Today I am featuring Sylvia Liu, writer, illustrator and winner of the Lee & Low New Voices Award 2013.
I was lucky enough to meet up with Sylvia a year ago through Julie Hedlund's 12x12. We share a lot of the same passions and interests and I was very impressed with her knowledge of illustration and her willingness to share her experience with everyone. I am now honored to call Sylvia a friend and am excited to follow her journey towards the publication of her first picture book, A Morning with Gong Gong.
What is the New Voices Award?
Established in 2000, the New Voices Award encourages writers of color to submit their work to a publisher that takes pride in nurturing new talent. The Award winner receives a cash prize of $1000 and a standard publication contract, including the basic advance and royalties for a first time author with Lee & Low.
The Winning Story:
A Morning with Gong Gong portrays an energetic young girl named Mei Mei, as she spends time with her grandfather. When Mei Mei sees her grandfather, Gong Gong, practicing t’ai chi in the garden, she is eager to join in. He tries to teach her the slow and graceful moves, and Mei Mei, in turn, tries to teach Gong Gong some of the yoga poses she has learned in school. Although they both struggle with these new activities, Mei Mei and Gong Gong realize that it’s the time they spend together that is important. (From the Lee & Low website)
Please paint a picture, what was your reaction when you found out you had won the Award? I know you had to sit on the good news for a while before you were able to share it, it must have been sweet suspense.
When I got The Call, it was actually Call Waiting, because I was on the phone with my husband. I saw a New York number on caller ID. Not recognizing it, but not thinking much about it, I took the call. It was my editor, who introduced herself as being from Lee and Low. At that moment, my heart began to beat double time. My immediate thought was that I was one of the finalists, but then she told me that I had won. I am sure she thought I was a blithering idiot. After the call, I did a happy dance and called my husband. I did some more happy dances with my girls when they came home from school.
Roughly how long did it take you to write A Morning with Gong Gong from idea to submission?
It was very short compared to most my stories, which go through months of resting and revisions. I came up with the idea in June 2013, wrote my first draft in July, and went through a couple rounds with my critique group in August and September. I had a professional critique done in mid-September and snail mailed the story to meet the contest deadline of September 30.
I know that you do not practice t’ai chi yourself, what inspired you to write this story?
My dad has practiced t’ai chi since I was a teenager. In the last decade or so, he has moved on to a different Chinese mind-body practice, qi gong. I wrote the story when I was on a family vacation in Vermont with my parents. Watching my dad practice qi gong and seeing my him interact with my girls and my sister’s three kids inspired the story. The story originally included qi gong as well, but I ended up paring it down.
Is there an underlying theme or an overarching philosophy that runs through your writing?
I guess my stories reflect a curiosity about the world. I try to remember what it’s like to be a child where everything is new and strange and mysterious. Some of my stories have environmental themes, a leftover from my years as a marine conservation attorney. Others are more idiosyncratic.
I’m a pantser when it comes to picture book stories, and an outliner for my middle grade work. I usually have an idea of a character or a story in mind, and I start writing and see what develops. The problem is that my resulting story often lacks an important element, like a narrative arc or a motivation for the main character. That’s where my awesome critique group comes in and points out that I need to include a plot or an ending. It usually works itself out after a few rounds of critiquing, which is why I am such a fan of critique groups in general and my critique group specifically.
I wish I had as strong a relationship with my grandparents as my parents have with my girls. Because my parents emigrated to the United States and had to start from scratch, they were not able to afford to visit their parents in Taiwan until ten years after they moved, when I was five. I went back only two more times, at ages 13 and 16. I never met my paternal grandfather (he never made it out of mainland China, as he was under house arrest from 1948 until the mid-1980s for being a high level Guomindang general on the losing side of the Chinese civil war. I wrote a blog post about his story). I saw my maternal grandmother three times in my life, and my paternal grandparents twice.
Even though I had such limited time with my grandparents, I still have very fond memories of them, because I heard lots of stories about them growing up.
Do you consider yourself an author or illustrator first?
I consider myself an illustrator first, but am slowly growing used to the idea of being an author too.
Aside from our critique group we share a few other writing and illustrating groups online. You are very supportive and encouraging to people in general and specifically to those new to writing or illustrating. What are the most frequently asked questions?
A lot of beginning illustrators want to know about the latest digital tools or software, but I usually steer them to good old pencil and paper. It’s so important as an illustrator to master the basics of drawing and design and basic painting skills, all of which I am still working on. Sometimes having digital technology gives people the false sense that they can skip some steps, but in the end, there are no short cuts.
As for writing, I don’t get asked as much for advice, since I’m still part of the horde of advice seekers. I have found that the best ways I’ve improved my writing are reading great books, studying craft books, taking writing courses, and critiquing and getting critiques.
Instead of asking you what your advice is to new writers, I am going to ask you, what advice would you give to yourself when you first started writing and/ or illustrating (imagine you have a time machine)
Work harder and stop procrastinating. Writing and illustrating is a lot of work and you only get better with more practice. I have taken a meandering path to writing and illustrating, interrupted by law school, a decade long legal career, and being a parent of two amazing girls. I don’t regret any of it, but it’s only been the last four years or so, where I have focused laser-like on my writing and illustrating.
Don’t let your ethnicity or race define who you are, but don’t reject it either. As an artist and writer of any background, you can only stay true to who you are and what influences you. Everyone has a specific story to tell and only you can tell it.
Which writer(s) inspires you?
My most recent inspiration came from reading OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman. After I finished the novel, I decided to write a story that evokes that magical feeling of being halfway between reality and dream. One of my recent manuscripts that I am most excited about came from trying to capture that feeling.
Which illustrator(s) do you admire?
I love your countryman, Shaun Tan, and Aaron Becker, because they create magical and surreal worlds that I can lose myself in.
What writing resources do you recommend?
I wrote a blog post, called Five Books that Will Take Your Writing to the Next Level and I recommend each one of them. For picture books, Ann Whitford Paul’s WRITING PICTURE BOOKS: A HANDS ON GUIDE FROM STORY CREATION TO PUBLICATION is the best I have come across. Kidlit411 also has a great list of writing resources.
Had you submitted to Lee and Low, New Voices Award before?
No. I had known about the contest for a long time, but most of my stories were not appropriate as I was writing about steampunk squid and flying bunnies. It wasn’t until I came up with the t’ai chi idea that I realized I had a submission-worthy story.
How long have you been writing?
I have been journaling since I was a child, and I did a lot of legal writing and publishing in my first career. I wrote my first picture book manuscript in 1997 and joined the SCBWI in 2004, but didn’t seriously start writing until four years ago.
How long have you been submitting?
I submitted some early stories written with my husband that I illustrated in 2008. Back then, submissions were done by snail mail and a lot more houses were open to unagented writers. Two years ago, I began to submit more seriously as an author-illustrator.
How much of your week is devoted to writing and illustrating?
I spend about 35 hours a week writing and illustrating, which is about as much time as I can squeeze in while my girls are at school or doing homework, before I have to do chauffeur, chef and housekeeping duties.
How do you find a balance between writing and illustrating and developing both?
I spend the majority of my time illustrating, with writing done in little windows. I did write the first draft of a middle grade novel during NaNoWriMo last year. That was the most sustained writing I had done in awhile. These days, I have focused on illustrating, because I am doing a six month mentorship with David Diaz as part of the Nevada SCBWI mentor program. It started in October and ends in April and has been the best experience (see my blog post about the first conference).
It’s definitely hard to balance the two, because both take a lot of time and learning the craft and becoming good at both is extremely daunting and time consuming. So I always have more I want to do on both ends.
There is a big push for writers to create an author platform, even before they are published? What are some of the things you do to create your platform?
I agree that it’s important to start way before you are published, because it takes a long time to establish a platform. I started blogging four years ago at Sylvia Liu Land. In addition to children’s illustration and writing topics, I give technical tips on working with Blogger. These posts have gotten tremendous traffic (my most popular post, How to Make a Blogger Blog Look Like a Website, has over 64,000 page views). Now that I’ll have a book coming out at the end of next year, I’ll have to figure out how to convert some of those eyeballs into sales!
The other platform that I have stumbled into is my partnership with Elaine Kearns, who started a one stop information website for children’s writers and illustrators, Kidlit411. In the month and a half that the site has been running, we’ve gotten a lot of visibility and traffic. While pulling together useful information for other writers and illustrators, we are also building a platform for ourselves.
I am also quite active in writing and illustrating communities on Facebook and Twitter, and I do it because I enjoy it, I learn so much, and I’ve made wonderful online friends. An added benefit is that the more engaged I am with fellow creatives and the more I support their efforts, the more they support mine.
What other projects are you working on?
This spring, I am working on my portfolio and a dummy for a story. I’m revising several picture book manuscripts and I am researching a nonfiction picture book idea.
What do you do for relaxation?
I am training for my first half-marathon in March, so I spend time running with friends in the neighborhood and running up and down the lone hill in our town, Mt. Trashmore (a former landfill turned into a park). I love to read and I enjoy my TV shows (Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones are my current favorites). I love family time with my husband and girls.
Sylvia Liu is a former environmental attorney turned writer-illustrator. She has exhibited her art in several juried shows, including in the 2012 New Waves exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art. Her art and infographics have been published on Huffington Post and other venues. She is inspired by aliens, cephalopods, bunnies, and pigs who want to fly.
FB PAGE: www.facebook.com/ArtbySylviaLiu