Midori by Moonlight, published by St. Martin’s Press, was my debut book, but actually the fifth novel I tried to get published.
When I took a job as a technical writer in Silicon Valley in the early 1990s, I found that many of my co-workers were frustrated fiction writers. I found this intriguing and it led me to sign up for a creative writing class at a community college where I began writing short stories about my experiences with Japan and Japanese culture. The stories were well received in my classes and after many rejections I managed to eventually get a few of them published in some small literary journals.
The next step seemed to be to write a novel—how hard could that be? Trusted readers and friends read my Novel #1 and assured me that I was on my way to fame and fortune, proclaiming me as the next Amy Tan. With confidence I sent out Novel #1 to a good fifty agents who all rejected it soundly, mostly via form letters, and others with brief comments that translated to: What were you thinking?
Hurt, but somehow undeterred, I hunkered down to write Novel #2, titled No Kidding. Again, I received rejections from every agent on the planet, though this time I got a few morsels of comments I interpreted as slightly encouraging. I’d read about how author M.J. Rose had scored a major book deal by self-publishing her first novel, so I decided to self-publish No Kidding through iUniverse, the premier POD publisher at the time. The book ended up winning the Mainstream/Literary Fiction category of the 2002 Writer’s Digest Best Self-Published Book Awards. I figured it was only a matter of time that agents would be banging on my door, but my second round of queries relaying my success resulted in further piles of rejection letters.
With Novel #3 I finally signed with an agent who represented a writer friend who had passed my manuscript on to him. This agent received rejections from every editor he contacted. He half-heartedly pitched Novel #4, but it was quickly dead in the water. “If this were a few years ago, you’d be on the shelves,” he told me. “Fiction is an extremely hard sell these days. There’s nothing more I can do for you.” (And this was in 2004 when things were supposedly brighter in the publishing world). So now I’d garnered the ultimate rejection: getting dumped by my agent.
All along I’d been workshopping my novels and consulting with teachers and writing experts. I knew my craft was improving from the comments I’d receive, but I still couldn’t get anywhere and it frustrated me to no end. And I knew from reading the deals on Publisher’s Marketplace that debut novelists were still getting published despite my former agent’s negative assessment.
So once more I was sending out queries for Novel #5, which was Midori by Moonlight. I had some close calls with a few agents, but still no offer of representation came. Meanwhile, I’d decided to apply to MFA programs and used the first chapter of Midori in my applications. I was under no assumption that getting an MFA would guarantee my getting published—I just wanted to take my writing to the next level and spend two years concentrating on my writing and learning about literature. I was accepted at University of San Francisco and started there in Summer 2006. But I still hadn’t given up on Midori and continued to query agents. In August I finally got an offer of representation and by the end of September I had a two-book deal with St. Martin’s Press.
What do I want you to take away from my story? First, that perseverance pays off. But I also advise you to not compare yourself to other writers when it comes to how long it will take you to get published. Each writer has her own journey and no two are the same. Keep writing because you can’t not write, not just because you want to get published. Seek out advice from trusted sources, believe in yourself and be flexible.
And, most of all, don’t give up!
Wendy Nelson Tokunaga is the author of the novels Midori by Moonlight and Love in Translation, both published by St. Martin’s Press. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from University of San Francisco and teaches novel writing for Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio. She also gives her own seminars and enjoys helping private clients get their novels and memoirs into shape, giving practical advice on how to fix problems so they don’t make the same mistakes she did on her road to publication. She is currently revising her third novel, which is not about Japan and working on a non-fiction book about cross-cultural marriage. Visit her at: www.WendyTokunaga.com