Writing in strange times

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Follow our rolling blog from a WM isolated workspace

Isolation: Friday 24 April


Another WM gone to press, another magazine cycle started. People are still writing, publishing and putting on events – we’re reshaping our corner of the world, adjusting things to adapt to circumstances. I went to another online book launch this week – for Beneath the Streets, by Private Eye journalist and novelist Adam Macqueen, who featured in our April issue – and it was really good too. Adam was funny and clever and read a fast-paced extract from his political thriller that imagines an alternative scenario around the attempted murder of Jeremy Thorpe’s lover Norman Scott. Adam told the story of how, in the run-up to publication, the real-life Norman Scott had friended him on Facebook, leading to a conversation where Adam apologised to Norman the real person for killing Norman the character in his book. This story has been reported in The Times, and WM was glad that the distinguished company at Adam’s launch could not see her shovelling curry in her mouth and lowering the tone of a terrific virtual event.
We’re seeing lots of amazing people responding to the crisis with new prizes and calls for submission – keep checking our website and social media to see the latest. But we also see so many things that should be happening that aren’t – festivals and events cancelled, indie publishers delaying books or not being able to go ahead with long-hoped for publishing plans. Obviously bookshops and booksellers are facing hard times and the International Publishers Association has called on world governments to help the global book trade - Amazon has stumped up £250K to a fund to help booksellers affected by the COVID-19 crisis. So if you can, writing people, invest in new books and preferably buy them from the publisher or an indie bookseller because each sale really does make a difference – not to mention that when you have something to submit, you will want there to be places to submit it, and then outlets where people can buy it when it’s published.
Time to put my money where my curry-stuffed mouth is then, and go visit Lightning Books to get my own copy of Beneath the Streets. Happy reading, and happy writing this weekend!

 

Isolation: Friday 17 April

There hasn’t been a moment to write a blog this week because what with the bank holidays and Writing Magazine’s fast-approaching press day, spare time has been in short supply. This will be the first issue we’ve ever produced under lockdown conditions and although we put a great deal of effort into every issue, it’s been more important to us than ever to deliver the best and most useful content we can. We want to make sure our loyal readers get what they need to help them carry on with their writing in challenging times – in different conditions than we’ve been used to, we’ve done our best to adapt to the way our working lives have changed.

Anyway, with the weekend approaching there’s a chance for a breather before all the last-minute press-day tasks. Hopefully I’ll be reading a chunk of the proof copy of SJ Watson’s new novel, which came with me from the office on exodus day. Over the bank holiday, Marian Keyes’ new book Grown Ups broke my attention-deficit reading drought – a proper book to fall into and while away hours with. It was wonderful, as well as a relief to be simply reading for pleasure. And having a short story published was wonderful too – a really happy moment in these anxiety-inducing times. And although I’d only managed to write 200 creative words in four weeks, something clicked this week and I’ve managed a page and a half of something new. Our online feature What to write when you can’t concentrate on writing tapped into something very real that’s being experienced by the creative community but perhaps we should trust our own creative process a little bit more, and instead of worrying about forcing it, give it chance to take root and blossom.

 

Isolation: Thursday 9 April

As writers, one of the things we do is think about words. I’m far from the only one to worry about the use of words like ‘fight’, ‘conquer’ and ‘battle’ used in the context of a person suffering from the coronavirus (or any illness) that imply there’s somehow a stiffening of moral fibres that will determine whether or not a person will overcome the virus.
With the prime minister in intensive care, the language used by his colleagues has highlighted this notion. A human body may well be a battleground where an invasive illness takes over but whether you survive it or not depends on luck – and of course, a variety of random factors, including but not limited to age, state of health, exposure to viral load. A virus is not something you can ‘take on’; you can’t ‘beat it’. You don’t ‘win your fight’ against an invisible enemy because of personal qualities that make you ‘stronger’ than the disease.
When we’re out clapping tonight for the NHS, we’re applauding their unbelievably valiant struggle against the invasive coronavirus. That’s where the word ‘fight’ truly applies. Under-resourced, under-funded, skilled, dedicated, self-sacrificing, amazing, they’re battling with every weapon they’ve got to save the mounting numbers of people stricken with the illness. People whose personal bravery won’t make a scrap of difference once they’re in an ICU, because coronavirus doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t give a flying anything whether the person who gets it triumphs at the debating society and wins elections. It’s a terrorist. It goes undercover. It fights dirty.
So when we write about it, part of our job, as writers, is to think carefully about the words we use, the nuances, the implied meanings. Words matter. They’re our tools. Our weapons, if you like, in the struggle against cliché and false information. It’s never been more important that we use them with care.

 

Isolation: Friday 3 April

Life in the writing world goes on, mutating and surviving. This morning some of the team met up via Skype – marketing chic and cosy in a furry grey blanket, the editor’s youngest stealing the show in a unicorn headband, my smaller cat showing me up by showing everyone her bottom. And I went to a virtual book launch last night. It was a proper success too. The book in question – The Ministry of Guidance by Golnoosh Nour – should have been launched at Waterstones in Gower Street but instead it was beamed from her kitchen. Via Facebook live we watched Golnoosh, as stylish and disruptive as her fierce, elegant prose in a blingy gold shirt, reading extracts from her debut short story collection and answering all the (many) questions fired at her. The book’s publisher, Kate Beal from Muswell Press, gave her speech by mobile which Golnoosh held up to the screen. There were 140 attendees, all engaged and firing off questions and comments, and as one of them noted, there wouldn’t have been room to cram that many of us into the physical space originally planned for the launch. Loads of people were asking where they could buy the book – I’ll be getting mine direct from the publisher, which is the best way to support a press, and after last night’s launch, I’m looking forward to reading it even more.
After that, continuing the orgy of book-related fabulousness, I went from online to real-time and read Nick Quantrill’s No Direction Home, which is the first of a limited-edition Fahrenzine series: a single short crime story presented like an old-school fanzine – a gorgeous object as well as a cracking story, and the first thing I’ve read cover-to-cover in a single session since lockdown began.
I’ve proper missed sinking into a book but my concentration has been shot. Articles are a different matter, and one that particularly caught my eye today was I’m Seven Months Pregnant And My Husband Is Deployed In A War-Zone by Regina Tingle on ScaryMommy. Pregnant, quarantined and unsure whether her trauma surgeon husband will be able to see his new baby for months after its birth, Regina has done the most generous and useful thing writers in isolation can do. She’s written, and tried to make sense of what’s going on, the darkness and the light of it, and she’s put her words out there.

 

Isolation:  Thursday 2 April

The new Writing Magazine is out today – we put it to bed literally moments before our offices were evacuated. It was all a bit of a rush – press day is always hectic anyway, with last minute copy to fit in and proof-reading to be done, minute design adjustments, pages to be made ready for printing. The pressure was ramped up to an even more frantic level for the May issue – the editor, keeping a calm head while everyone was preparing to move, was writing his editor’s letter even as some team members were packing up their workstations and leaving the building with their desktop computers bundled in their arms.

And then we were all in our home offices and everything changed. Which it does, for all of us, every day. It’s frustrating, with print deadlines being what they are, and the situation changing so rapidly, that some items in the new mag were out of date before you get to read them – such as Crimefest, who provided such a lovely selection of tips from top crime authors, cancelled the day after print deadline – but we hope you understand.

It’s worth bearing in mind that none of us know how to do this new way of living, and we’re working it out day by day. For the first week or so I was firing on all cylinders at work, walking miles to the vet to collect the poorly cat’s medicine, foraging for food and then wading through treacle in what remained of my down time, with not a creative thought in my head. Now a routine is starting to impose itself, with online dance classes, and morning and evening yoga because when you sit at a desk for most of the day, it’s good for your body to stretch and your brain to have a rest from words.

But none of us want to have a rest from words for very long, which is where, all being well, Writing Magazine comes in. We hope you enjoy the new issue and we’re working full steam ahead on the next one, and on our website and social media, which is where you’ll find lots of advice, insights and inspiration especially tailored to writing through the COVID-19 crisis. Or not writing, as the case may be. But as the new normal imposes itself, the words will come. And hopefully, be worth reading.

 

Isolation Tuesday 31 March

Over the weekend J S Rogers, one of our lovely WM writers, posted in response to this blog, sending her own account – she’s one of the 1.5 million at risk of severe illness whose isolation for the next 12 weeks will be total. I love how she’s recounted the minute detail of what this entails so I can really picture, for instance, how she is banished to the garden shed whilst her masked, gloved husband copes with a broadband engineer’s visit at an unspecified time. 
From this remote office, work is even busier than it usually is, with the relentless monthly magazine and online schedule expanding to incorporate all our responses to what’s going on in the writing world at this time of radical change. We want to keep in touch with our isolated readers and hopefully, offer them insights and activities that keep them connected to the writing community. Office chat carries on via WhatsApp – on Thursday we all shared how we were out clapping for the NHS. Friday we were talking background music, with the advertising team grooving to Northern soul and the editorial department creating conceptual playlists.
There’s a lot of busyness as a first response to the crisis and even though it’s wonderful to see how the creative community is responding so generously to the crisis and helping people connected, it bears to remember that for a lot of people, their creative brain may well have temporarily disconnected while they process the initial impact of such radical change.
That’s been my experience, anyway, at least in the part of my writing life that isn’t connected to work. For the first time since we evacuated from our offices nearly two weeks ago, on Sunday I scribbled a few words about what was going on in a notebook. Picked up a book connected to a writing project I was going great guns with until all this happened, and haven’t looked at since. One of the last writing activities I took part in before the COVID-19 crisis hit was an all-night writing workshop at the Leeds Library with poet Becky Cherriman, as part of the Leeds LitFest. It was all about writing at strange times and in altered states – in this case, of sleep deprivation, but it’s filtering back into my brain now as something I can draw on to write in these strange times. It was a marvellous experience – and with the possible risk of energy blackouts on the horizon, perhaps one with more relevance and significance than I realised.

 

Isolation Friday 27 March

By the time I sat down to work at 9 yesterday I’d walked a mile up the road and back to collect the cat’s prescription from the vet and gone shopping for my mother on the way back. It was beautifully, eerily quiet, with empty buses gliding past. When I got back the rooks were bickering loudly about something on the roof. It was lovely to be able to hear the birds so clearly.

Work has its own rhythm – writing, editing, commissioning, snouting about for the latest news in the writing world -but it’s punctuated, inevitably, with checking news feeds for crisis updates – in the latest, Boris with coronavirus. Apart from the obvious horror of the mounting deaths and increasing cases, one of the biggest issues facing the creative community is the situation for self-employed and freelance workers: what help they'll be able to access, when they might be able to get it, HRMC only holding records of what self-employed people were earning up to 5 April 2019, cancelled contracts, gigs that were lined up and then pulled, people being unable to get through to an HMRC swamped by frantic callers, and so much more.

It’s chaos and it’s affecting so many of the people whose work makes our world a better place. Artists, writers, poets, musicians, actors, dancers, designers, editors, journalists. People most of us know, or are, who live from hand to mouth, from gig to gig. With this as a background, the entitled luvvies at the National Theatre pleading poverty as a result of COVID-19 induces rage. There wasn’t a blog yesterday because we were waiting for Chancellor Rishi Sunak to announce his measures, which haven’t come a moment too soon.

It’s wonderful seeing how many of these beleaguered arts people are pulling together to create schemes for support and encouragement, like Northern Fiction Alliance’s isolation initiatives from the independent publishers that come under its banner. Check them out and show them some love. And from today isolated writers can attend a virtual litfest – the Stay At Home Festival, which has been organised by writer CJ Cooke – she deserves massive love and respect too. Later on today we’ve got a must-read piece from the CEO of Fahrenheit Press coming up for you – it really is an ‘if you only read one article this week’ kind of thing and I can’t do better than borrow his words: stronger together.

 

Isolation Wednesday 25 March

There are all sorts of predicaments facing the writing world at the moment – indie booksellers and publishers facing threats to their livelihood and very existence, competitions and festivals being cancelled, markets for work contracting. But one of the biggest and most pressing issues is the situation facing freelance and self-employed writers, and though as I write it’s just been announced that Chancellor Rishi Sunak will be tomorrow announcing the government’s measures to help the self-employed, the creative community is already launching initiatives. Arts Council England has announced a massive £160 million emergency Covid-19 fund to support organisations and individuals affected by the coronavirus crisis. Society of Authors announced its £330,000 Authors Emergency Fund last week.

We’re seeing all sorts of amazing creative responses and opportunities too – The BBC looking for short scripts for InterConnected, and the launch of COVID-19 Creative Commissions for GMCA (Greater Manchester Combined Authority) are just two, and there’ll be many, many more. There’s more information about the ones we’ve mentioned on our website and we’ll be keeping you posted about what’s out there.

In the Writing Magazine online office, we’re keeping on keeping on from our remote workstations, although the whole operation was nearly scuppered yesterday when one team member posted a pic on our WhatsApp group about the order she’d just had delivered of 48 Crème Eggs. We’ve discovered that it’s the one chocolate guaranteed to get every team member excited, and tools were temporarily downed while everyone chipped in with their greedy remarks. We’re sorry if we were temporarily unavailable at the point but priorities, people!

 

Isolation Tuesday 24 March

Well it’s lockdown day, bringing with it a sense of relief (that something is finally being done) and dread (about everything). But that’s the new normal, and we’re all getting used to that.

Yesterday’s work-from-home outfit was bizarre even by my standards (floral MC Hammer trousers, silk petticoat, baggy vintage Ralph Lauren Fair Isle cardigan) so I decided to get dressed properly today because one of my cats has a vet appointment which means I’d leave the house. And now I won’t be leaving it after all because it’s been changed to a telephone consultation. What are you wearing in your home offices?

The human spirit is a wonderful thing and our amazing WM writers prove this in so many ways. One of our WM poets, Jeannie Armstrong, wrote this beautiful, articulate poem in response to last night’s news and she’s given me permission to share it here. It’s her birthday today and look at her, giving us all a gift. Happy birthday, and thank you, Jeannie.

Writing in Strange Times
By Jeannie Armstrong

Putting letters formed into words
On the page today
Feels so very different,
For there is this dystopian feel
To every moment that
Makes me feel like I’m half
Asleep and dreaming
The sort of dream that makes
You wonder if you are dead
Or dying and trying to
Quantify and describe how this feels.
The looks on strangers’ faces
The sound of laughter
Rippling, tinkling, cacophony of geese squawking
So it can be recorded for ever.
So the next generation, innocent and
Fresh cheeked will
Know how it was to feel like it
Maybe perhaps could be
The beginning of the end of the world

 

Isolation Monday 23 March

Does anyone else find that having actual work to do makes the terrors of the world outside recede, at least for a little while? Working on WM today, and particularly editing our subscribers’ success stories and putting them through for publication, is inducing a sense of order that was missing over the weekend, which seemed to pass in a blur of panicked headline-checking and stunned, reactive inertia. One friend, a freelance arts journalist, is stuck in Australia with no flights out, and another, a foreign correspondent who has lived in and reported from Afghanistan, is now holed up in the Ukraine. Thank goodness for Facebook and WhatsApp which make it possible to stay in touch.

Anyone struggling with how to cope could do worse than read the humane and thoughtful advice of journalist and humanitarian Imogen Wall, which has gone viral (sorry!) and which we’ve shared on our Facebook page. She used to freelance for a magazine I worked for and has gone on to work on the frontline, reporting from disaster zones and epidemics, so what she has to say comes from experience and is well worth a read.

Another bit of relief came from Simon Armitage’s beautiful new poem, Lockdown. He’s doing what a Poet Laureate should be doing – using words to make sense of troubled times.

On a lighter note, hands up, was anyone a fan of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books? The BBC has pulled forward the release of CBBC’s 13-part adaptation and it’s streaming on iPlayer from tonight. Let us know if you watched it!

Isolation Friday 20 March

Logging on to work after doing the shopping at 8am is a reminder of how all our lives are changing. The supermarket was a real-life microcosm revealing how scared everyone is and how desperate not to run out of provisions. I started work breathless but triumphant having lugged home two bags of cat litter.

Via our WhatsApp group we can see the team adapting to, and sometimes struggling with, the ways their working systems are changing. Online access, that sort of thing. Everyone’s very polite and considerate in this odd period of adjustment: they just want to get on with their jobs. At WM we’re getting as far ahead as possible with the next issue and making sure there’s interesting online content for people to engage with while they’re in isolation. We message each other about putting the kettle on.

What’s really hitting home today is how much of a hit creative people and industries are taking – and how much of an impact this will have for all of us. Events people have been planning and working hard on are closing or being postponed – not just the biggies like LBF and the Hay Festival, but more grassroots events like Hull Noir. Two crime writer friends have been putting everything into this since last year – when it’s your mates you really feel as well as see the impact this is having on every level of the writing community.

What’s also coming through is how many good and generous people there are out there, from big corporations to indies whose own situation may now be precarious, doing what they can to support writers and readers. The SoA and friends have set up an Authors Emergency Fund. Audible is offering free ebooks for children and teens. Indie-punk crime publisher Fahrenheit Press, who were featured in WM last year, are giving away a free ebook to people who can’t afford to buy a book during the crisis. Influx Press will be organising online discussion groups. Legend Press has set up a ‘support a friend’ scheme where you can send a book as a random act of kindness to a friend in isolation for well below the usual price.

We’re trying to do our bit here, too, to keep our amazing readers informed and entertained. If you know of anyone going out of their way to support other writers and readers, let us know! We’re all in this together and we’d love to spread the word. More than ever, when this is finally over, we’re all going to need what the creative community can provide.

 

Wednesday: Isolation day one: Thursday 20 March

Yesterday was the first day our team worked from our home offices. We all shared pictures of our new workspaces via WhatsApp, which means we can all visualise each other at work, and helps with community spirit. WM shared pictures of our spaces with our community of writers, and it was great getting feedback.

Feeling networked was a great part of today – Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp really come into their own when you can’t talk face to face. In the wider writing world though, it’s worrying to hear from independent presses reporting downturns in sales because people aren’t buying books in a crisis. Buy books people! The risk of small presses not surviving this is very real. We’ll all need places to submit to when this is over and if we don’t support them, they won’t be there.

It’s also sad to hear about the hits people in the writing world are taking. I FaceTimed with two writer friends after work. One has had her book launch cancelled and the other has had her book’s publication delayed. Another friend is the head of a uni creative writing masters degree course which she’s currently running remotely from a shed in her garden. If there were medals for blitz spirit she should be first in line.

After work the team all WhatsApped with the drinks we’ll be ordering to celebrate when this is over. Felt quite tiddly by bedtime.

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