How I Survived Terminal Computer Malfeasance While Editing My Novel

It’s interesting to me how varied our editorial processes have been here on the Debutante Ball. Louise had the more conventional experience, with an extensive edit letter and line edits. Jennifer had two conversations that made an edit letter unnecessary. Mine? Well, mine was nothing less than a gothic horror story — albeit one with a fairytale ending.

Allow me to explain.

When my editor bought my book it was already late June, and she wanted to get it on the Summer 2016 list, so we needed to work fast. Instead of an edit letter, she sent me a short email asking me to revise with one thing in mind:  making the ending more of a surprise. Fortunately, this wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be, and I sent her the revised manuscript a few days early. Things were going great! I was a professional author who makes her deadlines with ease! And I loved my editor!

Next I got her line edits, which came with a lengthy email pointing out my many annoying writing tics (apparently I like to start sentences with “But”. A lot.) and 191 comments in Track Changes asking me to make characters’ emotions clearer and fix plot and pacing issues. I had about a month, and it took every waking moment of that time, but I didn’t mind because they were fantastic. My editor fixed problem scenes with just one word. My writing got sharper, deeper, and less gimmicky. Things were going great! I was a professional author who takes criticism with aplomb! And I loved my editor!

When I was done I saved the manuscript for the 47,596th time, went to email it to my editor — and it was gone.

Let me repeat that, just to allow the epic horror to sink in: MY NOVEL WAS GONE.

My computer is the devil.

Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration — but only slight. I still had a version of my novel. Unfortunately, it was the version I had before I made any of the massive changes my editor had requested. The ones that had taken me weeks to do. The ones that made my book something I’d never thought I could write. The ones that were due in literally five minutes. Somehow, for reasons I’ll never understand but probably have to do with the electromagnetic condition that runs in my family and prevents any of us from wearing watches without stopping them within days, my computer had not saved my document for weeks, while deviously pretending it had.

If you’re a writer, you can imagine what I felt in that sickening moment of realization. Here is what I did, in chronological order: (1) screamed FUUUUUUCK!!! really loudly, (2) cried, (3) had a full-blown anxiety attack, (4) called Microsoft (they said there was nothing to be done), (5) called Apple (they said it was a lost cause), (6) sent an email to my editor trying to explain, in as professional a manner as a completely hysterical person is capable of explaining, that all my changes had disappeared and I’d have to start over so I wouldn’t make my deadline and in fact the Summer 2016 publication date was probably also in jeopardy, and (7) sent a desperate email to my fellow Debutantes.

Number 7 was the only smart thing I did that day. My fellow Deb Jennifer S. Brown (the “S” stands for “Savior”), our technical guru, calmly talked me through a byzantine process by which I found a file, deep in the bowels of my evil computer, that had all my recent edits (suck it, Apple and Microsoft tech support people!!). The catch was that it was riddled with characters like ##?%!$$@!!, plus a bunch of random Chinese characters, and all pagination, paragraph indents, and fonts were gone.

It was now three hours past my deadline. I needed to go through every line of my 110,000 word novel deleting all the random characters and reinserting all the paragraph indents, fonts, and punctuation. But I didn’t care. At least I had my changes.

Here is the email I sent my editor: “I found a copy of the complete manuscript with all my latest revisions in the Temporary Folder on my400_WHISKEY SCOTCH BOURBON SHOTS PACK OF 2 computer.  Unfortunately, it’s in a format riddled with bizarre characters, so I am going to have to manually delete all the excess characters, reinsert paragraph indentations, etc.  I’m going to drink a shot of bourbon and get to work.”

Here is her response:  “Oh my god, what a horror! THANK YOU for doing it manually and I’d make that shot a double.”

Did I mention I love my editor? I love my editor.

Fourteen hours, one sleepless night, and countless bourbons later, it was done. And the moral of this fable? Well, there are several.

First:  NEVER trust a computer. Forget all that “singularity”/Turing test bullshit; they are all out to get us. Save your manuscript to Dropbox every night. Every. Night.

Second:  Sometimes, when bad shit happens, good shit also happens, and the people you think are going to write you off as a flaky lunatic actually understand and support you (I love my editor!).

Third:  Jennifer S. Brown is a goddess.

(Now go open a Dropbox account.)

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After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

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This article has 6 Comments

  1. Good Grief, you are amazing Heather!! This is why, I love/hate computers…..I would absolutely loose it if I had that happened to me! I only had to write professional reports that were due for meetings the next morning. Love?…..because they are way better than yellow legal pads written in pencil — even with the help of erasers. But hours till a deadline and even the tech support folks couldn’t help you, eeek! Hate? because I forget to save stuff too, and am not at all good with tech stuff….and thank goodness to friends who have gotten me through just miniscule things that did not even begin to compare to your dilemma. Wow, so glad you got through this, and I agree —never trust a computer!!

  2. I need to frame this on my wall and point to it every time someone in my family scratches his or her head to me and says, “You did WHAT to your computer?” I’ll say, “See! Heather thinks I know what I’m doing!”

    So happy this is now a funny story instead of a tragedy!

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