What does fantasy writing have in common with the culinary arts?
One of my guilty pleasures is watching BBC’s Kitchen Nightmares with host Gordon Ramsey. In each episode Chef Ramsey visits a restaurant on the brink of ruin, and attempts to salvage it. In most cases the restaurant features a chef who is highly trained and talented. Yet it is this very same chef who is responsible for the restaurant’s failure.
In one episode Chef Ramsey visits a French restaurant in Scotland. The head chef was a rising star in his native France, where he studied with the masters. So why was his current restaurant in dire straights?
Because his entrees were far too complex.
A Simple Solution
This is a frequent scenario on Kitchen Nightmares. The chefs produce elaborate, flavorful dishes which confuse the patrons and take hours to prepare. Their menus feature far too many choices and are absurdly long. All in all, there is just too much going on.
Chef Ramsey’s solution is to simplify everything. He introduces simple entrees that bring out the natural flavor of the ingredients. He creates a short, simplified menu which feature selections which are easy to prepare. This approach invariably saves the restaurant, provided that the chef cooperates. Some resist, and their restaurants close shortly thereafter.
Cooking For the Mind
In many ways fantasy writing is like cooking for the mind. Rather than creating for the sense of taste, we are preparing a meal for the imagination. But like the overzealous chefs of Kitchen Nightmares, we can become too fancy and get carried away.
A common temptation for fantasy writers is to be overly descriptive. Since we are creating new, unfamiliar worlds we often feel compelled to describe everything. This urge is understandable, as we want the reader to see what we see. We want them to fully realize worlds that only exist within our imaginations.
Yet description is like seasoning: a little goes a long way. If you overdo it, the reader becomes overwhelmed. Descriptive details should be used sparingly to accentuate key aspects of the story. As the chef must learn to back away and trust the natural flavor of his ingredients, we have to trust the integrity of the story, as well as the power of the reader’s imagination.
The Ten Percent Rule
In order to simplify, you must excise that which isn’t necessary. As any good writer knows, this is a crucial part of the revision process. To give our stories maximum impact, we have to trim the fat from our writing.
The necessity of this approach dawned on me while reading On Writing by Stephen King. Part memoir and part “how to” guide, it’s one of the finest books on the craft of writing. In it King lays out a useful guideline to which he attributes much of his success. He calls it the Ten Percent Rule: when revising a manuscript, the resulting draft should equal the original word count minus ten percent. Or to put it another way, “2nd Draft = 1st draft – 10%.”
This neutralizes the tendency to make each successive draft longer. Moreover, it forces you to consider what is really important in your story, and to bring that to the forefront. It also pushes the narrative along at a brisker pace, which can ramp up the tension.
It is never easy to remove descriptive details, dialogue or even entire scenes. Yet this is what is required to make our writing truly shine. Like the chefs of Kitchen Nightmares, we have to learn that simplifying things often improves them. For we are in the business of communicating ideas, and nothing accomplishes this more effectively than clear writing.