Thursday, September 30, 2010

Taking it too far

I'm still pondering raising the stakes as September draws to a close, particularly after reading a three-novel series which is like a masterclass on the topic- The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. I hear Cheesemonkey is enjoying it as much as I did- I couldn't put it down, and read the lot in under a week.

From the first page to the last page, the characters in The Hunger Games have extremely clear stakes. From the very start, the first thing we know about the main character, Katniss Everdeen, is that she'll do anything she has to in order to take care of her little sister and her mother in the tough post-apocalyptic world they call home.

The first step to creating a perfect conflict is obvious: introduce a threat to her sister.

I won't tell you what happens, but I will say that every time the book was reaching a peak of tension, it was never obvious what would happen. That's because the stakes were established so effectively that there were always two or three equally terrible things that could happen, and it wasn't just a case of wondering *if* she'd end up in peril, but wondering what form the certain danger would take.

When we started discussing raising the stakes a few weeks ago, a couple of people argued that the technique of upping the tension/ drama constantly wasn't suited to all kinds of stories. I and others argued that it simply depends on what type of story you're writing- even if it's a slower, gentler one, the stakes can still be upped- they might just be smaller, quieter stakes.

Nonetheless, I do take the point- sometimes you read a novel where "what next?" becomes "no, really?". Occasionally authors do take it a little far in their quest to build and build the tension.

I'm laughing about this today (well, all right- I'm half-smiling in a pained kind of way) because my entire week has been like a how-not-to book about stake raising.

Outside writing, I have too many interests and activities going on. Always have had. I find it hard to sit still, and I seem to find a way to turn every conceivable hobby into something bigger. At the moment, my big venture is baking and decorating cakes and cookies. It's been a hobby for years, and something I'm decently good at. But in the last few months, I decided to spin it into something a little bit bigger to make a tiny but of money on the side, and I've been making orders for other people.

Well, good work spreads the word, and this week I came to an order for 60 wedding bomboniere cookies to be sent interstate. I've been so excited about these- I've been working on them with the bride for weeks, to the point where I even made my own cookie cutter to get the perfect shape.

That right there? That's investment. Time, money, and most of all emotion. That's stakes.

So, we kick off the story in the logical place. I spent the whole long weekend baking this big order of cookies, and they turned out beautifully. I thought I'd estimated the right amount of ingredients, and I had- almost. I fell exactly one short.

This is a relatively minor hiccup, but you could call it... foreshadowing.

So, I whipped up a whole new batch of cookie dough (just a small one) and baked myself some spares- good thing, because four of the other cookies got left in the oven a little long while I was toddler-chasing and were unusable. By the time I was done, I had six more cookies- and since I'd burned four and was already one short, this gave me exactly 61.

Here's where you see me, your main character, pausing for a moment to think, isn't that cutting it a little fine? But no, never mind. I've done probably a dozen cookie orders in recent months, including four sent by mail, and not a single cookie has ever broken. Not one.

So, I spent the better part of two days decorating these cookies, painstakingly, exactly. They were stunning. Gorgeous. Just what the bride had wanted. A real triumph. Perfection.

Here comes the inciting incident. I went to pack these cookies up, and uh oh. I tried to pack in one too many in my first box, and it broke.

Okay, no drama- it was the one spare. Right?

I packed the rest very carefully. But halfway through it, I picked up a cookie to put it in the box- and noticed that it, too, was broken. No pressure, no damage, and it had just spontaneously broken- and now I was actually down on my order.

Cue sinking feeling. A third cookie was also found to be broken, leaving me with 58 of the expected 60, and only two days to get these two cookies baked and decorated before the cut off for posting them.

Like something out of The Mighty Ducks, my two best friends swung into action, undertaking what one of them called Team Extreme: Operation Cookie Rescue. This basically consisted of coming over to my place, making me dinner, and looking after the rest of the family while I baked and decorated like a madwoman. Thirty-odd people were following the outcome of the rescue on Facebook. It was well dramatic. Everything seemed to be going very well, and I was left with eight brand new cookies, all ready to be sent at the last minute if needed.

The bride was very sensible, it turned out- she'd ordered an extra ten just in case anything happened. Phew! So, I actually already had a buffer of eight cookies before I needed to send emergencies. Plenty, right? Eight broken cookies out of a shipment of 58 would be just unheard of.

I had a day of waiting for them to get to their destination. I had the child home sick from daycare, who threw up all over me four times in one day, and all I could do was thank my lucky stars that I'd had to do the cookies the previous day (when *I* was home sick from work with the flu).

Then this morning, I got the email telling me the cookies had arrived and they were gorgeous. Only problem was, as we'd feared, a few got broken. How many? Not eight.


Thirty of the 58 cookies got smashed en route.

[Please cover your ears for a second while I repeat the many obscenities I uttered].

This is where the stakes got a little bit ridiculous. All of a sudden, I was still home sick myself. I had the sick toddler. I had no available Team Extreme to help. I had a measly eight replacement cookies, and I had until the close of mail at 4pm to send thirty across the country. I had no cookie dough or icing leftover.

And I was starting to significantly hate my life.

Now, I'm not sure I'd be reading a book about an over-committed cookie-baking novelist in the first place, but if I was, this is the point where I'd be putting up my hand and saying, slow down there, buster. This just went from interesting conflict to over-the-top. No one individual can survive that kind of crazy stress, surely! And even if she does, it's just not going to be believable!

It did get me thinking, in between the many hours of the day where my brain was just letting out a constant internal high-pitched scream, about making sure that my story doesn't up the stakes *too* much. Not so much that they're unbelievable, or to the point where people get so depressed that they stop reading. I think it's a potential tightrope for some of us- me in particular, when I'm writing about war. Sometimes simple stakes are the best kind.

As to my cookie story, I can't tell you how it ends until tomorrow, when the new lot of emergency cookies gets where it's going. I did in fact manage to pull off a fairly astounding day of baking, decorating and packaging, and I got them all done. The toddler was miraculously helpful- entertaining herself for most of the day, and only hanging off me like a limpet for an hour or so. The new lot of cookies looked just as good as the last lot, and I used up one and a half rolls of bubble wrap in packaging them.

I'm still feeling pretty sure that they'll all be smashed in the post, too, and I'm hovering between devastated and just sick about that. But the bride has been beyond lovely, and I'm hoping she has some contingencies in place. It's not every day you do something to potentially ruin someone else's wedding. From now on, I'm going to stick to wrecking the lives of fictional people.

But, as with everything in life, I'll chalk this one up as experience, and I'm sure some of the feelings about it will reappear in fiction one day.


  1. Well, I can't wait to read the end of this tale, either here or on FB. I hope it's a happy ending for the main characters (you and the bride).

    I just finished Mockingjay. That was an extraordinary reading experience. I'll certainly never forget Katniss, especially the first book. I was afraid of the third book--that it might not end well, since the first two were incredibly grim (shocking, those stakes, and the fact that no one, ever, was safe)--that she might break my heart and leave me with no hope, but bravely read it. I don't regret it.

  2. Claire, have you read any of Charles Martin's books? I think you would enjoy The Mountain Between Us, his latest. Have I mentioned them before? I did a rather giddy blog post on that one some weeks back.

  3. You poor thing! I hope the second batch gets there okay.

    Re getting the perfect shaped cookie cutters - try They do custom designs, as well as having a huge range. FWIW :-) I've been meaning to e-mail you their site all week. I went to the Royal Melbourne Show on Monday and Bisk-art had a stall there. I was soooo tempted to go crazy and buy pretty much one of everything! Incredible range.

  4. Holy cow Claire, that saga of yours makes for a great story! I hope everything turned out right in the end - will log in to Facebook tonight (finally! soo much overtime at work this week!) to check.
    That being said I think the crucial factor to believability is the character. I think your cookie adventure makes a great story cos I know you :-) But if the reader doesn't trust the character or if the character isn't fully developed, sometimes it feels like action buildup is taking the place of story.