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September 1, 2005

Urban Legends
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 10:50 AM * 36 comments

The Writer With A Manuscript In His Hand

This happened to a friend of a guy I knew: He and his girlfriend were out parking, and they were getting real cuddly when the radio came on and there was a story about how a local man had written a book and was trying to get it published. Well, the girl got scared and wanted to go home, but the guy wanted to keep going with what they were doing … they had a big fight, and he peeled out of there and drove her home, and when he opened the door a manuscript was stuck right through the door handle!

The Writer Who Got A New Carpet

My uncle used to know this writer who got a new carpet installed. The writer went out while it was being put in place. Well, carpet installer found a strange lump under the wall-to-wall when he’d got it all tacked down, so he smashed it flat with his hammer. Later the writer found his canary was still in its cage but his manuscript was missing.

The Writer in The Bathtub

I heard this from a guy who worked right in the emergency room. A writer went down to Tiajuana, and he had a bit too much to drink and left the bar with this sexy girl. The next morning he woke up back in his hotel, hurting all over, in a bathtub full of ice. There was a note written on the mirror in lipstick: Call An Agent! And he found his book was being printed by PublishAmerica.

The Writer Who Worked On His Book Too Long

An editor told me about this really well known writer who had gotten writer’s block, and in order to make up for it he wrote a really long book. But by the time he’d finished it tarantulas had nested inside his manuscript so when he picked it up they all came out and bit him and he died, and his widow had to return the advance.

The Writer Who Got A Phone Call From His Agent

A guy posted a story on the internet about a writer he’d met, and one night when the writer was home alone he got a call from his agent who said, “I’ve got a deal for your book for a a nice six-figure advance! Now all you have to do is write it.” The writer was really happy about that, so he went to open a beer to celebrate, and while he was drinking it, the phone rang, and it was his agent! And his agent said, “Why aren’t you writing your book?” And the writer said, “I’m writing it right now!” And he went and locked the doors, and pulled the curtains, and decided to watch some TV to relax, when the phone rang, and it was his agent saying “Why aren’t you writing your book?” And the writer said, “I am!” and he was really scared, so he called the police, and they said “We traced your line. Get out of there right now! No one’s called your house — you’re talking to yourself again.”

The Writer Who Used Poor Man’s Copyright

There was a story in the newspaper about this writer who wrote a book, and when he’d finished he mailed it to himself and never opened the envelope. And about a year later a really famous writer had a book published that used the exact same plot, so the writer took the sealed envelope to court, and he won and got a lot of money.
Comments on Urban Legends:
#1 ::: Marie Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 11:14 AM:

::puts on folklorist hat::

There's been a lot of research done on the first one ("The Writer with a Manuscript in His Hand"), and it's been traced back to an actual incident. The two people in the car were an editor and one of his slush-reading interns, and the manuscript was actually a random assortment of non-sequential chapters from an unfinished first book in what the author planned to be a seventeen-book epic fantasy series called the Overlord of the Wheel of the Sword of the Shiny Jewel of Doom.

#2 ::: Chris Clarke ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 11:32 AM:

I swear this happened to a friend of a friend. He's a writer, and he was driving at night in a bad neighborhood, and this beautiful but sort of strange-looking woman is hitchihiking. So he picks her up, and she gets in the back seat and says "I'm a book editor with a big publishing house, can you take me to my parent's place?" And he says "Sure," and it's a couple miles away and they start talking. She agrees to take a look at his book, says "Please. I could really use a good submission." He looks up into the rear-view, ready to ask her where she works, but she's gone. Vanished. He goes to the address she gave, rings the doorbell, and an older woman answers. He asks about the young woman, and an old man comes out to the living room and they invite him in and sit him down on the couch. He sees a framed photograph of the hitchhiker on the mantel. The old man says "Our daughter was a book editor. Twenty years ago this very night she was reading chapter five of a Jerry Pournelle manuscript, and she suddenly pulled out a gun and shot herself in the head."

#3 ::: Georgiana ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 11:34 AM:

The Writer Who Went on Vacation

There was a writer who went on vacation to a steamy tropical city. He met this beautiful woman there and he fell madly in love with her. They spent the entire vacation together and she promised to meet him back in New York. She gave him a box and told him to open it on the plane ride home. When he opened it he found a dead black rose, a rejection slip, and a note that said "WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF PUBLISHING!"

#4 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 11:35 AM:

You forgot the one about the elderly woman who spilled coffee on her manuscript and put it in the microwave to dry, and the manuscript exploded. Took out the old lady, too.

#5 ::: Xopher (Christopher Hatton) ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 11:48 AM:

Much as it's fun to adapt these urban legends, I think you all might be missing Jim's point, which is that poor man's copyright isn't worth shit.

#6 ::: Georgiana ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 12:03 PM:

I read a pretty awful spec script a couple of years ago where the lead aces law school with a brilliant defense based on poorman's copyright, resulting in a widow regaining the stolen royalties that an unscrupulous university press had stolen from her son, who committed suicide before he could get a real copyright.

#7 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 12:15 PM:

He even manages to hit both woeful Copyright myths, too. First, how it is obtained, and second, what it is.

Two things to remember:
1: Something is copyrighted upon fixation. Registration, marking, etc. are now all purely for the convenience of others and making your life easier.
2: Copyright protection is, unlike trademark and patent, actually about copying.

#9 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 12:56 PM:

Fixation is putting something into a fixed form. Words in your head aren't fixed. The same words on paper are.

#10 ::: Straight ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 12:56 PM:

The Writer Who Gives You His Novel, Free!
My friend knew a writer whose agent (named Neil Marcus, I think) called and said he'd negotiated an advance. "They're giving you two-fifty!" The writer hung up and danced around the room shouting "$250,000! $250,000!"

A month later he got a check in the mail for $250. The writer called Marcus and said, "You sold my novel for $250! Well I'm gonna have $250 worth of fun. I'm gonna e-mail my novel to everyone I can, for free!" Marcus said he wished he wouldn't do that but the writer said, "this is the only way I feel I could get even."

And to prove this story is true, below is a copy of the writer's novel. Please pass it on to everyone you know!

#11 ::: cicada ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 12:57 PM:

And then there were some friends of friends of mine who went on vacation in Mexico and rented a home for the week. While they were down there, they spotted what appeared to be a stray short story manuscript lurking in the yard. They brought it in and cleaned it up and set it down on the table. When they got up in the morning, all of their spare paper was gone and they could not figure out what had happened to it. Just then, a friend stopped by to visit and they showed him the short story manuscript they had rescued. "That's not a short story!" he declared in horror. "That's a trilogy!"

#12 ::: Georgiana ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 12:59 PM:

When you put it in tangible form.

If I give an off the cuff speech it's not copyrighted because it is verbal.

When I write it down it is, whether my medium is paper or electrons. If I record my interpretive dance it's now in a fixed format and copyrighted, whether film or digital. Does that make sense?

#13 ::: Georgiana ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 01:01 PM:

Oops, Uncle Jim beat me to it. Okay, dropping for fifty more. My cat will be doing those for me.

#14 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 01:12 PM:

I just knew PublishAmerica had to be the punchline to one of those.

#15 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 01:21 PM:

Cicada beat me to my favorite Urban legend, about the Mexican short story that turns out to be a trilogy.

My second favorite is the one about the gang of editors who drive around at night with their headlights off until some unscrupulous writer flashes his lights to let them know. They follow the writer home and force him to watch as they edit his manuscript.

#16 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 02:16 PM:

Tonight on Mythbusters: Jamie and Adam test how far into the manuscript you have to turn the page upside down, while the interns check out the legend of the misaligned Underwood and the deviled ham.

#17 ::: Madeline Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 02:17 PM:

It's depressing how often Poor Man's Copyright turns up in on-line writers' discussion groups. It beats me how people who apparently know how to use the internet can still be so clueless.

#18 ::: Harry Connolly ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 02:18 PM:

My friend told me this happened to his cousin, so it has to be true:

An editor was driving down the street when he saw a manuscript sitting on a lawn with a sign on it that said "For Sale $1"

He pulled over and looked at the manuscript. What a steal! He knocked on the door, paid the woman who answered a dollar and drove off with the manuscript.

Later that day, when the woman's cheating husband came home, she served him divorce papers and told him what she'd done with his precious manuscript.

That one's totally true.

#19 ::: Daniel Martin ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 03:03 PM:

I've always found it odd that a work is in a fixed medium the instant it is embodied in electrical states in volatile memory, before it's even written as magnetic states on some slightly more permanent medium. (So someone looking over your shoulder at your screen and copying your great novel is committing copyright infringement, even if you never save and the power goes out before any of it is written to disk) Presumably, then, this means that an extemporaneous, off-the-cuff speech given online in a MU* would be copyrighted automatically.

Okay, so what about an extemporaneous speech given over the telephone? What if I've signed up with Vonage or some such and am using Voice-over-IP?

#20 ::: Harry Connolly ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 03:07 PM:

And here's one I read about online:

An editor brought her dog to a writing conference, and brought it onto a crowded elevator. While they were between floors, the editor held up a doggy treat and said "Sit! Beg!"

All the other people in the elevator dropped to the floor and held out their manuscripts.

The editor thought this was so funny that she offered to read all of their query letters.

That one's true.

I've also heard unconfirmed rumors that editors across the country are planning a special protest of the Iraq War. They are planning a boycott in which they will not buy manuscripts from unpublished writers for ONE WHOLE DAY!

I think that one is bee ess, though.

#21 ::: Steve Eley ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 03:12 PM:

You forgot the one about the guy who comes home after a vacation to find that everything in his house had been stolen except for his camera and his typewriter. Deeply distressed, but unable to do anything, he works on a short story for a while and goes to bed... Then a few weeks later he develops the film and finds pictures of the robber using his typewriter to ghostwrite William Shatner novels!

#22 ::: Steve Eley ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 03:20 PM:

There's a longstanding rumor on the Critters workshop that if you stand in front of a mirror and say "Alas!" nine times, Gordon van Gelder will appear behind you and reject you.

Does anyone know if that's true? I tried it, but I got too scared after seven.

#23 ::: Merlin Missy ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 03:32 PM:

This totally happened to somebody a friend of mine knew once. She posted her Buffy story at and the people who publish the real Buffy books read it and liked it and now they're going to publish her story as a new Buffy book. It's got to be true, because three people from the same IP address said so.

#24 ::: Christopher B. Wright ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 03:46 PM:

What's fixation?

It's a nightclub for obsessive-compulsives. They don't have strobe lights, they just tell one of the guests to turn the lights off and he checks it 5,000 times.

#25 ::: Steve Eley ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 04:33 PM:

Okay, so, like, this friend of mine? He had this majorly kickass idea for this fantasy series? And it was like, well I can't tell you what it was about, but it had these dragons and tanks and the hero dude was like half-dragon and half-Terminator cyborg and it was totally cool.

So my friend goes to this convention, right? And the first panel thingy has Robert Jordan on it, and so afterwards he goes up to him and says "Hey, Bobby J, I got this rockin' idea for a new series. I could tell it to you and you could write it and we'd, like, split the money 50/50. You'd be rich!"

And Robert J says "Oh yeah? Tell me about it," and he takes my friend to dinner and they stay up all night long talking about this book and they get it all outlined and sh*t. And so the next morning he calls his agent and they get, like, eight million dollars for the first three books, but my friend says they could get more from other countries if they sell it there. They're gonna use one of those pseudo-names so nobody knows it was really Robert Jordan.

And so the book's gonna come out next year and the movie's supposed to be in the fall and they might get Schwarzenegger to do it if he quits his job, and now my friend's super-rich but he says he's gotta keep it all a secret 'cause it's in their contract. So he's not even spending his money on stuff, he's investing it in this Swiss bank but when the book comes out he's gonna go all out and buy this house that's like all one big Playstation and he's gonna party for a whole year before they have to write the next book.

I know it sounds all crazy and sh*t, but my friend did have that kickass idea so I believe him. I probably shouldn't be talking about it here, but I just wanted to say that if you have an idea like that too you should totally go up to somebody famous and offer to split the money, because who doesn't want to get rich?

#26 ::: Aconite ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 05:43 PM:

There was this guy, see, and he was a first-time writer, so he couldn't get published. True story!

#27 ::: Will Entrekin ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 06:20 PM:

"It's a nightclub for obsessive-compulsives. They don't have strobe lights, they just tell one of the guests to turn the lights off and he checks it 5,000 times."

I'm the assistant editor of the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services. I had to struggle not to burst out laughing at work when I read this.

#28 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 07:05 PM:

It is an ancient Scrivener,
And he stoppeth one of three.
"By thy glazéd gleam, and that sweat-stained ream,
"Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?

"The Consuite is open, my people within,
"And my liver is parlous dry;
"I have paneled and signed, but the day is behind,
"You had bloody well let me go by."

But he's held by a hand with a tonerish scent,
"I've a novel within," quoth he.
"I will watch as it climbs up the list of the Times,
"I ask little enough from thee.

"It's adventure, for sure, with a literate bent --"
The Convention Guest watched with unease;
"I'm on Draft Twenty-three, and it's near as can be,
Could the wheels have a touching of grease?"

The Convention Guest gave him a cryonic laugh,
And the Devil was in his shout:
"Every Hamlet and Clown has a novel deep down,
The trouble is prying it out!"

Then distant he looked, and his finger was crooked,
"'Tis the spirit of Nielsen Hayden!"
And the Author manqué stumbled quickly away
With his albatross awkwardly laden.

The Guest ducked in with a side-bent grin,
And the party improved with him in it;
"Dreaming's hard work to do, and the dreamers are few,
But a sleepwalker's born every minute."

Uh, excuse me, wrong metaphor.

#29 ::: Mike ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 08:01 PM:

...and when the agent asked what the title of the manuscript was, the writer replied, "The Aristocrats!"

#30 ::: Diane ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 08:12 PM:

Three different friends, none of whom know one another so they couldn't have checked their stories, have all told me that they know the doctor who was on-call the night they removed the manuscript that was tightly wedged into Richard Gere's hands. I'm totally serious.

#31 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 09:06 PM:

There's a ten-year old boy with cancer, and as his dying wish he wants you to buy his self-published novel. If enough people buy it, one of the traditional publishers will pick it up!

#32 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 09:55 PM:

The "Poor Man's Copyright" idea seems to be a spontaneous mutation of the "Poor Man's Patent" idea, to write down an invention description and mail it to yourself to prove when you invented it.

The latter is also useless, but at least vaguely relates in some way to some desirable goal, namely recording invention date for priority purposes. The problem is it does a lousy job of it because anybody knows that envelopes can be tampered with.

BTW, there is a proper solution if you've had the idea for a commercially valuable invention, you are sure it is new, and you are going to apply for a patent on it but can't yet afford to or need to do more research first. Write out a description of it with any needed drawings, have two witnesses record the date and sign it, and put it on file with your lawyer to hold for you.

(Then go get about $10,000 out from your bank in cash and burn it. That will be cheaper than filing for a patent.)

#33 ::: Alan Hamilton ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2005, 09:59 PM:

The Vanishing Editor
There was this author that saw a editor hitchhiking in the rain, so he picked him up. The editor got in the back seat and looked at the writer's manuscript and said, "This is great! I'm going to publish this right away!" But when the writer stopped at the publisher's office, the editor was gone! He went inside and they said, "Oh, he hasn't worked here for years." And then he found his manuscript at the bottom of the slush pile!

#34 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2005, 12:18 AM:

Did you hear the one about the blonde who went to Hollywood to try to make it in the movies? She was so dumb that she slept with the urban folklorist.

#35 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2005, 02:19 AM:

An editor was travelling across the country when a torrential rainstorm washed out a bridge and stranded him on a back country road.

He made his way to a nearby farmhouse, knocked, and asked for shelter for the night. He gave the farmer his name, and told him what he did for a living.

"You're an editor?" the farmer replied. "Sure, we can put you up for the night. But you'll have to read my daughter's manuscript."

#36 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2005, 04:38 PM:

Steve Eley:

There's a longstanding rumor on the Critters workshop that if you stand in front of a mirror and say "Alas!" nine times, Gordon van Gelder will appear behind you and reject you.

Does anyone know if that's true? I tried it, but I got too scared after seven.

The story is untrue. The person who appears in the mirror and rejects you is actually Bryan Cholfin.

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