Writing for love

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, which means that the next day, according to the marketing slogans I grew up with, is…yes, it’ll be the “first day of the Christmas shopping season!” It’s enough to inspire me with a feeling of sinking dread and the desire to hide under the covers until December is safely over. I love Christmas, but even I cringe at the shopping season beforehand, and I’ve spent wayyyy too many shopping trips in my life filled with angst and stress and the absolute conviction that I’m spending far too much money on gifts that the recipients won’t even like.

This year, though, I’m actually excited, and the reason is because of something my brothers and I decided last year. Instead of buying each other presents that year, we all decided to do something completely different. My brother Ben is a Clarion West grad and published writer of f/sf/horror short stories, and my¬† brother David is a film student who writes screenplays as well as directing them. We’ve always been big fans of each other’s writing (we had a family writing group when we were kids, and we still trade critiques), but what we did last year was something new: we made special requests. For Christmas, Ben asked me for a horror story, and Dave asked me for a swashbuckler with swordplay, banter, and a twisty plot. I sat down to write two new short stories in a month, and for the first time in years, I was writing not with the hope of publication, but with the hope of pleasing two particular people whom I love. And it was mind-blowingly fun.

I occasionally write horror stories, but not often – those ideas just don’t tend to come for me. Writing for Ben, though, an idea slipped straight into my mind, and I raced to get each line down knowing that I was writing it as a gift for my very beloved younger brother, who loves horror. It was so, so much fun, and a zillion times better than my usual panicked search through Amazon’s online catalogue at Christmastime.

I had never, ever written a swashbuckler before, even though I adore reading them and watching them onscreen. So I sat down to write Dave’s story with huge trepidation, thinking, I can’t write this kind of thing! But I wasn’t writing it for publication, or for the cold gaze of any editor. I was writing it for my very beloved youngest brother, so how could I not let go of the angst and just try to write something that he would find fun? And then I amazed myself by how much I loved doing it. I, who never write swashbucklers or stories longer than 6,000 words, wrote a 12,000-word novella set in an imaginary Eastern European kingdom (my homage to The Prisoner of Zenda) with magic, swordfights, banter, and the requisite twisty plot…and I frequently giggled out loud as I wrote it. I have never had so much fun writing a short story in my life.

When it came time for exchanging gifts, I printed out the stories with cover pages adorned with appropriately funky type in wildly varying sizes, rather than the sober, publishing-standard, 12-point Courier I’m used to heading all of my short stories. Instead of slipping them into envelopes or emailing them to submissions addresses, I put each of them in a fancy folder and wrapped them in bright gift paper.

And the stories I got in return – a brilliant, surreal contemporary fantasy set in Budapest, and a freaky & beautiful Narnia-subversion set in Iraq – were the best gifts possible. Reading them, not only did I love them as stories, but I practically glowed as I read them, knowing they were written for me, with me in mind as the ideal reader, just as I’d written my stories for my brothers.

I talked to Dave on the phone a few days ago, and we’ve already started planning this year’s gift exchange. Within the next few days, we’ve promised to send each other this year’s Christmas requests. Instead of anxiously scouring Amazon for exactly the right books or DVDs, trying to balance my worrisome bank balance with my huge love for my brothers, I’ll be sitting down to write brand-new stories, consciously stretching myself to write the best pieces possible – but for love instead of money.

And as a writer – even one who’s dreamed all my life of getting my stories published – there is honestly nothing better.

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There are 8 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Karen Healey

    That is super neat! I just emailed my sister, offering her just such a gift.

  2. 2. Eugene

    That’s a terrific idea! Maybe one day you’ll all have enough stories to come out with a family collection. A POD compilation would be a nice treat for your other family members…and all your fans :) Let me know when I can pre-order!

  3. 3. Marie Brennan

    . . . but now I want to read the Narnia-subversion story!

    This sounds great. If I had any confidence in my ability to work to a prompt, I might try it myself. Alas, my brain just does not seem to be wired that way.

  4. 4. Stephanie Burgis

    Karen, that is so cool! I hope you have as much fun as I did.

    Aw, thanks, Eugene! :) I’ll definitely let you know if we ever do that.

    And Marie, the Narnia-subversion story is great! It’s funny about writing with or without prompts…I actually find it much easier (at least with short stories) than coming up with ideas from a blank slate – something about knowing one element already makes me relax and let the others pop up much more easily! On the other hand, I can’t for the life of me write to a strict outline…

  5. 5. Jenn Reese

    What a wonderful idea, Stephanie! And just reading about it makes me see how much you and your brothers love each other.

    I wish I could do this with my family, but none of them read fiction. I don’t believe they’ve read my novel or any of my short stories. Still, maybe some day I can do this with my created family of friends. :)

    Can’t wait to hear about this year’s requests!

  6. 6. Stephanie Burgis

    Created families ROCK. :) And as someone who loves, loves, loves your stories, I think that sounds like an awesome idea!

  7. 7. Joe Iriarte

    What a fantastic idea! I loved this post. :)

  8. 8. Stephanie Burgis

    Thanks Joe! :)

Author Information

Stephanie Burgis

Stephanie Burgis is an American writer who lives in Yorkshire, England, with her husband, fellow writer Patrick Samphire, their son "Mr Darcy", and their crazy-sweet border collie mix, Maya. Her Regency fantasy trilogy for kids, The Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson, will be published by Atheneum Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, in 2010, 2011, and 2012, beginning with Book One: A Most Improper Magick. She has also published short stories in a variety of magazines, anthologies, and podcasts, including Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Escape Pod. You can find out more, or read/listen to her published stories online, at her website. Visit site.

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