Air Pirates Postmortem: What Went Right

On Wednesday, I talked about how I could improve my process. If you read only that post, you might think I get down on myself a lot. I do, but not in that post. The truth is I like my process a lot, and there were a lot of things that went right with Air Pirates. Here are some that stuck out to me.

Air Pirates was originally a story about Sam (big surprise there), and Hagai was just the reader's guide into the world. I always knew Sam's voice, but writing from Hagai's POV was more difficult for me. Until one day Cindy finished reading chapter 4 and said, "I like Hagai. He's really funny."

Funny? I wrote something funny? I had no idea. I didn't even know that was possible. Humor was one of those things I figured I'd never be able to write. Like romance or contemporary fiction. After Cindy told me, suddenly I could see it for myself. Hagai really was funny.

Then I screwed it all up in chapter 6 by trying too hard, but that's beside the point. The point is, when Cindy said that, I realized I had a voice. I mean, I always had a voice, but now I knew what it was. I could see it, refine it, and most of all take pride in it.

Somewhere around chapter 8, I realized I was unclear on the focus of the story. So I spent some time writing and refining my query letter. This was the best decision I could have made for three reasons:

  1. It gave me months to refine the query in small doses, rather than trying to perfect it all at once while fighting the urge to "Send it right now and see what happens!"
  2. It forced me to figure out what the story was really about and consequently kept me from getting off-track while I was drafting.
  3. Because I'd written less than half the novel at that point, writing the query was easier; I didn't try to force superfluous details into the query because I didn't know any details!

So, my wife is awesome. One of the myriad ways in which she is awesome is that she gives me 2 hours a day, most days, to disappear and write. Not only does it help keep me free from distraction, but it motivates me. It feels like I'm leaving for my job, and I know if I waste my two hours, I can't make it up later.

All my beta readers were awesome. I used at least 95% of everyone's comments, and Air Pirates is much better for it.

But a few of my beta readers had that extra level of skill and experience I didn't. They were harsher critics than I even knew how to be. They not only stretched this novel, but they stretched me as a writer.

Until a year and a half ago, I knew hardly any writers. The best thing that has come out of this blog has been my relationship with many of you: writers on the same path, many of whom know more than I do. I'd still be doing this without you guys, but I couldn't do it nearly as well or as well-encouraged. Beta or not, you are all awesome.

Air Pirates Postmortem: What Could've Been Better

In my previous jobs, I was trained to treat even a creative process as something to be examined and refined, so as to repeat successes and minimize failures. In my writing process, that takes the form of statistics and post-mortems -- to learn as much as possible about my own process, to make it better, and (by putting it up here) to maybe edify other writers as well. If this stuff bores you, don't worry. Next week I'm going to talk about board games (whee!).

Today I'm going to look at what could have been done better (on the assumption that I can actually change these things in the future; in the business we call this "wishful thinking"). But first, an overview of the process:

Thinking4 yearsn/a0Ideas that came to me while I was writing Travelers.
First Draft19 monthsn/a100,000I talked about this part of the process here.
1st Edit2 months95 hours94,000My own edit and plot fixes before anyone else saw it.
1st Beta3 months

14 beta readers. 4.6 critiques returned from 6 people (some critiqued only part of it). Meanwhile I wrote "Pawn's Gambit" and outlined The Cunning.
2nd Edit1.8 months79 hours86,000Based on critiques from the betas.
2nd Beta1.5 months

2 beta readers; while I worked on the query, synopsis, and wrote the beginning of The Cunning.
3rd Edit1.5 months58 hours91,000Based on critiques of 2nd Beta. Added about 200 words per chapter (mostly description).

That's sort of a broad view. For one thing, each edit consisted of me going over the draft like 3-6 times looking at different things. Now to identify what went wrong.

I think this is the most obvious flaw from the table above: 14 betas, 4.6 critiques.

Okay, first of all, please know that I'm not judging any of my betas. None of them. Beta reading a whole novel is a LOT of work, and many of my betas were non-writer friends and family who maybe didn't know that. But -- and this is important -- just the fact that they offered made me feel really, really good. It showed me a special level of support, and I'm grateful for everyone who asked to help.

That said, a lot of this is outside of my control. For one thing, sometimes beta readers DO stop reading partway through and then tell the author why. One of my most important and valued betas did exactly that, and Air Pirates is way, way better for her input. My most important changes were directly due to that partial critique, so: The purpose of beta readers is not to catch every typo and misplaced comma, but to get you thinking about your manuscript in a different way. That can be done even if they don't finish it.

But what about the folks who didn't give me any feedback? As much as I love them (and I do), I can't fix something if nobody tells me what's broken. I think the fact that I announced an open beta may have had something to do with it; my betas knew there were lots of other betas. It's a psychology thing: people are more likely to fulfill commitments if they know they are the only ones responsible for them. So in the future, I will ask about 2 people per beta phase, and I will ask them directly. It's far from a guarantee, but it's fixing what is in my control to fix.

I try really hard not to stress about how fast or slow I write. Really, really hard. At the same time, I'm thinking about doing this long term, and finishing a novel every 2 to 2.5 years just doesn't seem like a maintainable speed for a career, you know?

So what can I do about it? Not stress about it, first of all. I know from experience that speed at anything is gained with practice. I trust that I will get faster as I get better. Also I know that towards the end of the draft I was pushing out over 10,000 words per month, which is a lot better if I can maintain it.

So my goal here, in addition to not stressing, is to focus on self-discipline and daily, weekly, or monthly word count goals. They don't have to be huge, but they should stretch me a little. Or at least keep me from getting distracted.

If you think something might be a problem with your manuscript, chances are good someone else will too. That means if you're aware of a problem, you should fix it before someone else sees it, rather than hoping nobody will notice.

I did this with description, among other things, and both readers in the 2nd beta phase called me on it. Repeatedly. I knew I was lazy with descriptions, but I was more interested in getting the manuscript out then in sitting down and thinking, "What IS in this room? What DOES that rug look like?" (and so on). It's a problem I could've fixed on my own, but I didn't.

Why is that a problem? Because if I had fixed it, those two beta readers could've spent their time identifying problems I WASN'T aware of, instead of telling me things I already knew. Beta reading is really hard. If the novel you're critiquing is full of plot holes and annoying characters, you're not going to notice all the little things that are wrong with it too. On the other hand, if the novel is near-perfect, you're going to get really nit-picky, catching things you would otherwise have glazed right by.

Put simply: beta readers can't catch everything. If you remove problems you're aware of before they read your work, they'll thank you by catching things you didn't know about.

You still with me? That's amazing. I would've quit reading right around when I started pretending I knew anything about psychology.*

* That's not true. I would've stopped reading at the table because I'd still be looking at it. Statistics ENTHRALL me.

What If?

What if it's not ready?
What if this is my last chance
to have my favorite agent
give it more than just a glance?

What if, just like last go,
I'm rejected forty ways?
Am I forever doomed to
tired prose and dead cliches?

What if something's wrong with me,
and I'm not meant to write more
than the newsletters and blogs
I've been doing since '04?

If that's the case I'm sure
to be more than just depressed.
I'll have wasted seven years
on a hobby no one gets.

Writing asks more time than
I can possibly commit.
I probably should quit, but then...
what if this is it?

Only one way to find out.

The Cindy Heine Novel Challenge

(In which you learn two Important Things you might not have otherwise known).

Important Thing #1: I am very close to querying Air Pirates.

Honestly if you've been reading this blog for a while, you probably knew that. I estimate I'm within 1-2 weeks of sending out my first queries. To speed me toward that end, my wife has issued me this challenge: "Send out your first batch of queries before I give birth, and I'll buy you a steak."

And therein you have learned Important Thing #2: I haven't eaten a real steak in years.

No, wait. That's not it. Ah, right. Important Thing #2: My wife is about to give birth. Our second biological child is due on February 25th. So I've got about 0-3 weeks to finish my read-aloud polish, do a couple global searches for consistency, and re-research my agents (I did this research a long time ago, but things change, besides which I know a lot more what to look for in an agent).

So if I disappear from the internet for a while... Sorry, I thought I could finish that with a straight face. Like I could ever leave the internet.

Anyway, it's the deadline without a deadline. God only knows what day we'll meet our latest progeny. Cindy's on a walk with the boys right now. For all I know, I could be losing the challenge just because I wanted to tell you guys about it! What are you doing here? You have a book to finish!

No, wait. That's me.

Paying It Forward, as Requested

This unscheduled post is a shameless method to improve my chances at winning Elana Johnson's Pay It Forward Query Critique Contest.

Shameless, but worth it. Elana's offering the query critique services of five fabulous agents (plus a bunch of other prizes, including some super-size Post-Its that I couldn't get in Thailand if I wanted to).

Books I Read: Boneshaker

Title: Boneshaker
Author: Cherie Priest
Genre: Science Fiction (Steampunk)
Published: 2009
Content Rating: R for violence*

Seattle, 1863. Inventor Leviticus Blue tests a powerful drilling machine, nicknamed the Boneshaker. In the process, he destroys several city blocks and releases a poisonous gas called the Blight, which kills, and often reanimates, anyone who breathes it. Soon the entire city is destroyed.

Sixteen years later. A giant wall has been erected to contain the Blight and the ever-hungry rotters it has created. Blue's widow, Briar Wilkes, lives outside, struggling against poverty and her husband's reputation. When Briar's boy goes behind the wall to try and clear his father's name, Briar is the only one who can save him. She must face her past as well as the Blight when she finds something worse than rotters behind the wall.

I worried this would be a horror book -- and it is, but only a little. This is an adventure story, and to that end it does very well. I got annoyed with the main characters at first; I felt they did dumb things or were too stubborn or (in the case of the teenage son) just talked too much. But it didn't ruin the action for me, and a lot of Briar's stubbornness was even explained in the end. Overall, Boneshaker was a lot of fun to read. If you like steampunk, zombies, or even airships (which play a big part too), I'd recommend it.

And for the record, I would totally play an RPG set in this world.

UPDATE: Looks like Boneshaker was just nominated for a Nebula Award.

* Content ratings based on what I think a movie might be rated, if the things shown in the book were shown in the movie. Ratings are very subjective, and I don't always remember/notice things. If you're unsure whether the book is right for you, do some research so you can make your own decision.

Google Mini-Rant and Follow-Up Language Tips

I normally love Google, but this Google Buzz thing is bugging me. The problem, as I see it, is that Google signed me up for a social network and started sending my updates to people (that I may or may not actually know, but whom I've e-mailed at some point) without my permission. That's a Bad Thing.

Now I'm not a big privacy nut or anything. But I am a simplify-my-life nut.* I get requests for random social networks all the time, and I refuse them for a reason. Google just skirted around that by not asking me, and then making it ridiculously hard to opt-out of. Thanks a lot, Google. Screw you, too.

* Which is to say I'm a supporter of it. It doesn't mean I'm good at it.

*deep breath*

Okay, enough of that. How about some random tips on fictional languages that didn't fit in last week's post? Sound good? (I swear this will be the last post on foreign languages. At least for a while. Maybe...

Does slang count?)

MAKE IT READABLE. Even if the reader doesn't understand a word, they will still try to mentally pronounce it. It's frustrating if they can't. Wykkh'ztqaff may look very alien and fantastic, but it'll drive the reader nuts trying to say it -- even in their mind. This is especially true for names!

USE LATIN WITH CAUTION. My method last week involved stealing words from real-life languages and mashing them to hide the source. If you use this method, you should know that Latin and some of its siblings (Spanish, French, and Italian, for example) are so familiar to English speakers that it's very difficult to hide them as a source. (Assuming you want to. See parenthetical below for a counterexample to this tip.)

Take the magical words and phrases from Harry Potter, for example. Their origins are obvious (flagrante enchants objects to burn, gemino duplicates objects, lumos makes light, etc, etc, etc). It works in Harry Potter because it's set in the real world, more specifically Europe. It makes sense that their magical language has the same roots as their spoken language (it also makes it easier to remember what each magic word does). But can you imagine Gandalf the Grey using these same words and claiming they were the ancient language of the Valar?

"The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor... Incendio!"

(Matt Heppe noted in last week's comments that he intentionally used Romanian (a Latin-based language) to give the language a sense of familiarity for English readers. That's definitely a good reason to use Latin. I think, as with anything in writing, intentionality is key.)

WHAT ABOUT ALIEN LANGUAGES IN SCI-FI? It would be a little odd if an alien language sounded like one or more of our Earth languages, wouldn't it? Aliens could be their own post, but off the top of my head I'd say don't use language as we understand it at all. Aliens can speak in hisses, purrs, scents, flashes of color, x-rays, gamma rays, frequencies too low for the human ear to hear... Get creative. Though if you do use a spoken alien language, see the first tip at the top. (There's nothing wrong with spoken alien languages, even if they do sound like ours. I just want to encourage genre writers to stretch their creativity and be intentional about their choices.)

Anyone got any other tips on made-up languages? Do you know any fantasy languages done particularly well? Particularly poorly?

Making Up Words (Without Sounding Like a Dork)

On Wednesday, we talked about using foreign languages in fiction without (a) sounding like a dork or (b) confusing/boring the reader. The bottom line was:
  1. Don't do it just to show off.
  2. Be intentional; think like the character.
  3. Be subtle.
Today I want to talk about a related fantasy topic: making up your own language.

It's impossible (perhaps illegal, and certainly blasphemous) to talk about fantasy languages without mentioning the Godfather of Fantasy Language: Mr. John Tolkien. The guy was a language nut. He invented languages for fun since he was thirteen years old. If this is you, you probably don't need to read the rest of this post. You're fine.

Most of us, however, did not specialize in graduate-level English philology. Most of us speak only one or two languages with any kind of fluency. So most of us don't really understand how language evolves or what it takes to create an artificial language that has the feel and depth of a real one. That's why a lot of amateur fantasy languages sound silly or made-up; it's obvious that they are (made-up, that is).

So how do you create a language that FEELS real, without spending years determining phonology, grammar, or how the presence of two palatal fricative dates back to the Second Age when the Atpians still had two tongues? I'll show you what I do. It's the same thing I do with most of my ideas: steal from real life, then obscure your sources.

Let's take the phrase "thank you." It's a common phrase, often borrowed between languages (e.g. the Japanese say "sankyu" as borrowed English; in California we say "gracias" as borrowed Spanish, etc.).

STEAL FROM REAL LIFE. First I need a source -- some existing, real-world language I can base my fantasy language on. I want it to be somewhat obscure, and I want to show you how you can do this without even knowing the source language (which means no Thai), so I'll pick Malay.

There's lots of ways to find foreign words in a chosen language. If I wanted to be accurate, I'd use 2-3 sites to verify, but I'm making up a language, so Google Translate it is. It translates "thank you" as "terima kasih."

Now that's pretty cool on its own. It's pretty, easy to read, and sounds totally foreign. But despite the odds, somebody who speaks Malay will probably read my novel at some point and scoff. So it's time to obscure. Two ways I typically obscure source languages are: (1) alter the letters/sounds/word order of the existing phrase and (2) mix it with some other language. I'll do both.

OBSCURE YOUR SOURCES. For my second source language, I'll pick something from the same family in the hopes it will make my made-up language sound more real. A little Wikipediage tells me Malay is an Austronesian language, and lists the major languages of that branch. I'll use Filipino (just because it's also in Google Translate) and get "salamat."

Then I mish-mash for prettiness and obfuscation. Salamat + terima = salima or salama or, slightly more obscure, sarama. For kasih, I already used the "sala" part of salamat, so I'll take mat + kasih = matak. "Sarama matak." But that feels a bit long for a thank you phrase, so I'll shorten it to "Sarama tak."

And there you go. It was a little work, but a lot less work than it took to invent Quenya, I'll tell you that. If I'm really serious about this fantasy culture/language, I'll keep a glossary of the phrases I make up in my notes, along with a note of what the source languages are (so I can repeat the process to create more phrases that sound like they could be from the same language) and links to the translation sites I used.

If the glossary gets big enough, I might (because I am a bit of a language geek) start converting the phrases into their constituent parts: individual words, verbs, maybe even conjugations. But that's breaching into Tolkien territory where I said I wouldn't go. Besides which, that would tempt me to break the rules I set forth at the top of this post; they still apply even to made up languages.

So now you know my secret. Now go forth and make cool-sounding languages. Sarama tak.

Being Foreign Without Sounding Like a Dork

Foreign languages are hard to use in fiction. Probably because most of us don't use them in real life (really, we don't). So here I present some tips for helping the reader get that foreignness is happening, without feeling hit over the head by it.

USE LANGUAGE TO BE UNDERSTOOD. First and foremost, the purpose of speaking is to communicate ideas. If a character is fluent in both English and Thai, but her listeners understand only English, she will not toss in a Thai word here and there. If someone did that in real life, we'd think they were just showing off their knowledge. And here's a big surprise: that's how it comes off to the reader too -- like the author is showing off some language they picked up on their trip around the world.

THINK LIKE THE CHARACTER. What if the character ISN'T fluent in English? In that case, there will be words for which the Thai (or other language) comes to her mind first. Speaking fast, she may correct herself, which not only sounds natural, but gives you a natural way to translate what she says:

"Come on! We have to hurry to catch the rotfai. The train."

If her listeners are also bilingual, even only a little, she may not correct herself at all. In this case, you'll have to provide the translation some other way, either through direct telling or (better yet) through context. (Assuming you need the translation at all. Sometimes it just doesn't matter.)

She clapped her hands. "Children, our guests will be here soon. Gep your toys. Reoreo!"

DON'T MAKE THE READER READ UNINTELLIGIBLE GIBBERISH. I once read a novel in which the villains occasionally spoke in Vietnamese. It was cool except when the author strung together a long sentence of Vietnamese phonetics. It was pronounceable I guess, but pointless; I don't understand Vietnamese nor did any of the other characters. It felt like the author was just showing off how much Vietnamese they knew. Take a look at these two examples (with Thai, of course):

The door flew open with a bang. Four masked men ran in, guns pointed at Bernice and her family. "Lukkheun!" one of them shouted. "Lukkheun diawnii!" She didn't know what they were saying, just put her hands on her head and sobbed. "Tah mai lukkheun diaw ja ying kah man. Ow mai! OW MAI!"

This isn't bad, but by that last sentence probably most of you aren't actually reading it anymore. Even if you did read it, you might wonder why since you gained no meaning from it (unless you speak Thai of course, in which case I kindly refer you to this post). But we can change it so it still conveys foreignness and Bernice's terror, without forcing the reader to slog through a bunch of meaningless phonetics:

The door flew open with a bang. Four masked men ran in, guns pointed at Bernice and her family. "Lukkheun!" One put a gun barrel to her mouth, shouting in a language she didn't understand. She didn't know what to do. She put her hands on her head and sobbed, but it only made him scream louder. What did he want from her?

PUT FOREIGN WORDS IN ITALICS. This goes along with not making the reader work. Italics signal the reader that these are words they don't necessarily have to know (also that they're not typos). This even goes for words that you think everybody should know.* A good rule of thumb is if it's not in the English dictionary, italicize it. For example:

"You're hungry? No problema, I'll pick up some burritos."

* I've noticed this problem especially with Californians (like me) who assume everyone took Spanish in high school (like me). Also with British authors and French. I'm American, I don't speak French!

USE FOREIGN ACCENTS SPARINGLY. If English is someone's second language, they may have an accent. You've probably read stories where a character's accent was annoying or really hard to read. It's hard to do right, but the general rule is: be subtle. Imply the accent rather than hit the reader over the head with it.

Also, think like the character. If the character's first language does not have definite articles, they may drop them when speaking English. A common Thai mistake is to get 'he' and 'she' mixed up (although that could be confusing for the reader -- it is for us). When I'm playing a game with my daughter, she sometimes says, "You're going to win me," because that's how the word for 'win' is used in Thai (they have no separate word for 'beat').

It helps to know an ESL speaker, or to know a foreign language so you can work out how the character might process English. If you're not sure though, then don't do it. The character can just use simple words and sentences, with the occasional foreign word tossed in where appropriate.

So to sum up. If you're using foreign languages in your fiction:

  1. Don't do it just to show off.
  2. Be intentional; think like the character.
  3. Be subtle.

Got any other tips? Annoyances with how some authors handle it? Tell us about it in the comments.

That Thing Where I Draw: Ninja Girl

I drew this for a friend of mine. I've said it before, but I put WAY more effort into drawings for other people. I should work on commission all the time. The only thing keeping from doing it is the stress.

I don't know much about this girl. She's some kind of ninja, but beyond that her story changes every time I talk to my friend (he's sort of in the throes of a story brainstorm). Halfway through this drawing, he told me her eyes should be "burning," but I'd already inked them in. Ah, well.

Books I Read: The Hunger Games

Title: The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: YA Science Fiction
Published: 2008
Content Rating: PG-13 for violence*

Growing up in District 12 is hard for Katniss. She has to hunt, illegally, just to feed her family, and every year two children are chosen from their district to fight in the tyrannical Hunger Games. This year, it's Katniss' turn. She must fight for her life against 23 other teenagers put in the same position -- all for the amusement of the citizens of Panem.

No joke, this book reached into my chest, gripped me by the ventricles, and didn't let go. Katniss is an awesome character: tough, often heartless, yet willing to do anything to protect the people she loves. The characters she meets are awesome: the boy who may or may not secretly like her; her surprisingly-sympathetic stylist; her mentor, a previous winner of the Games driven to drunkness, but who makes himself (basically) sober when he sees Katniss has a fighting chance.

The world is awesome: a post-apocalyptic America where the majority does hard labor for the few. And the games... Geez, it's like Survivor had a baby with Lord of the Flies and then gave it steroids. It's that cool. Before I read this, my favorite book was easily Ender's Game. Now... I'm not so sure.

One warning though: it leaves you hanging. I mean, the games end and everything, but the end of the book is not The End, strictly speaking. Fortunately there's a sequel (and more fortunately, I have it on my shelf).

* Content ratings based on what I think a movie might be rated, if the things shown in the book were shown in the movie. Ratings are very subjective, and I don't always remember/notice things. If you're unsure whether the book is right for you, do some research so you can make your own decision.

The Problem With Quidditch

One totally optional, but (in my opinion) totally fun aspect of world building is making up fictional games for your world. Like made-up holidays and festivals, games unique to your world can give it a deeper feel and provide an endless source of subplots, conflicts, and climactic settings.

For a lot of fictional games, the rules don't actually matter. Nobody knows how to play that chess game R2-D2 plays against Chewbacca, but the scene gives the world a deeper feel and gives us a taste of Chewbacca's character (also Han's and C-3P0's). Avatar: the Last Airbender frequently uses a game called Pai Sho to reveal things about one of the characters, but the rules are never explained.

But sometimes you want more than that. A critical event might turn on the outcome of a bet, like in Pirates 2 or Phantom Menace. You might have climactic events that center on the playing field, like Harry Potter's Quidditch. Or your entire plot might center on a game, like Ender's Battle Room. In these cases, the reader needs to understand and care about what's going on. They need to know the rules, which means there need to BE rules.

The easiest way to make a fictional game is to take a real-world game and change it slightly. Take chess and give the pieces fantasy names. Take soccer* and give it two goals instead of one, or play with three teams at once on a circular field. But whatever you do -- whether you vary a real game or invent one of your own -- it needs to be a game that, for the most part, would make sense in the real world.

Here's where Quidditch fails. The made-up game starts okay: basically basketball with broomsticks, three goals per team instead of one, extra balls that hurt/distract the players, and a snitch to determine the end of the game. None of these variations break the game, and they all make it more interesting. If we had flying broomsticks and semi-sentient balls, this is a game we could play in the real world.

The problem is the point value of the snitch. Every goal in Quidditch is worth 10 points, but whoever grabs the snitch simultaneously ends the game and earns 150 points -- 15 goals. The overall effect is that regular goals don't matter. Ever. Unless the score reaches 15-0,** the rest of the game has exactly the same tension as if both teams just sat around and waited for the snitch to show up (which, really, why don't they?).

The only reason we don't notice is because the protagonist is the one who gets the snitch. Can you imagine if Harry was the one making meaningless goals, while some minor character caught the snitch and won the game? We also don't notice because usually something else is going on during the match -- like someone's trying to kill Harry or something -- so we don't actually have to pay attention to the match. But to me, all the wizards who go crazy over every goal seem silly and short-sighted.

So by all means, include made-up games in your world. But give them some thought. They don't have to win Game of the Year or anything, but they should at least make real-world sense.

Though I guess if you really are writing the next Harry Potter, it doesn't matter.

UPDATE: As I mention in the comments, I do like Harry Potter. A lot. It has it's flaws, but there's a reason I own all seven.

* A term I use, not because it's correct, but because it's the least ambiguous. They call it football in Thailand too.

** Which is ridiculous. When was the last time you saw a soccer team up 15-0? Or an American football game at 105 to nothing? Unless you were watching Big Leagues Beat Up on Tiny Tots Day, these scores just don't happen. Not at a professional level anyway

What's Your Backup Plan?

Yes, I mean the title literally.

Until a few years ago, I never really thought about backing up my stuff, not at home. Part of it was that I had nothing worth backing up; I didn't write much, my music was on CDs, my pictures were on glossy paper, etc. My strongest backup method was to put things I thought were important onto a CD every so often -- which, because it was troublesome and I'm lazy, turned out to be once every 6-12 months.

So when my hard drive failed, I lost months of stuff -- pictures of my friend's Karen village wedding, my son's ultrasound pics, a month's work from my novel... It was a Bad Day. I made a resolution then, and I encourage you to do it now. If your hard drive failed completely, to the point where even recovery services could do nothing, what would you lose?

And what are you going to do about it?

It's not just hard drive failure. Theft, fire, and viruses are all possibilities too. But hard drive failure is the most likely. You may never get robbed and your house may never burn down, but unless you buy a new computer every year or two, your hard drive WILL fail someday.

Go ahead. Prove me wrong.

So as I said, I'm lazy. I needed a backup plan I could set up once and forget. I'm also cheap and well-aware of the strength of the open source community. I found a program called DeltaCopy, which is basically a Windows wrapper around an old, powerful Unix program. It's free, it's fast, and it works with Windows Scheduler so I don't have to think about it.*

Now my files gets backed up whenever my computer is idle and the kid's computer upstairs is on. The backup is usually current to within a day. And every month I copy the upstairs backup to an external hard drive which I keep locked away.**

So if my hard drive fails, I've got the upstairs copy that's a day old. If my house gets robbed, I've got the locked up copy that's a month old.

If my house burns down, I'm kinda screwed. But I figure it'd have to be a magical fire to burn down both floors of my brick-and-concrete house before I can get my laptop out. And I'm not aware of any wizards who want to destroy my stuff.

I've also started e-mailing chapters to my alpha reader (despite the fact that she lives in the same house and uses the same computer) because it's convenient and can be used as yet another backup for my most important documents.

If you don't have a backup plan, stop whatever you're doing and make one. At least save your work and your pictures -- whatever's important to you. It doesn't have to cost much. A little research can find free online storage, or software like DeltaCopy. External hard drives aren't that expensive, and apparently Windows 7 has some kind of backup scheme as well.

And just in case anyone is still being lazy about this, anyone have more horror stories of stuff they lost because they didn't back up?

* Well, usually. Sometimes it has some way-cryptic errors, like "writefd_unbuffered failed to write 4 bytes" which technically can mean lots of things but in my experience only means "the disk is full."

** Said copies are very fast because only files that have been changed since the last backup are copied. Still, it's a good idea to do a clean backup every once in a while.