Sometimes the biggest challenge for a writer isn't whether the manuscript he's written is any good or not. The plot may be good, the characters may be solid and original, and the action may be thoroughly gripping. But sometimes, I've discovered, this isn't good enough to get an agent's attention. My experience is still very limited, but I believe the greatest challenge facing me right now is getting my manuscript as marketable as possible.
I think my manuscript is good. The plot is solid and as original as you can get with military sci-fi these days. I think my characters are good and they fit well with the plot and each other. And there's no shortage of action. This isn't bragging really - after all, if I didn't think the manuscript was good, I wouldn't be trying to sell it to an agent. So then, what's the issue? After having read up on the subject, browsing numerous agents' pages online, and by researching how to write a good query letter, I've discovered that although agents may be writers themselves, they don't think the same way that writers do. No matter what an agent says, they have to think differently from writers.
In what ways? Basically, a writer - especially a new one - has the goal of telling a story. Creating a new world, new characters, getting the tale across to the reader. Because writers are a diverse group, there are innumerable ways to tell a story. Agents, on the other hand, have to sell that story. There are only so many ways to do that. While we as writers may think that a story that takes a long time to get to the point is redeemed by the glory of its ending, agents won't think the same way. They'll look at the beginning, see that it doesn't hook readers from the start, and move on to another manuscript - just for example.
So, I have to get myself into an agent's mindset, looking critically at the characteristics of my story, and polishing it so that it's as marketable as possible, without damaging the qualities that make it a unique story. Namely, I have to hook readers from the first line of the text, and keep them fully engaged until the last line. At the same time, I have to keep the plot unique, the characters solid, the action gripping, etc.
In the case of The Serenity Solution, I was told by a few of my readers that the book started out a little slow. I maintained it was because I was providing information that was necessary for understanding later parts of the book; it was setting up context. They agreed with me; however, it was still slow. This is a problem a lot of new writers have: trying to put too much background information at the beginning of the book. The key is to get the information in there, but work it into the action of the story so it doesn't slow things down.
For The Serenity Solution, this entails putting Chapter Three in the place of Chapter Two (introducing Harmony, arguably the book's most interesting character, earlier) and bumping Chapter Two down to where Chapter Three was (providing additional background information and further establishing the team dynamic with Zak et al.). That was easily done, a simple copy and paste and making sure the details still match up. Now I have to figure out if I can completely remove the "What Has Gone Before" section at the very beginning of the book and work that background information into the plot. A section like this is an easy way to establish general context, but it has the disadvantage of being a full block of nothing but background at the very beginning of the book. Plus, in my experience, it's usually used for books in series, where the reader has already been hooked and just needs a quick reminder of what happened in the last book. So, I have to figure out how to get rid of that. It will also help to tone down the misguided "Post-Apocalyptic" feel the book may initially give to an agent, and establish that it's really more "Post Post-Apocalyptic."
In other news, once I have this marketability issue resolved, I'm prepping yet another query to be sent by regular mail. I'll keep you updated on that as I get more news.