Can CSR be the backdrop for a nail-biting thriller?

13 February 2016

Reading under the sheets

Here’s the thing. I’m writing a novel. There – I’ve said it.

And yes, it features the corporate social responsibility world as a backdrop. It’s in the background. The story has to come first, and stories are foremost about people overcoming crises – or failing to overcome them.

But it always struck me as odd how few novels ever have the business world as a backdrop. After all, it is a huge part of life for a significant number of us.

When authors do deal with businesses, it’s invariably with big faceless corporations playing the role of the callous greed-fuelled villain. Something to be fought against. Something wild and out of control.

Part of this is because I guess most authors have little direct knowledge of business. There are exceptions to every generalisation, but most by their very nature are not attracted to working within a corporate environment. And in the absence of direct knowledge and understanding, but recognising the amount of power that companies have in the world, it’s very easy to see it in black and white terms.

There are heroes wherever you look, in every walk of life, at every level of authority

But of course it’s much more interesting than that. Even when companies go off the rails, there are interesting shades of grey and internal battles that are part of the story. And there are heroes wherever you look, in every walk of life, at every level of authority.

The two principal heroes of my novel could not be more different. One is a worker in a factory in Colombia. One is the senior executive of the UK-based company that owns the factory who is expected to succeed to the chief executive position but instead loses out on some internal politics and gets demoted to head of CSR.

Two very different characters from different worlds, seemingly on a collision course as events take a lethal turn.

The novel is intended as the first part of a three part series. Because of course just writing one would have been too easy!

I’ve written three drafts of the first novel, and have nearly completed the first draft of the second. It’s that awkward time when you’ve done a lot of work on it, part of you is confident that the core of what you’ve got is good – while knowing it will have lots of room for improvement with the support of a good editor.

But then the dark voice is there as well at the back of your mind. You’re aware how many people there are who write wretched novels that should never be allowed out into decent company. You tell yourself that you know that doesn’t apply to you. And, after all, every successful author got masses of rejections when they first started out so the trick is to believe in yourself. But unless you have self confidence bordering on arrogance, the doubt is always there.

Heck, some of the most successful authors still suffer from self-doubt even after they’ve been endlessly praised and their books have sold in their millions.

The reason why I felt I could poke my head above the parapet and talk about this now is that I just got some feedback. Just one page of comments based on the first three chapters. There are things to fix. They’re even things I kinda knew about already, but wasn’t sure how far you should go with them – so it’s encouraging that there weren’t huge surprises. And there were one or two places where an outside view pointed out where I’d put in one or two unnecessarily distracting elements.

But overall, the feedback from this professional editor was encouraging. A bit more work to be done, but definitely on the right track.

And you know what? She thought that the CSR-related premise on which the book hangs is actually a really good one. Really engaging and lively.

That makes a huge difference, because I’m so mindful of our capacity – as a species – to be self-deluding about how interesting something in which we’re personally immersed can be for external readers. It’s about spotting the elements that are engaging and fascinating, and not getting caught up in the detail that isn’t.

It would be the first novel, surely, that had a Head of CSR as its lead character!

It’s what programmes like Masterchef do for the professional food trade. There’s a lot of running restaurants that is detail and drudgery. But those programmes make it all seem fascinating (and encourage people to pursue a “food dream” – I mean, really? Stuck in a hot sweaty kitchen with no natural sunlight for 12 hours plus every day? That’s your dream?).

I always thought the world of sustainable business could be just as fascinating. But it has to be part of a good story. That’s what I’m trying to achieve.

So I’m just pausing for a couple of weeks. Getting this new website up and running, and then I’m back into the book to produce a fourth and, maybe even final, draft.

By the way, before I finish on this one.

When I was a kid at junior school, I used to write adventure stories all the time. Because, I guess they were less under pressure to deliver against a curriculum or something, my school teachers got me reading one of these stories out to the class every Friday afternoon. Seriously. In retrospect that seems pretty funky.

I never forgot that. Even though for several decades in my adult life, my writing was mostly commentary and analysis on sustainability and related issues, I always knew that I would want to return (when I’d “lived some life and had stories to draw from”) to writing fiction.

If I do get anything out of it that people find to be of value, I would want to put on record the early encouragement of those teachers. You can never know which parts of encouraging a child to follow their interests are going to stick in their head and motivate them decades later to believe in themselves.