EP10: Robin Stevens | NaNoWriMo Success Story
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In this episode you will discover…
- How to get through that first draft and accept that all first drafts are horrible.
- How you can take that first draft and make it awesome.
- The importance of an elevator pitch.
- The thing that happens to all first drafts at 33,000 words!
- How to use word count to structure your writing day.
- How to use Pinterest for your research.
- Scrivener – The Official Writing App of the Bestseller Experiment
Links featured in today’s show:
- Bestseller Experiment’s Vault of Gold. Sign up to get your free Writer’s ebook
- Question Mark: Have a question you want answered on the show? Click here.
EPISODE TRANSCRIPT (HIGHLIGHTS)
Robin Stevens is the author of the Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries books, a middle grade series following schoolgirl detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong in a 1930s English boarding school with an extremely high mortality rate. Robin is a multiple award-winning author, whose books are available worldwide and translated in numerous languages, but few know that Robin started out on her bestselling adventure with NaNoWriMo.
What part did NaNoWriMo play in Robin’s career?
I didn’t know it was kick-starting my career at the time. It was 2010, and I had just left university, I always knew I wanted to write a book, I wanted to be an author, but I had never actually sat down and finished a novel as an adult, and I heard about NaNoWriMo and I thought that I should give it a go. On about the 29th October, I went to a cafe, wrote down the title, wrote down the victim, the murderer, and then went for it on the first of November.
I wrote a horrible first draft over that month. It didn’t actually end. It just sort-of stopped at 50,025 words, because I was just sick of it.
Then I came back to it the next spring, and I thought there might actually be something to it, almost completely re-wrote the whole book, gave it an ending, re-wrote it again. In 2013 I sent it out to agents, I found one — Gemma Cooper — she sold it to what was then Random House and it come out in 2014.
Did she ever dream of getting published?
I think I didn’t understand what being published was, or what an author was as a career. I knew I loved storytelling, I loved writing, I loved reading and I definitely wanted to do that as an adult — in a really sort-of dim way, when I was a child — and then I grew-up and learnt more about books and really started thinking about that as a career path. It did seem like a dream, it did seem impossible, so I wrote the book really on a whim as something I would want to read, not really for anyone.
I thought it could never happen. Who has ever read a book where children solve murders? I couldn’t think of any other book that existed like that. So I went a bit crazy and wrote this book and I remember wondering who it was for, showing it to my mother and asking ‘What is this book? Have I written a children’s book? Have I written an adult book?’ and it wasn’t until I found my agent and she said to me, ‘Let’s make this into a book for children,’ that it clicked in my head and I realised who I was writing for.
What made her persevere after that first terrible NaNoWriMo draft?
I’d been to boarding school, and I found it to be a little bit like Enid Blyton, but also quite a lot not like Enid Blyton, and I was always very interested in the distance between reality and the book world that I had read about. The idea of setting a book in a boarding school as something that I had wanted to do for a long time, it was percolating in my head, so this was a book that I had meant to write for a long time.
NaNoWriMo was just the impetus for me to sit down and do it, so yes it was my first try, but I had been writing little bits of things for a long time, and those were my practices, and this was the moment where I sat down and said, ‘Let’s make this real.’
On the importance of an elevator pitch:
Getting the original idea for my books was like when you get a dart, throw it at the ceiling and it sticks. You couldn’t have done it on purpose, but you just randomly did it. If I had been thinking about it now, I would be ‘That’s a brilliant idea!’ but at the time I just did it. Now I look back and think ‘Well done!’ After I wrote the book, I worked in publishing for a while, and I learnt that the thing you really should do is have an elevator pitch for your book. Have one sentence that sums up the plot and the idea to get the other person listening to go ‘Oh!’ And saying Agatha Christie meets Enid Blyton is pretty much what my elevator pitch would have been.
Robin’s tips for getting through NaNoWriMo:
The first tip is to be just really hard on yourself. Make yourself write those 1667 words per day. Just do it. I remember when I did it I rounded up to 1670, because I wanted to be three words ahead of my goal every day.
I learned to be really rigorous with myself, even on the days when I didn’t know what I was doing.
I remember because I really hadn’t planned that much — and I would advise anybody writing NaNoWriMo to at least have a basic idea of where you’re going — which I really did not, and I didn’t have time for things like making up people’s names. I was also working at Blackwells booksellers full-time, I was coming home late at night and writing, exhausted and confused. Everybody didn’t have names, just question marks. Daisy and Hazel would just go and talk to a suspect ‘Question mark’ and turn to their friend ‘Question mark’, so I would say force it through.
Don’t worry about fancy details, just get that plot down, get the words down, and then you can go back and change them.
I would also say that it’s really important to remember that all first drafts are awful. You’re not writing beautiful prose. I recently wrote the first draft of my sixth book, and about halfway through I just realised that I couldn’t write books, I was a horrible author, I couldn’t plot, I was basically going to be fired from my job.
I emailed a friend, who’s also a writer, and she asked, ‘How many words are you at? Are you at thirty-three thousand words?’ I said, yes I am. She said, ‘That’s the moment when everybody wants to give up, everybody cries and despairs and says that they just can’t do it.’
If you just keep writing, just keep putting words on the page, then you will somehow just get through the middle bit to the exciting bit at the end that you’ve always wanted to write. As soon as she told me that, I thought back and I realised every single time it’s about thirty-three thousand words that you want to give up, and I think that’s where people do give up, but my tip would be just keep writing words, and you can get to the end, and you can make it better.
The importance of finishing:
For anyone doing NaNoWriMo, I wouldn’t recommend not finishing your book! I did know where I was going, I think I didn’t finish it because I did have a really clear idea of who the murderer was going to be, how they would unmask them, but I was just exhausted. I had never written a mystery novel, I had read them a lot, but I didn’t really understand how to actually go about writing one. By going back to the book in the spring and finishing it I was able to make a tighter middle and then get to the end in a much more triumphant way. Endings are hard, as any author will tell you, and I was perhaps slightly nervous about doing it the first time around, feeling so stressed at the end of November.
I usually have quite a clear idea of the denouement scene where they unmask the murderer and it’s really exciting and I just wanted to get to it and I can never be bothered with the middle bit, with the walking around and investigating it. Every single time my editor reads the first draft and says ‘Could they find a few more clues? Could they actually go and investigate the suspects instead of just sitting there and talking to each other?’ And, of course, the lightbulb switches on and I go, ‘Surely they should!’ and the second draft is a lot more active.
Thank goodness for my editor. Editors are incredible human beings.
Does Robin present an outline to her editor before the first draft?
As they’re murder mysteries I want my editor to be my first reader, to check and see if she can get the mystery, or if she is confused or fooled. Actually, I don’t want her confused. I want that correct balance of not being sure, but being almost there. What I will do is give her a character list of all of the people who are going to be in the book, not telling her who the murderer and the victim are and then, inevitably, she comes back and says there are too many characters here, and so I cut them out. She is somebody who always helps me hone and tighten it.
The importance of rewrites:
When I visit schools, I tell the kids I do maybe five drafts per book and their mouths drop open. The first draft is the horrible NaNoWriMo draft, where nobody has a name and the plot doesn’t make any sense. Then my editor will look at it and suggest a lot of really big, broad changes, and I’ll go back in and rewrite perhaps half of the words. It’s always massive. And then the third, fourth and fifth draft are getting tighter and tighter. Fewer things are changing each time. My books wouldn’t be as good as they were if I stopped at the second draft, especially if I stopped at the first draft. I need those rewrites to make the book what the reader will read.
The first draft is like making a skeleton, you’re putting the bones together, and you’re not doing it quite right, some of the bones are facing the wrong way, and it doesn’t look great. The second draft you’re starting to put on flesh, and by the end you’ve clothed them and they look beautiful and you put make-up on them and they’re ready to walk out the door.
When does she know the book is finished and ready to go?
The deadline! A slightly pat response, but at the moment I’m writing two books a year and so I have to be quick in doing each draft. My editor and I have to work together to get the thing polished and beautiful by the time it needs to be printed. And I do think that NaNoWriMo was the most incredible learning (curve) for that. These days when I’m doing a first draft I will do two thousand words a day, and I think that has to have come from NaNoWriMo. It’s not too many words, that’s about two hours really solid, strong writing.
NaNoWriMo really taught me how to write quickly, how to write un-fussily and just get it done.
And then editing it over the next year taught me how to go back and polish. NaNoWriMo taught me the structure I keep using today.
Word count versus time:
I think word count is the more useful way of structuring your day. If you’re saying I’m going to write for four hours you’re going to end up spending it on Twitter or making a Pinterest board. Something is going to come up.
But if you say I have to write two thousand words, then the computer will not lie, and will tell you you’ve not written two thousand words.
NaNoWriMo also taught me how to write fast, so generally I know that will take me about two to three hours of pretty quick work, and then I go on with the rest of my day.
Using Pinterest and research:
I have a Pinterest board for each book. I always like to find old pictures of locations that I’m sending my characters to, or what a bun would have looked like in the 1930s. Things do change. I’m writing historical novels, and sometimes I’ll describe things and I’m thinking ‘I’m describing the way that would look now,’ and I’ll need to go and Google or look through historical books. I’ve got a massive book of adverts from the 1930s that I use a lot to get the way, for example, a chocolate bar might have looked then.
There’s always something that slips though. I try hard, but what I end up having to say to myself and to readers is that I’m trying to get more the atmosphere of the time and place than being rigorously, rigorously correct. I’m trying to get the Agatha Christie feel rather than just writing a history book for you.
I use my historical research first, to basically understand what was going on at the time, so a character can say ‘Jolly old king’ and I know who that was. But my story has to be the murder, it has to be about the characters, it can’t be about what it was like in 1935. In my new book, Mistletoe and Murder, 1935’s Christmas was one of the warmest Christmases on record, but in my book it snows and snows and snows, because I’ve written a Christmas novel.
I’m very lucky that my books have been sold in other territories, and have been translated into French, German, Italian, Taiwan has got them now, they’re going to be in Thai, in Polish, and obviously as well in America. It’s actually a different publisher who publishes me in America, it’s Simon & Schuster instead of Puffin, so I’ve got completely different covers, completely different titles for the first two, it’s really been fascinating. It’s almost been a process of translation, because we have to change some words, like ‘term’ they want to change to ‘semester’, so American kids who might not know much about England can understand. Most of the changes are quite small, little cosmetic things, nothing about the plot. My favourite translation is ‘games knickers’ in English, but they wear ‘athletic underwear’ in America.
I got my UK publisher first, and then my agent could show them the book, and ask if they were interested, so I think it was about six months after I got my UK deal, I got my US deal, so it was before the first book was published. The US books are being published much more slowly, so only two of them are out there at the moment, which is a little bit odd. It’s like going back in time. I’m checking the third book in the US and writing the fifth book in the UK simultaneously.
Looking back at her earlier books, would she have changed anything?
It was nice. I liked reading through them again and remembering where I was when I wrote them the first time and remembering characters as well. After writing five books I really do my best to keep characters consistent, but there are little details that are nice to bring forward into the newer books.
How do you write a murder mystery for children without traumatising them?
I work really hard to keep it not gory. I do the trick where the body vanishes, it goes away somewhere so the kids can’t actually go and peer at a corpse. I try to keep it as much of a puzzle as I can. There are bodies, it’s acknowledged in all the books that people really are dead, but I also try to make sure that it feels like a game, something a bit fun as well as something quite real. I’m always trying to walk that tightrope, but also with middle grade you can get away with a whole lot if you just keep the perspective right, keep it child-like, and you can talk about stuff that you know is going to go over the head of younger readers, they’re just not going to care or be interested, and an older reader might just read something else into what you’re saying, something a child would miss, so it’s like an extra-special Easter egg for older readers rather than having something that would upset younger readers. Kids watch the news, they’re very up on what’s happening in the world, and things that are happening among adults, which is really what the series is all about for me: it’s about kids watching adults and trying to understand the adult world, and I do that from a child’s perspective, and I’m doing something that I think every kid is doing which is trying to understand the adults around them. Normally, the adults around them aren’t murderers, but y’know, it’s a continuum.
Robin’s Top tip for writers:
The main thing is write the book that you want to read, that you’re going to love writing, that’s going to make you excited, because sixty-thousand words, or ninety-thousand, or a hundred-and-twenty-thousand, those are a lot of words and that’s a lot of days sitting in front of the computer, so you might as well enjoy yourself and write something that’s really exciting. And that excitement will be passed onto the readers when they eventually look at it… after you’ve edited it fives times. Please edit your book.
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