An American Editor

January 11, 2021

Thinking Fiction: What’s Next for Novelists?

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 3:58 pm
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Carolyn Haley

Thanks to our collective and often-divisive experiences over the past year, I’ll wager we all agree that 2020 was one heckuva rough ride with long-term consequences yet to be known.

The events have introduced new concerns specific to fiction writers, editors, agents, and publishers. For instance, should authors of contemporary fiction include the current pandemic in their stories? The question arises from the shock that what was contemporary and normal a year ago has changed dramatically. Nobody wants to be seen as trivializing or attempting to profit from the pandemic, but it happened, and it has affected the world in many ways, some of which are likely to last. How to factor this into modern novels?

With the exception of extremely prolific writers, most authors take at least a year to compose and polish a novel. Many take several years. Now, stories they recently conceived have had their foundations upheaved and are no longer valid if set in reality. Simple example: an office romance. Doesn’t work when people can’t go to their jobs in offices anymore, or have to wear masks and comply with social distancing requirements that can’t be fulfilled until their office space has been reconfigured. A stolen kiss in the supply room might kill one or more people instead of being an intriguing plot point.

Many contemporary-fiction authors are wondering whether they should finish their works in process (WIPs) and pretend nothing happened, trusting readers to understand and accept; revamp their works to accommodate the “new normal,” which nobody can foresee and is likely to be shifting rapidly for months or years; stop writing their book(s) altogether and wait to see what’s real when the dust settles; or put their WIPs on hold and start new stories set either solidly in pre-coronavirus times or far in the future, when it might be remembered history, like the flu pandemic of 1919.

Some commenters in publishing-related forums, along with people in private conversations, have declared that the last thing they want to read in the present or near future are stories about the 2020 nightmare. They want escape. Others are already diving into published fiction written by prescient — whether by accident or design — authors who take characters through a comparable scenario.

Category changes

These opposite tastes have long driven genre marketplace distinctions. What has abruptly changed is the timeline separating the genres.

Conventionally, a “contemporary” novel can be set anytime from, say, World War II to the present. This line of demarcation was already in flux in the publishing community, in that stories set in the 1950s through 1990s have such different mores and technology from either end — the 1930–’40s and the 2000s — that they already feel historical, especially to younger readers.

Marketing departments in publishing houses and book retailers have been rethinking where to draw the line between historical and contemporary eras. Some publishers are testing a “vintage” category to split the difference until somebody decides where to draw a new line and the majority of participants buy in.

I’ve seen suggestions that the Kennedy assassination in the United States was a turning point between As Things Were and When Things Changed. Other folks mark the moon landing as that turning point. Both occurred in the 1960s. Other folks think the attacks on the World Trade Centers in 2001 were a defining moment between the old and new eras.

Personally, I think the biggest change in common culture occurred in the late 1970s/early ’80s, when the desktop computer and internet entered millions of people’s lives. The next big shift came with the advent of widely available and affordable cellphones and GPS in the early 2000s. I focus on these as a copyeditor because they are recurrent trouble points in client manuscripts: Younger authors often take for granted that smartphones and texting have always existed, while older authors sometimes forget that modern people use them as a normal part of their lives.

Now we have a new distinction: pre-corona and post-corona, in the space of 12 months. Material that was speculative fiction or science fiction for many authors in 2019 became contemporary or dystopian fiction in 2020–’21.

Two examples

One of my clients got caught squarely in this dilemma. Only 25 years old, she conceived her story nine years ago in high school, worked on it intermittently through formative years of college and career — and suddenly found she’d created a situation so close to what’s happening today that her story took on a whole new twist and readers would interpret its title and situation differently than they would have a year ago. I got this manuscript for evaluation and was stumped for weeks about how to respond to it. She desires to publish traditionally rather than self-publish, and neither of us at this point knows how to present her work to the industry via an agent or to readers.

Something similar happened to me, too, as an author instead of an editor. I am a slow-motion novelist, taking years to work an idea into a coherent manuscript. I tend to cross genres, making my books even harder to structure and sell. Back in 2015, I came up with a new idea, and took three years to complete a working draft. I set the book in the spring of 2015, with no worries that the world might change enough to compromise the date.

In 2018, I finished it; another year passed as I circulated it through my beta readers and incorporated their suggestions; then I put it aside to marinate, finally taking it out a few months ago for a proofread, intending to self-publish this past summer. However, reading it with cold eyes revealed a huge technical honker I’d missed and had to deal with, so it’s back in revision until I can figure out a solution. My current publishing target is March 2021 — the five-year anniversary of typing the first words.

That’s fine except for one thing: It’s the first volume of a planned series. In 2016, the United States began an enormous cultural and political change with the shift of government leadership. Aspects of this would directly influence my character if she were living in that time. I do not want to go there. That means I must compress my series into eight months instead of the vague several years I had imagined.

Fortunately, I’ve only written one of the novels in the planned series, and it’s OK as-is in its time. But I have to totally rethink the rest. This problem has surprised many a novelist with more change-sensitive timelines.

The social factor

Cultural changes have introduced their own complexities. Several of my indie-author clients have asked:

•         Should they hire a sensitivity reader?

•         Is it “safe” to include mentions of certain subjects in their story, or write about a person of a gender, race, or religion that is different from the author?

•         Are they now required to include “trigger warnings” in their front matter, subtitle, or cover?

•         Should they write under a pseudonym?

•         Should they promote their books through social media or stay away because of vulnerability to “trolls” and harassment?

•         Will certain words in their title or elements of a cover image be rejected by Amazon?

Similar questions are a normal part of writing and publishing decisions. The past year’s dramas, however, have pushed some of these questions into high relief. Many more minds are pondering them, in a broader social and financial network.

It grieves me to have no answers. The best that I and my clients can do is continue evaluating and discussing each book on its own merits with the author’s individual goals in mind.

In 2021, we are living in a state of flux with questions and challenges greater than most of us have encountered in our lifetimes, all swirling together. But one thing hasn’t changed: the creativity — flexibility — subjectivity of literature. Authors always have to think about the times they write in. It happens that today, they must contemplate a new set of issues as they both compose their stories and present them to readership. It will be mighty interesting to see what future novels come out of this era!

Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through DocuMania. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books and has presented about editing fiction at Communication Central conferences.

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