You never think it will happen, but it happened to me. I just finished a chapter for my new novel, I’m reading it over, and bink! the screen goes black. The computer is dead as a stone. I push the power button as if it were a pump. I unplug the device and try it in other sockets. I shake it. I let it sit undisturbed for an hour. Finally I have to admit: “He daid!”
Immediately I begin moving through the five Kubler-Ross stages of grieving, beginning with denial. No! It’s not possible! This can’t be happening. I metaphorically slap myself in the face. “Snap out of it! Do you have a backup?”
Ah, interesting question. It’s like insurance. You think you have it, but you don’t really know until you try to use it. Then you find out.
I start up my alternate computer, a rickety HP from 2006 with a broken keyboard. I plug in an external USB keyboard, and the external USB hard drive which I deeply, sincerely believe contains backup copies of my work.
Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. Supposedly, my backup software makes continuous backups every 30 seconds for any file that changes. I have, in the past, checked to see if files really were being backed up. You can’t assume. They were, so I believed all was well, even though I never had the need to retrieve a file.
I can’t see anything on the backup drive though. My old HP has an outdated version of the backup software, so even if my files are out there, I can’t get to them. So I go to the Rebit web site and deduce that what I need is “Rebit Pro,” though it was called Version 6 on my dead computer. Close enough, I hope. Why they would deliberately make something as basic as the version into a mystery, I don’t know.
I download a thirty-day free trial (on the assumption that my dead computer will be resuscitated within that time frame), and spend the rest of the afternoon installing it and fiddling with it, to no avail. It is unresponsive. So I go back to the web site and get the phone number of customer support, which is in Colorado. They’re closed. So I go to a lecture at the university and try to keep my mind off the possibility that I just wasted the last three months of my life and much of my future as well.
Next morning, I pick up my phone to call customer support, but no, I am unable to make any calls because Verizon, in its infinite wisdom, has decided my phone needs a software update at just that moment and the phone will be disabled for 15 minutes. Normally I do not curse. I make a pot of coffee and wait a little longer to find out if life is worth living.
I finally reach customer support and they talk me through some undocumented tricks for getting access to my backup hard drive. Left click on this, right click on that, choose this other thing and scroll down to “yo’ mama.” Unlikely as it seems, my backup files magically appear, many different versions of each one.
I spend a while trying to understand how the files are organized and how to choose the ones that were backed up closest to the time of the failure. I copy those over to the old HP and look at them. The last chapter I wrote is about half there. The top five pages are written, followed by several pages of scene sketches. I’ll have to rewrite the rest of the chapter. Clearly, the “backs up every 30 seconds!” promise of the software is overstated.
I realize at that moment that every single word of fiction is written at great cost of cognition. And I realize that a hundred decisions lie behind each word and every sentence. To rewrite the rest of that chapter is to roll my brain back in time and re-live a few hours of my life. I can’t do it.
There’s a good chance the dead computer suffered a failure of the power supply. That’s what it looked like to me. Replacing the power supply should not harm the data, so in the best of worlds, when that machine comes back in ten days, the full, complete finished chapter will be on it. I’ll wait and see.
My strategy is to write on, forget the missing half of that last chapter and forge ahead with the next. I’m also going to be making manual copies of anything I write over the next ten days into the cloud (e.g., OneDrive), because I’m already confused about how I would restore the stuff I’m writing now to a computer that’s been out of service for a while.
And I’m thinking that after I am whole again, I will subscribe to a cloud backup service, for about $70 a year. Yes, it’s extortionate, but I have been harrowed by fiddling with backup software for two days, wondering if my life is over. Also, I realize that if my house was burglarized, the bad guys would take the backup drive along with the computer, and I’d be left with zilch.
Backups: You think you have them, but you don’t really know until you need them.