Interview: Barbara Campbell

Barbara Campbell attended Odyssey in 2000. She is the author of the Trickster’s Game trilogy published by DAW Books. (Heartwood — 2005, Bloodstone — 2006, Foxfire — 2009). A lyricist and librettist as well as a novelist, her musicals have been performed throughout the world. She is a member of SFWA and ASCAP. Visit her website at www.barbara-campbell.com.

Can you talk about your pre-Odyssey writing process? What kind of writing schedule, if any, did you keep?

I still tend to go to extremes in terms of my writing process, either writing twelve hours a day or letting weeks go by without writing anything. A big change, though, is that I tend to do a lot more prep work before I actually start writing, detailing the world I’m exploring, the inner life of the characters, the themes and the key plot incidents. That’s the result of a lot of false starts that occurred after I wrote my first novel.

The seed of that story came to me in a dream. Sounds flaky, but it’s true. I wrote the book in three months. It was like I was channeling. It was an incredible experience, but it had an unforeseen (and ultimately negative) side effect: I thought every novel I wrote would–and should–emerge that easily.

Publishers took a look at the mix of historical fiction, fantasy, and romance and said, “No, thanks. We don’t know how to market it.” So I set out to write a genre work and chose…romance! Since I’d grown up reading my mother’s historical romances, I figured I’d be great at writing one.

Instead, I was an absolute disaster, more interested in historical accuracy, I think, than in the romance. So I moved on to fantasy. I stopped and started half a dozen novels. I’d write these wonderful scenes (well, I thought they were wonderful!) and realize I had no idea what they had to do with the story I was telling. And further realize I had no idea what story I was trying to tell! All those stops and starts were incredibly frustrating and left me feeling that I was a one-shot writer who’d already had her one shot.

What made you decide to attend the Odyssey Writing Workshop?

I’d started yet another idea–which eventually became Heartwood–when I got a postcard about the workshop. I hoped I’d get some direction, not only in terms of where the novel was going, but also about writing a fantasy, a genre I’d basically fallen into, rather than one I had read devotedly all my life.

How do you feel your writing and writing process changed as a result of having attended Odyssey? What insights did you gain into your own work?

For me, Odyssey was a crash course in the building blocks of storytelling. I went there feeling adrift, doubting my ability as a writer and my ability to finish a project. I came away with more confidence and a determination that I was going to finish Heartwood if it killed me!

After the ease with which I wrote that first novel, I was surprised to discover that my biggest weakness was creating a strong plot. Jeanne [Cavelos, Director of Odyssey] described the original synopsis of Heartwood as a “scavenger hunt,” rather than a plot linked by a strong causal chain of events. Odyssey gave me the tools I needed to understand my strengths and weaknesses and to work through the problems I was having. Through outlining and scene analysis, I got better at crafting a tight plot.

When and how did you make your first sale?

I sold Heartwood to DAW Books in 2004.

That first book (my “dream” book that didn’t sell) got me an agent. She was the one who submitted Heartwood to DAW. And DAW bought it. Very straightforward. However, I will tell you the story of how I heard about the sale. I came home from somewhere and listened to my messages and there’s my agent’s voice–very coy–saying, “I have good news . . . ” Well, what other good news could it be? Of course, I called her immediately. She said that she didn’t want to come right out and leave the full news on an answering machine, but she was too excited just to hang up without saying anything.

Some writers have told me that the most exciting day in their lives was when they held a copy of their first published book in their hands. Not for me. Don’t get me wrong–that was great. But MAKING that sale, hearing Sue crooning, “I have good news . . . “–that was the best.

How many stages does your work go through before you send it off to a publisher? How much of your time is spent writing the first draft, and how much time is spent in revision? What sort of revisions do you do?

The first draft of Heartwood took about two years. Revisions took at least another year. I basically gutted the first draft and rewrote two-thirds of the book. What started as a rambling 180,000-word manuscript ended up as a much tighter final draft of 100,000 words.

It was written as a stand-alone. Only in the course of conversations with my editor did I embark on two more novels in the series. As a result, my process with Bloodstone was a little different. Now that I was under contract, I didn’t have the luxury of spending three years writing a sequel. I started off outlining the story, but I found I was using the editor half of my brain instead of the creative half. So after three months, I plunged in, guided by a synopsis that outlined some scenes in great detail and had huge gaps where I didn’t know what I was doing.

Occasionally, I wrote out of sequence. I was still getting to know my protagonist, so when I found myself struggling with one of Keirith’s scenes, I moved on to Darak or Griane–characters I knew well from Heartwood–to keep the momentum going.

I revised Bloodstone as I went along, so it took me less time to come up with a final draft. Foxfire had more revisions, particularly in terms of the protagonist’s arc, which I kept refining. I write multiple POV novels, and one technique that I’ve found effective after finishing a first draft is to read all the chapters for a POV character (along with those in which he is featured, but not the POV character) to get a better sense of the overall character arc.

Another technique I use when writing the first draft of a scene is to act it out–literally. I sit on my sofa and hold protracted conversations between characters. It may sound strange, but since my background is in theatre, that kind of improvisation is natural for me.

I’m always amazed by authors who say that they have to get every word right in their first drafts. While their reasoning makes sense (Paul Park once said that if he failed to choose exactly the right words, he would veer ever farther from true north), I know if I worked like that, I’d never finish anything.

Once I know what the scene is basically about, I get it on the page. Then I go back (usually the next morning after I’ve had a chance to think about it) and take a look at it again, refining and rewriting as I go. Once it accomplishes what I think it should, I put it aside and move on. When I’ve got a big chunk of the novel written, I sit down and read from start to finish, noting where there are holes in the plot, gaps in character development, etc.

The scenes of highest emotion (in my books, usually death scenes!) are the ones that undergo the least revision. Those are scenes that “sing” to me and it’s far easier for me to channel that emotion into my writing than it is to craft more prosaic sequences. (What I think of as the “on the road” scenes that I need to tell the story, but that have less emotional oomph.)

What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?

I still struggle with plot, particularly in the middle of a book. I generally know the beginning and end (although they can change in the course of the story). It’s that great chasm in the middle that’s often unclear. (In the synopsis of Bloodstone that I gave my editor, I described the plot in the middle of the book with the cogent phrase “stuff happens.”)

What I began to do with Bloodstone and continue doing today, is to identify the major turning points in the book and then work around them to determine what things need to happen to lead me to a particular incident and what things will happen as a result of it. This gives me a sort of road map to follow. I’m not slavish about it, though. Sometimes, things will occur in the course of writing a scene that bring up new possibilities, even new characters. If those augment the story I’m telling, I’ll amend my road map to incorporate them.

Ultimately, the guiding light for me is theme. It took me a long time to identify it in Heartwood, although I chewed around the edges for a long time. In my other books, I’ve been clearer about the themes I’m exploring and that helps me shape characters and events.

The final installment of your TRICKSTER’S GAME trilogy was published this year. What do you feel makes your fantasy trilogy different from what’s currently getting published, and what inspired you to go in that direction with your work?

Whether or not it makes my trilogy different, I’m less interested in magic per se than the internal journeys of the characters, journeys that force them to come to terms with the dark places in their spirits. That said, the external journeys are pretty dark, too! Heartwood has scenes of torture and mutilation. In Bloodstone, characters deal with the after-effects of rape and child abuse. Which makes it sound like these books are real downers. I don’t think they are. The characters go through a LOT, but despite everything, each book ends on a note of hope.

Ultimately, the books center on family relationships. That wasn’t my intent when I started the trilogy. I was interested in exploring the experience of a nature spirit thrust out of his natural environment and into the body of a human. In the rewrites of Heartwood, I began exploring the protagonist’s relationship with his father. That was Jeanne’s doing, actually. The scene she read between father and son was basically upbeat, with Dad ever-so-supportive of his son’s quest. She suggested that the scene would have more tension and power if the end result were negative. That got me to delve a lot deeper into their relationship. While I didn’t abandon my original premise, Heartwood became a story about a son trying to outdo his dead father and in doing so, inadvertently making the same mistakes his father had made. It also became a book about the love between brothers, both natural and surrogate. And those themes continued throughout the trilogy.

I think I was also influenced by my personal situation. Both my parents were ailing while I was working on Heartwood revisions. My father died in 2003, my mother a few months later in 2004, the month before DAW bought Heartwood. Some of the things I was experiencing definitely leaked into my writing, including relationships between siblings, the perceptions children have of their parents, and the regrets about things said–or left unsaid–that remain with you years later.

Bestselling author Kevin J. Anderson has collected 750 rejection slips over the course of his career. How many rejections have you received on a single story? What is your philosophy about rejections?

Since I’m not a short story writer, it’s hard to rack up a high score for rejections. I probably collected a dozen on my unpublished novel.

I try to be philosophical about rejections, to take the view that what I’ve written may not be right for a particular publisher rather than look upon a rejection as an indictment of my abilities as a writer. But like most writers, it’s hard not to take rejections personally, especially when you’ve poured your heart and soul into a project and lived with characters for months–or years.

I can’t spend a year of my life writing something just because I think it fits a niche. I have to write what I feel passionate about and hope that I can convey my passion to readers, to make them care as much about the characters as I do.

What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?

I’m working on a new novel, but I have several others in the mental hopper, too. One is a fantasy, the other is mainstream. I attended The Never-Ending Odyssey this July to get the opening chapters of the fantasy critiqued. I’ve taken all my novels there. It’s a “tough love” environment that’s always provided me with great feedback on both the strength and weaknesses of the chapters I present. And it has the added benefit of forcing me to toe the line and write instead of just thinking about writing!


For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.

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