Saturday, June 18, 2016

What Gordon Ramsay Can Teach Us about Writing

A while back I stumbled across Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. Though I'm not particularly interested in the culinary arts, I was immediately hooked. I'll admit to getting a kick out of his rants, over-the-top reactions, and the juxtaposition between his clean-cut image and his foul mouth. That's what started me watching; what kept me watching was something entirely different.
I soon came to recognize patterns in the show, in which Chef Ramsay visits a struggling restaurant in each episode and tries to help them turn things around. The failings Ramsay identified, and the solutions he proposed, were quite consistent from episode-to-episode. In looking at these patterns I realized writers can glean valuable lessons from Gordon Ramsey.
Always use fresh ingredients:
It seems like every struggling restaurant Ramsay visits is either serving reheated leftovers or using ingredients that have lain around in the cooler much longer than necessary. It might not be obvious at first glance, but it's evident at the first bite.
Likewise, our writing should always be fresh. In action-adventure, it can be tough to come up with settings and MacGuffins that haven't been done before, but I try to come up with new places, stories, or historical mysteries to incorporate in my stories whenever possible. This doesn't necessarily mean we have to come up with something that's never been done before. It might be that we simply put a new twist on an old story. I do this any time I include Biblical figures or artifacts, for example, in my novels. This sometimes offends people, but at least there's a surprise in store.
One of the hallmarks of the Ramsey rescue program is simplifying the menu. Invariably, the struggling restaurants are trying to do too much. Offering a huge menu is detrimental in a variety of ways I won't outline here.
What are the parallels for a writer? It could be many things: too many point-of-view characters (or too many characters, period); too many plot threads or subplots; too many unnecessary or redundant scenes; too much description; or simply, too many words. Obviously, you can point to plenty of examples of skilled authors who can handle all of the above, but without judicious pruning, the typical author will produce a flabby, self-indulgent book.
Appearance matters:
Ramsay always gives the restaurant in question a facelift, typically: new tables and chairs, new decorations, fresh paint, and a motif that captures the restaurant's theme, history, or offerings.
The most obvious way this applies to authors, particularly those publishing independently, is book cover design. A book's cover should be pleasing to the eye and, at a glance, tell the reader what sort of book this is (adventure, fantasy, paranormal, science fiction, thriller...) The biggest mistake I see authors make is the idea that the book's cover should "represent the contents of the book." Often, this results in a cover that's little more than a disjointed collage of seemingly disparate elements (and sometimes these elements are mini-spoilers). I try to choose a single, iconic image that ties in to my book. For example, the cover of Buccaneer is a pirate ship. Pirates make up only a small part of the story, but it's a clean, striking cover. Would I truly have been better off with a mish-mash of [spoiler warning] Oak Island, pirate symbology, a Templar cross, dragons, Excalibur, the Holy Lance, and the Holy Grail? Not only would such a cover be a mess, it would ruin several surprises in the story.
Another missed opportunity is series branding. If you have several books in a series, they should be tied together by some design elements. In my case, each cover has a single, central image; my name at the bottom, in white, all in the same typeface, and the title at the top center in large letters, with the subtitle directly beneath the title and set slightly to the left. Also, inn the main "Dane Maddock Adventures" series, all the books have a one-word title. Thus, when a reader browses a site like Amazon, it's immediately evident that the book is part of a series and that there are more books available.
Recapture your enthusiasm:
In just about every case, most of the restaurant staff is going through the motions. Ramsay can come across as a jerk, no question about it, but he reminds me of some of my favorite football coaches. He berates you when you screw up, teaches you how to do it right, and praises you when you do well. Where he truly shines is the one-on-one talks he has with discouraged employees, particularly chefs. He helps people recapture their passion for cooking and reminds them of why they started cooking in the first place.
This is critical for a writer. Don't misunderstand me- writing is work, and you're not likely to be successful if you sit around waiting for a visit from your muse before you begin writing. That said, it's essential to hold on to your love of the written word. Where's your passion? What are your favorite genres and types of stories? Who are your favorite authors and what is it about their writing that fires your imagination? What new challenges excite you and stir your creative pot? Why did you want to be a writer in the first place? Every writer has bad days and gets discouraged, but if you don't love writing, don't do it.
I hope this reflection helps. Happy writing!

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