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Friends, if you’ve followed this blog, then you already know that I’m kind of obsessed with backup and storage solutions. I have backups of my backups of my backups. I use MS Onedrive, GoogleDrive, Dropbox, Carbonite. I have two dedicated MyBook drives that I swap out every quarter. One is never at my house, just in case something (like a fire) should happen so that I won’t lose all my data. I used online backup services, in my case, Carbonite. All these have served me well.
Recently, I had the idea, since USB flash drives were becoming so small and cheap, that I might want to have a storage solution right on my keychain. Now, I’ve talked about USB flash drives before. Specifically, the IronKey USB Flash Drive.
The IronKey is a very rugged USB flash drive. It provides military-grade encryption. It is waterproof and shockproof. It mounts as a CD which enables you to do some very interesting things with it and it even comes with a built in secure and anonymous web-browsers. The IronKey allows you to mount it as a read-only device, so it is the perfect tool to help troubleshoot a system you fear might be infected. The Ironkey offers a lot and I love mine. However, for my new purpose there were three problems with it. The first, is that it is the size of a normal USB stick. So it is a little large to throw on a keychain. I always have mine in my computer bag, but on a keychain? Don’t think so. Second, it is massive overkill for what I need. Third, it is expensive. All the fancy doo-dads it comes with cost a lot of coin and it turns out, you can give yourself a rough approximation for a lot cheaper. But the IronKey does what it does and does it well. My new flash drives were going to fall into the “want” category instead of the “need” column.
So I established some criteria for the new flash drive.
- They had to be small. Smaller than a normal key. If they were going to be on my keychain, I didn’t want to notice them.
- They had to be cheap. Less than $20. I already have loads of expensive tech and don’t need more. Plus, writers are poor and need cheap backup solutions.
- They had to be rugged. The last thing we want from a backup solution is to try and use it only to find out that it doesn’t work.
- They had to be somewhat secure, or have some method of locking the drive so that my data wouldn’t be out there if it got lost. (Turns out I was very prescient about this one, more on that later.)
- They had to hold at least 8GB. Now, this may seem like a lot given what we’re backing up. But honestly, it is getting hard to find newer USB drives that are smaller than 8 GB.
After doing some research and trolling about the interwebs, I settled on three likely candidates. The Verbatim Store ‘N’ Go Micro Plus. The Verbatim Tuff ‘N’ Tiny, and the Kingston Digital DataTraveler SE9. I’ve been using these for roughly two months now and while I haven’t particularly beat them up, all three were on my keychain (until recently) and worked flawlessly. I even did some extra testing like submerging my keys in a bowl of water for 60 seconds. Once I dried them off, all three drives functioned well. Also, I should note that I always unmounted the drives after use (I don’t like to live too dangerously with my data.) So here is my quick review of each one.
First up. The Verbatim Store ‘N’ Go Micro Plus. Now, surprisingly, this is the most expensive of the bunch. Chalking in at just under $15 for 8 GB on Amazon. I like that the drive has a small rubber cover that goes over the connectors. The cover fits snuggly and keeps the connectors protected. The body of the drive itself has a hole that fits on the keyring. But the body of the drive is plastic, so it theoretically could break and fall free. The drive was responsive and keeps working well. UPDATE: Noticed today that the drive had broken off on the keyring. The ring portion was still intact, as was the cover, but the drive itself was gone. Due to encryption, I’m not worried about my data being out there.
Next up, the Verbatim Tuff ‘N’ Tiny. The drive claims resistance to dust, water, and static discharges. It is really small, about the size of a quarter, I was amazed it could hold the information it does. The connectors have no cover, and that worried me a bit, since it was in my pocket with the keys and subject to getting scratched up. However, that never affected it. The Tuff ‘N’ Tiny also comes with a program called Vsafe100 that allows you to password protect a partition on the drive. You can then use it in any computer you want, you just need to execute that vsafe program, type in your password, and it unlocks the partition. It doesn’t have fancy encryption but it did offer some security in case the drive got lost. And here’s where we come to the part where the drive got lost. Sometime in the last week, the little lanyard that held the drive to my key ring, broke. I have no idea how, where, or when it happened. But the bottom line is that I no longer have the drive or my data. The good thing is, whoever finds the drive, can’t get to the data either because it is password protected by vsafe. Not bad, but the lanyard incident, makes that a deal-breaker for me.
The winner of my impromptu competition? The Kingston Digital DataTraveler SE9. While it doesn’t cover the connectors as well as the Store ‘N’ Go drive, it does provide some shielding for them. It is rugged. It is cheap. I went ahead and got way more space than I needed because it was so cheap. Wow! And the body of the drive itself fits onto the keyring, just like the Store ‘N’ Go. Except that the Kingston has a metal body, so it won’t break.
Also, keep in mind, that a little extra room does help, since you can run some programs directly from a USB drive. For instance, I have Scrivener loaded on all these and can run the program from the drive itself. So that’s a nice little bonus. Having some extra room lets you keep all your research on the drive as well as your story. And I would dearly love to put on some kind of bootable OS environment right from the drive as well. That will probably be my next challenge.
Now the downside of the Kingston and the Store ‘N’ Go is that they do not have security. No innate way to password protect the files on the drive or anything. So if you lose them, your data is just out there. That wasn’t acceptable to me and I found several solutions.
The first is Bitlocker. Bitlocker ships with the Pro version of Windows and allows you to encrypt and password protect an external drive. The problem is that many folks don’t have the pro version of windows.
Well, there’s an alternative. Truecrypt is a free, open-source, software package that provides on-the-fly encryption. So you can download Truecrypt, and quickly make an encrypted file, partition, or even encrypt the entire drive if you want. And it provides an easy way to lock your drive so that no one can get your data if it gets lost. The downside is that you’ll need Truecrypt loaded on each computer you want to read the drive on, but that’s not a concern if you’re only using the drive on your own machines. In the case of an emergency, you would have to load Truecrypt first to unlock the drive, but at least your data would be secure and you’d have a backup copy, right on your person. (UPDATE: Apparently TrueCrypt is no longer around).
Barring those solutions. MSWord allows you to password protect a file. Or you could always zip your data into a zip archive and password protect that. I chose to go for the Truecrypt solution.
In any case, hopefully, this post has given you some insight on just how inexpensive and versatile USB flash drives have become.
UPDATE: Since I originally wrote this article, the Ironkey and the Kingston Data Traveler are still going strong. The others either stopped working or physically broke. For my money, I’ve bought 2 more Kingston Data Travelers. They are inconspicuous on your keychain and are a solid backup source.
A friend of mine just started to get into fiction writing with an interest in writing commercial fiction professionally. He asked me for some feedback and advice so I wrote him a small dissertation. Now, I’m not a NYT Bestseller (yet), but I’ve won my share of awards and my debut novel, GRAVEYARD SHIFT, is coming out
this next year from TOR, so (if I may be so bold) I feel that my advice isn’t entirely without value.
One of the topics that surfaced in our discussion concerned the number of books on the writing craft that I own. That’s actually a minor problem I feel many other writers may have. In our quest to become professional writers, we mistake the quantity of our tools and gadgets for the quality of our work. Certainly each new book, gadget, or piece of software may enable aspects of the craft, but on reflection, they aren’t needed. If you have an entire woodshop at your disposal, you can build a really nice chair. But if all you have is a hammer, some wood, and some nails, you can still build a chair. And if you’re spending all your time assembling your woodshop instead of building your chair, at the end of the day, you still don’t have something you can sit in. You can sit in a crudely fashioned unsanded chair, but not an unfinished one. There is no substitute for doing the work. All the tricks of craft won’t help you, if you cannot produce.
With that in mind, I decided to take on a thought exercise. If I were starting out on my career today, right this second. Which books in my collection would help me the most. Now I ranked these in a somewhat unique manner. I’ve ranked these on the basis of how much information they impart in the briefest time period and how useful that information would be to a nascent writer. Without further ado, here is my list of what I consider to be the 10 Essential Books for the Beginning Writer (and really, you’d be okay with just the top 5).
1: WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES by: Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy
- Yes, a “For Dummies” book is my first pick. I love the entire series, because they won’t make you an expert but give you enough information to be dangerous in a very short period of time.
- This is a fantastic overview book. It covers everything from concept to publication, characterization and plotting, and even time management. This is a great survey book for everyone. It is a very quick read and downloads a lot of info into your cranium in short order.
- There’s also a WRITING YOUNG ADULT FICTION FOR DUMMIES by Deborah Halverson. Looks to be the same type of book, but obviously geared towards YA. I have not read this one yet.
2: REVISING FICTION: MAKING SENSE OF THE MADNESS by Kirt Hickman.
- This one might be a little strange, but trust me, it is worth it. Not really about how to write your book (although it has parts of that), but obviously more towards how to edit it after you finish it. If I’m not mistaken, the author is a systems engineer in his day job and this is pretty much a systems engineering approach on how to edit a book. Complete with checklists on what to look out for. Good stuff for us ex-missileers (we love checklists) and those engineer-minded creatives out there.
- Again, a quick read and a very good reference book to peruse right before kicking off your revision drafts.
3: TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER by Dwight Swain.
- There is so much good advice and technique in this book it is frightening. Other books might tell you about a technique to write good fiction, but this is the one that spells out the techniques for writing commercial Fiction that will sell. Written by a former writing instructor from University of Oklahoma. I’ve read it twice and keep picking it up to leaf through it. Each time, I find something new. This one is a serious repeat offender.
4: THE WRITER’S JOURNEY by Christopher Vogler.
- This is a book about how to create excellent plots. They can turn out to be a bit formulaic, but you know what? Hollywood has been using these methods for decades and most people haven’t figured it out yet. This book primarily covers “The Hero’s Journey” but also touches on Jungian archetypes useful in characterization. If you don’t know what the Hero’s Journey is, I’ve got a nice primer on my site here: http://www.apocprod.com/Pages/Hero/Hero_Main_Page.htm . And yeah, I know I need to update these pages.
- This book will literally change the way you watch movies and TV shows.
- When you’re done with this, pick up a copy of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
5: WRITING THE FICTION SYNOPSIS by Pam McCutcheon (this one can be hard to find in hardcover, but now the ebook is out!).
- So you might not be ready to start sending out your manuscript yet, but you’re going to need to turn in a synopsis at some point. Honestly, sometimes it might be very useful to write out the synopsis before you begin and then revisit it after your first draft and see how much changed (it will probably be more than you think). This book will help you be able to distill your ideas so that you can communicate them easily when talking to other writers, and prospective agents and editors. Every commercial writer must master the synopsis. It just isn’t optional.
6: ON WRITING by Stephen King
- Part autobiography, part writing advice book. This is another frequent repeat offender for me. PRO-TIP, this is one of the few writing books you can get on audio. Audible.com has it. So I put it on when driving or painting miniatures. Multi-tasking for the win. (Also, is that a Tandy behind him on the cover photo? Reminds me of a TRS-80 Model III.)
7: 52 WAYS TO GET UNSTUCK by Chris Mandeville
- This book is disguised as a series of exercises to break through writer’s block, but is really a survey guide of great advice distilled into a volume you can burn through in a long afternoon. No joke. This is a quick easy read chock full of all kinds of storytelling techniques. It’s not quite comprehensive, but that’s not for lack of trying.
- Full disclosure: I know Chris, she and I both belong to Pikes Peak Writers and I hang out in her classes whenever I can. But trust me, you can buy five other books that will give you the information crammed in this one.
8: SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder
- This is a screenwriting book. So why list it here? Because no one does plot like successful Hollywood screenwriters. I have a little bit of mixed feelings about this book, because it has been so influential that a lot of modern stories/movies follow the template a little too closely (which is also a problem with the Hero’s Journey), and that makes the stories predictable to anyone who knows the secret formula. Still, I remember the feeling I got when I first read this and it was like mana from heaven.
9: THE WAR OF ART by Stephen Pressfield.
- Sun Tzu for the soul. Non-fiction book that will keep you going when everything seems completely hopeless.
10: THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by William Strunk JR, and E.B. White
- A tiny but ubiquitous style guide. Another repeat offender on my list. Only about 100 pages long (counting the index and glossary), this is a great style guide. Geared more for journalists and non-fiction writers than fiction, but when in doubt, and you don’t want to haul out the CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE, default to Strunk and White and you’ll generally be okay.
WRITING LOVE by Alexandra Sokoloff
- Great book that covers just about everything. Delves into the Hero’s Journey but also adds some additional specifics. The sort-of-sequel to the first book Screenwriting Tricks for Authors. Much of the content from Screenwriting Tricks is in this book as well, so this is more like a revised 2nd edition. But it also includes a lot of tips and pointers on how to write romance (hence the title). Well worth it. As far as I know, it is only available in eBook form, but I really wish it was print-on-demand at least, since I would love to have a hardcopy to tab and highlight.
That’s it. Tack on a solid pocket thesaurus (I like The Concise Roget’s International Thesaurus) and a dictionary and you’re off to the races.