The computer ate my novel

In the olden days people often had only one copy of their magnus opus and it was on paper. One copy! They used to lose their novels by leaving them on buses, or having the dog eat them, or the wind blowing it away. I know one person who lost their PhD thesis because their ex snuck into their flat and threw it in the fireplace. They had to write the entire thing over. I’ve heard that often leads to better work. But what a way to get there!

When the brave new world of word processors opened up, many people thought, “At last! It will be impossible for our books to go astray! Computers are indestructable!” Computers are much more durable than paper!1

Hah. I have never lost a whole novel but I have lots big chunks of work on several occasions because of computers dying. I have become much more rigorous in my backing up. Now that I’m published I have the best backup system of all: Thousands of copies of my books out there in the wild. Scott pointed that one out when we were in Dunedin on the South Island of New Zealand. He found a copy of his out-of-print first novel, Polymorph, in a used book shop there. “Best back up system ever!” he declared. Polymorph had only ever been published in North America.

Today Lisa Yee reports an entertaining2 novel disaster. Lisa is the queen of computer disaster story telling. How she could write about it so soon after the events I do not know. I would still be crying and sucking my thumb.

Has anyone got any excellent computer disasters or lost novel/thesis/mag op stories to tell? Share!

  1. I’m not convinced that’s true. There are books that are hundreds of years old that are still readable and in great shape—thousands if you count papyrus as paper. I doubt this computer I’m tapping on will still be working in a hundred years time. []
  2. entertaining to us I’m not sure she had such a fab time with it []


  1. anonymous on #

    I can’t!

  2. Edward Willett on #

    I’ve never lost a novel or even a chapter of one. Back when I was a newspaper reporter/editor, though, I sat through an interminable city council meeting, went back to the office, wrote a huge story (50-plus column inches) detailing it, and then turned off the computer without saving it. My desire to put my head through the terminal was so strong I’m lucky not to still have glass and bits of electronics embedded in my skull…

  3. Ted Lemon on #

    This isn’t actually a good story, but maybe it’s interesting anyway. I’m a Dharma geek, which means that I help out with a Dharma center. One of our big issues is how to preserve things like video, audio, and the many translations we’ve done of Tibetan texts.

    It turns out to be a huge, unsolved problem. The main way we do it is to just share everything around as much as we can – last year we pressed a thousand DVDs and mailed them to different yoga and dharma centers around the world, in hopes that if we happen to lose everything, someone else will still have a copy.

    Books are really durable, but that doesn’t help you if someone decides your book is evil. Most of the books in Tibet were burned during the cultural revolution. We’re translating a 200-page manuscript right now that made it out of Tibet because one of the monks who escaped had memorized it. When he got to India, he wrote it out from memory. This method isn’t foolproof – a lot of the monks were killed in the invasion.

    A lot of other texts have been recovered because there was a copy in a library in St. Petersburg, where the Tsar had collected all the great works of Tibet. And we’re finding some old texts from Mongolia. I think you can attribute the survival of these texts to a trick similar to the one we did with our DVD – the Tibetans carved everything into wood blocks, and then made prints from the wood blocks. It wasn’t cheap to duplicate an entire library, but it was possible, and that’s why the Tsar had a copy.

    The lesson here seems clear, though – if you want your book to survive, make sure you make a lot of backups!

  4. Tim Walker on #

    re computer versus paper durability: i’m always amused when folks talk about the “death of the book” or the “death of paper” etc. The reality is that paper is such a stupendously good technology that it’s *still* high technology thousands of years after it’s invention. ditto printed books half a millennium on. the computer is a tremendous aid: I could send you the ms. of a novel in two seconds without caring whether you’re in nyc or oz, and if your computer and mine both went kaput, there would *still* be a copy of it the ms. on the gmail server. wow. life is beautiful.

    The moral of the story: computer & networking technology make a fabulous complement to — but by no means a replacement for — paper technology.

  5. sylvia on #

    i’ve never lost a whole book, but i’ve lost bits of book, and short stories, and term papers, and once the just-finished second-edited ms of somebody else’s doctoral dissertation.

    that last one is the best cautionary tale. i had copy-edited the text once, and sent it back to her, and then she wanted a second pass. which i did, and then i thought to myself, “should i send it back now? no — it’s 11:45 at night, i’m knackered, i should sleep on it and check it again tomorrow in case i’ve left something really stupendously idiotic in there.” which normally would be a fine idea, except that this was five weeks after the great blackout of 2003, which apparently had ignited a slow burn in the poor old hard drive, and the next morning my mum (who was visiting) turned the puter on and it went whirrr-click-click and wouldn’t boot up. a lot of our stuff was backed up on cd-rom — not as much as ought to have been, of course — but that editing job was gone, kaput, lign in drerd bakn beygl. several hundred dollars’ worth of work i didn’t get paid for — though the client, to her credit, didn’t go on to say bad things about me to everyone she met for the next ten years, as she might well have done in the circs.

    lisa yee’s tale made me hyperventilate with both mirth and sympathetic horror. search-and-replace, in any program, is a function one uses at one’s peril. one should think twice, for example, before “canadianizing” an american document by replacing every instance of “state” with “provincial”; for every correct “interprovincial” or “provincial government” you finish up with, you will also have half a dozen snafus of the type “underprovincialment” or “the report provincials” or “she died inteprovincial” …

  6. marrije on #

    I have no entertaining novel disaster. I do have an entertaining school project disaster, back from when i was yea high.
    15 I was, i think. My dad had this very useful computer I was typing my long long long report about some job experience week thingy on. i was funny, i was witty, my mom wondered whether i whouldn’t perhaps be a little more serious about this, but no, i had just discovered the power of funny. i was almost done.

    and then a birthday card fell from the top of the computer. right onto a very handy, easily depressed ‘reset’ button the manufacturer had thoughtfully placed above the top row of the keyboard. yes, there, just above where your f12 key is. poof.

    this was the beginning of a long career working to create better user interfaces.

  7. Walter Jon Williams on #

    I lost an entire novel.

    I did all the right stuff. I had two backups, one kept in another location. And I also had a paper backup, in eight-pin dot-matrix letters on fanfold paper. (This was a while ago.)

    I had finished the book and I was doing final revisions before sending it to the editor. I was =hot=. My revisions lifted the novel from pretty-good straight to *brilliant*.

    And then, somehow, just before I began to print the fair copy (on eight-pin dot-matrix) the files disappeared. I still don’t know why.

    I loaded a backup disk. It didn’t have my corrections on it, but I figured I’d remember where they were. Those files disappeared, too.

    So I went to the Undisclosed location, where I had my other backup disks. These were maybe a couple weeks out of date, so they didn’t have the end of the novel and they didn’t have my corrections, but I’d just have to reconstitute it as best I could.

    Those files went away as well.

    Then I made the =real= stupid mistake. I called my editor and told her that I had to retype the whole novel from the fanfold draft, and said that it would be delayed. So my editor readjusted her schedule, and delayed publication of the book for a whole year.

    So I typed the whole thing back in from the fanfold draft. It only took a few days, but of course my editor had already delayed publication by a year. I probably remembered most of my corrections, but not all of them. And by now I wasn’t as hot as I’d been, and so the book wasn’t as brilliant as I thought it should have been, and its publication was delayed a year, which delayed all the books after that one, some of which were pretty time-critical.

    My computer behaved from that point on, and I never worked out what technical issue had caused three versions of the novel to vanish. It just did.

  8. kim on #

    i lost something that i was working on for school.
    i had just typed 4 pages of what i had written and the last 5 were just from my head. i was trying to scroll down and my computer highlighted every thing. i hit a button and all of it was gone.

  9. hillary! on #

    I have never lost anything really important, but I took a college class my sophmore summer, Chicano Studies, and the final, the really realy important final, not the test, was to right a 5 page response to one of two books. I chose the one about Mona Ruiz.
    Now, I know my Winston isn’t a very reliable computer, but I still love him, he tends to freeze up when he has to do something really important. Well, I was writing the conclusion, and seeing as how I had written most of this essay in two hours I hadn’t though to repeatedly save…conclusion people…he froze…I screamed! I had to start allover again! But I got an A+! Booya!

  10. Robert Legault on #

    I suggested that she simply hre someone cheap to insert her spaces. It shouldn’t cost that much to do.

    The oldest books I own are from the early 19th century. They still work just fine nearly 200 years later. If anything on my computer hard drive lasts 50 years, I’ll be very surprised i(if I’m alive–unlikely but possible).

    Literary history is unfortunately full of lost books, from Carlyle’s original MS. of The French Revolution to Hemingway’s llst novel, to Delany’s.

    Once in a while lost things do turn up, and it is indeed often because there were multiple copies floating around. That’s presumably why the Greek plays we know today are extant.

  11. Sash on #

    I have a very frosty relationship with my new laptop thanks to just such a disaster.
    Luckily though, I’m a terrible procrastinator so there was only part of the novel lost when it decided to go toes up only two months into its working life. i cried more about the endnote file i lost as that had been harder to compile.
    I’m also completely disorganised though, and could wander round the house trying out various discs and sticks to piece together bits and pieces I’d saved before. I had virtually the whole thing still in tact. (Not, of course, the part I’d spent the most time on.)
    And then my hopeless optimism stepped into play. ‘this computer will never die again as it’s too young and just been fixed’. wrong. four months into its young life and – same thing all over again.
    i am more organised now… and keeping an eye on the laptop which is obviously possessed by the devil.

  12. CoreyJF on #

    I have lost more poems then I can count, too many short stories, and a few first chapters (wait I may have trashed those). I had a complete hardrive crash last week and hadn’t backed up in a good 5 weeks. This time I lost 2 half completed shorts, 3 flash pieces, and all of my dream notes since last backup… Oh well. I know better, I slacked and I paid for my complacency.

  13. Tez Miller on #

    In January this year, I sent queries out. One agent said to delete the Prologue. I did. AND DIDN’T SAVE A COPY OF IT. Naturally, I want it back now, but of course I can’t get it 🙁

    Justine, may we have our capital letters back, please? I feel less unintelligent without them 😉

    Have a lovely day! 🙂

  14. Rebecca on #

    oh yes, please, i’ve got one, or two, or a million.

    it was 10:00 p.m. on november 30, 2004. i was about, uhhhh, 3 or 4K away from meeting my goal for nanowrimo (which of course ends at mindnight on nov. 30). i’m tapping happily away on my alphasmart (that was back in the dark ages when my parents wouldn’t allow me to have my own computer :o) and all of a sudden then thing goes blank. it gave me some crap about the disk being messed up. and i lost an hour’s worth of frantic nano-paced typing.

    well. naturally, with my deadline less than two hours away, i could not afford to cry over it. normally, i’d’ve spent weeks lamenting the loss of those two thousand or so words. instead i started writing them again.

    and then the damn machine shorts out again. by this time, i have about an hour, it’s a school night, and my parents are threatening to make me go to bed. somehow, i convinced dad to let me use his computer and, with only minutes to spare (kid you not) i surpassed my wordcount goal with only two words to spare. this was a nice victory-in-spite-of-all-things, but alas, there was still 4000 words in there that had been eaten by cyberspace. twas sad.

    and there was the time the computer ate this fairy story i was writing in 6th grade, and i was so upset i couldn’t work on it again for two months. i have a very hard time getting back into a story after a huge loss like that. gah.

  15. Nicholas Waller on #

    I haven’t lost any big wodge of text, though my brother did, after typing away for 10 hours on an Amstrad 8256 – an ancient machine which had no hard drive, and the text, held in RAM, was too iirc big to fit on the floppy he had in, so he lost it when he finally tried to save the whole the thing.

    I back up, but my backup drives are next to the computer so in any fire/theft/flood they’d be lost at the same time.

    A paper backup makes sense… fire is still an issue but no one would bother stealing paper, which has a way of surviving in a way electronic media does not. Apart from one 30-yo story that went walkabout, I still have all my paper notes, “artworks” and stories from the 1970s, plus family photos going back 100 years, mostly unique, uncopied material that just survives.

    But no doubt we all have/had stuff stored on all sorts of electronic devices that you feel are already or will soon become unreadable without a constant effort of upgrade and transfer, even if they don’t simply fail: 5 1/4″, 3 1/2″ and 3″ (amstrad) floppies, zip disks, flash drives, various flaky hard drives, CDs, dvds, and even in one case (trs-80) on a standard c-30 (I think) cassette tape – not to mention several formats of video tape: 8mm, Hi-8, VHS-C, VHS, betamax, mini-dv. At the moment it’s easier for me to watch a super-8 home movie from 1973 than a tape from an 8mm video camera from 1997.

  16. Sam Taylor on #

    I started writing short stories when I was ~13, when I lived in Turkey. When we moved back to the states, we mailed all of those disks, but they never got to us. Dozens of stories that (at the time) I believed to be brilliant were lost. Now that I’m older and I look back at some of my later stories, I realize that the ones I lost were probably pretty bad. But it scarred me for a while 😉

  17. Chris S. on #

    Paper rules. Hey, when you drop your book in the bath, it’s unreadable … for a couple days. Drop your laptop in the bath, and, well, let’s just hope you weren’t in there too.

  18. Catherine on #

    I had to write a five thousand word story for a creative writing class in high school. Being me, I procrastinated until the night before it was due. So, I’m writing along happily about to pass the forty-five hundred word mark when the screen goes black. at first, i wasn’t worried. i was typing in Microsoft word and it has that handy recover feature that works some of the time. but i turned the computer back on and it pretended that nothing had gone wrong, that it had been shut down correctly and all was well. but all wasn’t well, mostly because it was one in the morning and the story was due at seven. i had to rewrite all but the first thousand words which i had been smart enough to save. i definitely didn’t sleep that night.

  19. Sash on #

    devil possessed laptop must have heard me complaining. Ti’s dead again. must be bad, they gave me my money back this time and i’m feeling very happy to be rid of it… even if it did take everything i just spent the day loading back onto it.

  20. Vir Modestus on #

    I have two stories, one I witnessed and one of my own. After grad school I worked in the University’s computer lab. One day a PhD candidate walked in and asked if we could help him retrieve his dissertation from a disk. “Um. Maybe,” was the cautious response. He held up an old 1.25″ floppy, curled into the shape of a taco. He’d left it on the radiator overnight during a Madison WI winter.

    The other time I lost an entire chapter’s worth of revisions. Brilliant, insightful revisions, and I lost them *because* I backed up. I have a very thorough system with backups in 4 different locations. For some reason, this time instead of copying New –> old, it went the other way.

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