Every Writer’s Nightmare: FILE NOT FOUND

computer-crashYou say it’s not going to be you. You put your manuscript on a flash drive; you diligently back it up; you take care not to have only one copy. You know there are such things as fires, floods, and crashed computers – you’re smart. You take precautions.

But then … it happens.

Backing up a manuscript is sort of like the good behavior you exhibit after getting a speeding ticket. Right after the ticket, you’re careful. You say you’re never going to do it again, and you drive around with extreme caution – for years and years, even. But then you start going a little faster. And a little faster. And faster still. You forget the danger. You forget the ticket. And then you see the lights flashing in the rear-view mirror again. …

The lights flashed for me again recently. I had spent a whole day making changes to my manuscript: it was one of those thrilling days where I had no obligations, nothing to do but write. In fact, I told my husband I wasn’t getting out of my pajamas unless absolutely necessary. I planned to spend the entire day with the laptop, making changes to my manuscript that were long overdue. I had thought them through during vacation and was eager to get started. It was a sweeping change – involving changing a character and her motivations – and I had numerous notes and several snippets of dialogue written in my head. It was all concentrated into one area – Act III (for me, about ten chapters, all in one file, where all the changes take place for the character’s arcs). It was a glorious day – I worked from morning until late in the afternoon, tweaking and polishing. I wrote for hours, excitedly telling my husband how much better this book was going to be. I went into my seventh hour. I was on fire.

Then, late that night, after making a last innocuous change while downstairs in the living room, something went terribly wrong. The file started acting funny. It wouldn’t save. I did a few desperate attempts to call it up from some sort of “ghost” image it was generating, and the reply came back that the computer couldn’t find this file. My heart started pounding. I began frantically hitting keys. This was about a hundred pages of some of the most important explanations in the story – and the computer couldn’t find the file??? I raced to the den, my flash drive in tow. I tried another computer. FILE NOT FOUND. I could see the “ghost” image. In a panic, I tried to copy it. I tried to print, but the computer CRASHED. Oh my god

This went on for about an hour, as I raced from computer to computer. I thought I was going to throw up. I knew I had a backup on an external hard drive from about November, but that didn’t represent the line by line edit I did through January and February — shortening sentences, deleting adjectives, rewriting beats, using the thesaurus to come up with alternatives to “gaze” … I’d rewritten two ENTIRE scenes, and had never printed them or copied them elsewhere. Or backed them up.

Oh my God. What was wrong with me??

My panic continued to rise. I knew I wouldn’t have the energy to go back and redo all those changes. If I lost them, I’d just have to chuck this project into a drawer. Maybe I’d get back to it in a couple of years, but basically the idea of reinventing all those minute changes was too excruciating.

My hands shook as I looked with hope at all the backups I had on various computers at home. I felt nauseated. I didn’t save anything recently, nothing since last November. I tried to remember what version I sent my crit partner Patti. Ultimately, I managed to find a “ghost image” on one of our three computers – it wasn’t solid. If I made a key stroke, I lost it. But it was enough to print. I managed to get my bad hard drive to hold up long enough to print the entire Act III (holding my breath the whole time). I didn’t get the changes I’d made that day, but at least I got a version that had most of the line-by-line edit. It was the best I could do. I printed. I clutched the printout to my chest. (Of course, I ran out of ink, too, and had to get up early the next morning to stand at the doors of Target when it opened at 8 a.m. I didn’t want to waste a single additional second of my precarious “ghost” image.)

Anyway, this story doesn’t have a super-happy ending. It’s a semi-decent ending: At least I have a hard copy. Mostly this story is a cathartic wail – an oh-my-God-has-this-ever-happened-to-you type thing. 

And it’s a plea to back up your files, friends. I got my speeding ticket. Use mine so you don’t have to get one yourself.

For now, I’ll be backing things up this week.

I’ll be good.

For now. …

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10 thoughts on “Every Writer’s Nightmare: FILE NOT FOUND

  1. Oh, this is awful. I’m sorry you lost all your most recent changes, but very glad you atleast got a semi-recent file printed out. Yes, this is a writer’s nightmare. And I’m about to do a full back-up right this second.

  2. Jiminy, I broke out into a cold sweat reading this. Because I do medical transcription for a living, if my fingers leave the keyboard for ANY reason, I do a quick control save, but you are right, if somehow I have done something weird in my original save, too bad, all gone. But to have a hard drive crash. Yikes. Maybe Leo Laporte is right, time for regular back ups~!

  3. Oh no. That’s the saddest story ever. I’m about in tears. I think I need a drink. Lesson learned. I feel your pain.

  4. Holy cow I was sweating bullets through that story. You had the ultimate “ohcrapohcrapohcrap” moment and I felt like I went through it with you. I’m so glad you were at least able to salvage part of your work, because at least when your moment had come and gone you had something mostly positive to be thankful for.

    I’m off to back up my computer…

  5. Thank you all so much for your empathy! Those of you on a keyboard for any length of time all seem to know what I’m talking about. …

    I thought, later, though, about my friend Grace who had a similar thing happen, and she and I chatted about the choking feeling of realizing you have PHOTOS on the computer nowadays. (Luckily she had backed up all her photos of her adorable kids with an outside service.)

    So … while you’re backing up those important word files, consider doing your photos, too! : )

    (this is a public service announcement …)

  6. I tweeted at you about my experience losing my entire nonfiction ms in a hard drive crash. As I was re-creating the manuscript, I completely rewrote one of the chapters, staying up much past my usual 10 pm bedtime because I was on a roll. I saved the file constantly as I was going, only to get the evil file not found error when trying to re-open it. I hadn’t even quit my word processing program, so it should have been in a recovery file. Nope. Nothing. It was if it had never existed.

  7. Jennifer — Hi! Oh my gosh, I feel your pain on this. That re-creating thing can sometimes be liberating (when you’re inspired to do a re-write), but gosh, to suffer an additional crash??? I’d have to throw the keyboard across the room! I hope things pick up for you …

  8. It was last year, so I’m over it. It made me so mad because I was being so good by saving every few minutes. Lord only knows where it was actually saving! But I got everything turned in to the publisher, and the book comes out in this summer. And I have learned my lesson about the backups. I use drop.io and an external drive, just in case.

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