Deni has just accepted a position with Tekno/Five Star and will be the Associate Editor in charge of all mystery and romance authors who are submitting to Five Star for the first time. Authors should look for her as the Tekno/Five Star representative at writers conferences.
Also an author of mystery fiction as well as romance, Deni’s books include Eye of Newt and the Ellie Bernstein mystery series (latest release: Strangle a Loaf of Italian Bread, 2009). Writing as Mary Ellen Dennis, Deni received a Booklist starred review for The Landlord’s Black-Eyed Daughter, a novel based on The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. Deni’s next Mary Ellen historical, Stars of Fire, is set in the American West of 1860-61.
Our discussion was conducted via e-mail.
Pat's Question: Would you tell our readers a little about your background and how you became a freelance editor?
Deni's Answer: 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.” :)
Pat: 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.
Pat: 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 14 books published, starting with the first two books in my “diet club” mystery series (two more novels are due out this year), 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.
Pat: 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.” Tied with overuse of a word would be dialogue tags, like “That’s funny,” he laughed. You cannot laugh and talk at the same time. Try it. Nor can you talk while you are smiling, grinning or (my favorite) exploding. (“I did not tell him,” 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 “John,” do a search-and-replace and change it to “Bruce.” When you reread your ms, Bruce should stand out, and at least 50% of the time it can be changed to “he” or “his.”
Pat: 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. 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. She said she felt like she was there. I had barely begun preening when 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 … blah, blah, blah, fishcakes,” and that wouldn’t be wrong. But it doesn’t really tell you how Delly FEELS. Can you see the difference?
Pat: 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 woman who 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 spelling and 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.
Pat: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to tell the writers and editors who follow The Blood-Red Pencil 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 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"? :)
My thanks to Deni for being kind enough to answer my questions. You can find out more about her novels at her website Deni Dietz.
Patricia Stoltey is a mystery author, blogger, and critique group facilitator. Active in promoting Colorado authors, she also helps local unpublished writers learn the critical skills of manuscript revision and self-editing. For information about Patricia’s Sylvia and Willie mystery series, visit her website and her blog. You can also find her on Facebook (Patricia Stoltey) and Twitter (@PStoltey).