Finally working on that novel as you self-isolate? You're not alone

David Barnett
Photograph: LightField Studios/Alamy Stock Photo

If you’re one of those people who always said they would write a novel if only they had the time: this is your moment. As more budding writers self-isolate due to the coronavirus and finally knuckle down on their manuscripts, the publishing industry has already seen a surge in submissions.

Literary agent Juliet Mushens, of the Caskie Mushens agency, usually receives between 10 and 15 appeals for representation a day from new writers. Last Monday alone, she received 27.

“I am all in favour of it,” she said, of the increase. “We all know that social distancing is going to be crucial to how we combat the virus and I think it’s great if people can use that time productively – whether it’s learning the guitar, like one of my clients is, or writing that novel. And perhaps it’s also about people who have already written that novel but were too scared to hit send – they are realising that life is too short and you have to seize the day!”

Editors at publishing houses are also already seeing a spike in submissions. Lisa Coen, of the award-winning independent Irish publisher Tramp Press, said the press normally gets four or five submissions a day; they’re now averaging twice as many, receiving up to 16 in one day.

“I bet we’ll see a surge in a few months and we reckon this trend will go up as the lockdown continues, and beyond that,” Coen said.

Literary agent John Jarrold is also receiving more messages from would-be authors. “I am seeing an upturn in email queries rather than actual submissions of finished manuscripts, and I expect that to continue. Like most agents, I take on a tiny percentage of the authors who submit novels to me, maybe three or four a year out of 35 or so submissions a week, so it will be interesting to see how this develops.”

With the virus dominating headlines, is it wise to write a novel about it to land a publishing deal? Not neccessarily. Jarrold, who specialises in science fiction and fantasy, is expecting that many writers who contact him will have novels about pandemics and apocalypses: “The present coronavirus situation and related self-isolation has specific echoes for what I expect to see – not just a sense that some people might actually sit down and write their novel as they sit at home.”

But on Twitter, Phoebe Morgan, editorial director at HarperCollins, counselled writers against shoehorning the coronavirus into their plots. “I know this is my personal opinion and I am only one editor, but I am advising my authors not to add pandemic into contemporary novels,” she said. “My reasoning: I don’t think anyone wants to remember this when they’re trying to escape. Fiction is fiction.”

One encouraging side-effect of the crisis is that new writers may have a better chance of getting their work read at the moment, as agents and editors gain time from working at home. “I am getting more reading done and I signed a new client from my slush pile just yesterday,” Mushens said. And as Coen said, “We’re always delighted to see what people are working on … one silver lining of this strange time is that writers are finding time to write.”

Five tips for would-be authors, from agent Juliet Mushens

  • Finish and edit your novel before submitting anything to agents

  • Do your research and send the agents what they have asked for in terms of material

  • Have a think about where your book fits in the market. Would it be shelved as a thriller, romance, or perhaps reading group fiction?

  • Be patient: use the time while waiting to hear back to write something else or brainstorm other ideas

  • Don’t give up! Keep writing – the more you write, the more you’ll hone your craft