Monday, September 16, 2013

All You Can Read

Once upon a time there was a Middle Eastern buffet in the International Market shopping center of my hometown.
When I discovered the place, I was delighted with the range of choices and the freedom to refill my plate and cup as needed - not that I did; one plateful filled me up pretty well, but I returned for desert and an extra bit of pita bread.
Time passed. I returned to the market with a friend, wanting to introduce her to this great buffet - only to find that its rules had changed. No more 'all you can eat.' Now, one must choose a take-out container in one of three sizes and go through the buffet once and be able to close the lid on ones box. The food was still good, but I was disappointed by the change - even when told that some people had been taking advantage of the old system, feeding their friends from the single plate for which they'd paid. I felt like I was the one being punished for their behavior.
Meanwhile, another Middle Eastern buffet opened up in town. This one was larger, with more selections including soups and salads and a full dessert bar. All you can eat at one price. I'll admit I overdid it the first time I visited - I wanted to try everything and I love baklava. This became my Place To Go whenever I was in the mood for Middle Eastern.

Last week I happened to be visiting the International Market to take care of some other business and I thought I'd check back at the original buffet for lunch.
They'd changed their system again. Now they offered a single size of container and charged by the pound. Okay. I'd try that out. When I saw the extremely narrow range of choices it became easy to limit my selections. They didn't even have falafel! I took some pita bread and lettuce salad and enough chicken curry, rice and shawarma to make a light meal. Even with the extra fifty cents they charged for a drink I spent less than five dollars.
So the buffet took in less money than if I'd felt free to fill my container at the fixed rate they'd had before. Maybe that's okay with them. The buffet may not represent a large part of their business. But I also left thinking, next time I'll go to the other place, even if it means taking a bus the extra mile, and: here's a lesson to me in how to drive away customers - or readers.
Think of a story as a feast - an all-you-can-read buffet. A good writer puts out the best selection she's capable of providing. Engaging details, intriguing situations, fascinating people and events. She allows the reader to dig in and enjoy as much of it as she possibly can. Did Shakespeare chintz on insight or emotion? Do Steven King, George RR Martin, or Diana Gabaldon limit their stories to a mere ninety thousand words because that's all the customers are paying for? Do they hold back out of suspicion that some readers share the story with friends who don't pay for another copy of the book?

If you're not willing to pack your story with all your best stuff, some other writers will be.


Julie Eberhart Painter said...

I agree that the writer should provide a relevant buffet with lots of choices and nuances.

Were those hushpuppies I saw? Southern buffets still allow all you can eat. Just look at our police force.

Naomi Stone said...

The picture shows falafels: yummy balls of fried chickpea dough. Similar to hush-puppies but with different ingredients.

Most buffets I know of are 'all you can eat' - most of us can't actually eat as much as we might think. That's why this place stood out in my mind and convinced me that I don't want to stint on giving my readers the best I can provide.

Big Mike said...

I'll toss in another angle and it's a transformation of fictional authorship I've heard about it before with other writers. Namely, stretching their boundaries of what's palatable.

On my first dozen stories I was caution, stayed within the expected zone. Now, I step across the line, offer new experiences. One's they may not be ready for yet tingle at the experience of the new taste. Fortunately our publisher allows us to step outside the lines, and the sampling of new possibilities keeps me charged, searching for fresh ways to excite the taste buds.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

LizbethSelvig said...

Great metaphor for writing! Reading should be sumptuous and filling and leave you feeling indulged. Not only should the best ingredients be used, but also the most creative recipes. The very best books are created from "homemade recipes" that borrow from experience but don't follow anyone else's idea of the perfect dish! Ahhh, wonderful!

Naomi Stone said...

Good points, Big Mike and Lizbeth! I use the metaphor of a feast or buffet because there are many 'dishes' involved -- from perceptive observations of life and human experience to insights gleaned over time -- and each one requires careful preparation and a personal touch to the recipe.