Six impossible things

Fan mail from some flounder?

One of the things that happens when you write books that are marketed as Young Adult or childrens is, you get letters from kids who have been assigned to write them in class. It’s really obvious, for two reasons: first, the number of letters drops off markedly during the summer months, and second, the class assignments tend to have the same format (“In the first paragraph, tell the author what you liked about his/her book. In the second paragraph, tell the author something about yourself. In the third paragraph, ask the author three questions. Sign your name…”).

The three questions part is particularly obvious when the author of the letter really has only one question that they’re burning to ask. It’s usually something specific, like “What happens to…?” or “How did you ever think of an insubstantial floating blue donkey with wings?” And then they’re stuck, so the next two are the sort of general questions that a lot of people ask writers. “Where do you get your ideas?” is really popular; so is “Are your characters real?”

And then there are the questions that betray a more specific class assignment. Chief among them are “What are your influences?” and “What is the theme/meaning of this book?” I mean, really – is there an eleven-to-thirteen-year-old anywhere who cares about the writer’s influences unless there’s a grade riding on the answer?

Not that I blame the letter-writers. It’s the teachers who give them these assignments who enrage me … and I am not using hyperbole here. I am most particularly and especially infuriated by those teachers who tell children that they will get a better grade if the author to whom they write answers the letter. Invariably, those letters do not get forwarded by the publisher for two or three months, and when they do arrive, I’m out of town or working to deadline, and the mail waits another month before I get to it. So the poor kid, through no fault of his or her own, misses out on that grade-boost.

I’m also getting more and more e-mails pleading for an address to which someone can snail-mail an assignment letter directly, almost always in connection with that kind of “extra credit.” I don’t give my address out on the web or via e-mail, for an assortment of reasons, and I get a bit cross with teachers who expect me to set their students such a bad example.

We won’t even discuss the number of teachers who seem to think that all writers are independently wealthy (or perhaps who think that no other teacher in the history of the world has had the brilliant idea of making their students write to a favorite author), and therefore do not have their students enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope with their snail-mail letters. Postage adds up a lot more quickly than you might think.

I like hearing from my readers, really. I don’t always have the ability or time to respond right away (and there have been years when nobody at all got an answer, like the one right after my mother died, when I was trying to cope with being her executor and having a book deadline), but I do like hearing. I don’t like it when it’s forced. Although I confess that one of my favorite letters started “My teacher is making us write this because we read your book in class. I thought it was for younger kids. We are in the seventh grade!”

  1. Or as Rocky said to Bullwinkle, “That trick NEVER works.”

  2. In my Language Arts class recently, we wrote letters to the mushers to whom we were assigned (we tracked Iditarod mushers in school). The thing is… I know that they will be really busy, but I had hoped that mine *might* scribble off a really short note. *Squash, stamp, squash that hope*. Why? My musher won the race! He’ll be flooded with letters.

    I smiled when I read your description of the typical letter format. My teacher had us follow that exact format! Of course, I asked if I could switch it up a bit. (She consented, but it was still a typical letter.)

    Now, I’m just dying to ask… did you write back to that letter writer who started out “My teacher made me write this…”?

    • Mary H. – Well, yeah – that’s kind of the problem, innit?

      Mary – Yes, I answered that letter; I think I said I was sorry he hadn’t cared for the book and there wasn’t anything I could do about the teacher making him do things. But it was a long time ago, and my answer wasn’t nearly as memorable as the letter.

  3. Despite having always accepted it unquestioningly before, now I find that I really want to know how you ever thought of an insubstantial flying blue donkey with wings. (Which, by the way, has always been one of my favorite parts of the series.)

    I wish I’d been assigned your books in school. Whatever they were assigning, I don’t think I ever liked any of them as much. Now I feel like I’m gushing a bit…but sincere gushing!

    Seventh grade is probably not a good age for children’s fantasy–just old enough to feel you’re “too old,” and not old enough to realize you can read them anyway…

  4. I’ve got a better one for you.

    My granddaughter wants to know if you’re ever going to revisit Mairelon the Magician. She really wants to know what happens to Kim.

    And since I’ve been re-reading the stories with her, I find myself rather curious as well.


  5. Since reading your blog I have found that most authors are a lot like me: short on time. You answer emails, blog comments and snail mail from your fans, and that doesn’t even include your publisher emailing you or your own personal life.

    I’m glad I’m not alone in the world of “I never have enough time to do…” Sorry us fans take some of your time, but we do appreciate it when you do give us time. Make sure you take time for yourself, that is important!

    • Cheryl – I didn’t think of it all at once. Killer just developed, one element at a time. The minute he ate something inappropriate for the second time and had changes happen, I knew that it would keep happening, but I had no idea what he’d eat or what effect it would have until the opportunities came up and I had to think of something else it would do to him.

      Gwendolyn – I’ll check out PageFour. And I don’t currently have plans for a third Mairelon book, I’m afraid. I keep getting sidetracked by shiney new ideas.

      Jessica – Thanks. I wasn’t whinging, really…OK, maybe I was, but sometimes you have to, and this is an especially busy time of year. Sometimes steam needs to be blown off. (There are times when passive voice is just the thing…)

  6. I was never required to write an author. I did write a fan letter one time on my own initiative. I wrote to you, about your Enchanted Forest Series. I can’t even remember exactly what I was talking about; it might have been about the grouchy magic mirror.

    It never got to you though, because I sent it to the address on the back of the book. The letter just came back to me, so I gave up. Now you know. 🙂

    • Jessica – Which address? Because all my U.S. publishers are supposed to forward fan mail, and they do…eventually. If it was a distributor or a foreign publisher, though, I can see that happening.

  7. I’m sure it was probably a distributor’s address. This was probably about 15 years ago. I was pretty young and did not know where to find the right address.

  8. I’m thankful none of my teachers came up with that idea – I would have been terrified witless, writing to An Author, and one whose book/s I loved? I would have been far too much in awe – plus add in the “why would any writer care about YOU?”-aspect. I still scarcely dare to do it, though I’m obviously somewhat less timid – as here I am. 🙂

    The closest I ever came A Beloved Author was when Lloyd Alexander visited the school next to ours. (In Sweden, would you credit it?) So close, and yet so far! Still, we got to see a video-recording of it – I was spellbound.

  9. Your comment inspired me to look on, where there is a 3-part video of a visit with Lloyd Alexander in his home, showing many of the objects he used in his books.


  10. I’m glad to know that you do indeed enjoy receiving mail. A few years ago I read “The Endless Steppe” by Esther Hautzig and was mesmerized by how she described her tween/teen years in exile in Siberia. Even though she wrote it as an adult, she so vividly captured her adolescence (hunger, passion for learning, crush on a boy — all during WWII). I was so moved, I wanted to write to her. And I thought I found her in NYC (though she’d be quite an old woman by now) via Google. But I never did. Do you think most authors do want to hear from readers/fans?

    • Lisa – It depends. Most authors love getting undemanding, sincere letters of praise or thanks – who wouldn’t? Not all authors have time to answer such letters, though, especially those of us who write YA and who get rafts of mail from readers who only write because it’s an assignment. It’s not that the letters are any less sincere; it’s the time problem. You’re most likely to get an acknowledgement from a) new authors who have only written one or two books, because they’re desperate for feedback and haven’t had a chance to get jaded yet, b) adult midlist authors, because nobody assigns adults to write fan mail, so adult authors don’t get tons of it unless they are mega bestsellers, and c) authors who may have had a big hit ten years or so ago, but who haven’t written much since, because they, too, are probably past any huge, time-consuming bulge of fan mail. It’s a lot easier to answer two or three letters a month than 50 letters in the same week.

  11. Good morning! My daughters (Zoe, Mia, Ella and Eva) and I (nurse and aspiring writer) are reading Dealing with Dragons for the 3rd time. We recently started a book club (yesterday) at the Jaffrey Public Library in Jaffrey, NH and that is the first book choice. We will have Cherries Jubilee for a snack, and I am trying to come up with the activity. Thanks for writing such great stories, especially since the club currently consists of all little girls (2nd, 3rd and 4th graders). This is my fan mail, with the faint hope that you might know of a super activity to do at a book club all about Dealing with Dragons. Or any suggestions for running a children’s book club, as I have never been a part of one before. I understand you are likely too busy, if you don’t have any time or suggestions, I am just thrilled that I got to write to you at all.
    Thanks so much,
    Mother of quite a lot
    AKA Heather

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