Sunday, July 1, 2012

"Falling Uphill:" Turning a Trunk Book into an E-Book by Wendy Nelson Tokunaga

In 2004 I was in a funk over my writing life. At last I’d landed an agent, but he wasn’t able to sell either of my manuscripts. And then he ended up firing me. (Much later I realized that he didn’t know what the heck he was doing, and I should have actually fired him, but that’s another story). One of these novels, after much revision, ended up as my thesis for my MFA program in 2008. But the other ms, called Falling Uphill—what could be described as a “chick-lit mystery with a little bit of old Hollywood thrown in”—went into my “trunk,” only to gather dust on my hard drive.

Flash forward to 2011. By now I’ve had two novels traditionally published and self-pubbed e-books are all the rage. And, I thoutht, why not take another look at Falling Uphill—maybe I could use it to jump on this indie-pub bandwagon. I hadn’t touched the ms for some seven years and as I read, I got caught up, just like a new reader. Did I write this? What’s going to happen next? I couldn’t remember how it all turned out. And, best of all, I liked it!

So I got to work. I put Falling Uphill out as part of Amazon’s Select Program under its Kindle Direct Publishing platform. This meant agreeing to sell the book exclusively on Amazon for a three-month period. Under the Select Program you get paid not only for the copies of books you sell, but also for books borrowed from Amazon’s lending library for users who have a Prime membership. But the best thing about the Select Program for me was being able to offer Falling Uphill for free for five days. When I did this (along with some self-promotion regarding the free giveaway), I garnered 35,000 downloads. This led to the book charting quite well on various Kindle free and paid bestseller charts, which gave it a visibility it wouldn’t have otherwise attained. Sales have remained steady and my Amazon reviews more than tripled. And through this people have also found out about my other books. Gaining new readers—that’s what it’s all about for me.

I couldn’t be happier with the experience. Pretty good for a trunk novel that probably never would have seen the light of day without the digital publishing revolution.

Excerpt from Chapter One of FallingUphill by Wendy Nelson Tokunaga

Ruth Fenton is dead, but I don’t know what this has to do with me.
I press the button on the answering machine once more.
            This is a message for Candace Grey. Ms. Grey, this is Sally Claiborne at the West Portal Home for the Aged in San Francisco. We’re sorry to inform you that Ruth Fenton passed away on Monday. A memorial service will be held here next Wednesday.
            Sally has left her phone number and says to call if I have any questions. Yes, I do: Who is Ruth Fenton?
            After spending four brain-numbing hours at my office correcting finals, it’s already way past ten. And I’ll still be late getting my grades in, which seems to happen every semester. As usual I’ll have to get up extra early tomorrow and finish inputting them into the computer.
Jeff’s still not home. When I saw the blinking light on the answering machine I assumed it was a message from him—not a mysterious call from San Francisco. It’s Thursday and already this is the fourth time Jeff’s arrived home later than me this week. This means every day so far. Is he going to tell me that yet another meeting with his department head required his attendance? I don’t know if I can keep buying that.
            “You sure he’s not cheating?” My friend Laney Svensson didn’t mince words over lunch today.
            Cheating?” I put on my best that’s-out-of-the-question face, but I have to admit the thought has crossed my mind. After celebrating our fifth-year anniversary of living together just the previous month (a celebration that was all my idea—a weekend at the Rose Petal Inn bed-and-breakfast in Stevensville, with a view of Lake Michigan), there’s still no urgency on his part to set a wedding date.
“Is it really necessary to secure a piece of paper to prove our love?” is one of his favorite lines. And I get no straight answer as to why, when he’s told yes, said piece of paper is required, other than, “I’m just not ready yet and you’re so nice to be so patient with me. Give me time.” Toss in these recent bouts of lateness and it’s enough to make a girl wonder if indeed something fishy is going on.
            Ruth Fenton. Ruth Fenton. 
            I file through my brain, hoping to jog my memory into arriving at a clue as to who she could be. I forgot all about eating so I toss an individual frozen salami and sausage pizza into the microwave. I’m not about to make dinner for two for the late Mr. Jeff Sands. As the pizza pops and sizzles I hear the front door, then see Jeff in the doorway of the kitchen.
            He looks tired and a little drunk. “Sorry I’m late,” he says. “But some of the students took me out for a beer to celebrate the end of the semester.”
            “Did you eat something?”
            “Yeah.” He opens the refrigerator and takes out a hunk of Monterey Jack cheese and a Cadbury Strawberry Crème bar. “But I’m still hungry.”
            I stare at his food choices, and conclude that it really isn’t just my imagination that his eating habits have lately become increasingly bizarre.
“How come you didn’t call?” The microwave beeps and I remove my pizza, throwing it on a plate.
            “I knew you’d be sweating it out grading finals,” he says. “Did you get your grades in?”
            He yawns. “Well, that’s no surprise.”
            I frown. Procrastination is not in Jeff’s vocabulary—he turned in his grades a week before the deadline, as usual.
“So what students did you go out with?”
            “Just a group from my English Lit class. No one you’d know.”
            I wonder if maybe it was more like one particular student he was with. Perhaps Stephanie Filcher? I spotted him talking to her last week on campus behind the library, sitting together on a bench in the oak grove, a well-known make-out spot for students.
Stephanie has just finished my Anthropology 200 Gender, Mass Media and Society class, and is as auburn-haired, hazel-eyed, rosebud-lipped, and milk-skinned as an American Girl doll. She probably weighs more than I do, but her slight chubbiness is displayed in firm, rounded curves that are flattering on a college sophomore, but would appear downright pudgy on anyone over twenty-five.
When the semester started she made a point of telling me she had “that hottie” (her words) Professor Sands for English Lit, as if to see my reaction. It was obvious she knew he was my boyfriend, though it wasn’t something we broadcasted all over school. Very tacky for someone out of high school a good two years and enrolled in a halfway decent private college like Jonesbury (no University of Michigan, but respectable) to use words like “hottie” in front of her teacher.
            But it also might look tacky to ask Jeff exactly what he was doing with Stephanie Filcher at the oak grove, even though I’m picturing him on his outing tonight sucking down a Corona with her—in bed.
            “I have to tell you something,” he says.
            The professorial gravity in his voice nearly makes my heart stop. I’m transported back to high school, to Mr. Flack’s advanced geometry class, my knees trembling as he’s about to announce final grades. Here it comes. I brace myself for the inevitable I’m-in-love-with-Stephanie-Filcher-however-I-wish-you-the-best-of-luck-in-all-your-future-endeavors confession. I wish I were dead like Ruth Fenton. I hold my breath. “What?”
            “I just found out I’m teaching summer school so I can’t go with you to LA.”
            I consider this to be bad news, but it sounds a lot better than I’m breaking up with you. “I thought you said you couldn’t get a summer placement.”
            “Tim Gifford decided not to take the spot at the last minute. Dean Cooper asked me if I wanted it and I said yes. I figure I could use the money.”
            Notice he doesn’t say we could use the money. He insists that we keep our finances separate like roommates. I still owe him $8.75 for half of the Haagen-Dazs White Chocolate Raspberry Truffle ice cream, Milano Double Orange cookies, and Tofu Helper he bought on Monday.
            “So you can’t go with me?”
            “Sorry.” He leans over and brushes his lips against mine. Even after six years together his kisses still thrill me, though I’m not sure he feels the same. Maybe he wasn’t with Stephanie Filcher tonight. Maybe he still wants to be with me. Except not when I go to LA.
            I sigh. “Well, that kind of changes everything.”
            “This doesn’t stop you from going on your own, Candace. It’s not like I would be a big help or anything.”
            “But I thought it could be a kind of vacation for us. No school. No pressure.”
            “Well, we just went to Lake Michigan and that set us back some serious change.”
            Our LA summer together was to be half fun and half work, while I did research for my master’s thesis. No, Jeff might not be a big help with my research, but I don’t know what I would have done without him in my early days of teaching. I may still be time management impaired, but it was Jeff who saved my butt by showing me how to write a clear syllabus, deal with students who said I didn’t know what I was talking about, and helped me track down a way too familiar-sounding term paper to a website called “E-Z A” where a ready-to-turn-in paper on any subject can be downloaded for ten bucks a page. 
 “I was really looking forward to being with you.”
            He gives me a smile worthy of a hottie. He’s been wearing his brownish-blond hair shorter, which I like. It frames his face in a way that brings out the blue in his eyes, despite his gold wire-rim glasses. “I’ll miss you,” he says.
            “I guess things just aren’t going my way. You won’t be coming to LA and Ruth Fenton is dead.”
            “Ruth Fenton?” he says. “Who’s that?”
            “I haven’t the faintest idea.”


Find out more about Falling Uphill HERE.

Wendy Nelson Tokunaga is the author of the novels, “Midori by Moonlight” and “Love in Translation” (both published by St. Martin’s Press), and the original e-book novels “Falling Uphill” and “His Wife and Daughters.” She’s also written a nonfiction e-book, “Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband.” Her short story “Love Right on the Yesterday” is featured in “Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction: An Anthology of Teen Stories” published by Stone Bridge Press, and her essay, “Burning Up” appears in “Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop” published by Soft Skull Press. Wendy holds an MFA in Writing from University of San Francisco (2008) and teaches novel writing for Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio and has taught for USF’s MFA program. She also does private manuscript consulting for novels and memoirs. She is currently working on her fifth novel. Visit her at: and follow her on Twitter: @Wendy_Tokunaga


  1. What a great story, Wendy! So interesting to hear about how you did this by yourself--kudos!! So glad it is a huge success.

  2. I started reading this book yesterday, and I'm loving it! Engaging characters and premise. Impressed with your self-pub. Been tossing that idea around myself. I just need to figure out the HOW !

    Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Love this success story. Congrats.

  4. That is a great cover, Wendy and I enjoyed the excerpt.

  5. I loved this book and am so happy you resurrected it and released it as an ebook. I can't wait to read your fifth novel! Do you know if your ebook sales have increased the sales of Midori and Love in Translation?

    1. Thank you, Susan! As for whether my ebook sales have increased sales of my traditionally pubbed books, that's hard to say. I'd need an advanced degree in voodoo to understand traditional royalty statements and they only come out during the blue moon in months that begin with "R." That's another thing that's great about digital publishing: I can see my current sales and royalty statement any time I want. And it's also easy to understand. :-)