Lauren Ho: Five Things I Learned Writing Last Tang Standing

LAST TANG STANDING is an #ownvoices comedic epistolary novel set in Singapore that explores love, friendship and family through the lens of a 33-year-old Chinese-Malaysian singleton, Andrea Tang, who is determined to climb the corporate ladder in her prestigious law firm, yet must appear to date towards marriage in order to appease her traditional family, especially her mother, who has no vices and would probably live a very long, very adult-children-focussed life.

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1. It’s freaking difficult to name a book for publication, and your “gut instincts, which, despite the inordinate amount of alcohol you’ve imbibed throughout your working adult life have never failed you, ever” will usually be horribly, horribly wrong, which suggests that you might be harbouring some intestinal worms that you must kill, immediately, with a deworming tablet or suffer the consequences (warning: consult your physician before taking medical advice from an author). Oh, and a title isn’t final until your publisher decides it is.

It is done. All i’s are dotted, all t’s crossed. You let out a howl of achievement, pleased with the efficiency and brutality with which you have eviscerated your latest coven of Twitter trolls, may their families disown them for crossing swords with you. Then you turn back to your manuscript, still panting, your gaze now soft, pliant, unlike the way you look at your own family IRL. You open your book with a click and bask in its textual glory. Here you are with your precious one, all proud because you’ve spent X amount of time on it, constantly obsessing over every word and detail to the point where you might even have made love while plotting a scene where someone dies, and now the time has come for you to name the yowling thing you’ve just expelled from your mind canal. What should you call it? Your mind races. You already have a name, but your publisher is not keen on it, and now you’re back to the drawing board. My advice? Steer away from going too big, too boring, too specific, too vague, too personal, too esoteric, and you’ll be fine. Easy peasy. And definitely do not infringe on any existing intellectual property or veer into libelous territory. After all, those pesky, money-grubbing lawyers will come crawling out of the woodwork to make your life a living hell if you let them (spoken as a former legal counsel myself—hey, we can’t all be perfect).

Anyhoo, that’s how my book went from ‘My Mother is Watching Me Date: A True Story” to a much more palatable, memorable, and (bonus) legally unproblematic “Last Tang Standing’.

2. Editing is a shared responsibility, and deadlines are real and will haunt you.

Listen: your precious one is not perfect. And it will never be. Perfection, like a politician who keeps all their campaign promises, does not exist. What is more important is Respecting the Deadline instead of polishing what has already been sold—the sooner you get this in to your thick head, the more likely you will perform to your publisher’s satisfaction, and the more likely you will get another book deal.  As a perfectionist, this was a hard lesson for me to learn, and I’m trying to save you and your editor a bunch of passive-aggressive emails where you negotiate for extensions of deadlines to “try a new idea” and your editor has to pretend to entertain your lunatic ramblings before shooting them down. At a certain point, you just got to let go and let your editor take over. And no, you can’t edit your own book—by now, you and the manuscript have forged unholy soul ties. You can no longer see the wood for the trees. Hand the book over to your acquiring editor. You need to let the professionals handle this next step. Trust me. To illustrate: the manuscript that got me my agent, the novel that very important people you’ve never heard of but are String-Pullers of the Highest Order are calling “ground-breaking”, “the funniest thing I have read since the chapter about reproduction in my high-school biology textbook/the latest coronavirus-related hoax” and “should be made into a movie, ASAP, with Michelle Yeoh and Awkwafina and at least one token white supporting actor in it, stat”, is not the same one that’s being published, not even close. The latter is, like, the fifth or seventh iteration, I don’t know.  I went down a couple of dark rabbit holes. Finally my long-suffering, super generous editor told me that I had to stop “tweaking” it, i.e. straight up revising plot points, and hand it over. Now. Or Else. And that my friend, is when you have to relinquish the reins. Or their lawyers will come after you, #becausecontract. And even then, there will still be mistakes, from time to time. May you never find any of them *vampire hiss*.

And another more specific reason why you should listen to your editor: they know how to avoid the lawyers. While going through the first round of edits, your editor might tell you that, haha, some parts of your manuscript need to be edited to avoid it being a potential liability. For instance, the restaurant where your characters got food poisoning from bad oysters ideally should not be an actual, operating restaurant with the same name and address as the “fictional” one. You might also want to avoid a situation where your “fictional” ass-licking, backstabbing, yoghurt-and-boyfriend-pilfering co-worker somehow shares the same name and general physical description with your living, breathing ex-colleague— you might be asked to maybe, I don’t know, be a little more creative with the embellishment, make sure each character is really a composite character bearing only 100% coincidental resemblance to any person, especially the living.

My point is: Your Editor Is (Almost) Always Right. Obey them.

3. Don’t fight over the cover.

So you think the cover of your historical romance should have a bare-chested he-man astride a glittering unicorn, and you don’t mean ironically. So you think the cover of your supernatural thriller should be a face projectile vomiting into a pit filled with writhing succubi. So you think the cover of your dystopian novella should feature an army of women with buttons for eyes. Don’t hold fast to your dream cover, because chances are it sucks, or at very least, will get you zero sales from your target audience. But my artistic vision!, you whine, oblivious to the fact that your cover has about as much appeal as free childhood vaccines for anti-vaxxers. You are a writer, not an artist (unless you are one of those annoying multi-talented people). Or a marketer. Don’t try to dictate your own cover (sure, you can protest, a little, or give guidelines on what you prefer, but not too many, you don’t want to drown your publisher in details). I may have wanted a woman doing her impression of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, piles of documents burning in the background, for the cover of my comedic novel set in Singapore. Obviously, for so many valid reasons, I was outvoted.

4. Your family/friends will want to know if they’re in it, the energy vampires that they are—well, some.

You must say no. At least on the group chat(s). Then you must pull them aside, one by one, and feed them sweet, sweet lies about which character’s redeeming qualities were inspired by their [insert positive characteristic trait that may be completely made up]. Or make up some bland, pleasant character with interesting, unoffensive physical and character traits that you can pretend is based on whoever feels left out on any given day.  Feel free to liberally massage your family members’ and friends’ egos—after all, aside from being rich source of materials, they would also be your first customers, willingly or through great coercion. And that’s how you preserve the unity of the clans. Because when all else fails, your family and friends will still be there. Hopefully. Except the ones you named the office gossip and the dirty, racist politician after—”as a joke”.

5. You must start mentally preparing yourself for feedback.

People will like your book, and they will tell you. Sometimes they will tell you with highly suggestive GIFs, or straight-up gifts. Or words. You must train yourself to have some self-restraint. I myself am easily susceptible to flattery.  The other day someone slid into my DMs and said they really enjoyed reading my advance reader copy, that it made them laugh so hard they choked, and I immediately, despite being in a happy, committed relationship, had to prevent myself from replying that if they wanted to, I would drive to their house right there and then with my book doused in sensual, sensual essential oils, tie them up and jam the spine hard into their open mouth while they gagged, but safely.  Of course, it had nothing to do with the fact they looked like their parents had made very astute breeding choices, resulting in pleasing physical symmetry and skin that could bounce light back into space. But yes. As I was saying, I am susceptible to flattery.

People will also tell you things they don’t like about your book. To these people you must smile and do nothing, unless they threaten your safety and the authorities must be despatched. Do not engage in verbal warfare, online or offline. Do not become a Twitter troll or IG stalker. Do not enrich another lawyer. Stop it. You are better than them—you are a published author.

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Lauren is a reformed legal counsel who writes funny, moving stories. Hailing from Malaysia, she lived in the United Kingdom, France and Luxembourg before moving with her family to Singapore, where she is ostensibly working on her next novel. LAST TANG STANDING is not based on her mother. At all. Seriously.

Lauren Ho: Twitter | Website

Last Tang Standing: Bookshop | Indiebound | Amazon | B&N

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