One of Little Things They Never Tell You About Becoming A Writer:
One of the best kept secrets about being a writer -- any writer -- is the wonder of fan mail. Like all authors, I love fan mail, I crave it and when I get it, I'm Frodo patting the paper or computer screen while breathing, "My PRECIOUS!"
I get a lot of fan mail and it validates the job I do for hours and hours each day. I love all of it ... except prison fan mail. Those . . . not so much.
At first I wondered why so many male inmates had copies of my books. Had my publisher made some sort of jail-deal and sold them at a huge discount to all of the big houses across the USA? Was there something about my books that appealed to inmates? And was that a good thing? Could that possibly be a marketing strength?
Somewhere, at a publishing house in NY, was a marketing director looking at a spreadsheet and announcing, "This Hawkins woman sells well to the following demographics -- high school chess club members, chocolate cake lovers, and -- well! Look at that! Prison inmates. I think we could use that."
I've since discovered the truth. I met someone who worked for the correction department here in Florida and asked him about my prison fan mail. He laughed and said, "Most jail libraries are filled with books donated by the wives and mothers of the inmates. If your boyfriend, husband or son is in the clank for taking a 'wrong turn' somewhere, you want him to read a kinder, gentler sort of book and not a violent, murder-oriented book. So most women donate romance books. They're quite popular with the inmates, too. Some become big fans."
My books might be 'popular with the inmates,' but most of the jailhouse letters I've gotten have crossed some sort of Emily Post boundary. I have yet to get one that didn't offend, confound, or just plain scare the bejeebers out of me.
Therefore, in the interest of passing on knowledge for the betterment of our inmates, I've put together the following Romance Author Fan Mail Etiquette Guide for Prisoners.
- Rule #1. Do not include 'gifts' with fan letters. These 'gifts' include roses made out of chewing gum (yes, CHEWED and SCULPTED chewing gum), poems that include the words 'When I get out and find your house' (even if it conveniently rhymes with 'I'll prove to you I'm not no louse.'), or pictures of yourself wearing your gang sign and nothing else.
- Rule #2. Telling me that you're in prison for a murder you 'didn't commit' is not very reassuring when you also sign yourself as Willie "The Shank." I think that one speaks for itself.
- Rule #3. Most romance novel fan letters don't include a request for 'a picture, something really nice, you know' for the adornment of a cell wall. In fact, most romance fan letters only request your future publishing schedule and very little else.
- Rule #4. Don't mention that you've cut my picture from the back of my book and have it in your 'scrapbook.' Call me paranoid, but somehow I find this disturbing. I mean ... didn't I see something like that on CSI, Hill Street Blues, and Barney Miller?
- Rule #5. If you're going to write a rap in my honor (which is a very nice gesture) please remember to exchange my name for ALL of the places where the girl's name should go. If it says Karen in stanza one, two, and four, I'm going to be pissed when there's a 'Rasheeda' in stanza three. I don't have many standards, but being called by the correct name is one of them.
- Rule #6. Listing 'Dancer at Le Bare in Dallas, Texas' as one of your 'legitimate' jobs before you took that 'wrong turn' is not a good character recommendation. Even if that's the ONLY 'legitimate' job you've ever had, I'd probably skip it. Some things are meant to be private.
I could go on and on, so let's just make this easy for all of us. Below is a standard fan letter that is simple and easy-to-use. Just copy it, fill-in-the-blanks and mail it off. I can assure you that it will get a response:
Dear (fill in romance author's name here).
I just read your book, (name of book), and enjoyed it very much.
Thank you for taking the time to write it. The next time I get the chance, I'll ask the warden to purchase your entire back list for me and the boys.
(Your real name here -- please resist the urge to share your prison pet name)
There! That's not so hard now, is it?
(By the way, every example I've used in this note is from an actual prison fan letter I've received over the last eight years. Seriously, folks, I couldn't make this stuff up!)