The Writing Process or We Want the Funk

I’ve been tagged by the fab and groovy Andi Marquette in a writing process blog hop. There are four questions. Here are my four (or more) answers.

What are you working on?

Right now? The NCLEX. I just graduated from nursing school, and I sit for the boards later this month. I’m one of those writers who needs a day job, not only because writing has not thus far made me rich but because I need a lot of human interaction and excitement to feed my imagination. I can’t just shut myself up in a room and write. Some writers are like serastium — they grow like mad in stony ground. I’m more like a rose bush. I require constant feeding, pruning, and spraying for aphids.

That said, I am working on a couple of projects. One is a third and final book in my Idaho series, a sequel to Idaho Code and From Hell to Breakfast called, tentatively, Wish in One Hand. I feel that there’s more to be said about Bil and Sylvie and about the evolution of lesbian life in Idaho. I started work on Idaho Code in 1994. Twenty years have passed since then, and it’s been eight years since the book was published. We will soon have marriage equality here. Times have changed both in the state and in the nation since my characters were fighting antigay propositions like Proposition One. I’m not sure we even dreamt of same-sex marriage back then. It seemed amazing enough that we had Ellen or Ross’ ex-wife and her girlfriend on Friends.

My other project is Southern family chicklit gothic. It’s about five sisters growing up in the Great Depression. There’s a major character in the novel who’s lesbian, but the book isn’t lesbian-focused. I’m not consciously trying for a crossover. I no longer care if my books are pigeonholed as lesfic; I write what I want to read. But this is a bigger story, I think, and I’m trying to get into the heads of characters with whom I don’t have a lot in common, apart from being Southern and a woman. I don’t have a title for this one yet. Perhaps Look Homeward, Hell’s Angel.

That was a joke, y’all.

How does your work differ from others in its genre?

That’s a tricky one. My books are funny, but so are a lot of other books. I write funny mysteries, but that’s nothing new. I write funny dysfunctional families, but Amy and David Sedaris have raised the bar so high on that front that I hesitate to mention it. What’s more, the Sedaris siblings are, like me, from North Carolina. I think I hate them. They’re sucking up all of my oxygen.

Perhaps what distinguishes my writing is that my humor is broad but also weirdly erudite. Or maybe I mean dilettantish. I have a mind full of trivia. I began my educational career as a medievalist. My role model as a writer is Chaucer. I think my goal has always been to write a Canterbury Tales featuring gay people. As Chaucer may already have done that with the Pardoner, there might be nothing unique in this, either. Damn it.

Why do you write what you do?

Because I want to read it. I write books for me, for my friends, for my family. I write books about people who interest me or make me laugh.

How does your writing process work?

At the moment, it works like a 1968 Volkswagen with no heat, a broken gas gauge, and windows that won’t roll down. When I’m in the groove, it purrs along like that Maserati in Joe Walsh’s Life’s Been Good. I’m either feast or famine. When I write, I write. I sit down and type until the story is out. I wrote my third novel, Shaken and Stirred, in two weeks — meaning the first draft, that is. I spent another year editing it. I’ve heard many times that the art of writing is in the editing, but unless you’ve got a draft to work with, art is not possible. If I can just get it out, I know I can get it right. Well, nearly right. I’m never entirely happy with the finished product. I think if I were, I’d stop. No more books. Time to lie down and die.

Need more specifics? I do write to music. In fact, I make up a soundtrack that I think will suit the mood of the story. Once I have my main characters, I put together five or six hours of music that I think they’d enjoy. Sometimes, certain songs or pieces of music appear multiple times. Back in 1994, when I was working on Idaho Code, I made mix tapes using CDs and a dual cassette deck. And so now you know that I am 105.

What else? I eavesdrop. I go to the mall, to Jiffy Lube, to my doctor’s waiting room, and I listen. I don’t record, even though my iPhone would let me do that. I take notes. I listen for patterns of speech, figures of speech, idiosyncrasies of expression and, always, funny stories. People are so interesting, especially when they have no idea they’re being observed. I want to say that I feel like Jane Goodall, but someone might get the idea that I think of other people as chimps, and that’s not right. That is deeply wrong. Most of the time. Maybe I’m more like an anthropologist — a funny anthropologist. It’s like Margaret Mead and E. F. Benson had a baby and then dropped her on her head.

One final confession: Moleskines and fountain pens. I compose on a computer, but I take my notes in Moleskines and I write with a Parker Vector fountain pen in blue-black ink. It’s a habit, it’s a superstition, it helps get me in the mood. Some writers drink. Others sleep around. I like beautiful notebooks and smooth pens. I’m a writer with a happy liver and a happy marriage.

Having Dieted for 34 Years . . .

The subject of today’s rant is dieting. I want everyone to stop. I don’t mean throw in the towel, buy five cans of Pringles, and eat until your tongue swells. I mean stop dieting. You know, that thing you’ve been doing since you were twelve? With no success? Except for those six months before your wedding and that time when you caught sight of yourself in a plate glass window and had a dissociative episode? No one is happy on a diet, so knock it off. Stop buying magazines that make you miserable. Stop thinking that life would be great if you were only a size two. There is no good reason to diet. Dieting is sick and twisted and wrong. Dieting was invented by The Man to keep you down. Fuck The Man.

“But Sister Joan,” you say, “I need to lose weight. My skin’s bad, my hair’s bad, I feel bad. My ass looks like a satellite photo of Australia.”

My friends, let us separate the wheat from the chaff. I don’t care about your ass. Your ass size is relative. There are three good reasons to lose weight, and only three: blood sugar, blood pressure, and serum cholesterol. You should lose enough weight to put you within normal range for your age. You should lose enough weight so that you can climb two flights of stairs without getting winded. You should lose enough weight to be healthy. Then stop. Stop right there. Get a great haircut and buy some new clothes. Be the best you that you can be.

If you’re still worried about your ass after that, I suggest you step back and put things in perspective. The sexiest thing on earth is living as fully as possible for as long as possible. The rest is bullshit.

The Next Big Thing: Writers Discuss New Work

cropped-hands.jpgTagged! I’m it. My pal, JD Glass, artist, musician, and writer — my god, doesn’t she make me feel envious — has tagged me as the author of #29 in a series of blog posts designed to draw attention to our work and maybe sell a few books. I certainly don’t object to that! So, thanks to JD and to all who blogged before me, and I’ll do my best to answer the questions asked of me without excessive rambling.

The rules are simple. I talk about my newest release (Shaken and Stirred, Bywater Books, 2011) or about a work-in-progress (The Folly, no release date yet). Then, at the end of the post, I’ll tag another author, who will do the same thing in her blog on Wednesday, January 16th, 2013.

What is the working title of your book?

The Folly. I’ve been in the drafting stage for a couple of years now, but that’s not unusual. I dink around for ages, taking notes and filling journals, and then, I’m overwhelmed by the urge to sit down and actually write. I shut myself away like a nun in a convent and type, type, type until I’ve got a complete first draft. Then it all slows down again and I spend another age rewriting and editing.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

This will make me sound like Coleridge, but I had a dream. It was about a red-headed woman standing at a gate, and I didn’t know why, but I knew it was important that she not get in. She was dangerous, not in a physical way, but psychically, spiritually. Now, typically, I’m not afraid of women — quite the opposite — and I harbor no superstitions about redheads. But things were a bit different in pre-Christian Britain, and that’s where this book is headed.

What genre does your book fall under?

Supernatural, I think, though everything I write has elements of romance, comedy, and tragedy. I don’t think it’s possible for me to write in just one genre. The world is too interesting and too complex to be confined.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

What fun! And I can’t resist taking the chance here to talk about my earlier books. In Idaho Code and From Hell to Breakfast, which feature the same characters, I would have Kathy Bates play Emma. As for my young lesbian couple, Bil and Sylvie, I’d like Rashida Jones to play Bil and Amber Benson to play Sylvie. The actresses are a bit older than Bil and Sylvie, but who in the world cares? They’re awesome. For Shaken and Stirred, I want Jennifer Garner for Poppy and Queen Latifah for Abby. I’m thinking Garner could do butch if she tried. The right haircut, the right flannel shirt, the right coaching from me — okay, now I can hear that song from Mulan in my head, “I’ll make a man out of you.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Sometimes we put a window where we need to put a door.

What is the longer synopsis of your book?

The divisions between worlds, between realities, between living and dead are paper thin, and there are places where these divisions are thinner even than that. Tansy is only 13, but she has a talent for finding the thin spots, and an even more remarkable ability to open them for a time. There are some who want to use her, some who want to protect her, and others who want to destroy her. Her last guardian, her father, is dead. Now, she must rely on Sigrid, an aunt she barely knows and her aunt’s partner, Clare. And then, of course, there’s the dog — a true force to be reckoned with.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I hope it will be published by Bywater Books, but of course they’ll need to see it first. They’ve published two of my books, Shaken and Stirred and Idaho Code, but they have no way of knowing if this time I’ve lost my marbles.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Are we counting procrastination time? Walking around time? Muttering to myself time? Because that’s usually about five years. Actual writing time is one to two months. I wrote Shaken and Stirred in two weeks, though it took me another year to edit it. I write very fast, but then I suspect that’s because my brain has been working on the story for a much longer time.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I studied Anglo-Saxon with Judith Ferster at North Carolina State and with Nick Howe at The Ohio State University. That got me interested in Anglo-Saxon riddles and folklore, and then I got interested in Viking sagas and pre-Christian religion in Northern Europe. That’s the academic answer. What really got me going on this was an interest I’ve had since childhood in bog bodies. I’m including a link here because they’re fascinating — incredibly well-preserved bodies from the ancient and medieval world. Oldcroghan Man, Meenybradden Woman, Lindow Man — they’re just amazing. They’re not like Egyptian mummies in that they look more alive, for lack of a better word. They look like they’re sleeping. Anyhow, The Folly brings all of these interests together along with strange goings on, psychic phenomena, one really weird kid, and a lesbian couple trying to sort it all out.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

My goal in The Folly is to make you laugh and scare your pants off. Who wouldn’t want to be giggling and naked?

Next Wednesday check out Bett Norris’ blog to find out about her Next Big Thing:

The Inimitable Hilary Sloin!

This week, I have the pleasure of hosting Hilary Sloin, author of Art on Fire, soon to be published by Bywater Books. So, what does Hilary have to say for herself? Who is she? What’s she like? Details, please!

“To be quite honest, I am something of a dilettante. If I had lived in Victorian England, people might have rolled their eyes when speaking of me and said I was subject to “enthusiasms.” Or I might have been a witch burned at the stake for being a little excitable. Sometimes I give up writing altogether and take up something else with fervor—for a while it was painting, for years it was music; these days, I am obsessed with finding and restoring antiques. There have been many phases in my life, but always I return to writing of some sort. Ultimately I can’t fight the fact that I need it like I need food and air. My friends all think I am very disciplined because I work all day from very early in the morning at whichever enthusiasm I am currently ruled by. Truth is, I am keeping the meaninglessness away. And nothing keeps meaninglessness away like writing, which, when I am doing it, I can do around the clock. Even when I don’t hold pen to paper, I stare off into space and think about my characters, imagine them walking across the room, lying down to bed. While I walk my dog I hear them talking. I see them sitting opposite one another with nothing to say or with everything to say but too frightened or angry to say it.

The one thing that holds true with everything I write—and finish—is that I fall in love with what I am working on, whether it be the story, the place, or the characters. Ideally, all of the above holds me sway. With Art on Fire, which was my first attempt at a novel after many years of writing plays and stories, I fell in love first with Isabella, the protagonist’s mentally ill and acutely intelligent sister. Isabella is so much smarter and wittier than I have ever proved to be and, of course, this fascinates me. How can I create a character who surpasses me by leaps and bounds? Soon I fell in love with Francesca, too, but that was for entirely different reasons: I had created my dream lover: a cowboy in girl’s clothing, the one who cannot be possessed, who oozes with the need to express herself but cannot. And again, I was fascinated because to this day I am still not sure whether Francesca’s paintingsg were any good or whether, as some of the critics in the book postulated, she was simply in the right place at the right time, an icon of pop culture. I fell in love with Evelyn Horowitz, Francesca and Isabella’s terribly human grandmother, because she is basically my grandmother and every time I read the chapters where she appears I cry, missing my own Gram all over again. And then there is Lisa Sinsong, who bears all the tragedy and much of the poetry of the story, who is victim to family legacy in a way that seemed to me to be inevitable in this particular book. How could I not love and want to save her? I was able to write Art on Fire because it held my attention. It made me laugh and cry as I was writing it. Sometimes I just sat back, took a drag of my cigarette, and felt very good about creativity and that it was the one constant in my life. Like all things that come from the heart, it is a flawed product, but it breathes and pulsates and that is the kind of writing I seek out. Anything else fails to hold my attention. I hope this book will hold yours.”

Keep your eye on the Bywater Books website for Art on Fire by Hilary Sloin.

Introducing Jesse Blackadder (yes, that’s her real surname)

Who is Jesse Blackadder? She’s no relation to Rowan Atkinson, if that’s what you’re thinking. No, she’s a writer, and a damned good one at that. Her second novel, The Raven’s Heart, is set in medieval Scotland. If that doesn’t pique your interest, then you should have someone check your pulse. So, let’s see what Jesse has to say for herself!

Hi Joan, thanks for having me virtually on your blog. It’s not quite like sitting down with a cuppa, but it’s kind of fun. I’m reading your novel Shaken and Stirred right now on my iPad and it’s a hoot.

For people who don’t know me, I’m a new author with Bywater Books. I live on the edge of an extinct volcano on the easternmost tip of Australia. I’ve published two novels in Australia, with my third novel coming out next year. Bywater has just published the second of these, The Raven’s Heart.

One of the things people have said after reading my book is ‘I don’t normally like historical fiction but I loved The Raven’s Heart.’ It’s not one of those bodice-ripping historical novels, but a drama about a young woman’s search for identity and the struggle between family honour and personal freedom – timeless themes, really.

I have been influenced particularly by the writing of Jeanette Winterson, who is so original that you could barely call her work ‘historical fiction,’ and Sarah Waters.

But I didn’t sit down and plan to write an historical novel. I travelled to Scotland on a holiday and went searching for the origins of my surname, Blackadder (yes, I was born with it). I found the ruins of the Blackadder Castle and a 500-year-old story about Alison Blackadder, who was widowed and left in the castle with her two daughters.

The memory of that ruin by the riverbank, and the story, wouldn’t leave me alone. I kept picturing the scene. The widow waiting in the castle, carrying the weight of a name that had come to her by marriage. The roar of the river loud in her ears. A messenger, wet and streaked with blood, coming with news of an army she had no hope of resisting. Her two daughters, not yet ten years old, thin-hipped and afraid. What she might have promised or done to protect them.

I might have left it there, if it wasn’t for one snippet of information that I found while researching my Blackadder ancestors. Mary Queen of Scots, about whom I knew little, was a powerful and charismatic woman who at times disguised herself as a man and roamed Edinburgh’s streets in secret. She also occasionally dressed as a man in her own court, and rode out at the head of her army in battle armour several times to subdue her own lords who rebelled against her rule.

When I uncovered a real link between the Queen and the Blackadder family, (with one of the Blackadders being implicated in the murder of the Queen’s husband), the moment of creative alchemy occurred. I had powerful characters. A great injustice. A tumultuous period in history. A royal assassination. And fascinating women at the very centre of events.

I felt that some whisper from the past had been waiting for me to step on to that land. That old story, of loss and dispossession, of disguise and secrecy, wanted to be told.

Having never written historical fiction before, I began with a naive enjoyment and no idea of what was involved. I was determined that the historical details of the Queen of Scots would be accurate, and so it took five years to research and write The Raven’s Heart.

What’s that, Joan? You want to know more about me?

Well, let’s see…

I’m a red-headed, impatient, hard working, lazy, clever/stupid person who goes for what she wants, has trouble making up her mind, is impetuous, cautious, open minded except when I’m not. I spent 15 years wanting to be a vet then changed my mind at the last minute and now don’t have any pets.

But writing and reading have been constant in my life, and it’s a delight to be in the deep end of that after years of practice. I’m doing a Doctor of Creative Arts, which will finish in the next few months. I have a gorgeous girlfriend, Andi, who makes the best coffee in the world. If I were a book I’d be The Passion by Jeanette Winterson. I wrote much of The Raven’s Heart longhand in bed in my pyjamas, and some of it in a cabin in Alaska on a writer’s fellowship.

The best review of The Raven’s Heart, from Good Reading magazine, said ‘Utterly intriguing and completely unputdownable.’

I’m just finishing writing Chasing the Light: a Novel of Antarctica about the first women to reach Antarctica, and a children’s novel Stay: the Last Dog in Antarctica. I was the Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow in 2011/12 – hence the ice obsession.

My website is

Joan here again: Sounds awesome, does she not? And she wasn’t kidding about the red hair.

Om Not One.

Perhaps I’ve been watching too many episodes of Obsessed, but it seems to me that there is a direct line between OCD and organized religion. The tapping rituals, the belief that washing or cleaning or eating certain foods can stave off disaster — all of this becomes superstition and that becomes religion. Whether you’re obsessively counting or praying the rosary, at the root, you are concentrating the mind in an attempt to alleviate anxiety.

I don’t say this to ape Richard Dawkins. I’m not an atheist. I’m not agnostic. I just wonder what happens to sufferers of OCD when “cured” by therapy. Do they substitute other rituals for the tapping, the washing, the counting? Rituals that are more socially adept and acceptable? Is it like Alcoholics Anonymous, where you give up the booze for the meetings? Trading one identity, unhealthy addict, for another, sober addict? Could the OCD sufferer trade that painful, dysfunctional identity for, say, devout Baptist or yogi? Chanting not counting. Om not one.

It’s just a thought.

Shaken and Stirred – Ready now for pre-order

My third novel, Shaken and Stirred, is available now for pre-order. This came as a surprise to me as I was unaware that my publisher had uploaded the file to Amazon, much less created a really cool book cover. What’s the novel about? Past and present, life and death, and the realization that forgiveness is only possible in the presence of real love. Oh, and it’s also a comedy. If you want to read the first chapter, head on over to my website at It’s there, along with the first chapters of my other two books, Idaho Code and From Hell to Breakfast. Woot!

Today’s Poetry Fix: Sarah Teasdale

I belong to an email service called PoemHunter. Some days I get something good, some days I get something okay, but then there are days when I get something amazing. I don’t know anything about Sarah Teasdale. She was not part of the literary canon I studied 20-plus years ago at North Carolina State. I think I’m glad. I come to her fresh at 42, and I like that feeling.

“It Will Not Change”

It will not change now
After so many years;
Life has not broken it
With parting or tears;
Death will not alter it,
It will live on
In all my songs for you
When I am gone.

Sarah Teasdale

Who Knew?

I find myself constantly astonished by Pink. Family Portrait is a great song. So is U + Ur Hand. She can rock, she can sing R & B, and she can capture regret and nostalgia with genuine heart and soul. Here, she serves it up raw and riveting.

The Real World: You’re Soaking In It

This past Saturday, I took my CNA skills test. I counted a pulse and respirations, listened to a blood pressure, and performed three critical skills, all under the measuring eye of an experienced nurse. How did it go? I passed. How did it feel? I was terrified.

This was well outside my comfort zone. For the blood pressure, we used a teaching stethoscope — one bell, two earpieces. As I listened and wrote down what I thought was the number, the nurse listened on the other end and wrote down what she heard. I had to come within six points on either end, systolic and diastolic, to pass. I took the blood pressure three times. The first two times, I heard bugger all. The third time was the charm; the blood stopped pounding in my own ears long enough for me to hear it pounding through my testing partner’s brachial artery.

As for the critical skills, I drew a good card: ambulating with a gait belt, perineal care on a female, and a back rub. As I’d spent days practicing bed bath and range of motion, my problem was to be as detailed as possible, moving slowly, and assuming nothing. On a skills test, you have to narrate each move like you’re David Attenborough. I knock on the door. I identify the patient. I introduce myself. I greet the patient. I explain the procedure. I wash my hands. (Oh, how many times I washed my hands!)

There is nothing, nothing at all, to connect the world I’m in now to the world of an itinerant English major. My life as a Master’s student in Creative Writing, and then as PhD candidate in Old English — nope, nothing thing. My later work at the University of Idaho Library in Acquisitions? No, no connection. The YWCA? Freelance writing and editing? Strange lands, wholly foreign. When I decided at 42 to become a nurse, I thought I could see a clear bridge between my old life and my new plan. And then I took a job in a nursing home.

I work the day shift. I get up at five in the morning; my shift begins at 5:45. I don’t have paid sick leave. I don’t have paid vacation. I can’t afford it. I started at 30 cents above minimum wage, the trade-off being that I’d get excellent working experience, a free CNA class, and a taste of what was to come in nursing. What’s that taste like so far? Hard bloody work. Frequent frustration. Deep satisfaction. If you don’t like people, don’t be a CNA, and for God’s sake don’t be a nurse because at the end of the day, people are all you’ve got. You’ve either helped them or you haven’t. You’ve either laughed with them, or you’ve cried. You’ve either gotten one hell of a good story to take home, or you’ve worn yourself out for nothing.

I had hoped that being a nurse would be a good fit with being a writer, and I believe that it will be. Being a CNA certainly has been. I change the names, disguise the identities, and jumble up the facts, but every story has a kind of immediate truth that I could only dream about when I was sitting in my university classroom. Then, I wondered how I could get out into the world. Now, I’m soaking in it.