PHIL rolls over in bed. Mumbles something into his pillow.
PHYLLIS (O.S.): It’s your big day!
Phil kicks off the sheets, struggles into a sitting position. Lets his eyes adjust to the darkness of the room.
He scratches the whiskers under his chin. Stretches, yawns. Catches a whiff of something.
PHIL: Is that alfalfa?
PHYLLIS (O.S.): You know it is.
Phil hops out of bed, shuffles into the…
…where PHYLLIS sets a steaming bowl on the table.
PHYLLIS: Eat up. You can’t go out there on an empty stomach.
Phil sits, plays with his food.
PHIL: This isn’t going to help. My stomach is already in knots.
PHYLLIS: Same thing every year.
PHIL: I hate crowds.
PHYLLIS: Imagine them naked.
She ambles into the bedroom, comes out with a pair of pants.
PHYLLIS: Put these on.
Phil does. Phyllis puts her finger between the waistband.
PHYLLIS: A little snug, but it’ll do. You keep eating like you do and I’ll have to let them out next year.
PHIL: If there is a next year.
PHYLLIS: One hundred thirty-five years now and you think they’ll quit.
PHIL: Well, what if I get it wrong?
PHYLLIS: You’re never wrong. That’s why they picked you in the first place. This is a great honor.
PHIL: I don’t even know why it matters.
PHYLLIS: It’s tradition.
PHIL: Their tradition.
PHYLLIS: Ours too. Now, quit your fussing and go get ready. It’s almost time.
Phil hobbles into the…
Splashes cool water on his face. Blow dries it. Trims a few whiskers. Brushes his oversized teeth.
Phyllis appears at his side, gives him a tender kiss.
PHYLLIS: I’m so proud of you. Now get your jacket on. It’s time.
Phil nods, heads into the…
Dons his jacket, zipping it all the way up to his thick neck.
PHIL: How do I look?
PHYLLIS: Like a living legend.
Phil turns to the door. Hesitates.
PHYLLIS: Now or never, dear.
Phil nods, turns the knob. Pulls the door open a crack.
PHYLLIS: Oh, wait, wait! Don’t forget these!
She hands him a pair of thick-framed sunglasses.
PHYLLIS: Just in case.
Phil slips them on, opens the door wider. Steps forward as…
…a pair of oversized hands inside metal gauntlets reach into their abode and gently grab him by the middle.
EXT. GOBBLER’S KNOB – DAY
Phil, still in the grasp of the gloved hands, is elevated above his tiny tree stump of a home.
Raucous APPLAUSE and CHEERS sound from a throng of people around him. Media cameras and cellphones record everything.
Phil squints behind his sunglasses. The sun bright and high in the sky. He dares a look at the ground. At his shadow.
A MAN in a bowler hat holding him sets him down.
Phil scurries on all fours back inside his tree stump.
INT. GOBBLER’S KNOB – DAY
PHIL: I’m going back to bed. Phyllis, wake me up in six weeks.
* * *
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Thanks for reading Phil’s Big Day. I hope you enjoyed this little Groundhog Day adventure. I wrote this short screenplay last year as part of a WriterDuet Challenge and had a lot of fun doing so. – Gary.
My latest reviews for BookPage include several novels and a cache of audiobooks, from thrillers to autobiographies. I even posed questions to author Chris Pavone for an engrossing interview.
There’s something here for just about everyone, so dive in!
In Chris Pavone’s suspenseful new novel, Two Nights in Lisbon, recently married couple Ariel Price and John Wright have shirked their former identities for new lives unfettered by past encumbrances. Or so they think.
To enjoy James Patterson and Dolly Parton’s Run, Rose, Run (10.5 hours) to the fullest, you must listen to the audiobook. Not only is it a necessary companion to Parton’s album of the same title (featuring songs inspired by the novel), but the cultural icon also voices one of the main characters, veteran country music star and bar owner Ruthanna Ryder.
Bestselling author John Darnielle’s most bizarre novel to date, Devil House (11.5 hours), is an odd amalgam of crime fiction, buried memories and investigative journalism.
The success of Amazon Prime Video’s adaptation of the late Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is enticement enough to revisit his epic fantasy novels, which debuted in 1990. But even more exciting is listening to the new audiobook of book one in the series, The Eye of the World (33 hours), narrated by Golden Globe- and Emmy Award-winning British actor Rosamund Pike.
In his raspy, unmistakable voice, comedien Mel Brooks reveals his enduring passion for such comedy classics as Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs and History of the World, Part I, as well as his respect for his relationships with showbiz luminaries Sid Caesar, Gene Wilder, Anne Bancroft and more in the audio version of his new memoir, All About Me.
The Nineties provides a fascinating, granular look at a defining period of history, and author Chuck Klosterman narrates in an almost tongue-in-cheek fashion.
In The Boys (13 hours), Happy Days actor-turned-director Ron Howard takes turns with his brother, Clint, also a child actor in “Gentle Ben,” to reminisce about their memories of being icons to millions of adoring viewers in the 1960s and ’70s.
It’s hard to pick a favorite. Or even several favorites. But here goes.
Of all the books I read and reviewed in 2021 – 41, counting the dozen audiobooks I also listened to – I’ve narrowed my list of best books to five, plus my top three audiobooks.
Looking over the list, my novel selections (except one) have a supernatural element or otherworldly force in them. That’s not all that surprising as my two favorite genres are mysteries/crime and horror (Stephen King being one of my favorite authors). You can’t go wrong with a gritty crime thriller or noirish detective tale combined with ghostly chills or otherworldly mayhem.
Inspired in part by the real-life McMartin preschool trial—in which members of the McMartin family who operated a preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, were charged with sexual abuse of children, which in turn gave rise to a national panic over satanic ritual abuse—the novel follows similar circumstances, although in a highly fictionalized way.
Chapman alternates chapters from the perspectives of Sean, a kindergartener in 1983 Greenfield, Virginia, and Richard, a teacher living 30 years later in Danvers, Virginia, where he and his wife are raising his stepson, Elijah. As you might expect, their stories are inextricably linked, and everything starts when Sean, influenced by his mother’s paranoia, tells a lie that will change his entire world.
Part of the novel’s chilling effectiveness comes from its portrayal of the detectives assigned to Sean’s case and how their leading questions ultimately result in Sean saying what they want him to say, resulting in the unfair and undeserved persecution of Sean’s teacher on suspected sexual offenses. Chapman pulls no punches, revealing how the simplest of misrepresentations can result in a sort of mass hysteria against someone, just as it did in the real-life McMartin era.
The six women in Lynnette Tarkington’s therapy group are fiercely independent and strong-willed but also tragically haunted by their past experiences. All of them survived random mass killings that later became the bases for Hollywood slasher franchises that were popular among moviegoers in the 1980s and ’90s.
But then “America’s first final girl” and keystone support group member Adrienne Butler is killed in a massacre of camp counselors at Camp Red Lake. Hendrix puts Lynette and her fellow survivors through all the typical horror tropes as they are forced to once again face a mysterious killer.
Chuck Wendig’s new horror/dark fantasy novel The Book of Accidents (Del Rey Books, 0399181136, $28.99) is a chilling romp through dark dimensions in the best Stephen King tradition.
The book starts out in typical horror fashion as our protagonists – husband and wife Nathan and Maddie Graves and their fifteen-year-old son, Oliver — uproot their lives to move to Nathan’s rural Pennsylvania family home following the death of his father. As is typically the case in a horror novel, though, strange occurrences soon follow and grow exponentially more bizarre as the story rockets along.
The advertisement is simple and honest: “Teacher wanted at the edge of the world.” And for Una, the main character of Ragnar Jonasson’s The Girl Who Died, it is the perfect enticement to leave her drab life behind and start a new chapter.
The “edge of the world” is actually the isolated fishing village of Skálar, located on the northeastern tip of Iceland.
At first, the idyllic community of just 10 people, including two young girls whom Una is hired to tutor for the year, seems like something out of a storybook. It’s not long, however, before the remoteness of the community and the tight-lipped nature of its residents begin to weigh on her, forcing her to question if she’s made a serious mistake.
City on Fire by Don Winslow
The only book without a touch of the supernatural on my list is Don Wilson’s City on Fire, which I read for Chapter 16. But as the book’s publication date was postponed until spring because of the Delta Covid outbreak, my review has yet to be published. I’ll let you know when it’s up, but for now you’ll just have to take my word that it is not to be missed. (Hmm, I wonder if I should count it as a 2021 best book or a 2022 best book?).
Top 3 Audiobooks
Until this past year, audiobooks were not a thing for me. But BookPage editor Cat Acree asked if I’d be interested in taking on reviews and I was eager for the challenge. I’ve come to the conclusion that I prefer reading my books to listening to them, but maybe this audio thing will grow on me in time.
Certainly, the audio experience is vastly different from physical reading and takes some getting used to. It does require a different skillset, namely, listening. With audiobooks, you can’t allow yourself to become distracted by other tasks or …
Most of my audio selections were nonfiction-oriented, but I also managed to listen to a few novels.
Topping my list of best audiobooks is Carry On by John Lewis. Written by the late, great civil rights icon and representative from Georgia, the book is made up of inspirational essays from Lewis on such topics as teamwork, friendship, success and justice. It’s like those motivational posters on the walls of your workplace, only better, because his aphorisms are punchy yet never cliched, and you can take his inspirational words with you and play them anytime you need a lift.
In jaw-dropping detail, the New Yorker staff writer Keefe recounts the greed, deception, and corruption at the heart of the Sackler family’s multigenerational quest for wealth and social status through their company, Purdue Pharma, and the rise of the OxyContin painkiller epidemic.
In a series of first-person interviews conducted by journalist S. Sunny Shelton, the fictional oral history recounts the story of a 1970s rock collaboration between glam Black American singer Opal Jewel and white British singer-songwriter Nev Charles. Walton skillfully blends in real-life events such as Vietnam War protests to firmly establish the narrative’s tone and time period, layering the duo’s rise to rock stardom with social, economic, racial and sexual undercurrents.
Click the links in any of the above articles to read the full reviews.
One of the most thought-provoking books you could read this year, or perhaps any year for that matter, is The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story (One World, 978-0593230572, $38), created and edited by Nicole Hannah-Jones.
An in-depth collection of essays expanding on the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Magazine series, the book offers a critical examination of race in the United States from the introduction of slavery in 1619 to the push for voting rights in the present day.
The project makes the argument that America’s uneasy relationship with Black Americans has permeated every facet of society today – from race to politics, from citizenship to capitalism, from healthcare to music – and extends back to the first arrival of slaves in America in 1619, well before the country’s more publicly acknowledged “birthdate” of 1776.
The authors pull no punches as they highlight some of the biggest lowlights in this country’s history. The affronts to the Black community through history are numerous and, oftentimes, horrifying.
This is not some glossed over middle grade or high school textbook, but an unflinching and stark account of America’s darkest, most vile act of slavery of a race the authors argue became the backbone of the economy and the nation itself.
Detractors argue the book’s authors are biased and their arguments attempt to rewrite history. As such it has inextricably been tied to discussions of critical race theory, which they argue shames or humiliates whites.
More to the point, it reveals aspects of history all too often overlooked for a more palatable narrative.
This is not a rewrite of history, but a more thorough reckoning of our country’s origin.
Some of the arguments and essays may stretch the authors’ point, but there is certainly merit behind much of it.
Either way, it is information worth reading, discussing, debating, and learning from. If the country is ever to move past its racial divide, understanding comes from knowledge, not misrepresentations.
This book attempts to do that and deserves to be on everyone’s reading list.
Make no mistake, Chuck Wendig’s new horror/dark fantasy novel The Book of Accidents (Del Rey Books, 0399181136, $28.99) is a chilling romp through dark dimensions in the best Stephen King tradition.
The book starts out in typical horror fashion as our protagonists – husband and wife Nathan and Maddie Graves and their fifteen-year-old son, Oliver — uproot their lives to move to Nathan’s rural Pennsylvania family home following the death of his father.
Nathan is more reluctant about the move than any of the trio because of his traumatic past with his abusive father. But after Oliver experiences an emotional breakdown at school during an active shooter drill, they agree this may be the fresh start they all need.
At first, things seem to go well. Oliver makes a few friends in his new school, Maddie takes up a new hobby, and Nathan takes on a new role as a park ranger. As is typically the case in a horror novel, though, strange occurrences soon follow and grow exponentially more bizarre as the story rockets along.
Oliver falls into a feud with a new school bully and is rescued by a mysterious scarred youth who seems oddly familiar; Maddie’s hobby with wood sculptures results in a bizarre obsession; and Nathan sees a strange figure on his lawn in the middle of the night. It seems the town is haunted by the spirit of a serial killer who did most of his slayings under a bridge in the local park, which sits over a series of coal mines.
Oliver’s overly sensitive personality ultimately collides with a malevolent version of himself as the action ramps up toward a fierce, violent showdown.
Wendig skillfully alternates perspectives between the three family members over the course of the 500-page tome, allowing readers to become more invested in each character. While Oliver eventually takes center stage, the author roots the action in the family’s unique bond for each other, making each spell-binding chapter emotionally impactful and altogether terrifying.
This is horror at its grandest, darkest level: viscerally stunning and spooky good.
Hilo, Hawaii chief of detectives Koa Kane has a talent for digging up secrets – and keeping them buried when needed.
Kane is tested on both fronts in Treachery Times Two (Oceanview Publishing, $27.95, 9781608094646), the fourth in Robert McCaw’s suspense-filled mystery series.
On the one hand, Kane is undaunted in his quest to apprehend whoever killed a woman whose mutilated body is discovered during a volcanic earthquake. On the other, he is determined to keep his own murderous misdeed years ago secret.
McCaw and Kane are both new to me, so I was a little hesitant about diving into a series that was already four books old. But McCaw managed his character’s introduction and set up the book’s premise so well that my fears were put at ease.
I was hooked by the first case when McCaw reeled me in all the way with the second.
Thirty years ago,Anthony Hazzard orchestrated the murder of Kane’s father at a sugar mill where they worked. Kane followed Hazzard to a remote hunting cabin on the island and confronted Hazzard, who retaliated, forcing Kane to fatally strike him with a fire iron. Kane staged the scene to look as if Hazzard had committed suicide.
But now, Bobby Hazzard has come to the big island in search of answers about his grandfather’s death. With a powerful senator backing him, Kane has no recourse but to cooperate and reopen the investigation into Hazzard’s death, even though it could point the finger at him.
“He had come to believe his suicide ruse had succeeded. He felt safe. Seeing Bobby Hazzard, his fear had come roaring back like a spike through his heart.”
When a fingerprint left at the scene of the cabin identifies another man as a suspect, and the DA’s office seeks an indictment, Kane faces another moral dilemma: Does he let another man take the fall for a crime he committed?
“He saw his future as tenuous,” McCaw writes. “He could not, under any circumstances, let an innocent man go to jail for his crime.”
The internal struggle Kane experiences in the novel is enough to compel readers to keep turning pages alone. At one point, Kane even contemplates suicide.
But McCaw doesn’t let up. There’s still the initial case to be resolved.
After identifying the victim, Tiger Baldwin, as an employee at X-CO, a government defense contractor on the island, company officials prove less than willing to cooperate with his investigation. Before long, Kane’s efforts attract the attention of the FBI who are conducting their own probe into stolen plans for a secret weapon.
Kane’s sense of duty leads him to unwanted truths about a longtime friend as well as his own hidden past. Whether his desire to see justice done is enough to make amends for his own murderous past remains to be seen.
As its title suggests, Treachery Times Two is a riveting, double-edged mystery. Whether you enjoy good, old-fashioned police work or a moral tale of right and wrong, this one’s got it all.
I’ve definitely got the inevitable book five in the series on my radar.
After listening to countless hours of interviews, panels, and presentations courtesy of my virtual pass to the 28th Annual Austin Film Festival last week, I was left wanting more.
By that, I mean I want more substance.
Don’t get me wrong. The various stories from incredibly talented writers, producers, showrunners, and directors were at times inspirational, awe-inducing, and chockful of valuable insights about breaking into and thriving in this singularly peculiar institution called screenwriting.
Austin Film Festival is regarded as having the best writers conference on the planet and for good reason. The staff do a phenomenal and, sometimes, thankless job coordinating dozens of speakers and panelists over four intense days every October for hundreds of writers. The best of the best screenwriters – everyone from David Self (Road to Perdition, Thirteen Days) to Jeff Nichols (Mud, Midnight Special, Loving), from Derek Kolstad (John Wick trilogy, Nobody) to Glen Mazzara (The Walking Dead, The Shield) — appear to unselfishly share their wisdom, timeless advice, and incredible stories about the business.
Earlier today, Austin sent out an email survey to attendees – real and virtual – to ask how they did. And while there was plenty of reason to give kudos, the truth is I was left longing for something more.
The parade of speakers touched on everything from persevering in your craft, telling the story only you can tell, the importance of making connections (hard to do in a virtual environment), and, of course, doing the work.
All valuable advice, but after a while, it all sounded the same.
I was left wondering, where was the drama?
Where were the impassioned debates over posting loglines on Twitter for all the world to see?
Where were the answers about whether to use FADE IN or bolding your sluglines?
Where were the conversations about screenwriters’ rights and pay rates in the face of changing mediums?
There’s plenty of “drama” on #screenwriting Twitter from week to week. All the AFF organizers must do is monitor it and ask their pool of panelists to expound on it. Wouldn’t it be impressive if next year AFF assembled a Screenwriting Tribunal of experts to hear arguments pro and con and then issue a decisive end-all ruling on the debates?
Of course, I jest. Everyone knows there are no rules in screenwriting.
But it would be fun, wouldn’t it? And it might help break up the monotony of the interviews a bit.
Speaking of fun, I would be remiss if I did not mention my favorite panelist/speaker for the week. Meg LeFauve, who wrote Inside Out and Captain Marvel, marveled her crowd with an informative and thoroughly entertaining discussion about writing character emotions.
Regular readers of this blog will recall my earlier entry touting my love of #Screenwriting Twitter. Yesterday, there was an abundance of love – and a bit of drama — over on the platform: Hundreds of writers pushing their screenplays upon an unsuspecting world!
In case you missed it, it was an event called #ScreenPit.
The idea was simple: Post tweets containing the title and a one-sentence description of your screenplay with the hope that a director, producer, agent, or manager would see it and want to read the completed screenplay. Or even better, they might actually want to buy your script or hire you to write a script.
Each tweet would include a set of hashtags to help further identify the screenplay you were tweeting about, from its genre to the type of production itself (whether it was a for a full-length feature movie, a limited series, TV pilot, or short film).
The screenwriting world answered the challenge.
Throughout the twelve-hour challenge, tweet after tweet scrolled by advertising everything from action-adventures to horror to serious dramas and hilarious comedies. Whether it was a haunting story about witches or an emotionally moving story about aging parents, you could find a logline for that screenplay.
The ideas were virtually limitless.
Some of the ideas, admittedly, were not particularly original. Some of the loglines were a bit rough and failed to convey exactly what the story was about (hey, it’s hard to condense 100 pages of screenplay into one sentence!). But some were incredible in both their descriptions and originality.
In reading them, you couldn’t help but sit up and imagine the screenplay flashing across the silver screen as a movie someday.
All of them represented the boundless pool of talent across the world and stories begging to be told.
Taking the plunge
I was initially a bit hesitant about joining in.
In the first place, there was no guarantee that anybody in a position of filmmaking power would even see it. If you have ever been on Twitter, you know how quickly your Twitter feed flashes by. If you blink, you’ve missed it. Even a hashtag search resulted in an endless sea of scrolling tweets.
The organizers invited a slew of top agencies, managers, and other movers and shakers in the industry to participate, but there were no clear commitments.
Instead, many warned against the idea.
Hollywood, you see, is afraid to look at unsolicited loglines or ideas because they fear it could lead to lawsuits from those claiming their ideas were stolen. Since you cannot copyright an idea, doing so is akin to giving away your fantastic movie idea to anyone else who wants to use it.
So, the whole idea of posting loglines would possibly fall on deaf ears.
Despite all of that, hundreds of screenwriters posted their loglines anyway. One after another after another.
I jumped in and posted a few of my own.
Why not? I thought. There are few paths into Hollywood as it is.
You can write your scripts, enter them into contests and hope against all odds that a reader likes it enough to send it up the ladder to the next level; you can cold query managers, agents, and producers in hopes that someone might give in and say, “OK, send it to me and I’ll take a look;” or you can network back and forth at social events and through social media in search of that one elusive person that will even look at your script.
Or you can post your logline to Twitter and cross your fingers. Who’s to say one method is more effective than the other? And, believe it or not, there have been Twitter success stories.
Writing a screenplay is a risky venture regardless. You put hours and hours of your life, your blood, sweat, tears, and every emotion you have into the product. Why? Because you have a story to tell and a story that only you can tell.
It’s a passion. It’s a curse. It’s a fool’s game.
So, why not play it? Why not take a chance? Try a new thing. Try something different.
#ScreenPit was that thing, and hundreds of screenwriters agreed to take the leap.
I posted a tweet commending the screenwriters on their trove of ideas and imploring Hollywood to take a chance on something or someone new. With the constant parade of reboots, remakes, and rehashes flooding the screen (big and small), and with the plethora of streamers in need of content, it is clear Hollywood needs people, ideas, and scripts, and I am not the only one that feels that way. My tweet obviously resonated, drawing more than 350 “likes” and nearly retweets over the next 24 hours!
The drama begins
By mid-afternoon, the naysayers in the screenwriting world began to grow more vocal. They began lashing out at those posting their loglines as foolish and amateurs.
The drama had begun.
Organizers of the event point out that authors have a similar Twitter day four times a year called #PitMad, in which they post the premise to their novels or books in hopes of attracting publishers or agents.
Proponents counter that book publishing and screenwriting are two distinct things, two vastly different industries. What works for one won’t necessarily work for the other.
Organizers say the event presents an even playing field for those who may not have the money or resources to enter the countless screenwriting contests or paid pitch events out there.
Proponents counter that contests, in the least, help sort through the riffraff and highlight the standout scripts and writers without having to wade through an endless slush pile.
As @TheZeusJuice put it in his Twitter HOT TAKE: “If all these execs were SO willing to read our stuff, we wouldn’t NEED to #ScreenPit anything.” His thread includes a few more choice statements worth reading if you want to check it out.
Jessica Kane @jesskane31 also has an interesting take on the controversy.
For better or worse
Now that the dust has settled, we are left to wonder if it was all worth it. I picked up dozens of new Twitter followers and followed dozens of others. That’s all part of that old networking thing, right?
Did #ScriptPit get anyone interest from the powers that be? The organizers are trying to audit its success now, as well as consider ways to improve on future events.
At the very least, I got a few “likes” on a couple of my loglines and a bunch of new followers. No one’s been knocking down the door to option my scripts or sign me as a writer. Not yet, anyway.
But my tweets are out there. My scripts are out there. I’m putting myself out there.