Interview with Barbara Ashford, Instructor at Odyssey Writing Workshop

Monday, November 30, 2020

Today, we are excited to interview one of the instructors from Odyssey Writing Workshop: author Barbara Ashford. 

The Odyssey Writing Workshop has offered world-renowned workshops for over 25 years and has been an innovator in online classes since 2010. A graduate of the Odyssey Workshop, Barbara Ashford has taught seven previous online courses and has served on the staff of the Odyssey Critique Service for more than a decade. Find out more about Odyssey Writing Workshop, including their incredible staff and courses, and apply for their courses by December 7th.

--- Interview by Nicole Pyles

WOW: Thank you for taking the time to interview with us today! Tell us a little bit about the courses you teach with Odyssey Workshop. 

Barbara: I’ve taught courses on dramatic tension, revising your novel, creating emotional resonance, and scene structure. I’ll be offering the scene structure course – One Brick at a Time – this January. It looks at scene structure from the macro perspective – the role a scene plays in developing the story – and the micro perspective – like understanding and using beats to calibrate the moment-by-moment emotional impact of a scene. Like all Odyssey online courses, it includes lecture, online discussions, homework assignments, and critiquing the work of other participants. Students get a critique from me on every assignment, as well as a private meeting where we can discuss their work, address issues they’re grappling with, and brainstorm solutions. 

WOW: I love how many elements there are to the courses! What are some of the feedback of these courses you have heard from students? 

Barbara: You can read feedback from past participants in One Brick on its webpage. I’m always happy that students find my classes clear, concise, rigorous, AND fun! On evaluations, students consistently cite the depth and specificity of my critiques as one of the most helpful aspects of the courses I teach. But it’s especially rewarding when students tell me that they feel they have gained the tools and knowledge they need to become better writers. 

WOW: I'll bet! What do you see students struggling with the most in their writing? 

Barbara: In terms of scene structure specifically, it often comes down to understanding the importance of developing conflict that not only creates drama within a scene, but pushes the story – and the POV character – forward. Related to that is the need for scenes to multi-task by developing character, building the world, advancing the plot, and underscoring theme. Balancing all those elements can be a difficult task even for experienced writers. 

WOW: That's great insight. So, in an interview earlier this year, you talked a little bit about understanding the story you want to tell as a writer. What suggestions can you offer about how to do that, as a writer? 

Barbara: Sometimes, it’s as simple as understanding the kind of story you want to tell. For a manuscript I’m editing now, I’ve asked the author, “Do you want to write a fast-paced crime drama? Or a character-focused story about a lawyer?” They’re not mutually exclusive – you can build character in a thriller, just as you can have a strong external conflict in a character-focused story. But it’s important to understand which kind of story you’re telling so you can decide the relative weight to give each element. 

Other times, it’s a matter of understanding the heart of the story you’re telling. To me, that requires an understanding of theme. The term theme can be kind of nebulous. Over the years, I’ve found two books that help crystallize theme for me and for students: Bill Johnson’s A Story is a Promise and Robert McKee’s Story

Johnson suggests that you identify the core dramatic issue your story is exploring – some universal value at the heart of the story that all readers can relate to, like injustice or love or freedom. Then ensure that every scene sheds light on that value to create a cohesive whole. 

McKee’s controlling idea takes it a step further. It’s a two-part statement that describes how and why life changes from the beginning of a story to the end: Value (that same core dramatic value you identified as the promise or heart of the story) + Cause (which explains how/why the value has been fulfilled). Essentially, it’s a “this is what happens” statement and a “this is why it happens” explanation, e.g., Justice (Value) is attained because the protagonist fights society’s oppressive laws (Cause). 

So try to identify the heart of your story in one word. Is this a story about justice? About friendship? About family? Then try formulating a controlling idea that captures how/why that value is fulfilled (or left unfulfilled if you’re writing a tragedy) by the end of the story. 

WOW: You have given me so much to think about for my own writing! You started out at Odyssey Workshop as a student and now are an instructor. What do you think students gain the most from taking courses with Odyssey Workshop? 

Barbara: When I attended Odyssey, I had never taken a creative writing course or read a book on writing. So the sheer breadth and depth of the information I learned was staggering. 

Both the workshop and the online classes bring together a great mix of writers. Writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Writers of middle grade, young adult, and adult literature. Writers in college and writers on Medicare! That brings a lot of diverse and valuable perspectives to the table. 

Ultimately, Odyssey isn’t just a class. It’s a community – something we all need as writers. The Never-Ending Odyssey is a mini-workshop for graduates where they can continue to hone their skills. The Salon offers live chat sessions on various writing topics. The discussion group is a place to ask questions, report progress, and share struggles, insights, and market information. The online critique group provides feedback on your manuscript from other members, while the Odyssey Critique Service offers professional feedback from published writers (like me!). 

WOW: That's so rewarding! Why do you think writers should take courses?

Barbara: Learning is a life-long process. Sometimes, you’ll get a fresh perspective on an aspect of writing you thought you knew well. Other times, you might discover a new concept that changes the way you approach a scene. Or something resonates with you at a particular moment in your life that had never before evoked that “Aha!” response. 

WOW: I totally agree! If you could have given yourself advice when you first started out, what would you say? 

Barbara: I was pretty insecure when I started writing fiction. I wanted everyone to love everything I wrote. And when that didn’t happen, I felt like a failure. I learned that you can’t please everyone. “The world” isn’t your core audience. So stay true to the story you want to tell. When you receive critical feedback, look for common denominators that might be highlighting issues to address. 

For me, it was a delicate balancing act – learning to trust my instincts and stop second-guessing myself while remaining open to changes that could strengthen the story I wanted to tell. 

WOW: I love that advice. Is there anything else you'd like writers to know about taking courses with Odyssey Workshop? 

Barbara: Be prepared to work hard, try new techniques, and learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of your writing. 

WOW: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today!

About Barbara Ashford

Barbara Ashford is a writer, editor, and creative writing teacher. Her first published series was the dark fantasy trilogy Trickster's Game (written as Barbara Campbell). Published by DAW Books, Trickster's Game was a finalist for the Mythopoeic Society's Fantasy Award for adult literature. Barbara's background as a professional actress, lyricist, and librettist has helped her explore the complexities of human nature on the stage as well as on the page. Her musical adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd was optioned for Broadway and an original musical, Just Desserts, will premiere this summer. She drew on her musical theatre roots to create her second fiction series, the award-winning Spellcast and its sequel Spellcrossed, set in a magical summer stock theatre. Barbara has taught eight online courses for the Odyssey Writing Workshop and serves on the staff of its critique service. You can visit her dual selves at and


Sioux Roslawski said...

Nicole--Great interview. It must be interesting to get to "talk" with a writer. But a teacher of writers? That's doubly fascinating.

Barbara--These classes sound so beneficial. Writing a novel is a difficult juggling act, and it sounds like these classes would help the writer keep all their balls in the air at one time.

Good luck with the classes this year. With people having to stick to their own bubble and staying home more, classes like this are even more necessary.

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