“I was dealing with the stress of surgery and possible cancer and honestly my book deal was the one thing that kept me hopeful. Even if everything went wrong, I still had that.”
—Kelly Leigh Miller
Illustrator Kelly Leigh Miller received her book offer when she was in the hospital awaiting surgery. Today she is healthy and happy to be celebrating her "loveable" (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) #firstpicturebook. I AM A WOLF is “a joyful debut, starring a stray with the force of personality, if definitely not the disposition, of a Chris Raschka dog" (Booklist).
Q. You worked as an illustrator before your debut book I AM A WOLF. How did you make the transition to writer/illustrator and how does it compare with being an illustrator of someone else's work?
A. Most of the work I did as an illustrator was editorial work or toy based. I always wanted to work on children's books. I've illustrated other's self published comics before and really enjoyed that. I do notice there is a difference in how I work if I wrote the story or if someone else did. When I work on someone else's writing, I want to make sure I get their vision right and try to make my drawings as clear as possible. Usually my initial drawings are tighter and look more finished. That way if there are any changes, I can do it in the sketch phase, which is far easier than the final art phase.
In contrast, when I'm writing and illustrating, I kind of do both at once. It's very loose and intuitive. Usually I have to draw really messy thumbnails while I write and most of my writing is done in my sketchbook. Then when it comes to the sketch phase, they are far looser than I would normally show anyone. In the case of my children's book, I didn't feel my rough drawings were tight enough to pitch so I tried something new where I draw really quickly in blocks of grey shapes for my book dummy. Since I both wrote and illustrated it, I could try this sort of experimental book dummy drawing where as before, I would probably want to check with the writer.
When it comes down to it, I really like both. I really love illustrating my own stories but illustrating others stories makes it so I can illustrate stories that I would have never thought to write but equally love!
Q. Was I AM A WOLF the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. Nope! The first official manuscript I wrote was back in 2011, maybe? It was my thesis back in college. It was called THE HANDYMAN and was a story about a girl who found out her grandpa was a superhero. At the time, I didn't really do anything with it, but when I met my agent years later back in 2016, I cleaned it up and tried pitching it again. We worked with it, but realized it might be better for an older middle grade crowd so I've been working to adapt it to an older crowd. It's changed quite a lot since I originally pitched it but the core message is the same.
Q. What inspired I AM A WOLF?
A. My current dog actually! Haha! I feel like so many people write about their pets and now I am one of them. We had adopted her from the shelter the year before I wrote the script. Because the shelter rescued her from animal control, they don't know exactly what happened to her but based on some behavioral issues, they think she might have been through some abuse. She was afraid of everything! She was extremely hard to train, but she is such a sweetheart. Before we took the time to train her though, she was the dog everyone overlooked at the shelter. She had been there quite a while because she barked at everyone who came close to her! When we met her though, she took instantly to us. Sometimes I feel like the dog just has to find the right home and the right people they trust to work though whatever they are going through. Also training. Lots of training.
Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. It was actually just the working title and it sort of stuck with the book! I'm very bad at titles. I picked it because it was the most memorable line out of the book in my opinion as just a placeholder then it turned out everyone liked it as a title so it stayed!
Q. Do you write by hand or on the computer?
A. A little bit of half and half. I write my rough drafts in my sketchbook but edit on the computer.
Q. How did you select the names for your characters?
A. I write down a bunch of names that I like when I come across them in my sketchbook. When it comes to naming individual characters, I try to pick a name from the list that seems to suit the characters personality.
Q. What made you decide to tell the story in first, second, or third person?
A. The story just sort of came to me in first person! It made the most sense for the story I was trying to tell.
Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing I AM A WOLF?
A. I AM A WOLF is one of the weirder scripts since I got the full story all at once in my head and wrote the initial dummy in about a week. I've written many other book dummies between my first one and I AM A WOLF, and this is the first time this has ever happened. I have a feeling it's a fluke though. I've written a few other dummies after that in between deadlines and those are following my normal pattern of me figuring the stories out through many drafts.
Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. They both appeared at the same time! Part of the story is the words playing off what is specifically happening in the illustration.
Q. Did I AM A WOLF receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. If it did, I'm honestly not sure. The book went to auction since we had a few publishers interested and I kind of was more interested in that than the rejections! I think I pitched 2 or 3 other scripts to publishers before I AM A WOLF that all got rejected. I'm not new to rejection and I like to stay on the positive side!
Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on I AM A WOLF.
A. Haha so, my offer and signing story is a bit weird. I'm pretty open about this, but I actually received the offer in a hospital bed! At the time, I had a massive tumor and they removed it and my right ovary. Thankfully it didn't turn out to be cancerous but we didn't find that out until like a month or two later after testing. At the time though, I was dealing with the stress of surgery and possible cancer and honestly my book deal was the one thing that kept me hopeful. Even if everything went wrong, I still had that.
The book went on auction around the time I was admitted to the hospital and when I was discharged, my agent and I had picked the final book offer. My signing story is definitely not a normal one!
Q. How long did I AM A WOLF take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. As of now, it will be published in Summer 2019! Publishing takes much longer than other fields I've worked in but that's because there is so much going on. There's editing revisions to tighten the story, sketch revisions for the same reason, final art, and then edits for the final art... It's just a long process.
Q. Was there a part that you really loved but had to edit out? Or did you think of something later that you wanted to add?
Not really! The story is basically the same as when I pitched it, but so much better. Sometimes I get really close to my work and don't notice some obvious things to make it stronger so thankfully my editor is there to help out! I think all the changes to the script only made the story stronger.
Q. What is your #1 tip for picture-book writers?
A. Keep writing and finish a book dummy/book script. Those seem like simple things, but they really aren't. You can learn a lot about your own writing process by finishing a story and looking at the finished product. You may not end up pitching it, but in the process of finishing a story, you learned a lot about yourself and how you write. Understanding your own writing process helps in the long run.
Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. I feel like I'm still learning when it comes to writing. I really like finding writing prompts online and practicing with those! They help me get out of my comfort zone and they don't always have to be long writing segments either, which is nice for times when I only have a few minutes to write.
Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)