Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Trying an experimental fiction approach for my next book. Feedback needed!

Can fiction techniques be effective in introducing nonfiction or educational topics? I occasionally see it used in other media. For instance, documentary film and television producers sometimes use "dramatizations" to tell a story. But what I'm experimenting with tonight are completely fictional characters, used to introduce a rather dry software topic.

Here's the first 1000 words or so of "Spreadsheets In 30 Minutes," which aims to bring people up to speed on basic techniques. Let me know what you think in the comments section:

Chapter 1: The Resolution

“Never again!”

It’s Monday, January 2, and a small group of Midstate Health customer service reps are scattered around the small break room. The speaker is Jennifer. She’s a redhead, in her early 20s, and she’s rubbing her temple, with her eyes clenched shut. In front of her is a cup of office coffee. Black.

“Tsk, tsk.” says a man in a grey suit, as he washes out his mug by the sink. It’s Simon, the British manager. Simon is perpetually teasing his American colleagues about everything from driving habits to restaurant names. “Partied a bit hard over New Year’s, did we? Too much of that fizzy yellow stuff in tins you Americans call ‘beer,’ hmmm?”

Kara, the office computer guru, rises to the bait. “At least the New Year’s Day football games are for real,” she says. “What do you Brits do for sport? Cricket in a suit and tie?” That gets a chuckle from the others in the room.

Simon raises a finger. “I’ll let you know that --” he says, but Jennifer cuts off the discussion with a wave.

“No, it’s not a hangover or anything like that,” she says. “It’s the stupid New Year’s resolution I made.”

Simon looks intrigued. “What, pray tell, have you promised?”

“It’s so stupid,” she says, shaking her head. “I don’t even want to mention it.”

“No, go on,” Simon urges. “We won’t jeer at your weight-loss goals when you inevitably miss them. Shall we, Kara?”

Kara stares at Simon for a few seconds, and then turns to Jennifer. “Seriously, Jen,” says Kara. “We’re all behind you. Right everyone?” The others around the room nod in agreement.

“Well, OK,” says Jennifer. “Simon, remember how you said we had to have a minimum set of computer skills to be considered for the senior rep position?”

“Of course! And very few of you lot even come close. Why, Kara, you even had to show young Jennifer here how to change printers, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, but a lot of people have trouble with that.”

“Printers aren’t the problem,” Jennifer says. “It’s spreadsheets. My new years resolution is to learn spreadsheets, so I can apply for that position.”

A murmur rises around the room but there’s a bark of laughter from Simon. “Spreadsheets? You? You can hardly use a bloody calculator.”

Jennifer closes her eyes and begins rubbing her temple again.

“Now hold on, Simon,” Kara says. “I don’t think learning how to use a spreadsheet program is that hard at all.”

Simon turns to her. “You’re the IT person. Of course you would say that.”

Kara declares, “I bet Jen can learn the basics in 30 minutes.”

“You must be joking!” Simon says. “I don’t think anyone can learn how to use a spreadsheet in 30 minutes, even the basics.”

Jennifer speaks up. “Kara, I don’t think so. It just looks so hard. I mean, I look at all of the buttons and boxes in Excel. It’s all Greek to me.”

Kara responds, “that’s what everyone thinks. But it’s quite easy, once you try a few things on your own. Spreadsheets are not just for geeks in bad suits.”

The crowd bursts into laughter. “Hey!” Simon huffs.

“Just kidding. But seriously, Simon. I can really teach her the basics in 30 minutes.”

Simon gets a crafty look on his face. “I’ll tell you what, Kara” he says sweetly. “If you teach Jennifer the basics of Excel -- and I would expect that to include entering data, xxxx, and making charts -- I’ll make sure Jennifer gets that promotion.”

Jennifer looks worried. “But what if I don’t?”

“Well, you just won’t get that job, will you? And Kara here will have to take everyone in office down to my favorite pub for a round of real beer.”

“Mister,” says Kara, holding out her hand. “You’ve got yourself a deal.”

Chapter 2:

Jennifer and Kara hurry back to Jennifer’s office. “Kara, this is a big mistake. I can’t do this, and you’re going to have to buy a round for everyone.”

“That’s what Simon thinks,” says Kara, with a smile. “He’s in for a surprise.”

They get to the Jennifer’s office. Jennifer sits down at her computer. Kara pulls up a chair nex to her, and opens her laptop.

“Jen, turn on Excel,” Kara says. “I’m going to use a similar program called Google Spreadsheets. They are pretty much the same, except I’ll be accessing Google Spreadsheets through a Web browser.”

“OK,” Jennifer says. “I turned Excel on.” This is what they see:


Kara points at the screen, and starts explaining the elements.

“The small rectangles that fill a spreadsheet are called ‘cells.’ They are designed to hold numbers (for instance, 5, 26.2, $500 or 98%) as well as text (for instance, names, abbreviations, and x)”.

Jennifer says, “so, basically, you can type anything in a cell.”

“That’s right. Sometimes, people will type a reference in one cell that points to another cell as part of a formula. But we’ll come back to that in a minute.”


“Because there are so many cells, spreadsheets use a simple system to identify each one. You see how the top of each column is labelled with letters, while the rows on the left side are labelled with numbers? You just match the letters on the top and the numbers on the left to identify each cell.”

“Oh, it’s just like the game ‘Battleship’.”


“But what if there are more than 26 columns?” Jennifer asks.

“The 27th column is labelled AA,” Kara answers. “The 28th column is labelled AB, et cetera. When it comes to the 53rd column, it starts with BA, BB, BC …”

“OK, I get it.”

“Let’s do a quick exercise right now,” Kara says. “Find cell A2. It’s the second cell from the top of column A.”

“I see it.”

“Great. In A2, type your name, and press return.” ….

What do you think? Is this an effective way to structure a software guide?

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