Helen (heleninwales) wrote,

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I can make it longer if you like the style

What sells? High stakes sell, apparently...

In this third instalment of my ruminations on what ingredients make a compelling novel, I'm going to consider an aspect that is perhaps my weakest point and also one that I have a genuine difficulty with. It's an attitude thing. :)

Donald Maas says at the start of Writing the Breakout Novel, "If there is one single principle that is central to making any story more powerful, it is simply this: Raise the stakes."

Hmmm... Did you feel the hackles begin to rise? Did you start thinking, "That's no way to write a good novel? It's far too crude. That will only lead to melodramatic rubbish! It wouldn't suit my type of story at all!"

That's more or less what I thought, however...

High stakes seem... I don't know, a bit show off, making a mountain out of a molehill, doing the very thing that Brits of my age were taught not to do. It's the British way to make light of difficulties, keep a stiff upper lip and to describe a desperate battle against overwhelming odds as, "A spot of bother," yet apparently the highest of high stakes is exactly what the publishing world wants these days. We have to play things up, not down.

I tend to feel (perhaps mistakenly?) that I prefer novels with smaller more personal stakes. The big, dramatic "Oh, noes! The world will end! Everyone will die!" sort of plots feel heavy handed and contrived, as though they're trying to force me to care by escalating the death count relentlessly. But that's not my natural way of thinking. Shout too loudly at me and I'll put the book down not get more engrossed. As the saying goes, a million deaths is a statistic, a single death is a tragedy.

So what do I do?

First of all, I need to carefully re-read Maas's chapter on building high stakes. Most people are familiar with the sound bites and its easy to do a superficial reading -- or worse, to have not read the book at all but merely picked up an impression of it from the bits people have quoted. That's where people get the simplistic idea that you just raise the stakes by, for instance, having a serial killer rather than just an ordinary murderer, threatening a city rather than a single building, or destroying a world rather than just a city. Yet that isn't actually what Maas suggests.[1]

What he actually says is: "The reason we care about a character in mortal danger is that we care about that character, period."

He then goes on to discuss private stakes of concern only to the main character(s) and public stakes where the protags are trying to deal with a larger threat. He considers how to raise the stakes in non-genre novels that focus on a single family or relationship. He also links raising the stakes back to what I was talking about here, about catching the mood of our times. He mentions for example that Judith Krantz had many best sellers in the 1980s which were glitzy fantasies about women who had it all: top jobs, wealth and power. That was the dream of the 80s. Non-fiction books told us how to be Super Woman and have it all: money, career, relationship, children. These days too many women are struggling with the reality of trying to balance the different aspects of their lives to believe that particular fantasy any more. Chick lit was perhaps a response to that sort of novel, and now chick lit is passé and the popular taste has moved on. (To what, exactly? That's where I need to do my research.)

In the past I've assumed that because I care about my characters, the reader will care about them too. Naturally my characters tend to care about the things I care about and I've assumed that my concerns will match those of the reader. This is demonstrably not true. :(

So basically, where do I go next? There might be a saleable novel in the material that makes up A Necessary Evil, but I haven't found it yet and the basic premise (man from our world ends up in fantasy world) is so old hat that it'll be rejected out of hand.

I need to start a brand new novel.[2] I need to do a lot of research. I need to get back in tune with what's going on. A lot of my cultural isolation is to do with the offspring growing up and moving away. I'm not tapping into how the younger generation think any more. My work colleagues are around my own age or only a little younger. My students are older than me, for the most part, so they're not much help. Oh, I know a lot of younger people here on the Internet, but the Internet culture (at least the parts where I hang out) isn't the mainstream British one. I need to engage with the world more, read newspapers again, take more notice of what books are selling -- not just genre ones either. Listening to the Radio 4 arts programmes tells me about the literary stuff, but not the best sellers.

Like anything, raising the stakes can be done well or badly. Done badly, it's just like cranking up the saturation in Photoshop. Yes the colours are brighter, but they take on a lurid tone and all the subtlety of shading is lost. Done well, however, and the author will keep you turning the pages long after you know you should have gone to bed and will leave you thinking about the book even after you've put it down.

[1] I think his book Writing the Breakout Novel is worth reading, though I will insert a big caveat. I rather like One True Way books because I will gleefully cherry pick the bits that seem to work and will happily discard the rest. If you don't operate like this and are likely to try to apply everything, wether it fits or not, then it's not the book for you. Also if you are successfully selling what you write, then, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." You're obviously doing all the right things intuitively, so why risk ending up with the centipede problem?

[2] Heaven knows, I have enough ideas in the To Write queue. Surely one of those will be suitable for development?

Tags: what sells?, writing reflection
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