Monday, 7 June 2021

Where do we go from here? By Dawn Finch

The only writing some of us have managed

I noticed a thing yesterday. I was chatting in the market and someone said, “we had a lovely time here last year”, but they didn’t mean last year. They, like many of us, had simply eradicated a year from their thoughts. It got me thinking about where we go from here. I have been working on a manuscript for adults and I started writing it in November 2019. It is set in a mobile library in the present day and it was going well right up until March 2020 when everything changed. My novel set in the present day suddenly had an unwelcome new character – Covid 19.

I know I’m not alone in wondering what we do with Covid 19 and our fiction. The Pandemic occupied almost all our thoughts and conversations for well over a year and that is going to leave an indelible mark our memories, but do we want that mark on our fiction too?

I had a chat to some bookseller and library friends and asked what they thought about the Pandemic and fiction. The consensus is that people are split between those who want to read books centering on the disastrous impact of the virus, and those (like my market friends) who want to simply skip 2020 and not think about it.

In terms of fiction, it is a difficult decision to make. Do we reference the Pandemic in our books set in the Real World, or do we not? Do we move our books either backwards to the Time Before, or forward to the Time After? How can we possibly write a book set in the time of the Pandemic that is not a Pandemic novel?

I think that it is an exceptionally fine balancing act and I’ll be interested to see how people manage to adapt. The first Pandemic novels were already on our shelves last summer and booksellers reported a huge upsurge in people seeking out books set in times of socially isolation and virus outbreaks, but will that continue? We have no way of knowing, but there is a long and solid history of disaster and disease fiction and there’s no reason that popularity won’t continue.

John Christopher's children's novel about a world where a virus kills thousands of adults but leaves children largely unaffected. Published over 40 years ago this excellent work received some well deserved extra interest in 2020

That said, if our books are specifically set in the last year or so we can’t NOT reference the virus for fear of our Real-World fiction feeling less…well… real. It isn’t possible to ignore it completely – or is it? Is it possible to write a Real-World novel that makes no reference to the Pandemic at all? I have recently read a few brand-new YA novels and I didn’t find it jarring at all to not see references to the virus, my brain simply slipped into a pre-covid mindset. In fact, I found it comforting to dwell for a while in a place where the virus hadn’t shaped every conversation and social interaction.

I wondered what the bookselling world thought and had a chat with an agent friend. She said there was a “current hunger” in the commercial industry for virus books, but she was very cautious. We agreed that we’d both seen the industry obsessively seek out specific genre or theme books before. We've all seen how the publishing world gets hooked on a thing and snaps up everything they can, floods the market, eventually drowns it and then moves on. She says that no matter what the trends and fashions are in publishing what really matters is “the strength and quality of the story and the writing”.

Okay, so maybe there is no way we can set a novel specifically in 2020 without mentioning the Pandemic, but people shouldn’t feel as if they have to reference it. Perhaps we shouldn’t rush to write THE Covid novel. The pace of publishing is so slow it’s positively glacial and if you are writing a novel now even with everything lined up (contract and deadline already in place etc), the chances are that you are not going to see it on the shelves until 2022. Who knows where we’ll be in 2022!

Write your story. Let the story unfold just as it should. If it is a Pandemic story then there is a good chance that there may be even more of an appetite for them the further down the line we get. If it is not a Pandemic novel, don’t feel as if you have to change your whole plot to incorporate virus references. Just write the thing and if you need to add references later to ground the novel in a certain period, so be it.

For writers we are in yet another period of uncertainty - but that's nothing new for authors! Frankly, I’m impressed anyone has managed to write anything in the last 18 months so you've already impressed me if you have. We have no choice but to go with the flow and I’m very optimistic about the future and looking forward to seeing what everyone comes up with.

Dawn Finch is the current chair of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group at the Society of Authors. She is currently hoping for enough brain-space to do some actual writing.

1 comment:

Susan Price said...

As always, go with your gut. Think about writing a novel set in and about the pandemic. If your response is, 'Wow!' then write a pandemic novel. If it's 'Uurgh,' then don't.

The long slog of writing a novel won't happen if it's also a constant battle against your gut-feeling.