A Writer’s Primer on Computer Care and Feeding

We’re in the midst of NaNo, and I’m reminded of several instances where the moan of “I just lost everything!” was heard. I’ve talked with writers who’ve lost entire manuscripts. Others that lost hours or days of work due to various issues. So, quick technical primer.

Work stably.

Make sure your computer works, that the operating system is patched regularly, and that you aren’t filling it up with “cool stuff I downloaded.” Then, if you have a desktop computer, make sure it has a battery-backed UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply).. A flicker’s long enough to throw a desktop into memory chaos. Or, worse, mess up the storage disk. They’re heavy, cost about $90 (here’s the one that I’ve used for years), and, if everything’s plugged in correctly, you have enough time to close up everything and power down normally. (Pro tip: plug the desktop and your primary monitor into the UPS’ powered sockets so you can see what you’re typing!) To avoid mumbo and its twin brother jumbo, a 650Kw UPS will hold everything up and running for at least the five minutes you’d need to cleanly power things down. If you have a laptop I still recommend a UPS, but you’d be served well by merely having a serious power spike protector. Nothing will stop a lightning strike, but it should keep other static on the power line from messing with your adapter.

Work safely.

Think of your writing environment the same way a chef looks at a kitchen before starting work. There’s a lot of nasty germs, and sloppy cleaning habits, and who knows what else. At a minimum, have a real anti-virus product that (a) scans files for infections, and (b) can safeguard your network connection. It doesn’t need backup (I’ll get to that below). It doesn’t need to check each web site you go to to assess its safety. Check for viruses on files on your disk and incoming, and make sure your computer’s connection to the internet is safe. There’s a bunch of vendors, but I’ve been happy with Norton so that’s what I use for that, and for managing my passwords.

Work securely.

That means being secure that the story you’re writing will be there when you need it (or even accidentally delete it!),. Get software that copies what you write to the cloud. The goal is that if your computer goes up in smoke, your writing, at least, is safe. That’s the vague, amorphous thing that we old-timers know as “a server with a disk somewhere else on the planet.” Microsoft offers it. I use Dropbox because it’s easy to recover a manuscript I’ve accidentally mangled but good. Some are free with a cost for more storage. I have a free Dropbox account because, frankly, manuscripts just don’t take up much room. I use Microsoft’s OneDrive for that, and other stuff. Apple’s icloud also works, and I use it as well.

Optional: Work secretly.

I don’t like Google and Comcast and their ilk tracking what I do research on. I can’t help but think that there’s a profile of me as a bomb-making, murder-planning, gun-crazed psychopath just based on my research for books. (Followed by another profile of me as an astronaut interested in biological warfare and kinetic weapons.) Ads get targeted based on what you look at. The solution is a two (or three)-parter: hide your activity from your internet provider, and then hide what you look up from your search engine. So:

  • Look at a commercial, for-pay VPN software package. They’re simple to install and use, and usually one license gets you three computers to cover, which include phones. NordVPN and IPVanish are two of the currently popular ones, and you’re looking at ~$75 for the subscription. If you want something that doesn’t encrypt your text, but still hides where you go, go to 1.1.1.1 and get a free setup that at least hides what you do from the company providing you network access. means only google, for example, knows the contents of your search.
  • Every time you search, it gets integrated into your “profile” that the search engine then sells to advertisers. Or, who knows, maybe even to the black-hatted shadow, deep-state government that’s watching you from its black helicopters spraying chem trails! Regardless, there’s easy ways to look things up without having your searches tracked. I use duckduckgo.com, which is simply google but with a filter that doesn’t allow your computer’s activity to be linked to your searches.
  • For extra special paranoia you can use the Tor browser, instead of your usual Google, Safari, Firefox, or Edge browser. Tor encrypts everything everywhere to everyone from everyone. It’s a lot slower than a normal browser, and it doesn’t block ads like other browsers can.

Work silently.

Not you, your environment. So:

  • If you can handle writing with music, keep that app up. Close all other apps, including your browser if you can. You can always put research into its own block of time.
  • Windows has an irritating notifications “capability.” It’s the ultimate in interrupt-driven information. If you’re afflicted with Windows 10, go to the notification settings and turn off everything that doesn’t need to be on. And that (especially) includes Facebook, twitter, and their ilk.
  • If you’re keeping a browser open, get an ad blocker on it. That should keep the distractions down. I use AdBlock Plus, which is free. There are others.

Work succinctly.

All right, that was a stretch usage of “succinctly.) Use the minimum tools to get the job done and distractions at the minimum.

  • One writing tool to bind them all.  Choose Word ($$), or OpenOffice (free). Or yWriter (free). Or Scrivener ($$). Heck, or Notepad (free). But the fewer the better. Moving text from one app to another is a sure-fire way to lose or scramble hard-written words. I use Scrivener, FWIW.
  • Helper tools:
    1. I use Aeon ($$) for timelines, and Freemind (free) for sketching out plot directions and consequences and most other mind mapping needs. Google Earth Pro does my geographic work (Fun fact, it works on the Moon as well!)
    2. Put interrupts into a parking lot. I use Trello (free) to write down “ooh, I need to do this…” things. Free, good for putting a to-do list together for multiple topics and projects. Has a mobile app. Free. That way you don’t have the excuse of “I’ll just do this one thing…” to sabotage up your writing commitment.
    3. Longer ideas? Consider either having a separate [word processor of your choice] document open just for snippets and other ideas. That way they don’t derail you. Or use Evernote (free), for as long as it’s still in business.

There. A longer post than I expected. But hopefully it’ll help you have a stable, clean, and calm environment in which to focus on Writing.

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