Monday, February 4, 2019

My First Time: Adam Kovac

The First Time I Dated My Novel

I fooled around and fell in love....with a novel.

Publishing my debut novel, The Surge, was a lot like dating. Looking back, I can only describe the process as a roughly five-year slog of rejection, sprinkled with brief bursts of glee, followed by utter dejection. And let’s be clear: I hate dating. I’ve been on many dates. Almost every single one was a shambles, just like almost every single pitch I sent to agents and publishers.

I’m one of those veteran authors who never wanted to write a book about Iraq or Afghanistan. In 2009, I was wounded in combat. I’m still busted up. And from a mental-health standpoint, there was no way I could return to my civilian newspaper job on the crime and courts beat. I figured I’d use my remaining GI Bill money to go back to college, start a new career writing short stories about life, the great American novel.

I was in the MFA program at Northwestern University when I wrote a dreadful version of what now is the first chapter of The Surge. Since I needed more copy for workshop and my thesis, I banged out another chapter. Then another and another and by graduation had typed “THE END” on a lean, mean fighting machine of a novel. Although it was not the book I’d intended to write, I had developed a little a crush on the story. I couldn’t let it sit in a drawer. At the time, in 2013, very few Iraq and Afghanistan war novels had been published. Confident that my book would be irresistible to agents and publishers, I crafted query letters, and embarked on a search for literary true love.

“I’m afraid your novel isn’t the right fit for my list.” Translation: You’re not my type.

“The early pages didn’t grab me as much as I’d hoped.” You look nothing like your profile photo.

“I couldn’t sell a book of this length to a major publisher.” You’re too small.

I soon realized that pitching a novel without writing credits is a lot like sidling up to an intriguing stranger at the bar and asking for their phone number. So, I hit the gym. Bought new outfits over the next few months. After I’d revised the book and polished my query, I felt real good about my prospects for a lunch date, maybe even a movie with coffee afterward.

“Editors have piles of Iraq novels on their desks.” Who’s your friend? Can I have his number?

“We represented an author with a similar project; we’re not prepared to take on another.” You remind me of the last person I dated and that didn’t work out.

After more than 250 rejections, I broke up with my novel. This relationship never had a chance, I told the manuscript. “It’s not you, it’s me.” If this story were a Hollywood movie, this would be the scene where the writer retreats to their garret, chain-smoking, hunched over a typewriter, pouring pain onto the page to the rhythm of an inspirational soundtrack. That’s what I did; I started a new book. And that’s when an agent emailed, said he loved The Surge, and asked if we could chat.

You would be wrong to think agent representation meant my dance card was filled with lucrative publishing offers. In reality, the book was back on the dating scene, this time in the company of a literary matchmaking service.

“It would be a disrespect to this amazing novel if we were to publish it.” (Okay, I have absolutely no idea how to interpret this rejection. Really, it’s bizarre.)

About a year and dozens of rejections later, The Surge was dead in the water. Again. I was truly done. My agent was over it, too. I had since finished that second book, a mystery. We were shopping it when an editor from a small, literary press I’d been admiring from afar emailed with an offer of publication. But this offer was for The Surge.

Full confession: I almost said no. I screamed subconsciously at that old manuscript. “Never! You had your chance! I won’t go back. I’m sick of revising; praying this is the time it’ll work out and we both know that’s never going to happen! You don’t deserve me!” And after I’d gotten that out of my system, I said, “Yes. Of course I do, you silly fool.”

The Surge is now out from Engine Books.

Writing that sentence felt somewhat like announcing a marriage. I still ask myself why I started writing a war novel in the first place, why I continued to tinker with a story I never wanted to tell, and why I kept submitting the manuscript in the face of overwhelming despair. Perhaps it’s because as time went on I saw beauty on the page I had not appreciated before. In my quest for literary love and acceptance, the novel and I somehow forged the kind of bond that is the backbone of an unbreakable relationship. I learned I had to let go of the novel in order for it to find a place in this world. It’s a leap of faith, the chance you’re willing to take when it’s your first time.

Adam Kovac served in the U.S. Army infantry, with deployments to Panama, Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan. A former journalist, he's also covered the crime and court beats for newspapers in Indiana, Florida and Illinois. He lives in the Chicago suburbs with his wife and son. Follow him on Twitter @Boondock60mm.

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

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