On the inevitable heartache of lost data

One of the spoof haiku error messages that frequently do the rounds, one that I particularly remembered for its somewhat passive-aggressive tone, reads:

Three things are certain:
Death, taxes, and lost data.
Guess which has occurred.

A week ago, I booted up Open Office and launched my 2nd draft only to be told the file, stored on a handy USB memory stick, was corrupted and unreadable.

As always happens, I had become blasé about backing up my work and the last back up I could find was about 15k words shorter than what I remembered having reached. Or, almost a third of the second draft – gone.

Or, as another of the haiku puts it:

With searching comes loss
And the presence of absence:
“My Novel” not found.

So:

Having been erased,
The document you’re seeking
Must now be retyped.

A contributor on the LinkedIn writers’ groups I frequent (alas, I forget who) wrote a post about how he found that losing his work inspired him to do better with having to retype it. The explanation he gave was that he only remembered the good bits, and replaced the bad bits with better bits – thus, the second attempt would be better than the first.

I have the opposite. I am convinced when I have to redo work that the work I have lost was better. I remember it being good, but not why, or how to reproduce that, so I fear that I have merely created an average imitation of greatness, rather than surpassed my former effort. When I have my previous work to hand and can compare, I can see what needs improving and improve it. Alternatively, I can ignore it until I’ve done the second attempt and then compare and see what worked best.

When the file is lost, however, I have only the memory of feeling good about my work, and nothing to prove that it was actually no better or worse than anything else I’ve done.

For this reason, redoing work that is lost is an extraordinarily painful experience (and not in the fun, masochist, way). I know the work must be done, otherwise I will fail. Sometimes even that thought has not been enough and the comparison between the lost work and what I replace it with is so discouraging that I give up. It hurts to feel the loss of the (possibly imagined) beauty. One of the reasons I resolved to finish this novel is precisely so that when these losses occur, I could remind myself of that resolve and do whatever it takes to push past the heartache.

Maybe others will see the redone work and think it wonderful. Maybe they will be right. But in my heart, I will compare that with what I suspect their reaction might have been had they seen what is lost.

In this case, lost were three significant scenes or sequences: a significant confrontation between lead and antagonist; the introduction of a major element that has the capacity to cause upheaval for the central relationships; and a really hot sex scene. All of these were, of course, absolutely brilliant and a huge improvement on the first draft versions. I remember how vivid everything seemed, how engaged and direct. Now it all seems a little bit grey and drab, even though I am imagining the same scenes in more or less the same way.

Of course, Chris Brecheen presents an argument that this is a good thing: Art did me a favour (no, really – she did!) and that the pain and regret I feel are foolish – “I didn’t memory dump your skills. You haven’t forgotten everything you ever learned. I left you the emergency back ups. Your stories are intact. They need the tender ministrations that you now can give them.”

I try to remind myself that probably there was loads wrong with how I did it last time, and this time will be totally better because even in the few weeks since I wrote them, I have read more about the craft, I have practised more, I have more of an idea of what I want to do with it.

I also note that, had this not happened, I would probably have never got around to actually using Scrivener. Now that I have, and loaded all my previous drafts and research and notes and ideas into it, I find it suits my way of working very well and is an excellent tool. If I hadn’t lost my data, I wouldn’t have discovered this so quickly. (And it also has an easy system for creating back-ups, which hopefully means I will remember to do it more frequently.)

Yes, there are good things that come out of this. But still, the experience is one of loss.

And anyway, I already know I have to reread and tweak it for a third draft because when I glance at earlier bits to check consistency of story, I now see they are obviously needing improvement. So maybe I will recover that magic when I come back to it in a couple of months’ time.

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About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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