In honor of tomorrow’s much anticipated Query Roulette, this Member Monday interview spotlights Helen Wan, who found her agent at a previous Query Roulette! Read about her experience, her new book, and her advice to Query Roulette attendees below.
Helen Wan is a writer whose first novel, tentatively titled THE FIRM OUTING, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2013. She is also Associate General Counsel at Time Inc., where she advises the Lifestyle portfolio of magazines and websites and the branded book division. A graduate of Amherst College and the University of Virginia School of Law, her essays and reviews of fiction have been published in The Washington Post and elsewhere. Helen lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and first joined WNBA-NYC in 2003. You can follow her on Twitter @helenwan1.
Hannah and Erica: Congratulations on the upcoming publication of your new novel, The Firm Outing, with St. Martin’s Press. Can you tell us a little about how you came to write the book?
Helen: Sure. Over a dozen years ago, when I moved to New York to start my first job as a young associate at a big corporate law firm, I quickly discovered that writing (in bits of stolen time, at odd hours and on my rare weekend off) was a welcome respite from the stress of my day job. I also knew exactly what I wanted to write about, which really helps. I knew I wanted to write the story of an outsider in the workplace; what exactly happens when a young, smart woman confronts The Glass Ceiling for the very first time? First I thought I would write a collection of essays, as I’d published a few articles in The Washington Post while in law school. But not surprisingly, nobody was interested in a bunch of essays from an unknown writer who spent her days toiling away at a law firm. Finally I signed up for an “Intro to Fiction Writing” class at the Asian-American Writers Workshop. The pages I wrote for that class became the seed for this novel.
Hanna and Erica: You found your agent at last year’s Query Roulette – can you describe that experience?
Helen: Query Roulette is an amazing opportunity for writers. First of all it’s really rare for an aspiring writer to get to meet and talk one-on-one with up to ten reputable literary agents about your book, but what I truly liked about the set-up was that there’s no pressure to pitch your book – the two of you are simply sitting down together to talk about how to make your query letter work better. This task-focused approach took a lot of the intimidation factor out of it for me, so I could feel much less nervous about the whole process.
Hanna and Erica: Do you have any advice for writers attending this year’s Query Roulette?
Helen: Sure. One, make sure you do all the homework on the agents you’re meeting with. If they represent a book or author you love, tell them so, and even more important, tell them why your book might resonate in a similar way with a similar audience. (It’s really hard to fake this stuff, though, so don’t try. If you’re meeting with an agent who represents primarily science fiction and you’ve never read a science fiction book in your life, there’s no need to try and pretend otherwise. That agent can still have really useful advice for you on your query letter.) Two, it sounds obvious, but make sure the query letter you bring to work on is already the very best query letter you can possibly write on your own. It should not be a first draft. The hook should be front and center, the synopsis concise and cogent. Stick to one page. I know it sounds like a shampoo commercial, but you really do only get one shot at that first impression.
Hannah and Erica: Did you run across any hurdles in finding a publisher for your upcoming novel?
Helen: Ha! How much time do you have? I think there are very, very few authors out there who can honestly answer “No” to this question (and the rest of us don’t like them very much). Over the nearly ten years I worked on it, I definitely had my fair share of hurdles. At one point, I was sleeping horribly. I kept waking up at four-forty (always four-forty, for some reason) to mull over all my rejections from agents. Too commercial. Not commercial enough. Too literary. Not literary enough. And so on. One of my favorites was the agent from a big-time firm who called to tell me she loved my writing, but one of her pet peeves was that talented new writers always feel the need to write about their ethnicity in their first book. What if I rewrote my book but not from the point of view of a minority? Happily, my agent and my editor don’t feel that way!
Hannah and Erica: What is your biggest guilty pleasure book?
Helen: Well, it’s not really a guilty pleasure, but I love, LOVE the entire Harry Potter series. I think, truthfully, that J.K. Rowling can be properly called a genius. I will read anything she writes.
Hannah and Erica: How did you make the transition from attorney to writer?
Helen: Well, I actually haven’t made a transition from attorney to writer. I do both. I’m a lawyer for Time Inc.’s Lifestyle portfolio of magazines and websites. So I get to marry my interests in writing and law, and I get to be around writers, editors, and other creative people all the time at work. It’s a great fit for me.
Hanna and Erica: What is your favorite word?
Helen: Confluence. In the fifth grade, I had a wonderful teacher who told us, “Never, ever, pass up an opportunity to use a marvelous word where just a good one will do. For example, ‘confluence’ is an extremely marvelous word.” It really is, in both sound and meaning. To this day, I never, ever, pass up an opportunity to use it.
For more on Helen, be sure to follow her on twitter @helenwan1!
There are still a few spots open for Query Roulette! Click here to register.