DIY Coin Banks for the Kids

I don’t usually post DIY stuff, but I just have to share this one because I’m feeling pretty proud of myself.

See, we’ve been trying to teach the kids about money. They get $1.50 a week for their chores. Fifty cents goes into savings, fifty cents goes into a charity fund, and they get to spend fifty cents however they want. The trouble is, having three banks is awkward. It takes up too much room on their shelves. We tried just putting envelopes in one of the banks, but that was weird too.

So I got to thinking, we need smaller banks that don’t take up too much space on their bookshelves. Here’s what I came up with:

Mason Jar Bank

I wanted the kids to be able to drop the coins into each jar easily, prevent the coins from spilling when the jars are inevitably knocked over, and be able to remove the top when it came time to use the money inside. Here’s how I did it.

step by step DIY coin bank

First, I found a few mason jars. We have a couple dozen mason jars kicking around because frankly, I find them tremendously useful for all kinds of things (remind me to tell you how they make dinner at a halloween party super easy).

Second, I found an old scrap of leather. I’m not sure why I had this lying around. I tend to hang onto things like that. I have a whole drawer full of crafty bits. I used the original top of the mason jar to trace circles on the leather then cut out the pieces.

Third, I folded the leather circle in half to cut a slit in it about the size of a quarter.

Fourth, I used my handy hot glue gun to glue the leather circle into the screw top of the mason jar.

Last, I used some contact paper to make little notes for the front saying which jar is for what.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

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My Writer’s Notebook

I carry a small writer’s notebook with me everywhere I go. It’s something I’ve done for nearly a decade, though for a long time I did it simply because I had a general feeling that I should. It wasn’t until 2010 that I got organized about it, and actually came to understand the importance of my writer’s notebook.

writers notebook

For me, the value is two-fold.

First, and most important, is practice. A teacher once told me that a writer should be able to describe the weather every day using different words, even here in LA where it doesn’t change much. Describing things in a way that is effective and interesting is actually something that takes practice. So I practice.

Second, it’s material. When I’m stuck in line or waiting for my kids to finish a soccer practice or karate class, I study someone and write down everything I can figure out about them from what I see.

The trick is that having all this material isn’t much good if I can’t find it. In THEORY, when my little notebook is all full, I type it up, saving each little snippet of brilliance in a separate Word file, organized by the type of note it is. I have a folder for landscapes, character studies, smells, sounds, tastes, weather, and parenting anecdotes. I also keep a file for story ideas, so that if I’m ever stuck, I can just go look over all the amazing ideas I’ve ever had.

I say “in theory” because in practice, I’ve been filling notebooks for years and haven’t transcribed any in a long time. They are piling up and not doing me any good. So my New Years resolution is to actually get through this entire stack by the end of January. Then I can toss the actual notebooks, so that they’re not cluttering up my shelves, and hang onto all the content.

It’s actually part of a larger, unofficial resolution to stop holding onto so much junk. Maybe it was having babies, or maybe it’s just that we haven’t moved in a long time, but I feel like the stuff is piling up in my life, and I’m over it. I just want it gone. Anything that can be thrown away, recycled, or put on my lap top will be dealt with accordingly in short order.

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Best Books of 2015 (says me)

Okay, folks, here it is, just under the wire. My best-of list for 2015. As a quick disclaimer, it’s a list of the best books I HAVE READ in the past twelve months. Not a list of the best books published in the last 12 months. (My blog, my list.)

Best Books 2015

So here goes. (No spoilers, promise)

The best books I read in 2015, in no particular order, were…

The Golem and the Jinni (2013) by Helene Wecker
I love, love, love this book. It’s magical, but grounded. It’s a love story, but not. It’s almost historical fiction, painting a New York of old with amazing detail, but it’s much more the story of these two characters – the golem and the jinni. A must read.

The Signature of All Things (2013) by Elizabeth Gilbert
Stunning. This woman can write. I loved this book so much that I slipped my Kindle underneath my papers at work and turned my back so no one would see that I shifted the work aside and just fell into the story. I couldn’t put it down, and then felt kind of depressed when it was over. It is also highly discussion-worthy. If you’ve read it, please let me know because I am dying to debate some of its finer points with a friend.

The Night Circus (2011) by Erin Morgenstern
My friend Brian McGackin bashed this one on his own blog. I was shocked. It was fantastic. A love story told in the setting of a magical circus, created by an eccentric old rich guy trying to win a bet. The story telling is highly visual, which is a real feat given that most of the things she describes are completely fabricated. Inventive and engaging.

Purity (2015) by Jonathan Franzen
My favorite Franzen yet.

The Invention of Wings (2014) by Sue Monk Kidd
This one took a few pages to grab me, but by the mid-point I was totally hooked. Her characters were based on real people, dealing with slavery, religion, family, and politics in the 1800s. It was a beautifully woven story.

The Adventures of a Helicopter Pilot (2014) by Bill Collier
I think this was the only nonfiction I read this year. It is my dad’s memoir. I love it, and though I may be biased, being his daughter and all, it has been really well reviewed on Amazon and he’s sold over 2000 copies so far (go dad!). It’s definitely worth checking out. You can buy a copy on Amazon.

So there it is. I would love to hear your favorites. I am always on the lookout for recommendations, though Brian’s picks will be a bit suspect after his panning of The Night Circus.

Happy New Year!

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Spiderman on the Scene

This is a tough time of year for writing. In the past couple weeks, both my husband and my little guy have had birthdays. Mixed in between them was Thanksgiving, and with only two weeks until Christmas I feel like every day brings a new note from the school alerting us that our child needs a white shirt and blue pants for the winter sing, or asking us to please send ten dollars in this envelope so someone can buy the teacher a gift card, or something…

Yesterday was my son’s fifth birthday party. He has been insisting on a super hero theme since July, so I was feeling pretty proud of myself that I got Spiderman himself to come to the party (which actually isn’t all that great a feat, given that we live in LA and you can pay people to play act just about anything). But when Spidey finally did appear, Sebastian took one look at him, turned, and bolted.

He ran for the nearest play structure and hid in there for a solid ten minutes while Spidey took over the party with games and “super hero training.” Eventually Sebastian snuck out of hiding and, standing next to his big sister, warmed to idea of his favorite super hero come to life.

Spiderman birthday party

By the end, he and Spidey were good buddies. We gave all the kids silly string and there was an epic web-slinging fight. It was super fun (and a total nightmare to clean up afterwards).

So yeah, I’ve been a little distracted. But I’m excited to report that I’m enrolling in a UCLA extension class that starts in January. It’s an advanced novel writing workshop, ten Tuesday nights in a row starting in January. I haven’t taken a class since I graduated in 2010, and I find that I’m really looking forward to it.

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A Qualified NaNoWriMo Success

I’m counting it as a success. I wrote 32,778 words in November. Given the family demands of the Thanksgiving holiday, and the fact that my guy’s birthday was two days before, I didn’t participate in the final push that a lot of people do at the end of the month. I pretty much wrapped up on the 25th, so for 25 days I averaged about 1300 words a day.

I didn’t get to the 50,000 word mark, but I’m happy, so it’s a qualified success.

The great part is, I wasn’t starting from scratch. I had a draft, and an outline for what I wanted to do. Those almost 33,000 words got me up over the 70,000 mark on my project. I don’t know if I’ll finish a draft before the end of the year. I was aiming for 100,000 words total, so I will have to keep up my 1300 word/day pace, which will be a challenge. Also, I’m into more fine tuning, adding detail and backstory, so it’s much slower going than it was in November.

So it seems that it would make sense at this point to stop counting words, and instead count hours. Because it doesn’t have to be long, it just has to be good.

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An Awesome Night at the Hotel Cafe

If you follow me on Facebook, you probably saw me pushing info on the Tongue and Groove reading that happened last night at the Hotel Cafe. It’s a monthly event hosted by Conrad Romo. It has officially become my new favorite literary event here in Los Angeles, and not just because I got to stand up on stage and be a part of it.

First of all, the venue is super cool. You’ve probably driven past it and not even noticed, because you have to go down a dark alley to get there. It has a certain speak easy vibe about it. If you ever have cause to check it out, you definitely should.


But for me, the real excitement was being a part of the reading. The list of people who have been a part of this is like a who’s who of my local literary heroes, including Janet Fitch, Rita Williams, and David Frances. And after last night, I have to add Jeremy Radin. He read a handful of poems that were stunning. By far the best poetry I’ve ever heard live. Such incredible use of language, evocative imagery and honest humility is rare, especially in LA.

So it felt pretty great to be included. For my part, I’m also excited to share that for the first time, I actually had fun doing a reading. I haven’t done all so many, granted, but this was the first time that the fun outweighed the nerves. Partly it was because the piece I read (a piece titled “Butts”) is an irreverent little story, partly is was the super-cool venue, and partly it was that I had a small cheering section (thanks guys!). It was a great night.

And before I sign off, I have to give a big thanks to Janet Fitch, who introduced me to Conrad in the first place, and encouraged me to submit the story for consideration. She has been, and continues to be, an awesome mentor (and her new book should be coming out soon – I can’t wait!).

The next Tongue and Groove event is on December 8. I won’t be able to make that one, as the Rock Lake Writers Christmas party is that night, but I will catch up in the new year. Hope to see you there!

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Nerd Word of the WeeK: Elide

Elide – To omit (a sound or syllable) when speaking. As in: When my daughter was four she elided the “s” at the beginning of words. She would say “I want to wear my kirt to kool today.”

ElideThe story behind this one is that we had a nanny from El Salvador, and apparently in El Salvador, it is quite common to elide the “s” sound at the beginning of words. Since Celeste spent so much time with Linda, she adopted her accent, and it carried over to her English.

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Watch Me Turn Red

I know I am not alone in the fact that reading my work in front of crowds makes me nervous. I know this. But knowing it doesn’t make it any easier. Whenever I am faced with the exciting opportunity to read my work for a group of people I start sweating like I’m running a marathon in July.

So it’s no great surprise to me that I’m feeling a little damp in the pits. In less than a week, I will be standing up on a stage to read a short piece I wrote titled “Butts.”

Yes, “Butts.”

Over the years I have gotten better at readings, but this piece was an exercise in voice. I dug deep to find my whitest white trash roots and pour them out onto the page. It’s rude, it’s blunt, and it uses more than one word for male genitalia that I don’t think I ever say out loud, let alone in front of a large crowd.

It’ll be fun.

All I can say is thank God my parents live too far away to attend this one.

Click below for event details.

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Southern California – the Book

Check it out – a book I helped write is coming out soon:

EyeMuse Books

The publisher, Elisa Parhad, was a neighbor of mine for many years. When I met her, she was working on the very first of her EyeMuse Books travel series – a book on New Mexico. It’s a great concept for a travel book. She doesn’t write the usual travel stuff about where to eat, sleep and stuff your face. Instead, she’s created a sort of pocket-sized coffee table book. The whole idea is that when we travel to new places we see new things (that is, for many people, WHY we travel to new places). But there’s no convenient way to learn about the curious/strange/delicious new things you might encounter. Not unless you’re traveling with a local. That’s the niche these books fill.

For instance, if you were traveling in New Mexico, you might see this figure hanging about:


And you might ask yourself: what is up with that guy? Well, if you had the New Mexico book handy, you could learn all about him. (Click here for info on where to get a copy.) The book has 100 structures, crafts, traditions, foods and more that are specific to New Mexico, each with a concise, entertaining description like you might get from a local.

Anyhow, when she told me, way back when, that she was planning to do Southern and Northern California as the second and third books in the series, I pretty much wouldn’t leave her alone until she let me play.

I spent most of my time for Elisa working on book number three – Northern California, due out after Southern California. It was so much fun to write. I thought I knew Northern California, having spent the majority of my life there, but I learned so much. (Check out this post for a small sampling.)

Anyhow, both Southern and Northern California were a bit delayed while Elisa was busy having a couple beautiful baby boys, but the wait is over!

Check out the EyeMuse Books Facebook page for information on how to order, or sign up over there on the right to be added to my mailing list and I’ll let you know when and where you can get your copy.

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Just Because I Don’t Get Paid, Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Work

I was chatting with a friend the other day. He’s all stressed out because he works too much and his baby girl (poor thing) was super sick. I told him I was planning on taking Labor Day weekend to work on my novel and he replied: “I vaguely remember having time for hobbies.”

Picture me as a cat, bristling and hissing.

Here’s a tip, for those of you who have friends who aspiring at anything – don’t refer to their work as a hobby.

I am willing, for the sake of our friendship, to chalk that comment up to his exhaustion, but my writing is not a hobby. Just because I don’t get paid, doesn’t mean it’s not work. In fact, one *might* argue that not getting paid shows an even greater commitment to one’s art, though I’ve never subscribed to the whole as-soon-as-you-make-money-at-it-you’re-a-sellout-not-an-artist thing. I’m not OPPOSED to getting paid, it’s just that, right now, fiction is not paying the bills.

I suppose I would accept the term “amateur” over “hobbyist,” though I do get paid as a professional technical writer. Using a sports analogy, I’m like an aspiring Olympic gymnast who helps kids on the balance beam during the day. Only I don’t have a coach, and I’m not getting any exercise, and it’s much harder to tell if I’m sticking my landings.

I’m a writer, damn it.

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