[Guest Post] The Letter Game – Caroline Stevermer
February 24, 2016 in Journal
Ellen Kushner taught me to play the Letter Game when we were in college.
What is the Letter Game? I checked just now and there is a Wikipedia entry for it. Here’s part of the entry:
A letter game involves the exchange of written letters, or e-mails, between two or more participants. The first player writes a letter in the voice of a newly created character; in this first letter, the writer should establish their own identity and that of their correspondent, should set the scene, and should explain why they and their correspondent must communicate in written fashion. In subsequent letters, plot and character can be developed, but the writers should not talk about plot outside of the letters and the characters should never meet.
I play a slightly looser version of the game, in that the first letter writer isn’t necessarily correct–the second letter writer could be someone who intercepted a letter intended for someone else, for example.
When Patricia C. Wrede and I were writing Sorcery and Cecelia, we allowed ourselves to gossip about the characters but we agreed never to discuss the plot. I’d played the Letter Game before (and have since), but the sheer delight of playing the game with Pat comes through in those letters. We didn’t know we were writing a novel. We were just playing the game.
According to my recollections (Pat may see things quite differently) once we finished up the last letters, we felt confident we had a book on our hands. Pat, the consummate professional, had been keying her letters into a file on her computer all along. (I didn’t yet have a computer.) She made certain the manuscript was complete and presentable. Before we sent it to our literary agent (we had the same agent in those days), Pat and I made a few changes, mainly to remove some loose ends that didn’t contribute to the plot. Terri Windling purchased the novel for Berkeley Books. Due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, it went out of print almost instantly. Harcourt Brace bought it and its two sequels, The Grand Tour and The Mislaid Magician, years later and reissued it in hardcover. Digital editions are available from Open Road Media.
Since we didn’t realize we were were writing a novel until we were nearly finished, it is tricky to talk about the writing process. I said before, we were just playing the game. But this Letter Game was set in a place and time we both knew well, the intersection between Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, and all the fantasy we’d both read all our lives. The regency romance provided a clear template to follow.
In both sequels, we had gone beyond the regency romance template. We had characters who were in established relationships. More difficult still, in The Grand Tour we had characters who were in the same place at the same time. We got around that difficulty by alternating between extracts from Kate’s journal and portions of Cecy’s legal deposition recounting the events they’d been embroiled in.
TL;DR: The Letter Game is great. Give it a try. (Bend the rules.)
P.S. Pat adds: Speaking of bending the rules… Since Sorcery and Cecelia came out, I have had mail from all sorts of people who’ve played the game in different ways, including a pair of eighth graders who used it as a history class project (each playing a cousin from opposite sides in the American Civil War), a group of about ten people playing a cross-universe version in which none of the characters were able to meet physically, and another couple who each played multiple characters who were all corresponding with each other (and most of them were lying to some characters and conspiring with others). The game is very adaptable.