Death? Sure...But Make it a High-Impact Death

I’m not sure I agree that all stories are about death, but Josh and I can debate that over a beer later.  I do, however, agree that all stories told have conflict, tension and suspense. If you are going to sit at a keyboard and with a great idea you have for a story, how are you going to write that story?  If your goal is to sell books and/or make a living writing books, then telling how your character finds himself in conflict, the action he takes to resolve that conflict, and the suspense this creates, needs to be told in such a way that every single page draws your reader in, and has them hanging on every word.  This is sometimes called ‘high impact fiction’. Also high-concept fiction, upmarket fiction, and probably another dozen names that mean the same thing. And while the ‘death’ that Josh spoke of in his previous post doesn’t need to be a 'death' that happens with the brutality of getting hit by a semi at a hundred miles an hour, that level of excitement isn’t such a bad idea.  High-impact fiction, as Donald Maass describes it in Writing 21st Century Fiction is a 'combination of two things: great stories and beautiful writing'.  This is why so many books that previously would have been literary novels with a smaller readership, have become commercial successes. The skill of an author to take an interesting concept and elevate it with exceptional prose, rich characterization, and cultural value, then fill in the gaps with tension, heat, and excitement that rips through every page, is literary gold.

But how do you mine that gold?

The ability to put both racing excitement and rich content on every page of your novel is a blending of both literary writing, and genre-fiction writing skills.  Authors that are rocking integrated commercial/literary fiction are succeeding at incorporating the key elements of genre (plot-driven, entertaining, action-packed), as well as being able to write a story that digs deep into their character(s) – their motivations, challenges, the subtleties of the events around the character and how they relate to the desires within that character -  the ‘why’ of the human condition, if you will.

I have some thoughts, and before I start pissing everyone off, let me add a disclaimer.  I am not an expert.  I am not an MFA.  I am a reader, a writer, and fairly opinionated about some things.  Such as, all new writers should have a chance to receive feedback of some sort. Also, if I have the ability to help someone, I must do so. Finally, Justin Trudeau is amazing, and I live in Alberta. (Not even going to try to explain that last paradox.)

First off, know your story.  And while we often hear, as beginning writers, that we should know our market, I think we need to know our stories more. What do I mean? Well, are you writing about love? Or, are you exploring the criminal justice system?  Are you interested in creating a new world, and the habits and procedures of whose who inhabit it? Or perhaps, your story takes place in this brand-new world, and someone, human or otherwise, is brutally murdered.  Then, the alien prosecutor and the human detective fall in love during the investigation. You see where I’m going with this, right?  Trying to figure out what market to pitch this to would be overwhelming.  However, if you know what your story is really about, if you know what it is that you are trying to describe, the human condition that you are bringing to the forefront, then, write that story.  I think if you look at the examples above, then you are already thinking about books you’ve seen or read that are exactly what I’ve described. A story about love? Bridges of Madison County (Robert James Waller), Me Before You (Jojo Moyes), any Harlequin or Silhouette romance. Criminal Justice?  Television show Law and Order.  Pretty much any John Grisham novel.  For police procedurals, Ed McBain.  That brand-new world?  Isaac Asimov's Foundations series.  Hunger Games.  J.R.R. Tolkien.  What about that storyline I mentioned set in a new world with murder where the protagonists fall in love? Sure.  Avatar. Blade Runner also comes to mind, which was based on a Phillip K. Dick novel called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? When I look up this novel, it falls under the genre ‘science fiction, philosophical novel’.  Whoa.  The publisher must have been sticking a fork in his eye at the time.  How the hell do you market that?  Doesn’t matter. Why?  Because Dick's novel explored what it meant to be human.  THAT was the story the author wanted to tell.  The 'genre' he wrote in and sold to was not forefront.  He took a theme that appealed to a broad audience and told a great story.

Secondly, write well.  Josh and I iterate rules of writing, Strunk and White, as well as other key books that improve a writer’s skills.  Take the time to pick up these books, and study these rules. Take the time to read our posts here at The Quill when we disseminate this information.  I can’t stress enough, it’s not just talent, it’s the ability to put together sentences that people enjoy reading.  This comes with some basic skills in spelling, grammar and sentence structure, which you will need if you want people to read your work. Particularly if you want to avoid the slush pile.

Be curious.  Be curious about your own motivations in telling this story. Is it about you, really, at its core?  Is it something that happened to your mom, your friend, someone you’ve never met? Be curious about your characters.  What is it that they want from you?  Listen carefully as they direct your fingers at the keyboard, bringing their deepest, darkest secrets to life. Why do you want to tell this story? Write that down.  Write down how you feel about telling this story, about your characters, about the setting.  Write it in several different ways.  This will end up becoming your ‘voice’ and this is important.  Your voice is the strongest tool in your writer’s toolbox.

Be curious about how similar types of stories are told.  Is your story about love? Read a Harlequin Romance, Fifty Shades of Grey (E.L. James), and Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë). Is it about making your way in a new life?  Try The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke, or Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson. Look out of your comfort zone, because this will allow you to see the good (and the bad) in other genres, and will give you a glimpse into characterization, the subtleties that exist in similar characters, and the themes that move through certain genres.

Read.  Read Everything.  If all you ever read is Jane Austen and William Faulkner, then pick up The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson, or a novel by Michael Ondaatje .  Fan of Heathcliff? Read Andrew Pyper and Gillian Flynn.  Then read a Harlequin Romance, and something by Neil Gaiman.  Anything by Neil Gaiman.  Read poetry, history, non-fiction. Pick up the local newspaper, then a national one, or get on the web and read the BBC news.  Watch Peter Mansbridge on CBC.  Being aware of what’s going on in the world around you gives you a deeper understanding of what motivates and moves people, and how events that start out small, can become epic in scale.

Finally, make sure you take the time to tell the story in all its small intimacies. Don't be afraid of saying too much, particularly in draft stage. This is where you'll find all the hidden gems of insight that deliver the emotional payload to the reader.


Colleen Cornez

Colleen is a writer of romantic fiction, but a fan of everything written. She is preparing to go back to University to complete her Bachelor of Arts in Canadian Studies. She currently edits for The Quill, and with three (unpublished) novels currently in various modes of professional editing or submission, she hopes to have a cooler bio soon. Until then, you can read excerpts of her work at

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The Quill

Letter from the Editor - January 27

Last week was crazy as we launched our inaugural issue here at the Quill.  We want to thank all of the people who registered on our website as well as those who submitted their work to us.  We’re humbled by the vast amount of interest and recognition we’ve received thus far.

As I was scheduled to be in literary residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts during most of this time, I also want to extend my gratitude to Josh for shouldering an exceptional amount of work, under an enormous amount of pressure. Thank you, Josh, and as always, I’m honoured to be your partner in this endeavour.

For those of you who have submitted work to us, or if you are thinking of submitting work to us, we would like to provide you with some direction.  While reviewing submissions for our inaugural issue, Josh and I read a large number of what appeared to be rough drafts, as well as work that was in need of improvement: particularly with plotting, story structure, proper sentence structure, and grammar, among other issues. We quite often had to reject these works, the large number of submission we received required us to focus on those writers who had submitted well-proofed, final drafts of their work.

In light of this, and in an effort to be of service to those who are looking to submit work, whether it’s to The Quill, or elsewhere, Josh will be weighing in regularly with a column about the things that are likely to get your work rejected out of hand.  I would highly recommend that all potential submitters read his ongoing columns.  He’ll be covering topics about the type of skills you need to develop, the books you should read to improve your craft, and the types of instruction you should look for to become a better writer.

As for me, having just returned from the gift of creativity in an exceptional environment, I’ll be focusing, for the next while at least, on what  I’ll call the softer, gentler side of the writing process. Fluffy bunny stuff like genre writing, wordsmithery and showing, not telling, among other topics.

So keep reading, keep writing, and keep submitting - we’re looking forward to working with you!

Colleen Cornez

January 21 2017

Top Photo Credit - Photosbygar Photography -

Credit for Generous Use of The Beautiful Inkwell - The Emporium of Impossible Things, Okotoks -