A chat with author Holly Barbo

Do you set a plot or prefer going wherever an idea takes you?

I’ve been asked several times whether I plot out my books in an outline or develop the story as I write. The answer is yes. You see, each book is like a child in your family. They have their personalities and some are easier to deal with than others. It really depends upon the book. 

I started writing quite by accident. Four out of five books in my five book series (The Sage Seed Chronicles) wrote themselves. I was just the conduit with hands on the keyboard. 

The next book, Sunstone, I started then stopped due to upheavals in my life. When I got back to it, nearly a year later, I ripped it apart and only saved a handful of scenes. I needed to plot how to weave the story between the saved portions and make it flow cohesively. It was a grueling process.

Most of the time, though, I start with a concept, an opening scene, ideas of other scenes and a lot of vague ideas. The story forms as I write. It has a voice and an opinion of its own. Vortexes was that way. I love the way it turned out but sometimes I wasn’t sure what would happen next. The story told me when I needed to know. In fact, I didn’t even know the title until I was about 3/4 finished.

How long do you take to write a book?

It depends upon if the story is just using me as a medium to get out or I’m having to plot everything on an outline. The first four books of the Sage Seed Chronicles were written in ten months. That’s a little over two months per book. Sunstone, with all the hacking it to pieces with a machete and rebuilding it, took over six months. Vortexes is typical to my normal writing style at about three months, give or take. 

Did you have a lot of differences with your editors in the beginning while you were still becoming used to getting your work edited?

Oh, my yes. My first book edited was The Founders (book1 of the Sage Seed Chronicles). I didn’t know what to expect and resisted. BUT, I learned from each change. I listened to the feedback and adapted. It was painful though, and I thought my editor would never want to do another book with me. Each book was easier and I’ve continued to grow as a writer.

How important is research to you when writing a book?

Research is critical and I do a lot. It doesn’t matter if it is for a 6000 word short story or a 90,000 word book. In my short story, A Crystal Snowflake, much of the story was set in the Lapland region in Sweden at a ‘Ice Hotel’. I was googling so much information that Travelocity sent me offers for flights to the area.

I feel research is incredibly important, whether it is the setting, the point-of-view of the characters or the timeline. It not only makes the story more believable but because it is as authentic as I can make it… it draws in the reader into the story. 

In Vortexes I researched elements of totalitarian governments, looked at examples from history, studied symptoms of specific genetic diseases, invented my own cures based on probabilities I found in cutting edge medical research… and that was just to make parts of the story believable. If the story isn’t mostly plausible, the reader will jump ship and find another book.

What inspires you to write?

I like writing stories that would appeal to the reader in me so I want depth in the plot. As a teen I became hooked on Star Trek. I don’t write Sci-fi though often I have an element of fantasy in my stories. But what Gene Roddenberry did was take a social issue and weave it into the story in such a way you weren’t necessarily aware it was an item from current events. As you watched, you saw it fresh and from a completely different perspective. I absorbed that and unconsciously incorporate that philosophy as I write. So the short answer is the nightly news and current societal problems usually are strong elements in the plot.

Do your novels carry a message?

Somewhat because of my absorbing the Gene Roddenberry/Star Trek view, most of my books have a message. It isn’t like a lecture though. I work hard at being as honest as I can with the POV of my characters and draw on history to guide me for plot elements. All I want is for the reader to enjoy the story and when something looks like it’s familiar to what they see in the real world, to see it fresh. We often go through our lives with a set of beliefs and expectations. When a situation, on the news or in real life, happens we often have a knee-jerk reaction due to the things we’ve absorbed in our beliefs. All I want the reader to do is after they’ve finished the book to sit back and think… even a little. If they can take part of the story with them, then I’ve achieved my goal. It’s a fun way to communicate.

What is the most important thing about a book in your opinion?

A book is like traveling. The reader can escape from their day-to-day existence and into a riveting story. They can see and experience new flavors and thoughts and explore uncharted areas. It’s why I work hard to draw the reader into the story. I want you sucked into this new world I’ve created. I want you to see, feel and smell the story I weave, to make friends with the characters and be their invisible companions as they step in the uncharted path in the plot line.

Do you have writer’s block?

In a way, the mental energy I use when I’m writing and finishing a book is like a birth process. It’s exhausts my creative juices and I need to step back and take a breath. I visualize it as my muse, (the creative voice in my head) packs her bags and leaves for a tropical beach. There she basks in the warm sand, kissed by a soft breeze and sips a drink with a little umbrella in it. A gentle smile touches her lips as she relaxes to the rhythmic sound of the waves. Now, I ask you, how can a writer compete with that allure? At home I continue my life and open my mind for another story concept. When one hooks me and I start playing with it and doing research, my muse will arrive back at my side, slightly sunburned but ready to work again.

Do you have a set schedule for writing, or are you one of those who write only when they feel inspired?

I don’t have the luxury of having a dedicated time to write every day due to my work schedule. That said, I’m often tugging at threads of plot bunnies while I work. Once I have the concept and start the research, I write when moments are available. The next few questions will fill that in.

Do you have a day job other than being a writer? And do you like it?

My husband and I own a family business (http://www.barbofurniture.com) where we build custom (bespoke) furniture and both restore and refinish furniture. It’s a two-person operation and we are very busy. My main job is stripping the old finish from furniture, taking apart and assisting in the assembling furniture. I also design furniture and mix stains to match the customer’s requested color. It’s a creative occupation on many levels and in a way isn’t a stretch with writing.

Tell us about your writing style, how is it different from other writers?

I began writing novels in the spring of 2009… just months after the economic crash in the fall of 2008. We owned a furniture store and customers were thin on the street during that tax week in April. A story was pushing at me. I sat down at the computer and began to let it out. That was the beginning of the Sage Seed Chronicles. I learned to write when the store was quiet. When a customer came in or needed me, I would hit ‘SAVE’, get up and switch my mind into my store persona mode. When it got quiet, I would return to the story. Yes, it broke the mental flow, but I trained myself to switch gears rather seamlessly. 

I still write that way. I’ll prep furniture for my husband by stripping off finish, staining or dismantling. When I have the shop duties caught up, I open my computer and write.

Do you enjoy discussing upcoming ideas with your partner? If yes, how much do you value their inputs?

Since my story comes to me in info bites, there are times I catch up in my typing and stop as I puzzle out what comes next. It’s at those times, as I’m helping glue or driving to a customer’s house when I catch my husband up on the story and bounce ideas off of him. He’s a good sounding board and his response helps me clarify my thought. In Vortexes I had written two different scenes that jangled at me. Oh, they fit but it felt as if they were wrong somehow. My intuition (muse) and my husband agreed, and I eliminated them. There are always alternative ways to get the same result in the plot.

Do you have sex and violence in your books?

The quick answer is no. I’ve been told my style of writing is ‘cinematic’ which is a concise way of saying that the reader gets pulled easily into the book and they can visualize everything that is happening. That said, gratuitous violence or graphic sex is unnecessary. I don’t believe I need to have descriptions of blood spatters, a gouged eye or what a slit throat looks like. When violence is appropriate, I will mention just enough for the reader’s imagination to fill in. The same for sex. Yes, relationships occur with my characters. The reader can fill in the details. My writing style leans toward action/thriller with fantasy elements not horror, romance or erotica which are more graphic genres.

Do you believe a book cover plays an important role in the selling process?

Absolutely! Certain titles and covers immediately identify the genre to a reader. It’s a split second visual cue for the prospective buyer. They’ll look at the cover first. If it interests them, the blurb will be checked out next.

As a story is forming in my head and on my computer, it almost always has a working title and a cover concept as well. The exception to that was Vortexes. The book was a bit contrary with me. I think I had three or four working titles and the cover was completely absent. It bothered me. I’m used to having that. Remember, I said writing a book is like having a baby? When a woman is pregnant, she visualizes what the baby will look like and usually has a pet name for the little one. It’s the same way with a book. I tried to attach a working title to it, but it never felt right. Reverberations and later, Coronas were two I tried, and they both frowned at me. A cover, linked closely to the title, completely eluded me. When Vortexes attached itself to the writing, I knew I had the right title. Now I needed a cover. I looked at about forty vortex images. That was easy compared to the woman on the cover. She had to evoke the right emotion for the genre and the story. Oh my, that was hard to find! I think I looked at close to eight hundred faces and sent the cover artist about ten. Once we had the Vortex and the woman, there was that magic tweaking that had to happen. Now I’m delighted with the cover. In a glance it tells the reader the genre and has an intriguing tension.

Although all books say that all the characters in the book aren’t real or related, but are they really all fictional and made up?

Yes, they really are made up. I’m sure you’ve heard, “Don’t piss off an author or a character like you will die a horrible death in their next book.” That is also true, but the difference is the characters are composites. I don’t form a character as a carbon copy of a person I know. I might take traits and spread them through three of four characters or choose just one aspect of a personality and enhance it. We’re all people watchers. For a character in our books to strike a chord with a reader, he/she needs to be as realistic as possible.

Have you received any awards for your literary works?

Yes, I have. The major/famous awards still haven’t found me but I cherish the recognition my babies have received. Of the Sage Seed Chronicles series two have awards: The Unraveling (book 3) received Indie Book of the Day and The Lost got a Howey Award for Most Satisfying Ending. In my short stories (called Quick Reads): A Crystal Snowflake made the quarter-finals in the Cinematic Short Story Competition 2015, A Tin of Honey made the Semi-finals in the Cinematic Short Story Competition 2016, A Beltane Gift came in first in a publisher (Paper Gold Publications) short story competition and its sequel, A Bell for Valor also made the Semi-finals in the Cinematic Short Story Competition 2017. Last year a book under my pen name got on the ReadFreely list: Best Indie Books for 2017.

I continue to write and submit to more competitions. Not only because it helps me gauge how my writing is doing but it helps introduce my books to readers.

What is that dream goal you want to achieve before you die?

Remember what I said earlier about Gene Roddenberry and my desire for people to contemplate a fresh perspective on an old problem? Well, the big screen is a wider audience. I would love one, or perhaps more, of my books to be made into a movie for tv or the theatre. That would be lovely.

In case one or any of your books honor the big screen, which book would you like it to be?

Vortexes would work well in that medium but any of my novels or short stories would lend themselves to a movie adaptation. They all have a cinematic quality.

Would you mind if your book was changed when it was made into a movie?

The phrase is adapted for television or for film. That is reality. I’ve had people in the movie industry tell me that they would need to add more violence or more sex. The industry knows what a viewing audience needs to see if a film is to be a success. Would I like it? Not really, but you can’t take a book and transfer it across exactly. It happened in the Harry Potter books and countless others. The way I look at it is perhaps I could have input. The film industry needs fresh ideas. They need authors writing books with cinematic draw. Let’s get there first.

How do you think concepts such as Kindle, and e-books have changed the present or future of reading?

We are in a digital world. People are glued to their phones and electronic devices. There are some interesting developments that have occurred due to this dependancy. Some people expect to get a story in one sitting like a movie. Those are the ones that tell me they haven’t any time. For them I have my Quick Read books: individual short stories. These can be slipped into a pocket and read on a flight, a bus or on a lunch hour.

For the person who wants to read a longer story, we used to see people carrying a book with a bookmark peeking out from the pages. Now books get loaded on phones, kindles and other tablets. The convenience is everything.

There are still readers who prefer paper books. I really don’t care. For me, reading is the key. To grow, learn and see other perspectives, reading is essential.

How many siblings do you have? How many of them share your passion?

I have three sisters. None are writers but all are creative in their own way. Two of them read my books and enjoy them. Of those two, one likes to read and the other one says she is often too busy to read. I’m grateful both enjoy my stories. The third has never been much of a reader and only reads non-fiction books in the self-help area. She loves me but won’t read my books. Shrug. Two out of three is still good odds.

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