When I was about thirteen years old, I read Dragonflight by Anne McCaffery. I’m pretty sure my mother gave it to me, and it was, probably, the first ‘grown-up’ fantasy book I read cover-to-cover, on my own. After that first book, I was so completely hooked on the world that I read every book in the series. I even got the accompanying The Dragon Lover's Guide to Pern. In fact, I was so completely hooked on Pern that I wrote my own dragon riders story. I scrawled it out in pencil on loose-leaf paper, some dozen pages, front and back. When I finished, I wondered what to do with it. What did anyone do with fan fiction in the pre-internet days?
With my mother’s help, I sent the story to Anne McCaffrey’s publisher, along with a letter expressing my love of her books. There were no easy photocopies in those days, so we sent the original and only copy of the story. As a thirteen-year-old, I soon forgot about it, and moved onto other thing, such as making my own Pern money out of bits of wood, and painting dragon miniatures using oil-based paints.
At the time, Anne McCaffrey was living in Ireland, and I wonder how much of my letter actually went from the New York publisher all of the way across the Atlantic Ocean. Some of it must have, for some months later, I got a reply. It was a small, hand-written letter…
Think about this for a moment. In 1986/7 when I received this letter, Anne McCaffrey was sixty-years-old and at the height of her popularity. She’d won the Hugo and Nebula – the two biggest prizes in the genre. She had one of the first fantasy books ever to make it onto the New York Times Best Seller List (a much bigger deal then than it is today), and while it would still be a couple of decades before she was rightly named as one of the Grand Masters of Science-Fiction and Fantasy, the ground-work had already been laid. This grand dame wrote me a letter.
That letter is now very sadly lost. For years I kept it tucked into the dust jacket of The Dragon Lover's Guide to Pern, but sometime during all of the moves and shuffles, it disappeared. I still remember one fragment though; she wrote to me ‘…I also used to tell myself stories in bed at night…’.
I would give a lot to have that letter back, or to read it again, but in truth, it’s not important. What is important is the effect that letter had on me then and there. My favourite writer of the time, one of the biggest writers in the genre, had acknowledged me. Looking back, I recognize this as one moment, one crucial link, in a delicate chain that led to me becoming a writer. I will never know why Anne McCaffrey chose to write to me, but perhaps now, some thirty years later (and sadly eight years after her passing), I can hazard a guess.
The creative ego is a terribly fragile thing. Just a few words or bad experiences can crush it into nothingness. Conversely, it can take a lifetime of positive experiences for it to develop to its full potential. For those lucky few that receive that nurture and encouragement, creative expression can be one of the central, defining joys of their life. My mother knew this, that’s why she helped me send my story. I suspect that Anne McCaffrey also knew this well, and having reached this creative fullfilment, she found joy in helping others strive to the same goal. She knew that she was sending more than a letter. She was sending a little piece of magical armour that could help guard me in the years to come if I pushed on with my writing and faced the inevitable waves of rejection.
I am no Anne McCaffrey, and the world of wargaming, where I do most of my writing, is just a tiny speck compared to the world of science-fiction and fantasy literature, but I do receive a significant amount of fan mail. There is a practical, business reason for me to respond to all of these. These fans are directly, or indirectly, paying my salary. But the real reason I try to respond to all of them, is because I want to pass on the little gift that Anne McCaffrey gave to me. Most people that write to me have no desire to be writers, or even game-designers, but it doesn’t matter. I am in a privileged position where I can also provide a little bit of magical armour to protect against the inevitable negativity that accompanies life, and maybe, just maybe, help someone along their own path to fullfilment, in whatever capacity they chose.
I am now almost positive that Anne McCaffrey didn’t read my story as almost all publishers and agents advise authors against it to avoid any possible claims of idea theft. I don’t read unsolicited fan material either, though it really has more to do with time than fear. I don’t have enough time each day to complete the work I want to do, so I really don’t have time to read other peoples work.
I no longer remember anything about the story I sent to Anne McCaffrey, except that the main character's name was P'nal, shorted in dragon-rider style from his full name of Panethenol, which is perhaps a better name for an industrial grade cleaning solvent.