was no doubt implemented as a way of demonstrating respect for God, I assume readability concerns are what prompted the move away from it. Unorthodox capitalization is jarring. Authors and Bible editors probably decided (wisely) that they shouldn’t do anything to distract their readers from a religious text, especially scripture.

Are we trying to reach Heaven or heaven?
What about Heaven and Hell? They are the proper names of places, and therefore should be capitalized. Right? (Even a non-believer should agree with this, as the names of fictional places like Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are capitalized.) I understood the move away from capitalized divine pronouns, but I was a little surprised to find that even amongst religious authors and editors, the common modern style is not to capitalize heaven and hell either.

Matthew 5:20 (NAB) reads, “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Catechism of the Catholic Church 1024 reads, “This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity — this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed — is called ‘heaven.'” And on the subject of the bad place, Catechism of the Catholic Church 1033 reads, “This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell.'”

Why not capitalize heaven and hell? I note those Catechism definitions don’t call them places, instead labeling them a “perfect life” and a “state.” So are they not to be considered places, and therefore proper name capitalization rules do not apply to them? That’s a theological question outside the scope of this discussion. But it is worth noting that the New American Bible does capitalize one synonym for hell: Gehenna, as in Mark 9:43: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire.”

The NAB footnotes indicate Gehenna comes from “Hebrew gê-hinnōm, ‘Valley of Hinnom,’ or gê ben-hinnōm, ‘Valley of the son of Hinnom,’ southwest of Jerusalem, the center of an idolatrous cult during the monarchy in which children were offered in sacrifice.” It’s the proper name of a place and therefore capitalized. As for Bibles other than the NAB, a BibleStudyTools.com comparison shows translations that use “Gehenna” or a different transliteration of the Hebrew word do capitalize it, though most versions of Mark 9:43 simply use “hell,” uncapitalized.

Grammarly-HeavenIt seems the majority of religious sources say heaven and hell should not be capitalized. What about secular sources? Well, when I used Grammarly to look over this article, it flagged at least one use of uncapitalized heaven as a possible error. And Alanis Morissette said, “Isn’t it ironic?”

Do you reject Satan? And all his empty promises? And do you refuse to capitalize the name of the place where he lives?
The style an author uses says a lot about them, or at least about the tone they intend with that particular work. And that brings me to an observation I’ve made over and over — the observation that prompted me to write this article. I see it frequently. Here’s an example from the way the Act of Contrition is posted in my parish’s confessional:

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you, and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of hell.

Did you notice the capitalized “Heaven” and uncapitalized “hell”? Aww yeah, this is the style I call “sticking it to the devil by withholding a capital.” The person who uses this style — and I’ll admit, at times in the past, that person has been me — is saying, “Heaven is worthy of capitalization, but hell is not.” Take that, Satan!

For my personal style on this matter, I’ve decided to take my lead from my church. Heaven and hell are not capitalized unless they’re at the beginning of a sentence. And God knows I love him even if I don’t capitalize pronouns that refer to him. But nor am I here to judge. If a fellow believer wants to capitalize divine pronouns or write of “Heaven” and “hell,” so be it. As Grammar Girl says in her TED talkwe are the ones who vote on new words and new styles, and we do it by using some and ignoring others.

But if you don’t use the Oxford comma, you are going to hell.

I’ve written for Batman and X-Men (sort of)

Yesterday’s Demons was not my first published work. That honor goes to Batman #455, cover dated October 1990. Did I write the main story in this issue? No. Did I write the backup story? No… it didn’t even have one. What I wrote and what was published in this issue was… a letter!

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Image: DC Comics

batmanletterDear KC and Denny,

I have just finished BATMAN #450 and I can only describe it in one word. WOW! The art was superb, as we have all come to expect from Jim Aparo, but the storyline was most excellent and intriguing. I could never imagine a Joker who couldn’t laugh at things, or refused to tell jokes. It will be very fascinating to see a three-way duel between the Joker, Batman, and Mr. Base. My only complaint is that Bruce shipped Tim off to Japan. Oh, well. I guess I would do the same after what the Clown Prince of Crime did to the old Boy Wonder.

Keep up the tremendous work — this is the best comic on sale today.

Mike Ripplinger

That right there is thirteen-year-old me trying to sound studious, professional, and about double my age at the time. If you want to know what I was really like at that age, check out the contribution I made to Uncanny X-Men #282 about one year later. Uncanny X-Men #282 features the first appearance of Bishop and the first appearance of my name in a Marvel comic. Here I am not making any effort at all to appear calm and rational. This is just me being the fourteen-year-old fanboy I was.

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Image: Marvel Comics

xmenletterDear X-Crew:

Concerning UNCANNY X-MEN #277, I can’t do a single thing until I write you on this issue. Incredible! First-rate! Phenomenal! Superlative! Gambit!

I know you’re sayng “Huh?” to this last remark, so let me explain. Gambit is my favorite X-Man and this issue featured him the most since #273, where the Wolvie fight was great. To see him say to the fake Wolverine, “Bang, you dead” nearly brought tears to my eyes. That’s how much I like Gambit. Keep him around for a long time, but keep him mysterious.

More reasons UNCANNY #277 was great. The script (“Bang, you dead”), the art (namely page 6, frame 7; page 19, frame 3, and, of course, page 24, frame 1), the return of Colossus in metal form (even if he is controlled by Shadow King. But could Piotr rejoin the X-Men? Please!), Gambit, Professor X’s return to Earth (do I see the leader the mutant teams need so badly?), Gambit, and Gambit.

You don’t know this, but I like Gambit.

So, make Colossus and Rogue X-Men again, and keep Gambit in the team. Or I’ll meet you in a dark alley and say, “Bang, you dead.”

Mike Ripplinger

Hoo boy, I should have won the Pulitzer for that one, shouldn’t I?

What I remember most about these letters is that I just knew both of them would be accepted for publication. I remember arriving at the comic book store’s parking lot the day Batman #455 was available and thinking to myself, “The letters on this issue’s editorial page will be about #450, and mine will be there.” And after I bought it, I remember returning to the car and just casually mentioning to my dad, “Yeah, so they published my letter in Batman.” And I just knew they were going to publish my Ode to Gambit in Uncanny X-Men, too. It was an early example of the intuition I would learn to listen to more often later in life.

Another memory of having these letters published was that they got me a pen pal! A man from Nigeria wrote me a letter after seeing my name and address published in Batman #455. I exchanged a couple of letters with him until the letters started to request that I ask “Mommy and Daddy” to send him money and American clothes. To make this easy for me, he even included his clothing sizes. It was like an early 90s, pre-Internet version of a Nigerian prince email scam.

I’m not sure whether or not they’re even still publishing letters to the editor in comic books these days. Maybe such discussion now takes place entirely on message boards and on Twitter. But having these letters printed in two of my favorite comic books sure was a thrill to me back when I was a teenager. And you know what? It still is.

Excelsior!

The Verdant Revival

In my last status update, I promised that I’d reveal the title of my trilogy as a way of celebrating the completion of the current draft of the first book, Yesterday’s Demons.

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As of late last night, the current draft of Yesterday’s Demons is 100% complete. That means, as promised, it’s time to reveal the trilogy’s title.

The Verdant Revival

I wanted the title to describe the span of time the trilogy covers, like a name historians might use to refer to that era. The Verdant Revival fits that perfectly.

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Photo credit: Studio Dekorasyon

The trilogy takes place on the dying planet Verde. Two hundred years earlier, the Blackout destroyed all technology. In its wake, magic disappeared, and much of the world became Terrascorcha: a toxic wasteland where only monsters can survive. The survivors were forced to migrate to what came to be known as the occupied territories: a hot, dusty region with sparse cacti and scrub brush. It’s a harsh, broken place that is yearning for change.

“Verde” is a proper noun in my fictional world and “Verdant” is its demonym. But in the real world, verde is Spanish and Italian for green. It gives us the adjective “verdant” meaning green in color or green with growing plants. Green is a color associated with a good status, with go, and with life.

Merriam-Webster defines “Revival” as a period of growth, or a period in which something once-popular becomes popular again. It’s a word common in spirituality. Matt Maher’s “Burning in My Soul” is a song of praise and worship to the Holy Spirit. “We’re calling for revival!” Maher sings. The fruits of such a revival would likely be the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, and fortitude.

Put all that together, and you have a term that describes the restoration of a harsh, broken place to the gleaming world it once was. The same term also describes the transformation of young adults into the heroes their world needs them to be. Either way, it’s a term that carries all sorts of hints about my story’s plot and tone.

The Verdant Revival.

What’s funny is this was one of the first titles I came up with, but I rejected it for various reasons. I worked my way through several others and even had settled on a different one for a while, but I was never satisfied and I kept tinkering. Only once I decided The Verdant Revival was the official title did I stop having the desire to fidget with it. Oh, ye INFJ, when will you learn to trust your intuition?

November Status Update

One month ago, the current draft of Yesterday’s Demons was 65% complete. What say you now, Project Tracker?

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90%! I’m pleased with the progress I made last month. At this pace, the draft will be finished this month.

I also estimate progress on the outline for book two of the trilogy at 3%. I haven’t committed much of the outline to bits, but a lot of it exists in engrams inside my brain. And I’ve been creating and listening to the book’s soundtrack playlist. That is a big step in my writing process. The right songs help me visualize the book’s key scenes, and the rest of the chapters fall into place around those. I’m listening to that playlist as I type these words.

And by the way, this trilogy has a title, and I’ll reveal it when I finish the current draft of Yesterday’s Demons as a way to celebrate.

My audience is currently small but is made up entirely of loyal friends and true. I thank all of you for your support. I couldn’t do this without you.

Deus vobiscum.

Mad-Eye Moody’s Advice for Writers, Part 2

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Illustration by Mary GrandPré

This two-part series is about Mad-Eye Moody’s advice to Harry Potter on how to successfully pass the First Task of the Triwizard Tournament. Part one covered play to your strengths.

Bring What You Need
For Harry, this meant using a summoning charm to bring him his Quidditch broom. For the writer, this means making sure you have all of the tools you need.

Unless you write everything longhand, your most valuable tool is likely your keyboard. Are you able to type well on yours? Do your fingers hurt after sprinting out a couple thousand words? Are the keys so close together that you regularly make fat-finger typos? Software engineer Scott Hanselman likes to say, “There are a finite number of keystrokes left in your hands before you die.” If your keyboard doesn’t feel like an extension of your fingers, rip it out and get a new one. Do you use a laptop that has a bad keyboard? Get a new laptop, or just get a good new USB keyboard, or get a docking station with which you can use a new keyboard. When you sit down to write, bring what you need.

What software are you using to compose and save your hard work? Is Microsoft Word working out OK for you? Do you wish you could use something more powerful, something more geared for professional writers like Scrivener? What are you waiting for? Bring what you need.

Do you like what you’ve written but wish you could get another opinion? Bring what you need and find yourself a writing critique group. Do you wish you had a paper notebook to carry with you wherever you go to jot down ideas as they come to you? Go to the nearest office supply store and get what you need. Do you really wish you had a more powerful grammar checker? Subscribe to Grammarly and bring what you need.

This is your writing. This is what is likely one of the most important things in your world. Why on Earth would you not equip yourself with tools to help you do it to the best of your ability? Bring what you need. If there is some physical or bit-based or human resource that you need, buy or find or hire that tool. And do it yesterday.

And yes, I get it that sometimes the best tools cost the money you need to pay the rent and put Ramen on the table. I’m not saying you should become a starving artist (though I do like to support starving artists when I can). All I’m saying is if writing is a must and not a should to you, the tools that will best let you do it are necessities, not luxuries.

Treating yourself well is like casting a summoning charm: accio success!

Mad-Eye Moody’s Advice for Writers, Part 1

HP04_CH013
Illustration by Mary GrandPré

One of my favorite scenes in the Harry Potter series is the scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in which Mad-Eye Moody gave Harry advice. To steal an egg from a dragon for the first task of the Triwizard Tournament, Moody suggested that Harry play to his strengths and bring what he needed. For Harry, this meant using a summoning charm to retrieve his Firebolt so that he could utilize his Quidditch skills in the execution of the task. The result was the moment where Harry shouted, “Accio Firebolt!” and his Quidditch broom soared from the castle and came to his side, and it was awesome.

Moody’s advice is exceptional not just for a boy wizard, but also for writers.

Play to your strengths
Especially if your writing isn’t currently paying your rent, you’re probably writing because you just need to. “A writer always writes,” said Rachel Balducci. “And not because of the need to produce as much as the need to just exhale. Verbally/mentally/emotionally speaking.”

If that’s the case, you’d better not be wasting your time writing anything other than exactly what you want to write.

For example, a standard piece of advice for writers is: practice your craft on short stories, make a few sales, get a few published credits, and then attempt a novel. And that is good advice. It worked pretty well for Stephen King, among many others. But what if you don’t want to write short stories? What if you just want to be a novelist? In that case, Mad-Eye Moody growls, “Think now. What are you best at? Play to your strengths.

It also happens that a writer comes up with a great story and tells it very well, but it gets rejected by agent after agent and publisher after publisher because it doesn’t fit neatly into preconceived genres. If that happens to you, should you rewrite the story to neatly fit expectations? No, not unless you want Moody’s magic eye to swivel in your direction. Play to your strengths. After all, children’s books weren’t supposed to be about babies from murdered families who grew up among vampires and werewolves until Neil Gaiman won the Newberry Medal for The Graveyard Book.

This advice applies to a writer in so many more ways. How does it apply to you? Think about what you’re best at and what you love the most. Are you in some way applying that to your writing? Why not? Play to your strengths. They’re uniquely yours, and the world is waiting to see the fruits of them.

(Continued in Part 2: Bring What You Need.)