Now the Moral of This Story: Don't Swim in the Company's Pool with Your Manuscript
from Horror Isn't a 4-Letter Word: Essays on Writing & Appreciating the Genre
Besides the realization that horror writers aren't actually crosseyed psychopathic nethercreatures with horns, the thing that amazes non-writers the most is that the majority of us hold down day jobs. Yes, alas, the days when we authors (and now I'm referring to all of us, not just horror writers) relaxed in plush firelit dens with our quills to dash off a few lines of dialogue before adjourning to the boudoir for intimate conversation, brandy, and pipes lit with $100 bills, are long gone.
Thus begins the perennial juggling dilemma of the modern writer: how to keep our families, full-time jobs, and craft (which includes writing, reading, and marketing) in the air simultaneously without dropping them. And as any juggler can tell you, a major challenge is how to keep the balls from hitting each other: we all know, for instance, that a full-time job normally can't share the same space with family, nor can writing.
But what happens when our fiction writing collides with our full-time jobs? Well, sometimes our co-workers are supportive: they read the fliers we tack up in the lunch room, and a few of them even buy our books. However, on the whole, there's too much risk of jealousy and concern about how our activities impact the corporate image. There's even the perception that since we're now published writers that we must be pulling down scads of money—which, to them, means it's time to get rid of us.
Never was this brought home more forcefully to me than a few years ago, when a senior manager at my company (let's call him Mr. S) sent out this strange e-mail to everyone in the office:
As the fading light of a dying day filtered through the window blinds, Roger stood over his victim with a smoking .45, surprised at the serenity that filled him after pumping six slugs into the bloodless tyrant that mocked him day after day, and then he shuffled out of the office with one last look back at the shattered computer terminal lying there like a silicon armadillo left to rot on the information superhighway.
—opening line of my new novel
Now imagine, if you will, little Matt Warner, administrative assistant, sitting in his cubicle. Matt has a problem with coffee: it finds invisible holes in his bottom lip to drain onto his white button-down shirt. But his obvious lack of panache doesn't stop him from entertaining six-digit fantasies about his unpublished novel. Maybe one day people will even want to read an opinion column by me about writing, he thinks.
Matt blinks when Mr. S's e-mail pops up on his screen. It won't occur to him until months later that Mr. S might just be venting frustration about office equipment in a creative and funny way, and that Mr. S might not actually have a novel in the making. Instead, Matt thinks, How nice. He's proud of his opening paragraph and wants to share it with people. Well, what's good for the goose is good for the gosling ...
And with that—and surely with no lack of pride himself—Matt hits "Reply All" and pastes in his new manuscript's carefully hewn marketing pitch:
SUBJECT: RE: Luddite
As long as we're sharing:
The Organ Donor (Supernatural Thriller. 84,600 words.)
A Chinese prisoner is executed, and his organs are sold on the black market to two American brothers, saving them from kidney failure and blindness.
But Shen Mutian is no ordinary prisoner. Born 3,000 years before Christ, he's a mythological king and the wielder of a power older than the universe. He returns from the dead wanting everything that was once his. Shen pursues them to Washington, DC, and their only ally is a beautiful police detective.
The Organ Donor: a supernatural thriller as contemporary as today's headlines.*
*"Chinese Doctor Tells of Organ Removals After Executions," 6/01, Washington Post.
"There," Matt says, and happily returns to pasting labels onto file folders. "I'll probably receive a few messages from people telling me how interesting my idea is."
An hour later, Matt is still staring at his empty Outlook inbox.
An e-mail finally comes in, and it's from the head administrator, a white-haired gentlemen affectionally known as "the Chief." Ah, Matt thinks. At last.
TO: Mr. S; Matt Warner
SUBJECT: author, author
They looked at each other quizically as they walked into the Chief's office. The senior manager and the administrative assistant wondered why they were being called in together and on such short notice. The Chief, without speaking, turned to his computer and pulled up in succession two e-mails touting new novels. "Are these yours?" he asked the pair.
They stretched themselves up to their full height, chests out, and said with pride and in unison, "Yes, sir."
"Well then, pack your things," the Chief said with a glare. "We don't have any room here for people who waste their time on things like this."
Walking out as quickly as they walked in, the two exchanged a glance which said, "This may actually be a wonderful turn of events—assuming, of course, that we can get paid for writing these masterworks."
Matt stares at the e-mail with dry eyes, feeling the blood rise in his cheeks. He tries to remember where he's filed his resume, and he wonders how long COBRA health benefits last.
But after about a minute of rereading the message, parsing it for hidden meaning, he decides that the best course of action is to pretend it never happened. He'll certainly never reveal this gaffe in that once-and-future writing column. With glances over both shoulders, Matt closes the e-mail window. He sips his coffee and gives the stain on his shirt a companion.
The rest of the day passes like a relaxing afternoon on death row. Matt keeps pasting labels onto file folders until closing time, then flees home.
The next morning, his keycard still admits him to the office building. His password still accesses his computer. His Outlook inbox fills with routine memoranda. He relaxes. Closing time comes again eight hours later.
On the elevator ride down to the lobby, the Chief gets in with him.
Matt discovers he can hold his breath for seven floors. At the ground level, the Chief turns to him and says, "Good night," then smiles and gets out.
Later at home, when his hands finally stop shaking, Matt signs up for a webmail account. He vows that for now on, his writing business—which includes advertising—will transpire through this separate e-mail address and only through this e-mail address. And in that column on writing, he'll advise others to do the same.
Read other articles like this in Matthew Warner's new title from Guide Dog Books, Horror Isn't a 4-Letter Word: Essays on Writing & Appreciating the Genre, which reprints all of his "Author's Notes" columns, plus a few other gems. Then check out his other three books while you're at it. Warner lives in Staunton, Virginia, with his wife, the artist Deena Warner.