The last few years I’ve been exposed to a lot more amateur writing than I have since college (over fifteen years ago). I’m seeing common mistakes, and if the larger pool of amateurs age 20-40 are anything like these kids, might be that a huge amount of your competition for getting published is likewise disadvantaged. What are they doing wrong? They avoid writing the highest moments of tension and conflict.
Their plots might have a central conflict, sometimes a person may confront somebody else, a person may take some sort of action, but anything that would make a scene genuinely tense or the outcome of a conflict at all uncertain? They’re afraid to write it. They write circles around it but never show it. I imagine it’s because those moments are emotionally uncomfortable and they’re too timid to face those emotions.
An example: A story is present tense and begins with a person riding a bus to see her ailing mother. She sees a lake and remembers her childhood there. The story cuts to her at a rest stop recovering from barfing. Why did she barf? Now the present tense story has her remembering that – on this very bus ride – she got a call that her mother died. Not only did the author avoid writing an emotionally intense moment, they had to do a time skip in a present tense story. It felt very weird. They didn’t even write about the moment of barfing, like that would have been too much. We start a bus ride, reminisce, then cut back to the present and have skipped the only emotionally significant event in the story and its fallout.
Another example: A story begins with the hero tending bar. Some guys come in, connected with her shady past, and start bullying her. Will she slip up and reveal who she is, starting a gun fight? No, her boss makes an excuse for her and she bails. Now as she leaves, she’s remembering a time in her shady past when collateral damage from a shootout led to her arguing with her squad and going solo. Cool, but what’s more tense? Bawling out your boss for bad tactics, or the shootout itself, where innocent bystanders died at the barrel of your own gun?
OK, but there’s two moments of tension in example two – the bullying and the boss-bawling, right? No. Both conflicts were fully one-sided. There was never a question she’d submit to the bullying. It was her plan from the first minute – didn’t want to reveal herself. And when she’s yelling at her boss, self-righteously barking and waving a gun in his face? He’s just solemnly kneeling there, saying “I know, I suck.” If there’s an argument, if there’s a fight, if there’s any moment that would be made more exciting by uncertainty, it’s avoided.
And of course the most exciting event mentioned in the story went wholly undescribed – the shootout that precipitated her rebellion and desertion. If you’re thinking back to a traumatic event in your life like a car crash or fight, do you remember the traumatic moment, or what the paramedics said afterward? Scratch that – you might remember the paramedics more strongly. But what would make for a more exciting story? Would Return of the Jedi be better if they skipped Vader dying and Luke just said it happened after the fact, at the ewok party?
Part of this is a lack of confidence as an author, one can surmise, but another part might come from the conventions of fanfic. If somebody wants to write around the canon, they aren’t making the key events themselves happen. They only write interstitial moments. Between this scene and that from an episode of Muscular Monster Hunting Bros, these guys totally held hands. That’s what they’re writing.
It sometimes feels like hand-holding would be more emotionally heavy duty than these kids can handle. So if you want to stand out from maybe half the young writers out there? Simply make things happen in your story and actually describe them happening. You just might clear the slush pile from a reader’s sense of relief at witnessing that lost bit of courage from days of yore.