Writing in a pandemic: keeping focused and staying safe

What was your daily writing practice like before March 2020? Before the pandemic struck? I have a day job that involved a lot of traveling and I would snatch chunks of writing time on trains and waiting at airports. Great for people watching and world building.

I also used to write in cafes. I loved to set up my laptop with tea and cake and type ways, stopping to look out of the window. Chatting to other writers and meeting friends. Lots of focused writing.

So when the pandemic struck I was paralysed. Writing was a non-starter because I was living and working at my dining room table. The space between everyday life, day job work and writing work had disappears, and with it my word count.

I needed to stay safe. I am not particularly at risk but I do live in a high-risk area. So while I could go out for my lockdown hour of exercise – in my case, walking – I couldn’t go and sit in a coffee bar or meet with friends. In any case, most of my writing colleagues were as paralysed as me an worried sick about this publishing industry.

In between days

Before COVID-19 came along I had taken a big risk. My agent and I spoke about me changing genre from psychological thrillers to women’s fiction and I had just finished my first novel. She loved it and we were about to submit it to publishers when lockdown happened. Everything went haywire. Publications cancelled and book fairs on hold. In the midst of all this my book was not submitted.

I had the start of an idea for the next book and, after much discussion, we agreed that i would write it and wait until things were better to submit the current novel. So I started to write. Or tried to. The distraction and emotional exhaustion meant that it was difficult. I missed my writing routine and my work routine. The uncertainty around my job and my writing career was a vicious circle that was out of my control and, therefore, not worth worrying about. But I did.

Summer came and went and, as National Novel Writing Month approached, I knew I had to do something.

November and COVID-19

I had worked very hard to establish my writing group in NaNoWriMo as a region, and this brought a little focus. I set my project up on the site and my intention was to start a new novel. Book 4 in my DS Jan Pearce Series. Readers had asked for another Jan Pearce novel so it made sense.

Yet that didn’t happen. The pandemic worsening meant more COVID-19 worry. I managed to write 50k words of different chapters of different projects. but nothing joined up. Nothing I could put together and roll out as finished. I was completely despondent until something very strange happened.

In my desperation for a writing community I suggested that instead of having our weekly social meeting, we all meet and write in silence. In Zoom. Cameras on. It took a bit of technical organisation to get everyone splitting their screens, but we held the first session in week 2.

I had no idea if this would work or not. I had some material in reserve for if everyone hated this ‘virtual write-in’. But everyone didn’t hate it. The attendees started racking up super-productive word counts and posting them on social networking. Asking for more write-in. We organised a full day, and, as people logged on, I could see how successful this was.

But NaNoWriMo only lasts four weeks. In no time, I was back to writing at my dining room table alone.

New year – new writing practice

In an effort to kick-start my writing again I started to submit article pitches. I had only five chapters of a novel that, as my agent started to submit my completed novel to editors, would need to make progress.

I submitted an article to MsLexia and the editor liked the idea of it and asked for more details. She noted my narrative psychology qualifications and asked me if I was willing to be interviewed for a piece someone else was writing about writing groups. Rebecca Hastings sent me a Zoom invite and we chatted about our experiences during lockdown with our respective writing groups.

I told Rebecca about my weekly NaNoWriMo group and she told me about a daily writing group that was about to change my life.

Balancing on a new pandemic writing scaffold

Me and Anstey writing in a pandemic

It wasn’t until I’d attended the first London Writing Salon Zoom call that I realised how much I had been propped up by my writing practice framework. Places. people, noises – and coffee! As the second session opened in my browser and Zoom connected, almost two hundred faces jumped in. Matt and Parul welcomed us and read a daily quote. The silence. For fifty minutes.

And writing. Lots of writing. Somehow, the image of all the other people on the Zoom call, all focused and working on their writing, allowed the words to flow. At times it felt precarious, as if all of a sudden I would fall off and it would all implode. But maybe I was thinking about the world around me, because it didn’t. We came to the page every day.

My long time writing friend Anstey Harris joined me there and was just as productive. And my screenwriting friend Sarah Cassidy also came in – we were regulars at writing retreats together and now we have found a way to still write together.

Me and Sarah writing in a pandemic

I started to write my novel in the week in between Christmas and New Year 2020. I finished it on the 3rd February 2021. I attended 2 or 3 hour-long sessions per day and my word count per session was between 800 and 1000 words. Of course, this is a first draft, but it came in at just over eighty eight thousand words.

A sense of safety

It will soon be a full year since the pandemic lockdown started. Here in Oldham we’ve barely been out of Tier 4 restrictions and the world has felt very dangerous. But I have found a sense of safety in my writing practice.

I am lucky, because when it all gets too much I can retreat into my world and characters and sit with them for a while. Writing is necessarily isolating – we need solitude to conjure up our imaginary journeys – but sometimes we need the communion of other people’s experiences to carry on ourselves. I have found that with almost two hundred people in, of all places, an online group.

We are staying safe, keeping going and creating. Thank you for the support and long may it last.