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Magic Kingdom Methodology

There are blogs everywhere telling travelers how to get the most out of Disney. I’ve read more than a few and always come away with something. We returned from our Walt Disney World Resort trip just a couple of weeks ago and it was a wonderful first visit for our kids. Our method may not be unique, but I wanted to share what made our trip a success.

We’re a family of four with our six year-old daughter Molly and five year-old Michael. Their stamina (and our own) were key calculations in our decisions.

Disclaimer: I received no promotional fees or benefits from the Walt Disney World Resort. I’m a children’s book author, after all, not a full-time travel blogger.

Break Time

We didn’t stay on the property, but our condominium was very close. From our front door to the gate of the Magic Kingdom, it took about 30 minutes, including riding the Monorail (which, by the way, Molly and Michael loved!). With the short distance in mind, we purposely chose days the park was open late so we could return to the condo in the afternoon for a couple of hours.

Our kids never napped during this time, but the break from the sensory input was important. They were able to relax and recharge. Each of the two days we visited the Magic Kingdom, our schedule went something like this:

  • Arrival at park opening (8:00 am).
  • Leave park around 2:00 pm.
  • Return to park at 5:30 pm.
  • Stay to 10:00 pm.

The last hour or so was always a bit hairy. Molly spent much of that time riding piggy-back, while Michael was in a stroller. Still, we figured out that with our two days in the park there were only five attractions we didn’t experience and one of those was not available to our kids because of height requirements.

Preferred Parking

We approached the parking gate not knowing anything about Disney’s Preferred Parking. It is something that never came up in the blog posts I read over the years, and I may know why: most well-known travel bloggers stay at a Disney resort property. They utilize the on site transportation rather than driving in as we did.

Our well-used keys to the kingdom.

It was a spur-of-the-moment decision and one that was key to making our visit a great one. Preferred Parking puts you a relatively short walk away from the Monorail and ferry stations that take you to the Magic Kingdom. What’s more, in classic Disney fashion, we received complimentary bottles of water. It may not seem a big deal, but that very minor bit of “swag” made us feel good about the decision.

The close-proximity parking also meant we didn’t have to wait on a tram to get us to and from our car. I imagine that saved us at least an hour each day. There are all sorts of ways to save time in (and out of) the park.

Get the Most from FastPass+

Maybe few bloggers write about Preferred Parking, but almost all of them write about FastPass+. We weren’t terribly smart about it on our first day. I reserved a few rides only about 24 hours in advance, and I spread the times throughout the day. Well, we learn by making mistakes, right? It was probably around 8:00 in the evening before I was able to schedule a FastPass+ beyond the initial three alotted.

Crowd navigation skills are a plus.

A key to using the system as we did was having the Disney World “My Disney Experience” app on my phone. There are also the FastPass+ Kiosks located throughout the park, but we didn’t need to locate them thanks to the app (which, incidentally, will locate them for you). Instead, we arranged FastPass+ rides according to what was available utilizing the app.

Make your reservations early. If you stay at a Disney resort, you can make your first three FastPass+ reservations up to 60 days prior to your visit. If you stay off property, you can do it 30 days ahead of time. FastPass+ is a great feature, but you can get more out of it with a bit of planning…which brings us to the next thing.

Have a “Planner”

My wife Amy is a planner and always thinking about the next step. This is great in many ways, and it was a particular boon to our visit. We didn’t spend time stopped in walkways figuring out what to do next. This was always decided while in line or while grabbing a snack.

Nighttime in the Magic Kingdom.

The My Disney Experience app was a big part of this as well. Sometimes what was available via FastPass+ steered our decision, and other times it was the app’s Wait Times feature. Looking at Wait Times as I write makes me a little jealous. It’s a good day to be at the park!

You don’t realize how much time this planning saves until you’re maneuvering a stroller around people looking at a map or pointing in one direction or another. We were constantly in motion, and that brings up another useful quality.\

Have a “Guide”

You can hire a guide at some expense for your visit. The guides Disney provides get you to the front of lines and all sorts of perks. That isn’t what I mean here.

Amy has a nose for planning and I have a nose for direction. Granted, I occasionally open the Magic Kingdom map up at home just to do a mental tour (yes, I’m a big Disney fan), so I knew the park pretty well before our visit. Whatever our decision for the next thing was, I could get us there efficiently.

My wife and I make a good team in many ways, and her as Planner with me as the Guide made the day much, much easier. I think, too, it kept us from getting too caught up in the rush of things. Knowing where you’re going and about how quickly you can get there puts things at ease.

 

There are probably a few more things to talk about with our experience and I’ll save them for another post. These were the basic things that made our experience at the Magic Kingdom in the Walt Disney World Resort a special time. I’m ready to go back.

Five Reasons (Six if you’re a writer) to Like Cursive Writing

Some things once given as necessary are now seen as expendable. Cursive writing is an example. Let me caution you before reading: maybe you don’t use cursive. This post is in no way meant to criticize that. If you are an adult, you’ve made an informed decision because you likely were required to learn it.

I advocate for its inclusion in education curricula for the reasons listed below. When I’ve had a conversation on the topic with someone that opposes it, the only argument I hear is “it’s obsolete.” This post should convince you otherwise. If not, there are some interesting bits here about cognitive development. Bottom line: give your kids the choice you had.

Fine Motor Skills

The intricate movements necessary to differentiate some letters lead to better dexterity for the hand. Researcher William Klemm talks about hand-eye coordination and elaborates, “in handwriting the movements are continuously variable, which is much more mentally demanding (than single-stroke block letters).”

There is a creativity associated with the movement as well. With “continuously variable” letter combinations, our brains constantly formulate new movements, new paths for our hand. Later, we add personal fluorishes to the movement. As adults, we don’t think of it anymore and our movements are practiced and quick. For children, it’s an important part of developing.

A Higher Level of Thought

Studies connect the use of cursive with a higher level of thought. The same parts of the brain we access during reading are used when we write by hand. Typing on a keyboard doesn’t do this. Single-stroke block letters do it only in a lesser way. The implications for the development of a child’s brain are considerable. In effect, their brains receive a diminished diet of stimulation compared to the education we had.

Just in case you forgot!
Just in case you forgot!

Test-Taking Skill

Cursive writing is also a test-taking skill that allows a proficient student to write more in less time. I taught eighth and ninth grade English for four years and required cursive writing on all exams and in-class assignments. This was not without controversy. There was some parental resistance. My students all went on to the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program, where final exams (in just about every subject) require considerable amounts of writing. This is one reason I, and the department-at-large, felt strongly that block print should be discouraged.

Students with developed handwriting convey more ideas in less time. Cursive writing aids not only the physical act of recording the thoughts, but the mental ability to organize those thoughts.

Better Learning

Everyone learns in a slightly different manner. Many of us benefit from visual learning. Charts, graphs, photos and videos help us understand. We all benefit from this to a greater or lesser degree.

The same is true for writing. It’s called kinesthetic learning and most of the time we associate it with learning physical skills. This is often referred to as “learning by doing.” In my case, and I’m sure others, it also means that the act of writing helps commit information to memory. Because I take the time to write something, my brain seizes on it as important. Anytime I write out directions to go somewhere, I don’t have to worry about whether or not the slip of paper is in my pocket, it’s already memorized.

Better Listening

This also affects note-taking in class. When I taught speech we went over mistakes people make when they listen. One of these was “listening too hard.” It means we sometimes make the mistake of giving equal weight to everything that is said, rather than pick out significant points or facts.

This is precisely the tendency for someone taking notes on a computer. Meanwhile, the person who writes his or her notes can still make this mistake (as I did), but has a lot of motivation to develop new and better listening habits. Sharpening the skill allows the student to pick out relevant information and the kinesthetic aspect of writing helps the student commit the information to memory.

Research for the Writer

The age of mobile phones and the vast tools we have access to via the web tend to downplay the need for written notes. Instead of recording information, we return to it at will by bookmarking its location. This plays out in a greater context than writing: there is an increased tendency for people to no longer remember an answer to a question, rather, they remember where to find the answer to the question.

Written notes for a writer, however, are a necessary thing. Writers very often must research various topics to plausibly use them in a story. What is easier, to bookmark something and continually return to it for reference? Or writing it down, thereby committing it to memory, and having access to it whether or not you happen to be in front of a computer? It is no contest, and the writing flows much more easily when you have knowledge of the topic, rather than rely on access to that knowledge.

Writing: More Important Than Ever

The Information Age brought us e-mail and social media. What does one do to realize the potential of these forms…oh, yes! One writes! Along with these things, we’ve seen the magnification of communications blunders. Nevermind talent, a merely competent writer is in demand! Today, he or she is a “content provider.” Does cursive writing make me a better content provider? It does, for all the reasons listed above.

Plus, I think a page of written notes looks cool. Thanks for reading!

Creativity (Part IV) Spark

The original question that inspired these creativity posts asked what books I recommended for the creative process. My answer is any book. There is no particular book I know on the process that is particularly helpful because my reading in this area is nonexistent. Still, any experience is of help. Sometimes we just need to hear the same thing said in a different way.

Here are are my tips for finding that extra bit of creativity when needed. I consulted no other articles putting this together, but have read on this topic in the past and these suggestions likely echo others. What makes sense for one often makes sense for others.

Spark Tip #1: Read

This past week I read a somewhat dated action/suspense thriller. It mainly concerned terrorism. This book gave me the idea for a new chapter in my current project, a middle-grade mystery. More

Most of our character creations to date!
Most of our character creations to date!

specifically, the chapter concerns a key figure in the story and his experiences. There is a direct relationship between the information and unraveling the mystery. None of it involves terrorism. In fact, it’s mainly about carpentry.

How did the book inspire this? I’m not entirely certain. No similar chapter appears in the book. Nonetheless, the text engaged in a way where the thought processes used were similar to what was needed to create the idea. Logically, that is the best answer I can give.

Reading stimulates our brains, and fiction in particular should spark the creative center. If it doesn’t, the author isn’t doing a good job. We constantly concoct visuals to go with the text. This is the reverse of how I write: my brain creates a visual and text is written that puts the same visual in the head of a reader. That’s the idea anyway.

Different tools stimulate our brains in different ways. As an example, each night before studying in college I did the New York Times crossword. It took a couple of months to actually finish a full crossword, but complete or not the clues stimulated the analytical parts of my brain and made the reading much easier. Our classes were largely discussion based (small school), so breaking down large amounts of text into easy-to-explain summaries was the task at hand. It was a sort of game and the crossword gave the right mental nudge to do it.

Spark Tip #2: Write!

“Wait, but that’s exactly what I’m having trouble with!” Think of it as a lateral maneuver. Your mind won’t go where you want it to, so take it somewhere else and find another path to what you want. Write about something fun, or something you know. There is a scene in Finding Forrester, where Sean Connery plays a famous author, that rings true. He sits down to write while his protege sits across from him waiting for inspiration. “Start with something familiar,” Connery says and gives him an old essay. The younger man copies the first sentence and then he’s off on his own writing journey.

Everyone writes a bit different and our experiences are unique. Maybe you love to compose poetry, but the project in front of you isn’t a poem. It doesn’t matter because, again, you access the right part of your mind. Once you wake up those brain cells, put them to work on what you really want to write.

The results of my experience with this are mixed. I have a hard time writing about my hobbies and tend to lose focus on the intended message. Our experience with our interests is immersive; there is a lot of information stored in our heads! We have so much detail in our memories is not always easy to put aside that clutter and effectively communicate our experience. So it is sometimes a frustrating exercise to write about things we love.

That said, the effort expended is not a waste. Part of the creativity we want to access is simply forming sentences and varying their structure. That is a worthwhile way to spend time.

Spark Tip #3: Edit

You might also backtrack a bit if you’re in the middle of a project. Do some light editing or re-read the previous chapter. In other words, re-connect with the ideas that advanced the story or make

If you haven't done this, authors, make the opportunity happen. It is too much fun to miss.
If you haven’t done this I hope you get the opportunity. It is too much fun to miss.

new connections. It’s a good idea even if the storyline you want to write isn’t directly related (possible, but unlikely).

This is an effective technique. First, it puts me more at ease with the book draft because it cleans up a few things. Second, it re-establishes the pace of the narrative. The mental energy that goes along with being part of that pace opens up the story. Once again, we’re immersed in the feel of the book. If you pair this with the fourth tip, it should give you somewhere to go.

Spark Tip #4: Consult Yourself

You made an outline, right? Okay, go back and take a look. Remember the arc you envisioned when all this started. It sounds a little odd, I mean, you might have the outline pinned to the wall and think you constantly access it. But we can and do lose focus. My chapter book mystery The Shield of Horatius is set, mainly, in modern Rome and the characters visit some amazing sites. There is a mighty temptation to drone on about the surroundings.

We put together likable characters that interact in interesting ways and…maybe…we overdo it. We fall in love with the dialogue and forget to serve the story even while we think we’re serving the art. The art, however, isn’t writing, it is storytelling. Witty banter between characters only does so much for the book. Consult your outline. Get back on track with the story.

 

Mind maps and other idea-generating practices also might be useful. I use and recommend these for essays, but never had a need for them when it comes to writing narrative fiction. No matter what anyone suggests, when you make the effort you likely will find something that suits you. As I said, our writing and our experiences all differ. It stands to reason there is no true model to produce a creative spark in every single one of us.

Good luck with your writing and thanks for reading!

Be Creative

“Be creative.” This likely conjures different thoughts and meanings depending on your interests or work. There are different creative aspects to what I do now and that is what this post discusses. It is the creativity associated with writing a book series, as well as marketing work. First, however, let’s consider what “creative” means.

The Creative

The word is sometimes used as a noun. This is true in marketing and advertising firms. A creative is someone who works either in design (whether graphic or web design) or produces content. Ten years ago, the latter would simply be known as a copywriter. Today, however, video production is more integrated into blogs and websites, so the definition must expand to include the person who develops these visuals, as well as the person that writes the script.

My work entails some of these things, but it didn’t always. Before I was a “creative,” when the term was mentioned, the thought that came to mind was of someone who created something out of nothing. Sometimes it was true. Now things are different. We don’t create ad campaigns based on creativity, at least not if we’re smart about our approach. Any sort of campaign should be an extension of a company’s personality or culture. This has been the advisable direction of content creation for at least five years, and some companies make good use of it.

Our most recent school talk, sharing the characters we created for the first nine books.
Our most recent school talk, sharing the characters we created for the first nine books.

There was another image of a creative person, in the agency context. It was someone who wasn’t particularly professional or organized. One might say rebellious, but indulged may be a better description. Indulged, that is, if they did a good job of being creative. And again, from the outside, that appeared to be some sort of magic.

Creative Work

There are creative people in all walks of life and work. Some solve internal problems in a new way, others see possibilities in new markets (or new possibilities in old markets), and a good number figure out the next big thing in terms of products or machine tooling, etc.. Teachers are creative on a daily basis, tailoring lesson plans for students with different learning styles or challenges. A retail salesperson is creative in how he or she interacts with people, because no two customers are exactly the same. A book author is creative in finding a new story to tell.

This is the work I can discuss. Some of my experiences apply to the other areas, but this is a writer’s blog.

Someone asked recently what books I recommended for the creative process. I have no recommendations. Well…that’s not true. Any book can inspire creativity.

“NO,” you shout, “that isn’t what I came to learn. How do you get creative?” In other words, what steps can I follow to be more creative with writing, or have an easy flow of ideas?

Be Creative

It starts with capability. What resources can you call on? How much experience do you have writing? How many hours have you put into it? How much have you read? Have you read different types of books? How familiar are you with writing styles? Literary devices? How varied is your vocabulary?

All of these things give you choices; choices in narrative, in sentence structure, and much more. Writing fiction is more than telling a story. It needs to be told in a way that is effective for the audience you want to reach. That is my perspective. A writer can be as artistic as they want, but in the end if you fail to communicate the story to an audience, then all you accomplished is expression. When no one receives your message or is able to form another interpretation, then what good is a story? That is why having choices in how you write is necessary. Writing creativity starts with capability.

That is the beginning. Give some thought to your own capabilities and how you might improve them. I can identify particular experiences that improved mine: writing hundreds of letters and several speeches when I worked in politics,  learning Greek and Latin roots while teaching them to 8th and 9th graders, and instructing the same students in literary analysis. Some people say you need to live before you can write something of consequence. If it is experience you need, it is experience with writing. It comes both through hours of reading and composing.

This is pretty general, but it’s already run long. We’ll discuss the creative process in the next post and it will be here soon. Thanks for reading!

 

The Shield of Horatius and Outlines

The previous posts had two sections, but this is all about a single topic: outlines. I mention my middle-grade mystery here because this post shares my original outline. This provides some insight into the writing process. Well, that’s my goal.Shield of Horatius Cover

How important is an outline? It is crucial. Crucial, that is, if you want to write well and stay on track. Why? Writing is the communication of ideas through printed (whether on a screen or on paper) words. Even a book is an idea. The Shield of Horatius started with this thought: What if an artifact of a legendary Roman hero survived to today?

Several questions and ideas sprung from there: how could it happen? How do we navigate Roman history to make it plausible? How could it be found after millennia? Why was it lost? How long has it been lost?

See a need for organization? No question, but many of these questions were answered as I wrote, not before the writing started.

Before the writing started, I made the most simple outline possible. Basically, I created the Table of Contents (TOC). Below are both my original TOC and the final version that appears in the books.

Shield of Horatius Outlines

It was that simple. I referred to the eleven items as the book developed. Other writers create much more intricate outlines. Do what makes you feel most comfortable. My preference is leaving things loose so there is plenty of room for change. Clearly there was change here, two chapters are crossed out.

The first was “A Shadow in the Hall.” It was my original intent to have Chapters Four, Five, and Six occur in the same location. At some point I realized it would slow the story down, the pacing would be far too slow. So Chapter Four remained where it was, and Chapter Five happens in a location a few blocks away. The characters move as the story moves.

The second editorial change was deletion of “The Golden House.” This is a reference to the huge residence Nero built called the Domus Aurea, Latin for “House of Gold.” I wanted the characters to visit, but there were two problems. First, the house was lost for a long, long time. When Nero was killed, the people hated him so much they buried the house and drained the artificial lake next to it. The site of the lake, by the way, is where the Colosseum stands today. Nero’s death came just four years after the house was built.

A second problem was an actual visit to the Domus Aurea is difficult because the site isn’t stable. Restoration work is underway and part of the site reopened at the end of last year, but it was closed when I wrote the book. Both of these factors meant the house was not a plausible location.

Reality sometimes interferes with creative choices.

Chapter Eleven is still there on the pre-writing side, but, unfortunately, the Pantheon is only discussed in the book, not visited. The reason for the visit was problematic because the Pantheon is today a functioning Catholic church. So I used the location secondhand and with pretty good results, but not until Chapter Thirteen of the actual book.

I encourage you to do a simple outline, even if you usually make detailed preparations for writing. When you write, it should be fluid. If things go well, the story flows. That is not to say it cannot be done another way, it just makes any new decision much more difficult. For example, if you come up with a brilliant change to a character or scene in the beginning or middle of your book, then everything else must shift to accommodate the change. How willing will you be to make the change? Leave it open and trust your writing instincts.

Do it your way, but make sure you do it. Even the most basic outline gives you a path. When we travel, we don’t note all the streets we drive past. Instead, we mark the turns. We do that because the turns are significant. If we know the map well enough, we might even think of an alternate route, and might be forced to do so if we come upon a closed road. Flexibility is important to reaching the end of the journey.

Thank you for taking a few moments! Please share your thoughts on outlines.

First New Post: This Site, Dependent Clauses

This is a fresh start. All of the past blog material is gone, so I get a chance to start again. What shall we talk about?

Welcome

Thanks for having a look at the new site. It likely will change its look again, but we won’t lose the data. There are a few new things worthy of discussion. For example…

I Remembered My Rules of Writing!

Click here to open a new tab for my About page and you’ll find my Five Six Rules of Writing. For the life of me, I could not remember these for the old site. Okay, it’s time for a brief backstory.

Just adding a visual. This is from a fall event two years ago.
Just adding a visual. This is from a fall event two years ago.

I started full-time work as a teacher in August of 2007. There was a need to add a bit to the classroom’s bare walls. One of the first items was a half-page flyer with the original Five Rules. There is a vast digital archive of the documents created during my four years as a teacher, but somehow the Five Rules weren’t there.

Something aligned as this site went up. In addition to the first five, a sixth is present for the benefit of college admissions essay writers, which includes many, many teens. It was my privilege to help many students with these essays. These essays also revealed writing tendencies, which brings us to the next topic.

Dependent Clause Use: A Preference, Not a Rule

There are other breakable rules I use. One in particular is to never start a paragraph with a dependent clause. This is more of a style thing, but it goes against the conventional wisdom of some English teachers. This practice was, in fact, encouraged. The college essays I read used this structure early and often. My main reason for opposing this is the tendency for abuse.

Once abused, it creates a cadence that lulls a reader to sleep. Think about the way your mind reads such a sentence. The voice travels up as you read the opening (dependent clause), and then descends, resolving both the sentence and the descending notes, whether spoken aloud or not. Up and down, repeated, like a soft ocean swell…that…zzzz.

A little secret from voice work: when reading a text, you always end sentences on an up note to keep the listener’s ear engaged. The brain expects more. That’s another trick about a sentence that uses this structure. You cadence up, resolve down and most of the time we’ll do this in our heads as we read. But if you resolve down, how do you add the up note to keep the reader listener interested? Well, I guess you ask a question like I just did, but that can’t be done every time.

Here is the key: Don’t make your reader wait for information. If a clause is created and its full meaning revealed later, I risk a loss of comprehension. Yes, the previous sentence’s structure was intended. All those words and I could just say, “I risk losing readers if my style choice distracts.” It’s not about economizing words; it’s about communicating meaning.

Dependent clauses aren’t a bad thing. They do, however, get out of control. Their use is particularly bad practice when the goal is to reveal what a paragraph covers. Used sparingly they enhance writing and provide variation for the reader’s internal “ear.”

Writing is all about sharing. Your goal should be clarity. That is why a fiction writer edits a manuscript to remove everything that does not advance the story. Fluorish wins points with some, but it bores readers who want the meat of the your message. They want to know what you have to say, not marvel at how you say it.