Saturday, March 21, 2009

Back it Up

Always keep an extra copy of your work. Always.

You would think that this piece of advice is so obvious that it needn't even be mentioned; however, I have to admit that I have often neglected to do this.

A few years ago, I received a long-awaited letter from a publisher that I had queried asking for a complete manuscript. Of course, I was ecstatic and wanted to send the novel back to them as quickly as possible. When I went to print the pages, however, I couldn't find the final two chapters. Panicked, I searched the hard-drive of my computer, the disks that I'd saved to (okay, it was more than a few years ago!), and even the hard copies that I'd printed off earlier. Nothing. So I had to scramble to reconstruct the final pages of the book. Because a year had elapsed since the initial query and the request for the complete manuscript, I had forgotten much of what I had originally written, and I had to improvise. That is a week I hope that I never have to relive!

I wish I could say that was my only experience with not properly backing up my work, but it wasn't. I've made the same mistake again (with the same results!) But I'm hoping that you learn from my mistakes. Back up frequently.

Backing up data can be deceptively simple. After all, what's easier than plugging a junk drive into your computer and then dragging the files from your desktop onto the junk drive? And yet, this is how mistakes get made. Replacing one file with another of the same name is a sure-fire way to get yourself into trouble. Not only may you unwittingly erase the file you intended to save but, more commonly, you will end up deleting your writing history. That is, you erase the trail of edits that you've made from your original story to your current document.

For example...
Let's say that you are working on the story, "Mary in the Snow". On Monday, you write three pages. On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, you write nothing. Then the next five days, you work some more on your story, changing the introduction, the names of the characters, and so forth. Now another week elapses, and you're having second thoughts. Should you have made the changes to the characters' names? Should you have changed the introduction? If you've simply saved one copy of the story over and over again, you can't go back to read what you initially wrote. That information is lost.

My recommendation is to save the story each time you work on it, using a different name to mark your progress. For example, "MarySnow_3-21-09" and "MarySnow_3-22-09" and so forth. This way, if you want to look back at something you wrote, you can easily do so.

The downside to this is that it takes up a lot of space on your hard drive (or junk drive). But, unless you are 100% confident that you will never be needing those earlier pieces, backing up in this fashion is the best way to go.

Learn from my mistakes! Back up your work. Use a junk drive to keep your files and keep a second junk drive in a secure location (I have a fire-proof safe that I use). Sound paranoid? It just might be. But isn't it worth keeping all of those hours worth of work safe?

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go back up my files.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Writing Contests

Back when I was first beginning to write, I entered a short story contest sponsored by The Writer magazine. I paid the fee, mailed my story, and waited for my prize. Yes, I was just that green and that vain to think that my work would actually win. Needless to say, it didn't. The story, I now realize, was terrible in the way that only first stories can be; however, since that time, I've never entered another contest.

But I have been curious about them. Many times, after reading the bio of an author who has won a prize, I've wondered if I should enter a contest again. Certainly the credentials of winning a contest gives an author's credentials a boost. And in some instances, prize-winning entries are printed in anthologies.

Part of the problem with contests, however, is trying to find them. Usually, you run across information on a contest after the deadline has passed. Additionally, it is easy to get sucked into scams posing as competitions in which writers are pressured into buying an anthology of the contest's 'winners'. That's where Moira Allen's, Writing to Win: the Colossal Guide to Writing Contests enters in.

Generally, it is my philosophy to not pay for what you can get for free. That is why, in previous posts, I've recommended visiting online sources for market information as opposed to subscribing to a magazine or buying a book. However, I have yet to find an online compendium of writing contests that compares to the one compiled by Ms. Allen. Because its listing are organized by writing type (poetry, short fiction, nonfiction, books, scripts and screenplays) and also by deadline (so that the author knows when to submit her work), Writing to Win is easy to use. And, with over three-hundred pages of listings, the book is probably as close to comprehensive as any resource like this can be.

Writing to Win isn't just about listing contests; it offers plenty of good advice about how to prepare a story for submission as well pointers on how to determine whether a competition is legitimate or not. The book doesn't claim to offer writers a 100% guaranteed way to win (I wouldn't recommend it if it did!), but what it does do is shed some light on how contests work and how writers can best present their work. If you are at all interested in entering writing competitions, then I recommend this book.


Writing to Win: the Colossal Guide to Writing Contests by Moira Allen, is published by Vinegar Hill Press, copyright 2008. The book retails for $16.95 and can be purchased by visiting at or from