The big COVID-19 Question Writers Are Asking

The big COVID-19 Question Writers Are Asking

There’s a big question on every writer’s mind as the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic sets in.

What does COVID-19 mean for our writing?

Let’s not beat around the bush. Our lives have changed drastically, or will soon. This is not an isolated phenomenon, but a worldwide one. It reaches into every neighborhood, every home. And it’s changing the way our daily lives operate.

Then there’s the question of what happens when the disease is contained, or cured, or whatever. I’ll be completely honest, I see three ways forward.

  1. We muddle through and go back to some semblance of normal, which was never ideal, and remain vulnerable to the next virus.
  2. We fail to make big changes that can save the vulnerable among us, and descend deeper into dystopia.
  3. We make those changes, we band together as humans, and make a conscious decision to treat one another better so that we can weather the next storm together.

I want #3 with all my heart. I fear #1. I think there may be pockets of #2, but I really hope we avoid it altogether.

Whatever happens, even #1, things will have changed in a way that will be profound.

So, how do you write about and for a world that is actively in flux?

If you write nonfiction

If you’re writing creative nonfiction you’re in an ideal position to document what’s going on now on an emotional level. That said, doing a deep-dive into everyone’s fears while living through your own fears is not good for the psyche, so please, please, please be gentle with yourself.

If you’re writing prescriptive nonfiction, you have a particular challenge. Prescriptive nonfiction like self-help and how-to books is all about telling people how to do something. But the way to do a thing may change drastically. Now is a good time to move away from nitty gritty directions and focus instead on core concepts that are transferable. Instead of telling me I need a No. 2 pencil, tell me I should look for a soft-leaded pencil and how to test for that. Instead of telling me where to click on a website that could change tomorrow, teach me the principles of what I need to do.

When things settle out (and there may not be a clear “it’s over now” moment) there will be lots of space for how-to material that does address our new landscape. If you write about small business funding there will likely be new laws and funding opportunities to guide people through. If your subject area is changing, take notes. Those notes will be useful when you sit down to write your next prescriptive book or article.

If you write fiction

Here’s where this starts to get personal. I was working on a YA sci fi novel set in the aftermath of massively disruptive climate change and a deadly plague… Yeah, that feels like tempting fate now. I had to put it away. It was a really difficult decision, because I was so enthusiastic about the project and I felt like I was doing good work on it. I felt it could be The One. And now, 28k in, it’s trunked indefinitely. I may go back to it one day, but I don’t know when. I’ve talked to a bunch of other writers who also had dystopias and post-apocalyptic stories brewing, and they’ve also lost their enthusiasm. It sucks. It really, really sucks when you dream up a worst case scenario and then life imitates nascent art.

But, it’s not just speculative fiction being impacted. What on earth do you do with contemporary stories? If your book was set “now” and then Now radically shifted, do you change the book? Do you set it a year earlier? Do you try to incorporate what’s happening? Or do you accept that your fictional 2020 is now effectively an alternate timeline, wherein things didn’t go to hell in a handbasket?

There’s no right answer to this. I suspect that we’re going to see a lot of writers choosing to write about historical, fantasy, or sci fi stories as a means of escaping the real 2020. That was certainly my first instinct.

Paramount right now is to write what you’re comfortable with, and what will not damage your mental health. We’re all fragile right now. Look after yourself. For some people, that means avoiding anything dark for a while. Others exorcise their fears by diving right into them, learning as much as they can, exploring the most terrifying parts by shining a light on them. Do what feels right for you, day by day, hour by hour.

If you’re self-publishing

Be selective about what you choose to promote right now, and how you promote it. A lot of readers don’t want anything to do with plague fiction right now. On the other hand, have you seen the Popular on Netflix list? It’s 90% movies and shows about rampant diseases. Entertainment is an outlet. It can be comforting to immerse yourself in a horrifying fictional world for a little while because it’s not the real horrifying world we find ourselves in. And, you can stop watching or reading the fictional version at any time, which provides a sense of control in an uncontrollable world.

Self-publishers are businesses, and many businesses are taking time now to ease the strain on their customers. A lot of authors are lowering prices, or recording themselves reading. If you can afford to do that, awesome. If you can’t, that’s okay, too. No right answers.

There are wrong answers, though. You don’t want to be seen to be profiteering off the suffering of others. So do your market research, and read the room (as it were).

If you’re in traditional publishing

Hooray, more up-in-the-air-no-one-knows stuff! Publishing as an industry is conservative and slow to change. They’re also highly risk-averse. We don’t know where publishers will choose to put their money in the next couple of years, so acquisitions could change.

So far agents are split as to whether they’re business-as-usual (some have more time) or whether they’ve had to give priority to other parts of their life, like caretaking. Editors are in similar positions. As of now, the industry is is still acquiring, and making decisions about whether to push back release dates.

To keep up with all things trad pub, Publisher’s Weekly is making all new issues public for free during the crisis. I also highly recommend Print Run podcast for perspectives on how publishing can and should change.

So, where to next?

Your number one priority is to take care of yourself and your family. Writing can be a great tool for making sense of tough times, but you shouldn’t feel bad if you’re unable to create right now–or not able to do the same kind of creating you did before.

I hope you’re safe and well right now, and stay so through the months ahead.


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