This is the question I hear all the time from writers of all levels of experience. The uncertainty of life during the pandemic has affected everyone in the book business—writers, agents, editors, publishers, booksellers, librarians, reviewers. We publishing professionals are expected to know what’s selling and why—but Covid-19 has created so much confusion on this point that it’s impossible to predict. That said, I thought I’d share my experience thus far, as an agent and as an author, with a little help from some of my friends.
No, No, A Million Times No
I started shopping a page-turner of a virus story by a great thriller writer in late February 2020. Within a week New York City was in lockdown—and no one would look at that virus story. Editors wouldn’t even entertain the idea; all they wanted was pictures of puppies. At the same time, I was revising the third book in my Mercy Carr series, The Hiding Place, and when I asked my editor if I should write in the pandemic, the answer was an emphatic “No.”
Fast forward to Summer 2021. Riding high on vaccine-fueled optimism and wearing my fearless agent hat, I went out with a wonderful story set during the pandemic. Some of my fellow agents have succeeded in selling similar stories, so why not this one?
It’s early days yet in terms of selling this project, but I’m already hearing that many editors are still not ready to buy pandemic-related projects. I suspect this is as much a personal feeling of reluctance as a professional one. These editors don’t want to think about the pandemic.
Many readers don’t either. They’re reading for escape right now—and that desire to forget the pandemic is fueling books sales. Especially romance; Fortune magazine recently reported that sales in that genre have jumped 24 percent from March 2020 to March 2021, according to NPD BookScan.
Moreover, those novels that do tackle the subject are not necessarily well-received. The noted book reviewer Lesa Holstine admitted in her recent review of Louise Penny’s new Armand Gamache mystery—The Madness of Crowds—that the fact that Penny had written a very dark story about the aftermath of the pandemic made it “a difficult book to read.” Maybe it’s just too soon.
“I just don’t want to,” says Joanna. “We’re still living it. I do not know how it will all shake out, so I’m happy enough just ignoring it in my fiction right now.”
Once Upon a Pandemic
Other writers are using oblique references in their work that do not call out Covid-19 directly but speak of other dark times that recall our own.
“I have not referenced COVID in my writing,” says Gabriel Valjan, whose short story “Elysian Fields” just won the Macavity Award for Best Short Story. “Because I feared it would date the story, but I did allude to the Influenza Pandemics of 1918 and 1920 in the short story “Burnt Ends” for Hank’s Bouchercon anthology [This Time for Sure]. Readers may catch a sly allusion to Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, which refers to the flu epidemics.
Writers in the middle of a project are on the fence. Kellye Garrett, the Agatha, Anthony, Lefty, and IPPY award-winning author of the Detective by Day series and the upcoming thriller Like a Sister, is still debating the issue as she works on her next book. She’s not sure what she’ll do.
“Not yet,” says Kellye. “I am not far enough along in the new book to decide how to handle it.”
I know how she feels. I’m revising the fourth book in my Mercy Carr series as we speak. So far there’s no mention of the pandemic in The Wedding Plot, which as the title implies takes place during a wedding in Vermont. I thought I was safe writing a “normal” wedding, as the Green Mountain State is expected to be the first state to reach herd immunity given its high vaccination rate. But the Delta variant may raise the herd immunity threshold, and as I write this, Covid-19 hospitalizations are up in Vermont.
Keep It Short
Some authors are writing short stories—as opposed to novels—that do reference the pandemic, one way or another. Short stories have always been a way for fiction writers to try plots, characters, subjects, and themes that may not be suitable for book-length projects.
“I’m writing a short story submission for the Malice Domestic: Murder Most Traditional competition,” says Alexia. “It takes place at a post-pandemic event.”
“I’ve written a short story (not yet published) in which the characters live in the present pandemic world,” says Greg, “but am staying away from such a world in my novels. I figure by the time my books come out (if ever), the planet will have moved on from Covid, at least somewhat. Plus it’s too complicated showing characters’ thoughts/feelings if they’re wearing a mask for 250 pages!”
But even writing something relatively short about this unprecedented and often disturbing time can prove uncomfortable.
S. A. Cosby, who just won the Macavity Award for Best Novel for the spectacular Blacktop Wasteland, recently wrote his first piece of fiction—a short story—that references the pandemic, an experience he does not recommend.
“I think the story is okay,” says Shawn, “but it felt like writing about Pompeii while Vesuvius is still vomiting hot magma.”
Skip Right to a Post-Pandemic World
Some novelists are leapfrogging right into the future as they write new book-length works of fiction set in a world where the pandemic has come and finally gone.
“Like many of us, I worked on a manuscript during the pandemic while none of us knew what the future would hold,” says Edwin. “That novel turned out to be THE SECRETS WE SHARE, which will publish in April of 2022. At first, I thought of setting the story during March of 2020 since that is a very specific time that I think we’ll all remember vividly, but living in that month of history turned out to be too depressing for me.
“In the end, I decided to set the book after the pandemic has ended and to acknowledge it as something that occurred. For example, one of the supporting characters wears business on the top and casual on the bottom at work, which, I suspect, many of us will be doing for many years to come!”
Every Story Is a Pandemic Story
Whether we write about the pandemic or not, now or in the future, we can’t help but be influenced by the times in which we live. And these times have been tough on all of us.
“I see my work as a refuge from regular life,” says Louise, “a place where I can go to explore outside of my day to day, so I have steadily avoided any mention of the pandemic in my current WIP.
“That being said, I think the experience of lockdown, of slowing down and engaging with the world in a more mindful way, is in every sentence of the novel I am working on—to me it will always be a pandemic novel, even though no one else will be able to see that.”
Because like it or not, right now every story is a pandemic story.
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