Today’s article is written by regular contributor Lydia Sharp.
A good restaurant does one sort of food brilliantly. A bad one does fifty badly.
~Gordon Ramsay, chef and restaurateur
I have a confession to make. I’m addicted to Gordon Ramsay’s reality shows. My favorite of all of them is Kitchen Nightmares. Perhaps it’s the idea of taking something on the brink of death and breathing life into it again, I don’t know. I like to fix things.
One of the main areas Chef Ramsay analyzes in Kitchen Nightmares is the menu. Most of the failing restaurants he visits have the same problem—they are offering the customers too many choices. Varied choices that don’t really go together, like chicken cacciatore and wonton soup.
You would think that having more choices was a good thing, but as Chef Ramsay explains to the restaurant mangers and head chefs, one of the best ways to get word-of-mouth recommendations and repeat customers is to simplify your menu. Focus on a single theme.
Why? Because it shows you have a specialty. The customers can rightly assume that you have mastered how to prepare every item you serve. They will expect a quality product.
If you walked into a Chipotle one day and saw they added cheeseburgers to the menu along with their massive, amazing burritos, would you expect those cheeseburgers to be as good as the ones they serve at Five Guys? (For those of you who have never experienced the culinary delights of either Chipotle or Five Guys, I’m so very sorry for your loss.)
The same is true of your fiction.
How to Simplify Your Writing Menu
Like the head chef of a restaurant, you are in charge of what you serve to your readers. Choose one thing you are passionate about writing, and stick to it long enough to build a loyal fan base.
So if you’re a writer who likes to dabble in different genres, how do you decide which one to focus on for your career? How do you take an overcrowded, confusing, unfocused menu and whittle it down to something brilliantly simple?
Consider the following questions:
1. How many novels have you actually finished writing?
If the answer to that is none, then you aren’t ready to even be thinking about a menu yet. You’re still an apprentice, not a head chef. Come back to this post later, after you’ve had time to develop your skills and discover your personal likes and dislikes. If the answer to that is one, good. Now finish another. If the answer to that is two or more, move on to the next question.
2. What genre/type are the novels you’ve finished?
You need a good amount of passion to get you from page one to “the end.” Don’t underestimate how genre affects what stories you actually finish. The brain’s natural inclination is to eschew unpleasant behavior. So you must enjoy writing, on some level, the novels you see through to the end.
3. What compiles the bulk of your reading?
This is quite possibly the most important factor when analyzing why you enjoy writing a certain genre. A person’s reading tastes often vary, but if you take note of all the books you read and enjoy, you should see one particular type stand out from the others.
A chef’s passion for cooking certain food stems first from his passion for eating that food. If you cook the food you like to eat, the work involved in preparing it won’t seem like a chore. So as an author, it only makes sense to write the type of books you enjoy reading most. Because there is work involved. Every novel is a labor of love.
4. Think of your favorite authors. Why are they your favorites?
Personally, many of the authors I love have a flair for writing quick paced, character-focused, contemporary fiction. It’s easy to read, it connects with me, and it’s also (not surprisingly) my favorite thing to write.
By putting yourself in the same group as your favorite authors, you aren’t trying to be them, or copycat them. (Please, for the love of spilled ink, don’t claim you’re the next J.K. Rowling, or the next Stephen King, or the next [insert absurdly famous author name here].) You’re simply admitting that you have similar tastes. You could even rightly say they’ve influenced your work.
It took me some time to figure all of this out, and then a bit more time after that to accept it (because I also have a love affair with sci-fi and fantasy). And again, it took even more time after that to craft a career goal based on this analysis. So don’t rush anything. Be honest with yourself. And choose your specialty with care.
Focusing on a Single Theme Doesn’t Limit You
As Chipotle says, “Our menu isn’t long – but it’s long on options.” From one main product comes a variety of choices, but those choices are not headache-inducing because they have the same foundation. Inside of one genre/type of fiction there are endless story possibilities, enough to keep you busy writing throughout a lifelong career.
Don’t open a restaurant doomed to failure by making an easily avoided mistake. The simpler your menu, the less confused your customer, the more likely they will be satisfied with what they’ve ordered because what you serve will meet their expectations.