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Five ways to restore the ‘Unwritten Word’

posted in: Writing Life | 4
By: John Ward

It was written. Or so I thought.

I went to bed the night of Monday, Nov. 25, 2013, reveling in the satisfaction that I had completed a lengthy—and key—passage in my work in progress. I was satisfied I addressed everything that was necessary to the story, that I found the right words, devised the right ideas, and while editing was still needed, the meat of it was there. I could move on. The next day I talked up my triumph with writing friends and went home to happily continue on to the next scene.

I opened the laptop, clicked on the book file, and a lightning bolt split me in half. Horror of horrors. The text before me was … unraveled. Unwrapped.


That is to say, I screwed up. From what I can recall, on that Monday I had two files with the same name, each opened at the same time, and some hurried cutting and pasting, not saving, and then closing everything out in a hurry (I think I was late for work), acted to wipe out the entire passage. Four thousand words – closer, it turned out, to 5,000, because other passages were also lost. And because I work full time, months of weekend work was lost. I could bring up earlier versions of the WIP, but not earlier versions I cared to use as a new starting point.

I did everything a writer does in this situation: I cried, I cursed. I sat in a daze staring out at nothing. Took a trip to the computer repair store to see if I could reset the time element in the computer back to an earlier point. Nothing worked.

It took me until mid-December to regroup and face the prospect of doing it all over again. The good part was I was only 12,000 words into the book—so I lost roughly half of what I had written. For me, tackling it sooner rather than later seemed the best route, while the scenes were still more or less fresh in my mind. I know some writers can whack out 5,000 words spinning on their head with one arm tied behind their back. I am not one of them. I had a stressful full time job and myriad family health problems to contend with at the time, and the words did not easily trip off my tongue, but stumbled across my brain in a drunken stupor. I was wading upstream. And the current was mighty.

My dilemma is one that comes up often at writer workshops in different forms. People ask for suggestions on how to get motivated to write when copy has been lost. Or when life gets in the way and it’s difficult to summon up the strength to continue the work.

I made several moves to motivate myself and plod on and I share these to spare someone else grief down the road:

  1. Switch out where you write. I once worked at a magazine where the graphic artists changed the furniture around in the studio after every issue, to acquire a new creative perspective for the next issue. We everyday people with computers and desks set firmly in place would find it harder to spin furniture around every few months, but perhaps a slight rearranging here and there can do the trick. The key is to refresh the space.  Since I have a laptop, I carted it into rooms I never wrote in, to clear out my brain.
  2. Write long hand. I am a believer that long hand brings about a different side of creativity, and that a different area of the brain switches on when there’s a pen in hand. When I faced difficult scenes, I sometimes grabbed a pen and pad, sat in a chair, and faced a different direction than I usually faced to get through it.
  3. Turn on the inspiration. Watch a show or movie in the genre in which you are writing, to help spur you on. Because I write fantasy, I kept Lord of The Rings switched on.
  4. Talk to people who will help you through the rough patch. Not your mother, not your hair stylist, unless they write. Not your casual friends who think you’re nuts to begin with. Your writer friends, who know your pain, will offer you the encouragement you need.
  5. Don’t quit. If it was important enough to write to begin with, the passage could be made even better. As angry and disheartened as I was – and although I hate to admit it – I was able to strengthen parts of this text the second time around.

How long did it take to restore those unwritten words? Here’s what I wrote on Facebook on May 28, 2014: “…except for a few sentences, I am done, DONE, going back over and re-writing those 5000 or so words I lost when I over-wrote the chapter file last November—onward, now…” Truth be told, the bulk of those initial 12,000 words have been reworked, but that key chapter of 4,000 words is still in place, put back together like a crossword puzzle.

The key when seeking motivation is to do the craft differently until the sparks become a full-blown inferno. I wrote continuously from a different angle and perspective to get those passages back, and while the episode is now a distant memory, I cringe at the thought of losing text again. Today I back up every stupid little thing I do … and there are plenty of ways to do this in the digital universe, from Google Docs to Dropbox to emailing each revision to yourself. The book has reached more than 100,000 words – I won’t even think about how devastating it would be to lose this now because of carelessness.

So cry and curse and stare into space when things go wrong but the bottom line is: Freshen up your space, get a pen, turn on the video, rearrange your favorite chair. And just write.

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Lorie Greenspan is a journalist with many horror stories about having to restore lost blocks of text and entire articles. She resides in Tamarac and is in the process of revising her book, hoping that nothing else is lost in the digital black hole.

4 Responses

  1. Warren Harry
    | Reply

    Oh my gosh some body said the magic word–hand writing. You mean, I think, pick up a ball point [ink pens are out] or a stick called a pencil [you do know what I mean at least I hope so]. I have been hand writing for a long, long time and it is completely different way of seeing your story. Sadly I can’t turn to someone else they have all gone on their own journey but by jeepers I can’t quit. DON’T LET ANYONE, NO ONE, NOT MOM, NOT THE KIDS, NOT THE GUY YOU DRINK COFFEE WITH OR ANYONE ELSE TALK YOU DOWN. I have several people who have tried to but I walk away.
    Any way I’ll shut up. But thanks for the moves.

  2. Greg Didsleusky
    | Reply

    Lori Greenspan’s article about losing 5,000 words in her novel and not giving up reminded me of a similar episode in my writing experience. I also lost a few thousand words in a novel I was writing. A thumb drive I was using went kapooty (stopped working), unable to retrieve my writings. Of course, I cried out in agony and shouted a few curse words. I didn’t give up. Just as Ms. Greenspan did, I finished my novel. I also have followed her five suggestions of motivation when a devastating obsticle blocks my adventure of writing.

  3. Tricia Pimental
    | Reply

    Author and speaker Elizabeth Sims is a huge proponent of using long hand. She made a great case for it when I heard her speak at FWA one year, and her book about writing goes into detail about using this tool. While I haven’t been able to totally get my pen around it, I use it on occasion. If nothing else, the time taken to write that way creates a desire to get back to the computer, and after all, that’s the idea.

  4. Lorie Greenspan
    | Reply

    Writing long hand has been a practice of mine for years. When I’m truly stuck I’ll reach for pen and paper. It has helped get through many rough patches. I’m glad some of my fellow writers feel the same. It’s really a lost art.

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