ver a decade ago, I decided to start a literary magazine in rural Japan. An as-yet-unpublished writer named Wendy Tokunaga answered my first call for submissions with “Brighter Stars,” a wonderful short story about Yoshimi, a young Japanese woman bumping against the glass ceiling in corporate Japan who decides to seek her fortune in America. Since then, I've enjoyed watching the rise of Wendy's career. Her stories were subsequently published in other literary magazines in Japan, and her first novel,
was a winner in Writer's Digest contest for self-published books. Wendy later broke into the educational market with non-fiction books on Christine Aguilera and Niagara Falls. Her new novel,
Midori By Moonlight,
will be published in September by St. Martin's Press. Like Yoshimi, the heroine of her short story, Midori heads for America. She arrives in the country with her American fiancé, who dumps her just before the wedding. Midori stays on as an illegal alien, baking desserts (her dream is to become a patisserie), and working at a hostess bar. A delectable romance with a soupcon of suspense,
Midori By Moonlight
is sure to delight. Here, WOW! talks with Wendy about publishing and persistence.
WOW: The first short story of yours that I read was so well-crafted and polished. You seemed to know what you were doing. Had you been writing since childhood?
Wendy: I started writing fiction in the early 1990s when I was working at an information company in Silicon Valley writing summaries of computer articles for searchable databases. Many of my coworkers were aspiring fiction writers and I was inspired to take a nighttime creative writing course at a local community college. I ended up taking three semesters of the course and as a result produced several short stories.
WOW: Obviously the course paid off, because you got some stories into print soon after, and one story was a finalist for the All Nippon Airways Fiction Contest. What was your first publication?
Wendy: I got several short stories published in small English-language journals based in Japan (Yomimono, The Plaza, The Abiko Literary Quarterly Review). My short stories all had Japanese themes. I had studied Japanese language and culture in college, lived in Japan for a while, and my husband was born and raised in Japan so this has been a major theme in my life.
“I guess my strategy was to never give up
and be open to trying all avenues.”
WOW: Your first attempt at a novel was also set in Japan. Did you write alone, or did you have a writing group?
Wendy: I had a small writing group when I wrote my first novel, but we were all inexperienced—the blind leading the blind!
WOW: Even so, I think having someone to support you along the way is always helpful. Writing can be very lonely. How important do you think writing groups are to writers?
Wendy: Writing groups are very important or at least having a good critique partner. But there can also be a problem with outgrowing writing groups and people becoming so familiar with each other's work that the feedback is no longer very objective or helpful.
WOW: What kind of writing groups have you belonged to?
Wendy: I have joined both online writing groups and face-to-face writing groups, some for feedback purposes and others for networking and learning about the writing business.
WOW: Conferences are also a great place to meet and mingle with writers and publishing professionals. Have you attended any conferences?
Wendy: I have twice attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference, which I highly recommend. I have also attended the Southern California Writers Conference that is affiliated with San Diego State University Extension and the Maui Writers Conference.
WOW: And for those of us who can't get away from home due to financial considerations or family commitments, the Internet offers a way for writers to connect. How important has the Internet been to your writing career?
Wendy: Extremely important. I have been able to foster relationships with fellow writers via forums at places such as Yahoo Groups as well as target potential readers and places to market my work using search engines such as Google. I have been able to research and query agents over the Web as well. There are also opportunities to publicize books through various blogs, which I am starting to research now.
WOW: I'm looking forward to the day when you start a blog, Wendy. Perhaps that's the next step? Looking at your career so far, you seem to have had a strategy for reaching your publication goals. You started out publishing in small journals, then moved up to educational markets, and finally hit the big time…
Wendy: Any “strategy” has been by the seat of my pants. I guess my strategy was to never give up and be open to trying all avenues.
WOW: One of those avenues was self-publishing. What made you decide to go that route with No Kidding?
Wendy: NO KIDDING was the second novel I had written and it had been rejected by every agent known to man. In 2000, POD (print-on-demand) publishing was just coming into being and I decided to use iUniverse. I had been inspired by the story of writer MJ Rose, who had self-published and self-marketed her book, which got the attention of an editor and landed her a book contract with a traditional publisher. I was hoping for a similar result, but it was not to be. However, since NO KIDDING is POD it is still “in print” and still sells some copies here and there.
“I also am passionate about writing and love it
so much that I could never really give it up.”
WOW: Yes, it seems to be holding its own in the Amazon ratings. What was good/bad for you about self-publishing?
Wendy: There is a stigma against authors who utilize POD publishing, especially fiction writers, which I think is even stronger today than it was when I did it. Somehow when a musician makes her own CDs and sells them online and at her concerts, it's quite acceptable. And the stories of fledgling filmmakers maxing out their credit cards to produce their movies are legend and much admired.
But writers using certain means to put their work out there in book form are vilified and accused of using a “vanity press.” On the other hand, there is no editorial control in the POD process and a lot of books that wouldn't (and maybe shouldn't) have seen the light of day get out there. And with POD your book generally does not get in any bookstores and you must rely mainly on online or your own hand sales. My POD publishing experience, however, taught me valuable lessons about online marketing, skills which are important to have even if you are published by a traditional publisher.
WOW: Tell us a little more about that. How did you go about marketing No Kidding? What advice do you have for fiction writers who want to self-publish their books?
Wendy: I did all my marketing for NO KIDDING on the Web. Because the book is about a woman who wants a child-free lifestyle despite pressure to the contrary, I looked for Web sites and organizations with a Web presence that promoted this choice. So I had a built-in hook for the novel. I also made sure to get as many Amazon reviews as I could. I also purchased Google ads for a short time so that my book showed up when people typed in words such as “child-free” in the search engine.
I'm not sure what to say about the POD world for fiction writers at the present time since my experience dates from around 2000. There are many more players in addition to iUniverse (XLibris, Lulu, etc.) and prices have gone up. Many of these publishers now offer more marketing help, but it's for a fee and I'm not sure how helpful it is. There are also e-book options.
I'm sure writers can now find much info on the Web and advice on how to approach POD publishing. But I do feel that it's a challenge to self publish a novel and generally self-publishing works better for non-fiction books with a built-in, specific audience where books can be hand sold in tandem with the author's lecture or seminar. Unless the main subject of a novel is directed at a niche group, I think self-publishing in the fiction world presents a challenge.
WOW: You did quite well, though. Your book won a prize in the Writer's Digest contest for self-published books. Did that help you to interest editors/ agents in your work?
Wendy: It didn't help as much as I thought, but it was one more credit I could put in my query letters to agents as I tried to pitch other novels I had written. It always helps your confidence to get some recognition. And it also got me to finally have the cover of No Kidding redesigned; I was never happy with the original cover.
WOW: I love the cover for your new novel, Midori by Moonlight. Your agent sold this book, right? People often say that finding an agent is more difficult than finding a publisher. How did you find yours?
Wendy: I finally landed an agent with my third novel because I knew a writer (via online networking) who was represented by this agent and she recommended my book after reading it. However, this agent was not successful at selling the book, and also was unable to get any interest from publishers for my fourth book, so we parted ways. I found my wonderful current agent Marly Rusoff when I queried her for
Midori By Moonlight (my fifth novel) via her Web site. Over the years I had done much research on agents mainly using online resources (e.g. Publishers Marketplace, Publishers Lunch, Deal Lunch, AgentQuery.com, EveryoneWhosAnyone.com, etc.), which I find are more up-to-date than the agent directory books that come out every year and are searchable as well.
WOW: : I truly admire your persistence. What kept you going through all of those rejections? Did you ever think that you were close to giving up?
Wendy: I didn't give up because I could see that I was making progress, albeit very S L O W progress. Getting the recognition from Writer's Digest, being able to land an agent (even though it didn't work out). And gradually I started getting actual comments from agents instead of only form letters. I also started to get lots of requests as a result of my queries over the years. And when I work-shopped excerpts of my work in various classes I gradually saw myself getting better and better reactions from readers; I could see what worked and what didn't. I had heard from other writers who eventually had gotten published that these were typical experiences and that I was “getting close.” And I also am passionate about writing and love it so much that I could never really give it up. But I certainly did have some depressing days here and there when the constant rejection really got to me. :-)
“Keep learning your craft, keep writing and know that you have to finish your novel and have it in the best shape possible before pitching it to agents.”
WOW: Well, your efforts have finally paid off. When I was reading your novel, I was impressed by your metaphors and plot twists. Your writing held my interest all the way through. You clearly have a command of your craft and you seem to have a lot of connections in the writing world, but you told me you've just gone back to school. What made you decide to pursue an MFA at this point in your career?
Wendy: I wanted to keep taking my writing seriously and I knew there was always more to learn. I also wanted to at least get a degree out of all the work I'd put into the five novels I had written since I had been unsuccessful so far at getting published. At the time that I was applying to MFA programs (in the fall of 2005) I had no agent and no book deal and I was using the first chapter of Midori By Moonlight
as my writing sample in the application process. Coincidentally I signed with my agent right before I was to start my MFA program, and she sold MIDORI BY MOONLIGHT shortly after I started classes in the fall of 2006.
WOW: So tell us, what's next?
Wendy: I was fortunate enough to get a two-book deal with St. Martin's Press so I am working on the follow-up book for that. I am also working on yet another novel for my MFA thesis project. Both of these books have Japanese themes.
WOW: And beyond that? What are your goals for your writing career?
Wendy: To be able to continue to be published and to continue to improve my craft!
WOW: Finally, what's your advice for aspiring writers?
Wendy: Keep learning your craft, keep writing and know that you have to finish your novel and have it in the best shape possible before pitching it to agents. If you can, find a reputable manuscript consultant who will read your entire book and give you feedback. A good source for this may be teachers at your local college's MFA program who critique manuscripts on the side. Learn about the business of agents and publishing. Learn how to write an effective query letter. And, most important, don't give up!
WOW: Thank you so much, Wendy. Good luck with Midori By Moonlight. I'm sure readers will enjoy it.
To find out more about the author, visit Wendy's Website:
Suzanne Kamata lives in Tokushima, Japan. She's the author of the novel Losing Kei (forthcoming from Leapfrog Press in January 2008), and editor of the anthology
The Broken Bridge: Fiction from Expatriates in Literary Japan and the literary journal Yomimono.