Panic Attack

By John Gilstrap

I’ve done a lot of writing on the run these past few weeks.  My tour for Total Mayhem has spun out over the past month or so, keeping me away from home and away from my desk.  Yet my September 15 deadline hasn’t moved.  I’ve been spewing words from hotels and restaurants, and from moving platforms like trains and airplanes.

I’ve always written a fair chunk of my first drafts long hand.  Sometimes, the creativity flows better and the there’s the added plus of a built-in second draft when I transfer the handwritten text onto the computer.

Up until a couple of years ago, I did my home-based writing on a desktop computer, with a lightweight laptop reserved for travel.  More recently, the desktop has been mothballed and all my computing needs are served by my Surface Book Pro.   If I’m traveling any distance, it’s coming with me.

While it’s unlikely that my computer would be lost or stolen, I recognize the possibility, so I therefore store virtually no data on my hard drive.  Instead, I’ve come to depend heavily on external storage.   When I finish a writing session, I save the day’s work to a thumb drive that contains pretty much everything I have written in at least the past five years.  Once that’s done, I save the same document to my Dropbox account, and then, finally, once a week or so, I save a copy to my hard drive.  When I start a new session, I use the thumb drive copy as the primary document.

Before the days of cloud storage, I carried that thumb drive–or one of its predecessors–everywhere I went, always in my left front pocket.  My theory was if the house burned and the took the hard drive with it, I wouldn’t lose too much of my writing.

Nowadays, that thumb drive stays with the computer.  It only leaves the house if the laptop leaves the house.  When it does go on the road, it has its own dedicated pouch in the the backpack that doubles as my briefcase.  Routine.  A place for everything, everything in its place.

Until it’s not.

This morning I awoke ahead of my alarm in the fabulous Brown Hotel in Louisville, KY, ready to be home again after five days of being away.  I showered, dressed, packed my bag, and then as I was putting my backpack together, the thumb drive was gone.  Clearly, I had misplaced it somehow, even though I never before have done so.  I unpacked.  I dumped the backpack.  I re-searched the closet and dresser drawers.  I searched the pockets of previously-worn pants.  No luck.  It was gone.

Here’s where my accident investigation training kicked in.  It couldn’t, in fact, just be gone.  Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, remember?  That thumb drive was someplace, and I was confident that when I found it, I would remember that it was exactly where I had put it.  So . . . where?

I’d left the backpack behind for yesterday’s tour event at Fort Knox, so I knew it could be neither somewhere on post nor in the car of the escort who drove me there.  It had to be in the hotel.  But where?

I checked my backpack for a third time.  Nope, matter still had not been created.

Ah-hah!  When I’d returned from Fort Knox, I’d taken my computer up to the “club room” to transcribe my handwritten manuscript pages.  I must have left it there somehow.  Breaking from routine, I’d decided not to bring the whole backpack with me into the club room, so that was how it had transitioned into my pocket.

Thing is, there was no way I would leave the thumb drive behind.  Not after this many years of routine.  Still, I had to track down the lead.  No, the manager told me, no one had found a thumb drive.  Of course, that didn’t mean someone hadn’t picked it up and kept it as their own.  Or, maybe they’d turned it in down at the front desk.

Oh, yeah.  The front desk.  Tick-tock.  I had a rental car to return and there was an airplane with my name on it.  I needed to check out of the hotel and move on.

The lady at the front desk could not have been nicer.  After giving me my receipt, she disappeared into the back office to check lost and found.  Neither of us felt much hope.  While she was gone, I looked out onto the lobby bar where I had dined last night, and as I did, I pulled my phone out to check if the flight was still on time.

I pulled the phone out of my pocket.

My left front pocket–the same one that once was dedicated to my thumb drive back when I carried it everywhere.  My seat for dinner had been a nice one, next to a window with a pretty view of the street.  I remembered that as I sat at the table, I’d pulled my phone out of my pocket and placed it on the window sill because I’d been expecting a call.

With a growing sense of hope, I walked over to last night’s seat and pulled out my chair.  And there it was, a black-and-red plastic thumb drive hiding in the pattern of the plush black-and-red carpet.  Just sitting there, waiting.  It wasn’t where I’d put it, after all.  It was where I’d dropped it when it piggy-backed out of my pocket with the phone.

My morning got a lot brighter.

So, TKZers, how do you save and backup your work?  Ever lost a chunk of it?


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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

21 thoughts on “Panic Attack

  1. Hi John, good question! I save on hard drive, a thumb drive and every so often I email it to myself.
    This made me think of that scene in Love Actually when Colin Firth was working outside on a typewriter and a stack of his manuscript blew away into the lake – his only copy. The stuff of nightmares!

  2. I keep everything on my hard drive and back it up on a flash drive. My son saves all his school work “in the cloud”. I’m not entirely sure how that works, but he’s recommended it to me more than once. Maybe a good idea. There’s no way I could recover my work from a house fire or similar catastrophe.

  3. John, I try to be equally paranoid (well, maybe risk-averse is the mot juste).

    Back in the day, when I was typing my dissertation on an IBM Selectric somewhere in the upper regions of Old College at Northwestern, I regularly ran downstairs to the copy machine to make the backup.

    (Marvelous bit of technology, by the way, the Selectric. That sweet little ball that danced around, leaving the platen and the paper stationary. And the built-in “lift-off” tape for all those typing errors.)

    I compose in Scrivener now. Scrivener automatically saves every few seconds or something like that. Periodically (several times a day and whenever I knock off), I save to a thumb drive. Every three days or so I run Time Machine to do an incremental backup to an external hard drive. I don’t use any cloud stuff since I don’t need to sync between machines. That does leave me with the problem that my backups are physically in the same building as my original–risky, should fire or tornado wipe out the house.

  4. I lose things too easily to rely on a thumb drive. Back before cloud storage, I’d email versions of the WIP to my daughter in Northern Ireland. I figured the odds of both of our systems crashing at the same time were slim.
    I have a writing buddy who uses a thumb drive, and I think it was corrupted once, and sometimes she’d forget to take it with her.
    I write on my desktop. I need that 27 inch monitor, 2 screens, and a full keyboard. I have a Surface Pro for travel. I use Dropbox for my daily work, but there’s always a version on the PC with that system. I also back up to One Drive every night, and to an external hard drive.
    Also, since my writing system includes printing a hard copy of each chapter as I finish it, to do a preliminary edit, I have those pages. They’re not the edited versions, but they’re an emergency backup.
    So far, so good.

  5. I love the different ways everyone saves their work. I save everything to Dropbox, back up to eDrive, and before I go to bed, I email whatever I’ve worked on to myself. It’s the belt and suspenders thing.

  6. I save to Dropbox and backup to OneDrive. I also have a NAS (Network Attached Storage) unit which polls both of these for changes and downloads them automatically. In addition, I periodically store on a thumb drive. It would be unlikely that I would lose all of these, especially since they are physically located in different spots.

    A more likely scenario is some sort of ransomware attack, where all of my work gets encrypted until I pay a fee for the decryption string. That’s why I use a thumb drive, so if I have some sort of attack, I will probably be able to use the thumb drive once I get the attack resolved.

  7. I keep 2 flash drives. One at my house and one at my sister’s. The one at my house is always backed up and I switch it out with the one at her house at least every two weeks.

    … besides Dropbox and mailing to myself.

    • Okay, here’s my worry about multiple thumb drives in rotation. It would be so easy to overwrite a new version with an old one. I did that once. The hard drive backup saved me.

  8. Happy to hear you found it, John. A few years ago, my laptop crashed after Microsoft sent yet another update, and I had completed 90% of my MS. OneDrive had saved a large portion, but not the whole thing since I’d turned off automatic sync by accident. Nightmare! Luckily, one of my cop buddies still had his cyber tools and he was able to get the MS off my hard drive (which was toast). So, now, I use my iMac for most of my writing and save to numerous places … iCloud, OneDrive, and Dropbox, to name a few. I also email the MS to myself, which I keep in backup folder.

  9. After a damaged bit of hardware not only destroyed my original copy, but my backups, I learned the joy of paper backups. They can also survive the ravages of technology time where software types can become unreadable and outside backup copies like CDs can no longer be accessed by new computers.

  10. Hard drive. Thumb drive. Dropbox. External hard drive. (plus I do my first edit on paper, and my final read through on Kindle, so there’s that, too) If all of those fail, I figure it’s the universe trying to tell me something…

  11. I’ve got a similar panic attack yarn, not about a manuscript, but my wedding ring…
    The “snow-jam” that embarrassed Atlanta a few years back took me five hours (less than many), to get to the house from downtown. I was five miles from the house when the local constabulary closed the road and sent all of us up an uncleared side road, where I promptly slid ditchward… but was able to keep forward motion.
    When I finally had to stop, I elected to pitch a few road-debris-tires into the bed of my pick-up to aid traction, and soon (45 minutes or so), later was finally safe and sound at home… but realized I was ringless.
    I dug through the front seat of the truck, under it, the snow in the bed, the inside of the tires, my coat, etc. etc. etc. – nothing… and my bride was already miffed that I’d risked the drive instead of staying downtown for the night…
    Two days later, after things had thawed out (yes, at home, too), on the way home, I took the previous detour and found where I’d pulled/slid over, and within a few steps found, catching the sun just so, in the mud outline of the last tire I’d wrestled, my wedding ring, exactly as it had slid off my gloveless, cold-thinned finger…
    And they say there are no more miracles…

  12. Glad you found it, John. I know what it’s like to lose work and it sucks. I don’t see anyone’s mentioned this, but I sometimes save my stuff by emailing my Word.doc to myself as an attachment. Unless intentionally deleted, the work sits on my email server forever and can be accessed anywhere, anytime even if my laptop and data stick get beamed up to the mother ship which I believe hovers somewhere in the cloud. 🙂

  13. I lost a USB stick for close to six months. I was heading over to my mother-in-law’s for Christmas and packed it, along with my laptop. I put my USB stick in the little side pocket in the bag.

    We got to her house and I couldn’t find it anywhere. It had *all* of my writing on it. Yeah, I had backups, but not of everything on the drive. I was absolutely beside myself. After getting over the loss, I bought a new USB stick and started using Dropbox as a backup.

    Six months later, I was packing to go to my mother-in-law’s for the weekend and packed my laptop and new USB stick. I still had a few bits and bobs left over in the bag from the last time I used it. There, underneath the stiff piece of cardboard at the bottom, was my USB stick.

    I have a desktop with a 24″ monitor (lots of screen real estate). I write primarily in Scrivener (auto backup) and save onto my external drive, with a backup to Dropbox every week, One Drive twice a week, Google Drive once a month, and a USB stick every day.

  14. Wow John,
    Glad you found it. It was interesting seeing the various backup methods. I use Carbonite. It backsup everting to a cloud every few minutes and I don’t need to think about it. It does eliminate the human factor.

  15. John, this is HORRIFYING!

    My back ups were always sketchy until I finally ponied up the .99/month for Apple Storage…last year. It’s automatic, which is scattered-Laura proof!

    P.S. I grew up in Louisville. The resurgence of the Brown Hotel has been wonderful to see. What a beautiful landmark.

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