What About My Happy Ending?

Best Seller at Best Wishes!

When the editors asked me to rewrite OUT OF BALANCE yet again, I asked why.  I was told the ending was “unrealistic.”  Today, while reading, “Romancing the Publishing Industry,” in a back issue of WRITER’s DIGEST, Brenda Novak commented that “because of these optimistic endings, romances have, on occasion, been criticized as unrealistic.”  Although my novel, OUT OF BALANCE, isn’t strictly a romance, it does share a happy ending.  That is, it did, until the editors asked for a “realistic” rewrite.

Being the people-pleaser that I am, I complied with the editors wishes and rewrote the ending.  I deleted the “happily-ever-after” and substituted “and we all compromised and tried to get along” ending instead.

Guess what happened?  I received a phone call from the editor-in-chief.  I was at my day job living out the realistic ending of my own life and was unable to take the call.  When I picked up the voicemail on my break, I heard the panic in the editor’s voice.

“Umm…we received your rewrite…and…Um…. there were some SIGNIFICAN T changes. I’m not sure where we are going to go with this.  Please give us a call.  I’ll be in tomorrow and will clear my afternoon to speak with you.”

Uh-oh, I thought.  Not again.  More and more bad news.  Doesn’t anyone receive good news after the publishing contract is signed?

Apparently, those are the exceptions, not the rule.  Or, in my case, maybe I am the exception.

Reluctantly, I rescheduled my afternoon and made the dreaded phone call.

“I’m so glad you called,” my editor said, after it took her a moment to recognize me.  After all, I’m just one horse in a stable full of authors.  “We received your rewrite.  I don’t have the manuscript in front of me, but I noticed it’s full of repetition, spelling errors.”

“Repetition?  Spelling errors?” I lamely echoed.

“Well, yes, you spell words the British way,” she said.

“I do?”  Damn, it must be all those British copies of my favorite authors, Sophie Kinsella and Nick Hornby, I’ve read.  I never can wait to read the American release, which often is months after the books are released in the United Kingdom.  I didn’t know I had started writing like the British.  I guess someone would have noticed if I called the back of a car a boot rather than a trunk, but I hadn’t gone that far.  At least, not in this manuscript.

“So, what are we going to do?” I asked.

“Well, it needs a line edit,” she said.

Didn’t I just have one of those? I thought.  Or are line edits like oil changes and you need to have one every 3,000 words?

“What else?” I asked.

“There are two options,” my editor said.  “Well, no, there are actually three.  One, we could send the manuscript to the evaluator for a second opinion.  Two, we could send the manuscript to a new evaluator and see what that person has to say, but remember, this is fiction, and everyone’s opinion is subjective.  Or we could see what book reviewers have to say.  If the reviews are favorable, we’ll keep you on.  If not, we’ll drop you from the contract on the basis of item four:  failure to deliver an acceptable manuscript.”

Wow.  I can go to the boxing ring with the reigning champ and risk being beaten up again or I can compete against someone else.  Or I can go play with the tigers in the arena and either live or die.  Just what every author dreams of, right?

I considered my badly worn, overly tired, beaten down and battered about manuscript and the original version that was as sparkly and new as an imperfect diamond.  But aren’t all diamonds imperfect?  And people still risk their lives to unearth them, sell them, buy them, and wear them, right?  What if I took my imperfect gem of a novel and found a way to bring it to the public without it being hacked to pieces and taped back together again?  Could I do it?  Would I do it?  Even if it meant giving back an advance and stepping away from the professionals and trusting my gut?

I talked with people I know and trust to assess their opinions.  The overriding opinion was, “Do whatever it takes to keep your contract.  If this book does well, an agent will pick you up and you will never have to worry again.”

I just don’t know.

What I do know is I am done with rewriting the book.  I told the editor that, and I am willing to go it alone if need be.

Let the tigers into the arena.  I will fight with what I have left and see how far it will get me.

Whether I live or die one thing I know for sure:  OUT OF BALANCE will be published.

*Here’s my happy ending:  OUT OF BALANCE was self-published and has out sold my last traditionally published book in the first month!

Mistaken Identity

I had just finished reading an excerpt from Blood Moon Rising at a book store and had invited the audience to ask questions for a few minutes before I started autographing books.  An older woman with brightly dyed red hair and lots of blush raised her hand.  “Are you related to Ben Turpin?” she asked.

“Ben who?” I asked.

“You know, the silent film star,” the woman said, as if everyone knows who Ben Turpin is.

“No, I’m not,” I said.

She squinted in disbelief.  “Are you sure?”

“If I’m related to him, then it’s through my husband.  But as far as I know, our family trees don’t intersect.”

After the Q & A, the guests lined up to have their books autographed.  Another woman asked, “Did you get your performance skills from Ben Turpin?”

Not Ben again.  Maybe I should ignore the comment instead of repeating myself like a broken record.

I kindly smiled and asked the woman if she just wanted my autograph or if she wanted me to address the book to someone in particular.

The woman answered my question, then turned the conversation back to her initial question.  “You know, my great-great aunt Joan dated Ben Turpin before he got married.  Did you know that?  We almost are related!”  She beamed like we shared some psychic connection.

“Oh, really?  That’s wonderful.  But I’m not related to Ben Turpin,” I said, sliding her autographed book across the table to her.

She picked up the book with a look of disappointment on her face.  For a moment, I thought she might regret having the book made out to her aunt now that she realized we were not almost related.  But she smiled bravely at me, tucked the book under her arm, and sashayed toward the register.

By the time the third woman asked if I was related to Ben Turpin, I wanted to scream, “I’m a freaking Chinese-American whose grandparents came from Canton, not the descendant of a famous silent film star!”  But knowing I looked more like my German-American mother than my Chinese-American father, I didn’t want to upset or confuse the audience anymore than I already had by having the last name of “Turpin” so I politely announced, “I’m sorry, but I’m not related to the actor,” and kindly asked who I was signing the book for.

The woman snatched the book off the table and said, “How can you go around making us think you’re famous when you’re not?  I bet I couldn’t get $10.00 for your autograph on eBay.”

I flushed with anger.  “I never said I was famous, ma’am.  And I was unaware my autograph was for sale anywhere.”

The woman arrogantly sniffed before spinning on her heels and stalking out of the book store without purchasing the novel.

Oh, well.  Next.

The woman who approached me next apologized for the previous woman’s behavior as if she was inadvertently to blame.

“Don’t worry about it,” I told the woman.  “It’s just a matter of mistaken identity.  I’m sure it happens to people all the time.  I could have avoided all of this by adopting a one word pen name.  Like Madonna or Cher or Pink.  I could have shortened my first name and gone by Angel.  Just Angel.”

The woman cocked her head to the side, considering the possibility.  “But that wouldn’t have worked,” she said.  “Because then you would have people asking if you really were an angel or if you were a devil in disguise because you write about vampires.”

She’s right, I thought.  I can’t win.  Angel or Turpin, I would always be mistaken for someone else.

Successful Book Signing at Best Wishes

Thank you to everyone who showed up to celebrate the publication of OUT OF BALANCE at Best Wishes in Santa Rosa today.

I enjoyed seeing familiar faces and meeting new readers.  Many thanks to Joan who introduced me to everyone who entered the store and who graciously served refreshments.  Thanks to Carol for hosting the event.  Most of all, thanks to Joanne who called and asked if I would stay late to autograph her book.  It was a pleasure and an honor.  Thanks for being a fan!

Author Angela Lam Turpin at Best Wishes

The Human Factor

When I ordered some supplies for an event, I did not expect the unexpected.  For the past ten years, I have shopped either by phone or online for most of the things I need since it is difficult to travel with my disabled son.  I have relied on good customer service, expedited shipping, and quality packaging.  Most of the time, I am completely satisfied.  When asked to complete a survey regarding the products and services I receive, I usually give the company five stars.

Most recently, however, I’ve noticed a dramatic shift in my online shopping experiences.

I noticed once an order is placed, it is almost impossible to change it.  If you click on the link to track the process of your order, you will find it is stuck in the dreaded limbo of “processing.”  When you call the 1-800, 24-hour customer service number and make your way through the voice mail maze to finally reach a live person, you are told you will have to wait for the order to arrive, repackage it, mail it, and pay for shipping before your credit card, debit card, or PayPal account will be credited with the balance.  Sometimes you only receive store credit.  That means you are stuck shopping with the company again.

Although this process is inconvenient and sometimes downright annoying, it has grown worse with human error.  I thought by phoning in an order that needed to be expedited, I would receive better service than ordering online.  Wrong.  The human who answered the phone sounded like a stilted, electronic, pre-recorded female voice, but it was a real person reading from a script.  Once I asked a question not listed on “The Top 10 Questions Most Asked by Potential Customers,” the person stuttered and mumbled before putting me on hold.  After listening to Muzak for a while, I was transferred to “Patty” who would complete my order.  Apparently Patty was a supervisor who had graduated from script-reading to customer relations expert through a series of training seminars delivered in a stuffy conference room by a traveling corporate coach.  Patty said if I paid an extra $16.52, I would receive a tracking number from UPS, which would guarantee I would receive the supplies I needed before my event.  Reluctantly, I paid for the extra shipping costs.  When the tracking number was not emailed to me, I called again and received the number from Patty who reassured me the supplies would arrive within three business days.

On the third business day, I received a package that was ridiculously small for what I ordered.   When I opened it up, I discovered only one out of 20 items had been shipped.  I had only two days left before I needed my supplies.  Two days!  I had already paid $16.52 for three day shipping for one item that weighed only a few ounces.  How much more would I be charged for two day shipping for something that weighed over ten pounds?

When I called Patty, she explained I should have received my entire order.  After arguing with her for ten minutes, she finally found something in the company’s computer database that showed only one item had shipped.  Could she get the other items to me on time without an extra shipping charge?  Patty said she would research it and call me back within 24 hours.  She took down all of my contact information, including phone numbers of family and friends so she would be able to call me back anytime during the next 24 hours.

She never called.

At the 23rd hour, I placed a call and received Patty’s voice mail.  I left a message with her and phoned back to speak with a live person.  But the 24 hour customer service number rolled over into general voice mail.  When I pressed zero to reach an operator, the message looped back to the general delivery mailbox.  I left another, more irate message and waited.  And waited.  And waited.

No one returned my call.  The weekend passed.  The event was canceled.  My reputation was damaged.

I wrote a letter to Patty alerting her to the fact I would be filing a formal complaint with the CEO of the company and the Better Business Bureau.  Within 20 minutes, Patty called to say she had an email confirmation from the shipping company that I had received the supplies before the event.  I told Patty I had received nothing.  Immediately after my telephone conversation with Patty, the UPS man delivered the package two days too late.

Now I am trying to resolve my dispute with the company as best as I can.  I have asked, at the very least, to be credited $16.52 for the shipping that should have delivered my products on time.  At the most, I would like to be paid damages for the canceled event that cost exponentially more than the postage.  But that might be asking for too much.  After all, I am dealing with the human factor, not a pre-determined computerized dispute resolution script that hands out justice impartially.

Sophisticated Tolerance

After receiving a positive review for Out of Balance, I was a bit taken aback when I read the email from one of the top five book reviewers in the country saying she stopped reading after page 7 when the narrator says, “…and surely the working population of the United States would plunge as quickly as the illegal immigrant population rises.  We would become a nation of handouts until there was nothing to handout.”  She said the comment by the narrator was “racist and unsophisticated” and she was “no longer interested” in anything the narrator had to say.

Was the narrator a racist?  Hmm.  Let me see.  The narrator’s best friend is from India.  The narrator’s daughter’s best friend is biracial.  The only Anglo-Saxon people in the book are the narrator’s husband and the narrator’s boss, both of whom are antagonists.  So, tell me, how can the narrator be racist?

With one comment, the book reviewer told me more about who she is than what she thought of the narrator.  The book reviewer assumes “illegal immigrant population” refers to one particular race.  What race is that?  She did not say, and I will refrain from jumping to conclusions.

Now, let’s move onto the next comment about the narrator being “unsophisticated.”  Okay, I agree with that.  But I do not judge unsophisticated people harshly.  Some unsophisticated people are ingénues, wide-eyed and innocent in the Garden of Milton’s Paradise Lost, not uncouth and vulgar like the coal miners in Zola’s Germinal.   Furthermore, the inspiration for my narrator came from Henry James’ Daisy Miller.  I wanted to create a twenty-first century woman caught up in the mundane and exposed to the harsh realities of the wider world through her employment at a bank during the nation’s most recent financial crisis.  If the book reviewer had the courage (and the stomach) to read past page 7, she would have discovered the veil is lifted from the ingénue as the drama unfolds.

Again, the book reviewer revealed more about herself than she did about her opinion of Out of Balance.  I know she considers herself sophisticated.  Impressive, huh?

It’s too bad the book reviewer was so offended she did not bother to read the punch line a couple of sentences later when the narrator comments about corporate welfare in the form of the bank bailouts, which is the true focus of the novel—not racist, unsophisticated women.

If that was not enough, the book reviewer finished her email to me with the comment that she was going to “destroy” the book.

Wow.  That sounds like a plot.  Maybe the book reviewer should write novels, not book reviews.  I mean, how about that for a cliff hanger?  I’m really tempted to email her back and ask how she plans to destroy the book.  Will she toss it into the recycling bin?  Tear it page by page and feed it to a shredder?  Or burn it in a backyard bonfire?

Hmm.   Burn the book?  Isn’t that what happens in Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury?  That’s a fictional story about a world where books are banned and burned.  Everything has to be censored by the government and spoon-fed to the masses, kind of like Mao’s reign in China where the Communist agenda infiltrated the population through the educational system.

But who am I to speculate?

Obviously, I failed as a writer if I was unable to create a modern Daisy Miller with my narrator.  And if the narrator came across as a racist, then I guess I did not deepen her friendship with the East Indian woman who is her best friend or develop the daughter’s biracial best friend into a three-dimensional character.  That, I will admit, is solely my fault.

But are those faults enough to prevent a professional book reviewer from reading beyond page 7?

Maybe.  Maybe not.  Do professional movie reviewers walk out shortly after the first scene of a debut movie?  I don’t know.

All I do know is the book reviewer was so emotionally distraught by the narrator’s comment that she refused to read beyond page 7.  That’s powerful.  For the opposite of love is not hate:  it is apathy.  To be able to write well enough to spark deep-seated emotions in a book reviewer who analyzes the written word for a living is mind-blowing.  To touch upon a person’s socio-economic and political beliefs to the point of arousing an onerous rage is a backhanded compliment.  Some people write to feel; other people read to feel.  Anyone can report facts, but not everyone can stir up emotions.

Besides, the cliché is that any publicity is better than no publicity.  I might not be as lucky as the irate writer who posted profanity on a respected book reviewer’s blog and initiated a wildfire of interest in her poorly reviewed novel, spiking sales from curious readers eager to uncover why the book received so much controversy, but I might be able to get one hesitant reader to order the book from my website or from their local bookstore and sit down and read at least to page 7 to formulate an opinion, whether it is good or bad.  If this national book reviewer’s response is any indication, the response won’t be indifferent.

 

The Fight

Writing with a family is not easy.  Sometimes it is downright uncomfortable and combative.

Before I decided enough was enough and I would self-publish again, I was caught in a web of rewrites to appease the editorial board.  The time it took encroached upon family time.  In fact, whenever I was not working or sleeping, I was writing to meet the deadline.

My husband confronted me shortly after the last rewrite.  “What does your writing give to us, other than a book only one of us can read?” he demanded.

I was flabbergasted.

Sure, the advance didn’t generate enough income to quit my day job, but I thought it meant something.  When I reminded my husband of the work-for-hire I did a year ago to keep us afloat, he snapped back, “I don’t mean financial.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

He looked me in the eyes and said, “When I take the family out to dinner, I always say, ‘Thank you for letting me work.’ “

Okay.  He wanted recognition, gratitude, and maybe a token of appreciation.

I haven’t done that with writing.  Sure, I paid for food and utilities with writing income, but I never took the family out to dinner to formally thank them.

Maybe I was taking my family for granted.  Or taking the fruits of my labor for granted.  Either way, I was making the ones I love most feel neglected.

I didn’t know what to say other than a pathetic “sorry.”

Later, I asked my daughter what my writing had given to her.  She thought a long, hard time before echoing my husband’s sentiments.  “It’s just something you do.  You sit in front of the computer and type.  There’s nothing in it for me.”

Wow.  I was deeply hurt.  Wasn’t this the same little girl who wrote fanciful stories for her teacher that echoed the same themes I was exploring in my own writing?  Wasn’t this the same little girl who said she loved to read just like her mommy?  Now, it meant absolutely nothing.

I was robbing my family by taking care of my desire to write.

Only my son didn’t have an opinion, but that’s only because he can’t talk.

I didn’t understand what everyone was so angry about.  I didn’t understand their frustration.

But I’ve failed them.  That much I do know.

Maybe if I was wildly successful they would feel differently.  After all, my husband met me when I was the youngest byline reporter for the Mercury News.  He was with me when I was inducted into the Youth Hall of Fame.  He read my English teacher’s note in my high school yearbook that began, “To the future Pulitzer Prize winner.”  No wonder he expected best seller lists and six-figure advances.

During the early years of our marriage, he was patient.  But when I turned down a six-figure advance to preserve my father’s dignity, my husband’s patience turned to wrath.  I cared more for my family of origin’s honor than I did for my family of creation’s successful livelihood.  (See the November 2008 issue of The Writer, “When Not to Publish”).

Now that I had a full-time job outside of writing, I figured why not write for fun?  After all, if it’s just for my pleasure, it doesn’t have to turn a profit, right?

Apparently the answer is NO.

If my hobby was gardening, my husband would not expect me to win Best of Show at the fair each year, would he?  Maybe, if I had won once before.

If my hobby was sewing, my husband would not expect me to design a fashion line, would he?  Maybe, if I entered one of my creations into a contest and the creation ended up on the runway.

So, if I hadn’t already been a successful, published writer in my teens, my husband would not expect me to earn a living writing, would he?  Of course, not.  But the reality is I was a successful, published writer before I even graduated from high school.  My first paycheck came in the mail for a poem I sold when I was fifteen.  By the time I was seventeen, I was working from three to midnight at the Mercury News during the week and nine to five every other weekend.  If I hadn’t had senioritis and questioned the meaning behind my overachievement, I would have probably fulfilled all of my husband’s expectations.  But I wanted something more than money, honors, and accolades.  I wanted a family.  I wanted a well-rounded life.  I did not want to live to write and write to live.  I wanted to pick the topics of my articles and essays and write whenever I had the time, not work on assignments under impossibly tight deadlines.  I wanted to come home to a family, not an empty house.  I wanted to enjoy each moment, not rush around and try to record it for a paycheck.

That’s why I left the Mercury News.  That’s why I left the success I had and started pursuing something else.

At the time, it seemed like the right decision.  Now, at midlife, I don’t know.  The family I wanted doesn’t understand that although I veered from the path of success a long time ago, I never wavered from my love and dedication to the written word.  I will honor that till my death.  After all, in the beginning, there was only the Word.  God created the Universe with His words.  By writing, I am honoring God in my own small way.

That is something my family may never understand or accept.  They may continue to see my pursuit of writing as a selfish act, robbing them of precious resources that could be better spent on them.  But when I get an email or a phone call or a letter forwarded from the publisher from a reader who says, “Reading this changed my life,” I cannot help but believe this is what I was put on the earth to do, and whatever sacrifice I make is worth it.

Dumb Blonds and Stupid Jocks

In creating characters for Out of Balance, I had to move beyond stereotypes to create believable people readers would identify with and care about.

Beverly Mael, the protagonist, could have been just another Marilyn Monroe look-alike.  Her husband, Eric Mael, could have been nothing more than a man with muscles and no brain.  Frank, the President and CEO of Vine Valley Bank, could have been nothing more than a predatory old man in a position of power.

How did I move beyond these stereotypes and create believable people?

I started adding contradictory traits to add another dimension to the stereotype.  For example, Beverly is not only stunningly beautiful; she is good at math.  I show through her actions—her ability to explain multiplication to her eight-year-old daughter and her ability to find a reconciliation problem in the bank’s general ledger—that she excels at a skill that does not involve her physical appearance.  The dumb blond stereotype is shattered.

With Eric, I distributed his interests to cover both the physical and the mental.  His passion for knowledge equals his passion for weight training.  The equality of his interests eliminates the stupid jock syndrome he could have, otherwise, fallen into.

As for Frank, well, he was a conundrum from the start.  Sure, he was powerful.  Yes, he was older.  But was he predatory?  Definitely not.  But a good portion of the plot revolves around exactly who Frank is and what his true intentions are, so how would I develop his character without ruining the plot?

I used the same technique of adding contradictory personality traits to flesh-out his personality.  He calls women, “Babe,” but does not ogle them like other men in the book do.  He commands respect by his position, but he also invites others into the circle of power.  Although he dotes on those less empowered, the reasons for his attentions are undisclosed.  They remain mysteries to be unraveled by the plot.  Therefore, while his character is solidly built by contradictory traits, his motivations remain the guiding force behind the plot.

Contradictory traits equally balanced will consistently provide the depth needed to rise beyond stereotypes.

Now start looking for those traits in people you know—and start busting those stereotypes.

After the Brainstorm: Failed First Drafts

The first drafts of Out of Balance read like script tryouts.

Take 1, Scene 1

We meet the first Saturday of the month at the Tea Room for brunch. It is the one day each month we can count on for ourselves without the demands of work, children, husbands, boyfriends or extended family members.

I arrive first, toting my winter bag full of gifts: a black scarf with looping cursive letters spelling Barbie for Vi, an accounting software program specifically designed to kept track of multilevel marketing for Lisa, and after brunch my husband Derrick and my three-year-old daughter Zenith will go out together to purchase a gift for me—a new paperback romance.

Take 2, Scene 1:

I work at a small community bank called New Horizon Bank. We started as a savings and loan before turning into a commercial bank with the highest rating in Northern California. I am the new hire in loan operations, trying to learn everything I can as quickly as I can.

Take 3, Scene 1:

“Glamour is in the eyes of the beholder,” Lisa Tran.

Everyone thinks she is stupid because she is pretty. People do not believe her when she tells them she works for the chief financial officer at Vine Valley Bank. When she shows them her name badge, people exclaim, “Oh, you’re a teller!” in the same way people say, “Oh, you’re a game show hostess” to the likes of Vanna White.

Take 4, Scene 1:

Sure, I look like a million bucks but I only cost $20. Ask my husband. That’s how much it cost for us to go on a date last night—babysitter $10, ice cream cones $7, parking $3 –one hour together without the world at our throats—priceless.

After all of these attempts, I re-evaluated what I was trying to accomplish. I liked the idea of a Mother’s Group in Take 1 but it felt a little too much like a mother’s version of Sex and the City. Take 2 sounded autobiographical and boring. Take 3 expressed a theme I wanted to pursue in the book, but it sounded too abstract and sociological. Although Take 4 achieved the chatty, amicable, loving and funny voice I wanted to carry the novel, the delivery was an obvious parody of the famous VISA commercials and I wanted something that was uniquely mine.

Flipping through several more pages of my notebook, I discovered the key—beginning the novel by introducing the antagonist.

Buy now

The Idea

Out of Balance, a wacky story about a former housewife turned executive assistant, started out as a jumble of notes taken during the first few weeks of my first full-time job working for a corporation. Every day I came home from work feeling worse than I have ever felt. Not knowing how I would survive another day, my husband wisely suggested I start a journal detailing all the terrible events that happened to me each day. “If you can make the events funny, then you can turn your tears into laughter,” he said.

Brainstorming

Brainstorming Out of Balance was an interesting process. Normally I begin a book with a single sentence, an idea, or a character. This time, however, I began with a notebook full of odd events from working in a corporate world. Everything from how to work the copier to spilling coffee in the break room to masking a yawn as a facial tick was wedged into a 100 page spiral bound notebook.

Here’s a sneak-peek at uncensored brainstorming notes:

Mr. Eventually
the Pit
the creatives
“crazy busy” instead of crazy about you
striking out in the most embarrassing aspect
don’t assume because I have a “passion” and “children” that I am not ambitious or take my job seriously

That random list led to a brief childhood memory:

I saw the movie, Working Nine-to-Five, when I was about my daughter’s age. I never wanted a job like that. It was too much time, too much drama, too much stress. I valued my time much more than I valued money. I remember the hatred the women had for their boss, the hours spent drinking and crying and complaining after hours, and the insane plots to retaliate against office politics. Not to mention the lack of fulfilling male-female relationships or the warmth and support of family. I just didn’t want any of that.

And eventually the beginnings of a plot:

Vine Valley Bank going to take down World Bank before FDIC seizes them. The narrator is caught in the middle. She needs a job to survive. Think corporate espionage meets The Desperate Housewives.