LOVE ~ Fiction’s Greatest Common Denominator

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I love you heart❤️ It’s Valentine’s Day ❤️ 

Love is in the air, whether you adore the holiday or not.

Many bemoan the grandiose expectations the holiday puts on…well…everyone.

Don’t blame Hallmark.

Instead, look to fiction for insights into why this holiday has become a national obsession.

Love … Has Everything to Do With It

As Blake Snyder, Mr. Save the Cat!, used to say, “The motivating force of a story has color heart lightto be primal.” And nothing is more primal than love. I’d go so far as to say that love is fiction’s greatest common denominator, that the roots of every story are based in love.

Whether it’s seeking love, giving love, protecting love, grieving for love, or the ugliness that springs from lack of love or unrequited love.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the most popular stories of all time, because it resonates with humanity’s innermost core. Love.

Love’s Joyful Eccentricities

The romantic comedy (rom-com) is the popular love story of today. Shakespeare was the first to make that particular story type popular, though. Shakespeare wrote a total of 16 romantic comedies, earning him the title as the original Rom-Com King. Rossini, and other composers, carried the romantic comedy into the opera houses with great success. Later, Hollywood was quick to spin the romantic comedy into a film genre.

In children’s literature, the net of love stretches to include other species. For example, TheOneAndOnlyIvan_coverin The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate, a young girl’s compassionate love for Ivan, the shopping mall gorilla, is the catalyst for his freedom.

Likewise, Ivan’s love for the elephants whor are also trapped in the roadside shopping mall attraction sparks his imagination and fuels his actions that provide the means for the young girl to help them.

Spanning centuries, artistic mediums, and species…the love story has touched the hearts of audiences everywhere. To such a great extent, it has permeated the fabric of our consciousness. Such is the power of love. Because it’s primal.

Love’s Darker Faces

The primal motivating force of a character always comes back to love. “Even the villain?” you ask. Yes. Severus Snape, in J.K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter series, is a perfect example of denied love giving the character a villainous face.

City of Heavenly Fire coverShakespeare’s dramatic plays reflect the darker facets of love, such as Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello. Jane Austen, thought by many to be the Queen of Romance in fiction, touches the sadder sides of love in her works, such as Persuasion.

Cassandra Clare‘s Mortal Instruments series is woven through with characters’ experiences and expressions of the grimmer facets of love, that sometimes grow so dark as to perpetuate murder. However, the main theme revolving throughout the series is self-acceptance.

The characters come to see and understand that the choices they make and the consequences that follow are a reflection of their level of self-love. This realization leads some through their darkness, to where they can embrace the healing power of love.


Be Your Own Muse

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The Myth of the Muse

Muse ~ a person, or personified force, who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist.

A muse

For centuries, there have been accounts of writers and artists who looked to muses to spark imagination and fuel creativity. I hate to throw shade on anyone’s creative process, but creativity and imagination are not something you can get from something or someone else. The truth is…

There’s No Magic Feather … or Genie

That’s the bad news. Nothing, and no one, can magically imbue you with creativity. Grow up. It’s just not going to happen.

Creative mindIn Stephen King‘s book, On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft, he says just that: “There’s no magic feather” that will make you a good writer (or artist). It takes a certain amount of innate talent combined with a serious amount of hard work.

The good news is, you don’t need anything outside of yourself to be amazingly creative. You have a vast storehouse of creativity inside you. You just have to know how to access the limitless supply of ideas and raw imagination.

It’s like having your very own Idea Store…inside your head. You just might have temporarily misplaced the key that unlocks the door. Studies of consciousness and the science of creativity (yes, it’s a thing) show there is a Fort-Knox treasure of creativity inside us…just waiting to be tapped.

Activating Your Inner Muse

It’s great knowing you have a wealth of creativity at your beck and call, but you have to know the number. Here’s a few ways to find yours.

I’ve used the following methods, and (from my personal experience) they activate my inner muse. These approaches to unleashing creativity are also listed in the Forbes magazine article Science Continues to Show Us How to Be More Creative.

  • Performing routine tasks, such as housework or walking, allow the mind to wander so creative ideas flow in.
  • Being painfully bored also opens the floodgates of creative thinking. For example, having to wait for long stretches of time, like long airplane flights without a book to read or waiting in line at the DMV.
  • Having a regular meditation practice has shown to improve creativity. Meditation helps slow down the mind, which in turn opens the creative centers of the brain.

At a recent YA (young adult) novel conference, a young writer asked the panel of published authors how they get their creative ideas. Here’s how a few of the authors responded:

Inspiration is Contagious

Why is inspired creativity important for writers? Because a writer’s emotions are woven throughout the tapestry of their stories. As Robert Frost said so succinctly:

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.

When a story is infused with imagination, the reader is swept up in the fictional world and carried away. I think we’ve all had that magnificent feeling when reading a good book, becoming the characters and our real world drops away. That quality of writing can create a lifetime love of reading. And to me, that is an author’s true measure of success.

Boy's imagination while reading


The Music of Words

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shutterstock_379805902_flipThere is music in words. Listen to a conversation in a language you don’t understand and focus on the lyrical quality. When you aren’t distracted by what is being said, you hear the rhythm of the words and the melody in the tones.

Written words are musical as well. A story, in essence, is a symphony of syllables. Writers weave words into melodies, sentences that flow into passages, then swell into movements.

Writers hear the words as they are put onto the page, as if they being spoken. Their structural tempo evokes mood and conveys emotion. A character’s purpose and journey is intertwined with the melody. The author’s voice is the harmonic fabric that blends intertwining melodies into a vibrant whole.

Many writers find inspiration, and connect with the inner muse, through music. The proof is in the playlists they post on social media, different music for each story.

Find Your Writing Rythm

A writer’s rhythm is their voice. I already have a blog post on The Illusive “Voice” ~ What Editors Want and Writers Seek, so I won’t go into that again. Instead I’ll cut to the chase, to the three simple steps anyone can use to find their unique voice:

  1. Read. Read. Read.
  2. Write. Write. Write.
  3. Repeat.

Read everything in your genre, then read widely in other genres. When you find an author whose style resonates with you, read everything they’ve written. Then read those books again. In the sheer act of reading and rereading their words, you absorb the rhythm of the prose, which miraculously transforms into your own unique voice.

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time or tools to write. ~Stephen King

A writer’s voice isn’t a static. The quality of voice evolves as a writer hones and polishes their craft. It takes both reading and writing to discover your writing rhythm, your voice.

Making Music with Words

A story is a symphony of syllables, with possibilities as rich and varied as the imagination. The following excerpts are from books by remarkable authors, each with a unique voice.

Shiver
by Maggie Stiefvater
: As the hours crept by, the afternoon sunlight bleached all the books on the shelves to pale, gilded versions of themselves and warmed the paper and ink inside the covers so that the smell of unread words hung in the air. That was what I loved, when I was human.

The Game of Love and Death
by Martha Brockenbrough: 
“If life didn’t end,” he [Love] said, “there would be no need for me. To choose love indreamstime_xs_182186 the face of death is the ultimate act of courage. I am the joy, but you [Death] are the meaning. Together, we make humanity more than it otherwise might have been.”

The Beauty of Darkness
by Mary E. Pearson: 
The world flickered, pulling us into protective darkness, and I was in his arms again, our palms damp, searching, no lies, no kingdoms, nothing between us but our skin, his voice warm, fluid, like a golden sun, unfolding every tight thing within me, I will love you forever, no matter what happens.

Crenshaw
by Katherine Applegate
: I noticed several weird things about the surfboarding cat. Thing number one: He as a surfboarding cat. Thing number two: He was wearing a T-shirt. It said CATS RULE, DOGS DROOL. Thing number three: He was holding a closed umbrella, like he was worried about getting wet. Which, when you think about it, is kind of not the point of surfing.

Truman Capote understood the music of words. For him, it was the joy of writing.

To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music the words make.~Truman Capote

What story do you need to write, what symphony do you have to play?
Music of words


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

I’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.

Love light

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.

empower_mc

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

squad_hippos_crash

Iguanas — A slaughter of iguanas

Kangaroos — A mob of kangaroos

Larks — An exaltation of larks

Pandas — An embarrassment of pandas

squad_pandas_embarrassment


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.