Last week was the one-year anniversary of the publication of How We Got to Today by Ben Ellis. Six years ago, Ben sent his work-in-progress to me for feedback.
This was the second book Ben sent to me. I copy-edited his first book – a dystopian satire titled In a Right State, which he successfully self-published, earning many excellent reviews. But for How We Got to Today, Ben commissioned a manuscript critique.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this book was the first time I paid for a development and copy-edit before I sent it out on submission, and it’s the one that got me a book deal.
He spent a long time drafting and redrafting his manuscript before he felt it was ready for professional feedback.
This is something I encourage all authors to do, because if you send an editor your absolute best work, they can help you take it to the next level – you don’t waste time and money on feedback that you could have figured out and implemented yourself.
I started writing How We Got to Today in September 2012 and completed the first draft in December 2013. About two or three drafts later, I gave the manuscript to a few beta readers in April 2015, then wrote another draft based on their feedback and passed it onto Sophie for a manuscript critique.
The right book, written in the right way
Nicola Morgan, in her excellent guide Write to be Published, says that for a manuscript to be picked up by a publishing house, it needs to be the right book, written in the right way, submitted in the right way.
When I first read Ben’s manuscript, there were many things that made me optimistic it would get past the gatekeepers of publishing. It felt like the right kind of book for a publishing house.
Firstly, it has a killer concept, making it highly marketable:
Sheridan doesn’t know what he looks like. There’s nothing wrong with his vision, it’s just that he’s the only person in the world who can’t see his own face.
Secondly, it has excellent drama and conflict, suitable to its genre:
Sheridan has it all going for him – a good job, a nice home, and a wonderful girlfriend. All until Heidi, totally out of the blue, dumps him. And completely disappears. Distraught, Sheridan begins to search for her, and ends up finding himself along the way…
Thirdly, it has universal themes that give the reader something to think deeply about, as well as delivering that all-important emotional punch:
This is a story about how sometimes it’s the people closest to us that see us the best and, if we lose sight of ourselves, can tell us who we really are.
Of course, I had some suggestions on how Ben could improve the draft he sent to me, and so I wrote up my thoughts in a manuscript critique and Ben went away and revised his draft again.
Submitted in the right way
Once Ben had finished revising his novel and was totally happy with it, we worked together on his submissions package: his covering letter, synopsis and the first three chapters. It was now ready for submission!
I finally started to send submissions off to agents in December 2015. Then in about April 2019, after seventy-four submissions (tip: keep records of all your submissions!), I got a positive email reply.
Literary agents and publishers receive thousands of submissions per year, so it typically takes a long time and many, many attempts before an author catches a gatekeeper’s attention. Ben’s perseverance paid off, though.
I was thrilled when I found out Ben’s novel had been picked up by Headline Accent – the same publisher as Neil Gaiman, no less!
The publisher, Headline Accent, did some light editing before launch but were pleasantly surprised that nothing of any note needed to be done – I kept quiet about my secret weapon: Sophie!
Ben has always impressed me with his dedication. And not only is he currently writing another novel, but he’s also been writing film and TV scripts that have been gaining attention.
It took Ben eight years from writing the first sentence of this novel to seeing it published. The lesson? These things take time. If writing is in your blood, don’t give up.