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True Lies this week departs from previous posts examining Asia-based conspiracies, tragedies, and mysteries. Following up on one blog commenter’s request, this entry describes what it’s like to transition from business writer to novelist. Almost everyone in the service economy writes at work, and many want to write fiction someday. But how does one make the step across the divide separating non-fiction and fiction writing?

Below I share my learnings to date, but health warnings apply. I used to write and edit copious amounts of equity research (reports recommending that professional investors buy or sell a particular share), so I’ve written for publication before. After five years of indentured servitude writing drafts that management consulting seniors ruthlessly re-wrote, I pulled my act together. It took two more years to develop the course materials for the Logic & Structure in Thinking & Writing one-day seminar I subsequently taught for another twenty-five years.  So I came to write fiction late, but for better or worse have substantial commercial writing experience.

There’s an uncertain benefit to reading an unpublished novelist’s how-to-write lessons. It’s akin to soliciting lovemaking tips from the pope. As Earl Butz, Nixon’s controversial Secretary of Agriculture, once commented in reply to a papal edict prohibiting birth control, “If he don’t playa da game, he don’t make-a da rules.”

Earl Butz, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture (1971-1976)

Earl Butz photo

Source: Earl Butz’s Obituary in Tributes.com as sourced online from http://www.tributes.com/obituary/read/Earl-Butz-83730940

And as a new novelist, doubtlessly my present rules of thumb will change over time. Consider this essay the first draft of what surely is going to prove to be work-in-progress.

Bradley West, Oceana, 1 August 2015

 

Business Writing 101 Redux: Stick it in a Pyramid

When I was in high school forty (!) years ago, typing was deemed a course only girls took in preparation for careers as secretaries. Looking back, Introduction to Typing was the most valuable course I ever had . . . despite attending a couple of Friday after-lunch classes drunk during senior year. (On those days, I had real issues exceeding twenty words per minute.) Today, any American school district not offering typing to its elementary or junior high students must be in a poor community, indeed, as everyone recognizes the need to be able to touch type at work and home. I hope that in ten years there’s a similar trend and high schools and universities add writing courses to their core curriculums. But I’m not holding my breath. The problem is acute in Asia, particularly South Asia, where Dickens novels appear to be the style guides for university grads.

For seven years, I was a principal in a capital markets research outsourcing company. We employed hundreds of smart accountants and MBAs. Our house style for writing research drew on the teachings of ex-McKinsey trainer Barbara Minto (www.barbaraminto.com) and the style guides of ex-employer Booz, Allen & Hamilton.  “Pyramiding” is structured outlining, with the main lessons from Logic & Structure including:

  • Finish your thinking (including all supporting research and analyses) before attempting to write final form prose. To do otherwise is to embark on doom-looping, taking ever more time to complete each successive draft as new information is incorporated into the story line.
  • Start the report with the overall conclusion. Start each sub-section of the report with the conclusion of that section. Similarly, titles and subheadings must summarize, and not just describe, the content that follows.
  • In descending order of preference, present supporting evidence in pictures, charts/graphs, tables and, if all else fails, words.
  • Cite supporting evidence in descending order of importance, with a least two (and up to five) support points bolstering every conclusion, thus creating a visual pyramid with conclusions at the top and the proof arrayed across the base of the pyramid.
  • Be brief. The likelihood of a two-page memo being read in its entirety is probably one-quarter that of a one-page memo.

 

A Pyramid Almost* Made Me What I Am Today

In 2008 I wrote an essay for my outsourcing company’s house magazine entitled A Pyramid Made Me What I Am Today. (For the next three-plus years, that apparently meant “Someone under- or un-employed, with his life’s savings tied up in a company with few prospects of ever being sold at a profit.”) Below I’ve reproduced the essay as it’s the best case I can make for pyramiding non-fiction writing . . . even letters to grandma!

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Most professional services firms’ staff joined their employers with a good knowledge of accounting, and familiarity with financial statements and discounted cash flow analyses. Almost without exception, however, most new hires find it difficult to think logically, and write concisely and persuasively. The single biggest complaint of clients, supervisors and trainers alike is that the new hires aren’t clear in their own minds about the key messages they are trying to make, and that this confusion is further amplified by wordiness. (A related but separate issue is one of poor English grammar and usage.)

Without doubt the use of logic pyramids (“Pyramids”) is the single most important new analytical tool a professional services firm teaches its staff. Compounding matters, many front line managers aren’t pyramid Jedis either. As a result, pyramiding is chronically misunderstood (“Only about writing”), mechanistically misapplied (“One box on top and three below it”), and under-employed (“Only use it when writing a big report”).

Fortunately, help is at hand. Below I outline how logic pyramids can change your (professional) life in three distinct ways:

 

Pyramids as testable hypotheses: At the outset of any project or assignment, don’t gather information willy-nilly! Start with a hunch (e.g. the stock is a buy or it’s a sell; the industry has low barriers to entry or high competitive rivalry) and gather the minimum information you need to either confirm or refute your hunch. [Refer to Richards J. Heuer, Jr. “Do You Really Need More Information?” Studies in Intelligence 23, no. 1 (Spring 1979), pp. 15-25] for more on the folly of blind data gathering. If the hypothesis (“hunch”) is wrong, tear up the pyramid and make a new one. Analysts interested in the philosophy of science and the study of knowledge should look up Karl Popper’s work on falsifiability. But you don’t have to be a philosophy student to benefit from using pyramids to structure and guide your data gathering and analyses.

 

Pyramids as ways to reduce words: Embedded in the Logic & Structure framework is the imperative to avoid the doom loop (i.e., the mixing of analyses with writing, which in turn leads to more analyses and more (re-)writing in an ever-widening and more time-consuming spiral). We avoid endless re-writing and re-thinking by completing all analyses in final form (including the footnotes and formatting) before beginning to write the text of any note longer than two pages. Finishing 100% of every piece of analysis is a prerequisite to finalizing the pyramid the author refers to when writing text. Once a final form pyramid exists, the author’s task is to use the minimum number of words needed to string the figures together in a smooth (horizontal) sequence. Knowing what you want to say before you start typing enables the author to make her points more succinctly and greatly increases the likelihood of having the recipient read what she wrote: Save a tree: use a pyramid.

 

Pyramids as persuasive devices: Presenting investment research in pyramid format increases the author’s likelihood of success in convincing the audience to adopt his line of reasoning. Using a series of pyramids-within-pyramids allows even complex arguments to be made in ways that the brain intuitively accepts from the implicit question-answer-proof format adopted. Many teachers refer to this presentational device as “Reader’s Logic” (inductive reasoning) vs. “Writer’s Logics” (deductive, step-by-step reasoning). To me it’s simply the essence of the pyramid structure: begin with the conclusion, and cite the main reasons in descending order of importance (and give or allude to evidence) for the conclusion to be valid. Once the author proves her conclusion with at least two independent arguments (pyramid legs), then the argument can stand on its own and the report is done.

 

 

The single most important new business technique I’ve mastered in the last 25 years has been pyramid logic. Even better, unlike a foreign language or a musical instrument, you don’t need a special gift (or “ear”) to become good at it either. All it takes is practice.

 

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That essay was first distributed in 2008, and I don’t think much has changed on the communications front since then except that a dislike of PowerPoint has turned into a loathing. Why? There’s nothing wrong with the product, it’s just that no one seems to use it properly. The headline of each page summarizes the text and charts appearing below on the page. If the reader agrees with the headline, she can skip or skim the bullets or charts on the page. This is called “vertical logic” in pyramid-speak. When strung together, the headlines on each slide summarize the story of the presentation in abbreviated prose form. That’s “horizontal logic”. If everyone who created PowerPoints applied those two rules, there would be fewer people checking their phones on Slide #3.

Logic Applied to Art isn’t so Straightforward

Trust me when I write that applying the principles of pyramid logic can turn non-native English speakers, even substandard grammarians, into powerful business communicators. The caveat is that writing non-fiction is a craft, a technical skill reducible to demonstrable best practices. To most eyes, applying pyramid logic reads like a recipe for disaster for short stories, poetry or novels. Pyramiding is all about squeezing the surprises out of business communications: Don’t bore us/ get to the chorus. On the other hand, fiction is art, and perhaps not amenable to being written on a paint-by-numbers basis . . . though most of the popular thrillers today certainly seem formulaic.

By the time I made up my mind to attempt a novel, I had a twenty-year-old son who decided to write for a living. He’d already authored the first draft of a journal chronicling his experiences in the military. He has an eye for detail and an ear for dialog, and his now-finished work makes for great reading. I’ll let you know when The Forging of a Frogman reaches the bookstores. But from the get-go, I was already no better than the second-best writer in the house, never mind Singapore. It was humbling to be edited by someone thirty-five years my junior . . . . (By now, True Lies readers may have guessed that he doesn’t edit the blog!)

My son passed across Stephen King’s On Writing and told me to take notes while I read. Now I’ve never been a reader of horror fiction, and after watching Carrie, Misery, and The Shining, I’d shied away from King’s scary novels. But On Writing is a great book, half autobiography and half how-to. The words flow like Tennessee whiskey over ice on a fall night. However, I differed with King on a crucial point. He believed that all an author needed was a general idea for a plot and a few characters, and then he could start on the novel. King claimed that he didn’t know how his books were going to turn out because he didn’t know what the characters were going to do. To my eye, that was romantic nonsense and brought to mind a delightful T-shirt for sale in the Berkeley University student bookshop.

T-Shirt Art: Shakespeare Shares his Secrets

this-shit-writes-itself-william-shakespeare-t-shirt

Buy the T-shirt at http://www.headlineshirts.net/this-shit-writes-itself-t-shirt.html#.Vb3Mp_mqpBc

The shirt’s inside joke is that everyone knows that great writing is the product of toil, not one draft dashed off and sent to the printer. And as the author you can decide up front whether or not Tom Joad lives or dies at the end of The Grapes of Wrath, or, for that matter, what happens to Romeo and Juliet.

I ignored Mr. King and took another path that applied as many Logic & Structure precepts as possible. The good news was that I did a lot of research that later found its way into Sea of Lies and the True Lies blog: Michael Hand, Nugan Hand Bank, Khun Sa, Stuxnet, Snowden, PLA Unit #61938, the US vs. China militaries in the Western Pacific, and, of course, the then-unfolding saga of MH370.

My book was going to be plot-driven with the path to the end already bullet-pointed before I wrote the first sentence of the novel proper. The end result was a fourteen chapter, twenty-seven-page long plot master book. There were a lot of conspiracies to intertwine, so the writing took considerable time. I thought that by outlining the entire book upfront, I would end up saving a lot of time (e.g., no doom-looping), and getting a near-final form book out quickly. I was guilty of overkill.

It turned that Stephen King knew something about writing fiction after all. The characters do begin influencing the story. I’m not quite certain how it happens, but part of the magic in drafting a novel is that your own creations begin speaking for themselves. As the author works the keyboard, some of the time the rogues, heroes, villains and ordinary Joes populating his book possess him, and he ends up writing almost in a trance. Grateful Dead concerts used to be that way, too, with one saying being “The music plays the band.”

Grateful Dead logo

Source: William Ruhimann’s biography of Jerry Garcia sourced online from http://www.allmusic.com/artist/jerry-garcia-mn0000328288/biography

The processes of developing and revealing character invariably spill over and influence the plotline. Early on, the characters diverged from my preconceptions. Something had to give: either I had to pull the actors, err, characters back in line, or Sea of Lies was going to take a different direction to what had been preordained. And I sensed that an author who treated his characters autocratically was going to lose his audience: readers who sense phoniness tune out.

My wife was the first advance reader of the early chapters of Sea of Lies. After laboring through the initial fifty pages, she confessed to be more interested in people and motive than in action points. While she was an avid fan of the thrillers genre, it was the players and their demons, not plot twists, which stirred her interest. Could I please explore the principals more deeply? Let the reader know what they were thinking, where they’d come from, and what drove them?

As it happened, I was in the middle of reading for the third time John le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy. Le Carré writes superbly. To my eye, he masters character and setting, while trailing in the area of believable plot. Not that the plots weren’t gripping—the Karla vs. Smiley trilogy is as good as spy novels get—but there were plenty of loopholes, too. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People are so damned good that the reader doesn’t care. (Nor should she.) I despaired at being able to write something that good without first putting in the lifetime of work le Carré had already did.

The Honourable Schoolboy

Buy the Honourable Schoolboy online at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Honourable-Schoolboy-George-Smiley-ebook/dp/B002V092KG/ref=sr_1_9?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1438510585&sr=1-9&keywords=john+le+carre

I struggled. Sea of Lies began to take shape. Main man Bob Nolan emerged as deeply flawed, more anti-hero than hero. And antagonist Robin Teller wasn’t going to be apprehended in joint police-DEA raids on his Rangoon hideout, either. He was too savvy, too connected, and too ruthless to be caught that easily. My son started editing, making plot and character suggestions along the way that put further pressure on that 27-page plot blueprint I had sitting on my desk. By the time I’d finished writing the fourth chapter, the bullet-pointed masterplan never saw daylight again. So much for Rule #1 of pyramiding: finish all your thinking before beginning to write final form text.

I needed another model. The idea of sitting down to write a book was intimidating. Even a chapter was a daunting task, so I kept breaking it down into smaller pieces I could handle. Sometimes it was only a couple of paragraphs to flesh out some limited action. Other times it was five or six pages, but that was more manageable than thirty pages on intrigue in Sri Lanka surrounding the handover of the Snowden impersonator (Watermen) with Russia, China and US spooks involved.

It took me till chapter twelve to find a work rhythm that eventually brought me up to a chapter-a-week output. Sea of Lies finished itself several months later when chapter twenty-five came to a close. By then I had as many as seven different plot threads running in parallel, so I outlined (only) the next chapter using a grid with locations across the top of the page and GMT universal times from 00:00 to 23:00 down the left-hand side. In each square, I jotted down what had to happen at that time and place. Then I wrote out by hand what each character was going to do in that single chapter. These tasks typically took Monday and Tuesday morning. Tuesday afternoon, I typed out one-to-two sentence summaries of each vignette in the order of occurrence. Inevitably there would be some shuffling and shifting, so this step was my way of avoiding the doom loop at least at the chapter level. Wednesday through Friday, I wrote the actual chapter one scene at a time. Borrowing from Elmore Leonard, I tried to use dialog in preference to narration. Depending on how well I knew my characters, it was a mixed blessing. Figuring out what a member of China’s Politburo Standing Committee was going to say to a room full of peers was a lot tougher than penning lines for man-of-action, ex-SEAL Travis Ryder.

Daily output Wednesdays to Fridays ranged from 2,000-7,000 words. Most days I could write intensively for about five hours before I was mentally spent. Late Fridays I’d try to finish the chapter so that on Saturday I could do a heavy edit. Then on Sundays, I’d ask my son to read and comment on the revised chapter and insert his comments. Come Monday I’d start a new chapter with the leftovers and new threads suggested by the prior chapter. Helping me out was a handwritten aid memoir, Unfinished Business, where the dangling plotlines from prior chapters were recorded for future treatment. There turned out to be over fifty people with substantive roles in Sea of Lies, so I typed out summary biodata I could refer to as needed instead of scrambling around in the earlier chapters looking for a couple of paragraphs.

The end result was a first-draft novel beyond what I thought myself capable of in entertainment value, complexity and character development. Sea of Lies weighs in at 450 pages (233,000 words at present, though that figure varies weekly depending on how the editing is going), and covers a lot of figurative and literal ground. My challenge in August is to decide whether to go with the long-form book as-is, break it into two books, or cut out several plot threads to streamline the novel into something half as long (a path a local publisher has suggested).

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Follow-up Pack of Lies is now in outline form . . . a much-simplified outline that starts where Sea of Lies leaves off. Hopefully, Sea of Lies will reach shelves by the end of this year. However, what I read about the publishing industry says that everything takes a lot longer than anyone expects. So we shall see what actually happens. In the meantime, I’m in the nether world between editing a book, researching another, and trying to jumpstart a blog. In theory, any device or trick is welcome that can save time in getting words down on paper. But though I’m new to the game, I know that this doesn’t necessarily lead to better writing. In an office environment, discipline and structure lead to easily understood output. The more closely the writer adheres to best practices, the better her results. The fiction game has a lot more leeway for creative inefficiency. For one thing, as a stockbroker a twelve-hour day (working maybe eight or nine hours, and hitting the gym or farting around the rest of the time) was the norm. As a fiction writer, if I’m in the office eight hours and work five, I figure I’m in the upper quartile in work ethic.

Breakthroughs in fiction take place when the odds are stacked in the author’s favor: no interruptions, working in a familiar place, surrounded by source materials and comforted by the memories of past successes. But some days I can sit at the desk for hours and produce very little. Maybe I’m hung over (definitely more debilitating for fiction writers than research analysts: investment analyses are fueled by pain relievers), or there’s been an interruption to the routine. Once the mojo is gone, it’s hard to get it back. Taking a nap sometimes helps. But most of the time it’s, “Hang it up and see what tomorrow brings.”

Which job is harder, a sixty-hour week in an investment bank where there’s constant deadline pressure and innumerable distractions, or a forty-hour week closeted in a tiny office spinning imaginary tales about make-believe people in exotic places? Probably neither. The fellows I respect the most were those old timers like Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson who wrote masterpieces a chapter at a time on a serialized basis. No re-writes, no polishing and no U-turns: Treasure Island one chapter a week. Now that was magic written to a deadline.

 

End Notes

*A credit rating agency bought the outsourcing company I’d co-founded, enabling me to shift my efforts to writing full-time.

There’s a free download on the topic of information sufficiency. I couldn’t find the article that inspired the book, but here’s the whole enchilada:

Richards J. Heuer, Jr. The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis (1999) at https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/books-and-monographs/psychology-of-intelligence-analysis/PsychofIntelNew.pdf