Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

Calling for backup

No, this isn’t a public service announcement about how important it is for writers to back up their files. If you’re not doing that by now after all the times I’ve nagged, there’s no hope for you. This is about taking disaster recovery a step further so that you’re never, ever caught out with your work trapped in a dead machine or your files rendered unreadable when you’re right on a deadline. This is about making sure you always have an alternative suite of apps for the critical jobs in your business.

There’s no such thing as “too much” when it comes to just-in-case. My natural need to be prepared – emergency supplies in the car, tools on my key ring, you name it – was kicked up quite a few notches in the days when part of my job was emergency planning. (“Emergency management” in the US.) That planning was tested to the limit when we had a run of civil emergencies that covered everything from street riots to unexploded ordnance to trucks crashing into bridges to a massive factory fire, followed not long after by a flood and all the evacuation and aftermath that went with it. Our emergency planning supremo was a brilliant bloke called Alasdair Hogg, ex-Merchant Navy and with a gift for not only radiating calm when the Hellmouth opened but also the ability to coax favours out of any government agency when bureaucracy was getting in the way. I learned a lot from Al, which is why JACINTO’S REMNANT is dedicated to him.

Anyway, one of the many things that Al was big on was recovery plans – getting systems up and running again fast. (If our HQ was affected, we still had to be able to run the emergency response.) Every business and organisation should have one, and, dare I say it, so should every family. In the course of my various jobs, I’ve seen many people suddenly homeless or minus their business, both insured and uninsured, and no idea what to do next. It happens: but tech disasters happen a lot more often. As a small business – and a writer is the smallest business of all, a one-man band– you’re on your own, pal. Plan ahead.

Assuming you’ve heeded all the warnings about backing up your data and keeping one copy of it somewhere off-site, preferably with a spare machine to use it on, it’s worth thinking about alternative apps as well. If an app you’re reliant on isn’t available, you need to be able swap horses and carry on. And before you say, “But I keep my stuff in the cloud!” let me give you a withering glance. Those servers are not under your control. Even the biggest cloud providers can have disasters, as we’ve seen recently, and there’s no guarantee that any of them will be around long-term. If that’s the storage you’re relying on, you’re gambling. If you trust the cloud on security (I don’t, but YMMV) then you also need your data stored on something in your personal possession as well.

Anyway, apps. Dependency on single apps makes you vulnerable. Apps can crash after updates leaving you not knowing when a fix is going to be available, or they can decide not to play with something else in your set-up that’s changed. In the longer term, the developer might stop supporting the software, or might even do an Adobe and force you to subscribe to a cloud service. Your business can be screwed either by a very urgent failure or by a long-term, more persistent one. If data is stored in some kind of proprietary file format that can only be opened in a certain app, I get nervous.

The remedies need setting up and testing before the doo-doo hits the fan. Learn how to use the alternative app and do a dry run before events force you to. The important thing is knowing which file format to save documents in so they can be opened in the backup app, even if that means converting them with an intermediate app. Otherwise it’s not a plan, it’s a reaction.

The list below is the essentials that I need to cover – yours may be different. If it sounds slightly vague, it’s because I’m trying to cover the bases for Windows users as well as Mac. You can search for alternative apps for your particular platform.

I rely on:

1. A straight word processor app – Word or Word-compatible documents are the lowest common denominator. Many other apps can read, import, or convert them. You don’t have to write in one to have a use for it.

2. An internet connection. (Okay, not strictly an app, but it requires planning ahead and a bit of practice if you’re going to carry on without breaking your pace.) My broadband falls over quite often and at the worst possible times. So I always have mobile broadband to hand, and in my case that’s three different options. I can connect by mifi or by tethering via my phone or iPad.

3. FTP, if you maintain your web site – FTP is built into my web authoring app, but I also have Transmit, which I usually use for transferring files securely when I’m doing comics, and another FTP app on my iPad in case I really, really need to access my site to change something fast and there’s no other way.

4. Web authoring app – if you build and maintain your own, and don’t do it the hairy-chested way by writing your own HTML, this can be a time-consuming move if you have to make it. I use RapidWeaver 5, which is getting old but I don’t want to upgrade for various reasons. Knowing this version won’t last forever, I have Sparkle on standby in case I haven’t found a better RW alternative by then and I need to move content across fast. If RW croaked today, I could get a Sparkle site going in a few hours until I sorted out something longer-term. I’ve already had third-party plug-ins suddenly cease to function in RW and bork individual pages, so I’m ready.

5. Layout/ design/ graphics – this might not apply to you, but if you rely on design apps, you’ll need to know which file formats to save stuff in so you can open documents and work on them in the backup app. If you use Adobe Creative Cloud, you might sleep better with an alternative ready to roll. I remember the time when the servers went down and magazines were left stranded on deadline, but I’m not even talking about connection issues – one day you simply might find you can’t afford the subs any longer but all your files are saved in formats that won’t open elsewhere. I have a selection of free and paid-for apps that I could switch to, although I’d probably need to start over from the source docs – Scribus, Acorn, Graphic, Affinity Designer, Affinity Photo, Pixel, and a few others. I’m also waiting for the new version of Vellum to come out, which will be able to handle print layouts as well as e-books. It’s not InDesign, but it’ll let me take a Word master document and get a printable/ distributable file out the door if all else fails.

My recovery plan isn’t perfect. There’s nobody more wedded to Scrivener than I am, and to do the preparation right, I’d output everything I wrote in Scrivener each day as a Word doc. But that’s a huge amount of work on a daily basis. If Scrivener vanished for some unknown reason, I could switch to DEVONThink, which is a document management app that I use for collating my research, but it can also be used to write novels and other long documents with multiple parts. The question is how I would extract the data already in Scrivener in the event of a serious crash on a deadline, i.e. saved as .scriv files, and that’s where a physical backup comes in. If you have the file saved, you can get at your data. On a Mac, you can view package contents of a .scriv file to show Files/Docs, and in the documents folder you’ll see everything as .rtf, .txt, .pdf, and so on. It’s a bit cumbersome to reconstruct a project that way, but having had to do it once, I can assure you it’s not only possible but you’ll be glad of it.

So how far do you go with physical backups? Parangosky might think she’s got paranoia down to a fine art, but she looks like a carefree kid compared to me. I don’t even trust hardware. Built-in redundancy is where it’s at. Hold my beer.

1. Spare Mac and a spare Windows machine. (Also Linux, but that’s really for the end of the world.)

2. Daily boot clone copied to an external drive, for those serious Andrex events. (That’s the entire system, remember.)

3. TimeMachine copying to another external drive. (For Windows folk, that’s a normal backup, i.e. files, not system as well.) I take that drive with me when I leave the house for more than a quick walk down the road to buy a pint of milk.

4. DropSync backing up critical folders to separate SD cards automatically every time they’re changed. Those drives are formatted so that I can open them on Win or Mac. One always goes with me whenever I leave the house. I can rebuild my entire business from a single card – it contains all my writing output, website files, admin, and essentials.

I also keep hard copies of all my books in different formats. It takes up space, but you can’t rely on a publisher to keep a file – seriously, you can’t – or even be willing to give it to you if they have. Unbelievable, but true: I wanted author copies of e-books for archive reasons so that I had a complete record of what was actually published in each edition, but one big publisher refused to give them to me, and another stalled me indefinitely. They cost nothing except a little effort.

The moral of this whole piece is that nobody will look after your business interests like you do. Don’t entrust your critical data solely to a third party or rely on luck. Take responsibility for it, make sure you have it in your physical possession in a form that you can access on a different system or in a different app if the worst happens, and exercise for disaster from time to time. Rehearse exactly what you’d do if any part of your system fell over. How soon could you be up and running again?

It doesn’t take a zombie apocalypse to screw years of hard work. Just software going belly up or a drive dying on you can do it. Be prepared!