1.30.2007

Don't mind me, I'm just here gathering fodder for my novel

Oh Great Wise Snark:

I have written a scorchingly satirical mainstream novel based on the general insanity of my corporate work environment. (Yes, Houston, we have a plot.) Names, locations, events, etc., have all been changed to protect....well, whatever needs protecting. I've spent a year letting the manuscript cool off, and invested another six months in revising and polishing. I'd really like to begin the query process, but have some nagging fears keeping me awake at night:

1) How "loosely-disguised" can reality be to pass as fiction?

2) If I haven't given away any industry secrets, or otherwise broken my non-disclosure agreement with the company -- can I get fired for writing this?

3) Would this be a case where it would be appropriate to write using a pen name?

I am cringing in dread of painful clue-stick blows, but would prefer death by clue-stick (or Killer Yap) to losing my day job for being a nitwit.



Of course you can be fired for writing this. You can probably be fired for writing anything negative about your company. Companies fire first and deal with wrongful termination suits later. And they have no sense of humor about writers satirizing their company or their products.

If you think a pen name will protect you, you're nuts. You think those guys can't read a copyright registration form?

I have no idea what question number one is asking.

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

i say start shopping the book around- - by the time anyone buys it and publishes it - if it even ever happens - --

it will be YEARS away- and thos people will all be out of your company.

so send it out and start writing your next project

Kit Whitfield said...

A lot depends on how close to your environment your book is, but given that you say it's based on 'my corporate environment' and that you've changed names and locations, sounds like what you've got is basically a roman a clef.

You really need a long-term financial plan for this one.

A company is going to be very unwilling to keep or hire someone who's liable to write a book taking the mickey out of them all. I mean, would you hire someone like that? It would be like dating Carrie from Sex and the City: you'd never know when your private quirks were going to be made public. It would also give similarly-qualified competitors an edge over you. Same skills, but one person is discreet and the other writes mocking novels ... which would you favour?

Hence, if you sell the book and your company fires you, you might have difficulty getting another job. If the book sold for enough to support you, that would be fine, but I wouldn't gamble on that.

Frankly, though I may be being over-cautious, I'd put this novel on the back burner, write another one and try to sell the second. A scorching satire of corporate life can do you no harm when you no longer depend on a corporate salary, but till you're at that point, you're kind of setting fire to your payslips with this.

the poopie says said...

I could write an amazing novel about the place I work. Only, I could never do it and keep my job, so I don't write the novel. To imagine that somehow, no one would be curious about who wrote a book which satirizes your workplace is lunacy. The guy who created "The Office" doesn't work at a paper supply company.

Ryan Field said...

Maybe number one is a brand new genre, like in TV..."Reality Fiction".

Seriously, I love vicious fiction about corporate work environments (why on earth hasn't someone written one about Linda Wachner from Warnaco yet?), but thinly veiled autobiography about some dull toothpick factory pisses me off. I'm hoping, truly, you know the difference.

Anonymous said...

It's unwise. What are you expecting, really--that the millions you make from your book will insulate you from the destruction of your career AND from the indemnification clause in your contract should your publisher get sued? Get over it. Do your work, which is to grind your material into powder to make bricks to build a story (sorry, Ursula K., for stealing your image). I doubt Grisham ever worked for The Firm, but he worked plenty of places that gave him his material.

Anonymous said...

I agree, shelve that book until your retirement. The key to using your nefarious employers etc. in fiction is to use what they taught you about things like tyranny and self-obsession for your villians. Which hopefully have no other qualities in common with the actual fiends. Your corporate boss becomes a Viking pirate. Your backstabbing co-worker becomes the peg-leg who steals your purse. The relentless gossip changes sex and becomes a cobbler in the village. Etc. And why do you have to be so anxious about using a pen name? Can one possibly use too many? would be a better question.

Anonymous said...

I think the first question--how disguised should this stuff be?--is really the key. How much is enough? I have thoughts about that with my novel. The main plot is fiction, but occasional subplots and backstory are inspired by things that have happened to people I know. I'd be interested to hear from people with experience in this area. How much change, and of what sort, is enough to turn real life into fiction?

Anonymous said...

2) Corporate types are skilled in finding justification to fire those they wish to fire. Said justification need not be at all related to their actual reason for wanting you out of there. How many of us never, ever violate one single provision of company policy?

They can also make your work environment extremely unpleasant in an attempt to drive you out.

3) If you publish under your own name, your co-workers and superiors will read it knowing you wrote it, and be able to spot themselves in spite of any disguise you may have applied.

Anonymous said...

Well, you can try, but I'm fairly certain that anyone who has spent more than a week or so in a corporate environment has seen many, if not all, of the same things you have. It's difficult to top Enron. As Kit mentioned, count on not keeping your current job and difficulties in getting a new one, no matter how you attempt to disguise yourself. And don't count on making enough money from your book to cover those pesky bills.

cm allison said...

If I even thought about writing about the company I work for, it would be a male version of "The Devil Wears Prada". Already done. (dang it!)

Anonymous said...

Or, you could think about writing actual fiction, using experiences in your corporate environment as the basis, but change everything, including the industry.

Anonymous said...

I think I disagree with the way the wind is blowing here... The author here has written something based on by where they work, but we don't know how much the story clings to real life. If they've copied a unique, complicated real-life set-up with merely a few name-and-hair-color changes, then, yes, I'd agree that it could be a bad idea to pursue. But, if all they did was--to use another commenter's metaphor in a different way--work at some law firm and then write a Grisham novel, that's okay. That's what novelists are SUPPOSED to do. Use what they know and turn it into a story. I understand that the person's worry that they could be fired leans toward the thought that it's a lightly-fictionalized situation, but I don't know. I can be pretty paranoid and sensitive when it comes to my work. The fact is, we all know a lot of people. If I know someone who's had an affair, does that mean ever writing a character who has an affair is off-limits? If I know someone who lost money in the stock market, am I never allowed to write about that? There are things that happen to a lot of people, often people we know, and these things are allowed to happen to our characters too. I wouldn't be surprised if this author is simply picking up on what are fairly common workplace "types". So, unless I were to know more about the writer's situation, I don't feel comfortable saying that they should definitely shelve it. It may not be that dire a situation.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules for this sort of thing. If they decide that what you've written is libelous, you risk firing *and* lawsuit. Claiming satire might save you, but you'd still be out a lot of money for the defense (and you'd be out of a job too -- not good).

Would someone with a working knowledge of the company recognize it as you've written it? If so, you're in trouble. The same goes for people. You may have to change a few details to make things a little less obvious, so that someone who works there might read it and think, "Hey, this is kind of like where I work," instead of thinking, "Oh my god, this IS where I work!"

There is another way to protect yourself, but I only vaguely know how it works. It involves establishing an LLC so you can register the copyright under that instead of under your own name. I imagine that's something you'd have to work out with the publisher if and when the time comes, but it's worth doing a little more research on if you're serious about the anonymity thing.

Ultimately, you might be better off waiting until you don't work there anymore to shop the book around. No matter how many layers of protection you use, it will doubtless get out somehow that you're the one who wrote it.

Anonymous said...

The amount of risk you assume depends on the numerous factors, including your current performance level at the company.

You're writing a work of fiction. What you have written is probably not much different from what others working in corporate environments may have observed. The company will be hard-pressed to assert that the work of fiction is about them, and they will be equally hard-pressed to assert that your book damages their business.

So, here's what needs to happen:
1) You need to get published (long shot there and it could take years).
2) The book has to become well known enough (or you have to blab to enough people about it) for it to be brought to the attention of your corporate overlords.
3) Your corporate overlords have to figure out that it's about them and then pull the copyright registration to see that it's you.
4) They have to determine what effect (if any) the book will have on their business. If the public will be able to see through the veil of fiction and sales will be hurt, that would be make them angry with you. More importantly, if what you write prompts some regulatory authorities to investigate, that is also a bad thing.
5) They will weigh whether or not taking action against you will negate the bad things or only make them worse.
6) If they were to attempt to terminate you, or create a hostile work environment that prompts you to resign -- you have more than enough for wrongful termination suit -- PROVIDED that you are good employee with positive performance reviews at least up to the point at which the book was published. If you aren't a good employee with positive performance reviews, you'll be canned on that basis and you won't be able to fight it.

As someone who used to be a corporate overlord who actually terminated the employment of numerous staff members, I can tell you that the process is not so cavalier as is mentioned here. Most companies work hard to think about wrongful termination suits before the termination.

Now, that being said, your immediate bosses (if they find themselves in the book) could be ticked off enough that you might as well kiss your upward mobility good-bye.

It's easy to be paranoid, but odds are no one will notice unless you brag or the book becomes wildly successful. Odds are, your bit fiction won't really affect their business enough for them to want to risk a lawsuit by terminating you. Who knows, some of them might actually find it amusing or be flattered.

You should probably, however, seek the advice of a labor relations attorney who is familiar with your company. Although you could probably postpone that until after you either have an agent or publisher in hand -- and then weigh the risks accordingly.

magz said...

Ah heckfire, Author! Jobs aint all that hard ta come by yanno, and really good books are rare!
IF.. it's good, and IF.. the worst that could happen is you'd be fired (as opposed to being the defendent in a major lawsuit that is)
I say query away!
I dunno, there's no garuntees it'd sell, or that anyone would recognize anything in it, or that you cant lose yer job from a totally unrelated cause somewhere! I say Write On;
nothin ventured, nothing gained. Best of luck and have fun with it!

Anonymous said...

how come most people who claim they'd write (or have written) amazing, fantastic, wonderful, perfect novels never actually have?

mfajcck said...

Hey, remember Carly Simon's You're So Vain?
Once you write something, *everyone* you know will assume that's them --both good and bad.
And that's even if your novel's a domestic comedy about pre-historic fluke-herders on Ganymede.
So, can you write up your work place, but change it enough that they won't recognise themselves?
Of course not, because they'll find themselves even when it wasn't them.

Anonymous said...

I'd wait until you are financially secure before publishing a novel that satirizes your employers.

Either that, or take Anne Lamott's advice and give your villain a very small penis.

You may find yourself weaving elements of your co-workers and boss into future books without realizing it. Even if you don't, people will read all sorts of things into your book that aren't there. It's a curse.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

The copyright office allows you to register under a pseudonym and NO real name. The only problem is, the copyright then becomes a matter of moral rather than legal force. Meaning you cannot prove the cr is yours since your name is nowhere to be found. Most books are not that much worth worrying about anyway, so that makes sense for an effort like this.

stephanie said...

If you work at a company called Blueberry Jams & Jellies and you are some underpaid staffling whose boss Ms. Hoodie makes you pick up her dry-cleaning on Mondays at the Stop 'N Clean and you write a novel about a company called Strawberry Jams & Jellies and you are some underpaid staffling whose boss Ms. Moodie makes you pick up her dry-cleaning on Tuesdays at the Clean 'N Stop, then, well, that's pretty damn obvious.

My characters are usually patchwork creations of people, and my places of work/play/etc. in my short fiction are usually made-up places that vaguley resemeble actual places. But none of it is really REAL. Otherwise it's not fiction.

And whether you think so or not, most real day-to-day stuff you do at your job or you do in your life is boring, so I would hope you do a lot of embellishing anyway.

Rashenbo said...

I worked in hell. Yes, the devil is actually a short hunch-backed French man with a penchant for raisinets. I'm not quite sure I'd want to write a novel about the company itself... but I definitely plan to have a character in some novel that I get to do away with. I'm seeing the heroine sitting in a chair. Suddenly, she lunges across the desk and drives a blue bic straight into his eye.

Anonymous said...

If the book is something that only the most paranoid of your coworkers/managers would recognize, don't worry. Otherwise, shelve it until you're far away from anyone that could affect your future career chances.

Dave said...

By the way -
Scott Adams was eventually laid off his job. He had made a big name for himself with his Dilbert cartoon and always told his boss that it was never about the cubicle farm he worked at... But, he always had a suspicion that the boss knew where he got all the material. And since Adams was making a living off the cartoon, when the time came to lay off someone, it was bye, bye Scott. And the boss said it had noting to do with the cartoons at all.

if you believe all that, I have land in Brooklyn for sale, cheap.

And Max Barry is his very funny novel - Company - never uses the words Six Sigma, Total Quality Management, ISO standard, Covey, or 7 Habits...
WHY? because they'd sue his buttocks off and eat his testicles for lunch.

Twill said...

The answer depends on whether you wrote fiction or memoir. If you took the people you work with, barely disguised them and had them do what they do, you probably don't have a property that can sell.

On the other hand, if you took the people at work and used them as models of types(mix-and-match), and had them do lots of things, some of which were riffs off of things that really happened, maybe done by others, maybe done by the same, then you're probably okay. It also helps to be able to say, "No, I stole that character [or subplot] from Shakespeare [or Plato or anyone else in the public arena]".

Or to say, in a convincing manner, "Oh, my god, you thought that was you? But that character is *horrible* and you were so helpful!"

There's a reason for the ritual phrasing of the disclaimer "any resemblance to ... purely coincidental."

Of course, it also might be safest to switch to a new company before publication, just in case.

Kit Whitfield said...

I could be wrong, but I wouldn't place too much faith in the 'it'll only get you in trouble if it damages the company and can be proved to be a portrait of them' argument. It might do the company no harm at all - but bosses are people too. And people can sometimes be touchy, petty and grudge-bearing. None of those are qualities you want pointed your way by someone who has power over you.

If your book offends your employers, even if it's not technically detrimental to them, you're going to have to live with the fall-out.

There are two categories of trouble here: official trouble and personal trouble. Your book might not merit the former, but the latter can be be just as bad when you're subordinate to people who are mad at you.

I'd hate to advise a brilliant book to hide its light under a bushel, but for your own safety, there are diplomacy issues here which only you can resolve, as only you know the precise circumstances. Just tread carefully, and remember, however annoying your employers are, unemployment is worse.

gathering fodder said...

Hi. I wrote the original question to Miss Snark and want to thank everyone who has responded in the comment trail.

To clarify: I've worked for three companies in the same industry over the past four years, and also had the opportunity to travel and work at a dozen or so other locations in the same industry scattered about the globe.

The novel isn't based on daily life at my current company. It really is fiction: a novel with location, plot, & characters created from what I've learned along the way. In other words, no one could take everything that happens in the novel and match it up with my current job, employers, or co-workers. There are only two characters that are potentially recognizable -- they don't work at the company I work for now.

With that said, I still think I'll take the advice of many of you and shelve this until I've published another book or so.

Thanks for all the helpful advice!

Kara Lennox said...

Here's the standard:

Are the company, situation, or characters recognizable? If someone who worked for that company picked your book off the shelf, not knowing you were the author, and read it, would they recognize it as familiar?

Most people will not immediately identify with the villains. No one believes he's a megalomaniac boss or an oily salesperson or a stupid, slutty office manager.

So, make sure the novel is suitably fictionalized, then send the sucker out. Is your dream to keep working for this company, or is your dream to be a novelist? Think of the press you could get if you got fired right after the book came out.

Keeping your identity as the author a secret would be difficult. You're going to want to tell people when you sell a book. You'll want all of them to buy it. You'll want to do booksignings and be interviewed in the paper.

anonahole said...

there's more to fiction than just changing some names and locations. a hell of a lot more, actually. once you people learn that, you might actually be able to start to learn how to write.

Twill said...

If you believe that your work is good, then given your explanation of the book, I'd say "Send it out!"

Look, you can't give *everyone who was ever in your professional life* veto power over your fiction. What would you say to a heroine who said, "I can't do anything about my dream. Even though it's none of their business, someone might take offense."

SLAP that heroine.

Look at it this way - even if the novel is every bit as excellent as you think, it will have to get past an agent and a publisher and the publishing process before it sees the light of Barnes and Noble. That's two years, minimum. Okay, 15 months if everyone's hair is on fire and no one has a bottle of seltzer.

In that time, people who know things about publishing will ask you to change things about your work. Those characters that are thinly disguised analogues for real people may end up being changed. A lot.

Then the novel comes out and some people will inevitably take offense, real or imagined. (Practice saying "You thought that was *you*?" Repeat as necessary.)

By that time, you have a second book on the way.

Let's suppose that someone has taken offense. What happens?

It's not as bad for your career as you think. If someone really takes offense at a character, they are still limited in how directly they can do anything about it. Not only does retaliating for fiction make them look stupid, there is also your *next* book to consider.

As far as *this* book, you send mass mailings to everyone in that industry - or set up a whispering campaign - advertising the book. You recast yourself as a whistleblower. Blame Bush and get on NPR. You sell 27 million copies and get it translated into Farsi and Tagalog.

NOW, what happens if, instead of the hair on fire scenario, your queries disappear into a random New York Kohler, your fulls are mysteriously shredded by avenging samurai squirrels, or (gasp) the agents and publishers don't think your novel will sell this year?

Nothing.

You might actually learn something about your novel from how other people, professional people, relate to your work.

And you might hear from some of them - *this* won't work for us. What else have you got?

So, my opinion as a serious but unpublished novelist is this - write a damn good query and send it out. Then go to work on the next book.

Anonymous said...

I'm kind of living this in real time. And for me it's potentially worse because I am writing a memoir, i.e., nonfiction. I recently had an article in a major national publication. The bio line for the article said only the kind of work I do, not the actual company for which I work. The piece published was actually more of an oped than memoir-like, so I made no reference to my company at all. One of my coworkers saw it, like it, and promised not to tell anyone. So far, I haven't heard from my boss, who is kind of clueless, like Dilbert's boss. If you google my name, you will easily find the article as well as mention of a rights offering from my agent. What happens if my book gets published and the narrative of my actual working life gets into print. Who know what will happen? I hoping for fame and fortune and the take this job and shove it scenario. I am a professional, who is an employee at will, so I can be fired for any reason.

The best story here concerns Wallace Stevens, arguably the greatest American Poet of the last century. He was an insurance executive at the Hartford Insurance company and generally kept his poetry a secret, even though he was publishing, winning awards, and giving lectures at places like Yale and Hartford.

Here's how someone described the situation:

He was inclined to keep his poetry a secret from [the men in the field], many of whom knew him only by mail. In the mid-1920s, for example, when it was common knowledge among home-office staff that he was a writer, Stevens cautioned a lawyer in the field who stumbled upon Harmonium "not to speak of his literary efforts among our acquaintances, as it might hurt his business influence." Among his fellow businessmen, who sized him up from the distance, say, of Sinclair Lewis' Zenith, Stevens was concerned that his reputation as an insurance man not be tarnished by stereotypes of the poet among the Babbits of business. Ironically, when young Stevens had begun writing seriously, he had not been altogether free from at least some of these American images of the poet as eccentric.