Writing in a time of Covid 19

Posted: April 23, 2020 in Regarding writing
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Been a while since I wrote something new about writing, I think I’ve been waiting for some inspiration, or maybe felt I didn’t have anything useful to talk about that I hadn’t gone over several times before, but the Coronavirus pandemic has made me think about the craft of writing in a somewhat different way, and I wondered if my thoughts might be of use to others.

This blog will fall into two parts, the first covers ground I’ve touched on before and is concerned with HOW WE WRITE. The second is concerned with WHAT WE WRITE.

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Part 1 How we write during the pandemic.

More than one person has suggested the pandemic will see a rash of creativity, as people in lockdown turn to writing, and this extends not only to those of us who’ve been writing for a while, but also those who’ve always wanted to give it a go who suddenly find they have more time on their hands and might finally give it a try.

In theory it sounds great. The reality is somewhat different. For starters many in lockdown are still working, albeit from home. Then there’s the home environment. If we’re lucky we’re not in lockdown alone, which means children, partners and other family members are sharing our space. We’re probably all living in closer proximity than we’ve done before, and it can prove harder to get alone time to create.

And of course, the above only relates to physical obstacles, but there’s also the psychological aspect. This is a stressful time for everyone, some more than others obviously, but even if you’re not a healthcare worker, even if you haven’t got friends or family members in hospital, just the emotional impact of spending so much time at home, of watching daily news reports of sickness and death, is going to have an impact. I’ve seen quite a few artistic types on Twitter saying that they’re struggling to feel creative right now.

I wouldn’t dream of offering psychological advice to people, and if you don’t feel like writing now then that’s a perfectly acceptable response to the current situation, there are, let’s be honest, more important things going on right now. But having said that, creativity is something that gives people pleasure, both in creating it, and in others enjoying it, so if you do want to keep writing, or heck even start writing, here’s one tip. Routine. I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again. Set aside some writing time on a regular basis. Maybe it’s half an hour a day, maybe it’s ten minutes a day, maybe it’s one hour every Saturday afternoon, but try and stick to it. Lots of working from home advice extols the virtues of routines, of getting up and dressed at regular times rather than slumping around in your PJs, and it’s good advice.

And don’t be beholden to what anyone else thinks either (including me, I’m notoriously full of shit). I’ve seen crappy Tweets from people saying if you don’t come out of lockdown having learned a new skill or language, or having written a novel or a screenplay, then you never lacked the time you just lacked the dedication. This is utter bollocks of course, for the reasons I’ve already highlighted. Coming out of lockdown alive and in relatively ok mental health is a success, you don’t need to have written an epic fantasy trilogy to prove anything to anyone, so don’t feel bad if you don’t feel like writing, don’t feel bad if you only write 100 words a day. Remember, writing is like anything else, the more you do it the better you become, so every hundred words you write makes you a hundred words a better writer. Write as much or as little as you can, as much or as little as you feel inclined to. No one of any consequence will judge you, apart from yourself of course, but right now I think we should all give ourselves a break, don’t you?

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Part 2 What should we be writing?

At first glance this seems a ridiculous question. We write what we want to write, right? (sorry about that). In truth I think it’s a little more difficult, and can be broken down into two distinct strands.

The first is saleability. For the most part we want people to read what we write, and as such we’re usually reliant on some editor choosing to accept our work and publish it to the masses, which means them buying it from us, whether the purchase price is a pro rate of 8 cents a word, or a more nebulous reward of ‘exposure’.  (as a side bar I’ll always argue that so long as you go in with your eyes open there’s nothing wrong with ‘for the love’ projects, but you should never EVER be paying someone to publish your work.)

Now what sells isn’t usually something we pay a huge amount of attention to (though I know screenwriters and novelists will consider what’s hot right now. No point writing westerns when everyone wants superhero movies after all) but it’s probably at the back of our minds at least. Right now we may want to bring it to the forefront.

Because what will sell now, and perhaps more importantly, what will sell in the future? I was remembering Alan Moore’s seminal Watchmen comics, set in an alternative 1980s still on the verge of self-destruction. On the cusp of annihilation, nostalgia is the big thing. “How the ghost of you clings” goes the tag line to Adrian Veidt’s perfume which is even called Nostalgia. The world’s a mess and people don’t want to think about now, and they don’t want to think about the future either, they want to lose themselves in the past, or rather a dreamy evocation of the past.

In contrast once Veidt’s masterplan comes to fruition his new perfume goes on sale. This one is called Millennium, suddenly a bright, hopeful future stretches ahead of humanity. Now Veidt tells his minions to invest in baby paraphernalia, expecting a boom in births. People aren’t afraid anymore, they’re excited; it’s now about looking forward, not back.

So what should we write? I’d be surprised if there isn’t a whole heap of pandemic/post-apocalyptic/dystopian future style stories, scripts, and novels in the pipeline. This isn’t a radical notion; mortality is at the front of our thinking right now after all. The question is, is that what the public wants? Well maybe. Look at the fifties. The atomic threat was in its infancy, but it preyed on people’s minds and prompted a slew of irradiated monster movies, from Them! In the US to Godzilla in Japan (the only country to ever be on the receiving end of atom bombs lest we forget) and the possibility of destruction was dealt with in other ways. Look at the Day the Earth Stood Still, When World’s Collide, etc. And then there’s the fear of communism which saw the rise of McCarthyism. Alien invasion films were de rigueur in the 50s. The Thing from Another World, This Island Earth and of course Invasion of the Body Snatchers which talked about the stealthy replacing of people with aliens, clearly a reference to communism (though some readings of the film suggest it was a rejection of McCarthyism.)

man-typing-laptop-while-is-wearing-mask_176453-71Similarly look at the late 1970s and the 1980s. The Cold War was at its height and Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was a term everyone was aware of. Cue a slew of post-apocalyptic books (The Survivalist series, James Herbert’s Domain) and films and TV (The Mad Max trilogy, Day of the Dead, Night of the Comet, Threads) not to mention related things like Red Dawn.

So we should all be writing pandemic tales then? Well, maybe not. Yes sci-fi monster/invasion movies were big in the fifties, but so were Biblical epics and Westerns (nostalgia again) and technicolour saw a resurgence in musicals; and on the subject of musicals, remember their height was arguably the Depression era—in 1930 alone Hollywood put out 100 musicals!

And the 1980s? Sure there was a lot of impending World War III fiction, but it was also an era of bright colours, garish outfits and high octane excitement. The decade that gave us Tom Cruise, Arnie, Back to the Future and Raiders of the Lost Arc (hmm, nostalgia again in those last two), Ghostbusters, ET, The Breakfast Club etc, etc.

Worth making the point as well that the fear of nuclear annihilation was a hypothetical one, Covid 19, like the Great Depression, is unfortunately very much not hypothetical.

Sometimes people want something that reflects their current fears, and sometimes they want something completely different to escape from reality, but having said that I do think if you’re going to work on something pandemic/post-apocalyptic related you do need to consider that there’ll probably be a lot more in the slush piles going forward so yours better be damn good, and maybe don’t make the pandemic the focus, again something with a unique selling point it likely to pique someone’s interest more than just another Covid 19 tale.

A second—and final, I know this has gone on a bit—point is what to do when writing something contemporary? I mean we’re in the middle of the pandemic, we can hazard a guess how and when it might end, but the actuality may be very different. When will the lockdown finish? Will there be a second wave, or a third, a fourth! What will life be like after the pandemic is over, when (if) a vaccine is available? If you’re writing a story set in the present, or even the very near future, you have to consider whether you reference Coronavirus or not?

The difficulty is if you don’t reference it then you automatically date your work, and the opposite might also be worse, making wild predictions may make your story defunct before it has a chance to go anywhere.

If you’re writing a globetrotting spy thriller then trying to work a lockdown into that isn’t going to work, so you either very clearly set it pre virus, or you set it after the pandemic and hedge every bet you can by referencing the lockdown without going too far off beam. Obviously the further your story is in the future the easier this may be. In three or four years’ time life may well have returned pretty much to normal, so just a vague reference to how your characters spent lockdown might be enough (think of the possibilities. ‘This is my husband, we met when our Zoom passwords got mixed up’. Or how about; “I had time on my hands, so I learned Russian and that’s how I ended up working for MI6”)

The safest bet of all of course might be for something set in the past or else some distance into the future. Or maybe not, perhaps people will lap up pandemic romances/detective stories/horror novels.

I went into this article with a more concrete conclusion than I’ve ended up with. In many ways so much is up in the air, and who knows where the chips will fall, which way the market will go.

Could anyone have predicted YA dystopias would be a huge thing before The Hunger Games after all? And I always imagine some bemused writers with drawers full of rejections for their erotic novels suddenly becoming very popular with publishers after Fifty Shades of Grey started selling by the trunkful.

My VERY unscientific advice would be this; there’ll be a big market for rose tinted histories and hopeful science fiction so if you’re writing something new perhaps bear that in mind.

But what do I know, I’m in the middle of a writing contemporary horror story after all!

Good luck. Stay safe. Keep writing if you can but don’t worry if you can’t and I’ll see you on the other side (Ray).

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