Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Hi folks,

Did I surprise you with the title of today’s post? I imagine so! After all, I suspect most who read this and are writers weren’t aware that Scotland’s Chef Gordon Ramsey taught writing. Most probably believe he’s involved in great cooking, right?

Well, he does, but the lessons and more importantly—the philosophy—he teaches on his shows are spot on for writers who want to be the best they can be.

Every single morning I have his shows on the BBC channel on. I’d rather watch them than read most writer’s how-to books or go to writer’s conventions and workshops. I learn everything I need to know about writing from this man.

Watch him as he turns around a failing or struggling restaurant. Begin with a mindset—that everything he imparts about cooking be considered as him talking about writing.

The principles he espouses for being a great chef or restaurateur are exactly the same principles required for a writer to not only be published but to be respected as a good or even great writer.

He never bullshits. He never sugarcoats his take on the chef’s performance and output. Never. He doesn’t tolerate laziness. He doesn’t tolerate stupidity when the person he’s critiquing clearly isn’t stupid but is just performing stupidly. Which is only… laziness.

He doesn’t tolerate alibis. He doesn’t tolerate assigning blame to others. He insists the person man up and face his own faults and correct them. He has no patience for those who feel they’re “entitled” to success. He insists that the only way to gain success is to earn it by their performance.

He doesn’t tolerate those who believe their failures are caused by others, or by fate or bad luck.

He knows that if you think you’re doing someone a kindness by not being honest with their effort, you’re delivering the greatest unkindness of all.

He doesn’t mollycoddle anyone—ever.

Look at how he approaches each person he tries to help. First, he’s brutally honest with them. If their product is shit, he lets them know it’s shit.

He doesn’t tell them to be something they’re not or that they’re incapable of being. He doesn’t tell a chef who’s great at cooking steaks to begin cooking French cuisine. He simply tells them to begin cooking steaks well. To build on what they already have mastered and have ignored.

Look at those who blame their patrons for not being successful. He doesn’t have much use for those folks. Kind of like the writer blaming the agents and editors for their lack of success. He has the same kind of patience (none) for that attitude that I do with my own students. It’s bullshit. If the writer is putting out quality work, do they really believe that agents and editors are not rushing to represent them because they have something personal against the writer? That’s so ludicrous it’s beyond funny. Any and all agents and editors want to find quality work. It’s what pays their bills, allows them to live in nice places, eat in great restaurants. If the work is shit, or even “average” who can work with that? The answer is obvious: nobody. Nobody can work with crap, any more than a chef can work with inferior ingredients or shoddy cooking techniques.

I see writers all the time ranting against the “injustice” of the publishing industry and system. It’s always somebody else’s fault that Superstar Agent isn’t interested in their work. It’s always the Big Shot Editor’s fault that their work is rejected. It’s never their fault. It’s never that the product is crap. Those writers’ egos can’t seem to accept that what they put out is lousy. They’re just convinced that the only thing keeping them from being published is that their “genius” isn’t being recognized. Okay…

But, just like Ramsey’s clients, that’s almost always the cause of writers’ failure. The ones who won’t admit that to themselves or look for excuses for their lack of success in others, will never make it. That’s just the truth. Sadly, far too many have self-deluded themselves into looking anywhere but the right place for the answers to their failure. The right place to look is in the mirror. If a writer can’t do that, he or she will never be successful. If that writer who rants about the “unfairness” of it all spent half the time they do on railing about life’s inequities on working to become a better writer… they would.

The way Gordon Ramsey approaches his clients is exactly the way I approach my students and clients. With the truth. If the work is shit, they need to know it’s shit. You can’t change manure into roses if you don’t know it’s crap. Once you realize your work isn’t good, that’s the beginning of wisdom. That’s when the work has a chance of getting better. Of becoming publishable.

My classes aren't labeled "Lots of Praise and Handholding for Wannabe Writers." They called "Les Edgerton's Boot Camp for Writers." There's a reason for that. We're interested in turning out publishable writers, not much interested in stroking egos.

Take a look at Ramsey’s show. Substitute the word writer for chef. Look at what he’s telling each failing chef. Imagine he’s telling you the same things as a writer. They all apply.

Here’s an apt example. I have a writer who’s been taking my classes for a year and a half. In her first class, she didn’t get beyond the first five pages of her beginning… FOR NINE WEEKS. Nine weeks. To come up with a proper novel beginning, one that began where it should, with the inciting incident. Others have taken many weeks to do so (my students call it “inciting incident hell.”). They’re right. It is hell. But, this student didn’t give up. She never blamed others. She just kept working… and working… and working. And, after nine weeks, she was given the okay to move past her first five pages. Today, a year and a half later, just this week I recommended her to an agent and a publisher. I’m pretty sure both will take her novel on. Even if they don’t, someone else will. She’s written a brilliant novel. Has it been hard? Absolutely! Anything worth doing requires work and hard work.

Could she have written a novel in a year and a half without going through “inciting incident hell” first? Sure. Would it have been publishable? I doubt it. I’m pretty sure she’d agree with that. It's the lessons she learned in achieving a great beginning that she understands allowed her to write every page after that well.

Finishing a novel is sometimes overrated. A chef can finish cooking a steak, but does that mean it’s a great steak and will bring the diner back? The only thing that matters is that the work be excellent. Nobody pays for “half good.” No matter how cheaply you price it.

Has it been worth it to her? You’ll have to ask her, but I’m pretty sure she’d answer in the affirmative and loudly so. And, I suspect she, like many others who’ve taken my classes and survived, would voice the same kinds of sentiments that Chef Ramsey’s clients who succeed do.

The point is, watch Chef Ramsey’s show as he works to transform attitudes. What he says is spot on what any decent teacher will tell you about your writing. Try to listen instead of waiting until they’re done talking to tell them why publishing is unfair to their genius…

Sorry if this offends some. Actually, I’m not sorry. Any writing—even a blog—that everyone likes and agrees with is… crapola writing. All writing should affect the reader’s emotions—positive or negative. Doesn’t much matter. If this post offends some people and it angers them enough to go out and prove me wrong, then it’s valuable. If it re-energizes some writers into redoubling their efforts at quality writing, it’s valuable. If it causes some writers to look into the mirror and admit their lack of success is due only to the person staring back at them and they make the decision to change what they’re doing, it’s valuable.

How can you tell if you have enough talent to succeed as a writer? That's easy. The same way Chef Ramsey can tell if the chef he's working with can rise from his failures. If he can cook a single dish that's excellent, he has the chops to be a good or great chef. Same thing with writers. If you can write a single paragraph or single sentence that's excellent, you have the chops to be a good or great writer. What's needed is the same for Chef Ramsey's students--all of the entrees need to be equally good. If you can write a great sentence, you have the ability you need to succeed. The thing is, you have to do the hard work to bring all of your sentences up to the same quality. That's called... hard work.

Personally, I want every single person writing to succeed. I just know some won’t. I also know why they won’t. The sad thing is, they don’t.

Watch Chef Ramsey and take in the lessons. You’ll be glad you did.

Blue skies,

P.S. For those who aren't pissed at what I said, and you're reading this on the 10th, I can still use your vote as per the posting just before this one. Thank you.


Ron Scheer said...

Good advice. Ramsey is a corker. I love it when he throws up in the men's room.

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Ron. Yeah... that's pretty graphic criticism, isn't it! I've read manuscripts that created the same reaction... as well as others that had me asking for seconds!

What's revealing is that the same chef over whose product he threw up, by the end of the show after he's made him look honestly at what he was putting out, has turned his act around and been what he could have been all long and should have been.

It's all about a writer's attitude about himself and what he's actually putting out. Once that becomes real, anything is possible.

Maegan Beaumont said...

NINE WEEKS??!!?? That girl’s lucky you stuck it out with her and didn’t toss her out on her ear… geez, what a donkey...
Seriously, was it worth it to me to gut it out and stick with it? ABSO-FREAKIN”-LUTELY!! Was it painful? Yup. Did I hate your face at times… maybe. Did I want to give up? Sure did. But I didn’t. I was at a place in my writing where it would have been very easy for me to make excuses—blame you for “not getting me”, give myself a break because I’d never taken a writing class before, believe my classmates were just jealous of my brilliance (HA!!)… I was a breath away from throwing in the towel… but I knew that if I did, I could never write again without feeling like a complete chump for not taking the hard truth (that my writing was crap) and LEARNING FROM IT. Once I quit making excuses and accepted what you were telling me came from a place of honesty and experience, I understood that there is always room for improvement… in my case, a whole hell of a lot of room, and that writing is a craft that can be mastered if you have the time, talent and drive to make it happen. I have a long way to go in the “mastered” department, but knowing what I know now, I’ll never give up trying.
I don’t know if I’ll get published—I hope so—but what I do know is that whatever success I might achieve as a writer, I owe to you, because you gave me the tools I needed to do so… So, thanks for being a great teacher and an even better friend, Les—you the man!!

Les Edgerton said...

Wow, Maegan! I didn't expect you to reveal you were the person I was talking about! You have more cojones than any three guys I know.

Folks, since Maegan has chosen to reveal she was the student I was talking about, I can say she has written an absolutely brilliant novel that I expect to be published and better--that it will sell tons and tons of copies. Watch for her... although when it comes out you can bet I'll be promoting it everywhere I can. It's an absolutely chilling thriller. And, she's earned it, every last word. She's the hardest worker I think I've ever worked with and I've worked with some maniacs for work! We've got a few more in class like her. They've gone through the rough stuff and the fire and emerged as genuine, seriously-talented writers. I am so proud of her!

If I was still having kids, and had a baby girl, I'd be naming her Maegan...

Anonymous said...

Hi Les - I loved this post. Thanks for writing it.

Some of the best advice/guidance I've received in life were words I didn't want to hear or admit to be true. Funny how that works, eh? ;)

(Last night I attended a writing critique group and had the opportunity to recommend your book "Hooked." One member already had it, and another wrote down your name and the title. I told them it made all the difference in the quality of my first chapter.)

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Tracy! I appreciate your words and really appreciate your recommending HOOKED!

We've all had advice we resisted--I'm no exception! At least part of the reason I think is that we all have a strong belief in our artistic vision and are loathe to admit it may not be working, at least in execution. But, we always need to stand back, get over the emotion and look at what was said objectively. It's no crime to believe in oneself, but it is a crime to be blind to our shortcomings once we consider what was said if it was delivered soundly and with logic.

Stacy said...

Hah. Funny how life works sometimes. An FB friend posted a link to JUST LIKE THAT and I got it, checked out some of your other books, and was delighted to find that you live in my hometown. Can't wait to read your stuff!

Les Edgerton said...

Hi Stacy--so you're from Ft. Wayne? What high school did you go to? I'm from Texas and New Orleans and other places, but have been here in Indiana a long time now.

We probably know some of the same folks!

Stacy said...

I am from Ft. Wayne, born and raised. Went to Snider. We probably do know some of the same folks! : )

Les Edgerton said...

My son Mike went to Snyder. He was on the baseball team that won two state championships. We live northeast, just off Maplecrest and just before St. Joe Road. Small world!

Les Edgerton said...

Hi again, Stacy. Don't know how old you are, but if you lived in Ft. Wayne in the last 20 years or so you might be familiar with the hair salon my wife Mary and I owned in Georgetown, called Bold Strokes.

Ya just never know...

Stacy said...

Oh wow. My folks are right around that area, in Oakhurst. I've been in Chicago for quite a while, but I'm very familiar with the Georgetown area. I get back to Fort Wayne frequently. I'll have to visit your wife's salon when I'm home next. Small world, indeed!

My niece, Alison, attends Snider right now. She's a freshman.

Les Edgerton said...

Hi Stacy, We don't have Bold Strokes any longer--closed it when I sold a novel in auction to Random House years ago, but thought you might remember if from when you lived here.

Stacy said...

Huh. I should, since I lived around the area, but I don't. But then, I'm a good forgetter. : )

Les Edgerton said...

Stacy, I must be good forgetter, too! Just realized I'd forgotten how to spell Snider H.S.!

Your niece may know my nephew, Cody Goff, who's a junior or senior and is on the soccer team.

He's from my wife's side of the family as my side doesn't recognize soccer as a sport... Anything males play outside in short pants isn't a sport...