Setting Your Stories Amid a Pandemic World

by Tiffany Yates Martin

Most likely the concern I hear most from authors these days is some variation of, “What do we do about coronavirus?” Not in real life (by now I hope all of us know to WEAR MASKS, socially distance, and stay at home as much as possible), but in their current works-in-progress.

Do authors acknowledge the infection, the pandemic, these relentless months of quarantine by setting stories prior to the cataclysm of 2020? If we try to prevent it by pushing stories forward into the not-too-distant future, how can we anticipate how the world may have changed by then– socially, economically, culturally? Will our stories even be relevant in a post-pandemic world (whenever were lastly post-pandemic …)?

As writer and critic Lily Meyer says in this Atlantic short article:

” No one has actually had time to truly refine their ideas about personal life in a state of prevalent seclusion and existential dread, and literature, even when political, is an essentially personal world. It depends on the ability to funnel inner experience outward, and since no inner experience of the coronavirus pandemic could plausibly be referred to as complete, prose that renders it static and comprehensible rings false. In the unstable realm of literature reacting rapidly to a crisis in turmoil, mess and motion are the types that speak finest to uncomfortable truths.”

Thats a literary method of saying what I believe the majority of us already intuit: Who the #&& *% knows?

However if anybody may have some assistance or insight, I thought it may be industry specialists who are more intimate with the market and its vagaries and reactions to major world occasions– many current publishing specialists were around for 9/11s effect on the market, for instance. With that in mind, I asked a handful of associates– literary representatives and editors at releasing houses– in the Age of COVID, whats a bad storyteller to do?

What Writing Industry Professionals Are Saying

Their responses aligned along comparable lines, and may offer some guideposts– and a breath of relief when its frantically needed.

1. Dont overthink it.

Years ago I heard bestselling author Walter Mosley speak. Inquired about research study for his historic hard-boiled Easy Rawlins secret series (Devil in a Blue Dress, et al), Mosley, the author of more than forty effective novels, chuckled and said he made it all up. “Its fiction,” he said simply.

Faith Black Ross, senior editor at Crooked Lane Books, has a comparable take: “It appears to be a matter of personal choice, however for me, and the majority of the others Ive talked to, unless its germane to the plot I prefer to simply ignore it. I believe many people read fiction as a form of escapism and so reading about people worrying and wearing masks about the infection puts me best back into the truths of today that I would often prefer to avoid considering, specifically when Im taking a much-needed break with a book.”.

Christine Witthohn, literary agent/licensing representative with Book Cents Literary Agency, is of this school of idea: “Its fiction, so they can write whatever they want. I havent heard anyone (editors or representatives) discussing that subject. I believe those concerns are writerly questions that trigger an author to spin their wheels and get hung up (i.e., fretting about concerns that keep them from being productive).”.

” To be honest, there hasnt been a lot of discussion with editors about consisting of the new typical in manuscripts,” says Kim Lionetti, senior literary agent with BookEnds Literary Agency. I believe editors just believe readers will go to fiction for escapism and do not really need the new realities dealt with … I dont think publishers are preventing the topic.

Theres likewise of risking your story quickly feeling anachronistic, Ross includes: “Having all of your characters using masks, etc., might date the book a bit and connect it extremely firmly to this one point in time rather than letting the work be a bit more timeless.”.

2. Avoid, in the meantime.

” For that factor, Ive been advising authors that I deal with to set their manuscripts pre-2020. This makes for a far less complicated writing/editing experience since it permits authors to concentrate on the core story instead of trying to incorporate ever-changing details. I have some authors who have actually composed authors notes discussing their choice to set the story before the pandemic, which is a reliable way to help relieve readers into the world … The danger of a story appearing outdated appears lower than speculating about what the future appear like and getting it incorrect.”.

” There are a lot of unknowns with the pandemic, and the circumstance is altering daily, so trying to address it even tangentially is challenging,” says Chris Werner, senior editor at Lake Union Publishing. “I think many readers aspire to get away into stories that are set pre-COVID,” the unpleasant realities of which have “moved nearly every element of our daily lives. Making reference of masks would imply having to entirely reframe how characters interact in their house or work space.

” Literature is not journalism,” adds Courtney Miller-Callihan, literary agent/founder of Handspun Literary Agency. “There are incredible books to be blogged about the coronavirus, however to be a little flippant about it, we do not know how that story ends yet; perhaps its not yet time for somebody to write the Great Coronavirus Novel. Ive been motivating authors having a hard time with this question to believe about whether neglecting COVID-19 feels unethical to their story, or whether consisting of the pandemic would actively prevent the readers experience of escapism. A substantial percentage of my own work is on love books, which are about as escapist as it gets (in a great way!), and the market consensus so far appears to be that love exists in an alternate measurement where coronavirus never ever happened.”.

Escapism is a theme that turned up repeatedly with the majority of the industry pros I talked with– that readers may not aspire to handle the same weighted problems that take in so much of everyones daily realities at the moment in the stories they turn to for relief and release.

Cindy Hwang, managing editor with Penguin Group USA also prefers this technique up until we have more point of view on the current worldwide crisis: “Honestly, if I needed to offer an author suggestions right now, I d state avoid the virus and keep your dates unclear. That will not work long-term or for every book, but till this is over we simply will not understand!”.

3. Seek to the future– eventually.

That concern and confusion you might be feeling as a writer amid this unmatched disturbance of society isnt baseless– and youre far from alone in wrestling with these problems. However similar to every other significant crisis in history, this too will pass– and when it does, it will as constantly be art and artists that assist society process, understand, and heal from our cumulative injuries.

Eventually, just as with 9/11, this international experience of pandemic is going to become a part of the cumulative culture that will unquestionably be shown in our literature. Just as numerous stories now make little specific referral to the Trade Towers falling and the extreme shift in our society that followed, COVID-19 and quarantine might merely become part of the material of our imaginary worlds– a thread in the tapestry, rather than a discrete swath of patchwork quilt.

About Tiffany.

” One day (God willing) we will come out the opposite of all of this,” says Faith Black Ross. “Like so much of publishing, its all actually maddeningly subjective. Its all still extremely up in the air and unidentified, however for now I like my fiction like I like the rest of my life, with no coronavirus in it.”.

” On the flip side,” includes Chris Werner, “Ive been seeing offer announcements for books that are themed around quarantining and the situation as it stands now. There is definitely a lot of product to use in this regard, and more authors might see the pandemic as a chance to check out new surface.”.

Visit her at or

Ive been motivating writers struggling with this question to think about whether overlooking COVID-19 feels deceitful to their story, or whether consisting of the pandemic would actively thwart the readers experience of escapism. Normally, I just suggest doing whatever feels right to the story.

Its currently revealing signs of happening, according to Kim Lionetti: “Recently I did have an editor recommend that it ought to be incorporated into a manuscript in a little method (e.g., theres scenes in a fitness center, and they suggested including some of the cleansing and distancing factors to consider being added). Typically, I just suggest doing whatever feels right to the story.

Under the pen name Phoebe Fox, shes the author of the Breakup Doctor series and her most current release, A Little Bit of Grace (August 11, Berkley).

Do authors acknowledge the infection, the pandemic, these unrelenting months of quarantine by setting stories prior to the catastrophe of 2020? If we try to prevent it by pushing stories forward into the not-too-distant future, how can we anticipate how the world may have altered by then– socially, financially, culturally? I have some authors who have actually written authors notes describing their choice to set the story before the pandemic, which is an effective way to assist relieve readers into the world … The risk of a story appearing outdated seems lower than hypothesizing about what the future looks like and getting it incorrect.”.

* * * * * *.

” Honestly, I would tell writers to write the stories they wish to write!” says Christine Witthohn. “Dont get hung up on things that will only cause them to procrastinate or block their creativity. Thats what editing is for. Everyone has enough to worry about today.”.


Tiffany Yates Martin has actually spent almost thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, dealing with major publishers and bestselling and award-winning authors as well as indie and newer authors, and is the author of the Amazon bestseller Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing. Shes led workshops and workshops for conferences and authors groups across the country and is a frequent contributor to authors sites and publications.

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