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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.

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What makes Query Roulette so amazing? Our witty New York Bookwoman editor, Rhona Whitty, explains.


Go in Peace, and Pitch No More

If Temple Grandin were asked to design a humane format for writers to meet agents, she’d come up with WNBA’s Query Roulette. I’m not kidding. Just because writers have become inured to the humiliation of having to pitch their complex novels to complete strangers in under thirty seconds, doesn’t make it right.

Photo Cred: Al Hirschfeld

There are lots of theories as to how writers were first maneuvered into pitching their novels. Culturally accepted today, if not expected, it is of course counter-intuitive to the whole business of writing. Although like most creation myths, those seeking to explain this tradition often involve goldfish, the most convincing version I’ve ever heard has nothing to do with fish, but is closely connected to the infamous Algonquin Round Table.

Back in 1925, a few editors and literary agents, Jim, Bob, Bill and Max, tried to start their own Round Table at the Algonquin, but the hotel would only give them a tiny square table next to the kitchen; not only severely limiting their numbers, but also of course, their social cachet. One afternoon, perfectly ordinary in all other respects, three of them sat there drinking scotch, waiting for Max to arrive. They filled their time glowering at the smoke circles Dorothy Parker puffed like benedictions in their direction. When Max showed up, his head was swathed in bandages, and both eyes were blackened.

“Jeez! What the hell happened to you?”

“A writer.” Max said.

“A writer did that to you?”

“I was standing inside the door of the office when a two hundred thousand worder was lobbed over the transom.”

“Had one drop on my foot last week.” Jim said. “Only a short story, or I’d be walking with a limp for the rest of my life. I still have a bruise.”

“I’m getting out.” Max slumped into his chair. He pretended not to notice Dorothy and her vicious minions laughing at his appearance.

“No!” Jim cried. “Not you!”

“You’re the best goddamn editor this town has ever seen, Max!” Bill had tears in his eyes.

“Look at me, would’ya!” Max cried. . . literally. “Just look what those bastards did to me!”

There was silence for a few moments, and then Jim spoke, “Maybe Max has a point. Maybe it’s time to get out of the business altogether.  I have a wife and three-”

“The hell with that!” Bob slapped the table, spilling their drinks. “I’m not quitting!”

“But how can we protect ourselves?” Jim had taken a photo of his kids out of his wallet, and was considering it thoughtfully.

“Trust me. There is a way they can never hurt us again.” Bob gave them a sly smile, and tapped the side of his nose.

“They’re writers!” Max said. “They use paper! Lots and lots of it. I swear to God, I thought I’d taken a bullet when that thing fell on me!”

“I say from now on we make them tell us their damn stories. No more paper.” Bob said.

“How long do you think it would take Fitzgerald to explain The Beautiful and the Damned?” Bill said.

Max groaned, and called for a waiter who ignored him in favor of the writers at the round table.

“You know what they do to writers out in Hollywood? They make them pitch their stories. ‘Tramp with baggy trousers goes to the Yukon to find gold. Eats boots and finds love.’“ Bob grinned at them. “That gentlemen, is Chaplin’s latest flick in one sentence.”

“Sounds cruel, even if they are writers.” Jim said.

“They’ll never go for it.” Bill shook his head.

“If we all stick together, what choice do they have?” Bob told them.

So uproariously and uncharacteristically merry were the men, that the conversation petered out at the round table as the writers strained to hear what they were talking about, but the snippets they did catch made no sense:

“How about the ‘Paternoster of Pain?’”

“How about “Babble On?’”

“How about. . .’The Elevator Pitch?’”

“What the hell is an ‘elevator pitch?’” Alexander Woollcott asked the writers at the round table.

“Bring those boys a bottle of scotch on us.” Dorothy drawled to a waiter. “They look like they need it.”

The Algonquin Square Table was abandoned soon after that, but the idea of making writers pitch their books gathered momentum, and the agents and editors have had the last laugh.  Until now. . .

Register for Query Roulette, which is next Tuesday, February 28th, and take back the written word! Do it for Dorothy. Do it for all those writers who were subjected to the ‘Paternoster of Pain’ for the past ninety years. Do it for the generation of writers to come.

Most of all though, do it for yourself. Click here to register.

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We’re so excited to reveal our amazing line up of agents for Query Roulette! Click on the links below for more information on individual agents.

Regina Brooks - Serendipity Literary Agency

Matthew Elblonk - DeFiore and Co. Author Services

Linda Epstein - Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency

David Forrer - Inkwell Management

Laura Langlie - Laura Langlie Agency

Anna Olswanger - Liza Dawson Associates

Katherine Sands - Sarah Jane Freymann Lit. Agency

Jesseca Salky - HSG Literary Agency

Brooks Sherman - Fine Print Literary Agency

Meg Thompson - Einstein Thompson Agency

Registration is currently open to members in good standing and will be open to the public on February 16. Click here to register now!

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Query Roulette 2012  

Like speed dating for agents and writers!
No pitching required!
(Names of participating agents will be released soon.)
Tuesday, February 28, 6:30 – 8:30
In Good Company, 16 West 23rd Street, 4th Floor, NYC
Helen Wan met her agent at last year Query Roulette!
Read about her book deal in Publishers Weekly!*

 

Here’s how it works:

~ You select and pay for a ten minute meeting with the agent(s)of your choice.

~ We email you the time of your scheduled appointment(s).
~ You arrive on time, with your query letter. The agent(s) will give you feedback on your query, and if s/he is interested in your project, you both take it from there. (We suggest you bring the first ten pages of your manuscript with you.)
~ You may book as many ten minute sessions as you wish. The fees are on a sliding scale, so the more you book, the cheaper it will be.

~ WNBA members receive a 20% discount, and will have at least one week to book their appointments before non-members. To find out how to take advantage of this and other member benefits, please go to our website for information on becoming a member.

Query Roulette Fee Scale

* WNBA-NYC cannot guarantee you will find representation for your project(s) at Query Roulette.

Questions on Query Roulette: query@wnba-nyc.org

Questions on WNBA Membership: membership@wnba-nyc.org

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