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patzmillerby Pat Zietlow Miller

“What process do you follow to write your stories?” I’ve heard that question more frequently as I’ve sold more picture books, and I never know how to answer.

The people asking usually look as if they’re waiting for a golden ticket to inspiration. Like maybe I’ll say that I always walk three times around my living room, stand on one foot, hum the “Star-Spangled Banner” and then run to the computer to start writing before the muse I’ve conjured flies away. Then, they can do the same thing and wait for their own inspiration to strike.

When I tell the truth—that I don’t have a specific writing process—they seem disappointed. But, trust me. I’m doing them a favor. If they knew how things really go down, they might give up writing altogether. I’m a little haphazard.

But, just for you, in honor of PiBoWriMo, I am pulling back the curtain and sharing my process, such as it is. Here’s how I wrote WIDE-AWAKE BEAR, which is coming from HarperCollins in 2017:

Step One:
Have a cranky child.

Three years ago, my youngest daughter was happily napping on the couch. When I woke her to take her to volleyball practice, she had a world-class meltdown. There was wailing, tears and shouting. I tossed her into the car and took her anyway. Afterward, when she was calm, I said, “What was THAT all about?” Her response? “I was a hibernating bear. You woke me up, and I went into a bear frenzy.” (Author’s note: Is that not the best response ever? I love this kid.)

Step Two:
Forget about that adorable incident.

I filed that wonderful remark under the category of “Cool Stuff My Kid Has Said” and went about my business. For several years.

Step Three:
Be bored on a plane.

On a plane ride home from Yellowstone Park, where I was disappointed I hadn’t seen a bear, I thought I should use the flying time to do something productive. So I grabbed a notepad and pen and wrote a story about a bear cub who wakes up in the middle of winter and goes into a bear frenzy.

Step Four:
Listen to your critique group say, “Meh.”

I shared this story with my critique group and got a lukewarm response. They thought the bear cub got too cranky and deserved a timeout. They also didn’t understand why he got so angry. So I adjusted and reworked the story over several weeks. The title changed, and the storyline morphed into a bear cub who woke up midwinter, got scared and couldn’t fall back asleep. I shared it with some more writing friends and adjusted it even more. Then, I stopped, because I didn’t know what else to do.

Step Five:
Let it sit on your desktop for a while.

I wasn’t sure the story was ready. So I worked on other things and didn’t think much about it.

Step Six:
Send it to your agent on a whim.

Then one day, I opened the file and thought, “This isn’t so bad.” (See how I just glow with self-confidence?) I sent it to my agent, hoping she might give me a few ideas so I could work on it some more. But she thought it was ready to go, sent it out and it sold in about three weeks. That’s my quickest sale ever.

So, there you have it. How to write and sell a picture book in six simple steps. You know just what to do now, right?

I told another writer about my lack of a process, and she said, “You do have a process. It’s organic!” And she is absolutely right, because I’ve never once used pesticides in any of my books.

If there’s anything to learn from my post, it’s that everyone’s process is different. As long as you find something that works for you, you’ll be fine. If you’re not seeing the results you want and feel like your process may be fault, try a few different things.

  • Be haphazard—I mean organic—like me.
  • Be super-organized like another writer I know who sets her timer for 45-minute chunks and logs her writing time on a chart posted on her office door.
  • Try writing mornings or evenings to see if something works better. Try different locations, too.
  • Try standing on one foot in your living room and humming the national anthem. (It could work.)

Chances are something will seem more appealing to you and you’ll be well on your way to finding your own inspiration.


To learn more about me, visit or follow me on Twitter at @PatZMiller.


If you leave a comment on this post you could be one of two people to win one of two prizes—a signed copy of SOPHIE’S SQUASH (Schwartz & Wade, 2013) to be sent immediately or a signed copy of WHEREVER YOU GO to be sent once it’s released from Little, Brown on May 5, 2015. Each of these books followed a totally different process than WIDE-AWAKE BEAR. I meant it when I said my process was haphazard.

sophiessquash Miller_WYG_jacket

This prize will be given away at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo. You are eligible for this prize if:

  1. You have registered for PiBoIdMo.
  2. You have commented ONCE ONLY on today’s post.
  3. You have completed the PiBoIdMo challenge. (You will have to sign the PiBoIdMo Pledge at the end of the event.)

Good luck, everyone!


patzmillerby Pat Zietlow Miller

I’ve heard some authors talk about how they are inspired to write their stories.

They say their characters talk to them. They have whole conversations with those characters, interviewing them about their name, background, problems and motives.

They also share stories of times these characters high-jacked the story, taking it in an entirely different direction than the author planned. Sometimes that works out, and other times the authors have had to cut uncooperative characters to get their story back on track.

I think that all sounds awesome.

But it’s never happened to me.

I’ve also talked to authors who see pictures in their heads. Their stories unfold in their brains like a movie on the screen.

That’s also very cool.

But it’s never happened to me either.

So where do I get my inspiration?

Ideas for my picture books usually come one of two ways:

1. Snippets of words.
My two upcoming rhyming picture books started when I was busy at my day job and some words popped into my head.

For SHARING THE BREAD: AN OLD-FASHIONED THANKSGIVING STORY (coming in 2015 from Schwartz & Wade), the words I heard were “Mama be a cooking pot, cooking pot.” That was it. I think my initial reaction was “What?”

For WHEREVER YOU GO (coming in 2015 from Little, Brown) I heard “Over a hill, under a bridge, deep in a dale, high on a ridge.” And I had a very similar reaction. “What am I supposed to do with this?”

In both cases, I wrote the words down and emailed them to myself at home where they sat for quite a while. Then, I started playing with them. And working. Because the rest of the books did NOT just pop into my head.

I had no idea SHARING THE BREAD was going to end up as a Thanksgiving story—and it didn’t become that until a late revision. And, I had no idea WHEREVER YOU GO would end up being a story about how the choices we make determine our destination.

But those lines got me writing, which was inspiration enough. And I’ll always be grateful for whatever made them dance through my head.

2. Admiration.
thenewgirlandmeSometimes, I read a picture book I just adore. One that makes me stare in awe and wish I could produce something even remotely close to its perfection.

And often, I’ll try to do just that. I’m not trying to copy the book I love. But I am trying to capture some part of its essence in another form. THE QUICKEST KID IN CLARKSVILLE (coming from Chronicle) came about after I read Jacqui Robbins’ and Matt Phelan’s THE NEW GIRL… AND ME.

The final books are nothing alike. Jacqui and Matt’s is a modern-day story about a new girl at school who owns an iguana. Mine is set in 1960 and features two girls who idolize Olympic sprinter Wilma Rudolph. But I was inspired by the way Jacqui captured friendship in her book and wanted to see if I could do something similar.

starsAnd WHEREVER YOU GO’s style was inspired by the lyricism of Mary Lyn Ray’s and Marla Frazee’s so-wonderful-I-can’t-even-stand-it picture book, STARS.

When I fall in love with a picture book, I’ll spend a lot of time reading and re-reading it. First for fun, then for structure, then for language and plot and pacing and page turns. I may even buy an extra copy to write on. All this soaks into my head and helps my future picture books be better.

It’s kind of like golfers studying a professional’s swing by playing the video in freeze frames and slow motion so they can see every last movement.

I also have to mention my current picture book SOPHIE’S SQUASH (Schwartz & Wade, 2013). It was inspired by a few extremely cute things my daughter did. Then, I added a bunch of stuff that never happened to turn a cute moment into a fully realized story.

Both my methods of inspiration have one thing in common. There’s something that I hear or see that captivates me enough where I want to put in the work to come up with something wonderful of my own.

But I’m going to keep listening for my characters, just in case they decide to get chatty.



Pat started out as a newspaper reporter and wrote about everything from dartball and deer-hunting to diets and decoupage. Then, she joined an insurance company and edited its newsletter and magazine.

Now, she writes insurance information by day and children’s books by night. Her newest release is SOPHIE’S SQUASH, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf.

Pat has one wonderful husband, two delightful daughters and two pampered cats. She doesn’t watch much TV, but she does love “Glee” and “Chopped.”

You can learn more about Pat by visiting her website at or following her on Twitter at @PatZMiller.

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