Archive for the writing process

Copyediting Process: The Final, Final, Final Edits

The only thing that matters is the final book

in the reader’s hands.

Nobody cares how you got there.

If it was on time or three years late.

If the first draft sucked.

If the edits were massive or minor.

Nobody reads a crappy book and thinks,

‘Yeah, but wow, he really nailed the deadlines!'”

 

I have not been as all-in with ye olde blog as I used to be when I began it back in May of 2008. Part of that has to do with the general trend away from blog readership to shorter, faster, dopier forms of social media (I am not on InstaGram or Twitter; only Facebook). 

But I remind myself of this blog’s central mission: To pull back the curtain on one writer’s career and process, which I still hope is a worthwhile endeavor. 

To that end: Below, please find an exact copy of my “final, final, final” corrections for my upcoming middle-grade book, Upstander, as emailed to my editor, Liz Szabla. This is the last chance to get things right. 

By this point, the editing process has already gone round and round, back and forth, up and down. Liz tends to concentrate on the macro, the big picture; a team of talented copyeditors bring it down to the micro level. In this book, for example, I had some troubling issues with tense. Somewhat embarrassing, since I pride myself on producing fairly clean manuscripts. We had to sort through that mess. Back and forth, back and forth. Finally, I got my last-last-last chance: speak now or forever hold your peace. We are in Microland. The nitty and the gritty.

Weariness sets in. A part of me doesn’t feel up for yet another painstaking read-through. So the task is to summon that energy, put myself in that space once more, and read once more with that critical eye. Hard because I thought I’d already done that several times before. At the same time, I don’t want to over-think things and foul up perfectly good work. 

Anyway, for this round, I mostly concentrated on deletions. Finding words I could cut, fussing with pronouns, one last search for any typos or repeated words. Minor stuff, and not a lot of it. For Upstander, I quietly waged war on commas, since I’m sometimes prone to an excess of pauses. By this round, however, that mission was more or less accomplished. All good except for the fact that I was hating on Chapter 6 [Ghosts]. It was too slow, too interior, too wordy, too much — and maybe too clever. So I took an axe to it, chopping away sentences, paragraphs, pages. Rare for me at this late stage, so I did it apologetically, knowing that I was giving the designers more hassles than they might have expected. Don’t get me wrong: I like this book a lot. Very proud, in particular, of the substance use disorder theme. There are things I wanted to say, with compassion and sensitivity, putting a face on the impact of this terrible disease. But Chapter 6 was bugging me.

Side Note #1. These edits, and an earlier round, are NOT represented in the Advance Reader’s Copies that are available in digital form at NetGalley. (Educators and reviewers may request a copy directly at NetGalley; contact me if you have any problems.) 

Side Note #2. Here is one absolute truth that I have learned across 35 years as a published author: The only thing that matters is the final book in the reader’s hands. Nobody cares how you got there. If the book was on time or three years late. If the first draft sucked. If the edits were massive or minor. Nobody reads a crappy book and thinks, “Yeah, but wow, he really nailed the deadlines!”

Is it perfect now? Ha, ha, ho. Heh-heh. That’s funny. Well, no; not perfect. But for now, all things considered, the best we could do. 

Here’s the note I sent to Liz, an author’s last attempt to get it right . . . 

 

UPSTANDER FINAL, FINAL, FINAL EDITS

10/2/20

16, Line 9: DELETE “a while of”

17, Line 2 : REPLACE “boys” with “Griff”

22, Line 20: DELETE “and tightened.”

26, Line 8. DELETE “, she said,. NOW READS: “Stop. Just stop.”

26, Line 9, REPLACE “She” with “Mary”

CHAPTER 6: Yuck.

LIZ SZABLA, Note: I just feel like this is a weak chapter and too long. It’s been a problem from the beginning. How about these cuts? At same time, I don’t want to create huge headaches for the designers. This is the only chapter where I do this to you guys.

27, Line 4-9: DELETE: “The same tug . . . zoning out.”

28, Lines 11-12: DELETE: “The real brother . . . for good.”

28-29, Line 17: DELETE Paragraph that begins, “Mary could tell.”

DELETE Next Paragraph that begins, “Ghosts are weird.”

29, Line 11: DELETE “At least . . . a shower.”

31, Line 23: DELETE “, Mary mused,”

32, Line 8-10: REVISE AS: “Their father’s death was harder on Jonny, though he never said much about it.”

41, Line 6: REPLACE “she” with “her mother”                 

73, Line 2: INSERT “old” between “his” and “friends”

121, Line 5: DELETE “for two weeks.”

122, Line 6: DELETE “two-week”

130-131: Line 21+: DELETE “Sometimes Mary felt . . . happening?” THEN REPLACE “She” with “Mary.” NOW READS: “. . . woods beyond. Mary longed for . . . .

151, Line 2: REPLACE “thin” with “insincere”

151, Line 14: DELETE “The deep freeze.”

152, Line 19: INSERT: “the day ended and” between “was glad when” and “the final bell”

157, Line 1: REPLACE “like” with “as if”

162, Line 5: REPLACE “usually” with “had”

166, Line 9-10: DELETE “, and after a pause finished”

174, Line 18 : REPLACE “He’s” with “He was”

227, Line 19: REPLACE “tomorrow” with “the next day.”

235, NOTE: After Line 16, place add BREAK SPACE – not sure what you call that, though we’ve done it a few times in book – so we can push handwritten note to top of page 236. Think it makes sense, the shift, and will look much better.

A Conversation with Lori Mortensen: About Edward Gorey and the Craft of Picture Book Biographies

“As I delved into the research,
I couldn’t wait to write an equally memorable
picture book biography
about this curious,
whimsical,
one-of-a-kind artist.” 
— Lori Mortensen

I’ve been making an informal survey of picture book biographies of late, a favorite genre. So many great titles out there. One of the best is Lori Mortensen’s NONSENSE: The Curious Story of Edward Gorey. Here is an oddball, innovative, breezy, confident, utterly charming book that lives up to its subject. No small accomplishment: a book that Edward Gorey deserves. So I’ve set out a bowl of mints, fluffed up the throw pillows, put on my hazmat suit, and invited Lori over for a chat. Come, let’s say hello.

 

How did this book and subject come about for you?

Interestingly, I find picture book ideas in many different ways, from a title randomly popping into my head at the library (Mousequerade Ball), to my neighbors’ dogs escaping from their backyard and racing down the street (Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg). For NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, I was out on my morning walk and happened to catch a podcast about Edward Gorey on Stuff You Missed in History Class. As I listened, his name and dark style sounded very familiar, and I was sure he’d illustrated a memorable book from my childhood. When I arrived home, I searched my bookshelves and found The Man Who Sang the Sillies, a collection of silly poems written by John Ciardi and illustrated by Edward Gorey. One of the most memorable poems, “The Happy Family” began:

Before the children say goodnight,

Mother, Father, stop and think:

Have you screwed their heads on tight?

Have you washed their ears with ink?

The poem was accompanied by Gorey’s illustration of children scrambling around their bed trying to catch their floating heads. As I delved into the research, I couldn’t wait to write an equally memorable picture book biography about this curious, whimsical, one-of-a-kind artist.

 

Let’s pause here to give up a cheer for creativity and morning walks. So, Lori, how does one undertake a picture book biography? I mean, getting started. Just read everything, take lots of notes, and wait for genius to strike?

 

 

Once I’m intrigued by a subject, I jump into research and see what I can uncover. These days, there is a treasure of online resources right at our fingertips that include museums, historical sites, newspapers, experts, archives, photos, libraries, and books. As I research a subject, I copy links into a document along with the information I’ve found until I’ve gathered a firm foundation of information. Research takes time as I buy, borrow, and read as many books as I can about the subject. When my initial research phase is complete, I organize the information into chronological order, so I understand the information in the order that they happened. As I study the information,
an underlying theme or thread emerges. In the case of NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, the path seemed clear — how Edward Gorey, a child prodigy, created a sweet and sinister style that has influenced a generation of creators from Lemony Snicket to Tim Burton.

 

It seems like picture book biographies of late are more focused on “slice of life” storytelling, rather than a comprehensive cradle-to-grave treatment. The genre, perhaps once a little stiff, is bursting with creativity and freedom.

I love picture book biographies. Because they are a mere 32 pages, authors have a daunting, yet exciting challenge to shine a light on the most intriguing and meaningful aspects of the subject’s life for young readers. Sometimes that results in a “slice of life” approach, where writing about the achievement alone is key. Other times, it’s about the subject’s journey from birth to their achievement that shows how their childhood influenced their accomplishment (as was the case with my book about Edward Gorey), and lastly a biography that spans their entire life, from birth to death.

As you noted, picture book biographies are more creative than ever, and it was a delight and a pleasure to write NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, and share his unique story with today’s young readers.

At a certain point, you must have far too much material for a picture book. How do you reconcile all that great info that you didn’t include? Is it agony? I see so many books increasingly cluttered with back matter –- one recent title I came across had 8 pages of it! — and I’m not a fan.

You’re right! Picture book authors have to make tough choices and sometimes scenes that I would have liked to include just don’t make the final cut. That was especially true for my picture book biography, Away with Words, The Daring Story of Isabella Bird, about Victorian traveler, Isabella Bird, who was the first female member of the Royal Geographical Society and wrote 10 books about her exciting explorations. Talk about tough choices! Hopefully, I chose the best.

And as you noted, extra information is often included in the back matter. While you don’t want to go overboard, back matter often includes a more complete life-to-death narrative, author notes, timelines, and glossaries. Back matter is especially important element for today’s nonfiction books so they can offer as much as possible in the STEM/STEAM market for schools and libraries.

This book is written in free verse. Tell us about that decision.

Since Gorey was a unique personality, it seemed only right to tell his story in a unique way as well. I read a lot of picture book biographies and took special note of tone, structure, and arc. One of my favorites has always been Strange Mr. Satie, by M.T. Anderson. With each page, Anderson’s unique details drew me into this musician’s strange life, full of odd circumstance, eccentric decision-making, and controversial musical excursions. With all that input brewing in the background, I began writing about Edward Gorey.

 

It wasn’t long before a quaint, quirky voice emerged that seemed to already know where it was going. This was a happy occurrence because so often it’s a process of trial and error with many false starts. When I wrote this story, however, everything seemed to fall into place as if there was a sign pointing the way.

While writing it, did you have any awareness of how the book will be illustrated, or by whom? Chloe Bristol’s illustrations strike the perfect note. She’s just amazing. Lucky you!

Interestingly, even though I’m not an illustrator, I always have images in mind when I write. In fact, I write my manuscripts with scenes and page turns in mind because that’s what picture books are all about. When authors take these elements into consideration, it will make their manuscript even more appealing and effective.

In the case of Nonsense! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, I didn’t have any idea who would illustrate it, but it seemed likely that whoever illustrated it would have the same sweet and sinister style as the subject, Edward Gorey. I was delighted when Versify brought Chloe Bristol on board because her style was the perfect match to tell Gorey’s story.

What’s next for you, Lori?

That’s always a great question because one of the wonderful things about writing is that there’s always something exciting just around the corner. In 2021, I’m looking forward to the release of my humorous picture book, Arlo Draws an Octopus, inspired by the countless hours I spent as a child trying to draw at the kitchen table where I had my own share of crumpled “disaster-pieces” just like Arlo. In between releases, I’m tapping away at the keyboard, conjuring, coaxing, and prodding my next story to life, and waiting for good news that’s just around the corner.

Thanks for swinging by my swanky blog, Lori. Yes, the mints are free. Sure, of course, go ahead, take all you want — pour the whole bowl into your pockets. Okay, that’s fine. Anyway! Have a safe trip home, Lori. Thanks for inspiring us!

 

Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s author of more than 100 books. Recent releases include NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey; If Wendell Had a Walrus, illustrated by Matt Phelan; Away with Words, the Daring Story of Isabella Bird, illustrated by Kristy Caldwell; Mousequerade Ball, illustrated by Betsy Lewin; and many more. Coming in May, 2021, Arlo Draws an Octopus, illustrated by Rob Sayegh Jr. Please feel free — because, after all, you are free — to visit Lori’s unimaginatively-named website at lorimortensen.com. 

Pro Tips: Finding Inspiration at Home & Across the Street

Every once in a while I talk “writing process” in the hope that educators or readers might find it remotely interesting. I even include Pro Tips! Anyway, ahem, there’s two paragraphs in Upstander (Macmillan, Spring ’21), a sequel to Bystander, where I can directly trace my inspirations. One inspiration comes from artwork by my daughter, and the other is from my neighbor across the street. For our purposes, we’ll call him Bill LaDue.

In Upstander, Mary is struggling with a number of challenging issues. A minor arc is her relationship with her mother’s boyfriend, Ernesto. Of greater importance to the novel is her older brother’s substance use disorder, its impact on the family, as well as Mary’s shifting friendships at school.

Here’s the unedited scene, just two paragraphs that will appear in the middle of the book. I don’t think you’ll need additional setup:

On the day before her brother moved out, Mary sat in the backyard at a reclaimed picnic table that Ernesto had “rescued” from someone’s garbage pile. He did that a lot. Drove around in his pickup truck on garbage day, often returning with curbside items of questionable quality. A riding lawn mower that “only” needed a new fuel pump and starter switch; a boat that leaked; a set of ancient, rusted golf clubs; a battered ping pong table that lacked a net. He has a weakness for broken things, Mary mused. The thought sank down into her belly, like a small stone dropped into a well, and it made her appreciate Ernesto just a little more.

Mary set out her art supplies. Paper, brushes, watercolors. She painted a seated female figure, facing away, balancing a stack of rocks on her head. It was a strange, almost magical image and it pleased Mary to make it. An hour passed. Very quietly, Jonny sat down beside her. He wore pajama bottoms and a T-shirt. His hair was wet from the shower. Mary didn’t comment, but she felt surprised. He didn’t usually show much interest. Why was he here?

 

It’s important to me that even minor characters are, to the best of my ability, fully realized. It’s a source of pride, actually. Who was this Ernesto guy, dating Mary’s mother and spending time in her house? Finding the answer was deceptively simple: Make something up! After all, that’s what writers do. 

I looked across the street at my neighbor’s house, the fabulous LaDues: Bill, Erin, and Charlie. Bill is a good man, a friend, funny and kind. And he has a thing for curbside “garbage.” He’s constantly pulling over for discarded curbside items, seeing value where the original owners did not, and hauling the derelict items home. Bill’s pals gently tease him about this affliction. The boat that doesn’t float, the four riding lawn mowers all in some state of disrepair, and so on. Just today, Bill posted this on social media:

He wrote, with more than a little self-awareness:

Cleaning out the camper. I kind of feel like I absolutely need each and everyone one of these things: 2 extra sets of golf clubs, 8 or 9 coolers, a bevy of beer brewing equipment never used, 2 ironing boards (Erin’s), cushions for a hanging chair (we no longer have the chair). Hey, you never know when this stuff might come in handy.

 

So that’s Bill. And now, because Bill lives across the street from me, that’s Ernesto, too. And as Mary comes to understand it: He has a weakness for broken things.

Yeah, that’s the key to whole character. It’s all you really need to know about Ernesto. I love him for that quality. Ernesto sees the potential, the upside, in everything and everyone. It made Mary appreciate Ernesto just a little more. And it’s something I admire about my neighbor Bill, too; he’s a romantic at heart, an old softy, bless his soul.

Mary, like my own daughter, Maggie, likes making things. She draws and paints and sews and creates. When it came time to describe one of Mary’s paintings, since that’s what she was doing in this scene, I thought of one that Maggie made last winter, which now hangs in her bedroom:

 

I guess I didn’t have to “make something up” after all!

Funny how that works.

So that’s today’s Pro Tip, young writers. Take a look around, be a sponge, soak it all up. As my neighbor Bill attests, “Hey, you never know when this stuff might come in handy.”

Maybe writers are junk collectors, too.

 

Here are 6 Videos I Made for Teachers and Homeschoolers to Share with Young Readers

I posted a week ago about our collective struggle to find ways to do something meaningful, helpful, positive during this challenging time. As a children’s book author, my immediate goal has been to provide some online material that teachers and parents can share with young learners.

As of today, March 26, I’ve created six videos and posted them on my own Youtube channel (link below). I’ve also learned how to embed them here, also below. For me, that’s saying something.

Technology: ick.

But, as we’re finding in these days of physical distancing, a valuable way to connect.

Please feel free to share these videos with fellow teachers, media specialists, parents, students, children.  If you have ideas or suggestions for future videos, I’ll be happy to respond to that. Thanks for what you are doing.

Stay smart, keep safe, and enjoy the moments we are given. In my house in upstate New York, we are hunkered down with two of our three children, Gavin (20) and Maggie (19), along with my midwife-wife, Lisa (no age given). Our oldest, Nick (26), is in his NYC
apartment, working online. We miss him terribly. Each night, we’ve been enjoying lovely family dinners. We’re rotating who cooks and (purportedly) who cleans. In many respects, it’s been a beautiful experience. Trying to hold onto those positive feelings. Not worrying, for now, about all the lost income, the stress about bills, all the money stuff. There will be time to recover from that. For now, we embrace the now.

Here’s a link to my Youtube Channel.

I’ve included a brief description and target age level immediately below each video

 

THIS IS THE FIRST VIDEO I made, and the shortest, and it touches upon a theme I try to emphasize before every student I meet, regardless of age (though the delivery gets more sophisticated at middle schools): “You are unique. You have stories inside you that only you can tell.”

 

I MADE BOOKS WHEN I WAS a little kid. I sold them to my friends and neighbors. My mother saved one and I read it here. Kind of funny, I think. Hopefully this video inspires young people to make their own books. In the case above, I needed help with the words from my oldest brother, Neal. Ages 4-up.

 

FOR FANS OF JIGSAW JONES: Here I talk about what I was like as a kid — more of a spy than a true detective — and how I gave my favorite childhood toy to Jigsaw Jones. I read a scene from THE CASE OF THE BICYCLE BANDIT.

 

FOR GRADES 4-UP, JUST RIGHT FOR MIDDLE SCHOOLERS. THIS VIDEO LESSON centers around a writing tip first offered by Kurt Vonnegut Jr: make awful things happen to your leading characters! I discuss that idea and, to make the point, read two passages from BLOOD MOUNTAIN, my most recent middle-grade adventure novel and a 2019 Junior Library Guild Selection.

 

HERE’S ONE FOR THE YOUNGEST READERS, ages 3-up, where I read from WAKE ME IN SPRING. I also describe the creative process, the thinking, behind the story. And again, as always, I try to turn it back to the reader, to inspire their own creativity moving forward.

 

MY “SCARY TALES” BOOKS are often wildly popular on school visits. Though the books seem to hit that sweet spot of grades 3-5, I’ve met very young readers who are impervious to fear, second graders who love them, and also, by design, readers in uppers grades and middle school who have enjoyed this high-interest, low-reading level stories with the super cool artwork by Iacopo Bruno. For some, their first successful reading experience of a full-length book that is not heavily illustrated. Here I read from the first two chapters of GOODNIGHT, ZOMBIE. 

 

I’LL CONTINUE TO POST MORE VIDEOS — including a full reading of “ZOMBIE” — as time allows. Please, by all means, feel free to share these videos far and wide. Obviously, if I hear positive reports, I’ll be encouraged to do more. Thanks for stopping by.

In Praise of Extremely Short Chapters

I remember in college reading William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. It contained an extremely short chapter that kind of blew my mind: 

My mother is a fish.

That was all, just five words — a playful idea that appealed to me enormously. I’m not sure why, because you could easily dismiss it as gimmicky. But to me, then and now, I thought of it as clever and refreshing.

Last week, I was in the midst of finishing up a middle-grade novel (a prequel/sequel to Bystander). During this late stage, the work was all-consuming. For example, last week I woke up at 3:40 AM, rolled over and jotted down additional notes toward the chapter that I intended to write later that morning. For this upcoming chapter, I had a clear idea about what I hoped to accomplish: I had notes, scribbled lines of dialogue, established goals. At the end of the chapter, there was going to be a brief but crucial exchange between siblings. I wondered if I should separate it, give that moment it’s very own short chapter. It would break from the format of the book — with chapters coming in around 1,000 words each — further highlighting its importance. But I fretted that it might be jarring and disruptive. Decisions, decisions.

For the record, I did fulfill a writing ambition with an extremely short chapter in Better Off Undead. The previous chapter, “Fight,” describes a confrontation between Adrian (who is a zombie) and a group of tough kids. The next chapter is titled, “Not Really.” The entire contents of that chapter: 

Kidding.

That’s it, one word.

The next chapter is titled “Actually,” which goes on to describe what really happened. Hopefully a reader finds it all playful and amusing, in the same way Faulker’s short chapter pleased me. 

Top that, Bill Faulkner!

What about you, Dear Reader? Can you think of other examples of extremely short chapters in literature?

I’ll give you one more favorite. This is from Stephen King’s It

Nothing much happened for the next two weeks.

Ha!