In my very limited experience of publishing (one story, baby! As a former teacher says, “In jazz, we say as long as you’ve been paid once, you’re a professional.”), fan letters are splendid little bombs of joy. I use the term ‘fan letter’ generally: obviously, having published only one story, I cannot receive ‘fanatic’ missives declaring how the writer has read all the kajillion stories I’ve written et c. et c. Also, they weren’t paper. I received a few e-mails around the time of my publication, one from a fellow writer and a couple from readers, saying they read and enjoyed my story. One chap said he hoped I published again soon.
Is it necessary to describe how thoroughly my day was made by these things? When I saw my name in print – in Asimov’s Science Fiction no less – I felt the world would change. As I’m fond of quoting, I felt “Perhaps there may be golden trumpets!” But there were not, of course, as my more rational mind predicted. I still went to Queequeg’s every day, encountered the same scammers and scallywags, rejoiced if the weekly tip haul worked out to $1.60 an hour. What those e-mails told me was that I had been heard. Which, after all, is half of why we do this, right? Otherwise we’d all be Emily Dickinson, content to hoard our scribblings. When you’ve been heard, the world has changed. Your words are part of the internal universes of those who’ve read it, and knowing that, you feel changed as well.
I hadn’t thought about it that deeply, or for a while, when I read the September 2008 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction the other day. The novella in it, “Arkfall” by Carolyn Ives Gilman, was wonderful. An intriguing setting, a compelling character conflict, and soon enough a fascinating plot. I enjoyed it immensely, not only for those separately listed elements, but for the way they interacted and informed each other. It was a beautifully balanced thing that caught the imagination and heart.
And so, when I put the magazine down (always a sign of a good story: you can’t go on ravenously to the next), I wondered if I should look up the author and send her a note. I never would have considered this last year, but for some reason the idea did arise, and I couldn’t dismiss it. I’d feel so foolish! I thought. What would I say? Some slightly less gushy version of what appears above between ‘An’ and ‘heart’, obviously. But why should I suddenly start sending appreciative e-mails? The answer to this one was just as obvious: because now I know what a difference it makes. I also told myself that sci-fi has a more collegial atmosphere, and it wasn’t really that odd to send a spec-fic author a note – very much of the spec-fic culture. (I don’t actually know if the literary mainstream engages in this note-writing activity or not, since I won’t be published in it until next summer – anyone want to enlighten me?)
So I sat down and searched up her e-mail, wrote her a note, and pressed ‘send’. And you know what? She did appreciate it. Even widely published authors want to know they’re heard. I don’t know whether it made her day, but it sounds like it brightened it. So next time you read a story in a magazine that really strikes you, that you can’t stop thinking about, hang up your self-consciousness on a peg and write a fan letter. It’s a simple way to spread a little happiness in the world.
For fun, I formalized the rules I made up for myself before writing the aforementioned e-mail: here they are.