Screenwriting: A Visual Form of Storytelling

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With the 2019 Academy Awards set to take place this Sunday night, I thought it would be interesting to look at two of its more overlooked categories – Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay – from the perspective of writing. An original screenplay is written completely from the writer’s imagination. It may be inspired by true events, but the screenplay is developed organically. There’s no other model that it borrows from.

An adapted screenplay, on the other hand, is recreated from another source, such as a play, a novel or a short story. Think of the Harry Potter book series, which was written by J.K. Rowling but was adapted to the big screen in a series of eight films. Adapted screenplays may even have been produced as a film previously, such as A Star Is Born. But excellence in screenplay writing is no guarantee of winning Best Picture honors. Last year’s Best Picture, The Shape of Water, did not win the Best Original Screenplay category, though it was nominated.

What I love most about these screenplay categories is that they honor the writers, the people who work diligently behind the scenes to create the dialogue, the setting, the action, and the characters in ways that can be visualized on the big screen. These awards may be largely overlooked by most of the public, but Hollywood insiders understand how vital they are to a film’s success. Audiences will never know who these people are, but the actors and directors holding Oscar in their arms will likely give a shout out to these folks, thanking them for writing a “brilliant script.”  Without a strong screenplay to start with, a movie director won’t have much of a story to tell. Conversely, no amount of directing or acting can save a poorly developed screenplay.

So how do screenplays differ from novels? What elements do they need to tell the story? What makes some of them Oscar-worthy, while others wind up in the trash bin?

According to Screencraft.org, a screenwriting consultancy, screenplays differ from novels in several different ways.

Screenplays have fewer pages than novels – A typical screenplay runs 100-120 pages while novels can be several hundred pages. That’s because the bulk of the screenplay is made up of dialogue and condensed action, whereas the novel provides much more detailed narrative and backstory.

Screenplays are dialogue-focused – Dialogue is the vehicle that drives the story’s action forward. Dialogue is used generously to reveal plot lines, conflict and character. In novels, dialogue and action are separate entities. In screenplays, dialogue IS the action.

Screenplays contain condensed action – With only 110 pages to work with, writers need to establish characters and setting within the first page or two. There isn’t time to delve into backstory. And they must do it using dialogue.

Screenplays place less emphasis on narrative – Novels have a ton of detail, much of it contained in backstory and narrative. However, screenplays don’t have that luxury. Viewers aren’t privy to a character’s thoughts as they might be if they are reading the book, so they have to experience the story through the characters’ actions and speech. The only exception to this might be the use of voice over which can help reveal the narrator’s perspective (a technique used in Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper).

Screenplays are more genre-specific
– According to Screencraft.org, novels may overlap several genres. Harry Potter, for example, is often described as young adult, fantasy, coming of age and family-friendly, among other things. But a screenplay that attempts to do all of it may be deemed complicated and confusing by Hollywood types, not worthy of their time. Screenplays may achieve more success by sticking to one specific genre, such as romantic comedy OR suspense, but not both.

Screenplays may have fewer characters and subplots than novels
– Because of the condensed format, it may not be possible to include all the characters that are part of the original story into a screenplay. It’s common to combine two characters into one, or eliminate characters all together if they are not integral to the story.

When it comes to screenwriting, writers need to think creatively and economically. They have to tell their story succinctly, using dialogue as a vehicle to drive the action. They have to think about the economy of characters, and they have to think about the complexity of setting. A setting in one or two locales will be easier and less costly to produce than a story set in multiple locations.

With so much to consider, a screenwriter’s job is far more challenging than meets the eye. It makes you truly appreciate the nominated films in the screenplay categories – and the creative geniuses who brought them there.

Love to Read? Check Out These Book Review Websites

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February’s theme is “for the love of books.” 

Once you’ve finished reading one book, how do you decide what you will read next? For many readers, turning to online book review sites is the next best thing to getting a personal recommendation. These sites are especially appealing to those who prefer to read the latest releases. But it can be difficult to discern which of the newly published books are worthy of their time and money.

Book reviews – whether through an online review site or in a print publication – offers some perspective of what’s available. You’ll likely find two kinds of reviews: long-form reviews with a more thorough analysis of the book’s content written by a hired staff person or freelancer, and shorter reviews submitted by book fans, usually published on sites like Goodreads or Amazon.

There are more book review sites than ever before. The Internet and social media have made it possible to share opinions about the books we read more quickly and easily. I think this is in response to the growing number of newspapers and magazines that have downsized staffs and no longer have the resources to hire full-time book reviewers. Sites like Goodreads and BookRiot have successfully filled the void.

Book review sites have become a vital part of the publishing industry. Authors value them for providing an outlet to help them promote their books. My guess is that publishers like them too for a similar reason. These sites have created communities of readers from all parts of the world. They’re bringing the world together over a shared love of reading.

If you’re the type of reader who prefers to read the newest releases as soon as they come out, book review sites are the places to go to find out what is being published and by whom. If you’re the type of reader who likes being part of a reading community and likes learning about what other people are reading, book review sites can serve your needs well.

So what are the best places to go for book reviews? Here’s a rundown.

New York Publications — Most traditional book reviews are published by newspapers and magazines. The two that come to my mind are The New York Times and The New Yorker Page Turner section have extensive coverage of book reviews and literary criticism because, after all, New York City is where a good portion of the publishing action takes place. Most of these reviews are longer, more detailed pieces, so you can gain more thorough insight about new releases.

Goodreads — Several friends rave about Goodreads as the go-to source for everything-books. Read book reviews, keep track of books you want to read and find out what other people are reading. One of their highlights is their annual reading challenge. To participate, enter the number of books you plan to read in the coming year, then as you complete each one, update your tally to see your progress.

Kirkus Reviews – Launched in 1933, Kirkus Reviews is a book review magazine. Reviewing books is their forte, and they do it well. The magazine provides authoritative reviews of books weeks before they are released, and they offer a roundup of reviews for consumers in a weekly email that you can get delivered to your inbox. Kirkus also offers services to authors, such as marketing promotion and editing services.

Publishers Weekly – A publishing industry mainstay, Publishers Weekly covers industry news, author news, bestsellers, digital works and international. They also post publishing jobs and have a special section, BookLife, geared toward self-published authors.

Booklist Online – Geared toward librarians and libraries, Booklist is a publication of the American Library Association. But their Booklist Online site has reviews of adult and young adult fiction and nonfiction. They offer advice to librarians about what newly published books should be added to their collections. But their reviews can be helpful to any avid reader.

IndieBound.org – Geared toward independent bookstores and publishers as well as fans of indie books, IndieBound.org does a great job of supporting this niche industry. In addition to summarizing the latest independently published works, the site has a search feature so you can find an independent bookstore near you. There is no online shop at IndieBound.org because their goal is to get more people shopping at the nearest independent bookstore.

The Book Reporter – Operated by book fans, The Book Reporter provides reviews and news of the latest releases, but also posts their own guides for reading discussion groups.

The Millions – The online literary magazine covering the arts, culture and books. The Millions showcases new releases every week on Tuesday, which it calls New Release Day.

Book Riot – In addition to sharing book reviews on the latest releases, Book Riot posts a weekly podcast, All the Books, which is a roundup of book recommendations.

Bookbub – Fans of e-books will appreciate the Bookbub site for its news and reviews of e-books.

I’m sure there are many more online book sites you can explore. Don’t forget your local bookstore staff who are usually in tuned to the latest industry news and can recommend new authors and newly published works. There’s usually a staff recommendations section to browse as well.

Despite the many sources around, I still believe the best recommendations come from the people you know, whether that’s a sibling, a friend or your hair stylist. You can never go wrong with a personal recommendation.

So what about you? Where do you go to read book reviews and learn about the newest releases?

Libraries: More Than Just a Place to Find Books

Several years ago, I wrote about how libraries have evolved since my childhood. For awhile, many people thought libraries were on the verge of extinction as Amazon dominated the book marketplace. But that may no longer be the case. Just as independent bookstores found ways to survive by offering products and services not offered by Amazon and national chains, the public library has extended its offerings beyond short-term book loans.

According to a recent article on Vox, the library’s main purpose is to help educate the community;  Amazon’s purpose is to simply sell books (and a million other things). The library still remains relevant today because it serves the public’s demand for information and resources, especially to underserved populations, at no cost.

With a focus on education and lifelong learning, the neighborhood public library has expanded its services beyond book loans. They’ve become multi-purpose destinations. And libraries are being re-designed to accommodate these expanded offerings.

If you haven’t visited a library lately, you may be surprised to find what’s available there. A Pew Internet survey from 2014 found that while many people think libraries continue to serve a useful purpose in their communities, a significant percentage did not realize the scope and depth of the services offered at libraries. For example, visitors can get income tax advice or job assistance. They can learn a new language, get literacy tutoring, participate in film discussions or research their family history.

Libraries house historic and genealogy records, map collections and other archival documents. For example, a library in Birmingham, Alabama, has preserved records and documents related to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, according the Project for Public Spaces.

Public libraries also have community rooms, ideal for having discussions and debates about zoning changes and new proposed developments, all with the intent to help residents understand their community better.

Today’s libraries are trying to reach younger generations of readers by offering more programs aimed at teens and children. Some offer 3D printing, community access TV and radio stations, language labs and recording studio so they can record their own stories in their own words. Others encourage visitors to relax and linger over their reading materials by providing private reading nooks, creative spaces and even a fireplace.

These types of amenities aim to reach younger adults in their 20s and 30s, who have been largely absent in recent years but are the key to the library’s future viability.

As long as people have the desire to explore the world at large and engage in lifelong learning, and as long as there are family-friendly programs for people of all ages, the public library will continue to serve as a vital resource in our communities.

Why Independent Bookstores Still Matter

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Much has changed over the past few decades that has made an impact on the book publishing industry. New technologies have made it possible for new writers to self-publish, creating an influx of new authors and book titles that we didn’t see before. Online retailers have made it easier to shop for books from the comfort of your home or office so you don’t have to step inside a bookstore – ever.

But despite these changes, there’s still a place for independent bookstores. While many shops have shuttered its doors, many others are thriving. How are they doing it? By offering products and services that online retailers and national chains are not able to. By focusing on what they CAN do, rather than what they are not equipped to handle, today’s indie bookstores have managed to remain relevant while winning the hearts, minds and hard-earned dollars of their customers.

Independent bookstores may not have the name recognition of a national chain and they may not even offer coffee and free wi-fi, but they provide a sense of community that is lacking in larger chains and online stores. That’s what makes them still relevant today. That’s what makes them so appealing to bookstore customers.

So I’m giving our friendly neighborhood independent bookstores some loving this week. Here are a few reasons indie bookstores still matter:

* Independent bookstores serve as an anchor in the community. Many independent bookstores are managed by people who live near the community. They are your friends and neighbors. When you support these small shops, you support small businesses. Local bookstores are more involved in their communities that larger chains. They understand the importance of building community and sharing resources among their neighboring business. For example, they might work with the bakery across the street to brink in fresh-baked muffins and cupcakes for a book meeting.

They’re more likely to participate in fundraisers, street fairs and community events. And they serve as a popular meeting place for tour groups, reading clubs and kids’ groups. They may even provide a forum for a local political candidate running for office. With a strong connection to the community, they’re able to create a loyal customer base and build a steady stream of business from repeat customers.

* Indie bookstores provide stronger support for new literary voices. Indie bookstores especially appreciate local authors, and they will do whatever they can to support their book. They do more than just sell the book. They may profile new authors in their newsletter, or give them a forum to talk about their books. Since the indie bookstores aren’t always locked into big name authors and book titles, they can give new authors a more intimate stage to showcase their work.

* Independent bookstores can specialize in a particular genre. To thrive in today’s competitive environment, some indie bookstores are specializing to attract a specific type of reader. For example, Chicago-based Read It & Eat specializes in selling cookbooks and other food writing. The store has a kitchen for cooking demonstrations and hosts author and chef signings. By specializing in culinary interests, the store is able to create a unique shopping experience targeting the large customer base of home cooks in the area.

* Independent bookstores can help improve the local economy. According to IndieBound.org, an online community of local independent bookstores, for every $100 spent at an indie bookstore, approximately $52 is returned to the neighborhood, compared to less than $6 for national chains. The more money that’s put back into the community, the more that will cycle back to the bookstore in the form of repeat business from customers. That keeps a local community thriving.

* Independent bookstores are better for the environment. According to IndieBound.org, when you purchase books from an indie bookstore, there’s no need for boxes and packaging for shipping, and there’s no transportation needed for shipping. That not only saves the customer money for shipping costs, it means the boxes and shipping materials don’t end up in a landfill. That means a smaller carbon footprint for all of us.

In today’s marketplace, independent bookstores play an integral role in our communities and provide a strong support system for writers and readers alike. By providing a more diverse selection of works and more choices, readers can expand their literary knowledge and become acquainted with new book titles, authors and genres. And because they’re managed by your friends and neighbors, they provide more personalized, friendly service.

Celebrate small business and shop at indie bookstores. That’s the best way to show them some love.

Tips for Downsizing Your Reading Library

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February’s theme is “For the love of books.”

In my last post, I described ways that you can acquire books cheaply or for free. But a problem for many readers is managing the collections they have. How can you assimilate new acquisitions into your current collection while minimizing the clutter? What to do with all those new and used books you just purchased?

Let’s face it. It’s much easier to build a reading library than it is to dismantle it. You know it’s time to declutter your bookshelves when:

a) You still have not read books you purchased more than two years ago;
b) Books are falling off the shelf because there’s no more room for them;
c) There’s a thick layer of dust sitting on them;
d) You’ve already read many of them and you don’t plan to re-read them;
e) You have no idea what to do with them or how to get rid of the overflow.

Here’s an idea to maintain your library so that it doesn’t begin to overflow and get cluttered. This is especially helpful if you mix the books you’ve already read with ones you have yet to read.

Pull out all the books from your shelves. Sort them according to books you have yet to read and those you have already read. Assign one or two shelves for the books you have yet to read and place unread books there. Another shelf will be reserved for those you have already read.

With each book you complete, add it to the shelf with the books you’ve already read. When that shelf begins to get cluttered, it’s time to decide what to do with them.

It might be helpful to set up bins or baskets for donations, selling, swapping or keeping for future re-use. Just like you would with your clothes closet, go through the books you’ve read – and even the ones you haven’t read – and decide if it’s better to sell it (think garage sale), donate it to a local nonprofit thrift shop, or pass it along to a friend. Hopefully the “Keep for future re-read” basket will remain empty.

Take time to go through the unread books as well. Ask yourself: When did I purchase this book? Do I still plan to read it? If you purchased it more than two years ago, and you haven’t read it yet, chances are you may never get around to it. In that case, it may be time to get rid of it.

With a system like this in place, it’s easy to keep track of what you’ve read and what you have yet to read. It’s also easier to decide what to do with the ones you’ve already finished reading.

It can be a painful process to go through your book collection. They are like treasured friends. You want to keep them around all the time. But like having a household of friends, at some point, they have to move on to new homes. If you have difficulty letting go of your books, if you’ve become too attached to them, consider asking a friend to help you sort through them.

Once you know which books you want to depart with, think of where you can take them. Check your local public library to see if they have a donation program. Some libraries might still accept donations; others don’t anymore, like the Chicago Public Library. It couldn’t handle the overflow.

Also check with local non-profits in your area, such as Chicago Books to Women in Prison and similar groups, which use donated books to send to incarcerated women. Be sure to visit their website first to see what kinds of materials they will accept. For example, CBWP does not accept hard covers because they are not accepted at prison facilities. Make sure books you donate are in good condition and don’t have writing and underlining in them.

Consider trading books with friends and family members or contribute a few to your nearest Little Free Library. Also check local coffee shops. Some may have a community bookshelf for discarded books.

Finally, when your bookshelves are decluttered, set a parameter for yourself. For every book you acquire, get rid of one from your shelf. It will force you to be more mindful of how often you add to your collection. Then as you finish reading one book, put it on a separate shelf with other books you’ve already read. Once that shelf is filled, it’s time to declutter again.

It’s fun developing a reading library, but it’s as fun when they begin to collect dust or the shelves become so overloaded with unread books that you have to get rid of them. By having a few systems in place, downsizing your book collection will be less painful and you can manage your library more easily.

 

Cheap, Easy Ways to Build Your Home Reading Library

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February’s theme is “For the love of books.”

There’s nothing like purchasing a brand new book hot off the press. The pages are crisp and untouched by human hands and the cover art is still bright and vivid. But books, especially hardcovers, can be expensive. If you buy them frequently, the costs can really add up. Even with the 20 percent discounts some retailers offer for new releases, it barely makes a dent in the final cost.

Building a home reading library doesn’t have to put you in the poor house. You don’t have to pay full price to build your library. For starters, stay away from hard cover books, if possible, which automatically adds to the cost. If you’re willing to be patient, wait for the soft cover to be released, which is often cheaper. This, of course, is a no-brainer.

But there are other ways to acquire books without spending a small fortune. Here are a few places to look.

Public library – Naturally, the public library is the first place to check out. The books and other materials are free to use, but they don’t belong to you. After a few weeks, you will have to return them. While that can save on space in your own home, especially if you don’t have a lot of spare space to begin with, it can be disappointing to have to return a book you fell in love with. It’s also possible that you won’t finish the book in the set amount of time they give you, usually three weeks. That means having to return it and renew it for another three weeks. And who has time to trudge back and forth to the library? Still the public library is great for browsing book titles you’d like to own and learning about new authors.

Book swap – If you know a lot of other readers or you come from a family that likes to read, you may be in luck. Ask what they’ve been reading lately. If it’s something they would recommend, ask if you could borrow it. Even better, swap books with them. Book swapping keeps the books circulating instead of collecting dust on the bookshelf, and everyone involved has a chance to add to their literary knowledge.

Book sales/book fairs – Check your town for books sales or book fairs, which is a great hunting ground for new and used books. The books for clearance may come from libraries trying to downsize their collections and make room on their shelves for new items, and from book stores trying to sell their overstock. In Chicago, for example, there’s the annual Printer’s Row Lit Fest where you’ll find rows and rows for book vendors selling books at a deep discount and the Newberry Library book sale. It’s easy to stock up on reading materials for the entire year without spending a fortune. You can often find books for under three dollars.

Used book stores – There seem to be fewer and fewer used book stores in this era of e-readers and Amazon. Still, they can be fun to hang out searching for whatever strikes your fancy in your favorite genre.

Thrift shops – Thrift shops sell more than gently used clothes and furniture. Somewhere in a dusty corner are shelves of books, and they can be found fairly cheaply. If you’re not looking for anything in particular and don’t mind the run-down condition, a thrift shop might be a fun place to explore.

Little Free Library – In some neighborhoods, you may find a little wooden school house on a pedestal holding a couple of shelves of books. The Little Free Library is similar to a book sway, except on a more public scale with people you don’t see. You can donate a few books of your own in exchange for taking a few from their shelves. You can find out if there’s a little free library in your neighborhood by visiting their website.

Online discount retailers – If you prefer to shop online for your books, there are other options besides Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Check out a site like Better World Books, where you can buy clearance books for $3 or $4 each, and the proceeds go to benefit literacy programs and libraries.

Nonprofit organizations – Check out nonprofit groups in your area that specialize in literacy and writing programs benefiting under-served populations. For example, Carpe Librum and Open Books, both in Chicago, collect donated books for resale to help fund literacy programs. They’re store front shops are great places to hunt down titles on your must-read book list.

If you’re an avid reader like me, it can be helpful to keep a running list of book titles and authors that you’re eager to read. Carry the list with you in your wallet or purse as you go shopping or run errands. You never know when you will run across one of the titles in your day-to-day activities.

When you’re on a tight budget, shopping for books at full price can be impractical. But just because you don’t have a big budget for book purchases doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your reading habit. You can still build your home reading library on a strict budget. You just have to know where to look.

Fresh Start 2019: 11 Easy Ways to Refresh Your Website

With apologies to the queen of decluttering, Marie Kondo, “Does your blog or website make you happy?” Does it excite you to read it or post to it? Or does it feel stale and uninspiring?

Maybe it’s time to declutter your website?

It can be easy to overlook your website or blog once it’s up and running. But like anything else, it can quickly turn boring. And if it’s boring to you, imagine how your readers feel about it. If you don’t feel excited about your own site, you’ll put in less effort to make it so with good, relevant content.

Another fresh start to 2019 (I promise, this is the last one) is looking at ways to freshen up your website. Here are a few ideas that can help give your blog a new lease on life.

1. Update your bio. When was the last time you reviewed your About Me page on your website? Does it still give readers a realistic view of who you are? If it’s a bit thin, think about adding more details about your experience, either as a writer and blogger or as someone with specialized knowledge and expertise. Have you published any pertinent articles, taken an exotic vacation recently, or completed relevant education that would add to your credibility? Add that information to your bio. Your professional development doesn’t stand still, so neither should your professional profile on your site. With every new life experience, education course, or job change, review and update your bio. In fact, I recommend reviewing your bio at least once or twice a year, just as you would your resume.

2. Update the Resources page. A helpful tool for your readers is a list of resources related to your blog topic. A separate page with resources can include links to other websites and blogs, organizations you support, publications, and downloadable materials that may benefit your readers. Double check the links at least one or twice a year to make sure they are still active. If you don’t already have a resources page, consider adding one to your site. When you share resources on your site, it positions you as an expert just as if you had created those resources yourself.

3. Update site images. Be honest with yourself. When was the last time you updated images on your website or blog. If you’ve had the same images since the day the site went live and that was more than three or four years ago, consider replacing with new photos. Either take your own photos (make sure they’re high quality) or use one of the free image sites like Pixabay or Flickr. Be sure to give credit to the source of any photo you use that isn’t your own.

4. Change the layout. If you’re bored with your site, maybe it’s the layout that needs updating. If you’ve used the same layout on your site since day one, consider changing it up. What I like about WordPress is the numerous themes they offer, and new ones are being added all the time. Maybe you still like the theme but use a slightly different layout, like two-column instead of one-column. Test out different themes and layouts to see which ones look best. You may find after testing them that you like what you have. That’s okay. At least you made an educated and informed decision.

5. Update your color scheme.
Maybe the color scheme has gotten stale, or it no longer appeals to your sense of artistic integrity. Maybe it comes across too somber when what you really want is something more cheerful, or conversely, maybe it comes across as juvenile or immature when you want your readers to see you as more mature and professional. You want a color scheme to reflect your site’s topic and appeal to your readers at the same time. If your color scheme isn’t working for you, test out new combinations. A new color scheme can breathe new life into a tired-looking site.

6. Add more video. Experts say video is key component to your website content. They have a sticky quality to them because they encourage visitors to linger longer on your site. Video is especially valuable for teaching purposes. Think demonstration of yoga poses, how to use carpentry tools, or cook a meal.

7. Interview experts. If you’re tired of writing the same types of stories or you run out of ideas, consider doing interviews. To start, stick with a few brief questions, like five questions. Seek out people who have expertise in your selected topic. For example, if you write about outdoor adventures, consider interviewing a biking enthusiast who just completed a 100-mile trek, or the leader of an adventure travel group. Five easy questions can make an easy-to-write post into an interesting-to-read story.

8. Write a book or movie review. Read any good books lately? See any great films? Book and movie reviews are another way to add strong relevant content to your site. They’re also helpful for stirring up discussion and debate.

9. Conduct surveys and post the results. Want to know what your readers think about a particular topic? Just ask them. Set up a survey on a site like Survey Monkey, then link to the survey from your blog or website. Once you compile the results, be sure to share them with your readers. For example, a movie fan website might do a survey about the Academy Award nominations. Surveys are a great way to generate more interactivity with your readers.

10. Invite guest posts. If you’re connected to other bloggers or experts, consider inviting them to write a guest post for your blog. This approach is especially helpful if you plan to be out of town for vacation and won’t have time to contribute articles to your blog. It’s also helpful if you simply run out of creative ideas. Having guest posts can expand your audience to include the guest blogger’s readers as well as your own.

11. Write how-to articles. We live in a continuous learning society, and readers are always looking for easier ways to get things done in an easy-to-read format. How-to articles are a great way to showcase your expertise, especially if you can clearly explain complex subjects.

A site that looks and feels stale won’t inspire confidence in you or your readers. Any one or combination of these ideas can make your site more interesting and reader-friendly.