My Writing Software Setup–Syncing, Backups, Etc

I spend a lot of time thinking about software and how I can use it to make my life better + easier.  That includes the various ways I could set up my writing workflow.

I’ve been using this system for a while now and it’s worked well for me.  I realized that others might benefit from what I’ve come up with, so here’s an overview.  In addition, I hope to hear from others, as maybe I could be doing something better.

Since this is an overview, I won’t go into too many details on each piece of the system, but instead will focus on how I make them all play together.  First will be the problems/considerations, then the dramatis personae, and then how I hook them together.

Problems That Need to be Solved, Considerations to Address

  • I work on both a desktop and a laptop and need my files to be available on each of them.
  • I also need backups.
  • The more of this backup stuff that’s automated, where I don’t have to think about it or remember to do it, the better.
  • My data shouldn’t be locked away on someone’s server. If the company disappears, or decides to freeze my account, my work could go with it, and That’s Bad. An example of this would be Google Docs.
  • This one is very specific to my personality: I don’t want my prose floating around on the internet until I publish it.  I know that the chances of someone actually caring about my stories enough to steal the drafts is essentially nil, but I just can’t seem to get past it. Consider it deeply-rooted in my primal past, like fascination with fire and the urge to run away from large predators.

Word Processor / Composition

I use Scrivener for Mac.  Love, love, love this program.  Can’t say enough good things about it.  I’m also a fan of Ulysses, but I think Scrivener works better for most writers.  This is where my writing happens.

Syncing

Dropbox is like mana from heaven.

  • Short version: keeps a directory of files synced across all your computers.
  • Long version: once it’s installed, anything put into this Dropbox folder on your computer will be uploaded to their servers.  When you install Dropbox on a second and subsequent machines, the software will sync all changes to everything in that folder across all of them.  Plus, you can access all your files from their website, as well, and also via mobile phone apps.  Their free account can store up to 2GB, so there’s no reason to NOT be using it.  I use this program for darn near everything that I don’t consider private: PDFs I need to reference/read, lists I write, and files I need to keep handy all the time, like book covers, book blurbs, and my profile / headshot images.

Please note that if you want to sign up, if you use my referral link (here), we both get extra space for free.  That’d be nifty.  If you’re not comfortable with that link, you can find them here: Dropbox

Encryption

I use TrueCrypt for this.  Don’t let the website or software scare you–it’s fairly simple.

  • You create a Truecrypt file on your hard drive, the size of which is the total space you want to have.  This acts like a container for everything you want to encrypt.
  • The program lets you mount the file and use it like any normal drive–it’ll appear in your drive lists like a USB stick or, for Mac people, works just like a *.dmg file.
  • You do your thing, and when you’re done, you just unmount the file.  Truecrypt handles all the encryption+decryption in the background.

I’m purposefully skipping over some of the mechanics behind how Truecrypt works because it doesn’t matter for this explanation / usage.  If you have questions, please ask.  I’m happy to go into more detail.

Putting It All Together

  1. I created a Truecrypt file on my hard drive, inside my Dropbox folder, and named it “WritingNotes”.  I initially allocated 5 MB, because I know that text barely takes up any space, but I’ve since moved to a 100MB file because I forgot to account for the overhead of programs like Scrivener.  They do more than just store plain text, so of course the files will be bigger and I used up my space fast.
  2. Dropbox will do its magic and upload it to the Dropbox servers. Don’t worry about when this happens.
  3. Mount the file (ie., turn it into a usable drive) with the Truecrypt program:
  4. Now create a new Scrivener project and save it to the Truecrypt “drive” you just mounted.  Mine is the “untitled” drive in the device list and you can see some of my *.scriv projects:
  5. Do your thing, and when you’re done working, close Scrivener and unmount your Truecrypt file.
  6. Sit back and enjoy your beverage of choice while Dropbox uploads all your changes.
  7. Now or later, go to computer #2 and wait for Dropbox to finish syncing.  Mount your Truecrypt file, open up your Scrivener project, and bingo, there are your changes.

Edit 2012/05/04: You can right-click on the mounted drive and rename it to something more appropriate, like “WritingNotes”.  It will keep this new name each time you mount it, and this change will also propogate across to your other machines on your next Dropbox sync.  I tested it and didn’t have any data problems.

Reasons Why This Works Well and is a Good Thing

One of the key things here is putting the Scrivener file inside of a Truecrypt file.  Programs like Scrivener store their information in packages / folder structures, and syncing software can wreck havoc on these, to the extreme extent that your file is corrupted and unopenable.  Once you mount the TrueCrypt file, Truecrypt “locks” the file and keeps hold of it, and Dropbox knows that the file is still busy and so doesn’t try to sync it.  This, and the fact that as far as Scrivener is concerned, your file is still local on the computer, is what prevents your Scrivener file from getting corrupted.  I’ve been using this system since August, 2011 and haven’t yet had any difficulties (cue suitable superstitiously-related activities).

This system works because it uses the interwebs to sync your stuff, but none of your text is “out there” on the Internet: even if someone broke into your Dropbox account, the encryption happened before the file ever left your computer.

It also keeps all the text and files on your computer: if Dropbox goes out of business, at worst case, one or more of your computers will have an out-of-date file.  Just figure out which one is the latest and copy it to the other machines manually.  You’ll never be locked out of access to your file.

Another reason why this works is because of backups galore:

  • Scrivener saves a local backup whenever you close the program.  These are stored outside the Dropbox folder, so you’ll always have a copy on whichever computer you were using at the time.
  • Dropbox syncs your Truecrypt file, so you have a copy of the file on each machine, plus the one accessible from the Dropbox website.
  • Dropbox also maintains old versions of your file:
  • For Mac users, Time Machine backs up your Dropbox folder, so that’s a second backup of the file, including previous versions.  Between the Dropbox and Time Machine versions, you should be able to go back and grab a previous copy of the file if it somehow gets corrupted and then propagated to your other machines.

 

Summary

No system is ever perfect, including this one.  But I feel it has a lot going for it and has worked well for me so far.  One of the drawbacks is that there aren’t as many hour-by-hour backups.  I solve that by doing manual backups of my Scrivener project if I’m feeling nervous, and by quitting/unmounting everything to sync to dropbox every so often throughout the day.  I find that mealtimes and/or coffee breaks work well as a benchmark.

Hope it helps.

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4 Responses to “My Writing Software Setup–Syncing, Backups, Etc”

  1. Chase May 1, 2012 at 3:49 pm #

    Thank you for the post. I’m considering something similar, but I have a concern. It sounds like you are syncing a single encrypted file, correct? So if you make even the slightest change to your project, you have to transfer 200 mbs round-trip in order to sync that change. Or does TrueCrypt somehow store the virtual drive as multiple files? One of my computers is at work, and the network traffic may be a problem.

  2. Chase May 2, 2012 at 1:07 pm #

    I found that there is an option to create a dynamic volume (checkbox on the Volume Format screen during the creation wizard). That makes more sense in my scenario. I may even create a separate TrueCrypt file for each scrivener project so that I’m only syncing what has changed. Thanks again for your post.

  3. R Canepa May 3, 2012 at 7:28 pm #

    Hello, Chase,

    I apologize that I didn’t see your comment sooner. The neat thing about this set-up is that Dropbox only syncs the differences between your two files: the network transfer is thus pretty darn small (after the initial sync, of course).

  4. R Canepa May 4, 2012 at 2:40 pm #

    Edit 2012/05/04, added to post text: “You can right-click on the mounted drive and rename it to something more appropriate, like “WritingNotes”. It will keep this new name each time you mount it, and this change will also propogate across to your other machines on your next Dropbox sync. I tested it and didn’t have any data problems.”