Interview: Barbara Ashford

Barbara Ashford will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. She abandoned a career in educational administration to pursue a life in the theatre, working as an actress in summer stock and dinner theatre and later, as a lyricist and librettist. She’s written everything from cantatas to choral pieces, one-hour musicals for children to full-length ones for adults. Her musicals have been performed throughout the world, including such venues as the New York Musical Theatre Festival and the Edinburgh International Festival.

In 2000, after Barbara began writing fiction, she attended Odyssey. The workshop provided the supportive feedback and immersion in the craft of writing speculative fiction that she needed to create Heartwood, the first book of her Trickster’s Game trilogy (written as Barbara Campbell). Published by DAW Books, Trickster’s Game went on to become a finalist for the Mythopoeic Society’s 2010 Fantasy Award for adult literature.

Barbara returned to her theatre roots for her most recent novel, Spellcast, a contemporary fantasy set in a magical summer stock theatre in Vermont. She is currently at work on the sequel—Spellcrossed—to be published in June 2012.

Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies After Hours: Tales from the Ur-Bar and The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity (March 2012). When she’s not writing, she critiques manuscripts for the Odyssey Critique Service.

Barbara lives in New Rochelle, New York, with her husband, whom she met while performing in the play Bedroom Farce. You can visit her dual selves at barbara-campbell.com and barbara-ashford.com.


How would you compare your pre-Odyssey writing to your post-Odyssey writing? What changed the most for you?

Before Odyssey, I’d written one novel, and started and stopped any number of others. I’d start with a premise and plunge into writing without a clear idea of what the story was about. I’d go off in twenty different directions, lose steam, and eventually give up and move on to another project.

Odyssey gave me the essential storytelling tools I needed, especially in terms of developing a cohesive plot and using theme as the “net” that holds a plot together. I came away from the workshop with renewed confidence in myself as a writer and with the tools and determination to finish the novel that later sold to DAW.

Is there a lingering lesson you learned while attending the Odyssey Writing Workshop that you’d like to share?

Write what you’re passionate about. Chasing a market that is always changing is a waste of time. It took me several years to write–and rewrite–Heartwood. But I loved that story and I was determined to make it the best that it could be. In the process, I learned a lot about putting a novel together–and pulling it apart and putting it together again.

As a guest lecturer at the upcoming Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and critiquing stories. What is the one piece of advice you really want to get across to developing writers?

I was watching the movie Finding Forrester the other day and one line struck me: “Write your first draft from your heart and the second from your head.” Don’t be satisfied with your first draft. Celebrate your accomplishment–and then put on your editing hat and examine what you’ve written with a critical eye. Some of the most powerful moments in my novels arose from digging deeper into the characters and strengthening the story’s thematic threads.

Do you still get involved in the critiquing process with your own work? Do you have a writer’s group?

The opening chapters of the Trickster’s Game trilogy were critiqued at The Never-Ending Odyssey, which is a great forum for Odyssey graduates to review each other’s work. There isn’t a local writers’ group near me, but I usually attend one once a year where we critique the synopses of our proposed novels. And while my husband is always my first reader, I send an early draft of my novels to various writing pals–all Odyssey graduates–for feedback.

What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned from a critique?

I can’t pinpoint one critique and say, “Wow. That changed everything for me.” But the most valuable thing I’ve learned from the critiquing process is to look for common feedback. If one person has a problem with a scene or a character, it’s worth noting, but it may not be worth changing. Let’s face it–people have different tastes and you’re never going to please everyone. But if several people bring up the same concerns, you need to pay attention. Ultimately, though, it’s your book. You have to follow your vision or you’ll be forever tacking back and forth, driven by conflicting comments. That way lies madness!

How many stages does your work go through before you send it off to your publisher? Can you give us a window into what your novel’s life schedule is like from idea to first draft birth to book in hand?

It usually takes me eight-nine months to write a novel. That’s neither the final product nor the first draft but somewhere in between, as I edit my work as I go along. I wait until I have a chunk of the book completed before sending it to my editor, but she’s always available if I need to bounce something off of her. We discuss the section she’s read, she raises any issues she might have, and we often throw around ideas for how to address them.

After I send her the complete manuscript–still a draft–I also send the files to my beta readers for feedback. I usually spend about a month on final edits. Those can range from cutting scenes and rewriting problematic ones to merely tightening/clarifying the prose. That’s when I read the entire book aloud to see how it flows. Then the final manuscript goes to Sheila [Gilbert, editor at DAW]. Unless she has changes, the book is “done.” I’ll do minor editing when I review the page proofs (which usually occurs about a month or so after the final manuscript is handed in). It’s another three-four months before the book is published. So from proposal to book-in-hand, it’s generally 16-18 months.

Congratulations on your stories in the recently launched books After Hours: Tales from the Ur-Bar and The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity. You don’t write a lot of short fiction. Many developing writers are more comfortable writing long rather than short. Can you tell us how you adjust your process to create a short work?

Obviously, the focus is a lot narrower. You don’t have the time (or the word count) for subplots and endless complications. There’s generally a single POV, a single problem to be resolved. Since I was writing for themed anthologies, I also had the specific guidelines for each submission.

After I came up with the premise, I noodled about the scenes I needed to tell the story and the secondary characters required to help illuminate the protagonist’s journey. I knew where the story would begin and end; it was more a question of how to get to the ending. That’s not always the case when I write a novel. (And sometimes, when I think I know the ending, the story takes me somewhere else, which is what happened with Spellcast.)

We’re looking forward to Spellcrossed, coming in June 2012. Can you tell us about the process of plotting and writing a sequel?

The process for me is pretty much the same regardless of whether it’s the first novel or a sequel. In some ways, it’s easier to write a sequel–you know the characters now, although you’ll be giving them new problems to solve that might reveal different aspects of their personalities.

Writing Bloodstone and Foxfire (the second and third books in the Trickster’s Game trilogy) was very different from writing Spellcrossed. For one thing, there was a gap of approximately fifteen years between each book in the trilogy. Each involved new settings and a lot of new characters (including the protagonist).

Spellcrossed begins a year after Spellcast ends. It’s told from Maggie’s POV once again. And once again, we’re back at the Crossroads Theatre with most of the same secondary characters on staff. So it was important for relationships to evolve. Some minor characters needed to come to the fore and new ones needed to be introduced to reflect the issues that Maggie was grappling with.

One of the trickiest parts of writing a sequel is figuring out how much backstory to include (especially in the early chapters) and when/how to introduce it without resorting to infodumps. I always find I need less than I think. In Spellcrossed, I used backstory to show the changes at the theatre as well as the changes in Maggie’s life since we saw her last.

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

I’ve got two books in the pipeline–another book in the Crossroads Theatre series and an offbeat paranormal romance. Those will definitely keep me busy for the next year!


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

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