The Magic of “Giving”


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The holiday season sparkles with promise. A mystical quality tempts us to peerDisneyland fireworks, Rivers of America beyond the veil into a place brimming with never-ending happiness…like living at Disneyland.

As children we embraced that joy with our whole heart. But as we grew older and more jaded, we lost the connection with the magic, some turning into die-hard cynics because it never reappeared.

The good news is, the magic is still there any time you want it.

The bad news is, you’ve had the key all along and didn’t know it.

The Key to Happiness is Helping Others

Yeah, I know. It sounds like watered down fortune-cookie wisdom. Still, it happens to be true. I’m talking from personal experience too, not reciting something from a Fast-Pass-to-Enlightenment guide. Giving is the focus of many faiths at this time of year, and for good reason.

As a teenager, I was suffered the same angst and self-doubt as everyone else. I was a nerdy overachiever with a side of art-geek, who thought happiness lay in chasing a goal. Funny how when I finally got “there”, happiness had already left the building. Sadly, this delusion lasted for years.

opendoor2Finally, I had the good sense to volunteer at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, after moving to San Francisco. I thought it would be a good way to meet people with the same interests, which it was. But more important, the experience opened me up to the secret of happiness. There’s a wonderful energy that comes from giving selflessly. Our Sunday Night Crew signed in at 5:00 pm, and in an El Nino winter, we often didn’t leave until sunrise. And we had a GREAT time on our shift too! I’d get home in time to shower and head to work. Magically, the energy carried me through the day…with a smile on my face.

A QuickStart Guide to Giving

If you’re one of the many who don’t have time to volunteer for a non-profit organization on a regular basis, you can do something to “give” everyday. And you’ll be surprised by the happiness you receive in return.

  • Give gently used clothes to local shelters or non-profit organizations.
  • Give towels and bedding to local animal shelters and rescue organizations.
  • For more options for giving to local animal shelters, see my It’s Hard to Be a (Grumpy) Cat at Christmas post.
  • Smile and say something nice to the checkout person at the grocery store. Your kind words will make their day.
  • At the end of a conversation with a Customer Service representative, when they ask you if there’s anything else they can do for you? Say, “Yes. Have a Happy Holiday!” Or, “Have wonderful day!” depending on the season.
  • Perform random acts of kindness, helping strangers in unexpected ways.
  • Leave a copy of a favorite book on a table or bench with a “This is yours to enjoy!” note inside to whoever finds it. There’s a Teen Book Drop event called Rock the Drop I’ve participated in for several years now. Why not spread the reading love all year long?!
  • Use a special talent, such as calligraphy, design, or organizational skills to help a non-profit organization promote an event.

The truth is, the more you give the happier you are…and the more you realize you have to give…in ways you never thought possible. It costs so little and the reward is priceless.

Here’s to magically Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year too!

Fireworks hearts

It’s Hard to Be a (Grumpy) Cat at Christmas!


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Grumpy…For the good of all cat-kind

A couple of years ago Grumpy Cat, Oskar the Blind Cat, Nala Cat, Colonel Meow, and Hamilton the Hipster Cat starred in the following video that helped to feed over 500,000 homeless cats. While the view-and-feed-homeless-cats offer for the video is long past, the sentiment of helping those less fortunate still rings true. Especially at this time of year.

Grumpy Cat at Christmas

You don’t have to sponsor thousands of meals to feed homeless animals in order to make a HUGE difference.

Kindness Comes in Many Flavors

Grumpy Cat and I both have a soft spot in our hearts for animals that have been left to fend for themselves under harsh conditions. Here’s a few things you can do in your local community that will make a significant impact in the quality of life for homeless animals:

  • Donate a bag of cat/dog food to your local Humane Society or animal shelter.HSSV kitten Sometimes there are even “donation” bins at local pet food stores for local shelters and rescue organizations.
  • Give those old towels you were about to throw away to your local animal shelter. They always need towels and other types of bedding material.
  • Shelters always need disinfectant cleaners, bleach, newspapers, and paper towels. Next time you’re out shopping, buy extra to donate to your local shelter.

If you don’t have time to shop and deliver goods to your local shelter and know your way around the internet, you can shop the discount stores, like Costco, and have Google Express deliver the items for a small fee.

  • Donate your time. Shelters need volunteers in all capacities.
  • Best of all, open your heart and home to a homeless or rescue animal. They will return the love one hundred-fold.

It’s Hard to Be a Cat at Christmas

Spread Light with Stories that Empower


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Literature Lights the Way

empower_lighthouse2_smallI’ve stayed clear of politics on this blog, until now. The results of the recent Presidential election cast our nation into darkness. Many now live in fear for their safety and the safety and well-being of family and friends. This is not OK! Especially not in a nation formed on the ideals of freedom, equality, human and civil rights, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for all.

But as bad as it is, I finally realized these aren’t the worst times our country has faced…and survived. We are not in a Civil War.

Not to minimize the difficulties and rough road ahead, just giving it a little perspective.

Serendipity bestowed an emotional pick-me-up the other night that helped me to see things in a new way. The Yogi Tea I drink in the evening comes with wisdom-y quotes. This one was spot on:

Spread the light. Be a lighthouse.

How perfect is that?

We each have special skills to draw from that can help to turn the tide of discrimination and hate to one of acceptance and love. Writers wage the of power influence through their words, with their stories. Meg Cabot tweeted as much the very next day.


Words of Power

Honesty hour. I hit a wall on my current YA project two-thirds of the way through the first draft. Self-doubt and an internal editor, who’s more like a death eater, put the skids on my progress. Until now. The election results were my call to arms—or maybe hands, since I’m a writer. Suddenly, something is way more important than my ego.

Creating stories that infuse young readers with courage, dignity, inclusion, love, and hope is my mission. My new mantra, compliments of an author I admire:

Write that, write that hard. –Martha Brockenbrough

Writers in previous generations used their words to dispel the darkness, when faced with criminal injustice and the atrocities of war.

C.S. Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia after returning from World War I. Likewise, J.R.R. Tolkien penned The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy in the aftermath of World War I.

We don’t have to attain the greatness of Tolkien or C.S. Lewis to make a difference today. We just have to craft well-told stories that empower minds of all ages.

Now to writing that, writing that hard.

Fictional Time Management & Other Relative Topics


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Einstein Nailed It

When I was in grade school, my parents went away for an hour and it felt like an entire day. Seriously. Later that same year when we went to Disneyland for the first time, one day felt like a minute.

Not unlike when we set our clocks forward an hour in the spring for Daylight Savings Time, and it feels like we lose four hours of sleep instead of just one. Yet when we set our clocks back an hour in the fall, the same hour feels like it’s cut in half. What’s up with that?

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in four words: Time is funny stuff.

Clock faces

The Perception of Time is Relative

We often perceive time as expanding or contracting based on our emotions, and our perception creates our reality. Authors have used this to their advantage for quite some time. Telling a story in real-time slows the pace down to focus on a character or story element, or maybe to build suspense. Writers have their ways of accelerating the pace to adjust perception and influence emotion too. Further proof that the pen, and the keyboard, are mightier than the sword. And quantum physics…apparently.

Manipulating fictional time, at its best, keeps readers turning the pages. I wrote a post on Time as a Story Element that discusses these techniques in greater detail, if you’re interested.

Lost Time: Timekeeper

What if time didn’t just expand and contract, but could actually be lost? As in disappear. Vanish. Just freaking gone.

TimekeeperAn intriguing predicament that I hadn’t considered, until I picked up Timekeeper by Tara Sim. The first lines of this alternate Victorian era London run by clock towers cut to the chase:

Two o’clock was missing. Danny wanted it to be a joke. Hours didn’t just disappear.

But they can, and did, in a world where clock towers literally control time. When a clock tower breaks, so does time. And when a clock tower is destroyed, time stops completely. This clockpunk fantasy is infused with magic, woven through with myth, and spiced with mayhem. Danny, our hero, is a clock Mechanic charged with ensuring that time flows according to the natural order. The Mechanics inherit the job, because they can actually feel the strands of time and the weave of its fabric. The existential truths layered throughout the story provide satisfying believability and depth.

Time was everywhere and nowhere at once, making the moment last an eternity.

Stuck in Time: Groundhog Day

There is broken time, and then there is being stuck in time on infinite repeat. A post on fictional time and relativity just isn’t complete without a mention of one of my favorite movies: Groundhog Day.

Groundhog Day movie

Phil (Bill Murray), an egotistical curmudgeon of a weatherman, gets stuck living Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania over, and over, and over…until he finally gets it right. Which for him, takes some doing. I could go on and on and on about this movie, but you’ll enjoy watching the following trailer much more. May time forever flow in your favor.

Groups with Game ~ Squad Goals … or Not?


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parade of elephants

The English language never ceases to amaze me. Colloquialisms, while wacky, can be explained in most cases. The names given to groups of animals and other living things? Not so much. Seriously.

The following list isn’t exhaustive, but it includes some of the more interesting names for groups of living things. If your squad wanted a mascot, which would you take for a name?

For the record, I asked my boss at the day-job if our team could take pandas as our mascot. When he found out what a group of pandas is called, he wasn’t thrilled with the suggestion…for some reason. 😂

Apes — A shrewdness of apes

Butterflies — A kaleidoscope of butterflies

Crows — A murder of crows

Elephants — A parade of elephants

Foxes — A charm of foxes

Geese — A gaggle of geese

tower of giraffes

Giraffes — A tower of giraffes

Hedgehogs — A prickle of hedgehogs

Hippopotamuses — A crash of hippopotamuses


Iguanas — A slaughter of iguanas

Kangaroos — A mob of kangaroos

Larks — An exaltation of larks

Pandas — An embarrassment of pandas


Word Wizardry ~ The Power of Punchy Dialog


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Dialog molds characters into three-dimensions. What characters say, as well as what they don’t, reveals who they are. Dialog has the power to make a story and its characters memorable, whether in books, theater, film, or television. I shamelessly study any medium that’s raised the dialog bar. My current obsession interest is The West Wing.

The West Wing cast

The Magic of the Cutting Quip

I’m a little (?) late to the game on The West Wing (1999-2006). However, it is still in high westwing_joshsam1pngdemand on Netflix, which is a testament to its raise-the-bar quality.

The snappy dialog, and the aplomb with which it is delivered, hooked me in the first episode. Centered around the day-to-day happenings surrounding the President of the United States and his staff, The West Wing tackles serious topics without sinking into the morose. The sheer genius of the dialog and its delivery balanced intense drama with just-right humor, while revealing nuanced layers character traits.

Such as when Sam Seaborn, Deputy White House Communications Director in the administration of President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet, deflects an attack of an irate woman for his stance on school funding:

Woman: Don’t play dumb with me.
Sam: I am dumb. Most of the time I’m playing smart.

Then there were the typos in the State of the Union Address. Sam Seaborn, headshotAs a writer, I may find typos funnier than most. But still. It’s The White House. Monumental decisions that affect millions of people go down there every day. So misspelled words in the State of the Union Address? Kind of (?) funny, if not a little embarrassing.

The following exchange happened during a read-through of the President’s State of the Union speech:

President: I’m proud to report our country’s stranger than it was a year ago?
Sam: Stronger. That’s a typo.
President: It could go either way.

Then later in the same episode:

First Lady: Why is hall#wed spelled with a pound sign in the middle of it?
President: I stopped asking those questions.

Dialog “Do’s” from The West Wing

  • Reveal personality quirks.
    Josh Lyman, White House Deputy Chief of Staff, and Donna Moss, his assistant, were arguing about her not checking his lunch order to make sure his hamburger was burned-to-a-crisp. Josh elaborates, “I like my hamburger so hard that if you drop it on the floor it breaks.”
  • Show character strengths.
    Josh threatens to fire Donna when she pushes back on a request that’s obviously not important. To which she replies, “You’ve already fired me three times. I’m impervious.” Then she walks away, declaring “Impervious.”
  • Expose character dynamics.
    C.J. Cregg, White House Press Secretary, intentionally annoys Josh in a press briefing by saying, “…the theoretical psychics at Cal Tech Nuclear Lab… You know what? I’m pretty sure that’s supposed to be physicists.”
  • Engender empathy in a character.
    An international incident is in play, the President suffered a medical emergency, the State of the Union Address is that evening, and everyone keeps asking him if he’s taking his medication. To ease his staff’s worry, President Bartlet responds with humor, “Is it possible I’m taking something called euthanasia?” Sam replies, “Echinacea.” The President smiles, “That sounds more like it.”
  • Lighten an intense scene.
    Every episode of The West Wing uses witty banter to lighten intense scenes. Joss Whedon—creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer—said it best: “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.”

Walt’s Original Animators ~ Disney’s First Firehouse Band


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Animation … and All that Jazz

Linger long enough in front of the Firehouse on Disneyland’s Main Street, and you’re FullSizeRenderbound to hear a Dixieland jazz band playing old-time favorites. Few people realize that the first Disney firehouse band was made up of Walt Disney’s original animators. These were the guys who animated Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Lady and the Tramp, and more…the classics.

There were seven members in the original band, and they called themselves the Firehouse Five Plus Two.

I took this photo on a recent trip to Disneyland. But this band only has six members, not seven like the original firehouse band.

The Firehouse Five Plus Two

The Firehouse Five Plus Two was a hot ticket in the 1950’s. They played around town at night, as well as appearing in several Disney television specials, including the very first special in 1950, One Hour In Wonderland.

I had the opportunity to talk with Frank Thomas once, the piano player in the original band. He thought their music caught on, because they played for the sheer joy of it. I don’t doubt that’s true. The band was active from 1949 to 1972, playing and recording while never giving up their day jobs as animators and artists with the Walt Disney Studios. Their more than a dozen records are still available in digital formats today, standing the test of time.

The following image is from their appearance with Bing Crosby on his CBS radio program. [PC: Wikipedia]

Firehouse Five Plus Two with Bing Crosby

Their joyful energy is infectious in the following 1951 recording of “Brass Bell Blues”, featuring Ward Kimball (tb), Danny Alguire (tp), Clarke Mallery (cl), Frank Thomas (p), Harper Goff (bjo), Ed Penner (tu), and Monte Mountjoy (d). Google their names. You might be surprised by the classic Disney magic they each had a hand in creating.




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Taking Down Word Crimes ! @ ; # } ?

There are no words … only snorts … for Weird Al’s war on Word Crimes.  The funniest thing I’ve seen in a long, long time.

And yes, I snorted. More than once :-O

It’s quite apparent,
your grammar’s errant.
You’re incoherant…

Sing it sister…dance it mister…

Word Crimes

It’s time to take down Word Crimes!

The Magic of “GREAT!” Beginnings


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Spellbinding Firsts

Magic of a good bookWhat is it about one book that you can’t put down once you start reading, and another that you can’t get past the first few pages? “Magic?” you say. I’d have to agree, if the magic is that of an intriguing story well told.

How does a writer work that magic into a story? How do we conjure the spell?

Multiple Newbery Medal winner, Richard Peck, shed insight on the magic behind great beginnings in an article in that appeared in the September/October 2006 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Then, at a SCBWI annual summer conference, he expanded on his theory that, “You are only as good as your first line.” The secret he related was that, “the essence of the entire story should be encapsulated on the first page.” Yes, the entire story…is an expanded reflection of the first page.

No wonder Richard Peck revises his first chapter again and again, and then once more after he’s finished the book. Because…

The first chapter is the last chapter in disguise.

Peck keeps working on the beginning of a story until he can answer each of the following questions with a satisfied “Yes”:

Does it intrigue? Does it invite? Does it work?

He should know. Multiple Newbery Medals don’t lie. Applying concepts to my own writing is always easier when I have quality examples to study for structure. The following books provide insights into how great beginnings work, each in its own way:

The Kiss of Deception

The Kiss of Deception, the first in The Remnant Chronicles series by Mary. E. The Kiss of DeceptionPearson, is expertly crafted in many ways. The beginning is no exception. The opening paragraphs wrap us in a lyrical voice and language that intrigue, engender suspense, and unfold threads of magic that alight to weave their magic throughout the series:

Today was the day a thousand dreams would die and a single dream would be born.

The wind knew. It was the first of June, but cold gusts bit at the hilltop citadelle as fiercely as deepest winter, shaking the windows with curses and winding through drafty halls with warning whispers. There was no escaping what was to come.

The Game of Love and Death

Game of Love and Death The Game of Love and Death, by Martha Brockenbrough, is an eternal love story staged by the ultimate masters of the game of life: Love and Death.

The masters choose players to unwittingly participate in a romantic dance through a life filled with jazz clubs and airfields. The players’ dance comes to such a poignant and satisfying culmination, that even the arch nemeses are overwhelmed by its divine beauty.

Brockenbrough establishes the fable in entrancing magic from the first paragraph, weaving the lyrical rhythm of language and fully developed characters with expert elegance:

The figure in the fine gray suit materialized in the nursery and stood over the sleeping infant, inhaling the sweet, milky night air. He could have taken any form, really: a sparrow, a snowy owl, even a common house fly. Although he often traveled the world on wings, for this work he always preferred a human guise.

The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate, is a fictional story that was inspired by Ivan, aTheOneAndOnlyIvan_cover real gorilla at the Atlanta Zoo. You can read about the real Ivan here.

The One and Only Ivan is both heartbreaking and heartfelt, brimming with the tenacity of true friendship and the beauty of resolute spirit. Ivan’s soulful voice, his big heart, and the simple honesty of his view of the world draw us in and hold us till the well-deserved happy ending:

I am Ivan. I am a gorilla.

It’s not as easy as it looks.

People call me the Freeway Gorilla. The Ape at Exit 8. The One and Only Ivan, Mighty Silverback.

The names are mine, but they are not me. I am Ivan, just Ivan, only Ivan.

Also Known As

Also Known AsGreat beginnings don’t have to be serious. They can be fresh and fun too, like Also Known As by Robin Benway.

Maggie Silver is the safe cracking prodigy of parents who work for the world’s premier spy organization. Maggie’s sass and snark don’t disappoint on this fast-paced caper, rife with international espionage and the unexpected perils of negotiating high school and first love:

I cracked my first safe when I was three.

I know that sounds like I’m bragging, but really, it wasn’t that hard. It was a Master Lock, the same combination lock that you probably have on your locker or bike. Anyone with Internet access and too much time on his or her hands can crack a Master Lock. I’m serious. Google it. I’ll wait.

See? Easy.

For the Love of Character ~ Idiosyncrasies that Build Empathy


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Building Empathy

I’ve written about various facets of character development in the past, mostly in broad-stroke terms, such as quirky characters who dress like Buster Keaton. Such extreme character traits Brenda Leigh Johnsoncomplement some stories. Other stories require a subtler approach. Developing empathy for a character comes from seeing their idiosyncrasies and flaws, which allows us to identify with them.

Let’s face it. No one can relate to a perfect person, because we all have shortcomings of some kind. Which is why a character’s weaknesses inspire empathy, and in turn cause us to fall in love with them. A tough, no-nonsense investigator who stress eats Ding Dongs (and other sweets) becomes instantly more likable.

Creating empathy is a lot like building trust, it happens over time as we get to know the real person from the inside out.

What “The Closer” Taught Me About Character

Research for writing fiction can cover a broad gamut, including watching television. And you wonder why I love this job?

I write for young readers, and initially started watching The Closera Warner Bros. Televsion adult crime dramato analyze the mystery plot structure and well planned plot twists. The series had garnered more than a few Emmy nominations, and at least one win. I figured I could learn something from the writing. I was right in more ways than anticipated. The Closer showed me the power of everyday character idiosyncrasies as a method for building empathy.

For anyone who hasn’t seen The Closer, here’s the synopsis: The Closer is a police procedural series, starring Kyra Sedgwick as Brenda Leigh Johnson, a Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief. Brenda moved to Los Angeles from Georgia where she trained in the CIA, and gained a reputation as a Closer — a tough interrogator who solves cases and obtains confessions leading to convictions that “close” the case. Deputy Chief Johnson uses her femininity to disarm and distract, and at times resorts to deceit and intimidation to persuade suspects into confessing.

The Closer -- Cast

Brenda Johnson is an expert in her field, relentless and often intimidating. As perfect as she is when it comes to succeeding at her job, her foibles make her relatable and endearing. Here are a few of her characteristics that won me over and made me root for her:

  • She dresses feminine and understated like the Southern girl she is, rather than embodying the high-power-business-suit-chic of the other women at her job level.
  • She stress eats sweets, especially Ding Dongs, which she keeps stockpiled in her desk drawer.
  • As powerful as she is at work, she is unable to stand up to her father whenever he comes to visit.
  • She has episodes of disorganized absent-mindedness where she can’t find her phone and loses her purse. Hey, we’ve all been there.
  • Her single-minded focus that makes her so good at her job causes friction in her personal relationshipssuch as her FBI boyfriend (Jon Tenny) who she eventually marries.
  • She has trouble dealing with simple things in everyday life, like remembering the sex of the stray cat that comes with the house she buys. Brenda calls “Kitty” a “he” even after “she” has kittens. This drives Fritz, her then boyfriend, crazy.
  • She is relentless in her pursuit of a criminal, creating loopholes in the system to pursue justice, even when the victims were less than noble when alive.
  • She uses her Southern charm to get what she wants, always ending an unpleasant request with a sweet “Thank you so much” before anyone can object.
  • She stands behind the people on her team, protecting their jobs during budget cuts, and refusing to believe any one of them could be the cause of the information leak in her department.

Every member of the ensemble cast received their share of idiosyncrasies that endeared them to me as well. And the final season closed with all the necessary ingredients for a satisfying ending.

Brenda and Fritz - Final Season of The Closer