Bad Advice Wednesday: Write a Fan Letter. Preferably to Me.

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


Actual Photo


Let us start with Robert Browning’s fan letter to Elizabeth Barrett, January, 1845:

“I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart — and I love you too. Do you know I was once not very far from seeing — really seeing you? Mr. Kenyon said to me one morning ‘Would you like to see Miss Barrett?’ then he went to announce me, — then he returned . . . you were too unwell, and now it is years ago, and I feel as at some untoward passage in my travels, as if I had been close, so close, to some world’s-wonder in chapel or crypt, only a screen to push and I might have entered, but there was some slight, so it now seems, slight and just sufficient bar to admission, and the half-opened door shut, and I went home my thousands of miles, and the sight was never to be?”

Would it kill you to right a letter like that to me?  Or at least an email.  Email is fine.  And email makes it so much easier to write as a fan, of anyone, really, but today I’m talking writers.  The advice: Write a fan letter.  Or fan email.  If you love something you’ve read, take a minute to articulate why.  This is smart just for your own development as a thinker and writer, but it can also open the door to literary friendships.  If sincere.  If intelligent. If heartfelt. And especially if you’re seeing what no one else has seen, saying what no one else has been saying.  You don’t do this for any reason but wanting to say what you think.  No thought of advantage, no thought of favors sought.  Any such petty concern will taint the very paper you write upon.  Or taint whatever digital hocus-pocus brings emails home.

My favorite notes start something like this: “I was poking around in X library in X town and happened across your book.”

You know?  A book that’s been twenty years out of print and some kindly soul has found it in the stacks on vacation (or once, in jail–be sure to send your books to prison libraries!).

But really.  You finish a book.  You love it.  Write a fan letter.  If you’re famous, all the better.  But if not–don’t be shy.  Just be real.  And don’t freak when you hear back.  Unless you’re writing to dead poets.  Then you can freak.

That’s a good exercise, by the way: write to dead writers.  Make yourself say it: this is why I love this book.  Maybe after a few books, you’ll have the start of an essay.

Another fine thing to do is to write yourself a fan letter–especially if you’re just getting started publishing and others haven’t thought to do it.  Again, the idea is to articulate just exactly what you’re doing right.  I’d mail this, too.  Or give it to your husband to copy out and send.  Or wife.  Or sig oth.

In college I wrote to Carl Sagan, partly because he also lived in Ithaca, partly because he’d spoken to my physics class at Ithaca College, partly because I loved his newest book, and also because I disagreed with some point he’d made about parathanatic experiences (I was also reading Edgar Cayce at the time, fully credulous).  I closed by mentioning that I thought I’d try my hand at construction work after college so I could have enough money to write.  He wrote back!  His parents also lived in Ithaca!   Soon I was waterproofing their basement. And it did help my writing.  They were holocaust survivors, Mom with a number tattooed on her forearm.  You learn one thing, then you learn another.

But even if you don’t need work, write a letter every time you finish any book no matter what.  And send it.

You can practice here!

And tell us about writers you’ve written to, and whether they’ve written back.

[Follow Bill on Twitter: @billroorbach   And Like us on FB, damn you!]






  1. john lane writes:

    I have written many fan letters, but in the 1980s after reading his latest novel I wrote to Walker Percy and he wrote back this wonderful scrawled one-page letter on his letterhead with a slight sideways slant to the sentences, and then I wrote him again and he answered again– one page again. I think there were a total of three exchanges. He’s still my favorite all-time novelist and I like him even more because he wrote me back. So sad there are not as many letters today, fan or otherwise. Fan emails are ok but they just don’t feel the same as letters and hardly anybody prints them out and saves them. Oh lost! as Thomas Wolfe so famously said.

  2. Karen Vail writes:

    Ha! Already did, glowing review of Bill’s forthcoming novel to follow on my blog Am fighting a cold so give me some time to craft it, and tweet, fb, etc!

  3. Ruth Calia Stives writes:

    We have already met through email – I wrote to you because I was so disappointed to have missed meeting you face to face at Book Expo – and you sent me an ARC of Life Among Giants. Through most of the book I wasn’t sure what to think, but I was riveted to the pages. The characters, so flawed and so beautiful; the story, a serpentine river journey through rough waters, dangerous undercurrents, and calm reflecting pools. It was a simultaneously disturbing and enthralling story, which is the best kind, as far as I’m concerned. Thank you for writing it, and thank you for getting it into my hands.

    I write (one novel completed, another in progress, no agent in sight, but lots of determination pumping through my veins) and I am intrigued by other writers. I’ve been very fortunate to have connected with some wonderful authors. Nearly thirty years ago I wrote my first letter to an author, Bobbie Ann Mason, about her book, In Country, and I was thrilled by her wonderful, carefully considered response. Through the years I’ve corresponded with many authors, to thank them for a particular book, or to ask a question regarding their writing habits. Almost always they have been kind and thoughtful. I will cherish always a letter from Frank McCourt, who urged me to “sing your song.” He passed away within a year of writing to me.

    Once upon a time, in my all too distant youth, I was captivated by rock stars. I have letters and autographs from some of them, so it would seem my practice of sending fan letters began early. But now, it’s all about books, and the marvelous people who write them.

    • Bill writes:

      Thanks so much for kind words, Ruth… We’ll look forward to your books. And meanwhile, see if you can get Mick Jagger to sign this Bill and Dave’s t-shirt!

  4. nina writes:

    Dear Bill,

    Your brilliant editor was kind enough to send me a galley of Life Among Giants. I am only a few chapters in, but it is so gorgeous and juicy and riveting that you will receive a more thorough fan letter from me very soon.

    When I was twelve I wrote a fan latter to Treat Williams and he sent me back a handwritten note. I know he’s not a writer, but still.

    I’ve received lovely letters and e-mails back from Ann Hood, Jacquelyn Mitchard, Francine Prose, and Sarah Dessen, among others. I find that writers usually write back. When my cousin Gabriel was a teenager he wrote to J.R.R. Tolkien and received a wonderful letter from him, containing the caveat that Gabriel was not to write him again because he didn’t have time to pursue a correspondence. I wrote to Kurt Vonnegut around the same time and did not hear back, but hey. Kurt Vonnegut.

    With Love From Your Fan,


    • Bill writes:

      My brilliant editor is your brilliant editor, too, I happen to know, and so this is kind of a dual fan letter to her! I know Kurt Vonnegut wrote to you but that the letter was lost. I think my little brother, Doug, used to hang out with Treat Williams in NYC.

  5. Nancey writes:

    You were the first writer I ever wrote to… about SWJ, all those years ago – 1994? You wrote back! I freaked out, but now I’m good. I have the letter tucked inside… what else? the book. I still write to writers, not often, but when I really can’t stand turning that last page and it ending.. then I write.

    It’s a great idea though….

    • Bill writes:

      t think it was 1992. And that it was one of my first fan letters. Of course I treasured it! I wish my archives were better organized. But somewhere in our attic your letter is still with me!