Tuesday, March 24, 2020

How do you approach the pandemic in your manuscript?

I'm in the home stretch of revising a mystery/thriller set in present-day Toronto.

In between pandemic-induced panic attacks, it occurred to me that COVID19 is going to fundamentally change the landscape for the kind of fiction I and countless others and writing.

So here's my question: How do you approach the pandemic in your manuscript?

1) Pretend it never happened, making your book a bit more of a fairy tale

2) Take a stab at guessing what things are like when it's over, even though no one can know?

3) Some other clever approach

Just don't plan to write a book about the pandemic, at least not for a while.
It's going to take some time for everyone to get past this when it's over.

If you need context: I still can't read books about 9/11, and that's 19 years gone.

I think I'm an outlier here, but I remember reading a novel about 9/11 that was pubbed in 2004, and thinking it was too soon then.

It's too soon because there hasn't been enough time to reflect deeply, and that's what you have to do with novels about cataclysmic events. And this sure qualifies.

BUT, if you're asking about how to reference it, rather than write about it, the answer is I have no idea, and no one else does either. Sweeping pronouncements about how this will change everything are premature. Do you recall the death knell for irony post 9/11? Yea, me too. And it lasted about 27 seconds.

So keep writing and we'll figure out how to deal with Current Events later.

If you want an example of something written in the midst of a world changing event, take a look at the movie Mrs. Miniver released in 1942. You can see how the story telling suffers for lack of an ending.

Bottom line: it's entirely ok to leave it out of your book right now.

Maybe this whole thing is a collective dream.


Julie Weathers said...

I write historical fiction and fantasy. Covid has zero bearing on either. During the Civil War, more soldiers died of disease than they did being shot. Doctors were frantically buying small pox scabs so they could inoculate soldiers against that disease. Stacks of scabs wrapped in aluminum foil sat on tables. They'd make a small incision in the soldier's arm and rub the scab on it.

After the Battle of Shiloh, some of the wounded lay in the rain and the swamps for days before they were picked up. Their wounds began to glow in the dark. The soldiers called it Angel's Glow. The ones with glowing wounds recovered faster and better.

That's as close as I get to plague stories.

I'm not driving myself crazy listening to the news 24/7.

When my son deployed to Iraq, his CO told us at the deployment ceremony the best way we could preserve our sanity was to get rid of CNN. Cable news wasn't going to tell us what was really going on over there. They would only give us the bad news and none of the good. I listened to the news for a while and it was depressing.

Then I'd talk to Will and think, "Is this even the same war? Why isn't anyone reporting any of this?"

I got rid of cable news in 2008 and haven't been back. I don't miss it a whit.

Turn off the news cycle 24/7.

I asked Will one day when he was over there how his day was going. "I didn't start out the day picking up body parts before breakfast, so it's going to be a pretty good day."

I didn't start out my day picking up body parts, so I'm going to have a pretty good day, how about you?

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Like Julie, COVID-19 has no bearing. I write alternative worlds - fantasy, sci-fi. I used to joke that I wanted my book series out prior to the Apocalypse. Not so funny anymore. Really, world, chill the heck out. I am tired of having panic attacks and breaking into tears out of fear and uncertainty.

Especially since I am sick today - fever, sore throat, crushing headache. I am pretty certain it's sinus related as this is about par for the course at this time of year only I haven't been around anyone for 9 days. So who knows?

Happy 50th, Colin - I hope there's cake and peace in your neck of the woods.

I wish I had cake.

Alyssa R said...

E.M., I hope you feel better soon! And find cake...

Aphra Pell said...

Look after yourself EM.

If you read Agatha Christie's novels written in the early 40s, they don't mention the war at all. I think the nearest is the hero of the Moving Finger being injured in a plane crash - but it is never specified as to what he was doing in the plane. Presumably it was felt mentioning such things would be bad for morale. Apart from the odd mention of stocks not being what they were, the great depression doesn't tend to crop up in golden age detective stories much either.

You can always set the book in a specific year to avoid questions (2018 or similar). But if the world doesn't go back to normal, or if we have a lot of trauma coming out of this (which I think many countries will, even leaving aside the now inevitable global recession), people are still going to want to read about the old world they knew.

I'd write what you want to write. Besides anything else, every trend chasing writer is going to be writing a pandemic novel right now!

Amy Johnson said...

I hope all goes well with revisions, OP. I like Aphra's idea of setting the story in 2018.

Happy Birthday, Colin! Hope you have a great day. :) Elise, I hope you feel better soon. I haven't baked a cake in years, but I'm sending you some virtual fudge. It would do me some good to actually (not just virtually) do a little something nice for someone. The other day, while doing some yard work, I called "hi" to a neighbor I hadn't talked to before. (I know it's terrible that I hadn't.) After he returned my greeting and had gone back inside his house, the thought struck me that I should have asked how his family was amidst all this business, and asked if they needed anything. Hindsight. Now would be an especially good time to try to do a little something nice for folk.

Aphra Pell said...

Oops, I missed that it was Colin's birthday. Happy birthday dear Colin and may your cake not be made of kale.

Colin Smith said...

The time to write a pandemic novel was 12-18 months ago. Those books would be coming up for release about now... though I wonder how publishers are handling them. As Janet indicated, what seemed like an interesting theme could be a little too real for readers to stomach in the midst of it. If you recall, the trailer for one of the Toby McGuire Spiderman movies set to release in the latter part of 2001 had Spidey hanging from his web between the two towers of the WTC. After 9/11, I believe they cut that bit and photo-edited the towers out altogether. You just don't know. And yet, Netflix is currently featuring "Pandemic" and "Outbreak" so go figure!

Thanks for the b'day shout-out, Elise! I pray you recover well and quickly from whatever lurgie you have. FirstBorn is home from college and has promised me chocolate Guinness cake. I'll think of you while I enjoy... :D

nightsmusic said...

Happy Birthday Colin! Take care of yourself, EM. I seem to be in a similar boat.

I'm curious why the OP would feel a need to suddenly change their story and try to include what's going on. If you've written a good story, why bother to change it all now?

Like Janet, I can't read anything about 9-11 either. I can watch the documentaries but for me, the written word is more profound more often than not and I just don't want to read it. And how long has that been?

Write the best story you can. Don't include things because you think they need to be in it unless they actually impact the story. Fluff in a story for fluff's sake does nothing but fill space.

Colin Smith said...

Thanks, Amy and Aphra!

Sorry for the additional comment, but I meant to say that my flash story this past weekend was somewhat based in reality. Not just because it was about my forthcoming fiftieth, but the fact that when I was young, my mother did have a conversation with a Romani (a "gypsy" if you are more familiar with that term, though I understand some Romani regard it as offensive) about me. As she tells the story, the lady came to the door selling her wares and told my Mum that her son would be successful or famous or something. Mum naturally assumed she was referring to her oldest. No, the Romani replied, she meant her younger son (meaning me--my younger brother had not been born yet). Now, I don't put any stock in fortune-telling or anything like that, but my Mum likes to mention this Romani's prediction every now and again. Maybe she's trying to encourage me to get on and write that best seller... who knows? :)

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Happy Birthday, Colin! And many more (as we say in my family, at the end of the song)!

EM Take care, and feel better! It's kind of an affront, that the usual seasonal ailments are still out and about as well.

oOh wow, I forgot about Mrs. Miniver! I think that's one of the movies I watched on one of the random channels at my grandparents' house some long Saturday afternoon. Perhaps I'll look it up again; I haven't been watching much, even though this is technically a prime opportunity to binge a bunch of stuff.

I have been writing, though. My Run With the Hunted novellas are near(ish) future scifi, so I do feel as though I need to mention it at least a little. The fact that I haven't mentioned it previously doesn't really matter; things my narrators are interested in vary wildly, so it would actually make sense for Narrator 3 to touch on it.

If I was writing contemporary fiction, though, I have no idea. I have a scifi short story submitted right now that, quite accidentally, has become contemporary. I finished it early last year though.

Melissa said...

I don't think we need to timestamp our novels. We've all read books where the main character drops someone off at the airport gate or pulls out a pager. We don't hurl the book at the wall because it's not current. We just shrug and keep reading.

Keep writing the manuscript as is. Manuscripts can take a looooong time until publication. If you get to that point and we have a better idea of the more permanent shifts of the world, you can make some last minute edits.

NLiu said...

Well, guess who over here was writing a fantasy novel set in a place kind of like Tang dynasty China.

Now guess what - there was an epidemic.

Now guess which novel is getting shelved.

I just don't have the heart to write it any more. Maybe I'll come back to it some time in the distant future.

Richard Gibson said...

I may also be an outlier, but I can't/won't watch Vietnam war movies, even now, and I didn't even serve.

Craig F said...

The thing I am working on is the first off Earth Colonization of another planet. Covid-19 might get a historical reference, but viral and biologic vectors should be moot to a new species in a biome.

Enzymes are where my intrepid group has problems.

Adele said...

Mrs. Miniver Spoiler Alert -

well, if you haven't seen it by now you're probably not going to, but I have to comment - the ending of Mrs. Miniver was such a clever twist on the story. Mrs. Miniver died. And it was so sad, and the people mourned and then they got up and went about their days because the war was still on. I think that's a fine ending. Realizing that Mrs. Miniver's son's new wife was also Mrs. Miniver completely changed my take on the film.

As to the present pandemic - if I look back to the grand-daddy of pandemics, the 1918 flu, which actually returned a few times before finally disappearing in 1920, and then look at books set in that time, I don't see any of them dwelling on the flu. It may be the reason somebody suddenly died, and in keeping with the setting, but usually it's only a minor point in the story.

Adele said...

Oh, and among other authors who lived in interesting times and didn't mention it:

Jane Austen lived 1775 - 1817 and England was at war just about the whole time. In her books there are often soldiers billeted in the village or in the town where the action takes place, but the reasons for their presence, the wars and the tremendous death toll are never a part of the plot.

Katja said...

I finished watching the miniseries Chernobyl last night. And it was incredibly difficult to watch.

I remember it. I was 9 years old, living in Germany, and not allowed to play outside after the disaster.

I find it incredibly important that this was being filmed. People's stories (finally) being told. The TRUTH.

But it was so gruesome... my whole body clenched throughout all 5 episodes. I'm glad I watched them all, but I'm not sure if I would ever watch it again. And still I hope other people will - because people's stories need to be heard.

Fearless Reider said...

I'm currently (perpetually) finishing a realistic MG novel, and the thought has crossed my mind that the whole project has just become stunningly irrelevant. But I'm going to keep going and finish it because it's still a story that needs to be told. I've been thinking a lot about what stories can do for a world that is in the midst of massive upheaval. People will need stories that will help them cope with and make sense of this time as it continues to unfold, but they're unlikely to be about pandemics. I've been thinking about how Harry Potter fandom skyrocketed after 9/11. A few years ago, Kayti Burt wrote a piece on Collider about how HP shaped and resonated with Millennials' worldview after 9/11, and this discussion made me think of it:

"It’s impossible to mourn and heal a tragedy that hasn’t yet fully passed. The repercussions of 9/11 are still alive and well in American society and in the larger world order. They are felt in the rising national debt of our country, the growing ideological schism between the right and the left, and the increasingly nationalistic tendencies of countries to build walls of both the physical and metaphorical varieties.

The tragedy is ongoing, which makes getting over it a heck of a lot harder. No, Harry Potter didn’t heal us. But I would argue that this is not fiction’s job. It offers an escape. It offers insight. It offers a mirror. But it is not news or national discourse or community building (at least, not on its own). It is not an entire nation owning up to and facing its fears and the part we have played (and continue to play) in creating the very real threats that inspire those fears. That can’t happen in one storytelling universe. That has to happen across many books and TV shows and news programs and chat rooms and conversations at the grocery store and national political debates."

Sorry for the extra-long quote, but I think it bears repeating.

Fearless Reider said...

And many thanks for the shout-out yesterday. Congratulations, Matt, and thanks to all for the terrific stories -- I needed them so much.

I'm supposed to be in self-imposed exile while I try to finish this draft, but I was getting tired of kale. I've missed the Reef and the Reiders! Elise, I hope you feel better soon -- allergies are hitting hard here, too, and I've been interrogating every sniffle and throat-tickle. Happy birthday, Colin -- fame is just around the corner!

Julie Weathers said...

Happy birthday, Colin! I hope you had a great day.

E.M. I hope you feel better.

Brenda said...

I was wondering this exactly myself. Does Covid 19 change the novel I’m writing?
The good news for those of us who won’t tackle it is that there will be many readers who just want to escape into any other story.

Carolyn Haley said...

Janet remarked: "Just don't plan to write a book about the pandemic, at least not for a while...It's too soon because there hasn't been enough time to reflect deeply, and that's what you have to do with novels about cataclysmic events. And this sure qualifies."

I see and applaud the wisdom in this, but I am taking a different tack. As an indie editor who works with indie authors, I think artists of every stripe should write/create about the pandemic right now if they are so moved.

On one of the editorial network sites I belong to, I updated my profile to do what many agents do: call out subjects of special interest I'm seeking. This now includes novels written, or completed, during the pandemic, because I would really like to see how people incorporate their personal experiences into stories. It's indeed a life-changing, world-changing event unprecedented in our lifetimes, and many authors are being handed an opportunity (i.e., time, drama, and emotional stress) to express themselves through their work.

Often, the best novels are emotionally driven. First draft might be a mess (don't query that version!), but when written with honesty and passion, novels can capture the writer's and thus the reader's heart in a way that won't come through later after reflection.

So I encourage authors to write in diaries and journals, to write novels, to revise novels-in-process, do whatever suits them to capture this experience while it is happening. A polished book might not come out of it for a goodly while, and may never be sellable, but ultimately stories created in this period will become the foundation for reflection, analysis, and history.

As well, the act of writing can be therapeutic for the author by channeling conflicting thoughts and feelings about today and our future into productive work. Given how many homebound people are reading apocalyptic books right now, I'm sure there will be some interested in reading pandemic-based stories later.