Blaming my tools

I was going to talk about my new sooper seekrit plan to release and market Unification Chronicles today, but I experienced some technical difficulties recently that I just have to rant about. We’ll get to the business plan stuff, I promise. Eventually.


For quite some time now, my writing system has been relatively simple and has served me well. I have a notebook in Evernote for each of my major projects. In each, I have various support materials along with a note for the manuscript itself. In this note, I have the outline for the book in plain text and a .docx file attachment for the manuscript. When it comes time to edit, I open the note, double click on the attachment and edit the document. Evernote is smart enough to update the note/attachment every time the file I’m working on is saved (it’s in a temp folder on my hard drive, but that doesn’t usually matter). I also keep my progress spreadsheets in similar notes and work on them in a similar way.

Until yesterday, this system worked flawlessly. I have Evernote on every PC I use: my work desktop and laptop, my personal netbook, my iPhone. It all works great. Right up until it doesn’t.

A while back, I upgraded my netbook to use the new Evernote 3.5 beta. Keep in mind, here, that I used to be a professional software developer. I would never trust my writing to something in the alpha stage of development, but a beta is supposed to be relatively stable, just not feature complete (see the Windows 7 beta as an example). Evernote has made it clear that they will not be supporting 3.1 very long after 3.5 is officially released, so I figured I may as well start getting used to it. So I installed 3.5 Beta 4(!) and set about my work.

Yesterday, the unthinkable happened. Somehow, as I was opening the note containing my manuscript, the attachment for my manuscript completely disappeared! I wasn’t able to undo, and the desktop synced the change back to the server, so I wasn’t able to pull the attachment from any of my other Evernote clients. It was just gone. Nothing in the trash in Evernote, just gone. 57,000 words of fiction, nearly 60 hours of work.

I scoured my hard drive looking for a backup or copy of the file. In the third place I looked, I found something that looked promising, and was able to get the file back. If that hadn’t worked, I would have been forced to reconstruct it from emails sent each day to my beta readers.

Psst, programmers. Yeah, you. C’mere. You NEVER, EVER screw with the user’s data! A friend of mine pointed out that I was using beta software, but ANY bug that can irretrievably destroy a user’s data should never have made it past alpha stage! I’ll accept a beta program crashing, but I will NEVER be okay with it trashing my data!

/whacks Dave Engberg in the head

So I decided to take my data elsewhere. If I can’t trust Evernote to never, ever lose my data, I can’t trust it at all. What else is out there?

A lot of people recommend Dropbox. So if figured, sure, I’ll give it a go. I installed it on my netbook, and hey, so far, so good. The UI is clean and efficient, and it doesn’t seem to kill my Via CPU netbook (it predates the Atom, we’re talking stone age netbook). Documents saved to folders inside the “dropbox” folder on my desktop are automatically synced both to the cloud and any other PCs I have linked to my Dropbox account. Feels a lot like Microsoft’s Live Mesh, only about a kajillion times faster.

And it worked great until I got to work this morning and tried to install it on my office PC. Evernote works fine over my corporate proxy server. It uses the same proxy settings as Internet Explorer, set up in the Control Panel, so it never even asked. It just worked. And while Dropbox claims to do the same, it doesn’t work. Nor does it work if I manually set up the proxy settings in Dropbox itself, which it does allow for (Seesmic for Windows doesn’t, which is why I can’t use it at the office). No matter what I do, I can’t get Dropbox to connect to the cloud through our corporate network goblins. Stupid goblins.

So that’s two highly regarded file sync solutions blown out of the water by my particular circumstances. I don’t trust Evernote anymore—even after downgrading it back to 3.1, because I know I can’t keep 3.1 indefinitely—and I can’t use Dropbox on the PC where I spend half my waking hours. So what’s left?

Sadly, the only thing that comes to mind is good old Sneakernet. I have a 2GB thumbdrive on my keychain, and for now, I’m just going to put everything on there, and periodically use Microsoft’s SyncToy to back it up to the Dropbox folder on my netbook. That way I can access my files on any PC—well, any PC that uses Microsoft Office 2007, because I’m not giving up Word; I’ve tried Google Docs and found it lacking—and as long as I remember to run SyncToy every so often, they’ll get backed up to both my netbook hard drive and the cloud. It’s an inelegant solution, because it relies on my markedly undependable wetware to remember to back it up, but that’s all I’ve got. Every other solution I know of doesn’t meet my requirements: support my corporate network, run on both the iPhone and Windows, and be safe and dependable.

How do you store your working manuscripts?

4 thoughts on “Blaming my tools”

  1. Note I am a current programmer, so this answer is beyond nerdy. I use mercurial, a distributed version control system. Works on every OS I need (it’s written in python) and keeps history of changes with me being able to mark what changes I made with comments so I can see “oh I edited the scene about x”.

    Note it works a LOT better if you use a text based format instead of ones with binary (think old doc was fairly binary, not sure about docx as most people I’ve ever asked don’t seem to even use it).

    On one hand it probably is not as easy (theoretically) as evernote or dropbox, on the plus side it’s open source and I have utter control of all phases of backup/etc. I just push my changes to my desktop and can then pull them from there onto any computer that can access it. This lets me make commits so I can track changes (and easily revert) even without network, and when I finally do have connectivity with access to home, can push them there (or you could set up a server somewhere with locked down mercurial repo as the central repo).

    Not for everyone but I <3 it. Of course I also use Vim as my text editor for novel writing (though I may switch to emacs soon…)

  2. Hey there,

    I thought evernote was designed for note-taking and not as a “document repository”. In my mind, evernote wasn’t meant for lots of edits like you seem to be doing. That doesn’t explain your loss in any way of course!

    I’m asking because I’m involved in a similar project,
    I am not sure whether it is a good idea to add an attachment feature to it.

    I look at Logging It as a tool that lets you collect facts. Other writing (like you documents) would be developed based on the service, not within the service. That way it is similar to evernote (but I think/hope the interface is easier).

    See you,


  3. Actually, being able to edit attachments in place is one of Evernote’s selling points for their premium service. And I hasten to point out I’ve never had a problem with 3.0/3.1. But the prospect of being forced to upgrade to 3.5 scares the bejeebus out of me.

  4. I use a combination of Evernote (for notes and links, it gets too slow when I include files) and Dropbox (for the files). If I were you I'd contact Dropbox support team to make it work. It has saved me several times, so I can't stop recommending it. I wrote about the last one:“ target=”_blank” rel=”nofollow”>

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