A Peek at the Creative Space of Pat Zietlow Miller

Pat Zietlow Miller is the author of the award-winning (and adorable!) picture book Sophie’s Squash, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf. Sophie’s Squash is story that celebrates the special love between a child and her favorite toy–only in this case it’s a butternut squash. On a trip to the farmers’ market with her parents, Sophie chooses a squash, but instead of letting her mom cook it, she names it Bernice. Sophie’s Squash has earned many accolades and honors, including four starred reviews, the Golden Kite Award, the Charlotte Zolotow Honor Book Award, and the Ezra Jack Keats Honor Book Award.

And fortunately for the children’s book world, Pat has more books coming out in the world–SEVEN to be exact (at last count). Coming in April is Wherever You Go, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler. In Wherever You Go, join an adventurous rabbit and his animal friends as they journey over steep mountain peaks, through bustling cityscapes, and down long, winding roads to discover the magical worlds that await them just outside their doors. This book celebrates the possibilities that lie beyond the next bend in the road – the same road that will always lead you home again. Kirkus Reviews gave Wherever You Go a starred review with the praise: “Miller’s verse, infused with musical momentum, communicates the emotional arch of a journey with beautiful brevity.”

To learn more about Pat Zietlow Miller, visit her website.

Describe your workspace.

I write in one of two spots. At my kitchen table surrounded by the detritus of life in a family of four – books, papers, pens, calendars, mail, dishes – or at a desk upstairs that looks much more writerly. I’m probably in the kitchen more often just because that’s the way things seem to work out.

Describe a typical workday.

Most days, I’m at my regular job in corporate communications at an insurance company editing copy and writing about auto, home, and life insurance. (Hint: Having umbrella coverage is a good idea.)

When I get home, I start dinner, talk to my husband and kids, and help with homework where I can. English and language arts are fine. Calculus and physics are not. Then, when the kids are studying and my husband is watching basketball, I flip open my laptop and get going. Of course if the kids have evening activities, I’m probably driving them there instead of writing.

So when I do write, I tend to be pretty focused. I don’t have a lot of time to mess around.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

These are all from my upstairs formal writing space.

  • A dictionary and bookmark I got from my high school English teacher Gladys Veidemanis after I was voted “Most Likely to Be Published” by my classmates. It took more than 20 years after I graduated, but it did happen.

  • A nameplate that belonged to my aunt, Faye Clow, who was director of the Bettendorf Public Library for many years. She was a huge proponent of books and literacy, and I always loved her and admired that. My upcoming book, Sophie’s Seeds (Schwartz & Wade, 2016), is dedicated to Faye.

  • The F&G [publishing term that means folded and gathered–they are fancy colored proofs] of whatever my next book is. Right now, I have Wherever You Go, which is coming from Little, Brown on April 21 and Sharing the Bread, which is coming from Schwartz & Wade on Aug. 25. Getting the F&Gs always makes the book finally seem real.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.

Open lap top. Sit down. Start typing.

Ignore any tears, arguments, or requests for help finding lost items until the young person involved either goes away or asks my husband. While some writers follow very organized processes when writing, I’m a little more haphazard. I wrote a post about this for Tara Lazar’s Picture Book Idea Month.

What do you listen to while you work?

Everything listed in my answer to the previous question. I really prefer not to have music playing while I write. It impedes my ability to focus on the story. (When you read my answer to the next-to-last question, you’ll see that this can be a problem.)

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

I normally don’t eat or drink while I’m writing. I tend to eat and drink when I get up and walk around because I’m temporarily stuck. Then, dark chocolate is always good. But I have standards. It’s got to be top-of-the-line stuff.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

Getting the story done and making it the best it can possibly be. Finding the perfect combination of words is really important to me. And I love critique partners and editors who really challenge me if they think I haven’t quite done it.

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?

Nearly always on a computer. Very rarely, I’ll write longhand if I’m on a plane or a bus and a pad of paper is all I’ve got to work with. But I do jot down notes longhand, usually phrases that I think sound intriguing.

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

It sounds terribly boring, but I’m afraid I just sit down, open my laptop and start writing. Sometimes, I stare at my manuscript for a while before starting. While I certainly have been inspired, I don’t really believe in waiting for inspiration, because I could be waiting a long time. I find that the mere act of beginning to write usually kick-starts my inspiration.

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

My husband. He’s a sportswriter and works out of our house. On days that I’m not at my day job, we often work in adjoining rooms. He’s fun to have around, although he sometimes plays really, really bad music while he works – like “My Girl Bill.” If we ever worked next to each other long term, this could become problematic.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received? 

It’s what I learned in a high school journalism class taught by Ron Harrell. The end of your story has to have some element of the beginning in it to provide satisfying closure. He said it was like wrapping a ribbon around a present and tying a big bow. I wrote a blog post about this concept on Picture Book Builders.