Monday, April 8, 2019

My First Time: David Hallock Sanders

The First Time I Lost My Novel

I’m a responsible person. Truly I am. I budget. I floss. I honor my promises and help my neighbors. I avoid risks when the downsides outweigh the ups. Sky diving, for example. Drag racing. Eating pufferfish. Not for me.

So it surprises me that, for years, I neglected to back up my computer. A computer that held the only complete draft of my novel.

Yet neglect I did, and my irresponsibility led to a horrible, if predictable, result: I lost my novel to a hard-drive crash.

That novel, Busara Road, is about a young American boy living at a Quaker mission in Kenya just after independence. It holds special significance for two very personal reasons. One, it was inspired by my own childhood living in Kenya. And two, I’d been working on it for more than a decade.

So the day I lost the novel, I nearly lost my mind.

There was nothing unusual about that particular day. It was October of 2011, and I was simply working at my computer when the hard drive made an odd sound. The screen flashed some odd symbols, then went blank. That was it. My computer was dead. Nothing was accessible. The novel was gone.

I tried everything I could to bring the computer back to life. Nothing. As realization set in I went into a kind of shock. I staggered downstairs to the kitchen where my wife was cooking. She immediately realized something was wrong–perhaps because I dropped to the floor and curled into a ball, weeping and repeating, “I fucked up! I fucked up! I fucked up!”

My wife had never seen me so out of control. She took immediate action. She grabbed a bottle of whiskey and poured me shot after shot until I stopped hyperventilating.

Looking back, I have to admit that my computer gave me fair warning. It had begun to refuse some simple commands and it had started whirring now and then with painful, laboring breaths. But I ignored all of the signs.

That’s why I accept that losing my novel was my own fault.

But what I didn’t realize then was that losing my novel was also, oddly, a gift.

Pico Ayer has famously written about losing his home and everything in it–including 15 years of notes and manuscripts–to a devastating fire. He ultimately described the experience as liberating, one that left him with a strange sense of freedom.

Although I strive for Mr. Ayer’s Zen presence of mind, I have not attained it. Still, I understand some of what he means.

I belong to a writer’s group that is supportive, challenging, and closely attuned to its members as both writers and people. When I shared the news that my novel, which they’d worked on with me for years, was gone, they reacted as though a close family member had died. In a way, that wasn’t far off.

I took the computer to a repair shop, and learned that the term “hard-drive crash” is a literal description. My hard drive had two motors, one that spun a platter at 7,200 revolutions per minute, and one that moved the read/write head about five nanometers, or less than 0.0000002 of an inch, above the spinning platter.

When the head happened to touch the platter, it was like a jet crashing into a runway and ripping up the surface. Whatever data was coded on the platter was gone.

My drive was so damaged that the technician was unable to salvage anything. He told me that, in its current state, the computer was less useful than a doorstop. My options were limited. He could send it to a sterile lab where they would examine the drive byte-by-byte to see if they could pull any particles of data from it. That would cost me a few thousand dollars and might not produce anything useful. Alternately, I could install a new drive into the old shell, which would cost me a few hundred dollars but would do nothing to recover the lost data. Or I could just give up and leave him the dead computer. In that case, he’d recondition it with a used drive he had on hand and donate it to a Philadelphia public school.

Easy decision. I left him the dead computer and went out to buy a new one. Learning from my mistakes, I also bought a stand-alone backup drive and established a regular backup schedule. In addition, I signed up for a perpetual cloud-based backup service.

And the novel?

I began a painful, lengthy process of reconstructive surgery. I asked my writer’s group to send any old chapters they may have saved. I dug through cardboard boxes for old printouts. I thumbed through file cabinets for old notes, and searched through old thumb drives for anything I’d saved during retreats and residencies. I reassembled all of this material the best I could, and took a cold-eyed look at what I had.

The whole thing was a mess. The novel’s narrative voice was all over the place. Scenes meandered with little focus. Characters behaved in inconsistent, unconvincing ways. Story arcs conflicted. Tenses battled–present in some drafts, past in others.

And these weren’t just the fault of the disjointed drafts. I now realized that the completed novel, the one that I’d loved and lost, had suffered from many of the same shortcomings.

That realization was my version of Mr. Ayer’s liberation.

So I started over, once again from the beginning. This time I plotted the book out in detail, chapter by chapter. This time I wrote out character bios and thematic threads in advance. This time I dispensed with the wandering prose that had diluted early drafts and focused on simply telling the story.

It took me two years to complete a new draft. The new version was much better than the old, but it still went through more drafts as I exposed it to more eyes. I sent the manuscript out in round after round to potential agents and publishers, then waited for months on each round just to get rejections that boiled down to variations on, as one agent wrote, “I love it, but not enough.”

Months turned into years. And more years. During one of those years I was diagnosed with nodular lymphocyte predominant Hodgins lymphoma, and during six months of chemotherapy, when I was often unable to sit upright for more than an hour at a time, I struggled through another rewrite and round of submissions. And still the rejections piled up.

But then, one day, the book finally got accepted.

With an April release from New Door Books, Busara Road now has a home.

This has been a long and trying journey. Losing my novel showed me how quickly and dramatically things can go wrong. Since then I’ve observed myself taking extra care to protect against other disasters. Religiously changing my smoke-alarm batteries, for example. Regularly reviewing my credit reports. Even buying a fire-escape ladder for my bedroom, which is only on the second floor.

In fact, I bought one of those little glass-cutting, window-smashing tools for my car. You know, just in case I happen to drive off the Ben Franklin Bridge, sink to the bottom of the Delaware River, and need to break a window to escape.

As I said, I’m a responsible person. Perhaps even a little paranoid. But with my novel finally published, a happy one as well.

David Hallock Sanders is the author of the novel Busara Road, which was shortlisted as a finalist for the William Faulkner–William Wisdom Prize for a novel-in-progress. He has published a range of short fiction and nonfiction, some of which has won awards. He lives in Philadelphia. Click here to visit his website.

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

Painting: At Eternity’s Gate, Vincent van Gogh (1890)


  1. I'm glad you were able to reconstruct your novel. Your story has prompted me to check all of my backups for my work!

    1. Thanks Lydia! I guess I needed to learn my lesson the hard way.