Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Moira Allen
If you're an eBay user, you've probably received notice that one of eBay's databases was hacked, and masses of personal data about eBay users are now, presumably, "in the wrong hands." While the database did not contain financial data, it did include users' personal data, including users' encrypted passwords.
The key word is "encrypted.' So far, there is no indication that these passwords have been decrypted, or used in any fraudulent activity. (The hack occurred in February or March, but was only confirmed in mid-May 2014.) However, eBay has asked all its users to change their passwords.
The problem can go far beyond eBay, however. Many of us use the same, or similar, passwords on multiple accounts. I know, I know, we're told not to, but... basically, what we are advised to do is pretty much impossible:
Now, I don't know about you, but in my world, that's not going to happen. I'm savvy enough not to (a) use the name of my favorite pet and (b) post lengthy stories about that pet, by name, on Facebook. I'm savvy enough not to use my initials and/or birthdate. My password is a bit better than "Password" or the numerical string "123456" (yes, lots of people use both). But... I refuse to resort to incomprehensible gibberish that can't be recalled - not when I may have to recall it four or five times a day!
So what's a writer to do? Well, as writers, we actually have an edge. We have, stored in our memory, the seeds of a virtually limitless, and relatively unguessable, array of passwords. As writers, we have the names of a host of characters in our memory who are as real to us as our own children (more so if, like me, you don't have children), but whose names will never appear on Facebook or Twitter. As readers, we have even more options: character names, book titles, even favorite phrases that are perfect for passwords.
Nearly all my passwords are based on characters from the first novel I ever completed, more than 20 years ago -- a novel that has been read only by my husband and will probably never see the outside of my sock drawer. (If it ever does, I'll either have to change all my passwords or change all the character names in the novel!) Your own unpublished or in-progress works are a great place to start. Look for character names that you'll never forget, but that no one else knows. Be sure that the work hasn't been shared publicly, e.g., in a critique group or through excerpts posted on your website or blog.
Then, tweak them. We're told that the safest passwords contain mixes of upper- and lower-case letters and numbers. (Some systems won't accept symbols, though some will accept hyphens.) So if your best-beloved character from that novel you wrote in college was, say, Dagmar Dillinger, consider starting with "DagmarDi11ing3r." Work from there to add a date, or a code for each site where you use the password (e.g., DagmarEbayDi11ing3r or DagmarDi11inger2014).
If you don't have any characters from your own writings that you'd like to use (or if those names are a bit too mundane, like "John Smith" and "Nancy Jones"), consider approaching the problem from the standpoint of the reader. Try "H3rm1on3Grang3r," "J3anVa1j3an" or "Fr0d08agg1n5." Names like these won't be found in any dictionary (and apparently hackers have already programmed entire dictionaries into their de-encryption routines).
Experts say that longer passwords, such as phrases, are more effective than short passwords, no matter how "mixed." A password such as "WindintheWillows" is apparently safer than "Wi110ws2014". It becomes safer still if you replace all the "i's" with ones. (Better yet, be creative, and replace them with something less obvious!) Or, use an easily remembered phrase, such as "Itwasthebestoftimes" or "Marleywasdead." Or, again, choose a line that you can easily remember -- and only you would know -- from one of your own works. (Please avoid "memorable" lines that are known to millions, such as "BeamMeUp" or "MaytheForceBeWithYou"!)
Now we get to the "memorable" issue. The biggest flaw in any password scheme is the difficulty in remembering passwords (along with the advice never to write them down). We "know better" than to use exactly the same password wherever we go, but these days, the number we're required to juggle is proliferating endlessly. We need them everywhere we shop, everywhere we do business, for every e-mail and social media account - we may even need them to get into our cell phones! It's a bit of a challenge to remember that you're "Va1Jean42" on Facebook and "Va1Jean64" on Twitter.
So... write them down! That's right, you heard me, write them down. But... here's the key. If you've made your passwords sufficiently memorable (to you), you can write them in a code that no one else can crack.
Say, for example, you have three basic sets of passwords: "HermioneGranger," "JeanValjean," and "WindintheWillows." You use one set for financial sites, such as banking and PayPal; one for social media sites; and one for shopping (e.g., Amazon and eBay). On each site, you add a special "tweak," perhaps by adding numbers, swapping letters for numbers, or adding some other code. To keep them all straight, set up a master password file. (Please don't title it "Master Password File!") List the location of the account (e.g., Amazon), the username (if it's your e-mail, just note "e-mail"), and any other necessary account information (some accounts require your account number). For your password, use the minimum amount of coding needed to remind you of the basic password root (J-V-J), and then the "twist." If you use "JeanValjean2014," just note "JVJ--14." No one else is likely to ever figure out what "JVJ" stands for, but you'll always remember -- just as you'll always be able to determine that "JVJ--14" is your eBay password while "J-AZ-2014-VJ" is your Amazon password.
Make sure that your passwords can't be easily associated with you. Obviously, if you've published a book, you won't want to use character names from that book, or its title (though a key phrase would probably be safe enough). If you've informed your Facebook friends of the name of your favorite novel, or told them all about a book you've just read and loved, use a different book that you haven't told the world about. Consider one that you loved in childhood but probably haven't talked about lately. Changing passwords becomes simple as well -- as simple as reading another book!
With this method, even if someone hacks your computer and accesses your list, it will be worthless without your personal "code" -- and that's the part that you keep in the safest memory location of all: Your own.
Here's a good site with other ideas for creating a strong password: http://www.wikihow.com/Create-a-Password-You-Can-Remember
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.