The Iowa Summer Writing Festival Students and yours truly at our "Killer Openings" class, July 2022

"Happy Families are all alike; unhappy families are unhappy in their own way."--Tolstoy

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in posession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."
--Jane Austen

"I am an invisible man." --Ralph Ellison

    In this weekend workshop over Zoom, these ten writers and I discussed what makes a Killer Opening Line, a Killer Opening Paragraph and first page(s), a Killer Inciting Incident, and a Killer First Act. Our purpose was twofold: we studied the subject and workshopped opening scenes in order to write Killer Openings that editors, agents, and readers would not be able to put down; and in order to have a roadmap for ourselves so that we would be able to finish our novels, stories and memoirs.

    Some writers came to the class with a project in mind, and some came without any idea about what they were going to write about. Some came with a novel completely finishshed, and these writers were interested in learning how to make their openings more compelling as they revised. 

    It was a fantastic class and weekend, due in part to the fascinating topic, and due in large part to the fantastic group of writers who participated.

    I'll be teaching the class again in the fall, and I'd love to have you in it.

    To sign up for the Festival's email list, just write to: iswfestival@uiowa,edu

    Hope to see you in a future class, so we can write some KILLER OPENINGS together!

Photo by Benjamin Bal√°zs from Unsplash 



I don't know anyone who thinks of Roman Polanski, who was convicted of rape of a minor, as a feminist. I haven't read Ira Levin's novel, so perhaps we can thank the original source material and its author for the film's perspective. Or maybe people are complicated, and some men's artistic geniuses are greater (yeah, much greater) than their moral codes. I only know that when I watched Polanski's film Rosemary Baby recently (for only the second time in my life, the first time having been as a college student), I came away with the following revelations: This is a masterpiece; this is a feminist-friendly masterpiece; and this is one of my favorite films of all time.

As I'm working on finishing my own psychological ghost story novel, it was a true inspiration to me. 

(Spoiler alert) A plot summary is as follows: Rosemary (like the virgin Mary + an herb; herbs figure prominently in the film) and Guy (just a guy, right?) Woodhouse (played by the luminescent twenty-three year-old Mia Farrow and the kind of funny thirty-nine year-old John Cassavetes) respectively move into a gothic New York City apartment building and make friends with two elderly neighbors who seem warm, friendly, nosy, and fishy. Soon enough, our suspicions are confirmed: thanks to these neighbors, Guy has sold his soul to Satan to become a successful actor. Only, he hasn't sold his soul, he's sold his wife's body. Yep, the neighbors and Guy drug Rosemary so that Beelzebub can rape her and inseminate her with his child. And when Rosemary wakes up to find scratches all over her body from the Dark Lord's claws? Guy tells her he needs to trim his nails! Rosemary says, shocked, "When I was asleep?!" It's a horrifying moment, as the audience realizes Guy is basically saying, Don't worry, honey, the Devil didn't rape you, I did! 

As the pregnancy continues, Rosemary becomes less and less in control of her own body, and more and more at the mercy of men: her husband, the Satanic doctor that her neighbors and Guy force her to see, and of course, the half-human, half-Luciferean baby boy growing inside her, who is causing her terrible pain. When she reaches out to another (normal) male doctor for help, he of course thinks she's crazy.

Rosemary played by Mia Farrow is smart. We're never shouting at her to "Get out!" or "Run!" She does the only things she can do. We watch, knowing more than she does, but also knowing she can't do anything else.

I won't spoil the ending. It shows that even in this male-dominated world in which a woman is objectified and used as no more than a vessel for Satan's baby, there is one thing that only a woman can do: be a mama. How this idea is resolved is brilliant.

This is a horror movie in which much of the horror is inside the audience's mind. We have one scene in which we are shown glimpses of the Devil: claws. Eyes. The baby is described but never seen. The scariest monsters are the ones underneath the bed, inside the closet, inside our dreams, and of course, in our society and beside us in bed. It is a great irony that Polanski seemed to understand this better than just about anyone.

movie poster and still from Rosemary's Baby directed and written by Roman Polanski, produced by William Castle and executive produced by Robert Evans for Paramount Pictures, based on the novel by Ira Levin. 1968. 


Me in California, Summer, 2021. 
Part of my "vision" for this year is to spend more time there. I grew up  in San Pedro, and being in the sun in my home state is one of my happy places!

Do you set New Year's resolutions? Intentions? Choose a word of the year? For the last few years, I've done the latter. I try to let my word guide the year, more or less, and it's worked to varying success. This year, I was oscillating between the words "play" and "gratitude," and then, during a Zoom New Year's event focused on choosing our word of the year, hosted by Nina Collins and Revel, for women overy forty, I studied a list of words, and the word "Vision" hit me hard. 

As writers, we need "Visions," right? We need to see. I know I need to work on being more observant. I need to see through my vision of this novel and then work on a new vision for the next one. Soon I'll be teaching a class at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival on ReVision. When I looked up the word in my favorite dictionary (Merriam-Webster) after the session, I knew I'd found my word:

Essential Meaning of vision

1the ability to see sight or eyesightShe has good/poor vision.She has normal vision. = She has 20/20 vision.
something that you imagine a picture that you see in your mindWe had visions of fame and fortune.the architect's vision for the new buildingShe had a clear vision of what she wanted to do.
3something that you see or dream especially as part of a religious or supernatural experienceHe had a vision of Christ.The idea came to me in a vision.

Full Definition of vision

 (Entry 1 of 2)

1athe act or power of seeing SIGHT
bthe special sense by which the qualities of an object (such as color, luminosity, shape, and size) constituting its appearance are perceived through a process in which light rays entering the eye are transformed by the retina into electrical signals that are transmitted to the brain via the optic nerve
2asomething seen in a dream, trance, or ecstasyespecially a supernatural appearance that conveys a revelation
ba thought, concept, or object formed by the imagination
ca manifestation to the senses of something immateriallook, not at visions, but at realities— Edith Wharton
3athe act or power of imagination
b(1)mode of seeing or conceiving
(2)unusual discernment or foresighta person of vision
cdirect mystical awareness of the supernatural usually in visible form
4asomething seen
ba lovely or charming sight

What is your word of the year? If you have one, or if this post has inspired you to choose one, please leave your word in the comments, please! 

"Good Bones," a poem by Maggie Smith

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

(photo by Chris Lawton from Unsplash)

 As someone who loves to write and read ghost stories because of the metaphors they provide about what we can see and not see, about what we can know and not know, and about what is haunting us, I love Halloween. This year Rosie and I dressed up as a prisoner arrested for "disorderly conduct" and the friendly, unarmed police officer who is keeping the streets safe from her thievery--mostly of popcorn and covers.

Now that we are into November, I know many of you are keeping the party going by participating in National Novel Writing Month. I take my (police) hat off to anyone attempting to write 50,000 words in a month. How do you do it? I've heard the key to success is "Don't look back." 

Seems like good advice for those of us trying to get a lot of writing done, and those of us walking up creaking, chilling stairs...


September, 2021

    I returned to school this past week, teaching three sections of The 99-Day Novel through the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival over Zoom (see link below). Thirty writers will be starting (or starting to revise) a novel before Labor Day, and finishing their goals, whatever they are--to finish a skeleton of a novel or to finish a completed manuscript--before the holidays. My job is to shepherd them through the process and to be their most helpful reader and their most enthusiastic cheerleader--a job I absolutely love!

    I wish all students and educators who are returning to school a happy and healthy year. May we make new friends and grow in "old" friendships, may we learn new things, may we learn from our failures and rejoice in our successes, may we have fun!, and may we attempt feats just out of our reach...

    What are you doing and learning this September? I wish you well in your endeavors!

*For more information on the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival upcoming classes, sign up for their email list/ go to: ISWF


The book I'm working on now, GHOST MOTHER, has been inspired by one of the world's great novels (novellas), Henry James' THE TURN OF THE SCREW, which poses the question, Are there ghosts, or is the narrator going insane? It has taken me about eight readings, but I have finally determined the answer to that question. (And no, I won't give it away here. You must enjoy the tortuous delight of reading it for yourself eight times!) I have loved so many of James' novels, and have learned so much from all of them, but this one is my favorite. It continues to inspire and amaze me. Henry James' birthday was this week, on April 15, 1843. I am so grateful he was born, and so grateful he wrote all of the beautiful and complex books that he did. Do you have a favorite James novel? A favorite ghost story?

Happy birthday, Henry James!

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