Mind your Ps and Qs: Deni Dietz Discusses An Editor’s Perspective on the Art of Manuscript Submissions

By Maria Giordano
Killer Nashville Staff

To say Denise “Deni” Dietz loves to read is a major understatement. An avid reader since the third grade when she was caught reading her mother’s copy of Gone With The Wind, the experience only fueled her passion more. She was later caught red-handed, reading her father’s Perry Mason paperbacks.

All this early reading was an excellent foundation for a career as senior editor for Five Star Mysteries, an imprint of Gale, which is a part of Cengage Learning. They have hundreds of books in print in the Western, Romance, Mystery and Science Fiction and Fantasy genres. 

Deni has been a mainstay of the Killer Nashville Writers’ Conference since it’s beginning. Deni will be attending the 2015 writers conference, bringing with her a wealth of experience.

We catch up with Deni for a Q&A about her work. She also shares some laughable moments in working with writers. Word to the wise, writers should steer clear of landing on her “laugh out loud” list.

Q: Tell me about yourself and your work at Five Star?

Slush Pile CEOA: I’m the Senior Editor for Five Star Mysteries. I’m also known as “the Slush Pile CEO.” I am called this because every submission is vetted by me. If a submission is too short, too long, wrong genre, sloppy presentation, it’s an automatic rejection. Many writers refuse to format or proof their manuscripts before submitting, and if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard “If it’s a good book, the editor will fix it,” I could retire. Not true!

Often I’ll do a 20, 30, even 100 page edit and ask for a rewrite if a new author is very close to publication. I find that most first-book authors tend to overwrite. Recently, I did a 100-page edit, deleting large chunks of extraneous information (a.k.a. “info dumps”) and asked for a rewrite on a novel called, Trojan Horse. The author, S. Lee Manning, trimmed approximately 37,000 words from the 119,800-word manuscript. I will be recommending that Five Star go to contract on her book. The edits are my way of paying it forward since I wouldn’t be published if so many people hadn’t helped me.

Q: How long have you been an editor?

 A: I’ve been a free-lance editor for many, many years. I’m good at it because I’m somewhat of a chameleon and, just like a chameleon is able to change colors to suit its surroundings, I can make editorial changes in the “voice” of an author. Of course an author has to have a voice before Five Star can publish him or her.

Q: Tell me about Five Star.Five Star Publishing

A: In brief, Five Star likes to focus on library sales, which is why I acquire the crème de la crème. Library sales depend, for the most part, on reviews from a variety of publications such as Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist and Kirkus. Nevertheless, Five Star Mysteries are also available at all major venues including online bookstores and brick-and-mortar bookstores. Our author-friendly contracts include a nice advance and generous royalties for hardcover, eBooks and large-print editions. Authors and/or literary agents may keep audio, softcover, foreign and film rights.

Q: What do you look for when considering manuscripts?

A: All genres and sub-genres of crime fiction, everything from hardboiled to amateur sleuth. I love history-mysteries and Science Fiction/Fantasy crossovers, and I’ll consider Young Adult novels if they are suitable for adults. The Book Thief and The Hunger Games are good examples. I look for characterization, story and pacing, in that order.

Sometimes, though, aspiring writers go too far. Here are some queries that illustrate what I sometimes confront.

First… the “perhaps you should consider spell-check” queries:

1.) I’ll even gaurantee that my novel would sell as much copies (if not more) than those previously published by your company. I will even buy a number of books myself.

2.) I am certain this novel has potential. it’s not just me that’s saying this, it’s a number of people who have got to read the novel for the first time who loved it to bits, including a mature profeesor in English, which had seen many manuscirpts and done tons of proof reading in his days.

3.) Where once her unyeilding selfishness is veiled by the customs of tradition, her determined hostile spirit is LAID BEAR in her northern prison.

Next, my favorite “couldn’t help LOL-ing” queries:

1.) What goes through your mind when you discover your father, who you thought was just a successful business man, turns out to be a major HEROINE dealer?

2.) The HEROIN is confronted with the decades old cold case.

3.) She was rumored to be the real HAIR to the kingdom.

4.) God wakes up with amnesia, to begin the discovery of who she is and what has happened only to stumble on an incredible truth that changes everything she thought she knew about herself. With slapstick humor and keen insight into the irony of her predicament, God pieces together the traces of her past, from her childhood when she believed she was a cat, to her psychiatric sessions with a mysterious Russian émigré. My book is the love child from Franz Kafka and Alain Robbe-Grillet and I’ve sent it to tens of publishers. Interested?

5.) May I submit for your consideration my first novel, a manuscript of 130,000 words. It is the story of an artist whose best friend is a giant walnut tree—to the humiliation of his progressively hostile daughter. Attempting to do the big leafy guy in with an ax, during a storm, she is crushed and killed under a fallen limb. Depressed and filled with guilt, the artist experiences a religious conversion and an unexpected relationship.

Third, “I hope you’ll read my manuscript despite my dumb query” query:

1.) I have turned down two offers to have my book published because I won’t do marketing.

2.)  (The typo is his!) It would take me over 3 hours to re-format my manuscript per the subsmission guidelines.  I am an attorney and that would be quite a chunk of my time, and my time is valuable.

3.) Please note that my book is NOT a “mystery.” It is researched historical fiction. Also the manuscript contains some “gaelic” spellings, not many, but those should not be put through a homogenizing process for mass appeal.

4.) The book covers middle age angst and naughty youth and needs to be pitched chameleon-like to varying readerships emphasizing what for each of them would be the particular selling points. The book would need to be perused by ultra busy people so the first few chapters have been written in a magazine style that allows it to be put down and picked up again. The cover of the book is probably the most significant selling item. This I believe should exude the idea of wealth and fame playing somewhat to the cliché’ of popular culture. In terms of the market it should sell for under five pounds, a price which the reading shopper would readily place in the shopping trolley as a non-extravagant purchase.

5.) (From a really moronic writer’s brief query-synopsis): He had to maintain what his boss considered to be a businesslike appearance for the sake of the law firm. And with a tight-fisted Jew for his boss Kevin knew better than to expect any other attitude.”

Next, the “I feel your angst, but…” queries:

1.) My book has never been published. I did send a query to Alicia Condon at Kensington Publishing and she rejected it because I kill off the heroine.

2.) (Writer’s response after I sent her formatting guidelines and asked for a one-page synopsis) Does this mean you are accepting my manuscript for publication once I fill out all these forms?  I did send you a five-page synopsis. Do I need to redo my manuscript according to your guidelines?  If so, fine, but I may need some time to do this since changing font sizes, margins, etc. may affect the layout of the book.

3.) Demi Deitz (note misspelling of first as well as last name!) I am unpublished but an ex newspaper feature writer, so while I have experience writing I am new as to how to get my book considered by a publisher.  I have tried to get an agent but to no avail. My book is a Psychological novel. It is the story of a woman’s plunge into madness and is based largely on my mother’s very sad life. Right now I only have a hardcopy of my book, but if you are at all interested I will gladly put it into the computer, although this would take me some time.

4.) I expect you’ll turn this down, but I won’t take it personally.

5.) (I guess she’s never heard of the Harry Potter books, The Hunger Games, The Book Thief, et al) This is a just-under 16,000-word shirt-pocket version of a novel. Very handy for your readers to take on the subway, bus or to stick into their purse or knapsack.  These days, kids like “small”.  It intimidates them less!

6.) I hope you will read the entire manuscript since, in my own opinion, it starts very slowly and I have not yet, even after several re-writes, found a way to get around this. I have been told Part two is better than Part One.

7.) I have completed my first book. I am looking for a publisher and I am having trouble finding someone to take me seriously.

8.) If I format, I’ll have to proof the whole manuscript. 

9.) **Please note** Writing is a recreational pass time, along with traveling and caring for elderly parents.

10.) Please let me know when we can meet. Next week would be ideal as I will be off my meds!

And finally, my favorite response to a rejection, I usually state why I’m turning the submission down, but this person has not: “Thanks for the quick clear reply. Good to hear from a human for a change.” 

And my favorite laugh-out-loud synopsis: “Not to give too much away but the lead character goes from bottom to top to bottom again and it’s quite the rollercoaster ride along the way.

Deni DietzBesides being a well-respected editor, Deni Dietz is a best-selling author of the Diet Club Mysteries, in addition to Footprints in the Butter, co-starring Hitchcock the Dog, and a dozen other novels. As Mary Ellen Dennis, Dietz also penned Heaven’s Thunder, circa 1893 – 1923, with an emphasis on Colorado’s silent film industry, and The Landlord’s Black-eyed Daughter, a paranormal history-mystery-romance. Dietz’s Annie and the Grateful Dead was nominated for an Anthony in the short story category (Grateful Dead is a “pop culture cat” who foils a robbery and, at the same time, solves a murder).