On April sixteenth of this year, I dropped a couple notes into a word file and named it “Sifting Through the Rubble of COVID”—a blog post for the near future, maybe around the first week of July or so, when “this whole pandemic thing” was finally over. The plan was to look at the state of writing and publishing in the wake of the pandemic and see if anything positive might have come out of it.



Now it’s September and things are looking up in a few ways, sure, but most schools are still online, a lot of people are still working form home, we’re wearing masks everywhere we go—and still trying not to go too many places in any case, lots of businesses are still closed and many will never reopen, and an awful lot of people are still unemployed. It’s still pretty dismal out there.

I could easily write a post today about how goddamn over it I am. How sick I am of the masks. How desperately I want this country not just to “get back to work,” but learn from this disaster and move forward in a positive way, but… why would I do that?

You feel the same way—I get it.

I’ve puzzled over how little reading I’ve been doing, how little writing I’ve been doing, and how I managed to get terribly behind with work even though I’ve been working form home for a decade now. I’ve offered a little advice, tried to keep my mask-covered chin up, and all that stuff. And you have too, I’m sure. So instead of looking back on COVID, maybe let’s pause and take stock.

I think it’s a good thing that I’ve identified some problems in my own world. I get too easily distracted when my routine is interrupted. When my son came home from college and finished out last year remotely and wife and daughter stopped working, so did I. Why? No reason that makes any sense, even to me. I’ve gotten a handle on that now, and am still in the process of climbing on top of it. The fact that my wife is back to work, my son is back in school, and my daughter expects to be back to work this month helps a lot, but the same way the government needs to learn valuable lessons on managing pandemics across the country, so too do I have to learn how to better manage pandemics, or any other intrusions on my routine, here at home. I’m working full speed, reading more again, and have even been doing a little writing. I can fix myself, if not the world.

I wrote a little sci-fi flash fiction piece that obliquely deals with the pandemic, or life in pandemic times, but otherwise, fantasy and science fiction authors should be able to press on despite COVID. Like Charlie Jane Anders said in Never Say You Can’t Survive: “A light-hearted romance between an elk princess and a swamp god might not just be the only thing you feel like writing these days—it might also be the best way for you to deal with the problems we’re all facing.” But COVID has attacked authors of “realist” fiction in a big way, as Ben H. Winters identified in “The Coronavirus Is Upending the Plot of My Novel”:

Here’s something I probably always knew, deep down, but never thought about: Writing a novel presupposes the existence of a stable reality that will remain basically the same until you’re done working on the book.

I’ve been anxious in the past that a book I’m working on will be superseded by another book with a similar premise, or that a social or political issue central to the book’s themes will no longer be in the zeitgeist by pub day. It never occurred to me to worry that a massive crisis would so change the fabric of how we live that my work of realistic fiction would no longer seem remotely realistic.

The pandemic has taken a lot of things that occur in this book, things that were just the basics of human experience—people going to bars, seeing doctors, shaking hands—and recoded them, charged them with new meaning.

“A stable reality”? Hilarious!

Still, it does seem like there’s a light at the end of the COVID tunnel, and we can write and edit and work and play our way out of it, safely, and so as not to endanger ourselves or anyone else. And we can do that without going to the lengths Daniel Defoe described in Due Preparations for the Plague (1722):

His Letters were brought by the Post-Man, or Letter-Carrier to his Porter, where he causd the Porter to Smoke them with Brimstone, and with Gunpowder, then to open them, and then to sprinkle them with Vinegar; then he had them drawn up by Pulley, then smoak’d again with strong Perfumes, and taking them with a pair of Hair Gloves, the Hair outermost, he read them with a large reading Glass, which read at a great Distance, and as soon as they were read burn’d them in the Fire; and at last the Distemper raging more and more, he forbid his Friends writing him at all.

Do your best out there, and I’ll do my best in here, and maybe next September I’ll get to that “now that it’s all over” blog post. But only after I sprinkle my computer with Vinegar and smoak it in strong Perfumes.

I can’t afford to burn it after, though.


—Philip Athans


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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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