Subversive Writing

I may have mentioned this before, but I don’t have the time to go back and look through old posts. I might be giving unnecessary background information. If so, I apologize.

When I started working on the new novel, Sunshine Alley, the first problem I needed to solve was something that had plagued Broken Magic. I don’t do all of my writing on one computer. Sometimes I work on my desktop and sometimes I use the laptop. This isn’t just an “Am I at home or on the road?” thing. I use the laptop at home sometimes when I want to sit with Erin instead of hiding in my office. Also, there are days when things are dead at work and I want to make an edit that’s been on my mind. That’s three computers I need to use to work on one document. The problem is how to make sure I’ve always got the most recent version with me, and how to ensure that the version I think is the most recent actually is.

Recently, Brent got me up to speed on a great version control application called Subversion. For those of you who aren’t programmers, version control programs allow you to keep your source code in a central repository from which items can be checked out of and worked on, then checked back in. It serves two purposes: first, it keeps the most updated code in one place, so you know where the current stuff is. Second, it saves a version of the source at every change, so if you need to go back to an earlier version, you can do so easily.

So I thought, if this works for source code, why not try it with fiction? They’re both just text documents. Just like in coding, occasionally you make a change that you regret, and it would be nice to be able to recover an old version of your document without having to rewrite it by hand and figure out exactly what had been there before and what was new. And this central source thing is something I was basically maintaining by hand with Broken Magic, only I used a Cruzer flash drive that I carried from computer to computer.

I’ve been doing this for a couple of months now, and the success I’m having with it is making me feel pretty good. Using Subversion, I’ve been able to keep not only the actual novel document, but all of the notes and character outlines that go with it in one place. No matter where I’m working, as long as I have a computer with Subversion I can get both the novel and my notes in a couple of seconds, do what I need to do, and send the changes back to the server. If I decide that I’ve hit a dead end because the whole chapter I’m writing is garbage, I can delete it completely, giving me a clean slate without worry; I can always get that chapter back if I need to.

I’m sure there are fancier document management utilities out there that do the same thing, but with fancy web front ends and crazy features, but the fact is all I really need is the ability to check out documents and commit changes. That’s it. Subversion gives me simply and easily.

Using Subversion has cleared up one of my biggest headaches when writing. I can write whenever and wherever I want, knowing I’ve got the most current version of my work. Syncing the changes with my other machines is as simple as committing from one machine and checking out from another. I don’t have to think about whether I’m working on the right copy, and I don’t have to keep arcanely named backup copies spread across my hard drive that I’ll just lose track of and be afraid to delete when I find them later.

If you’re working on something that you edit on different computers, try using a source control tool like Subversion. It’s cheaper than the Advil you’ll need when you try to hand-combine two versions of the same document that both have important stuff in them.

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