To the best of my recollection, I've never written a fan letter in my life. Oh, I've thrown in some mild idolatry now and then when writing about something else, but I've never written a flat-out fan letter to a stranger.
I never saw much point in it.
However, I've received fan mail. Not much of it, but some.
Some writers, I understand, get piles of the stuff, bags of it. They get lewd offers. They get strange gifts.
I never got any of that. [Actually, I have gotten a few odd items since this was written. The oddest is probably the street sign.]
What I get, at a rate of maybe one letter a month (it was much higher when I wrote a column for Comics Buyer's Guide), are questions and helpful attempts at criticism and other stuff I don't particularly want.
Now, when I first broke into print, it occurred to me that I might someday get fan mail. I rather looked forward to it. I imagined long, thoughtful letters from astute readers, complimenting me on my work, telling me what the writers particularly liked, and so on. I thought people might comment on the little in-jokes I've put in my stories.
I don't remember what was in my very first fan letter; I do remember being quite excited about it. The first trickle had begun.
The second one was a bit less thrilling -- it was from someone who complained that my description of a saber in The Lure of the Basilisk was all wrong. At first I couldn't figure out what he was talking about; he said he had a saber right there on his lap and it wasn't anything like I'd described.
Then I realized he meant a fencing saber, where I'd been talking about cavalry sabers.
A fencing saber is a rapier, with a thin, straight blade. A cavalry saber is a broadsword with a curved, single-edged blade. They aren't much alike.
I was amused.
Unfortunately, this was about the last time I ever had that particular pleasure, of being "corrected" and being able to demonstrate that I was right and my correspondent wrong.
Further fan letters corrected me on details of horsemanship, chemistry, genetics (though on that one it was debatable who was right), parachute mechanics, the combustibility of wool, and various other subjects. I quickly came to the conclusion that any factual mistake I ever made was probably going to get caught eventually.
This strengthened my will to write pure fantasy, of course.
Besides corrections, people also asked questions: Would Frima make good her claim to be Baroness of Skelleth? Do I have a literary agent? What difference did it make if the wizard used a brass ring instead of gold? Did I think Stan Lee was a fascist? Where did I get my ideas? [These are all real. The guy asking about Stan Lee wrote a few times; he seemed a little... troubled.]
Over time, as the fan mail began to accumulate (now, after a mere ten years, it almost fills a desk drawer!), I began to notice a pattern in the letters I received and the questions asked.
An awful lot of them were asking, "Where do you get your ideas?" And also, in effect, "Where can I get some?" And "Once I've got them, how do I sell them?"
In other words, most of the people writing these letters wanted to be writers themselves, and wanted me to tell them how.
As if I need the competition.
As if I should give away free information I can sell by teaching night school creative writing classes.
As if I had the foggiest notion what to tell them.
I mean, if you don't know where ideas come from, you're never going to have any. There's nothing I can tell you that will help.
And then there are the questions that leave me wondering what the heck the writer was thinking about.
"Why do you write fantasy?"
Well, why the hell not? Because I like it, of course -- and so does the letter-writer, or she or he wouldn't be reading it and wouldn't have written. More often than not he or she is also trying to write it -- so why ask me why I write it?
I've gotten that one a lot, though -- at least a dozen times.
There are also the questions that I wonder about myself, sometimes, like, "All that symbolism and stuff that English teachers talk about -- do you writers put all that in there on purpose, or does it just happen?"
That's a heck of a good question. I wish I knew. I'm not even sure in my own case, let alone about other writers!
There are nice things about fan mail. People have sent me drawings of my characters, little bits of stories set in my invented worlds (usually, alas, truly awful), and the like. Overall, though, it's mostly, "Gee, I liked your book, when's the next one, where do you get your ideas, do you have an agent, and on page 89, you said something that can't be right..."
But despite the nitpicking, and the same questions over and over, do you know what the very worst thing about fan mail is?
First, let me say that I answer all my mail, fan mail or otherwise, if I possibly can and there's any discernable reason to. Sometimes there's no return address; then I can't. For all other fan mail, though, I answer, even if it's just a line to say, "Thanks for writing." Sometimes, if the letter had complicated or interesting questions, I'll write back a couple of pages; I think my record for replying to a fan letter was about six single-spaced pages.
And do you know what the worst thing about fan mail is?
These people don't answer their mail!
In the past decade, maybe two or three people have ever bothered to write back again after I answered their letters. The recipients of multi-page explanations of background, detailed explanations of how to submit manuscripts, and all the rest never bother to write and say, "Thanks."
Sometimes, I think I'd rather get a polite thank you for one of my answers than any number of raves about a novel.
Maybe they figure they've wasted enough of my time.
Maybe they're intimidated, and didn't really expect answers (but then why ask questions?).
Maybe they've run out of stamps.
Maybe they're ungrateful scum.
It's a mystery to me.
Article copyright 1989 by Lawrence Watt Evans. All rights reserved.
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