Back, Back, Back it up: Protect Your Work From Catastrophic Loss

If you sat my husband down and said, “Hey, what’s with your wife and her Dracula paper?”, he’d probably roll his eyes and tell you a sad story about the time I accidentally deleted one of my thesis papers in college.  My Dracula paper is infamous in my immediate circle — not just because I still have an obsession with that novel, but because I also spent an inordinate amount of time writing it.  I checked out probably forty books from the library and printed a metric ton of online material.  I drafted and rewrote it and spent over a month perfecting my thesis…only to lose the damn thing when I pulled my USB drive out of the computer too soon.

I tried everything I could think of to get it back and even enlisted a computer programmer friend, but, for whatever reason, the data was gone.  Since it was the night before the last day of the semester, I had to convince my professor to give me an extension (God bless you Dr. Davis) and then spent the first few days of Christmas vacation rewriting it from scratch.  My husband (then fiance) was my complaint soundboard.  Needless to say, he wasn’t happy.

Moral of the story?  BACK UP YOUR WORK.

Right now.  Do it.  Don’t hesitate another minute.  A good rule of thumb is to think 3-2-1:

Make 3 copies of your work, in two different formats, with at least one offsite copy.  All these backups should be independent of one another.

Your work is precious and irreplaceable, so don’t lose it.  Especially when technology makes it super easy to makes copies of everything.

Here’s a list of recommendations:

  1.  Flash drive.  Portable, cheap, universal.  You can put them on keychains, bracelets, necklaces, and store them pretty much anywhere.
  2. Cloud storage.  My personal favorite is DropBox because it’s free, everything syncs automatically when your computer is online, it’s easy to use, and it’s offsite, so I can access my work from anywhere (a boon when my laptop died and I had to borrow one so I could keep writing).  Other options for cloud storage are Apple iCloud, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Box, and Amazon Cloud.  You can find plenty of options with a quick online search, both free and paid.
  3. Email.  This one is simple: email yourself (or a trusted associate) a copy of your work.  Most email programs have folders for storage and allow fairly large file sizes through.
  4. External hard drive.  This is like a flash drive on steroids.  Where those tend to stay under 100 GB, external drives often have several terabytes’ worth of space.  These are a good option if you need to store large files like videos and photos in addition to your writing.
  5. DVD/CD.  Like USB-based systems, disks are cheap, portable, and universal.
  6. Print.  It can get pricey to print copies of your work, but when your computer crashes, you’ll be glad for that 3-ring binder of all your latest masterpieces.

So back it up.  All of it.  Check on your backups regularly to make sure that they’re in good working order and updated.  You don’t want a year-old version of your novel hanging around if something happens to the current version.

While working on this post, my darling toddler came up and tapped my off button…if I hadn’t set my WordPress editor to autosave periodically, I’d have lost my work.  Not much, but still.  Make sure whatever programs you use also automatically save and sync your work.

A Novel Idea: The Only iOS App A Writer Needs

So, I got super-lucky this year and scored an iPhone for Christmas. I’m pretty infatuated with it so far, and I’m proud to say that Goodreads gets a top spot in my app list alongside Angry Birds and Bejeweled.

There’s something like 1 million apps available for iPhone users, free and paid, for pretty much every purpose on the planet. By some strange fortune or by divine guidance, I managed to find a total gem among all the games, podcasts, and pizza delivery assistants. My friends, I introduce you to A Novel Idea.

No matter what platform or device you use, there’s no shortage of apps and software programs designed for the fiction writer out there. I’ve tried many of them and was never fully satisfied. A Novel Idea is the first such program that looks like it was actually designed for writers, by a writer, and by one who understands the need for a certain balance between structure and chaos and is realistic in his estimation of just how much time most writers actually spend writing on their phones/tablets.

Open up the free version of this app and you get all the basics — Novels, Characters, Scenes, Locations, Ideas. You can add and edit an unlimited number of entries to each section, then leave them floating free or attach them. I went in and made a page for each character in one of my novels, then linked each character to the Novel page. I added scenes and ideas and linked them to certain characters and novels, I could even link characters by their relationships — So and So is Such and Such’s daughter/mother/sister/wife/boss. And the best thing is that all of this linking and customization is completely optional, and there are no annoying reminders or notifications that pop up if you choose not to include them.

This is just one aspect of the beauty of A Novel Idea. For each novel, you can include a title, plot details, themes, premise, point of view, and more details. And even better, most of the sections are free-writes, so you can add as much or as little detail as you like. The same goes for Characters, where you can key in gender, age, physical attributes, roles, species, internal and external motivation, conflicts, skills & talents, education, and much more. When you’ve got all that information together, you can create custom groups to put your characters or your novels or whatever into. I grouped mine by genre — fantasy and contemporary fiction — and then by trilogy, since some characters belonged to multiple books, etc., etc.

It’s a lot of information. But the layout is so user-friendly that it’s as if some excellent friend went and organized all my notes and files in a way that’s actually organized but doesn’t feel awkward to me. (I had a friend like that once. In college. After graduation we moved to separate states. Sigh.)

I am, as you could probably tell, in total head-over-heels love with this app. My only complaint is that the Pro version — which allows you to sync between your devices, your computer, and Dropbox; export to iTunes, turn off the ads, and write scenes with word counts — is on the pricey side for an app at $2.99. But, the app is so great for note-taking and world-building on-the-go (or when I get an idea in bed and don’t want to dig out my notebooks or drag out my laptop) that I plan to most willingly pay the price next payday. Bottom line — if you are a fiction writer and you own any iOS device, you should be ashamed not to have A Novel Idea.

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NaNoWriMo: We’re Down To The Wire, Part 1

Less than one week until NaNoWriMo 2011 begins.  Am I panicking?

Yes.

This will be my fourth nano in a row.  I haven’t won yet, although I got pretty close in 2008 and 2009 (I completely tanked last year). I’m still undecided on this year’s project.  I’m considering tackling a fantasy story that’s been in my head for about a decade, but I’d also like to scrap last year’s attempt and rewrite it.  Both ideas are appealing in their own way, and both have fairly well-developed plots that can get me to and beyond 50,000 words.

I’m panicking because I like to have my writing ventures planned out ahead of time.  I like to get the Halloween and be frothing at the mouth to start writing.  I like to know where I’ll be writing, what I’ll be writing, when I can get peace and quiet…

And at the moment, I have nothing much besides the “frothing at the mouth” part.  This will be my first nano as a working professional, and I don’t have any of the security I did as a student — no guaranteed quiet time or space, no dining hall for a quick meal I don’t have to prepare, and no network of 1,000 other local students all doing the same thing.

I have to write without my safety net.

Perhaps this is what nano is really all about.  I’ll certainly find out!

Why Are Characters So Important?

There’s an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants where he and Patrick find a magic pencil that allows anything drawn with it to come to life.  After horsing around with mustaches, fake money, and a parodic version of Squidward, SpongeBob comes up with DoodleBob — a poorly-drawn version of himself that speaks only in yells and grunts and ends up trying to take over.

Characters in a story are a bit like that, if they’re done properly.  You mess around a bit and then, before you know it, they’ve developed free will and run off screaming, ruining all of your well-laid plans for their story.

Good characters — the kind that are not only realistic, but are as multidimensional as real people — are the lifeblood of a story.  Characters drive the plot of your story and  they give the reader a reason to, you know, read the story.  Most of us avid readers can rattle off a list of our favorite characters, even if we haven’t read a certain book in years.  Some of my childhood favorites were Samantha Parkington from the American Girl series, Patsy, Margaret, and Hattie from various Dear America diaries; Mary-Anne from The Babysitter’s Club, and, more recently, characters like Ron Weasley, Isobel Fairfax, and Kinsey Millhone.

Characters stick with us long after the story fades away.  As readers, hey become our “friends” in a way.  As writers, they can be our best friends or sworn enemies, or anything in between.

Some characters come to us fully formed, with names and backstory and that weird little quirk that makes them unique.  Sometimes, we are given only a block of personality marble and we have to painstakingly carve out the character inside.  Often, we get to a point in the story where suddenly, we realize something we never knew about the character, but which makes perfect sense.  Characters keep us up at night and are a source of terrible frustration oftentimes.

If you have characters who are dull, flat, inconsistent, uninteresting, or that fail to make themselves useful and worth writing about, your story will fail to launch no matter how brilliant your prose or amazing your plot is.  That’s why creating good characters is so important, and the reason I refuse to pick up Madame Bovary ever again.

Some writers prefer to start with characters, while others come up with a plot and then build a character to suit it.  Either way is fine, so long as the two work together seamlessly.  I tend to work with characters first, building my plot step by step asking, “What would happen if Character X did…?”  Whatever you prefer, characters need to always follow some guidelines:

  • They should always be consistent.  It doesn’t matter if your character is a wimp, a hero, a whiny teenager, a corporate jerk, or a homeless man who sleeps in the back of McDonald’s, just keep him/her consistent throughout the story.  Wimps who suddenly jump in front of speeding trains to rescue kittens are as baffling as the corporate jerks who suddenly throw away their PDAs and hand out cash at a local shelter.  If your character is going to become a radically different person, it should happen after appropriately radical plot events
  • They should be multidimensional.   Characters need to be life-like, which means they need to have a more in-depth personality than, “short temper, loves classical music and red wine.”  The exact amount of character depth needed will be proportional to the story’s plot and it’s length, but you should have a good idea of the inside of your character as well as the outside — what does he love, what does he need, what does he want?  What fears or goals drive your character, what makes him get out of bed in the morning?  How would he react to common situations, such as being asked on a date, getting fired from his job, etc., etc.?
  • They should not fit a mold.  Nothing is worse than a story with a Mary Sue/Gary Stu, or someone so unbelievably predictable you have them figured out after the first three pages.  Stories are unique, people are unique, and characters should be unique, too.

Suggested Reading:

How To Create A Character

Make ‘Em Perfect – Give ‘Em Flaws

Writers, Music, and Inspiration

Most of the writers I know tend to write with some sort of music.  Very few don’t.  I know that without my MP3s, it’s incredibly hard for me to concentrate.  The NaNoWriMo writers have even organized a yearly MP3 exchange, which comprises well over a dozen public Box.net accounts.

I never gave much thought as to why the link between music and writing, until recently.  I accepted an in-depth assignment to write an article on the benefits of music therapy to victims of stroke and dementia, and unearthed some very interesting data concerning the effects of musical rhythm on the brain.  It may explain why so many writers are so attached to their playlists.

In 2006, researchers at Stanford University presented some of their research on music therapy (you can read their press release).  Studies using electroencephalographs — wacky sci-fi looking devices that measure electrical impulses in your brain — showed that brainwaves tend to sync with musical rhythms:

Music with a strong beat stimulates the brain and ultimately causes brainwaves to resonate in time with the rhythm, research has shown. Slow beats encourage the slow brainwaves that are associated with hypnotic or meditative states. Faster beats may encourage more alert and concentrated thinking.

They also found that musical stimuli can increase blood flow to the brain.  Anatomy and Physiology 101, blood flow is usually good.  Blood helps heal injured body parts (which is why they tend to swell up), good news for those recovering from damaging strokes or degenerative dementia.  For writers, increased blood flow to the brain helps keep it closer to that springy, limber state we feel when the Muse comes.

I imagine it like this, though in reality it's probably less dramatic.

To me, this is all incredibly fascinating — I love the human brain, with all its intricacies and nuances, and how we study so much about it but can’t completely understand it.  Although the written word will always be first in my heart, of course, the undeniable effect music has on humans amazes me.  The brain truly is a wondrous commodity (my personal best, I believe).

Now, next time I lose my headphones and fall into a panic, I can throw this information back at whoever tells me it’s not a big deal (coughDevincoughcough).  How about you?  What’re your feelings on music and writing?

This blog is brought to you by:

Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked (Cage the Elephant)

Hey, Soul Sister (Train)

The Man In Me (Bob Dylan)

Sweet Emotion (Aerosmith)

4 Things Every Writer Needs

The beautiful thing about writing is that it’s not like other hobbies or professions, requiring money investments or clothing that isn’t your pajamas.  You can write anywhere, any time, and you don’t have to buy materials or work clothes.

There are, however, some things writers do need:

1.  Writer’s Journal

A writer’s journal is a place to record ideas, snippets of information, character descriptions, plot twists, title ideas, or whatever relates to your writing.  If you write fiction and nonfiction, you may want to have separate notebooks for each one, if that works for you.  Either way, carry your writer’s journal with you — stash it in a purse/backpack/laptop carrier when you’re on the go.  Don’t use your writer’s journal for anything but writing-related notes.

2.  A Sacred Space

Virginia Woolf wasn’t the first writer to dream of “A Room of One’s Own” and she certainly wasn’t the last.  For most writers, having an office would be a dream.  Some of us are lucky enough to have a room to ourselves, while some are lucky to have space on the kitchen table to write.  Whatever your individual circumstances may be, make some space sacred for your writing.  This can be a room, a corner, or even just a drawer or a file on a shared computer.  This sacred space is for your writing and your writing only.  This has two benefits: first, it helps keep you organized, and second, it shows you take your writing seriously, to yourself and to others.

3.  A Reading List

Writers write, but they also read.  Read avidly, in the areas you like to write as well as others.  Reading helps make you a better writer and keeps your imagination limber.  All writers should have a running list of “to read” titles, in their heads or on paper.  I tend to add titles to my Amazon Wishlist as I hear about them, and just pick and choose from that coming shopping time 🙂

4.  Other Writers

There is no substitute for a good writing friend, even if you only know him/her as a screen name.  Writers need other writers for support, motivation, critiques, and for the simple fact that we can be a weird, under-appreciated breed.  We need solidarity, we need a support system, and we need someone to tell us when to get our heads out of our butts just do the revision already.  A writer without a few other writers to hang out with, even casually, is a pod with only one pea.

In that vein, here are my recommendations for the best writing communities online:

National Novel Writing Month

Writing.com

The Scriptorium Webzine

Writer’s Cafe: The Online Writing Community