Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Editor with Tekno/Five Star Books Denise Dietz

Interview conducted via e-mail by Pat Stoltey. An earlier version of this interview was published at The Blood-Red Pencil blog in January 2010.

Today I’d like to introduce professional editor Denise (Deni) Dietz. Responsible for using her fine-tooth comb on many of the mystery manuscripts (including both of mine) submitted to Five Star Publishing, a Division of Cengage, Deni is an experienced professional who teaches her clients as she edits their work.

In December, 2009, Deni accepted a position with Tekno/Five Star and is now the Associate Editor in charge of all mystery and romantic suspense authors who are submitting to Five Star for the first time. Deni says she isn’t looking for a “good book.” She’s looking for a “good voice.” Authors should look for her as the Five Star representative at writers’ conferences although she won't be joining us at the Colorado Gold Conference this September. We'll keep our fingers crossed for 2012.

Also an author of mystery fiction as well as romance, Deni’s books include Eye of Newt and the Ellie Bernstein “diet club” mystery series. Deni’s backlist is at Kindle and other e-venues. The latest offerings: a paranormal romance, Hallie’s Comet, and her short fiction, "The Last Great American Beauty Pageant" (a horror/ suspense about a male beauty contest). Writing as Mary Ellen Dennis, Deni received starred reviews for The Landlord’s Black-Eyed Daughter, a novel based on "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes. “Landlord” will be out in paperback this August, along with an 1875 circus historical, The Greatest Love on Earth. Mary Ellen’s Heaven’s Thunder: a Colorado Saga, published May, 2011, encompasses the Cripple Creek gold rush and the Ludlow Massacre, with an emphasis on Colorado’s silent film industry.


AKA Mary Ellen Dennis
CIR (Pat): Would you tell our readers a little about your background and how you became a freelance editor?

Deni: Writing came first. But I found I had a knack for editing once I became a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and joined a critique group. A fellow RMFW member, Emily Carmichael, asked if I’d consider editing one of her historical romances. I said yes and she received her first-ever revision letter that didn’t have any revisions or corrections. In fact, her editor complimented Emily on a “clean manuscript.” Emily spread the word and I established my free-lance editing service: Stray Cat Productions.

I’ve never had any formal training but I did take a creative writing course in college (the University of Wisconsin). I wrote the first 3 chapters of a racy woman’s fiction novel for a class project. However, I kept using the word “thing” for penis (I was very young!). My professor gave me a 2-page list of euphemisms, my first introduction to “editing.” :)

CIR: What does the publisher expect of you as editor and how does that compare to the author’s expectations?

Deni: I line edit for both. However, the publisher usually gives me a realistic deadline while my freelance clients inevitably ask, “How long will it take?”—a question I can’t answer. Authors are often surprised by how much editing I do. When the author refers to a person, I change “that” to “who” every time, and I like a character’s eyes to stay on his/her head, not drop to the floor—where they can be stepped on—or sweep the room. So I’ll often edit “my eyes landed on his face” to “I stared at his face.” And be careful about a character tossing her head. Unless there’s someone there who can catch it.

CIR: How many manuscripts have you edited since you’ve been freelancing and what genre(s) is your specialty?

Deni: I’ve been free-lancing since the 1990s and in that time I’ve have had 15 books published, starting with the first two books in my “diet club” mystery series, so it’s difficult to guestimate. Plus, there’s a difference between editing and book-doctoring (I’ve done both). I even accepted an assignment to ghost-write a book, though I’d never do that again…unless it was for James Patterson.

CIR: Based on your own observations, what are the top three mistakes made by beginning writers?

Deni: It sounds like a cliché, but telling rather than showing is number one. If a writer simply tells me about a character, I feel no emotional connection. Number two would be books that start with a “weather report.” There are always exceptions, but if you tell me it’s snowing, there had better be a [dead] body part sticking out of the snow. Third would be overuse of a word. Check your manuscripts for the words “just” and “well” and “that.”

Tied with overuse of a word would be dialogue tags, like “You’re so funny,” he laughed. You cannot laugh and talk at the same time. Try it. Nor can you smile, grin or (my favorite) explode your words. (“I swear I didn’t do it,” she exploded.) Nor do I like animal tags: growled, brayed, chirped, etc.

Here’s a “trick” I use for my own books. If your character is named “Mary,” do a search-and-replace and change it to “Ethel" or "Hermione" or any name that will catch your attention. When you reread your manuscript, the unfamiliar name should stand out, and at least 50% of the time it can be deleted or changed to “she” or “her.”

CIR: What is the best piece of advice you give most writers?

Deni: I give them the best piece of advice I’ve ever received. I wrote a scene set in an opulent apartment for my women’s fiction novel, Soap Bubbles (now at Kindle). I described the living room in detail, including the eclectic collection of paintings on the wall. It was written from the POV of my protagonist, an actress. An author I admired read the chapter and complimented me on my narrative, said she felt like she was there. Then she said, “But how does Delly FEEL when she looks at the room?” I rewrote the scene, keeping all my details. Except, when Delly looks at the wall she wishes she could step into a painting. Here’s the rewrite:

"Delly stepped into an enormous living room and blinked at the brightness. The walls and ceilings were pure yellow, the floor a highly-glossed parquet. An eclectic mixture of paintings crowded the walls. Delly recognized Andy Warhol, Peter Max, and Renoir. Her gaze lingered on the Renoir, and she wished she could step into the painting. In a Renoir there were no cameras panning for a close-up, no directors screaming for another take, no rejection. Renoir’s flowers have no smell, but they don’t die. Renoir’s people have no smell, but they live forever. Once she had believed that actors lived forever."

Note that I managed to get some of her backstory into a couple of brief paragraphs! This is also an example of what I was talking about before: showing vs. telling. I could have said: “Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe print reminded her of her last acting role,” and that wouldn’t be wrong. But it doesn’t really tell you how Delly FEELS. Can you see the difference?

CIR: What advice would you give someone who is interested in becoming an editor?

Deni: Don’t give up your day job. I once received an email from a lawyer who asked me to ghost-write his John Grisham clone. The lawyer outlined the plot, which could have been taken straight from a review of a Grisham novel, and said movie producers were very interested but would only consider a published book. If I wrote the book, he said, he’d give me 50% of the royalties. A woman wanted me to edit her husband’s adventure novel. But she’d only pay $100, she said, because—are you ready?—her husband used spell-check.

Editing requires a lot more expertise than simply correcting typos. For example, I cover punctuation, grammar, syntax, transitions, anachronisms, historical/ethnic accuracy, characterization, conflict (internal and external), motivation, secondary players, backstory, POV, narrative voice, dialogue, exposition, sensory details, and descriptions of people, places and situations. Warning: If you plan to go into free-lance editing, realize that the competition is fierce. Many retired pub house editors are now free-lance editors. However, with the advent of [self-published] ebooks, I’ve added 2 editors to my service. Both have been traditionally published with 10 or more books and both have 10 or more years of editing experience.

CIR: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to tell the writers and readers who follow Chiseled in Rock blog?

Deni: When you submit your manuscript to an editor, it should be as error-free as you can possibly make it, and be sure to follow any formatting instructions. Too often I’ve heard: “If it’s a good book, the editor will fix it; that’s what they’re paid to do.” Aside from that incredible misconception, why have one strike against you from the get-go? Look at it this way. An editor has one open slot and two books competing for that slot. Book A is “clean” and formatted but Book B isn’t. Which book do you think the editor will acquire? When someone queries me, I respond with formatting guidelines. And yet I recently received a 90,000 word manuscript that was written like a 90,000 word email. Not a real email—as a plot device—but every single paragraph was flush left and there were two double-spaces between paragraphs. Did the submitter even bother to glance at my guidelines? Or did someone tell her "the editor will fix it"? There’s a terrific essay on self-editing at Gordon Aalborg: Author & Editor

I’ve been asked if, as an acquiring editor, I choose the kind of authors I read, or if I cater to the market? My answer is that my reading tastes are too eclectic to choose the kind of authors I read. I devour everything, from historical romances to generational sagas to "cozies" to thrillers. And it's virtually impossible to cater to the market. By the time a book goes through the publication process, the market could be glutted with vampire serial-killer books, somebody-or-other's diary, paint-by-numbers craft mysteries, cowboys with illegitimate babies they didn't know about, amateur women sleuths with male nicknames, and/or Dan Brown clones.


My thanks to Deni for being kind enough to answer my questions.

You can find out more about authors Denise Dietz and Mary Ellen Dennis and their novels at Deni's website.


Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Thanks for hosting Deni.

Deni - Thanks for your perspective on what kinds of things should get edited. And thanks for reminding us of how important a clean manuscript is.

D. U. Okonkwo said...

Great interview - thanks for sharing! Definitely taken notes on what to cut out, and what to put in.

Terry Odell said...

I enjoyed meeting Deni at Left Coast Crime, and what she says is so true. I've just finished working with two editors on two manuscripts, and both told me they appreciated how "little" work they had to do. (Doesn't mean there weren't markups on almost every page!)

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Very helpful advice on edits.
Good interview!

Patricia Stoltey said...

And thanks to all of you for dropping by. I'll never forget my first glimpse of Deni's edit for "The Prairie Grass Murders." That was back when I was naive enough to think I knew what I was doing. Live and learn!

Giles Hash said...

That's all great advice! The first time I heard a lot of it, I was shocked. Simple revisions (like replacing names for "he" or "she" and showing character emotions and reactions to a scene) were utterly foreign to me until I started working with critique partners. Some of my revelations came from self-evaluations of my MS. But editors like Ms. Dietz spoke to classes I attended and taught me how to improve. Thanks for all of your hard work! :D

Edna said...

Great interview, Pat and Deni, thanks for the clarity of your examples! "The Highwayman" is my favorite poem! Looking forward to your book!

Keith Cronin said...

Great interview! It's so rare to get a "glimpse behind the curtain" of the editor's world.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Thanks, everyone. It's always a pleasure for me to have an excuse to give Deni the third degree.

Deni Dietz said...

Let me add my thanks to all the compliments and comments. Once upon a long time ago, before I was published, I had no idea what show vs. tell meant. And it's so very important to me (to you) because a book without "characterization" may have legs, but it doesn't have wings.

Here's a rather simplistic example of show vs. tell:

1] The house looked like it belonged on a Monopoly board. Annie approached the windowless structure with caution.

2] The house looked like it belonged on a Monopoly board, thought Annie, as she approached the windowless structure. She longed for Buffy, her trusty rotweiller, or at the very least, her Corgi, Cujo.

N. R. Williams said...

Nice to meet you.

I especially liked what you said about editing. I have a couple friends, (because I blog), who are self pubbed indies on kindle. I am helping them with critiquing already pubbed books. I've been a member of RMFW for years and a moderator in a critique group nearly as long. I self pubbed too, but not without submitting first to critique partners and then to an editor. These other writers only had friends and family look at their work. I've been trying to make them understand how important editors are and what you said pretty much sums it up.

I've recently realized why my work was turned down so much. I have a YA voice but my characters are in their twenties. So until the publishing houses offer New Adult, there is no place for me.
N. R. Williams, The Treasures of Carmelidrium

Deni Dietz said...

N.R., I love "New Adult" as a genre. Unfortunately, there's no "shelf" for it, not even a digital shelf :)

The closest sub-genre would be chick-lit.

As far as your unedited friends are concerned, I've been a free-lance editor for almost 20 years, and yet every book I write is free-lance edited *before* submission. I can't edit myself. No one can. Authors read what they expect to see, not what's on the page/screen.

Example: In one of Emily Carmichael's early historical romances, the hero had a pet wolf. It went everywhere with him. Midway through the book, the hero is ambushed by a bunch of bad guys. Emily wrote a terrific fight scene that ended with a victorious hero. In the margin I wrote: WHERE'S THE WOLF?


Regge Ridgway said...

Editing is the hardest part of writing. And I know I am not alone in this. The whole thing is like cosmetic surgery. Someone says your nose is too big or your paragraph then you feel the need to change it even though it hurts. I write with an open mind, thinking to myself that anything I write can easily be changed. Like alternate endings on a DVD. The end result is not for you. It is for the reader. My blog is http://characterswellmet.blogspot.com. Reggie Ridgway

Anonymous said...

Eyes dropping. Eyes rolling. I have wished, while reading some books, not all of them self pubbed, that an editor would have struck these phrases out!

Editing is SO important. Find a GOOD editor is so important.

This is a great post with lots of excellent information. Thank you, Pat, for hosting.
Ann Best, Memoir Author