Perhaps, It’s All In A Name

Guest blog by Sharon Kava

Sharon Kava’s first novel – a suspense thriller – still sits in a bottom desk drawer after receiving 116 rejections from literary agents. Alex Kava’s first novel – a suspense thriller – received three offers of representation and went on to be a bestseller with a first printing of 70,000 hardcover copies, and the recently released paperback hitting #23 on the New York Times extended bestseller list. The difference? It may very well be all in the name, because I wrote both of those novels -- one under my real name, Sharon; the other under a pen name, Alex.

When I randomly sent out that first novel as Sharon Kava, I received quite a few conflicting responses from literary agents. Notes in the margins of my query letter said things like, “Wonderful suspense, but too harsh for a romance.” Or “tone down the violence and add some romance.” I wasn’t trying to market the novel as romantic suspense, and yet, it appeared that literary agent after literary agent was trying to put me into that genre. I began to wonder if these agents – many of whom are women with remarkable track records – simply didn’t believe women wrote hard-hitting suspense thrillers. It seemed as though they needed to fit me into the romantic suspense genre in order to believe they could sell my novel.

Two years later, I quit a full-time job as a director of public relations for a small college. I was burned out and ready for a change. I decided to give novel writing one more try. Only this time, I would eliminate as many obstacles as possible. 

First, I finished the manuscript. I polished, revised and edited, then revised some more. I was living off my savings and then my credit cards. I taught part-time and even had a newspaper delivery route. I could hardly afford the $100 editing fee, but still, I hired a professional editor to go over the manuscript. 

Then I did my research on literary agents, carefully choosing agents I’d like to work with and finding out as much as possible about the current authors they represented as well as recent sales they had made. I narrowed my list to thirty-two literary agents and prepared custom-designed submission packages to each agent’s specifications. But before I sent out a single one, I decided that Sharon Kava would become Alex Kava. 

That past experience had left me with what was, perhaps, only a gut instinct. However, I was determined to remove as many obstacles as possible, and if there was the slightest chance that a perception existed that women wrote romantic suspense while men wrote suspense thrillers, then I would try to remove that obstacle the best way I knew. So I looked for a name, that when spelled the same way, could be misconstrued male or female. Of course, it also had to be a name I liked and could live with, if need be. But most importantly, I didn’t want agents determining my manuscript’s plight by a simple glance at my name and pegging it into a certain genre before they even read it. 

A half dozen agents wanted to see more. Three requested the entire manuscript to read. Those three offered to represent the book, calling and asking for “Mr. Kava.” None of them had been able to distinguish whether the manuscript had been written by a man or a woman. For me it was the ultimate compliment, my reasoning being that good fiction should be, in a sense, genderless. After all, isn’t that what writers strive for is to be an all-knowing force, an omnipotent narrator who can relate to and see into the hearts of minds of their characters, whether those characters are male or female? Besides, I had also just accomplished the first step in what some claim is the equivalent of winning the lottery – I was on my way to getting my first novel published, and whether it was as Sharon or Alex, it was still my novel.