Monday, June 16, 2014

On Losing a Manuscript

I suppose it could be deemed ironic that while working on a book about films that have gone missing, I lost my work. 
Photo: Sarah Wynne/Creative Commons License.

It’s not been very long since I returned from my writer’s residency, during which I completed the introduction and three chapters to my book—enough to begin sending out the samples required for a non-fiction proposal. To my horror, one of those chapters has now disappeared. The file is gone. It’s irretrievable, which I’m only just now admitting.

To make matters worse, the missing chapter is the one on which I spent most of my days during my residency, making me feel as if my time there was wasted. The section was on Drakula Halala, a lost Hungarian horror film, and the first to feature a character inspired by Stoker’s Dracula. I knew it would be a challenging entry in my book, so I chose it specifically to work on during my time of solitude in the cabin. I felt a major sense of accomplishment after completing it, because it had a lot of puzzle pieces, and I knew it was one of the most difficult chapters I would write.

So, what happened? I discovered the chapter’s absence when I started putting together my package to send to a publisher. (That step is on hold now, because the other sample chapters are not as strong without it.) I save all my work on Google Docs, where I’ve saved thousands of files. I’ve never had a problem with it, and appreciate that not only can I access my work online or off, but it saves automatically, even saving the previous versions of your work when you edit. Thanks to a glitch, my Drakula Halala file was deleted, and the previous versions disappeared along with it.

Normally, restoring an earlier version of a document is the simple way of restoring an accidentally-deleted file. Barring that, it’s usually found in the trash. Because I had the file opened in two different windows, it seems that I created confusion between the documents, and, not knowing which one to save, Google picked the blank file. It’s unlikely to happen again, as it required an elaborate series of goofy errors, and I know how to safeguard against them now. None of that will recreate my lost work.

While I regret not having downloaded my work immediately (it’s what I was doing when I deleted the file), I realize that almost no method of backing up your writing is 100% foolproof. A computer can be stolen. A house can burn down. Perhaps the only true safeguard would be to send duplicates of all your work to a secure and far-away location (not exactly practical for a freelancer like me with dozens of pieces in various stages of completion).

So, really, all writers risk the permanent loss of a work in progress to some degree.

It helps a little to know that it’s happened to others, and in much more devastating ways. I feel bad for lamenting my one chapter when Jean Genet had the entire manuscript of Our Lady of the Flowers confiscated in prison and destroyed. He simply started from the beginning and did it all again. Ernest Hemingway had a suitcase stolen from a train station in Paris in 1922 that contained everything he had written up to that date, including part of a novel. In my review of My First Book, I mentioned how Robert Louis Stevenson’s original map for Treasure Island was lost en route to the publisher and never found. While he recreated it, he admitted that the second version “was never Treasure Island to me.”

And that’s what gets me in the gut as I’ve gone through stages of grief. Yes, I went through a denial phase (“The file will turn up, somehow!”), and burned right through some anger and depression. Now I’m faced with the task of reconstruction, and it makes me nauseous. On the one hand, I know it can be done. After all, I did it before. On the other hand, I know what it took, and it took a lot, not to mention the fact that I wrote it during my residency, under ideal circumstances which I can not recreate now.

A friend advised me to put it back together a little bit at a time. It’s good advice for when I’m ready. I’m not ready. For now, my plan is to work on other things. I feel like I could face any chapter but that one. Eventually, I’ll write again about Drakula Halala. I’m sure it will be a perfectly fine chapter, but I’ll bet that, just like Stevenson, I’ll always know it’s not the same as what I did before.

Has your work ever been lost or destroyed? How did you handle it? Any advice for beginning again?


  1. This has happened to me, and more than once. It's a terrible sinking feeling when you realize the work is gone. This is why I know back up to three different media when I'm working on something.

  2. Working so hard on something like that, it's like a part of you. It's your blood sweat and tears. So yes losing something like this is devastating.

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  4. Once upon a time we had carbon paper.

    What a nightmare! I feel for you. I've lost manuscripts because of human error. Final and only copies lent to friends who were to give me their input. You'd think I would've had a copy made before lending. But I was young and utterly stupid once upon at time. I now keep multiple copies of everything on paper. And I always keep a hard copy of all drafts. I do not trust any form of electronic storage. I print EVERYTHING in all stages up to the final draft.

    As for starting over: I once lost a post on Blogger that had been published but then accidentally deleted. Using Google I managed to find a cached version of the first post. So I took several screenshots of it and painstakingly retyped the entire thing. I don't suppose there are cached versions of Google Documents, are there?

  5. So sorry that this has happened, I just backed up a comic I've been working on for a while before discussing this subject. I lost a several pages that had taken me a year in little bits of time in a computer crash of my own making changing operating systems. Now I back up to a hard-drive, CD and hard copy.

    The good side of my crash is I have spent a great deal of time rethinking the lost pages, and I am now happier with the current pages. I think of those earlier pages now as rough drafts.

  6. Oh, that's happened to me in the past, but not nearly in such a catastrophic way - almost on route to a publisher. Yegads. My heart goes out to you, Kelly. I'm so sorry. Didn't Freud lose a whole pile of important paperwork when his dog ate it or shredded it or something? I remember there was a famous quote about it - but of course I can't remember. Yes, it's happened to many, I think. Does that help? Probably not.

  7. That's a scary story--an event that I often fear. I try to remember to save my work in multiple places just in case. When I was finishing out my college degree several years ago I lost a few completed papers and had to go back to try to remember what I had written. My rewrites never seemed quite as good as my brilliant originals.

    Tossing It Out