All posts by Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY and GLAMOUR IN GLASS. In 2008 she received the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and in 2011, her short story “For Want of a Nail” won the Hugo Award for Short Story. Her work has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards. Mary, a professional puppeteer, also performs as a voice actor, recording fiction for authors such as Elizabeth Bear, Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi. She lives in Portland, OR with her husband Rob and over a dozen manual typewriters. You may write to her at: P.O. Box 221298 Chicago, IL 60622

[Wayback Repost] Looking for someone to write to? How about brightening a sick child’s day.

This post was originally published on February 1, 2012. It’s reappearing today as a Wayback Repost, so you might see some old comments below. Feel free to continue the conversation!

PostPals Header

Do you need one more person to write to?

PostPals is a service in the U.K. where people can write to a seriously ill child. That letter, postcard, or gift will be forwarded to the child. This is a letter that you probably won’t get a reply to, but one that you can know has made someone happy. The website has a list of children, each of which has a page with their photo and story. I warn you, it is difficult to visit and read about how much they have had to endure.

“It is a very wonderful thing that people who do not know you, have never spoken to you, can take the time and trouble to make a difference to your life in such a special and significant way. It is not just about receiving a card, so many other things are within it- compassion, warmth, friendship, support and love and we can never truly explain how that helps”, Kelly Mum to Chloe G, 7 ALL

A letter seems like a very small thing to send, but worth the little bit of time that it takes.

 

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[Wayback Repost] Reacquainting after a long silence

This post was originally published on February 19, 2013. It’s reappearing today as a Wayback Repost, so you might see some old comments below. Feel free to continue the conversation!

I was thinking about you this week, while I was off at a writer’s retreat. Besides all of the novels and short stories that were in process, a number of the guests were also Month of Letters participants. Even some who weren’t got into the fun and wrote a couple of letters while there. As we start the last full week of the Month of Letters 0204121208-00Challenge, it occurred to me that one of the wonderful things that a letter will allow you to do is to reconnect with someone from your past. Perhaps this is a teacher that influenced you, or maybe a friend that you’ve just fallen out of touch with.

Why not take a moment to get back in touch?

Does that feel awkward? Perhaps. So allow me to offer some suggestions.

Don’t feel like you have to open with an apology for the long silence. Everyone knows that life happens. Start out, instead, by letting them know that you were thinking about them. Be specific. “I’m having a cup of coffee and remember how we used to hang out at our favorite coffee spot” or “It’s snowing outside right now. Remember how we used to have snow ball fights?”

Tell them a little of what’s been happening in your life, but don’t feel like you need to cover everything. There will be time for that later. Pick one or two highlights that you wished you’d had the opportunity to share at the time. “I finished editing the UK edition of Shades of Milk and Honey this week” or “I went to Grandma’s 108th birthday party, which was such fun.”

And then– this is important — ask them questions. “I’ve been wondering about you since your move. How do you like Seattle?” or “You used to give the best book recommendations. Read anything good lately?” or “How’s your mom?”

Finally, don’t be disappointed if they don’t write a letter back. In fact, include alternate contact information to make it easy for them to get back in touch with you. A letter is a wonderful thing, but it can be intimidating too. You remember that, don’t you? The purpose of your letter is to reestablish contact, so do your best to make it easy for them.

So how was your week while I was away? I was thinking about you.

[Wayback Repost] Letters of introduction

This post was originally published on February 5, 2013. It’s reappearing today as a Wayback Repost, so you might see some old comments below. Feel free to continue the conversation!

introductionIt is tricky to write to a new person for the first time. Once, you would have a letter of introduction from a mutual friend to accompany yours. It is rare when you have that opportunity now. Many of you have found new people to write to through the forums and now must write that first letter. The temptation is to start off with a short biography.

Allow me to counsel you to avoid that. Why? Because letters are a form of written conversation. You do not approach someone new at a party and recite your curriculum vitae. It is stiff and formal. Instead, you start with an observation about the place you are in, or some other bit of small talk about something you have in common. In person that might be, “can you believe the weather we’re having?”  In a letter it might be, “I’ve been buying ridiculous quantities of stationery…”

I sometimes start by simply describing where I am at that moment. “I’m sitting at my desk in our dining room. My cat Harriet is curled up on the radiator next to me and is snoring. I adore a cat who snores…” You see how simply trying to capture that moment in time begins to tell my new correspondent something about me. I have a cat named Harriet.

Another idea, suggested by participant Fiona Webster is to free associate. Look at their bio on the webpage and start writing about whatever comes to mind from a quick glance.

And ask questions. If their bio mentions that they are married, ask how they met their spouse. Or if it mentions that they collect typewriters, ask what their most recent acquisition is. Treat it like a conversation.

And remember, when you first meet something, there’s nothing wrong with a little small talk while you get to know each other.

What tricks do you use when starting?

[Wayback Repost] What if you are starting late?

This post was originally published on February 4, 2012. It’s reappearing today as a Wayback Repost, so you might see some old comments below. Feel free to continue the conversation!

The rabbit from Alice in Wonderland is also lateSeveral of you are probably only just now finding the Month of Letters Challenge.  Hello and welcome! Now, the challenge is to mail something every day the post goes in February. So what do you do if you’ve already missed days? First, understand the purpose of the challenge, which is to connect with other people tangibly and to, hopefully, get into the rhythm of sending mail regularly.

With that in mind, there are two different ways to join in, depending on which suits your temperment.

1. Use the non-mail days to catch up. In the U.S. the post doesn’t run on Sundays or holidays. That gives you five days to use.

2. Decide that you are going to send mail every day for a month, starting today. So if it is February 6th, then you would try to send mail daily until March 5th.

Simple, eh? And remember, it does not have to be a letter, nor do you have to write to 24 different people. Give it a try, I think you’ll enjoy it.

Those of you who have been in it since the beginning, tell us how it’s going. Are you having fun?

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May I ask for your help supporting Month of Letters?

Support a Month of Letters. (1)When I started Month of Letters, it was just a 2 rule challenge on my website. Now we have a vibrant community and over 7000 people participating. This is fantastic. It also means that the Challenge needs more infrastructure and people. Last year, I upgraded to a new site in order to handle the traffic. Now, I need more people. Currently, Month of Letters has two people running it. Me, and K. Tempest Bradford, who is our community manager. I need a webmaster.

Desperately.

You’ve probably noticed some things are wonky this year. So I’d like to ask for your help. I’ve made a Patreon page, which is a fundraiser that allows people to offer support on a regular basis. I want to be clear that Month of Letters is free, but if you want to help support the website I would really, really appreciate it. To put it really bluntly, maintaining the site at the bare minimum that it is now costs about $3000 per year, and that’s without a webmaster on staff. And then there are things I want to do, like:

  1. Making badges automatic
  2. Bringing quests back
  3. Building an app, so you can play on your phone
  4. Paying contributors
  5. Mail scholarships for people who want to play, but can’t afford stationary and stamps
  6. A penpal matching system

And I need help to do that. I’m the child of Depression era parents, so talking about money or asking for help does not come naturally. But this is a community. I would counsel a friend to ask that community for help, and so I am now asking you.

If you have questions, I’m happy to answer them. Meanwhile… here’s a sample of one of the rewards that comes with your patronage. Downloadable stationary that you can print out at home. Or I’ll send a thank you note. Or recipes. In the mail!

If you can help, please check out the Patreon page for Month of Letters

A month of Letters letterhead for Patreon

 

[Wayback Repost] Why do letters seem more daunting than email?

This post was originally published in January of 2012. It’s reappearing today as a Wayback Repost, so you might see some old comments below. Feel free to continue the conversation!

image source unknownOne of the things that I’ve found interesting in the response to the Month of Letters Challenge is the notion that mailing something everyday is too much. The idea that writing a letter, postcard, addressing socks… what have you, is somehow more difficult than other forms of communication.

How many tweets, status updates, and emails do you send in a day? I’ll grant that you do not need to look up an address for those. You do not need to  scrounge for paper, put a stamp on a page, or walk to the mail box. I grant that it is easier to click “Send” than any of those.

I suspect, however, that the physical is the smaller of the difficulties. Because the only personal things that come in the mail now are Things of Import, like wedding invitations or birth announcements, we’ve attached an unconscious weight to mail. If one is going to send a letter, then it seems like it should be something significant.

Not really.

I mean, that’s nice and all, but the significance is the connection and the fact that it is tangible proof that you thought about someone specific. Where a tweet expresses my thoughts about me, a postcard is for someone else.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a heavy social media user and I love twitter. This Month of Letters Challenge is not about dissing anything modern. It is about finding out what the archaic medium of postal mail is good for. Much the same way photography did not replace painting, but taught us what painting was uniquely good at, postal mail is good for something different than electronic communication.

Do you still feel daunted?

Then, let me put this into perspective for you.

  • A postcard is a slow tweet or status update.
  • A letter is a delayed blog post or an email.

It’s just that it is for an audience of one.

Welcome to the 2016 Month of Letters Challenge!

This repeats the text of the challenge in graphic formAs we start off the fourth year of LetterMo, let me talk a bit about what I’ve learned about the Challenge.

It’s really not about getting letters, it’s about reaching out. A lot of folks sign up, hoping they’ll get mail. While that does happen, it’s ultimately not the goal of the challenge. The goal is to make a connection. If you get an email back, or a text, or a phone call, or a facebook/tweet/tumblr/thingie, then you’ve made a connection. That’s the important part.

An audience of one.  This month, I want you to slow down and really think about who you are writing to. So many other parts of our lives wind up being a performance because the internet (which I love) is a vast public space. Physical mail is intimate and designated for one person. Think about that person when you write.

It doesn’t have to be fancy. You know in December, when that first card arrives? There’s a moment of joy, because someone thought of you. The card maybe just has their signature, and it doesn’t matter that there’s not a fancy three page letter with perfect penmanship, because they thought about you. When the challenge says that you can send anything, we mean it. You’re mailing tangible proof that you thought about someone. That’s special enough.

It’s like time travel. No really, bear with me for a minute. When I write a letter, Present Me is writing to Future You. When you receive it, Present You is reading something from Past Me. So that means that what you are capturing with your mail is a specific, concrete moment in time. It’s okay to share the small details of that moment. For instance, as I’m writing this, my cat Sadie is curled up on the chair next to me. She’s snoring. I wish you could hear it, because it is adorable.

There is no wrong way. With the challenge a lot of people write to me. A LOT of people. I’ve seen things written in pencil on paper torn out of a notebook, letters typed on the computer and printed, incredibly gorgeous mail art, postcards with three words on them, and once, a pigeon. Every single one of those represents the moment when someone thought about me. I love them all. There’s no wrong way.  (I mean, besides the things that the federal government won’t allow you to mail. So don’t get arrested okay?)

Send mail to people who never get it. It’s tempting to just send to people who will answer you, but think about the folks who never get mail. Which brings me to the final thing, which is kind of weird. I’ll be here all month, writing along with you, but I have a favor. Don’t write to me this year. I know. It’s weird, right? Here’s the thing. I love getting your letters, but Rule 2 means that I have to respond to them. I realized that because of that, I’ve never had the real Month of Letters experience. This year, what I really want is to write to folks that probably aren’t going to write back to me, like my nephew and my aunt and my mentor and my friend with brain cancer and my favorite author and… you get the idea. BUT there a ton of people in the forums who want penpals. I get a lot of letters. Why not share the love and write to someone who doesn’t?

[Wayback Repost] If my handwriting is terrible, can I still participate?

This post was originally published on January 6, 2013. It’s reappearing today as a Wayback Repost, so you might see some old comments below. Feel free to continue the conversation!

Yes!

I can assure you, with a great deal of confidence and a wide representative sample to choose from, that lousy handwriting is a) not unusual b) not nearly as bad as the writer thinks it is, and c) still welcome. Typed letters are also welcome. I get a number of those in which the only time a pen touches the paper is to sign the sheet. I still enjoy them.

The purpose of the Challenge isn’t to avoid the computer at all costs. It’s to slow down and give yourself permission to think about just one person at a time. Also, to hopefully seed your mailbox so you get mail in return, but that’s a bonus.

The final day of the Month of Letters Challenge!

Here we are on February 28th. How did you do? Did you manage to meet the Challenge and send out mail on every day it ran? For folks in the US that was 23 days this year.

I’ll be frank. I did not manage to do that this year. Shocking, right? As the founder, I should totally have been able to send that much mail. I didn’t and I don’t feel badly about it because I still sent more mail than I would have without the Challenge. So I might not have won the challenge, but it was still successful for me.

I’m still working my way through the mail that I received this year, and will reply to all of you who wrote to me. Thank you so much. Your letters are simply wonderful.

Now go forth and continue writing!

And for those of you who did win the challenge, we have a winner’s badge for you.

Winner!

Did you manage to send mail on all the days that mail ran in February this year? Congratulations!