William Andrews: It’s Friday the 13th, and in the spirit of bad luck said to occur on such days I offer this tale as my first MCW blog. May this and all your days be lucky.
In early October of 2016 I was nearly 100 pages into a new mystery and feeling satisfied. I was in a different fictional world from that of my first three mysteries, trying something new in characters, setting, and point of view. With the text up on my screen I took a break to check email. One from FedEx had just arrived, with an attachment. I don’t open attachments unless I know the sender, but of course I knew FedEx and was in fact expecting a delivery from them. So I hit on the attachment. You guessed it: an ominous message instantly popped up on my screen to inform me (I’ve repressed the exact wording) that my computer was frozen and that I could unfreeze it only by paying a ransom, in Bitcoins. I told myself this couldn’t be, but as I moved application by application through the computer I found all my files were frozen. The nightmare I had read about had come to me.
The next several days passed in a rush of fruitless activity as I consulted techie friends, local computer experts, even the sheriff’s office. All agreed I was without a way out, including paying a ransom, which is universally considered useless. But I calculated mine at around $39 (who would go to such trouble for that paltry sum?) and decided the odds favored at least trying that route. Even that recently, Bitcoin was not a widely available form of exchange, and my most frustrating experiences over the next week were trying to buy some. Using my back-up computer I shopped around and ultimately found a site deemed trustworthy. In some ways it was tootrustworthy because it required so many levels of security that I spent hours, literally, going through the requisite steps. Finally I secured the Bitcoins—or the code that verifies I owned them. Following the instructions from the initial ransom statement I paid up. And then waited for the promised code that would unlock my machine.
Needless to say, it never came. The contents of my computer remained beyond my reach. In addition to the text of the new mystery, I lost a year of financial records, many photos, and more emails than I can bear to think about. I had backed up some files to thumb drives, but the new mystery was simply gone. How had I been so stupid? Perhaps the pleasure of the new writing numbed me to the risk and I blithely plowed along. I really don’t know why I hadn’t taken minimum precautions with the new prose, but there it was. Friends of a literary turn were eager to remind me of famous examples of writers who lost manuscripts and had to start over. Hadley Hemingway left a suitcase of Ernest’s early stories on a train. T.E. Lawrence left the manuscript of Seven Pillars of Wisdomin a café at a train station. Perhaps most famously, Thomas Carlyle asked his friend John Stuart Mill to review the manuscript of his French Revolutionand then learned that Mill’s maid had mistaken it for waste and burned it. Carlyle started over from scratch and eventually published his masterpiece. None of this was particularly comforting.
I felt violated, but mostly I felt stupid. I couldn’t think about the lost work. I had extensive notes (on paper!), and of course I remembered in a general way what I had written. But I simply could not sit down to write it again. I subscribed to a cloud service to do automatic back-ups and I bought and religiously used thumb drives to preserve other work. But writing—nope, couldn’t do it.
Then seven or eight months ago, more than a year after the hack, I told myself it was now or never. I sat down at the computer and started to write. I’m now through the point in the original when the hack occurred and more or less on my way to finish. I save it to the thumb drive hour by hour even though the cloud service claims to be doing so for me. The experience was harrowing and made me even edgier and more paranoid than I normally am. But at least I’m writing again. Friends assure me the new work will be better than the original, something like a second draft guaranteed to be superior. Maybe. That’s to be determined. But for now, I’m trying to learn from my mistake. What’s the lesson? Obviously: Back Up! Everything! All the time! Expect the worst to happen and you won’t be disappointed. When you have no one to blame but yourself, it’s a bit hard to come to terms with failure. All you can do is emulate Carlyle—and start writing again. And relentlessly backing up!