Monday, September 27, 2010

The Frightening Case of the Dead Computer

How do writers write? The question usually evokes ideas of style, attitude, or voice. Sometimes, the concept of when and where the writing is performed comes up, but far less often do people inquire about exactly how the writing is done. Pen and paper, typewriter, computer, what?

I know several writers who insist on writing long hand. Some believe that it slows them down and forces them to think harder. They transfer what they wrote to computer and this transference process works as a second drafting, allowing them to clean their prose. I only wrote one book in longhand, well it was actually a novelette, and technically I only wrote half in longhand. I simply think too fast and write too slow. I end up losing too much in the process.

I’m old enough to remember typewriters. The first eight novels I wrote were on typewriters. I preferred electric. At the end I had a real nice Olivetti Praxis, one of the first typewriters to offer the ability to make corrections without using the little strip of Wite-Out chalk paper. (The idea was to backspace over the unwanted character, slide the correction paper under the carriage—chalk side down—then hit the same character to imprint the chalk over the offending text.)

The Olivetti had the correction built right into the ink ribbon. We’re talking state-of-the-art back in the early eighties. As you can see, the sleek, black space age design was the envy of all my friends…then the personal computer arrived. To this day I still don’t know what happened to that Olivetti.

I’ve always worked on a PC (except for the year I worked as a graphic designer, when I had a nice desktop Mac.) My first computer I got back in the spring of 1984 and was a Compaq Desktop Pro with an 8086 processor and a whopping 20 MB of HD space.

In the early days all PCs had were WordPerfect and Word for DOS, both of which were a nightmare because computers didn't have mice. (well the Xerox did, but it wasn't until the Apple Macintosh, which came out that same spring, that the first commercially successful computer mouse appeared.) Without a mouse, just navigating the screen of a word processor was an act in frustration. I had to check the manual just to determine how to move my cursor to the correct position to insert a word. I actually rejected both programs in favor of an obscure word processor called SAMNA that acted much more like a typewriter. Despite all the hassles, and the awful quality of the dot-matrix printer, it was still light-years better than the Olivetti. Being able to backspace was wonderful.

Back then there was a huge controversy about writing a novel on a computer due to the fear of losing it in an electronic second. The controversy continues, but I no longer know anyone who still uses a typewriter. The lack of a solid stack of pages that couldn’t just vanish if you pressed the wrong button, scared many. While I rarely ever lost anything due to accidental deletion, as I kept back-ups and regularly sent copies to others, I did lose a few novels to technology. My old Compac took the huge, literally floppy, 5.25” disks. These were soon replaced by the smaller hard plastic disks, then the double-sided, double-density disks and now CD and DVD drives.

The result is that several of my early books are locked on old technology I no longer have the key to open. Of course, my very first works, those on paper, were lost as well, the victims of moves and dusty attics. So who’s to say which is better.

These days I use MS Word. Nothing fancy, just the basic program, although I do also use WordWeb that functions with all programs as a dictionary and thesaurus. And while I keep my books up to date now on the current media, I still have problems.

Just recently I had finished the final review/edits for Wintertide. The book was ready to trot off to the printer for the first proofs. Being a little paranoid—even to this day—I sent a copy to my wife Robin, just in case.

The next morning I noticed my machine was making a rattling sound. It’s an old IBM ThinkPad that I inherited during a time I could not afford to buy a new computer. I had been thinking about getting a new machine, but hoped the old black box would survive to see the release of Wintertide. I rebooted only the machine refused, instead displaying an error declaring my fan was being lazy and not reporting to work. I was so thankful that I had taken the precaution of sending the file to Robin, only when I asked she said..."What file?" She never got it, and now the book was done, but trapped on my dead little corpse of a computer, which looked so sad with all its LED lights, dark.

The machine did not warrant a repair bill, but I was faced with taking the computer to a repair shop and letting it—and my book—sit for days, perhaps weeks until it could be fixed. My release deadline was barreling at me like a train and I was tied to the tracks. I was not in a good mood.

Now if it had been a typewriter, I could just pull the last page out of the carriage and ship the book off. Of course I would still be editing the thing, too. The book has been such an ordeal to get out, I just wanted it to be done, to be finished and out the door.

Robin suggested I try fixing it myself. Being the computer geek that I'm not, I tried anyway. Replacing the fan looked beyond my talents, but pulling the hard drive and slipping it into my son's machine looked a whole lot easier. One screw later I was done. I could access my files, I got the book—it was still there safe and sound—the end of the world, averted. At long last the book was done…

...then Robin found a few more errors...

The struggle goes on.


  1. Backup, backup, backup!

    of course, nobody does until AFTER their first crash and burn :-)
    This happened to me at work. We lost 6 months of billing info and NOBODY was happy for about a month until we got things straightened out.

    I use a harddrive clone program to regularly [every couple of weeks] clone my internal hd to a nice big external usb hd. :-D

    My first thought was your solution, hook the hd to another computer. Glad it worked!

  2. Look into automatic cloud backup solutions like Dropbox or Mozy. Simply save the file onto a shared folder, and it is synchronized with online file servers, allowing you to access the file from anywhere. These types of programs typically give a few gigabytes for free, which should be several orders of magnitude more than what you'd need.

    I personally use Dropbox, but there are many flavors available. The automatic backup was a savior when writing my thesis. The ability to retrieve, download, and edit the file via the web from anywhere saved me an unfathomable number of hours while eliminating my need for traditional USB/external hard drive backup. The few times my laptop or desktop went down became only annoyances, since I never lost any of my work and simply switched to another computer interim.

    Looking forward to Wintertide!

  3. Thank Derrick and Aaron,

    As it happens I do have an external HD backup. I also have the book backed up on CDs, hard copies and on other people's computers. So the book was never in jeopardy. It was just that one, most current, file. And I thought I had backed it up by sending the file to Robin, both the night before and that morning before trying to restart my computer. This is what added to the frustration. I took precautions, and still...

    Anyway thanks for the info. I will have to check out that Dropbox. That sounds very interesting.

    Thanks again.

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