Okay, normally I don’t love reality tv. In fact, I really hate reality tv. Like, all of it. Except for this one exception.
I really love Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares.
Yes, I know. The show is overly dramatized, and parades some of the worst instincts humanity has to offer. What can I say, it’s a guilty pleasure and I’m not going to apologize for it.
I honestly love watching Gordon walk into these horrible restaurants and just lose his mind. I really want him to read one of my books and critique them. I think he would make me cry, but I also think my books would be better for it.
I do feel like there are things to learn from Kitchen Nightmares. Many of them are things that we might have already known. But it’ nice to see them personified. So today, I’d like to share with you the lessons we can learn from Kitchen Nightmares, and how they apply to writing. Some of these things apply to life instead of writing, but that’s alright. Life and art should go hand in hand for both to flourish.
Focus on doing the basics well
When Ramsey comes into a kitchen, he sometimes finds that the chefs are trying to create extraordinarily complex dishes and failing to do so. They don’t have the basic skills to do these things well. So what should be a unique and complex meal turns into a plate of inedible waste.
Or, the kitchen is a terrible mess. Oh, that’s always the flesh crawly ones. The kitchens that have rotten food or unsanitary conditions. Look, I’ve worked at a fast food place before. That’s not what a restaurant is supposed to look like!
A good story idea can and will be ruined with poor fundamental writing skills. Grammar and proper word usage are essential for a writer. Mind you, I’m not saying that writers have to have a huge vocabulary. Quite the opposite in fact. Your words should, first of all, fit the character and world you’re writing.
As for grammar, the best advice I can give you is the same advice Stephen King give in On Writing. Get a copy of Elements of Style by William Strunk and EB White. Make sure you’re editing for grammar and spelling before you post or submit any work. Not doing so is lazy and you’re better than that.
Don’t do more than you’re capable of
Some of the kitchens that Gordon goes into are just trying to do too much! They’ve got these crazy huge menus and the chefs have trouble keeping up with it. It’s also frustrating for the customers, trying to figure out what is going on.
Look, I write a lot of fantasy and read a lot of fantasy. I consider myself pretty smart, and capable of following complex storylines. That all being said, there is such a thing as too many plot lines.
When your readers haven’t seen a character in a while and they have to go back and re-read a past chapter just to remember what the hell was happening, that’s too many plot lines or pov characters. This is something that can be hard for a writer to pick up on. That’s why a beta reader is essential.
When everything’s going to shit, stop right there and make a game plan
There are some kitchens that are legitimately so dangerous that Gordon can’t in good conscience allow continuing to serve food. It’s too unclean, the food’s gone bad. People will get sick and probably die if he does. So he shuts down the kitchen until they can get everything in order.
I’ve had times when my life feels like that kitchen; not capable of producing anything but harm and ill. When I’m overworked, stressed out or not taking proper care of myself. When I start getting busy, the first thing that falls off is my home care. We start eating out more, I don’t take the time to get my house in order. Then I can’t focus on anything. My house might not be as dirty those kitchens (god forbid), but it feels like the inside of my mind is.
That’s when I need to shut it down. After work or on a day off, I put my writing away. I take care of myself first, because I can’t pour from an empty cup. I take a thorough shower and get dressed. Next, I get my house in order. I follow the Fly Lady’s advice for a crisis clean. Spend 15 minutes cleaning in one room, then go to the next room. Do this for 45 minutes, then take 15 minutes to sit down and have some coffee, tea or lemon water. Lemon water has become a recent love of mine.
Then, once I and my home are back in order, I sit down and make a list of things that need to be done. I figure out what needs to be done most, and I’ll mark the top three things. I get it done and move forward.
What I don’t do is beat myself up and freak out about how bad things can get. I just fix it and move forward. I try not to let things get that bad again.
Listen to honest criticism
Blowups happen on Kitchen Nightmares when Gordon tells a restaurant owner that they’re doing things wrong and they don’t want to hear it. It’s often honest criticism, even if it’s being delivered at the top of Gordon’s voice with all the best four-letter words.
Getting told you’re wrong is never fun. Getting told your writing isn’t as good as we think it is really freaking hurts. Our stories are our lives, just like a restaurant’s owner’s place is their lives. We take this stuff personally because these things are not just our work. They’re our souls.
But sometimes we screw up. Sometimes we’re writing cliche bullshit, getting lazy with our grammar and just not delivering the best story we can. An editor or beta reader’s job is to tell you when you’re screwing it up. Sometimes we ask for these critiques, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes the weak-willed who don’t create and only tear down want to pick and mock at the work of those who make an effort. Ignore those people, or thank them politely for taking the time to read your story.
When someone offers you honest criticism, there is only one way to handle that; with gratitude. Someone read your story and took the time to tell you feedback about it. That’ great! I am thankful for every single person who leaves a review. I love my editor, and I love what she does to my work. There is no better gift that someone can give your work than honest criticism. You don’t have to agree with everything. But you do have to listen.
Always be honest
The funniest thing about Kitchen Nightmares is when a manager or owner tries to lie to Gordon about something. Usually, it’s about whether a food is fresh, new, microwaved or homemade. I think I want to see Gordon beat the hell out of a microwave with a Louisville Slugger. I also think he would enjoy it. He can always tell when someone’s lying to him because he knows his craft.
This is something I’ve learned in my own life as well. I have messed up. Take, for instance, my first failed launch of Starting Chains. I messed it up, but I was honest about it. I mess up at work sometimes, it’s going to happen. But if I have messed up, I imminently go to my supervisor and tell her what happened. I explain why. I don’t make excuses and I apologize. I do what’s needed to make things right. That policy goes for my work, my writing and my family.
This has never come back to bite me in the ass. Being honest has always been the best policy for me because it gets others on my side. Instead of getting angry at me, they help me make it right.
This should work the other way around, too. People are going to do stupid stuff sometimes that has a negative impact on you. Your spouse, kids, parents, co-workers. People mess up. I have a simple rule when things like this happen, especially with my kids. If you messed up but you told me, I’ll work with you. I’m going to help you make it better. I might be a little mad, but you’re not in real trouble. If you lie to me, I will land on you with both feet. I will make sure that you feel the brunt of your mistake, not me.
Don’t come off as desperate
Sometimes Gordon will run into a restaurant that is relying too much on discount prices, coupons or big ass signs in the front window. I can imagine you can guess how he feels about this. (Someday I will eat at his restaurant, and I expect to spend more than half my monthly food budget when I do. But I’ll do it, oh yes.)
Now, this is a touchy subject for me as a writer and a person. My family is not exactly what I’d call well off. We don’t miss meals and we don’t have trouble paying our bills. But we also don’t have a car and we don’t have a large amount of what you could call ‘expendable income.’
My book budget is tight. I usually buy one to two new books a month for myself, and maybe a few for my kids. (As much as I love e-books, I hate how hard it is to share them.)
As an indie writer, I have to be careful about how I price my stories. I want people to be able to afford my books, but I also want to work full time. I want my books to be comfortably affordable, but at the same time not come off as ‘cheap’.
Here’s how I price my stories. It’s a pretty simple process. I take a look at Amazon, and I search for the top thirty or so stories of similar length and genre as mine. I take an average price of the top-selling stories, and use it as a baseline. I don’t intend to price a novella at a novel price, but neither will I post it at short story price. And I don’t apologize for this. My stories are worth the price I set them for. Your stories probably are, too.
That’s not to say I don’t have sales. Everyone does, and everyone should. I just got Neverwhere for two dollars. If Neil Gaiman’s books can be marked down sometimes, so can I. I also have two short story collections that are free, and I occasionally even give novella’s away for free. Again, sales are good to spread the word. It’s a good way for a new reader to find you.
But that’s not every day. Set a fair price for your work and do not apologize for it.
This post ran hugely long, and I think it’s a little much for one post. (It’s also spawned three other posts I’ll be writing. So if you felt like I didn’t go into something deeply enough, I’m probably expanding on it.) I’m going to cut it off here today. Watch for part two on Monday.