She Did It, So Why Can’t I?: Lawyer/Novelist Helen Wan

Welcome to the latest installment of “He/She Did It, So Why Can’t I?” a series of posts about professional people who wrote novels on the side.

This week I had the incredible opportunity to meet Helen Wan, a first-time novelist who lawyers at Time Inc.  Last September she published The Partner Track about one woman’s experience at a major law firm in NYC and the nuanced ways her status as an Asian-American woman complicates her ambitions.

Helen and Monica

The novel has received a lot of attention from major news outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.  In my opinion this is both because it’s an interesting read and because it provides law firms and others in the corporate world a forum to discuss some touchy, but important, issues.

Anyway, it’s always fascinating to me to hear about an author’s journey from “aspiring writer” to “published author” and Helen’s story is no exception.  Below are some of the reasons why.

It Took Her Over a Decade to Publish

The process from start to publication took Helen 12 years.  On the one hand, she says that there were gaps in time when her manuscript literally collected dust.  On the other hand, she also says that the growth she experienced during those 12 years ultimately helped inform the novel.

How did she do it? Well, she got an agent the old fashion way.  She wrote a query letter, sent it out and endured some rejection before finally landing one.  Interestingly, she said it was finding a publisher that was the hard part.  Many publishers simply didn’t believe there was a market for a story about an Asian American woman trying to make it at a law firm.  My guess is that they realized the errors of their ways while reading the cover story of the Washington Post magazine last weekend.

Her Novel Doesn’t Fit Neatly Into One Genre

Anyone who reads this blog knows that the topic of genres is one that I find intriguing, troublesome, fascinating and confusing.  While I understand the general purpose of categorization, I’m not convinced that publishers go about the process in a way that maximizes the benefit to the author or the reader.

In Helen’s case, the problem was that her novel did not neatly fit into any one genre as the WaPo wrote:

Her main character wasn’t some confused editorial assistant, so the book did not qualify as chick-lit. There was no trip to China, where the protagonist met relatives from her parents’ homeland, so it was not a traditionally ethnic story. The book’s law firm setting gave it elements of a legal novel, but the main character was a Chinese American woman. No one had seen that before…”

I did some digging to see what everyone decided.  On Amazon, the novel appears to be listed in the Asian American category.  In Goodreads, its listed under Adult, Drama, Law, Chick Lit, New York, Contemporary and Novels.  Barnes and Noble tagged it with Legal Matters and Grisham & Co.

Shrug.  All I know is that Helen agrees with me that the whole genre thing is very confusing.  I should have asked her what genre she would place the book in.

Helen’s Agent Was Willing to Work With Her on Her Novel

At some point during this novel-writing process, I had concluded that agents are no longer willing to take the time to turn a good story into a great novel.  Gone were the days when agents were there to provide feedback and insight in addition to pitching your novel to publishers.  Either your novel was near-perfect on submission or it was not published.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn from Helen that I had reached the wrong conclusion.  While there are certainly agents who are focused solely on publishing as quickly as possible, many are willing to work with authors and that was her experience.  She advised that when I’m ready, I add that to my list of requirements in an agent.  I will!

She is Now a Spokeswoman for Diversity and Inclusion in Corporate America

Fiction is a platform that gives you immediate credibility on a topic.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.

We writers are often told that we need platforms to get published; however, Helen is another example that the reverse can also be true: publishing fiction about a non-fiction topic can make you an authority on that non-fiction topic whether that was your intention or not.

In the case of Helen, she is a now a go-to person for HR and diversity departments who want to have a discussion on diversity in the workplace.  It makes sense—clearly these are issues that she has thought about in depth.  That said, from what I understand it was neither her intention or expectation to be placed into this role even though she certainly seems to have embraced it.

I think her experience and others like it is something that writers should be paying attention to as they start thinking about the selling part of the noveling process.  Perhaps they/we need to consider platform from a different perspective.  Instead of blogging about writing—like so many of us writers do—maybe it makes more sense for a crime novelist to blog about crime or a chick-lit novelist to blog about dating or a fantasy novelist to blog about the Game of Thrones, you know?

Because look at Helen—first, she published a book.  Then, the book gave her a platform to discuss an issue that is important to her that had nothing to do with writing or publishing.  This platform enabled her to sell more books than she or her publisher expected.  The sales allowed her to quit her job at Time and become a full-time writer.

Even though to some extent the attention has veered away from “writing” and “noveling,” in the end it is the platform discussing diversity in corporate America that enabled her to live the dream of being a professional, full-time writer.

Anyway, I had a great time meeting Helen and discussing both writing and diversity issues with her.  Til next time—adios!

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