I’VE LOST EVERYTHING! And how do I prove it was mine in the first place?

Remember the days when a pad and a pencil were all you needed to record your thoughts? I have boxes holding notebooks of short stories, poems, high school and college papers. I still like to carry a small journal with me, to doodle pictures and scribble words, jot down an address or a reminder to revisit a great restaurant.

Recently a friend asked, “what if you lose it somewhere?”

“Well… I won’t? I hope?” My journal belongs in a behemoth shoulder bag, along with my wallet, photos of my children, cell phone, iPod, keys, lipgloss… the important things. One does not tend to forget, leave behind, or lose a brightly colored bag the size of a Thanksgiving turkey.

“You should get one of those electronic writing thingies,” he decided.

“You worry I’ll lose a clump of bound paper, but an expensive, theft-targeted, electronic tablet is safer how?”

He rolled his eyes. “You can back up all your information in case you lose the tablet.”

* * * *

List the ways a writer can save and protect written work and I’ll give you a list of ways that work can be lost.

Paper: Flies away, burns, lands in a mud puddle, is eaten by a bully, gets shredded, and numerous other John-Hughes-movie-style losses.

Zips: Once we used floppies, then RW-CDs, and now zip drives. These items can meet the same fate as paper (except, with hope, being eaten) but face additional hazards as well. Stepped on, cracked, melted, crumbled, data erased and rewritten, lost, stolen, or most likely left in a computer other than your own.

Files saved directly to device: This is the quickest, simplest way to save your work. No carbon footprint, no leaves of paper or flimsy disks. Perfectly neatly organized, virtual files of .doc and .pdf safety. A few introductions before we proceed: desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone… meet spilled cup of tea. Meet toddler, short fall off table, cat, bathtub, thief at coffee shop. Meet airport security.

Off-device, off-site, off-shore: There are companies that accept any information you send and hold it… like a virtual safety deposit box. However, you need to remember to update those savings whenever you make changes. All the while hoping their servers don’t crash, they aren’t hacked, and that they stay in business during these difficult financial times. Oh, and you need to keep paying them to protect what is yours. Don’t forget a payment, or what is yours can be taken away.

There is hope, dear writer friends! It is in the form of the most often used electronic communiqué. If something on your computer is worth saving (manuscripts, photos, resumes, scanned documents) you should be saving it in this special place. When I unveil this secret yet oh-so-obvious place you will smack your forehead, and I’m pretty sure you’ll say “duh”. (I know, because I did the same a few years back when an IT friend pointed this all out to me.)

Ready? ELECTRONIC MAIL.

That’s it, plain, simple, email. Send everything you absolutely must save to a long-standing, reputable, economically indestructible email account. Best non-security feature… it’s free! Companies like Google and Yahoo have more server and saver capacity than all the planets of the Milkyway could possibly need, along with the financial backing to remain in such standing. Do it now… send yourself an email. Just a little sweetness like, “Hey, you look great in those flannel jammies!”

Once you hit send, you’ll almost immediately see it “arrive” in your in-box. Now, send an email with an attachment. Perhaps your inbox now holds a webcam photo of you… in those flannel jammies. Next attach, and send, all 652 pages of the manuscript on which you’ve spent the last two years working. Once it arrives, move it from your inbox to it’s own specially labeled folder.

You can access your email from any computer or smart-device at any spot on earth. That manuscript will not get lost. This is a case when you want to be in league with corporate giants. Stick with conglomerates, not small business or local service providers that are more likely to dissolve in shaky economies. To reinforce security, don’t use your personal daily email. Create a separate email account as a fortress of safety from which you do not connect to anyone but yourself. Spam filtering is a high priority for email service providers, but you can protect yourself even further. Do not have a contacts list, do not open incoming email (no one should have the address anyway, right?) and certainly do not open any chat or instant messaging.

You’re probably thinking this lecture of saving and safety is great information, but what does it have to do with editing? When you send your hard work out into the world of editors and agents and publishing houses, many things can happen. Copyright can be hard to prove prior to publication. Let us pretend for a frightening moment that your work is found/intercepted/stolen and is passed off as someone else’s work. Emailing to yourself creates a digital time stamp on everything you send and receive!

What if an editor requires a hard copy of my manuscript? Shudder… as in paper sent by postal service? Personally, I prefer a hard copy when I am editing, because I can scribble notes and modifications in my own handwriting. However, unless an author is placing that tightly stuffed manila envelope of hard work directly into my hands, there is cause for worry. I’m going to give you one final “duh”…

When you feel your work is ready to be seen by the world of editors and agents, in preparation for the dream of publication, print one extra copy. Sign and date many of the pages. Add a note including the information of time, date, purpose, and contents. Even add the front page of a newspaper, perhaps your picture holding that day’s newspaper. Put the manuscript and all the accompaniments into a mailing envelope, march yourself down to the post office, and (you guessed it!) mail that package to yourself. The postal stamps and package inserts will prove time and ownership.

“Really?” you ask. “Is it necessary to be that cynical?”

Honestly, I don’t believe there are people lurking about waiting to steal packages that may or may not be a manuscript when sent to an editor’s address. But I have seen far too many instances of information being lost due to a crashed computer. And I have seen the heartbreak of a young writer who finds an altered version of her story published by someone else.

J.K. Rowling herself has placed a protective spell over her future work by launching Pottermore.com just this week. At this time, to the viewing public, it is nothing more than a teaser site with publishing titles and her signature. The purpose of the website is speculative and millions of fans are anticipating the reveal. More than just a publicity stunt, it is an insurance policy. Recall, even Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter book series and subsequent mega-franchise, had to defend ownership of her own proven work in a 2008 court battle against a small publishing firm that set out to distribute an A-Z Harry Potter Lexicon based on a fan website.

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