The good, the bad, and the ugly: writers share their lockdown experiences

 In All About Writing

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We checked in with a small handful of our community members to find out how their writing went this year: The good, the bad, and the ugly. Join the discussion, and let us know what your writing experience has been in 2020.

Eva Mazza

Venice retreater, author of Sex, Lies & Stellenbosch and Sex, Lies Declassified

2020 was going to be an awesome year as far as writing was concerned. In fact the year was just going to be plain awesome! My second book (Sex, Lies Declassified) would launch in March and I had booked for Paris in May to work on the third book in the trilogy. I had planned to revisit my manuscript, Christine, which I had been working on for some time (I had taken it to Venice on AAW’s writing retreat two years ago) and I had neglected it since publishing Sex, Lies & Stellenbosch. Ideas were germinating and I couldn’t wait to get them onto paper.

Hah! Then lockdown happened and I could almost hear the cogs of the writing wheel grind to a painfully slow halt. My publisher, Melinda Ferguson insisted I contribute to the Lockdown Chronicles which she had decided to publish in two weeks via ebooks. I am pretty good when someone sets me a target, and anyway it was the first week of lockdown – early days – so I duly did as I was told while my creative juices were still flowing.

Coupled with this, I managed to complete Christine … and then everything just seemed to dry up. Juxtaposed with this was the disappointment of not being able to launch Declassified. Yes, we did something virtually but it was just not the same. The physical book itself was locked down in the warehouse and although an ebook was readily available, it was apparent that very few people were reading. Baking, yes, cleaning, yes, watching series, absolutely, but I don’t think many could focus on the written word, and similarly, I could not write. I wasn’t in the mood.

Anyway it all seemed so meaningless given the bigger picture (ours being staff to feed and a restaurant that faced closure) so instead,  I focused on rescuing staff and those in need as well as our family.

We emerged from this crisis, business still hanging by a thread, a house that we sold for a really good price thankfully within a week of putting it on the market – and despite not having written much, Christine will be published next year April and Sex, Lies & Alibis at the end of 2021 AND we have as a family begun a new exciting chapter in our lives.

I am determined to begin writing in November, but I say this with much caution because 2020 has taught me that nothing is a given, no matter how determined I may be.

Fred de Vries

All About Writing travel writing trainer and author of Wiegelied Voor de witte man, The Fred de Vries Interviews: From Abdullah to Zille and Club Risiko

The year has been a roller coaster of panic and madness. Panic, because for two months I earned next to nothing, since we were housebound, and my job, journalism, involves going out. Madness because I suddenly got lots of work: some thorough historical research as well as a series of podcasts, for which I needed new skills and new equipment. Then came the news that my book Wiegelied voor de witte man will be published in English as Blues for the White Man by Penguin Random House – provided I do the translation myself. As I said, crazy times.

Aimee-Claire Smith

Creative Writing Course alumna and member of the All About Writing team

This year was way harder on my writing than I could possibly have anticipated. My creative drive has completely shriveled up. I’m still journaling every morning, which I’m proud of, and honestly, some days it’s all that’s gotten me through. But my unfinished novel continues to gather dust (literally) and haven’t written a poem since March. I’m trying not to expect too much from myself and just do what I need to survive, but I miss the restorative effect writing has on my soul.

I signed up for the Logic of Story Coaching Programme in the hopes that it would push me to write again. My internal resistance proved stronger than I anticipated, and I didn’t manage to finish all the tasks in the allotted time. But, what really brought me hope was just how much I enjoyed doing the exercises when I did manage to get my butt in a chair and write. I know that the part of me that loves to write is still in there, and I still plan on picking up where I left off and finishing the course – and my novel.

Gail Gilbride

All About Writing alumna and author of Under the African Sun

2020 turned out to be a year for journeys … in my case a double journey.

My 13 months of cancer treatment dove-tailed with the Coronavirus and that presented its own pretty unique challenges. The garage has never been as organized and cupboards have been spring cleaned to perfection.

I thought my writing routine would simply dry up forever. It didn’t. All the coaching from All About Writing kicked in and although I couldn’t create my normal stories, I took to blogging about my journey. It became a weekly routine and I found that it helped me to cope with the sometimes frightening medical procedures I underwent.

Writing became a lifeboat for me this year. I always knew it was important but 2020 took it to another level. Now that my cancer journey is more-or-less over, I can turn to my usual writing projects.

I could say I’m waiting for my muse to appear but I know (thank you All About Writing) that sometimes that is just a kick up the backside and a reminder to get on with it.

Tracy Fox

All About Writing alumna

2020 has turned out to be a year of reflection, introspection and fingers crossed, growth.  I started and paused several writing projects – the monster that is self-doubt – took hold in a ferocious way. Subsequently, I took several Writer’s Digest courses and I’m currently doing Gabriela Pereira’s DIY/MFA and I think that I’m finally in a place where I can move on constructively. Here’s to a productive 2021.

Vincent and Jo-Anne after a meeting discussing editing Vincent forthcoming book

Vincent Pienaar

Author of Limerence (forthcoming) and Too Many Tsunamis

“Other than that, Mrs Kennedy, how was the trip?”

It was that kind of year. I was very frustrated with a knee-jerk government, but I was impressed by the resilience of the people around me and I didn’t feel the need to rail against the situation. The virus came to us. Nobody invited it in, it just forced its way through the door.

My new book was supposed to be launched now, in October, which would have been exactly two years since Too Many Tsunamis, but that was not to be.

I don’t mind a solitary existence anyway. (I’m not crazy with my own company but it will have to do until something better comes along.) My dog, Snowy, loves lockdown because I’m always at home. By sheer good fortune I live on a big property so Snowy (not an energetic animal anyway) is never frustrated and he has three other dogs to play with and two cats to chase.

Of course, getting Jo-Anne to edit my book is a big positive. I’m happy that I’ve written a pretty good book but together we’re taking it to a new level. The publisher, Fourie Botha, has given me the firmest launch date he could: “Before July 2021,” he said and hey, with the publishing world in the condition its in, I’ll take that.

So, creatively it was fine. I don’t smoke and I don’t have to drink, so that’s all good as well. Now that I can go to a restaurant for breakfast (every day) and dinner (almost every evening) I’m fine.

Penny Castle

Author of Cure and Cultivating Happiness

Once upon a time there was a writer named Penny. In truth, Penny was less of a writer and more of a not-writer. In fact, she considered herself something of a master in ignoring the cries from her unopened writing app, Scivener.

“Penny, I beg you please return to your manuscript,” Scrivener begged. “There’s been an upgrade since you even opened me.” Penny ignored it. Why struggle writing a tough second act when she could fill the hours with online shopping or YouTube. Day after day the little voice called. Day after day Penny ignored it. Eventually, Penny realised she didn’t hear Scrivener’s voice at all.

One day, just as Penny settled down to watch her daily dose of Dr Pimple Popper, her household was struck by a terrible scourge. Her teenage son emerged from his room and began watching The Godfather. If that wasn’t enough, he narrated the long, long movie with a running commentary on the script, the lighting, the character development, the recurring motifs and a host of other undecipherable observations. There came a point where she could no longer ignore him. As annoying as he was, his voice triggered the tingle of an almost lost memory. Could she hear a faint voice calling to her?

Alas, as happens so often in life, Dr Pimple Popper chose that very day to release a best-pimple-pop compilation video. Penny couldn’t resist the siren-call of the puss-filled world of cyst-drainage.

Months passed, pandemics raged and still Penny’s son chronicled the directorial decisions of movies. Finally, in desperation, Penny turned to her computer sure that ingrown toenails or ear-wax removal could drown out the terrible sound. One day, Penny was deciding between “satisfying corn removal” and “you won’t believe how much earwax” when an email arrived inviting her to sign up for a screen-writing crash course. Since anything was better than the endless droning, Penny decided to sign up  – even if it was just to understand what the hell her son was talking about.

Despite her scepticism , Penny couldn’t help but be intrigued by the real-life Indiana Jones writing about recovering his family treasure, or the triple agent intrigue of World War II. Mostly though she discovered that the discipline demanded by screenwriting triggered a spurt of creativity and – heaven forbid – the urge to write again. She tentatively thought about her old friend, Scrivener. Would her licence still be valid? Did it cater for the screenplay format?

“Yes,” said the little voice. “I will look after you.” Penny opened the app and selected a screenplay template.

She was hooked. How could she have forgotten the bliss of being able to create new characters? New worlds? Pandemics that could be solved if only Jeff Goldblum would be cast in the film. Each day she wrote a little more. She found herself endlessly eavesdropping, trying to improve her dialogue and watching old Hitchcock movies unpacking his exquisite plot devices. She impatiently waited for feedback on her assignments and hungrily waited for new modules to arrive. She marveled at the vivid writing of her fellow learners and ruthlessly stole the techniques that conjured up such excitement in their screenplays.

“Hurrah,” shouted Scrivener.

“Woohoo,” Penny replied.

Eventually, as with all good stories, the course came to the end.  Scrivener held it’s breath. Penny bit her nails. Could their renewed friendship resist the siren call of Korean Skincare videos?

Then, as if by magic, not one but two writing opportunities arrived. First was a brand new course delving into the Hero’s Journey. Then came the chance to be a mentee on the Kickstart Your Screenplay program.

Both programs were harder than Penny expected. She spent day after day struggling with new concepts, making mistakes, trying again. She felt more challenged than ever before. She realised that with the challenge came a thrill of grappling with something tricky and the tiny wins of figuring them out one tiny step at a time. She wrote more and more and saw that her friend Scrivener became happier and happier.

“Don’t give up,” Scrivener whispered when she pulled her hair.

“Am I supposed to feel this confused?” Penny asked.

“Yes!” Replied her mentors. “Go with it.”

So she did. She wrote and grappled and debated with her son and then wrote some more.

And they all lived happily ever after.


How was your writing year? We’d love to hear.  Let us know in the comments.

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Showing 2 comments
  • Bindi Davies

    2020 was a year or rewriting, stalking, editing, rewriting, reading and stalking some more.
    Stalking, you say. What has stalking got to do with writing?
    Before I explain, maybe I need to give you a bit of backstory (and we all love backstory, right?)
    Last year I was super-excited to finish the first draft of my first novel. I sent it to Richard and Jo-Anne for assessment and waited in excited anticipation for assurance that my masterpiece was ready for immediate publication. I got their report – a thumbs-up for the first two acts, but a what-the-fuck-happened? for the last act. I’d literally lost the plot. I won’t forget Richard’s words – “Focus on the story, and remember, this isn’t a story about indigent children”. I listened. In my now seventh/seventieth draft there’s not an indigent child to be found.
    After a great brainstorming session with Richard and Jo-Anne, I set about reworking the plot and felt rather pleased with myself. Shortly after submitting to Pan Macmillan SA a few months later, they requested the full manuscript, but I received a polite though enthusiastic rejection, along with a readers report recommending more plot tweaks.
    And this is where my 2020 began. I stared at clouds, spent too long in the shower, burned everything I put on the stove, and generally focused on nothing except getting this story fixed. A writing friend asked me to join her in Kenton-on-Sea for four days of dedicated rewriting (she’s in the throes of polishing her amazing memoir), and I contacted a UK-based editor to help fix up my query letter and submission pack for UK agents. 2020 was going to be the year of my book!
    A week later COVID struck. Don’t get me wrong. I still rewrote, edited, and rewrote some more (all the time working in the background on the outline and characters for my second novel). But I was overtaken by a general feeling of malaise. Every day I needed to remind myself that I could do this thing. That my book would eventually be worth reading.
    And then I stumbled upon an online writers’ workshop, based in USA. I thought I’d join for a month, just to see what it was like. The concept is one of reciprocal reviewing, based on a cleverly managed points system. I stayed for a lot longer than a month, and had my full manuscript reviewed/edited in detail by four fellow writers, two of them successfully published authors. They all loved it (or said they did) though one commented that parts of it were for readers who enjoyed a misery-fest. Hmmm. 2020’s been one long misery-fest, so I don’t know what his problem is. Another US reviewer, knowing I was from South Africa, commented that my writing was so good he’d never have guessed that English wasn’t my first language. Hmmm again. Anyway, in return I read all sorts of stuff, from romance to Hollywood murder mysteries to poetry to the memoir of a drug addict. For anyone who wants a magic opportunity for procrastination, I strongly recommend the site (message me for details).
    But now let’s get to the stalking part. All year, while trying to get my manuscript cleaned up, I’ve been stalking agents. Reading interviews and websites and blogposts, checking out profiles on Facebook and Twitter. I know everything there is to know about them. What books they like, who they represent, whether they like dogs. She likes dogs! My perfect agent! I love dogs too, so of course she’ll love my book.
    And I spent 2020 reading. Reading books written by clients of prospective agents mostly. I mean you always need a reason to connect and a good comparison. Sometimes I found it, but often I couldn’t come up with more than “Your client also wears a bra and uses the word ‘and’ a lot – just like me! So you’ll love my book!”

    So there you have it. My 2020 in writing. But it’s not over yet, and my second novel’s brewing…

    • Trish Urquhart

      Wow Bindi, you definitely did focus on your writing this year, Covid or no Covid. Keep us posted on the outcome of your stalking. Fingers crossed!

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