PERSISTENCE AND REVISED DREAMS

I have eight books published by houses ranging from big Harlequin to little Bancroft, but some books occupy a special place in one’s heart. Sloane Hall is that book for me.

It will be released by Five Star/Cengage in hardcover this fall. Five Star markets primarily to the library trade, and I happen to also read manuscripts (making recommendations to buy or pass) and edit for them.

Selling to them wasn’t a slam-dunk, though. It just meant I’d get a quick read and some good vibes. In fact, selling Sloane Hall to them required a strong sales pitch along with the merits of the book itself. Here’s why:

Although it’s women’s fiction, Sloane Hall is written in first person from a male point of view. It’s set in old Hollywood but inspired by the classic romance Jane Eyre. The genders are reversed, with the protagonist, John Doyle, in the role of servant–a chauffeur–to a silent screen starlet about to make her first talking picture. She’s the Rochester figure. He’s the Eyre one.

I wrote Sloane Hall, oh, maybe eight or so years ago. Yes, it’s a long time. And if you’d told me then that it would take this long to sell it, I would have covered my ears and started humming loudly to drown out such a gloomy prediction! I’d heard stories of other authors taking that long to sell a favorite tale, or going through eight or more revisions of a novel. I just couldn’t imagine it happening to me. I couldn’t believe I’d keep trying that long.

But I couldn’t let Sloane Hall go. I love the Jane Eyre story. I’ve read it so many times that its emotions don’t pop the way they used to. So I wanted to hear the story again, with all the powerful moments fresh. Thus, my desire to reimagine it, to make a drastic, fundamental change that would force the reader — and myself, the author — to view the story as if it had never been told.

My first iteration of this manuscript, in fact, was practically a point-by-point mirroring of the original Bronte tale. My critique partner loved it and the characters. My agent at the time was tepid. And rejections from editors told me it wasn’t heating up their hearts either.

But one editor told me this — the story has to work separately from Jane Eyre. It has to be something on its own. Of course it did– this made perfect sense. If people want to read Jane Eyre, they’ll read…Jane Eyre.

Back to revisions. This time I looked at the characters and asked myself how they differed from Bronte’s. If they were different, how would that affect how they’d act. How would it change the story?

I wrote and wrote, sculpting an altered story, one in which the main characters shared some of the characteristics of Jane and Rochester, but also some flaws that were more pronounced, that led them down different paths.

Again, back to submission, this time with another agent a little reluctant to send out the manuscript since it had been submitted before.

Alas, still no deal. But the rejections! Some of them read like back-cover blurbs. Here are two of my favorites:

“(The) story has all the elements of a perfectly developed read: a colorful cast of characters (Eleanor is incredible!), a good sense of era and setting, and a compelling major plot line that feels complete and yet leaves you wanting to know what happens next.”

Libby Sternberg did a wonderful job of capturing 1920s Hollywood in all its drunken, tragicomic glory. John and Eleanor were very appealing, sympathetic characters, and I loved exotic Marta and mysterious, crabby Julia. . .”

These editors and others passed because of market reasons–not being able to envision the book on their list, mostly. One editor at a major house did want to buy it, but couldn’t get her editorial team’s okay.

One editor, the same one who’d told me before to make sure the book worked without the connection to Jane Eyre, was kind enough to again pass along meaningful advice with her rejection: “This needs to be a big book at a small house,” she said.

And that’s when I woke up. Up until that time, I’d been thinking that Sloane Hall could be my “breakout novel,” the one that moved me up farther, that maybe, just maybe, would get me on a list or two.

But I loved this story so much, it absolutely pained me to think it wouldn’t get published by anybody at all, that it would sit in my documents file collecting cyberdust until maybe I decided to go Kindle with it. By this time, I’d revised it yet again, changing the setting back a couple years into the tumultuous time that Hollywood shifted from silent to sound pictures.

So as I was editing some Five Star manuscripts, I thought: why not submit it to them? I mentioned it to a fellow Five Star editor I know, and she was enormously supportive. Yes, she said, submit it — and I want to be your editor.

As I said, it still wasn’t a slam-dunk. The male point of view was a big hurdle because Five Star’s women’s fiction usually features a strong female protagonist. The editor and I came up with a list of examples of male POV novels that had done well with readers, especially women readers. We came up with the many Internet and social media groups devoted to fans of Jane Eyre. We pointed out the strong female characters in the book, despite its male POV.

And, after holding my breath for a few weeks, I got word that Five Star would buy it. An immense sense of relief as well as joy went through me.

I have printed copies of the book now, and I still love this story. And I’m so glad the earliest version of it isn’t the one being published. I am also so, so grateful to the people who’ve helped me get it to print, including the editor who rejected it twice but with advice that really resonated with me, ultimately spurring me to revise and resubmit . . . and sell.

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