Recently I read a book called The First Five Pages, which was written by a literary agent and is basically a checklist of the things that agents and editors will reject a manuscript for. I highly recommend it, because it’s got solid advice and fun exercises to try on samples of your own writing. Moreover, the focus of the book isn’t as narrow as it sounds, because anything that’s good for the first five pages is also going to be good for the rest of your story too.
In addition to the standard rubric for decent writing, however, he had something interesting to say about manuscripts that tend toward melodrama:
The good news is that melodrama is among the best maladies to have as a writer–it indicates you are striving, putting yourself on the line, going for the dramatic moment. You may either succeed or fail brilliantly–but the effort is worthy either way. True art is about taking chances, and the writer who employs melodrama is on the path of the artist. Furthermore, drama can always be toned down, whereas a manuscript bereft of it cannot necessarily be fixed.
This echoes something that I’d said to my gentleman friend just a few days before when we’d been comparing taste in fiction, and I said that I liked stories that go for the emotional impact even at the risk of melodrama. Some of my absolute favorite books are Karin Lowachee’s Warchild and sequels, which is why it seems like odd and very underhanded praise to describe them as “…like really good fic.” It’s not that her stories are derivative; it’s that they’re not afraid of going for that emotional impact. And for all that published fiction wants to have that impact, wants to move the readers, fanfic is far more consistent about actually hitting it.
Perhaps it’s because professional authors are more self-conscious and afraid of being thought frivolous if they edge into melodrama, and so they stifle themselves, whereas fanfic writers aren’t under any pressure to be SERIOUS BIZNISS GRATE LITERATURE, so they’re freer to go straight for the good bits.