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From Vacillation to Vaccination: Maintaining My Writing Career and Sanity During COVID-19

By Dawn M. Barclay (who writes as D.M. Barr)


The COVID-19 pandemic hit me with a double whammy. First, I’m an author of a “certain age,” whose underlying heath issues made me more susceptible to a virus that felled my cousin and a close friend’s father. And I’ll admit that I’m more paranoid than most—to the point where I barely left my house from March 17th, 2020 onward. And second, I’m the president of the Hudson Valley chapter of Romance Writers of America. So how to write a word when you’re paralyzed with fear? And how to keep a chapter together that had already endured a crisis of faith following the issues that plagued RWA in 2019?


I’m far too manic a person to sit back and do nothing, especially when confined to 2,400 square feet for 13 months and counting. I knew that if I wasn’t going to go insane, I needed to read, write, adopt a dog (okay, I didn’t need to adopt the dog, but it was a great excuse to give my husband), and basically keep busy doing anything that didn’t involve cleaning the house or cooking for my family. I mean, why break the habits of a lifetime?


The ironic thing was that the book I had started to write when COVID hit was set in a nursing home. The next in the series was to be a seasoned romance set on a cruise ship. Both brought up COVID memories we’d rather forget. Not to mention, plans for my RWA chapter included a writing retreat in Saratoga Springs in April (with a book-signing event at a local bookstore) and conducting readings at assisted living centers. Another member and I were hoping to teach writing at prisons. Could I have chosen projects more pandemic-prone? I think not. Obviously, all bets were off.

My fellow chapter members were less terror-stricken. At our March 7th meeting, most said they still planned to attend our April retreat, though I said I would not. That slowly changed as the month went on. We ended up postponing until October and then again to the following April, and now it’s scheduled for October of 2021.


My next project was to purchase a personal Zoom account and convince my chapter to meet virtually for our monthly meetings. Though some members haven’t adapted to the virtual format, about half the members do attend.

In some ways, virtual has benefitted our chapter meetings. We’ve invited non-local speakers like Penny Sansevieri from California who spoke on marketing, Frank Ahearn who discussed skip-tracing for our romantic suspense writers, and most recently, Dave Chesson, who explained how to increase book sales by using Kindlepreneur and Publisher Rocket. We wouldn’t have been able to host these speakers had it not been for Zoom. As a small chapter (only 15 members), we don’t have the budget to pay for big-name speakers. It turns out, they are far more amenable to speaking when they don’t have to leave home.


Many of our members attend a private critique group that’s separate from the chapter. This took longer to adapt to the digital format, but we’ve done it. Between two and six of us meet every other Tuesday and read our five pages and receive commentary. While we miss the goodies that often covered our meeting table in Nyack, our stories are proceeding, and in a less fattening way. (Don’t worry—I’ve managed to maintain my excess poundage thanks to all the food delivery companies that have recently sprung up on Facebook. Did you know Grubhub can deliver Girl Scout Cookies?)


Like many other authors, I had a book debut during the time of COVID. Black Rose Writing released Saving Grace – A Psychological Thriller in mid-October. Naturally, an in-person release party was out of the question, which was a shame since they’d worked well for me before. It occurred to me that many others were in the same position, so I decided to do something I’d long thought about—an online author discussion program. I started interviewing other authors over Zoom which I posted on YouTube and my new website, Author-Groupie.com, which gave authors with new releases around 30 minutes to promote their work. At the beginning of each show, I gave an update about the status of my upcoming book or mentioned some of my backlist titles. And at the end of the interview, I posted their website and mine, and included photos of my past novels. Up to now, I’ve recorded about 40 interviews, some with authors I’ve long admired like Brad Parks and Tim Hallinan, and some with new authors that have since become friends. I hope it’s helped them sell some books. I know it helped me save my sanity by giving me something to do.


Putting fingers to keyboard to complete my next novel was more difficult. I was too paralyzed to write for many months. But my fellow RWA member Michael Geraghty (his new book Finn was just published by Scarlet Lantern) kept posting his daily completed word count on Facebook, and competitive person that I am, I decided I would beat him to completion. I took the 5,000-or-so words I had written for my first Rom Com, The Queen of Second Chances, and reworked the setting, choosing a Meals-on-Wheels-type organization with an attached senior center instead of a nursing home. After removing that mental roadblock, the words flowed and thanks to Champagne Books, the novel will be released in early June.


Another set of characters kept calling to me, and in March, I spat out a 50,000-word contemporary romance in three weeks (my shortest time ever) which I am currently shopping around. It’s the first of a series and I’m excited about it. Since the pandemic hit, I’ve written more romance than my usual psychological thriller books. Maybe unconsciously, I believe people want to read more about love than death. I know I do.


But that’s not all. Thanks to my manic nature, I volunteered to co-edit my Sisters in Crime chapter’s new anthology, I’m contributing articles on Family Travel and Special Needs Travel to a travel trade publication (a past career), and I’ve used the months of self-quarantine to research a nonfiction book I’ve been meaning to write since 2009. Plus, I’ve attended a rash of online writers’ conferences I would have never had the funds to visit in person. Thanks to my author interviews and my online conference attendance, I finally know many more fellow authors that I look forward to meeting in person once life reverts to normal.


As of April 15th, I will be fully inoculated. I booked my spot on Bouchercon and I’m hoping it won’t be cancelled. Looking back, I think I’ve done a good job of productively navigating the road to vaccination. I hope you have too. Let’s just hope we never have to do it again. Stay safe and happy writing!