Writing in the Time of COVID Part 1: Van Allen Plexico and Alethea Kontis

Writing at any time can be daunting, sometimes rewarding, sometimes eminently frustrating. But what about writing in a pandemic with all the accompanying social, economic, political, and weather distractions in addition to health concerns?

The Daily Dragon asked authors participating in the first virtual Dragon Con how they faced and survived these particular challenges and kept on writing—or not.

Daily Dragon (DD): How has your writing practice borne up under life changes that the pandemic has sent your way? Were any of 2020’s distractions more troublesome than others in continuing to write? Alternatively, have any of those distractions provided inspiration or fodder for your work?

Van Allen Plexico

Van Allen Plexico (VP):  For the first month or so, I was simply too distracted by everything to concentrate on writing. Then, suddenly, my brain seemed to come to an understanding that this was the “new normal” for a while, and I settled in and got very productive. I wrote the final seventy percent or so of Miami Heist just in April and May alone.

Ironically enough, Dragon Con turned out to be the biggest “distraction”! I’ve been doing a lot of online work for the con this year, interviewing and moderating and recording panels to be used that weekend. That has cut into the time I normally used for writing—but I’m definitely not complaining! I’ve enjoyed every bit of it, being able to give back to the con and help out, and be a part of it in a different way this year.

Alethea Kontis (AK): The plan for 2020 was to have three of my author-sisters from the Make Art Not War collective come stay at my house in a mini-writers retreat for the month of March, surrounding ICFA (International Conference for Fantastic in the Arts) in Orlando. Two authors arrived before lockdown happened, which was fine because we’d planned to buckle down in the house and work anyway. We did NOT plan to all get horribly sick. (Ironically, it was assumed to be a non-COVID adenovirus.)

I was the sickest of us all. By the time I got better and sent everyone home, it was mid-April. I was online constantly, applying for unemployment and every grant I could find, when I stumbled onto Gary Lightbody from Snow Patrol playing music live on Instagram. There was a sign on his bookshelf that said “Saturday Songwrite.” I signed on again Saturday to find out what that was…and my life changed forever.

So…am I still writing? Yes. Am I writing what I thought I would be at the beginning of this year? Nope. If I could steal the TARDIS and go back in time to tell myself I was going to help my favorite band release a critically-acclaimed EP that had my name on it (The Fireside Sessions by Snow Patrol and the Saturday Songwriters), I would NEVER have believed me. Even if the Doctor was standing right there.

DD: Did any of your habits or writing customs prove especially helpful in meeting your creative goals this year?

VP: I’m pretty good about finding time to write that doesn’t interfere with my other responsibilities to my job and my family. Normally that would be early in the day or late at night. The pandemic shook that schedule up a bit, since I was home all day every day from March into August. The trick was working out exactly when I would be needing to set aside time for teaching my college classes online and fitting in writing around that.

Alethea Kontis

AK: Since my author-sisters in the Make Art Not War collective were already using Zoom as a shared workspace, it kind of worked out perfectly. We already had experience in what was about to become the most popular platform. I was able to join groups and connect with others that previously had no online presence.

I was also able to give myself time. I am all too familiar with the massive guilt that happens when I’m unable to create. But knowing that the rest of the entire planet was going through the same thing almost made it easier for me. If that guilt ever came creeping up, I gave myself a pass.

Also, I have a journal. I started trying to get better about writing in it last fall. I pulled that puppy back out and left it on the table. Started writing in it every single day. (I even bought myself new pens!) This has been an immense help to my mental state.

DD: What, if any, changes have you made in your routine to maintain your writing progress?

VP: I set up an office in the basement for my classes that had to move online in March, and I’ve been able to use that to write as well. I’ve developed a routine of going down there and treating it like part of my regular job. That makes it harder to get distracted or procrastinate.

AK: My weekly SCBWI meetings are now on Zoom…plus everything else I’m doing in the next question.

DD: How has the pandemic affected your productivity?

VP: At first, I was just too agitated from all the changes happening so suddenly. Once I got my mind around the idea that I would be working (and doing everything else) from home for a while, I was able to sort of calm down and focus, and my productivity really took off.

AK: The Make Art Not War collective “work parties” have increased dramatically. My international Saturday Songwrite family started posting poems and snippets of poetry on Instagram, so I encouraged myself to do that as well. It’s been a long time since I’ve flexed my poetry muscle, but this year I think I have written more poetry than I have since high school. I started learning German and Portuguese. I’m also learning guitar (OW MY HANDS). I walk on the treadmill every morning (because it’s too hot to walk outside in Florida), I attend my online meditation group, and then I get to work. I go to bed feeling exhausted but accomplished.

And if I don’t have a novel finished by the end of this summer, I’m okay with that. I’m in 13 anthologies and two magazines, on top of the classes I’ve taught, the NPR reviews I’ve written, and the podcast stories I’ve narrated for Clarkesworld, Pseudopod, and EscapePod. I also host a weekly Songwriter chat on Instagram, and I’m one of the lead authors on Talkabook, an author-visit platform launching soon.

I think I’m doing all right…

DD: Have you featured the pandemic in any of your stories or longer writing?

VP: Not yet, but they say “Write what you know,” and now I know what this is like! So I can imagine using an event like this in a story in the future. It’s one thing to try to imagine how something like the pandemic would affect society; it’s quite another to actually live through it and witness it firsthand!

AK: “Sassi’s Last Ride,” which released in July (My Battery is Low and it is Getting Dark) is all about how rich people fled the planet on rockets to Mars during the Third Pandemic. A year later, a rogue CDC unit hacks one of their ridiculous limousines and uses it to disseminate a vaccine.

The thing is…I wrote this story in December.

THAT IS SO FREAKING CREEPY. I mean, I guess I did a good job predicting the future? But wow. I can’t read that story anymore without getting goosebumps.

DD: What new work may we expect to see from you soon (or later)? 

VP: Miami Heist, my COVID-19 book (ha!), just came out in paperback and on Kindle, with Audible coming soon. It’s the second book in my 1960s crime/heist series, starring Harper and Salsa, master thieves, after Vegas Heist. Next up, I’m planning to work on a Military SF novel for Baen Books, with fingers crossed!

AK: I am SUPER EXCITED to be part of Don’t Turn Out the Lights, an anthology in the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. I have a Changeling: The Lost RPG novella coming out called On the Edge of all This. I will have stories in Castle of Horror 4, Into the Briny Deep, and Clockwork Curses and Coal. I wrote a heartbreaking tribute to my mentor Jane Yolen in her upcoming collection The Midnight Circus. Be sure to stream The Fireside Sessions album, now available on Spotify, and be on the lookout for Patchwork Poetry and Other Gibberish by the Saturday Songwriters, coming this winter!

Author of the article

Amy L. Herring (Louise Herring-Jones) writes speculative fiction, with a preference for historical fantasy and alternate mystery. Her stories, appearing in fourteen anthologies, include “The Poulterer’s Tale” in God Bless Us, Every One—Christmas Carols beyond Dickens (Voodoo Rumors Media, 2019). Amy is a NaNoWriMo co-municipal liaison. She also coordinates the Huntsville (Alabama) Literary Association’s writers’ group. Visit her online at http://www.louiseherring-jones.com.