Write a screenplay in April

March 31, 2011 – Participants of National Novel Writing Month’s fall challenge to complete a 50,000 word (or more) novel every November may want to take on the new spring challenge that begins tomorrow (April 1).

Script Frenzy is an event that dares writers to create at least 100 pages of scripted material during the 30 days of April. Scripts include screenplays, stage plays, TV shows, short films, comic books, graphic novel scripts, adaptations of novels, or any other type of script you can possibly create.

Like the novel challenge, there is no fee to participate. Script Frenzy’s website also offers a bounty of helpful tips to get you started – and possibly published or sold when the script is complete. But the goal of the Script Frenzy is to get the creative juices flowing and have fun.

Anyone up for the challenge?

Tune-up your resume

March 30, 2011 – It’s the perfect time of year to refurbish your resume, even if you’re not in the job market.

If you’re currently working, most likely you’ve recently had a performance review, so your accomplishments are fresh in your mind. And if you’re unemployed and looking for a job, a resume tune-up may give you renewed confidence.

After working for the same company for 20 plus years, I learned this lesson the hard way. Sure I got calls from headhunters occasionally, but I never took them seriously, and I didn’t need a resume for internal promotions; therefore, not only did I fail to keep my resume current, I didn’t even have one even in draft form when I was laid off. Summarizing 20 plus years of a career is not an easy task when you’re forced to create a resume on the fly.

Here are a few tips to consider as you create or makeover your resume:

• Keep your resume concise. Most resumes are not read, but rather skimmed.

• Eye appeal is key, so play with different layouts and fonts.

• Choose an easy-to-read font and make sure it is large enough.

• Use bullets to list your key accomplishments, and quantify them, if possible.

• Proof read your resume carefully to check for grammatical and spelling errors. There is nothing worse than mistakes on a resume.

Should you pay points to lower the mortgage rate?

March 29, 2011 – If someone asks you what’s the better deal when purchasing a home—a 30-year fixed rate mortgage at 4.5 percent interest plus three points, or one at 5.5 percent interest plus one point—what would you say?

Just as in choosing the right mortgage product, the answer depends on how long you expect to stay in the property. If you’re only planning a short stay, you should probably pay as less points as possible because it may take several years (at least 5 or more) to break even.

Comparing prices of different mortgages can, however, be complicated. In addition to the interest rate, lenders may charge for discount points, origination fees, the appraisal, title and credit reports, and other miscellaneous items.

Points and Fees
Discount points and origination fees (referred to as points) are usually the largest fees lenders charge, so they make the most difference in determining which scenario is better. For this comparison, don’t worry about the other miscellaneous fees, such as the appraisal, title and credit reports. These charges are much less significant than points. Each point paid equals 1 percent of the loan amount, so if $100,000 is borrowed and you have to pay three points, you are actually getting $97,000. However, you have to repay $100,000, and have to pay interest on $100,000. The reason lenders charge discount points is to change the interest rate that is paid. The more points, the lower the rate, and vice versa. It can make sense to pay points. Here’s why:

The real interest rate may also be called the effective interest rate but it is most often referred to as the annual percentage rate (APR). The APR is the rate for loans that are paid over a full term. For a 30-year loan at 4.5 percent plus the three points paid over a full 30-year term, the effective interest rate, or APR is 5.00 percent.

After applying for a loan to purchase your home, the federal truth-in-lending law requires lenders to disclose the loan’s APR within three business days for such purchases. You need a computer or financial function calculator to determine the APR precisely, but the following formula is a fairly accurate way of estimating it for comparison-shopping:

The number of points divided by 6 + the quoted Rate = APR

Now getting back to the question, which is better? Using the formula above, you’ll see the first choice is better.

#1: 3 points divided by 6 + 4.5 percent = 5.00 APR
#2: 1 point divided by 6 + 5.5 percent = 5.67 APR

It may not seem like a big difference in percentage, but it can add up to a substantial amount you will pay over the life of your loan. With this simple formula, now you can feel more comfortable in determining which mortgage pricing is best for you.

It’s time to refocus, change direction, or do something different

March 28, 2011 – My frustrating job search continues.

I’ve had plenty of interviews so far this year and the calls continue to come in, so I know my resume is fine. I’ve developed solid interview skills these past months and get calls for second and third interviews, so I must make a decent impression. Yet I still haven’t made it to the finish line.

So, why aren’t the offers coming in?

The pessimist in me says it’s because I’ve spent my entire career at one company – clearly the wrong move, I’m a fake who can’t really write, and I obviously suck.

The optimistic side of me knows that’s not true … but it feels true.

In reality, I believe marketing and communications jobs will be the last to bounce back, since they may be considered luxuries for many companies. And the few that are out there now are being filled with applicants who may not necessary have better skills, but rather something else unique that makes them standout, such as belonging to the same fraternity/sorority as the hiring manager, or sharing an interest in painting pottery or mountain climbing.

In an act of desperation, I typed “I NEED A JOB” into a Google search, and found some innovative and surprising ways to gain employment. I could take an odd job or try something creative like wearing my resume on a t-shirt. I could also follow this advice and stop looking, or this advice to get a job quick.

While these may be interesting short-term fixes and unique jobs to add to my resume, they’re not really for me. I’ll keep plugging away at the job boards, continue networking, and figure out the best way to break it to my parents that I might move back in.

Any advice?

Philly paints the town red

March 27, 2011 – Holy Red Phanatic Batman, baseball returns this week!

The Philadelphia Phillies kicked off their annual Paint the Town Red week yesterday with a 5K run in anticipation of Opening Day this Friday. Nearly 3,000 runners participated in the event, which benefited Phillies’ charities.

The rest of the week’s activities include Phillies Day at the Independence Visitor’s Center at 6th and Market Streets at noon today, a blood drive at Citizen’s Bank Park tomorrow, two spring training games against the Pirates on Tuesday and Wednesday, and a Ball Girls fashion show at Macy’s Center City on Thursday.

The Red Phanatic will make appearances at all events to fire up the crowds, and he’ll turn green again just in time for the season opener on Friday against the Houston Astros.

With Chase Utley and Brad Lidge starting the season on the disabled list, it looks like injuries may continue to be a concern for this team. As for the weather, the forecast is cold and rainy, but that’s April baseball in Philadelphia, and we never let that dampen our spirits.

Go Phillies!

Farwell to a screen legend

March 25, 2011 – This week we said goodbye to one the most glamorous Hollywood stars ever when Elizabeth Taylor was buried on Thursday.

The actress, who passed away Wednesday at age 79 from congestive heart failure, was famous for her striking beauty, stunning violet eyes and many marriages. Her life off-screen was often just as compelling as the roles she played, but she said her proudest role was that of an AIDS outreach activist, a cause she took on in the mid 80’s when the subject was taboo, and after her close friend, Rock Hudson, became the first known celebrity victim of the disease.

Taylor began acting at age 10 and made 70 films. While I can’t claim to have seen them all, in her honor, I’ve compiled a top five list of my favorites from those that I have enjoyed:

5. BUtterfield 8: Taylor plays part-time model and full-time call girl in this 1960 movie, which was probably considered quite racy at the time. It was the first movie I can remember seeing as a kid that didn’t have the typical Hollywood “happily ever after” ending. The juicy role earned Taylor her fourth Best Actress Oscar nomination, and her first win.

4. Father of the Bride: Who better to play a sweet bride-to-be in a fun, family style comedy than the lovely Taylor? The 1950 film has a strong cast, including the terrific Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett (who will always be Elizabeth Collins from Dark Shadows to me). The updated Steve Martin version may be funnier, but the original does an excellent job of tugging at the heartstrings.

3. Little Women: I love this story and I’ll watch any version of it on film, whether it’s from 1933, 1949 or 1994. In the 1949 version, Taylor plays Amy, the youngest of the March sisters. She looks a bit strange as a blond, but still beautiful, and when she had to show the character’s spoiled and selfish side, Taylor almost reminds me of another great, yet superficial heroine, Scarlett O’Hara.

2. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf: I watched this gem for the first time in February, during Turner Classic Movie’s 31 Days of Oscar salute, and I don’t know where I’ve been all of it’s life. The performances of Taylor and Richard Burton more than astounded me, playing a bitter, self-destructive middle-aged couple that psychologically torture each other for fun and games. The 1966 movie takes place during one drunken evening, and highlights Taylor’s acting ability to the nines, and rightly earned her a second Oscar for Best Actress.

1. A Place in the Sun: It may not be Taylor’s best performance, especially after seeing her in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but it’s my favorite Taylor movie by far. In the 1951 classic, she plays the wealthy and innocent Angela Vickers, who falls in love with a blue collar man from the wrong side of the tracks, played by the wonderful Montgomery Clift, who steals this movie. His character is far from perfect — he will do anything to stay with the lovely Angela, even plot murder — and he has me cheering for him all the way.

Fiction Friday: New short story

March 25, 2011 – Here’s a short story I’ve been mulling over. It’s not ready for prime time yet, but I’ll share it since I haven’t featured anything new lately. Let’s call it flash fiction, since it’s only about 650 words.

The Ladies Circle

Mrs. Macklin passed away yesterday.

When my dad called to say her obituary was in the newspaper—he reads them every morning with his coffee—my first reaction was surprise, even though she was 89 when I moved away two years ago after living in the apartment below her for 10 years.

Sadly, she was the last of the ladies circle, a phrase my son coined for the elderly women who met outside of our front door each summer evening with their lawn chairs circling the small patch of grass by the steps to Mrs. Macklin’s second-floor apartment. The table in the middle held cups of tea, iced and hot, that they’d enjoy while chatting about the day’s events. Their men had long been gone, but the memories were often circle fodder, sometimes accompanied by laughter or tears. Mostly they talked about grown children and grandchildren, but occasionally, they’d complain about younger neighbors who listened to music too loud or who had visitors too late.

Barbara was the first to pass, and she was the youngest of the group. An aneurism took her five years before, and I remember vividly when Mrs. Macklin told me with tears in her wrinkled eyes. They had been friends long before they moved into the apartment community, back when they were neighbors on their old street when they managed houses and families.

Mrs. Macklin’s first name was Dorothy, or Dot for short, as she would say, just like the children’s book by Carolyn Haywood. She was amazed I was familiar with the book, which I remember borrowing from the school library back in fourth or fifth grade. It was written in the late 40s, but all the books in our library were old. As many times as she asked me to call her Dot, she would remain Mrs. Macklin both to my teenage son and me.

Stephen had his issues with Mrs. Macklin. He was a cranky 14-year-old when we moved in, and she was a cranky 79-year-old who wasn’t used to kids anymore – a lethal combination. He liked his computer games loud and she liked to complain about it by using a broom handle to bang on her bedroom floor after 9 p.m. each night.

When we first moved in, each time she’d say hi to me, she followed with, “I never hear you.” And I would say the same to her, even though both of us were lying. Life sounds traveled up through the closets and down through the floor of the duplex, and I heard her walking the creaky floors or flushing her toilet, just like she heard Stephen’s computer sounds, and or my screams when the water heater flooded the hallway. Pretending we didn’t hear each other was part of being a good neighbor.

By the time Stephen left for college the circle grew. I’d come home late from work and hear the ladies’ chatter as soon as I pulled into the driveway. They’d apologize because I had to walk around them to get to my front door, but I didn’t mind. They’d look at me with their happy faces, hungry for new blood and stories to share within the circle, and I’d spend a few minutes chatting.

“How’s Stephen doing at school?” they’d ask.

Or, “Is your father stopping by tonight?” Never once did they ask about my mother, so I think they had a bit of a crush. You’re never too old to crave male attention, I suppose.

I moved away when my son graduated, and Mrs. Macklin did her best to keep in touch. She’d call to ask how I was, or when someone from the circle had passed on. Those were the saddest calls.

I thought of Mrs. Macklin just the other day when my son was visiting. He found me sitting out front with neighbors on the first warm day of spring.

“It looks like the ladies circle all over again,” he’d said.

It was exactly like that, I thought, and it made me smile.

Unemployed facing new obstacle

March 24, 2011 — Here’s an article that appeared in Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer and it still has me fuming four days later.

According to staff writer Jane Von Bergen, some employers “do not want to hire the out-of-work, fearing they were let go because they were lousy workers.”

And this is especially true for the unemployed over age 45, whom some employers view as less tech-savy than their younger competition.

Not all companies share this policy, but even the perception that this is true bothers me. It might be easier to swallow if the economic downturn hadn’t caused people to lose their jobs at the same rate as the Great Depression. But that is not the case.

Apparently it’s not illegal to write into a job posting that only currently employed people, regardless of the reason, will be considered for a job. But it should be because it’s a form of discrimination, just like race, age and religion.

My immediate reaction is who would want to work for such a backwards thinking company anyway, but today’s job searchers are not afforded the luxury of picking and choosing.

We’ve all heard that unemployment numbers are going down, but people moving from one job to another do not affect unemployment rates, so someone must be proving this theory wrong.

Appraised value of a home vs. its assessed value

March 23, 2011 – The appraised value of a home rarely equals its assessed value. Although this statement may seem to defy logic, in reality, these values are based on two separate sets of criteria.

The Appraised Value
An appraised value pertains to a property’s estimated value. It is the opinion of an experienced and professional appraiser who examines the property and sums up its worth. This value is often based on market analysis, or the recent sale prices of similar properties in the same neighborhood.

When is an Appraisal Necessary?
A mortgage lender often requires a property appraisal before they make a decision on a loan application to purchase it, or on a second mortgage or home equity loan application.

The Assessed Value
An assessed value of a property is the dollar amount used to compute local property taxes. A tax assessor uses similar criteria as an appraiser, such analyzing the recent sales prices of similar homes in the same neighborhood, but the assessor is likely to take it a few steps further. They will also investigate how much the property has appreciated or depreciated, and how much it would cost to replace the property, taking into consideration the current material and labor costs.

Other Differences
Another reason why the appraised value and the assessed value of a property rarely equal is because property assessments are completed yearly to make sure property taxes are accurate. Property appraisals are not performed as often and may be outdated by the time the next property assessment is performed.

Learn More
Information regarding property tax assessments varies by state. You should always consult your tax advisor for the complete picture, and with questions and concerns.

Building the perfect resume

March 22, 2011 – Creating a solid resume is a crucial first step to finding a new job.

Think of it as your own personal marketing brochure. If you’re experienced, a resume highlights your skills and accomplishments. If you’re a student or recent graduate, it focuses on your education and extracurricular activities. Either way, its main purpose is to get you an interview.

If you don’t want to pay big bucks to hire a professional to write your resume, there are plenty of online tools that can help you do it yourself. For example, Resume Resource provides a good variety of resume examples and templates, along with a free resume building tool that can help you create a professional resume quickly.

But before you decide on the layout or type (chronological, functional, targeted, etc.), spend the necessary time focusing on the most important feature of a resume – the content.

What makes a resume noticeable? Most hiring managers and recruiters agree that it is accomplish-driven content. In other words, avoid language that would appear on a job description, such as “duties include” or “responsible for”. Instead, focus on how you did something instead of what you did. For example, did you save or make the company money? Did you find a process that saves time or makes work easier? Have you attracted or retained customers? Accomplishments such as these help you sell yourself and mean much more than the duties you performed.

Another strategy is to use power words (verbs) aimed at the position you want. For example, if you’re looking for a management position, use as many “management oriented” words as possible. Check out this handy list of power words from Resume Toolbox.

Finally, here’s a little trick to get your resume through the clutter, and one I learned the hard way: Pay close attention to keywords. Employers rely on keywords to weed through the excess of resumes they receive. Carefully check the job descriptions you’re interested in, study the words they use to describe the position, and include these keywords in a paragraph at the bottom of your resume. With them, your resume stands a greater chance to be noticed when the company runs it through a keyword-searchable database, which most companies do today.

Most likely you’ll send your resume electronically, so use your word processing program to change the keywords to white text so the database will pick them up, but a hiring manager won’t notice them if they print it out.