Cheryl Strayed Retreat and The Story I Had to Tell

A couple of weeks ago I went on a writer’s retreat taught by Wild author Cheryl Strayed called the “The Story You Have to Tell.”  I would tell you where it was, but I don’t want you to hate me.

Instead, I’ll tell you about Cheryl.  Cheryl Strayed grew up in an abusive household, lost her mother at age 22, spiraled in her grief by having sex with strangers and using heroin and told the world all about it.  She’s written essays and books about the worst moments of her life—not because they happened, she said, but because she’s a writer.  Doing so turned her into an excellent writer, a compassionate human being, and someone whose fans approach her regularly to tell her the worst things that ever happened to them (something I saw happen at least once a day).

I think a lot of people were drawn to the retreat as a healing mechanism for something they were going through; however, I wouldn’t say that it was a depressing experience.  Cheryl taught for 3 hours a day, we worked on writing prompts, shared work with others and ate gluten-free, mostly vegan food together.  The whole thing just felt very honest.  Everyone was really open in their writing and in general.  Although I was motivated to attend because I think her essays The Love of My Life, and Heroin/e are perfect examples of writing, I think this environment of vulnerability and honesty did ultimately teach me something about writing.

First, I internalized the power of vulnerability, especially for novice writers.   When you haven’t had the training, experience, or mastered the technical skills, that’s basically the only real tool you have to create something great.  Second, I think I write a lot from my head, which seemed separate from writing from my heart.  Now I think the best way to go is to write from your heart but with what Cheryl described as a “literary consciousness.”  Basically being conscious of the point of what you’re writing and making it make sense.  I think that’s the money combo.

So in honor of today’s post on openness, I will tell you about the story I had to tell when I was writing “Lessons from Robin.”

It all started three years ago when my ex-boyfriend and I broke up.  Not only was I reeling with emotions, but I found myself with a lot of free time on my hands.  That ish was crazy. I couldn’t believe that it happened and I couldn’t believe how traumatizing the experience was.  Add to that that one of my close friends in D.C. lost a parent a few weeks earlier, the other drifted away for other reasons (that could be its own novel), and everyone else was in another city, I felt like I was going through the whole thing alone.

I had a story in me, but it wasn’t really about love or grief or the dude.  It was about how I was a completely different person when I left that relationship than when I entered it.  That experience changed me, and I didn’t know what to make of that.  So there was a loss of a boyfriend, a friend, and also myself.  I never knew that a relationship could have that kind of effect on someone, so I wrote a story about that.

It’s still not an autobiographical story!  The characters aren’t me or people I know, but the core of it comes from that experience.

Do you have a story you have to tell?


The retreat site.

cheryl strayed

Me and Cheryl.  I suppose I’m cheesing a little too hard…


Submission Material Feedback and How I Met This Year’s Newbery Medal Winner

Man oh man, lots has been going on.

Let’s Talk About the Agent Bootcamp

I got comments back on my query letter, synopsis and 9 pages of my manuscript. Much like every other time I’ve invested (money) in my writing, I do not regret it. It was incredibly helpful. In case you missed it, I participated in an Agent One on One Bootcamp to get some of my submission materials reviewed.

First, the agent said she really liked my synopsis and said it was the best she read in the Bootcamp! Woohoo! Of course the point of these programs is constructive criticism, but trust me, I will take any confidence booster I can get. This process is long and subjective and full of unknowns, so I was really happy when she said that. I even wrote a post about how to write a Synopsis for The Write Practice. 🙂

Then, she gave me some tips on my query letter. Generally, she said it was too long and detailed (mind you, the whole thing was four paragraphs), but she liked the bio. In my query, I mentioned that the manuscript is written in a format similar to Terry McMillan’s Disappearing Acts. So she replaced my summary with the blurb from that book and told me to use that as a guide. Doing so showed me that my summary in the query should be more about showing the tension between the characters than explaining exactly what happens. I’ve read a million things about query letters, but something about that comment made me finally get it.

How do I know I got it? Because one agent who I sent only the query (no sample pages or synopsis) asked for my entire manuscript. And this was straight from the slush pile. A couple of agents have read up to 100 pages of my manuscript, but I had met all of them in advance (at a writer’s retreat). I just cold called this lady and she responded based solely on this one letter. (For those of you who don’t know, the process usually consists of a request for a few chapters or the first 50 pages, and then a request for the full thing.) So now I feel pretty confident in my query, thank goodness.

Finally, she gave me some tips on my first pages, which was helpful because no one had read them before. I’ve re-written those things so many times now, I can’t even tell you what draft it is. This time I made sure there was some action. Seems obvious, but it’s much easier said than done—I think I got it though. (Ask me again in a month.)  Anyway, she said my manuscript was too contemporary for her, but recommended that I pitch one of her colleagues and if she passed, to try her again. 😀

About That Newbery Medal Winner…

Yeah, about that.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to this mini writer’s retreat in Bowie, Maryland. Basically it was just a bunch of local writers writing in the basement of Marita Golden—who has published over a dozen books—for 5 hours. It was a great, inspiring setting with about 6 or so writers and at the end we discussed what we were working on. One of the people I met was a guy named Kwame Alexander. He seemed like he knew he what he was doing, but honestly, so did everyone else in that room.

Little did I know that two days later he would win the NEWBERY MEDAL aka the most prestigious award for American literature for children!  I’M SERIOUS. To give you an idea, past winners and honorees include Beverly Clearly, E.B. White (for Charlotte’s Webb), Lois Lowry (The Giver), Fred Gipson (Old Yeller).

I’m so proud of him, and I would be even if I hadn’t met him. It should not be lost on any of the readers of this blog how important it is to have an African American winner of this award (and he’s D.C. based!). Children and adults all over the country (world?) will be reading this book (maybe even assigned it in school), and that’s amazing for readers and writers everywhere. I’m so happy!!

Kwame’s book is called The Crossover. Buy it!!

The Crossover











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!