My first drafts always include way more descriptive words than any picture book text actually needs! I’m always reminding myself to go back and cut, and then cut some more, when it comes to my flowery descriptions. I also find myself picturing how I would illustrate a page as I’m writing, thinking of the feel and mood of the art, or the textures and patters of the painting. It helps me to focus in on the things that are more difficult to convey with paint, such as, smell and sound.
What are some of the challenges to being both a writer and an illustrator?
It’s a huge challenge not to just write the images I see in my head, but to write the other half of the story they don’t tell, or vice-versa. Some days my writer half battles with the illustrator half. Words and the pattern and flow of the adjectives can be so beautiful. It’s hard to know whether to sacrifice the beauty of the words, or adjust my original painting ideas to allow the words to remain. In some ways it’s also scary. When a book is published that I’ve both written and illustrated, it’s ALL me. There is no partnership to soften the blow if it flops, and no one to share the credit with if it shines.
It can also be frustrating when edits to the text change the flow or tone of the story. Often, since I’ve already imagined the pictures, I have to go back to square one, not just on image ideas but page turns and breathing room for your eyes as well. And when I’ve dreamed a beautiful or exciting painting already, sometimes it takes a few days before my imagination catches up with the new text. Those can be some frustrating days… kind of like writer's block for the artist. And we all know how annoying it can be when we can't figure out how to solve a writing problem in a book!
It's often been said that a picture-book writer has to leave room for the illustrator. Do you find that challenging as an author/illustrator?
Often I have to do at least five or six passes before I’m actually at a reasonable word count and haven’t over-described everything in the story. But that’s just part of my writing process and being an illustrator. I’m learning to come to terms with it and even embrace it. I recognize my tendency to paint with words instead of actual paint, and am willing to mercilessly delete entire sentences (sometimes even whole paragraphs). Eventually, I'll end up with a story worth hearing. Even so, sometimes I over-write, that’s when having a critique group and a brilliant agent helps get me back on track!
What's it like having E.B. Lewis as a mentor?
E.B. Lewis is amazingly talented and an inspiring teacher. He’s not afraid to tell it like it is and he doesn’t sugar coat his critique of my work. If it’s bad, he says it’s bad. If I’ve missed the tone of an illustration or executed a poorly laid out sketch, he’s not afraid to tell me flat out.
“No, no, no,” he’ll say. “You can do better than that. It doesn’t work. Stick it in a drawer and do it again, better this time.”
On the flip side, if he likes it then I know I’ve made something I can be proud of. Sometimes I get so close to a painting I don’t see where it’s failed until he points it out. Sometimes it’s fixable. Sometimes it’s not. Then I just start over and know that I’ll be better for the practice. He likes to say: “There’s no wasted paint except for the paint that’s still in the tube."
In the beginning, I started over a lot. I remember painting one piece six times! But when I got it right, it clicked. Now, he doesn’t often tell me to start over, but I still tweak things here and there and we discuss how I could make paintings even stronger. We look at other artists and discuss what they did and why. And on the rare occasion I get artist's block on something, he helps me brainstorm solutions. On occasion, he’s even turned his camera to face his paper and painted right alongside me so I could watch his technique and control.
How has working with E.B. Lewis enriched your illustrative style?
How much time do you have? A million small and large ways! I think most significantly he taught me how to use the bleed and spread of watercolor to enhance my art. Originally I just used watercolor to “color in” my drawings. Now the color itself has taken over the drawing, and the textures and bleeds have become an integral part of my work. I was missing the control and understanding of how the pigment dries and blends with colors around it. E.B. showed me how to harness the beauty of those happy accidents and even allow controlled space for them to occur. Another thing he’s taught me is how the lighting and shadows of a piece can dramatically enhance the mood and feelings it portrays.
In addition, I believe I’ve learned a lot about how to approach page turns and layouts, how to tie the images together so that they flow from one to another and make the book cohesive without being boring. Finally, he's taught me how to give the readers “the hook of the book.” I’m still learning and finding out how much I still have to learn. But I’d say, E.B.’s mentoring has definitely helped take my work to the next level. I hope I never stop learning!
It’s actually a pretty cool story. Hello? was born out of frustration. In 2011, I had been working on another novel and it just wasn’t going well. After deleting everything I had written that day, I began to pace my living room floor. It’s not something I do often, but I just couldn’t sit still and I needed a way to focus.
And that’s when a completely new idea hit me. I imagined a grieving girl calling her grandma’s old phone number. I could see how that call would not only change her life, but create a chain reaction, transforming the life of the person she called and those connected to him. I immediately knew that the novel would be set on Washington Island and in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. I knew it would be from multiple points of view. I knew how the story would begin and I had a solid idea on how I wanted it to end. I set the other novel aside and started to write Hello?.
Describe what you enjoyed about working with your editor at Spencer Hill Contemporary?
I loved that we were in sync with each other. If something needed tweaking, we would brainstorm, which led to making the novel so much better. It was inspiring, exciting, and energizing!
How did you grow as a writer as a result of writing this novel?
Without a doubt, Hello? tested me in ways I could never have expected. To be authentic to my characters and their voices, it meant learning new skills, including free verse poetry and screenplay format. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours working on their skills.
In addition, making sure that the characters’ stories wove together as seamlessly as possible created unexpected challenges. Just like in real life, each of my characters has his or her own struggles. I needed to show them, show how they impacted their lives and their choices while also exploring the concept of serendipity and the power of hope.
When I went from six characters to five, I had to figure out how to piece the novel back together again, which was particularly difficult because a phone call or text clued the reader into whose chapter came next. Everyone was linked. In the end, solving each puzzle, reweaving the threads together was not only tremendously challenging, but satisfying.
Do you find there is a reoccurring theme in the stories you write? If so, explain. If not, What's Hello?'s theme?
Without a doubt--hope! Each one of us faces challenges. Each of us faces moments of despair. But hope transforms. So hold on!! We find strength in different places. It can come from a stranger or someone we love. It can come through kindness, compassion, friendship, family or through hard work or determination. Sometimes we’re barely holding on. The point is, don’t give up!
Why do you enjoy writing for the YA audience?
I had an extremely difficult and challenging childhood, but despite it, I found my place. I found my voice. And I got my HEA! Life will always have ups and downs and downs and ups. I love writing for YA because I care. Because I know how difficult that time of life can be, and finally I know that it can and does get better! It’s the most transformative time of our lives. It’s the foundation for the future.
Liza Wiemer married the guy who literally swept her off her feet at a Spyro Gyra concert. Their love story can be found on Liza's “About” page. Besides being a die-hard Packer fan, Liza is also a readaholic, a romantic, and a lover of crazy socks and rooftops. Hello? is her debut YA novel. She also has had two adult non-fiction books published, as well as stories and articles in various publications. She's a graduate of UW-Madison with a degree in Education and the mother of two sons. She can be found online at lizawiemer.com and on Twitter @LizaWiemer.