Teaching Writing

Robin Newman: Why I Write


Humor, passion, revision, and perseverance are at the heart of Robin Newman's craft. Author of A Wilcox and Griswold Mystery: The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake, and member of the NWP Writers Council. Newman shares what inspires her to write and how she got to where she is today. Originally published on October 9, 2015

I’ve often been asked how I ended up writing children’s books, and for that matter, a mystery series. “After all, you’re a lawyer, right?”

It’s a good question. A very good question.

Yes, I am a lawyer. When I was practicing, I was what you would call a “disgruntled lawyer.” That’s disgruntled with a capital D. Not an unfamiliar term to many lawyers.

One day, my mom gave me some good advice.

“Quit,” she said.

“What did you say?” I said. At the time, I was on my lunch break at a pay phone1 on a congested street in lower Manhattan. My hearing has never been great, but I knew I must have been imagining our conversation.

“Can you please repeat what you just said? I think we have a bad connection.”

“Quit. We’ll figure it out.”

I did. Surprisingly, my mom had a plan. I had no other plan but to eat my way through the chocolate éclair section at my local bakery. (It wasn’t a pretty sight.)

“Call Barry,” she said. He was one of my mom’s neighbors with a family law practice. He also taught family law.

I made the call. He needed help with some research projects. So, I wrote a bunch of memos, and then he asked me to write the content for his mediation website. It was this project that got me my job as a legal editor. When I was pregnant, I decided to freelance, and around that time, I began writing short stories. My twin suggested I enter the Symphony Space Selected Shorts contest. I did. I lost. Year after year. Rinse and repeat. But I was writing.

My husband suggested I take a writing class. I signed up for a children’s fiction class and as soon as I walked in the classroom, I knew I had found my people.

Then, during one Christmas holiday, I noticed my niece yawning while she was opening her presents. It was an eye opening moment. She was bored. That’s when I decided to give my nieces and nephews more meaningful gifts. I wrote them stories. One of those stories was about the Double Trouble Banana Split Detective Agency on the hunt for a missing birthday cake. The detectives were two monkeys working their beat from a tree house. All of the characters were named after, or inspired by, members of my family.

I brought a version of this story to my writing workshop. Everyone hated the monkeys. Got it! The monkeys had to go. So what kind of detectives would kids find engaging? It somehow crossed my mind, wouldn’t it be interesting if the detectives, the enforcers of justice, were the smallest animals on a farm? Little by little, the enforcers became mice, and at some point I started to play around with the idea of making them like the FBI. But what kind of enforcement would be needed on a farm? And that’s when it hit me. Food enforcement. They would be MFIs, Missing Food Investigators. Hence, the creation of The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake, A Wilcox and Griswold Mystery.

At first, the story was a picture book. But my word counts were off the charts. They were around 1200-1600 words. I knew an editor would be hyperventilating if he/she saw the word counts. Playing with the line spacing, margins, fonts, etc. wouldn’t help. (Although I can’t say I didn’t think of it.☺)

But I had no idea how to cut that many words and still write a mystery that was laden with clues, flushed out suspects, red herrings, etc. Then I went to one of the NJ SCBWI conferences. I had a one-on-one critique with the great, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen. She told me, I’m paraphrasing a tad, but this is the gist of the conversation.

“This is not a picture book.”

Once again, I thought I was hearing things.

“This is a chapter book. Eight short chapters and you’re done.”

It was as if a light bulb went off. I started rewriting it as an early chapter book. Back to my critique group for what must have been a gazillion rewrites before I sent it out. In 2012, I met my wonderful, stupendous agent, Liza Fleissig, from the Liza Royce Agency. I did a number of rewrites for Liza, and then a number of rewrites for Creston Books. My amazing, awesome editor and publisher, Marissa Moss, suggested I add more food metaphors, hype up the humor, leave more red herrings, and tighten the story. Her comments were spot on.

So, in a nutshell, that’s pretty much how I ended up writing a mystery series. And I have to say, it is hands up and down the absolute best job in the universe!

1 Yes, I am that old. I did not own a cell phone. When I was in college I even used an electric typewriter during my freshman and sophomore years.