Thursday, February 10, 2011

Fan Mail

I never expected to get fan mail, and I didn’t, not for two years. I was happy if I sold a handful of books a week and if reviewers didn’t rip me apart. Then book sales rapidly increased and I was very content. Then about six months ago I began receiving fan mail. Just one or two over the course of a month. Each time I was shocked. Someone took the time to track down my email address and actually wrote to tell me they liked my books?

I found this surprising because I never wrote to an author before--never even dreamed of it. Authors, I imagined, were these important people with a staff who handled such annoying things as fan mail. That little email address on their website, or the back of their books, were really just addresses to their publicist or some office in their publisher’s establishment, and some mail room inductee was responsible for stamping out pleasant replies. If not, they would view a brazen message from the unknown likes of me as a terrible intrusion on their personal privacy. So I never wrote any such thing, and I certainly never expected anyone to write me. Not because I was so intimidating a prospect, but because I really never thought anyone would be that interested.

Over the course of three or four months I had received about five pieces of fan mail which I relished and even made a special folder in my email app to hold them like tiny treasures. I responded to all of them, even rereading them several times and telling myself I just wanted to be sure I understood everything written there so I could make a better response. To most all I began by saying, “I don’t get much fan mail,” which was certainly the truth--until recently.

I am always looking for measures of success. There are many posts on writing blogs about when you can call yourself a writer. There are a lot of opinions on this. Some argue that you can call yourself a writer when you feel you are. Others insist you must have training pointing out that someone can’t just one day call themselves a doctor. Still others say you are only a writer when you’ve been published by a traditional publisher, and still others feel you are not a real writer unless you can support yourself with your writing. I personally feel that all of these are true, the difference lies in where you are in your career when the question is asked.

When I stayed home and wrote forty hours a week while watching my kids, I thought of myself as a writer though I had never been published nor made a dime. After I was published I had to admit that I felt that was the true measure of a real writer, even though I was hardly selling any of my books and had yet to see a dime from those I did sell. Then when I began making enough money to support myself, that was the real demarcation line. And I suppose when I am published through a major New York house, that will become my new standard.

The writing business is a lot like adulthood. You’re grown up when you’re in 8th grade and at the top of the food chain in elementary school. Then you hit high school and look back and think what a child you were. When you become a junior, you look back at the freshman and sophomores as kids, and as a senior--they all are. You hit college and realize your high school years were kid stuff, now you really are an adult--until you graduate.

So like a teenager looking in the mirror for signs of upper-lip hair, I watch for signs of success, events that indicate a new phase and separate me more from the last. The jump in sales was great, and so are the translation deals--those signed and those in the works. And now there is fan mail.

I decided this was a milestone when I realized I had to set aside a portion of my day to respond to them. They all have the same attitude, they all apologize for bothering me. I’ve never felt anything was quite so absurd. Does anyone think a music band feels bothered by the audience applauding? “Please, if you feel the need to clap, go over to our marketing staff and clap at them, we are trying to play here and you are making a nuisance.” I just don’t see it happening. Yet everyone comments on how their message is clearly trite and a waste of my valuable time. They insist they don’t want me to bother writing back, they merely wanted to thank me.

Thank me…are you kidding? They want to thank—me? I read these letters and just shake my head. These people have no idea.

I know there are writers who write for money. For them the whole enterprise is more of a business. For me it is a craft, a love of creation, and that being the case, the fuel I thrive on is not a paycheck. I have quit jobs weeks after being given a massive raise merely because I did not feel appreciated by those I worked for. The money helps me justify this endeavor, the money allows me to spend more time working on it, but the money isn’t the reason I write. I spent a decade penning over ten novels that no one ever read--no one wanted to. That sort of thing can bring on depression and a total lack of self-worth. These fans who email, or send me genuine letters, appear oblivious, but each line of appreciation they meekly offer, are drops of water in a very hot dry desert.

They vary from the simple, “thank you, keep up the good work,” to the life altering accounts that blow me away. When someone writes to tell you your book helped them deal with serious real-life problems, that’s the kind of reward money can’t come close to buying. And still these people apologize for writing to tell me how much my work has meant to them. Seriously? I mean I could honestly kiss these people.

So everyday now I set aside some time to reply to each piece of fan mail I receive. Trust me this is not a hardship. This is not a problem. This is the favorite part of my day, and an utter joy.

I apologize for taking up so much of your time with this post, but I just wanted to say thank you because your writing has meant so much to me.

7 comments:

  1. I had no idea you weren't in on the Fan Mail train, Michael.

    I'm with you on the appreciation, tho. I get Dozens a day. I usually reply right away -- my blackberry is great for that -- and while sometimes I don't say much, it's such a kick getting any.

    Then you get the "You helped my get thru it when..." and the "While I was on deployment..." and they thank ME.

    Yeah. It's hard to explain if you haven't been there but seriously. Life changing.

    Now go write something! :D

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  2. I wonder if this is what it's like to have Facebook in college. Nathan and Jamie, both being authors themselves, but majoring in Science Fiction.

    Now that you've opened yourself up to this by posting here I will pick on both of you and let people know that you have you're own blogs.

    Nathan's is at: http://www.solarclipper.com/

    And Jamie's prolific musings can be found at http://www.jamierubin.net/

    They are very nice guys, even if they are into that science/math stuff.

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  3. I started to write fan-mail to authors an an early age. And for many years I thought it all went into some agent or editors recycling-bin, but I wrote them anyways.

    The first response I got was in 1999 when I wrote George RR Martin to tell him how much I enjoyed 'A game of thrones' and 'a clash of kings'. It was about 10 months after having sent the mail, and I had pretty much forgotten about it, but the two lines thanking me for my support basicly left me dumb.
    All of a sudden I really realized that there were real live people behind the names of the authors I read.

    The second 'wow' experience I've had with writing to authors is when I wrote to Megan Lindholm/Robing Hobb. She promptly wrote me back, and we e-mailed back and forth a few times about everything from certain themes and styles in her books, to family names and bad weather. Kinda strange to experience that emails from a woman old enough to be my grandmother could make me giddy.

    Anyways: Loved the clipper, mr. Lowell. listened to it many times, and I've bought the books. thx. (sorry Jamie, havent looked at your stuff. will as soon as I know I'll be able to afford it).

    Sullivan: Love your books, and the wait for the next and final one annoys the hell out of me! I cant actually even afford the book as I'll have to go without food for a day if I get it, but that won't stop me! Need an epic finish to an epic story! Aaaaand.... where on earth has the blog of Mrs. Sullivan taken off to?!

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  4. Hmmm...That was strange - my blog "disappered" but it is back now....http://www.write2publish.blogspot.com/

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  5. Fine, then. No apologies and no thanks! Still and all, I've really been enjoying your books.

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  6. You know, I never thought of sending fan mail to authors. It was just something I really never thought of. But now, I guess I should. I do find them in some way out here on the web and let them know I love their books. But, I guess I should send you an email as well. As I have truly enjoyed them! :) Thank you!

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