"Has me thinking hard about how to separate (in pages and query) my post-apoc YA novel from the other 3 million out there."
Ms Hunter didn't actually ask the question, but that's never stopped me from offering an opinion!
It certainly helps to have a plot that isn't so tried and true that it feels familiar.
But there are only about seven stories in the world, and I think it was Stephen King who said there's only one: "a stranger comes to town."
Within those limits how do you stand out?
Words, Roxanne, words!
The right words, the best words, the most vivid words, molded into distinctive turns of phrase, and images you: that's how you stand out.
She sailed on the high tide.
She fled Liverpool on the evening tide.
She ditched Liverpool like she was a lover wanting to borrow money.
Felix Buttonweezer went to the stage depot to meet his new bride.
Felix Buttonweezer met the Wells Fargo wagon as it pulled up at the depot. His mail order bride emerged, slipped in a pile of horse manure and fell into his arms.
Specific words are usually better.
Words that convey an image are usually better.
You don't want too many, and you don't want people to notice the writing.
So: she raked her flaxen locks with her brand new french manicure is NOT what you want.
Learning the difference is a matter of training your eye.
One of the best writers I know for seeing this on the page is Patrick Lee.
Just after three in the morning, Sam Dryden surrendered the night to insomnia and went running on the boardwalk. Cool humidity clung to him and filtered the lights of El Sedero to his left, the town sliding past like a tanker in the fog. To his right was the Pacific, black and silent as the edge of the world tonight. His footfalls on the old wood came back to him from every part of the darkness.
It was just as well not to sleep. Sleep brought dreams of happier times, worse than nightmares in their own way.
Mercury lights over the boardwalk shone down into the mist. They snaked away in a chain to the south, the farthest all but lost in the gloom where the boardwalk terminated at the channel. Dryden passed the occasional campfire on the beach and caught fragments of conversations amplified in the fog. Soft voices, laughter, huddled silhouettes haloed by firelight. Shutter glimpses of what life could be. Dryden felt like an intruder, seeing them. Like a ghost passing them in the dark.
These nighttime runs were a new thing, though he’d lived in El Sedero for years. He’d started taking them a few weeks before, at all hours of the night. They came on like fits—compulsions he wasn’t sure he could fight. He hadn’t tried to, so far. He found the exertion and the cold air refreshing, if not quite enjoyable. No doubt the exercise was good for him, too, though outwardly he didn’t seem to need it. He was lean for his six-foot frame and looked at least no older than his thirty-six years. Maybe the jogs were just his mind’s attempt to kick-start him from inertia.
--opening or Runner by Patrick Lee