My Writing Life During This Pandemic Year: A Recap

Let me begin by proclaiming with gusto and conviction that 2020 sucked.

It sucked hard.

For many people, especially those who lost loved ones and friends to COVID-19, this pandemic year was the suckiest suckfest ever to have sucked.

In March I was temporarily laid off from my 17-year career. Naïve and brimming with optimism, I thought I could ride it out for a few months and be back in the saddle by the springtime. 

Boy, was I ever wrong!

Not only was the layoff permanent, but I was in danger of losing my health care. If that wasn’t bad enough, I was releasing my debut novella during a pandemic. All my work, years spent grinding away at a keyboard and writing all would vanish, like toilet paper from the supermarket shelves. 

I write this in December, at the end of a sucky pandemic year. Looking back on the last 12 months, I can say without hesitation that it’s been quite a rollercoaster ride, filled with ups and downs and rotating knives and shark-infested moats. 

Okay, so I’m not a fan of rollercoasters, but they all seem like scream-machines designed by serial killers. 

(Note to self: Write a story about a serial killer who designs rollercoasters.)

Point being, I barely survived this year’s psychological trauma. I know people who got sick and died. I know friends who lost family members, colleagues, and pets. People faced economic hardships. Postponed plans. Canceled events. 

And I knew writers who got lucky whole some were too paralyzed to write a single word.

For most of 2020 I wore a medieval plague doctor’s costume, stared at my keyboard, and cried uncontrollably.

For me, it was an active and strange year. Despite facing insurmountable odds and multiple rejections, I know that writing is a part of me, like another head grafted to my body by a mad scientist. 

(Note to self: Write a story about a two-headed writer. Have him fall in love.)

In providing this post-mortem, I can reexamine the highlights and missteps of an interesting year, and hopefully manage my writing career better in 2021. Here’s hoping.

Debut Novella Released

Gargoyles & Absinthe, my debut novella, was released by Aurelia Leo in February. The YA steampunk alt-history fantasy came out a few weeks before everybody went into lockdown. I’m pleased. The book looks amazing. Kudos to Aurelia Leo for everything they’ve done with the book’s design and production. 

Though the book’s release was on time, the pandemic proved problematic. Other than virtually, there’s no way I could promote the book through bookstore appearances, conventions, or readings. I’m waiting until 2021 for any in-person events. In anticipation of selling the book at conventions, I made swag, notably a T-shirt and pens. I’ll save these until next year, too. 

Science Fiction Horror Story

In March, Aphotic Realm Magazine published my science fiction horror story Five Stages of Fear From Interstellar Travel, which I first wrote in my Writing Genre Fiction class the previous Fall. I normally don’t merge science fiction and horror, but I did for this one and it worked. 

Urban Fantasy Novel 

I completed my urban fantasy novel Accursed Son as my Masters project in the spring. A deep, insightful thrill-ride chock filled with action, bittersweet moments and generational clashes, Accursed Son is my magnum opus. Writing this book altered my perspective on family and cultural identity and made me re-examine my perceptions I’ve held for years. I started writing this in my Writing the Novel class back in 2018 and the two years spent crafting and refining it have changed me as a writer. Incidentally, this is the one I’m shopping around to agents and publishers. (More on that later.)

Graduated with a Master of Arts in Writing

In May, I graduated Rowan University with a Master of Arts in Writing. Four years of studying, making the distant commute to campus at night, and writing research papers finally paid off. Stress, anxiety, and anguish plagued my academic quest, and there were times I thought I’d quit. But I stubbornly persevered. College is stressful, and I admire anyone who can do this at any age. Don’t let the naysayers and shit-talkers quell your dreams. Some of the most resilient and talented writers I’ve met were in my graduating class and you’ll know their work in the future. The Class of 2020 did it! Go Profs!

Zoomtastic Virtual-Ventures

The pandemic waylaid my convention plans. Every Fall I attend Philcon, the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society’s annual convention, where I appear on various panels. Thanks to Zoom, I participated in one panel, “Is There Hope For Hopepunk?” which went well. 

Zoom became my social lifeline this year.  Before 2020, I didn’t know what Zoom was. Thanks to social distancing and pandemic protocols, in-person instruction was cancelled from March until the end of the semester, migrating us to a virtual platform. Attending a college class online was different. Sitting at home and delivering your final presentation to a screen filled with faces in boxes that resembled The Brady Bunch title sequence made me feel self-conscious, but I muddled through. 

I read a section of one of my unpublished short stories at a “virtual reading,” attended events and conventions such as the SFWA’s Nebula Awards, a Writing Day Workshops Conference, Shore Leave (a Baltimore-based science fiction convention), the Pocono Liar’s Club (a writing group based in Pa.), and frequent sessions with the #5amwritersclub, a friendly group of early-rising writers on Twitter.

(John Scalzi’s virtual dance party, both at the Nebula Awards and on Halloween, were some of the best times I’ve had online this year.)

Connecting with other writers helped emotionally. We shouldn’t write in a vacuum, isolated from human contact. Seeing and hearing others speak about their writing journeys and sharing craft tips made me feel less alone. I learned much from them, whether they were seasoned pros or fledgling wordsmiths. Everyone is coming to this crazy thing called writing with their own baggage and skill sets, strengths and weaknesses. In a community, you handle rejection better because everyone gets rejected. Some of us have a real knack for it.  

Through these seminars and informal virtual meetings, I gained knowledge about writing query letters, character development, and story structure I never would have just by browsing the web. By sharing their experiences, writers can cushion the blow from a bad rejection and provide perspective.

Herculean Effort, Sisyphean Reality

I revised Accursed Son based on feedback from a few readers and chopped 10,000 words from the sucker, bringing it in at a reasonable 93,000 words. The first chapter should be an entertaining gateway into the novel. I must have re-written Accursed Son’s first chapter 50 times. 

Accursed Son had a beta reader and editor. Paying for these professionals is expensive, but the feedback proved invaluable. I also hired a consulting mortician who answered my questions about embalming and funerals for the book, which is set in a funeral home. 

My quest for representation began this year at a frenetic pace. With my novel finished (or as nearly finished as I thought), querying began. After several drafts and revisions, I was rejected 25 times with no requests for partials or fulls. Nada. Zero. Zilch. 

I had a brief pitch meeting with an agent via Zoom. I consulted Manuscript Wish List. I sacrificed a goat and burned its entrails. Still nothing worked. Accursed Son is the albatross around my neck, the blasphemous thing that’ll doom me to obscurity, but I still believe in its strengths as a novel. According to one editor/beta reader, “This was an exciting read, and I loved learning about Armenian history and mythology along the way,” and “Armand had a humorous voice, and the plot moved along in a way that made it easy to keep reading.”

Armed with new editorial suggestions, I’ve started another round of revisions on the manuscript and query letter. In January, I’ll query agents again.

Deep Slush Piles 

Besides Accursed Son, I wrote a handful of short stories this year. Of the ones I sent to publishers, many returned with rejections. One didn’t return at all. Two found publication. Waiting for months while editors comb slush piles isn’t productive, so I revised my novel and wrote new stories. 

Pitch Madness

I participated in Pitch Madness, a Twitter contest where writers must pitch their book to agents in one tweet. Accursed Son was up on deck, and garnered no love. People retweeted my pitches, but agents weren’t impressed. 

This PitMad pitch for Accursed Son is the most retweeted thing I’ve ever written and thus is enshrined here forever.

I also entered #PitDark, a contest like Pitch Madness, but strictly for horror. After several attempts, one agent was interested, but politely wrote me a rejection note after I sent a synopsis and first chapter.  

Pitch…Wars?

Masochist streak running at full capacity, I entered Pitch Wars, a contest where writers submit their pitches and first chapters to three agents. If their novel is chosen, the writer and agent will team up as a crime-fighting duo. No. That’s not what happens. The agent will mentor the writer and shape the story structure, characters, and pitch, getting the work ready for querying. Competition is fierce so I threw caution to the wind and entered. I chose agents who I thought would enjoy the urban fantasy world I created. Unfortunately, they didn’t pick my book. One of them did provide constructive and positive feedback and I rewrote a section of the book based on his suggestions.

So there’s that.

School for Dictators

My short story Rogue Scholars appeared in the anthology Dear Leader Tales in October. The humorous tale, about a university for the sons and daughters of dictators, was the first story in the anthology. Rogue Scholars introduced readers to Ironfist University for Authoritarian Studies and the sadistic faculty and students trapped there.

This Very Website

I launched this website in June. Thinking writers needed an online presence that wasn’t an old Myspace account, I sought out WordPress and threw something together. It’s not professional or particularly pleasing on the eyes, but it’s my Interwebs home. Updating the blog about once a month isn’t practical, so I’m going to try for frequent updates in 2021. Stay tuned. 

NaNoWriMo

Every November, both novice and seasoned writers lock themselves in their attics and scribble in notebooks or pound away on keyboards for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Their goal: Write 50,000 words in 30 days. The prize: Bragging rights at the next wordsmith’s shindig for those industrious scribes who produce their shitty first drafts in a timely fashion. 

Since 2020 was a merciless and unforgiving year, I participated in NaNoWriMo. If I’m gonna crash and burn, I might as well do it with some style.

Turns out, lacking employment and suffering a quarantine means I had time to write. And write, I did.

I cranked out 50,000 words in 22 days. My secret? Showing up every day and plunking down 2,000 words. Though daunting, it was really manageable, especially if you write in shifts. My mystery novel, Sunshine Noir, is nearly finished, and never would have been written if it wasn’t for NaNoWriMo. 

In Summary

This was a year nobody wanted. Grocery shopping in a mask and foggy glasses, cancelling holiday plans because you don’t want to infect grandma, and listening to pundits spin politics into a global pandemic is both infuriating and sad. Doomscrolling Twitter and reading about the absolute nadir of humanity occasionally punctuated with a few bright spots made me lock my door, eat cereal on the couch, and binge-watch Netflix most of the year. Taking mental health days to get my shit together and decompress has helped.

When I wasn’t trapped in my existentialist crisis, I wrote. This was the most productive year I’ve had as a writer. Your mileage will probably vary. “Keep Writing. Don’t Stop. Don’t Get Complacent” droned in my brain like a non-stop mantra.

Not writing meant being present in the moment, and the moment sucked. So I wrote. I got the words on the page. I banished all negativity and self-sabotage and got to work. Words on the page. That’s all it ever is. Year after year, more stories, more characters, more words. 

Maybe 2021 will bring better news.

I sure hope so. 

A scribe’s life is one replete with uncertainty and constant rejection. But a writer must produce. They must stare into the eye of the storm and rip the words from the marrow of existence, the universe’s gritty fundament and etheric pulse that beats through the cosmos. 

And when bewildered writers lie bloodied and beaten and inches from expiring, they’ll moan, “I remember how sucky 2020 was, but at least my shitty first draft is done.”

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