Remember the James Frey “Million Little Pieces” incident of 2003? Maybe you don’t. So there was this writer who wrote his non-fiction account of addiction and recovery, it was a smash hit, he went on Oprah and was in her book club, and got about as successful as you can, when it was revealed to all be lies.
People got really upset about it, up to and including Oprah.
And, guys, whatever miserable things you do in this world, you don’t lie to Oprah.
There are a bunch of cases like this and just as many critics waiting to prosecute the perpetrators.
What if you do the opposite, is it the same? If you plagiarize your own life for a fiction novel, is it unethical to pass off fact as fiction?
I’m not asking for a friend; this is exactly what I did with Corporate Torsos Need Not Apply.
It was 2015 and I was coming up on 20 years trying to write the dang novel. It was embarrassing. I hadn’t finished/published anything since 2005, when I lost a bunch of output in a Bihar train theft. I was always talking about the novel, and nobody was pressuring me, like, Where’s that novel? I know you’re writing it and yet, it’s not here. But I was pressuring me. Decades of thinking about it, working on it, talking about it, taking writing classes, and really it wasn’t anywhere near done.
NaNoWriMo was upon me. I issued this ultimatum to myself: Finish it this month, or never work on it again. Either you finish this novel this month, or don’t think about it, don’t talk about it, don’t claim to be a writer, and never write again.
And that month, November 2015, I finished the other half of the book.
How did I do it?
Well, I plagiarized my life. I already had a plot, and 50% of the book was done, but for the other 50%, I wrote what I knew.
There are a lot of scenes in the book that really happened to me. If they make the final cut and get published in June 2020 as the final draft of the book, the one that goes up for sale in bookstores and on the Internet near you, friends and family will recognize them.
The petit mal seizure I had while trying to floss my throat cavity at a yoga retreat.
Watching a retired South African army general capture a Cape king cobra in my backpack.
Witnessing a man will himself to death in the Ganges.
Maybe all these scenes will get cut in the final edit. But the bottom line is, I beat my writer’s block by writing what I knew, writing things that had happened to me, and passing it off as fiction.
That’s how I finished my first novel.
Is it unethical?