Friday, November 30, 2012

The Ballad of Iterative Changes

Do you know the agony of sleepless nights because you can't find a snippet of story you know you've already written?
Eh hem. No, no. Don't call the people in the white coats. Not quite yet. Instead, pull up a chair. Have a drink. Maybe you can learn something from my mistakes. That's right. Gather round and listen.
I once lost an entire book. It's true. Most recently, I've lost the first three chapters of a vampire book.  And who among us hasn't known the gnawing, hollow certainty that we'd already written the scene we want...if only we could FIND it?
You know the problem? It's the delete key. The delete key is not your friend. Don't trust it. No matter how alluring may be that innocent looking square of plastic, don't touch it! No. It's Ctrl x you want - the surgical cut - rather than the callous murder of your words. You're an artist! A craftsperson, not a cold blooded murderer. Oh, I know what is said in lofty circles about killing your darlings, but look at my eyes, red-rimmed from tears shed. You see, no one who says 'kill your darlings' actually does.
This is the way of it.
You (and by you, I mean *I*) open a brilliant work in progress. You pick up the thread of your story, weaving it skillfully into a seamless, effortless - - okay, okay. You stare mindlessly at the spot you left off wondering what the heck you intended to have happen next. Finally, the problem, you decide can be resolved by lopping off four or five paragraphs.
What do you do? GET AWAY FROM THAT DELETE KEY! Have you not heard a word I've said? Do you see this vein throbbing in my temple?
You open a new file. You highlight your offending paragraphs. You hit Ctrl and x. The paragraphs are cut. You switch to the new file and hit Ctrl and v. The paragraphs magically appear in your new file. Save that sucker. I don't care what you name it. One author I know calls hers "Lost Love". I name mine Fragments. That file sits in a folder named for the WIP. Name yours Fifi if you want. Just remember what you named it and where you put it when you saved it.
Your salvation is now assured. Because sure as the sky is blue and this bar serves swill, you'll need something you've cut from your WIP. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But someday. Then you have to recall where you put it, what you called the file, and more daunting how you phrased what you plan to reuse, so that you, my writerly friend, can do a search for the exact bit of text you want rather than having to read 100 pages of your outtakes.
No, wait! Don't go! Not yet. I know you know this stuff! Really. I knew that. Pegged you as one of the bright ones right off. I did! So you already save outtakes. Good. Good.
Do you save iterative changes of your WIP? All the paranoids are doing it these days. Open your WIP, do whatever work you want for the day, then rather than simply saving the file, do a save as. Name it with whatever title you choose, but add the date to the end of the file name. This way, you have a record of every day's change. Tuck the excess files into a history folder if you don't like the clutter - but being able to retrieve an early version of a subtantially changed scene without having to rewrite it? Priceless. Oh. You knew about version control, too.
Back ups? Off site storage? No use in saving your leftovers if they get eaten by a harddrive crash. It's happened! Remember that entire book I said I'd lost? Spectacularly noisy and messy harddrive shred.
You're nodding. Ah. I see. You know ALL this. My friend, I want to shake your hand. You do an old, paranoid - let's not use the word 'twitchy' - writer proud.


  1. Heh. But sometimes being paranoid and doing multiple saves can bite you, too. I once spent an entire evening writing the best, most perfect scene for my first book. It was so lovely I wanted to print it out and pet it, but I was tired, so I saved it and closed down the computer. The next night I opened my working file and it was gone. I was in tears. I tried rebuilding it, but that never works out as well as I want.

    The next day, I found it. Somehow I'd opened up a backup file of my manuscript and added my sparkly new scene to that instead of the working copy. Now every manuscript is saved as: TITLE-WC - until I finish the draft. Then I save a new copy as TITLE-1D (or 2D or whatever # draft I'm working on).

    Sorry you lost an entire novel, Marcella. My heart goes out to you. It's my biggest fear (and why I now have so many backups everywhere).

    1. That's version control. That's why I do titletoday'sdate.docx (WIPTitle11302012.docx). That way I know which one is which and I can revert to an earlier version at any time. I think it comes from having been a database administrator. I think in terms of point in time recovery. By hey. The point is to make sure you have something that works for you.

      The entire novel loss wasn't a complete disaster. It was my very first completed novel and IT was a disaster. :D Having the computer eat it was sort of the ultimate editorial comment from the universe. :D

  2. Great advice, Marcella. I am a compulsive thrower-awayer at home, but I learned the same lesson about the "cut scenes" file!