- by Denise Dietz
The following is an imaginary interview, culled from a real interview. My fourth Ellie Bernstein/Lt. Peter Miller “diet club” mystery – STRANGLE A LOAF OF ITALIAN BREAD – will be out in May and I figured maybe it was time to know me as a writer (and, I guess, an editor). So…here’s the Q&A:
1) What is your approach to writing a novel: that is, do you outline or not? Do you keep files and piles of notes?
Deni: I don’t outline. I begin with a premise and a cast of characters. I scribble what I call “indecipherable notes,” mostly on the backs of envelopes, i.e. bank statement and credit card bill envelopes. By and large, I write a scene in my head and do a mental “save.”
2) What are some of the tricks, pitfalls, etc. that you need to keep in mind when writing a mystery novel/story?
Deni: I love to paint myself into a corner then figure a way out (before the paint dries). That can be tricky but it’s part of the fun. Writing should be fun. I love words so I tend to overwrite. Knowing this, I “weed words” during my second draft. I’ve heard people say they don’t mind reading a novel with slow pacing, but there’s a big difference between slow pacing and what I call “imagery narrative.” I like to read a fast-paced book with vivid images, just enough narrative to put me in the scene, and lots of dialogue, so that’s what I write.
3. What is it that kick starts a project for you: a character, a situation, or…?
Deni: Both a character and a situation, and a TITLE. I can’t write without a title, even though I—or most likely my publisher—might change it later.
4. What started you in writing? (Was it always a dream of yours?)
Deni: I’ve always written. When I was in the third grade, the class assignment was to write a one-page story with an ink pen. I wrote a 3-page story, first-person, called THE PENCIL WHO GREW UP TO BE A STUB. Since the pencil was my narrator, I used a pencil rather than a pen, and my teacher gave me a failing grade (I’ve always been a bit of a rebel). In high school I wrote and illustrated a children’s book about a giant who lived in a town of nearsighted people—who didn’t know he was a giant. One day a peddler came to town, selling glasses…
5) What keeps you writing? What inspires you?
Deni: I can’t NOT write. And while this may sound funny, my own writing inspires me. I always want to make the next book better. And finally, writing is the quintessential high, better than drugs or alcohol or…I was going to say chocolate, except I think writing and chocolate are synonymous.
6. Can you tell us a bit about the first story you had published — how did that come about?
Deni: Actually, my first published story was a poem I submitted to the Village Voice when I was 12-years-old. It was called GRASS and went like this:
It makes me sneeze,
I’d rather skin my knees,
But it tastes good.
I meant a blade of grass, and it was a long time before I figured out why the Voice had published my poem (of course, they didn’t know my age).
7. How have you grown as a writer?
Deni: I don’t think my “growth” is anything specific; more what I’ve dropped. I’ve dropped almost every tag line except “said.” I’ve dropped excess adjectives and, especially, adverbs. I’ve dropped all the passivity I can, and think carefully before using the word “was.” Two things have helped me acquire more clarity (as a writer). One, working as an editor. Two, using a free-lance editor before submission.
8. What are the three most important pieces of advice you’d give to writers?
Deni: Write every day, read a lot, don’t give up.
9. How long does it generally take you to complete a novel – from conception to completion?
Deni: Once conception is thrown into the mix, I can’t answer that question. Sometimes conception hangs around for years, gaining weight and losing weight, just like the members of my fictitious diet club, Weight Winners.
10. How many revisions do you normally go through when writing a novel?
Deni: That depends on the novel. My first published novel went through 12 revisions (I called it “the dirty dozen”). I shelved one of my novels for 9 months, then deleted the first 200 pages because I discovered that the book started on page 201 (true story). My latest book, just turned in to my publisher, felt right after the third draft. I’m still revising one of my historical romances after God-knows-how-many drafts, but I’m determined to get that puppy into shape.
11. What’s the most difficult stage in the writing for you?
Deni: Sleep deprivation, especially when I’m on a deadline.
12. Who are the authors who you admire most, who inspire you, whose writing you think is most beautiful, moving, exciting?
Deni: There are way too many to mention them all, but if I had to pick a few: Dean Koontz, Susan Isaacs, Daphne DuMaurier, Ira Levin, Leon Uris, John Steinbeck and William Goldman. It was Goldman’s book, “Boys and Girls Together,” that made me exclaim: “I want to be a writer!”
13. What do you find most satisfying in a book: a great plot, beautiful writing, fully realized characters?
Deni: Fully realized characters.
14. In your own work, what do you think you are strongest at: plot, beautiful prose, character? Or something else?
Deni: Character and “something else”: humor.
15. How do you plot a mystery or a thriller – what stymies you most, what do you find easiest?
Deni: I don’t plot my mysteries. I start with a premise and let my imagination take over. As far as the plot is concerned, I rarely go with my first idea. Instead, I try and find a unique, less clichéd motivation…and conclusion. As an editor, if the perp in your submission says something like, “I’m going to kill you anyway, so let me explain how I murdered all those people,” you’re done like a dinner!
16. What advice can you give on plotting a mystery?
Deni: THINK THINGS THROUGH! I’ve had too many submissions where the writer uses illogical motivations in order to fit his or her plotline. Sometimes it practically screams: “I’m not sure this works, but maybe the editor won’t notice.”
17. Does the world you create in your non-series novels continue to live in your mind long after you’ve completed the novel?
Deni: No. Because I usually work on more than one book at a time. When one novel is completed, I go full-throttle into another.
18. What scares you about doing a series?
Deni: I have one series, my Ellie Bernstein/Lt. Peter Miller “diet club” series…and the first books of two other series (Ingrid Beaumont/Hitchcock the Dog, and Sydney St. Charles, apothecary owner and reluctant witch). I could never write 26 books (in a series). I suppose THAT would scare me. It would be like letting my sons live with me for 26 years. (Even 18 is pushing it!)
19. What other kinds of writing do you do?
Deni: Song lyrics. Short fiction.
20. Is the publication of each book as thrilling as that first one?
Deni: No. It’s more thrilling. When somebody says “I liked your book, Deni,” I still get a lump in my throat and whisper, “You read my book? You liked my book? Oh, thank you.”
21. What are your goals as a writer?
Deni: To entertain. To touch emotions; make my readers laugh, cry, savor a phrase. But mostly to entertain.
22. Why do you think mystery is so popular?
Deni: I believe it’s because most crime fiction novels allow readers to become involved…really involved. It’s the difference between laughing at someone and laughing with someone. While most genres—including mysteries—put you in the scene and/or the minds of the characters, crime fiction puts you smack-dab in the plot, as well. You cannot sit back and read a well-written mystery without having your mind churn out some sort of solution. It would be like sitting in the corner and trying not to think of a white bear.
23. Why has mystery spawned so many sub-genres?
Deni: My guess is the internet. When readers’ chat groups like 4MysteryAddicts and DorothyL, and dozens of others, first developed, then expanded, the members of those groups began designating sub-genres: “What is a cozy?” “I prefer my mysteries hard-boiled.” “I just read a suspense/thriller.” “While I usually don’t like woo woo, I did like Denise Dietz’s FIFTY CENTS FOR YOUR SOUL.”
24. What sparked the idea for your romantic suspense, THE LANDLORD’S BLACK EYED DAUGHTER, written under your pen name Mary Ellen Dennis? How long had you had this idea before starting to write?
Deni: As a kid I developed a love for Alfred Noyes’ poem, “The Highwayman.” I memorized all the verses, but changed the ending to a happy one. During a high school speech class, I recited my adaptation. Before I could finish, the bell rang, signaling the end of class, but none of the students moved. At that moment in time, I decided two things: I’d be an actress and I’d write a novel inspired by my favorite poem. Acting was easy. I have a good voice and appeared in many musicals. Writing “Landlord” took a lot longer, especially since I had contractual obligations for other books.
25) What do you like best about writing? Who are your favorite characters? What are your favorite moments in your stories?
Deni: The best part of writing, for me, is surprising myself. By that, I mean writing something in Chapter Two, but not knowing why until it comes together in Chapter Seven. Example: In my latest mystery novel, STRANGLE A LOAF OF ITALIAN BREAD (due out in May) I named a character Trenton. Just a name, right? Later, I built a family around him: Los Angeles (Angel) and twin sisters, Kenner and Metairie, and his baby sister, Boca Raton—all named for the cities in which they were born. While talking to Angel, my sleuth, diet guru Ellie Bernstein says, “I bet Boca Raton will change her name when she’s older, like you did yours.” And Angel replies, “No, she likes it.” Obviously, my favorite characters are my quirky supporting players, but I have to be very careful they don’t take over the book. I also like my pets: Ellie’s cat, Jackie Robinson, and Ingrid’s dog, Hitchcock. In STRANGLE A LOAF OF ITALIAN BREAD I introduce Scout, a Border Collie named for the little girl in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” My favorite moments in my stories? The twist ending I add, after writing the twist ending that solves the crime. And hearing in my head the following reader response: “She played fair with her clues and I should have guessed whodunit, but I didn’t. Now I’ll have to read it all over again!”