Sunday, December 9, 2012

Hurricanes, Holidays and Hiatuses

        Life does get in the way.  First there was Hurricane Sandy at the end of  October, and although we were more inconvenienced than hurt, we did have two weeks without power and the internet.

        Then came preparations for Thanksgiving and the shopping and cooking for twenty-five guests on Thursday and various groups of family all the rest of the weekend.

        Finally there was a long awaited adventure trip to Costa Rica with kayaking, whitewater rafting and hiking.  And all the while I kept thinking I should be writing, I should be writing.  And I actually did make some notes for another story in my novel of linked stories.

        But suddenly it is December, and my self-imposed deadline to finish the first draft of the book by the end of the year is looming. I have to face the fact that it is probably not realistic any more.  I still have two stories to write.  I think I know what they will be about, but they are currently floating amorphously on the right side of my brain.

        So I have to ask myself, is it terrible to let self-imposed deadlines slip, or just disappointing?  And if I am disappointed in myself, can I stop the self flagellation and get on with the writing? I guess there is no other choice.  Sit down at the computer, or at the table with notebook and pen, and just get to it.

        And keep the mantra going:  I'm almost there, I'm almost there, I'm almost there.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012


     I have often heard writers say that while they were writing, thinking they were going in one direction, their characters took on a life of their own and insisted on going another way.  I barely believed it, myself....that is until last week.

     There I was, convinced I knew the reason that my character behaved the way she did, when all along she had a secret that she kept from me.  It came out, as a total surprise, in a conversation she was having with her daughter.  It put a whole new slant on her behavior and explained better than I ever could have why she felt guilty and depressed.  (And no, I am not going to reveal it here.  You will have to read the story and be surprised.)

     The thing is, it made the rest of the story flow so much more easily.  I won't say it wrote itself, but I did complete the story quickly, and I like the result.

     I don't think I can force my people to "take over," or reveal a hidden truth. But if I try to really know them, to be true to their lives and their characters it may happen to me again.  I would be very happy with another surprise.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Figuring out a Plot Summary

          This week I was assigned to write a plot summary in my novel writing course.  I'd been thinking of the story arc, the map of my book, with birth-dates and marriage-dates and death-dates, but I hadn't thought of a plot summary.  If I'm calling it a novel I guess it should have a plot.

          In my mind the characters intertwine in the stories, which take place over the decades from 1941 through 2012.  Although a story may be about one character, in each we learn about what has happened to some of the others.  Ruby's mental illness impacts her siblings,  her husband, her children throughout the book.  Sam's recklessness causes a rift between his sister and wife, and ultimately the loss of everything.  We see some of the siblings age badly, others well.  Their children and grandchildren are impacted also.  But this is not a plot.

           As a stop-gap I listed the stories I plan to use.  Seeing them on the page, with the names of the characters and their connections to one another, helps me to think of the book as a whole, instead of as individual stories.  I am wondering if the connections are enough, and I am busy reading other books of linked short stories to see how the authors handled the question of plot.  I am looking at recent books, like Molly Ringwald's "When It Happens to You," Elizabth Strout's "Olive Kitteridge," and Amy Bloom's "Where The God of Love Hangs Out."  There are older books too, such as "The Women of Brewster Place," by Gloria Naylor.  I will continue to do research as I complicate my character's lives with more and more conflict.

          And meanwhile, I have a flash fiction story called "Home Visit," published as a Showcase story on the homepage of Echook Digital Publishing.  Go to and look for my picture.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A private writing retreat

          Last weekend my friend Virginia and I  spent two days, without husbands, kids, grandkids or friends, at my house in the Berkshires, writing, sharing each others morning production, walking, talking, dreaming.  The weather contributed.  It rained on and off all weekend, reducing the temptation to spend all our time outdoors, where the trees were showing off their fall foliage.

          We both got a huge amount done.  Somehow, knowing Virginia was in another room writing away, was an incentive for me to stick to my computer and produce new pages.  I also spread out my "map" of family, dates and stories, and revised it, updating with new information, cutting out characters, changing a few names.

          My novel in linked short stories now has a more complete story arc. I identified three gaps in the arc and began to work on the first story to fill it.  I have renewed energy and excitement for my project and I am moving forward with it.

          And Virginia and I have "penciled in" our next writing retreat.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Examining my own Process

     I have started a process notebook.  On the advice (and assignment) of a novel writing teacher, I have begun to write a daily journal of what I am writing and how I am feeling about it.  I've set myself a goal of five pages a day, and, at the end of my session I plan to collect my thoughts and jot them down.

     This week I was re-writing the third story in my novel of linked stories.  I am sure I generated five new pages, in bits and pieces, but the new production of pages definitely fell off.  Two of the days were holiday--the Jewish New Year--and I didn't write.  That left three days of work.  Well, I finished the story.  I am reasonably happy with it.  I will let it sit for a while and then re-read it to see how it feels.

    This is what I also realized, something I knew but didn't articulate.  I find re-writing a lot easier than producing new material.  My imagination takes off around the scenes I created, and I can open up, enrich and deepen the material I wrote.  But re-writing doesn't substitute for generating pages.  And now I know that every day, even if I am re-working a story or part of the novel, I need to start my day with free-writing new work.  I have to remind myself that I can let those first pages come out as stupidly as they wish.  No one is going to rush out and publish it as it is.


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

September Song

     September feels like the real New Year.  The lazy vacation days are over.  School is starting.  The weather is getter cooler and, yes, in my culture it is the New Year, with the high holidays coming sometime in this marvelous month.

    In September I feel like I am coming up from a long, slow swim underwater, taking a deep breath and swimming along with my head bobbing above the waves, looking for the shore.  The shore is where I will put my feet  on the ground and get back on the trail.

     In September I do not make resolutions.  I make to-do lists.  Sometimes my lists read like resolutions: I list things like clean my drawers out, practice my piano, take a walk or a yoga class.    Each day, on my to-do list I have a line of telephone calls to make:  the piano tuner, my dermatologist, my podiatrist.

     In September I start new things.  Maybe because school begins in September I have always begun new projects in the fall.  I pick up a book at a book sale on having beautiful indoor gardens.  I plan our theater subscriptions.  I change my clothes from summer to in-between, meaning more long pants and shirts and fewer shorts and tees.

     But no matter what, my daily to-do list always starts with one imperative.  WRITE.  I am trying to get myself to write a certain number of words or pages each day. And I get great satisfaction from checking each item off my list.  And if I do it every day, I know I will finish my novel of linked short stories.  I did not complete the first draft by Labor Day, as I had promised I would.  But I did make great progress this summer.  And I think I will have it done before the end of the year!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Playing Favorites

           Sometimes, as writers, we fall in love with sentences or phrases we have used in a story and, while we are editing we move heaven and earth to keep them in the text, even when they may not be serving a useful purpose.  I know we should "kill those little darlings."

           I like some of my stories better than others.  Perhaps they come from a deeper spot inside me, or convey a truth that particularly represents how I feel.  Sometimes it is just that I like the cadence of the words, the sounds of the sentences.  Certain phrases may stick in my head and keep repeating over and over.

          One such story is in the August issue of The Blotter Magazine (  It is called "A Normal Man," takes place in a Bikram Yoga Studio and describes a certain New York experience which is dear to my heart.  It is also has a complex construction, using present, past and future, to give a full picture of the characters and the lives they are living, lived and will live.  I like the way it works.           You can check it out at the website above.

          But it's important not to get too attached to the stories, or sentences or phrases in them.  We need to write them down and move on. There is more where that came from, more waiting to be written.  We just have to get to it.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Did That Really Happen?

          People always ask me if my stories are  autobiographical. "Did that really happen?" they ask. I always respond the same way. "I write fiction," I say, "not memoir."  Of course, if I am being totally honest, I admit that many of the experiences are based on life.

          In one of my stories the heroine climbs Mt Kilimanjaro.  I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and wrote about each breathless step from my visceral memory, but my story, "Push," (published in Peeks and Valleys) is about my character's climb, not mine.

          I traveled to India, and the sights and sounds and impressions of that immensely colorful country are  re-created in my story "A Hard Place for Soft Women," (published in the Evening Street Review). But the story is not about me; it's about a daughter, her mother and her aunt and how their different ways of experiencing the world impact their relationships.

          I take Bikram Yoga twice a week, sweating for ninety minutes in a room heated to close to one hundred degrees.  In my story "A Normal Man," my character sweats through his first Bikram class while reliving his marriage. His marriage, not mine. You can read that story in The Blotter, coming out August 1 at

          My novel in linked short stories is about multiple generations of a large extended family.  I come from a large extended family.  Am I writing about my family?  No--with reservations. Some of the events in the novel were triggered by events in my family, but the people are made up and so, ultimately, are the stories themselves. If, as Tolstoy said, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," then, since the stories are often about unhappy families, or troubled families, or families going through a crisis, each family is different from the others, and also different from mine.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Writing From Scratch

          At my Monday night writer's group we were talking about how hard it is to write the first draft of a story.  One of my colleagues who is writing a YA novel said, "If I had known how hard it would be to write I don't think I ever would have started.  It's agony." Another, an experienced published writer, whose work I greatly admire, said she has been spending time doing research for a creative non-fiction piece she wants to write, but every time she gets near starting she decides she needs to do more research.  "Anything to avoid the blank page."

          I was reminded of something I read years and years ago as advice to a novice writer.  It was:  Let those first words come out as stupidly as they like.  No one is going to rush out and publish it as it is.  Over the years that has become a sort of mantra to me.  Every time I face the computer and am about to start a new piece of writing, I repeat those two sentences.  I tell myself over and over again, just get it down, get anything down.  You can change it and revise it and rearrange it and polish it a million times over before you send it out for anyone to see.

          In fact I am aware that I am doing that very thing right now, just getting it down.  And after I get it down I will reread it and make sure it says what I want it to say before I push the button at the top of the page that says Publish.



Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Current Events Shorthand

          One of my writing teachers, June Gould, often told our class, not only to look to our inner thoughts and feelings when we are writing but also to look to the outside world. I have taken that advice to heart, and many of my linked stories are rooted in the happenings in the world at large. This is especially true because my stories span the years from 1941 and WWII up to 2012.

          There are so many events to chose from that impacted people during those years. After WWII there was the Korean War, Kennedy's assassination, the Civil Rights movement, Woodstock, Viet Nam, the Challenger, and of course, the defining event of this relatively new century--9/11.  I could go on and on. 

          While every story is rooted in the current events of the time, in some the event is more important than in others. In one a character's whole future revolves around getting to the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969.  In other stories it is a passing vignette: the character is reading a newspaper headline that shows him in a particular time and place.

           Placing the stories in the midst of current events, helps me to figure out what the characters are thinking and feeling and doing. None of us live in a vacuum. My characters live in the world at large and that world shapes the way they think and act, just like the events of 2012 shape me.  Putting the characters in a specific time and place tells the reader many things about them, without my saying it on the page.  It is a kind of current events shorthand.

Monday, June 25, 2012

TMI: Too Much Information

          I am writing a new "Story 2" and in my haste to make sure that it links clearly to "Story 1" I noticed that I was putting in too many names and relationships from the first story.  I had to remind myself that the linkages have to happen naturally and each story has to stand alone.  If I put information in one story about a character in another story, there has to be a reason--and it had better relate to the one being read at the time.

          That is the most important thing to remember.  Each story has to stand alone.  Too much data from a previous story, or  foreshadowing of something that will happen in a later story, will compromise the integrity of the story I am working on.  I will confuse the reader with names and information that really belongs someplace else.

          The linkages have to be subtle.  The reader should come upon them and say, "Oh, that's what happened to Ruby. I wondered about that."  It should satisfy the reader's curiosity without infringing on the interest, the plot or the characters of the story that is being told.

          It is tempting to put in everything I know about the characters, the background and the events that happen to them, but it is dangerous.  Plainly, too much information, gets in the way of a clean story line and can often confuse the reader.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Jotting It Down

          Ideas occur to me at the most inopportune moments.  I am driving my car for the ten-thousandth time down I-95 to the Mamaroneck Avenue exit on my way to the city.  I am loading or unloading the dishwasher, or worse, sudsing a pot with my hands full of Brillo.  I am power-walking with weights, far from pencils, paper or computer.

          I have learned, sadly, that I can't rely on my failing memory to retain these gems.  If I'm in the house, anywhere near a pad and pencil, or on the street or in a store with my purse on my shoulder, I can stop and jot the idea down in the little red notebook stored in my bag.  Somehow the act of writing it down cements the idea in my head, even if I never look at the note again.  But when I'm driving, I can't write it down.  I've taken to repeating out loud, over and over again, whatever it is I am trying to remember:  "Max sees a photo of his sister Frieda's wedding and remembers;" "Sarah's red hair is from her grandmother Ruby."  I say it several times and hope it sticks until I am somewhere safe to write it down in my red book.

          But it's amazing how even then, I reach my destination and the brilliant nugget has drifted out of my head.  I have completely forgotten it--until I am lying in bed in a half awake state, just before drifting off to sleep.  Then I battle with myself:  get up and jot it down on the pad on my bedside table, or fall asleep with the half formed idea in my head believing I will remember it in the morning.  Usually, if I don't write it down, it is gone forever.  In the battle between an act of discipline and an act of faith, I know which one works better every time.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Thinking Like A Novel

          A funny thing happened on the way to linking my short stories.  I started thinking about them as a novel.   Yes, I know that each story has to stand alone, with its own beginning, middle and end and its own conflicts and story arc.  But the stories also have to comprise, all together, a story arc for all of the family going through the years.        

          It is amazing how the idea of the novel has taken over the process of linking the stories.
Suddenly I am focusing on time passing, what happens to each character, how one character's events impact on another's life.  Over seventy-one years each family branch in this extended family tree has marriages, births, deaths, love affairs, disappointments, accomplishments.  I found that a simple family tree is not enough of a map.

          My family map now has notations in each column.  What impact does Matti, Anne and Paula's trip to India have on Karen when she thinks about it?  How old is Ellie when Karen goes to Africa?  What world events impact which character?  I fill in the time line for each person and note how old each is at which time, even in the stories in which they don't appear.

          This process engages my mind even when I'm not actively writing.  I find it is, surprisingly, fun.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Map of My Family

     I've spent a good part of the past week working on a map of my fictional family, that is, not my real live family.  I made a spread sheet on Excel tracing each of the six children who appear in the first of my linked stories, delineating the dates of their births and marriages, their children's births and marriages, down three generations.
     Next to each of the separate genealogical lines I wrote the names of the completed stories in which the characters appear;  I also wrote the dates when the stories take place and any world events which happened at the same time.  WWII, John F. Kennedy's assassination, Woodstock, The Challenger disaster,  9/11, all impacted the world and thus the individuals I am writing about.
      When looked at on one large sheet of paper I can see how the sweep of world events was important in the lives of the family members.  I also saw a few gaps.  I have no stories set in the 70's and 80's.  I am thinking hard about that since twenty years in a family's life is noticeable in a novel told in stories.  I may have to write one or two more tales to fill in the holes.

     In the meantime, I still have unpublished stories circulating to print journals and e-zines, hoping to find a home. Happily one has just been accepted for publication in Writes for All, a new on-line magazine.   I will post the link as soon as it appears.

     Meanwhile check out  a couple of my earlier on-line stories:
     "Home Visit" which is in the Archives of The Boston Literary Magazine, Fall 2007 under Quick Fiction and "What They Tell Her" which is in the Archives, Fall, 2008 under Flash Fiction:         

     "Distant Relations" which is in the Archives of The Write Room, November, 2010: 

     "How to Make a Life," which is in the current issue of SNReview at

     "It's Him I Hate," in June, 2007 issue of WriterAdvice:

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Making Bad Things Happen to Good People

     A writer friend of mine commented to me recently that she has a hard time making the stakes high enough for the characters in her stories.  I understood what she meant.  I frequently have the same problem.  I like my characters and I feel uncomfortable making bad things happen to them.

     As I am going through my stories, linking them to one another, I am constantly evaluating whether the conflicts and problems that I present my characters with are high enough stakes to matter. And they have to matter not only to the original character but to succeeding generations as well since what happens in one story reverberates in the others.

     If a character suffers from mental illness, or a character divorces or dies, it is easy enough to see how others can be touched by the crisis.  But not every story is about life or death.  Some stories involve little changes and small developments; the impact on a character's life can seem subtle at first, and then have larger implications later.  My job is to make the conflict, the crisis or the problem be important enough to change the trajectory of a character's life, to make it believable, to make it heartfelt, to make it matter.


Sunday, May 20, 2012

Plan your Work and Work Your Plan

     I have made a plan.  By Labor Day I will have the flow of my linked stories completed, and all the stories will fit together.  How to get it done is the big question.

     There are fifteen weeks until Labor Day.  I made a calendar delineating the progress I expect to make each week. Although each story has to stand alone,  perfectly complete with a beginning, a middle and an end, each story must also contain the seeds of another--a character or event, a mention of something that links back or forward to another story.  I have picked the ten to twelve stories, already written, that I hope will comprise the collection which traces the four generations of family.  Now I have to refine the stories and make the links work.

     This week I am rewriting the first story of the collection, "Ruby 1941-1945."  The plan is to complete the first edit and go on to story number two, "Earth, Air, Fire, Water."  On my calendar I have the names of the stories, the names of the characters, the dates and events that weave back and forth.  I intend to complete a genogram, or family tree, so that I have a visual picture of the four generations.

     If I stick to my plan then, as I say above, 'by Labor Day I will have the flow of my linked stories completed, and the stories will fit together.' To do that I have to work the plan.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Hitting The Doldrums...Again

     I was complaining in my writing class this week.  I could not seem to progress with my book.  I had decided the stories had no merit.  They all needed to be rewritten. There was no conflict.  Why would anyone want to read them?  Even I didn't.  
     I had started this project of linking short stories with absolute certainty that there were enough of them and they were related, and suddenly I was not so sure.  What had happened to the thirteen stories I thought had? Now that I had decided they were all terrible--except maybe the ones that had already been published--I didn't have enough.
     Which characters were worth writing about?  Following? I couldn't decide. Where was the fire? Where was the passion? I had none.
     My writing teacher asked "What was the thread that connected one story to another? Can you find a question you can ask at the beginning of the first story and answer by the end of the last one?"
     I went to sleep thinking about this, and in the magic way the unconscious works,  I awoke with the beginnings of an answer.  These are family stories.  They revolve around the ways the family members connect one to the other, the ways they come together and the ways they split apart.  So the overriding question is can we keep our connections and what happens when we don't? 
     It helped to pose the question. I saw there was conflict, and plenty of it.  I began to rethink the story links, to put together the family tree and watch what happened when a character in one story was impacted by something that happened to a character in another story. Slowly it began to make sense again. I hope I can keep the focus.
     But I am aware that this process is not a straight line; it is a kind of zig-zag.  And I expect I will be in the doldrums again as I go through the work.  The trick is not to stay there.

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Simple Name Change Can Help Link Your Stories

     It is amazing how the simplest change can link one story to another. In my writing I am linking previously published stories to others that have not yet been published. In doing so I realized, of course, that names must remain consistent in all the stories.
     One of my published stories, The Black Umbrella, which appeared in the 2008 Edition of The Westchester Review, was about a member of the first generation of my fictional extended family when he was an old man. This character's name was Sam.
     I have since written several other stories about the family and realized that I had also used the name Sam for a brother-in-law in that first generation.  All of these first generation people appear in one story, and as I began to draw a family tree, with its marriages, divorces, births and deaths, I settled, once and for all, on each character's name.  The brother-in-law in that first family became 'Sam.'  The old man needed a different name; he became 'Max.'
     I went back to The Black Umbrella, nicely stored in a folder on my computer, and, with a simple "Search and Replace" function, changed Sam to Max throughout the story.  I saved the story in a new folder, called Linked Stories.
     To underline the connection, I also wrote a new sentence in which the old man, who was already looking at a wall of old family photographs in one scene in the Black Umbrella, sees a sepia colored wedding photo of his brother-in-law and sister.  Thus these two men are forever linked to one another in two completely separate stories which trace family lives over four decades.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Getting Back to Work After Vacation

One of my dear friends calls the time preparing to take a vacation, and getting back to work afterwards, "vacation punishment."  I must admit that it does feel punishing to me.  After I deal with the unpacking, the laundry, putting away the assorted souvenirs and gifts and getting my surroundings back into some semblance of normal, I still have to get myself back into the groove of work.
      I think that is harder for me now that I am writing than it used to be when I had a nine to five job. After all, now I am the one determining the workload and driving the timeline.  And the blank page doesn't come with directions.
      I reenter slowly.  This week I spent two days writing up my notes about the trip:  where we went, what we saw, my reflections on the different cultures we encountered.  This particular trip was to Panama, and aside from the Canal and Panama City we were on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, went downriver to visit the Embera Indians, an indigenous tribe, and snorkeled and kayaked and fished.  So there was a lot to reflect on.
     After getting my fingers active on the computer keys again, I am ready to get back to my linked short stories.  I've been thinking a lot about them, teasing out the themes and the characters and wondering if the thirteen stories I have are enough to make the collection  or if I will have to write one or two more.  I already know I will have to re-write sections of stories in order to make them work well together.
     So although I haven't written anything new for my story collection, I have been working on them in my head while I walk, cook, drive and dream. Now I am ready to get back to the written word.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

First Steps in Creating a Collection of Short Stories

Florence’s Blog 2     4-4-12

First Steps in Creating a Collection of Short Stories

            Last week I put my stories down all over my floor. Some are published stories already in print and some are still in manuscript form making the rounds of print and on-line ‘zines.  Since I want my collection of linked stories to trace a large extended family over three generations, many of the characters will have to appear and reappear at different times in their lives, interacting with one another and impacting each other as the years go by.  I was looking for these connections.
All week I walked around the pages, peering down to see which stories meshed, which characters appeared in more than one story or could appear in another later story.  Some clearly were about the same family as the years went by and things changed in their lives.   Some stories had absolutely no connection to any others. 
After a few days of living with the chaos, I made a pile of the stories that I thought I could use, and I put the other ones away.  I found I have about thirteen stories that, with some editing and linking, I can use together.  I began to pose questions to myself about ways to connect them and link the characters, one to another.  Over the next weeks I’ll be posting some of those questions, and the ways in which I answer them.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Florence's Blog

           I used to sit and eavesdrop on my aunts as they prepared the food for huge family parties and washed and dried the dishes in the kitchen. Coming from a large and diverse extended family, I grew up with fifteen aunts and uncles and their spouses; I have twenty-seven first cousins and hundreds of second and third cousins, once and twice removed. Early on I learned that each of us has a story worth telling and for years I’ve been writing fictionalized versions of them. Some of these stories have been published, in print and on line.  Others are still making the rounds.
            Over time I realized that linking these stories together will produce a picture—a fictionalized biography of sorts—of an extended family:  stories about mothers, daughters, sons, about aunts and uncles and cousins and the ways they interact, learn from each other and repeat or avoid the struggles and consequences from one generation to another.  I am now doing just that.
            During the next months I’ll be posting my progress here, on Florence’s blog. If you’re writing a memoir or a fictionalized version of one, follow along with me, comment on the process, challenge me with questions.  I’m learning how to do it, and you can too.