Each week, I’ll pester one of my creative colleagues with five questions about his or her work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.
Barb Galler-Smith and I met not long after I edited her first novel, Druids, co-written with Josh Langston. While Josh lived a couple thousand miles away, Barb was right here in Edmonton. After my thousand tiny cuts and admonitions on the appropriate use of semicolons, I approached her with a certain caution.
Fortunately, Barb turned out to be as sweet-natured as she is talented, and we’ve since become thick as thieves. We support each other’s book readings, bump into each other at parties, and invite each other to participate in writing panels. She and her Watsonian husband John Archer have become fixtures at our annual Hobbit party.
1. You’ve shared with me the agony and ecstasy of being edited, and of course you yourself are an editor. What are the most important elements of good editing?
Good editing is difficult. I never realized just how much until I started doing it myself. I think the key is to maintain an author’s voice and intent while making sure the prose is smooth and sentences make sense. The tasks of a good editor are many and varied and include finding technical errors in spelling, punctuation, syntax, as well as finding plot holes or continuity errors. Good editors also can correct many mistakes in historical or scientific milieus. And practice helps. I am particularly challenged with commas, and certain parts of speech, so I always keep my grammar and usage guides handy. There’s wonderful satisfaction helping new authors discover their own skill levels rise because of some suggestion I made. Good editors also do not change things for the sake of change—there has to be a reason for every change, and it can’t be “because I said so.” The goal of the editor parallels that of the author—to present as clean a copy with as good a story as possible. And everyone wants the author to look good.
2. You and Josh did quite a bit of research for your Druids fantasy trilogy. Where does historical documentation inspire and where does it hinder a story of romance and magic?
History is chock-full of captivating fodder for literature. The myths and legends of a culture dictate the worldview of the people of the time. In fiction that worldview can’t be incomprehensible to the reader. So some things are skipped over in the tale because the whole truth would be off-putting, or distracting from the story. Good examples of just how hard and dirty life was for so many people could get in the way of the palatability of the story. I also like how the historical record has big holes in it, which allows inspiration in bending the facts to fit the fiction.
3. Locally, you teach and mentor quite a few young or aspiring writers. What have they taught you while you were teaching them?
Students have taught me a bit of humility, to be gentler when giving honest feedback, and to be careful that when I offer suggestions, they are appropriate for the writer. Not every student is at the same skill level, so every student requires an individual approach. On the whole, young people with talent and drive to succeed thrill me and I love it when they succeed.
4. As one of the editors of On Spec magazine, how do you see the role of short fiction periodicals has changed in the past couple of decades? How do you see it evolving in the next decade or two?
Nothing like a hard question, is there? Twenty years ago there were more short fiction markets, with many subscribers. Now those markets are either dead or dying. I’ve seen so many valiant efforts start well, and then flounder. Print is especially vulnerable as costs skyrocket yet subscriptions plummet. Everyone seems to be scrambling. Visual media has had an enormous impact, and that includes a resurgence of comics and graphic novels.
I once heard today’s market is like the Wild West: it’s changing so fast it’s hard to keep track of it. I do see people still wanting good stories, and so writers will still write. I’m just afraid that high-quality fiction will become more scarce as paper markets dwindle and readers expect great fiction for free or for little money. I’d love to see a resurgence of short fiction reading, but I’m at a loss to predict how that’s going to happen. Will we all go digital? Probably.
5. You’re a Morris dancer! Most people know that phrase only as a punch line from Blackadder, if at all. Please describe Morris dancing and why on earth anyone still does it.
First, why? It’s tremendous fun. It’s a social activity, and you can drink beer afterwards. It’s fabulous aerobic exercise, it can be done indoors or outdoors with only a drum or a full set of portable instruments like penny whistles, fiddles, and accordions. The music is interesting and musically complicated, and hearing it many times doesn’t diminish its appeal. The dances themselves are also complicated, and yet when you’ve mastered the first one, all the others come much easier. Complicated and interesting patterns with waving hankies and bashing sticks. With Morris a dancer also gets to wear bells! What’s not to love?
It’s also old. Its exact origins aren’t known, though its patterns of movement are centuries old, and likely based on ancient dance forms (with circles and partners). It’s best known as an English dance, yet all the folk dances of the British Isles have related elements. It’s also a dance of the common folk, which probably accounts for it being an easy target for derision. But it was a mainstay throughout the late middle ages in country village festivals. It was a source of pride and competition between villagers as to which could make the best dance. Morris dancers even entertained at court. Can you tell I love it?