Beauty in Simplicity

Stephen King
Stephen King

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.

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Adina Harris
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Adina Harris

I have just discovered this site.  I have learned things on here in one day that I haven’t learned in an entire year participating in a writer’s community!  Thanks for shining your light into my muddled world of aspiring authorship!!!

Antonio del Drago
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Antonio del Drago

Thank you Adina!  We’re really glad that you found us.  🙂

KJJ Carpenter
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KJJ Carpenter

Not a problem, Tony!

Antonio del Drago
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Antonio del Drago

Ahh… thanks for clarifying that, Kev. When explained in those terms it makes perfect sense.

Kjjcarpenter
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Kjjcarpenter

Surprisingly, it’s not quite that short. I thought so at first as well, but they explained it reasonably and gave examples. This is basically what they said:

In the current age, we’re dealing with a society who doesn’t have the time for reading. They see a big book and become intimidated by it, especially if it’s the first in a series. Look at the publicity received by “The Name of the Wind” compared to say “Harry Potter”, they are both wonderful books but there is a marginal difference in the amount of readers. This is partly due to the size of the first novel.
For an author’s first novel, be it a series or not, it can’t be huge. If it is, you are limiting your sales. No one knows who you are, they are already reluctant about unknown authors and if you present them with a book the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the odds they are going to pick it up are very low.
I didn’t mind so much. I always wanted the first book in my series to be small. My original draft was only around 60,000 words or so; bringing it back down was no so much a hassle as it was a nostalgic return to the novel’s roots.
The second book can be bigger, double the size or so, and any book there on is up to your choice. The first book is the one that needs to be regulated.
(There is also a possibility that my book might not be classified under “Fantasy/Sci-fi”. My publisher’s don’t want to essentially omit half the possible readership, because, as we know, the general public sees fantasy as the staple “Elves, magic and dragons”, all of which make not a single appearance in my book. But this is a different story.)

Antonio del Drago
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Antonio del Drago

Kev,

70,000 word seems fairly short for the fantasy genre. Why did your publisher ask for that number?

Antonio del Drago
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Antonio del Drago

James,

Thank you for the kind words! The idea for this article came to me when watching Kitchen Nightmares, and I ran with it.

Kjjcarpenter
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Kjjcarpenter

For my book, it was 103,000 words before the rewrite, and is now 77,000. My publisher wished it to be 70,000; however, it was just not possible for me to get it that low. Any more would have ruined the book, in my opinion. 26,000 words is a lot, that’s about 25% of the manuscript gone to oblivion—for now. Some of material I might weave into a flashback later in the series, or as altered and isolated short stories.

James Neal
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James Neal

I have read On Writing as well; and I found the book extremely helpful. What surprised me was the humor Stephen King injected into both his anecdotes and “writing tips.” An outstanding article by the way! You brought together two otherwise un-related topics together with precision.

Antonio del Drago
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Antonio del Drago

Kev,

If I recall correctly, you ended up cutting a significant number of words from your novel’s last draft. Approximately how much shorter is it now?

Antonio del Drago
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Antonio del Drago

Nathan,

You won’t be disappointed with On Writing. As well as containing generally solid writing advice, King’s life story is a great read.

KJJ Carpenter
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KJJ Carpenter

I have “On Writing”, though I bought it more for the first half; King’s account of his own life. It was interesting seeing what made him the writer he has since become.
I have to be honest, I skipped over most of the second half of the book; in reality, I hate being taught how to write. All through high school, I all but ignored most of the advice given to me by my teachers—call be stubborn, but that’s just the way I am—and the one time I heeded the guidelines, I performed poorer than I ever had before.
And my teacher wondered why?

I agree, to an extent, with what King says though. It is imperative to shorten a manuscript: to make it tighter, more direct and more meaningful. Let’s face it, we ramble. If Robert Jordan had shortened “The Wheel of Time” I might have been able to force myself past the second book, and I admit that if Patrick Rothfuss and siphoned out some of the drawn-out or pointless details, I may have breezed through “The Name of the Wind” at a quicker pace. One of my favourite books of all time is King’s “The Gunslinger”, and it amounts to under 60,000 words. Quality, not quantity. “Epic” is not in the length.

Nathan J. Lauffer
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Nathan J. Lauffer

This is probably something that other writers, who are more objective, can really help with. I design software, and I always make it more complex than it needs to be. If the business problems aren’t interesting enough, I’ll invent new ones. 🙂

I’ve have controlled this somewhat, but recognize its continued existence in my psyche. So, I have my development teams help me look at my architecture from an objective point of view. I ask them to grill me about features that they don’t think are necessary and if I can’t defend them they go.

By the way, I have purchased On Writing on your suggestion.

At Dusk I Reign
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At Dusk I Reign

Thanks, Tone! Another entertaining article. In fact, all the articles so far from everyone have been of a high standard. I’m seething with envy. And indigestion. But mostly envy. Keep up the good work!

Antonio del Drago
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Antonio del Drago

Thanks Rachel!

On Writing is definitely worth checking out. I was able to order a nice used hardback copy from Amazon for five dollars. It’s fascinating to learn about King’s writing process. It’s completely different from my own.

Rachel Russell
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Rachel Russell

Great article. I also love Kitchen Nightmares, and this was a rather good parallel to draw between the show and writing itself. I haven’t read King’s On Writing book yet, but I keep hearing great things about it. I’ll have to cave one of these days and dish out the cash.

Antonio del Drago
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Antonio del Drago

Hey Tom,

It’s good having you back!

Killing your darlings can be painful. It’s especially rough when an editor is the one dictating which Darling gets killed. But it’s almost always worth it.

At Dusk I Reign
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At Dusk I Reign

Kill your darlings. It’s a common refrain, but not so easy in real life. I’ve shed imaginary tears over the things I’ve cut, to my mind the best things I’ve ever written. But you’re right, editing is key. I tend to edit during the writing process rather than after, but it all amounts to the same thing: be harsh with yourself before someone else is.

(on a side note, I didn’t realise you were a philosopher and professor. I’d feel inferior if it wasn’t for an innate sense of my own importance…)

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