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Writers Writing Back

Two weeks ago I did a post about an author who admits to answering very little email. Today I'm going to write about those authors who do write back.

Sometime between the years 1994 and 2002, which is the length of time between when I started writing seriously and first got offered a publishing contract, I got it into my head that one way to get agents/editors to pay more attention to my work would be if I were to amass super-early blurbs from bestselling authors.

I got busy writing letters.

Not surprisingly, these bestselling authors did not jump at the chance to spend five to ten hours of their time reading the unpublished work of some stranger to whom they had absolutely no connection.

But what was surprising was how many wrote back, and this was before the days of the ease of email reply - these were real handwritten letters!

Mary Higgins Clark wrote in Sept 1997 and told me she was glad I was pursuing the dream and that her own first published book had been rejected more than once before being picked up by S&S.

Peter Benchley sent a pre-printed note card with his regrets, informing me of his lack of secretary or staff to handle his voluminous mail.

Sidney Sheldon was too busy writing his own book, but he was sure I'd be a huge success.

Susan Isaacs was also busy with her own writing - honestly, what was it with all these writers busily writing their own books? - and while she said nothing about being sure I'd be a huge success, as Mr. Sheldon had done, she did wish me enormous luck.

Michael Crichton did not write back himself. Instead, I received a letter filled with legalese from an assistant.

Ira Levin was glad I was one of the loyal fans of This Perfect Day but couldn't help me because he had no interest in the genre in which I was writing.  

Catherine Coulter felt she was over-quoted and declined.

Jane Smiley referred me to her agent who read and declined.

Ken Follett regretted that reading the manuscripts of family and friends prevented him from reading mine.

And in the most delightfully dotty letter I've ever received, Dame Barbara Cartland wrote from Hertfordshire, with veddy British advice about how to "get one's wares published." I pictured her in a pink feather robe, matching mules on her feet, a white dog in her lap as she concluded, "I am a great believer in the power of prayer. Before I start a new book I always pray and somehow I manage to think of a new plot, and by the end of the story the characters have found true love and lasting happiness. I like to think that God has helped me. I do hope I have been of help to you."

No, none of them had been a help to me, not in the exact way I'd envisioned, but they'd been polite and encouraging and sometimes funny.

Of course I didn't know then what I know now, now that I've spent several years on the receiving end of such requests: What an insanely huge and hugely insane thing I was asking of them! I was asking for time and lots of it. Can you imagine if you decided you wanted to be an accountant and you then went into some strange accountant's office and asked her to give you five to ten hours of her time, for no other reason than the kindness of giving? No one does or expects stuff like that in most professions, and yet we writers ask writers who are strangers for enormous favors all the time without even thinking about it.

Now here's where I need to add that back when I was writing those letters to bestselling authors two did agree to read my manuscript. Both were men, both are still alive and names you would recognize, both called me up on the phone to offer praise and encouragement, and both provided me with blurbs. That manuscript never did sell and I'm afraid I can't give the names of those writers out. While their incredible generosity in terms of time and attention to an unpublished writer is worthy of acknowledgment, I'm sure the best thing I can do for them is to keep my mouth shut...so they don't get deluged with requests from presumptuous people like me!

Thank you, writers who blurbed.

Thank you, writers who didn't blurb but did encourage.

Thank you, writers who wrote back at all.

Thank you, writers who never or rarely write back to anyone, because you give me something to write about.

How about you? Any memorable stories to recount about corresponding with authors?

Be well. Don't forget to write.

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Lauren, I did not write

Lauren, I did not write asking for blurbs but did write to Paul Bowles, Ellen Gilchrist, and Michael Cunningham, mostly to express how much I loved their books, but also simply wanting to connect as I continued my own work.

All three wrote back.

I enjoyed a regular correspondence with Paul Bowles for a number of years. He often enclosed photos he'd taken in Morocco with his letters. He was very encouraging, and invited me to a writing program he was teaching through some NY university, which I was not able to attend. I loved being invited though!

Ellen Gilchrist was a sort of angel in that she assured me that I WAS a writer when I was having doubts. She wrote back and forth a number of times. I eventually met her and heard her read from one of my favorites among her books. I was so moved I had to race to the ladies' room after she finished.

Michael Cunningham made me feel like I had won the Pulitzer just by being a mother and a writer at the same time. He too wrote back and forth a number of times and gave me several agents to query, saying I could tell them he'd sent me.

Each of these people wrote to me during a time of my life when I needed to hear what they had to say. I won't ever forget that, and even though I don't have any books in print yet, I've gotten a few emails over the past few years from my website and blog presence. I read a ms for two of them.

We all need to know some doors are open as we do this often solitary work of writing.

Great post - I loved reading the responses you got!

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Billie, what fabulous stories! Those are all authors I admire and now I admire them even more.

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Writers writing back

I really loved reading this piece, especially since agents and editors go into blurb mania--wanting authors to contact as many people as possible. For my non-fiction book(How to Bury a Goldfish)--on a lark I sent it to Mary Pipher(we both go to the Unitarian church though I'm lapsed) so that helped and she read the book one afternoon and wrote a great blurb. It was so simple and enormously kind. I've had my rejections and some successes. I don't feel I can go into it all for privacy reasons. Yes, it is asking so much. But when sometimes takes the time it is so very meaningful--even just the words of encouragement. It is such a hard job to write a book and get it sold and any help at all lights the way. I teach, as well, so try and do my best for my students in helping them move along to the next phase of their lives. I do remember when I was first sending out my memoir(Burned) and got beautiful long notes back from editors--the era of letters-- along with many rejections. I treasure the letters and can still hold them. The no replys, or the quick replys are gone into the ozone. I try and remember the importance of those letters. Perhaps, some day, if I'm lucky I'll get too busy to write notes back and to reply to everyone, but I hope I can at least send a word of encouragement somehow, some way. Thanks for the great piece!

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How to Bury a Goldfish

What a terrific title, Louise! Yes, encouragement is so important and those personal notes are precious.