With Genius, the play’s the thing – a review

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Early last year, I saw a trailer for a biographical movie that recounted the love story between a novelist and his editor. For every bit that the novelist was a flamboyant, erratic larger-than-life character, his editor was a buttoned-down, controlled one. And yet, between the two of them, they produced works that sit among the sleeves of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, two of the editor’s other writers.

I was intrigued.

Last June, Genius had its theatrical release in North America, only to disappear almost as quickly. I had completely forgotten about the story, until this week, when the movie launched on Netflix.

Now, I know why it disappeared. Not because it is a bad movie, but rather because it was produced for the wrong medium.

The theatrical release Genius should have had was on a stage, not in a cinema. Although not written intentionally as such, Genius is a play.

Based on A. Scott Berg’s 1978 National Book Award-winner Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, the film recounts a tempestuous period in the 1930s when the first frenzied pages of Thomas Wolfe’s (Jude Law) autobiographical O Lost found their way onto the desk of Scribner’s editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth). It then follows the bond that forms between the two men as they fight to tame Wolfe’s creative furies, eventually honing it into the retitled Look Homeward, Angel and his sophomore novel Of Time and the River.

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The loves they left behind: Laura Linney (top) and Nicole Kidman

The process was not without its victims, however, and as minor secondary plots, the film unveils the impact of the men’s singular focus on their loved ones: Perkins’ loving wife Louise (Laura Linney) and his five daughters, as well as Wolfe’s loving but jealous benefactor Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman).

As I watched the film—directed by Michael Grandage with screenplay by John Logan –I found it structurally constrained and yet exuberantly written. With the exception of links between plot sequences, every scene played out as intimate conversations with the characters largely speaking in poetry, especially Wolfe and Perkins. It was as though Logan was trying to capture the Joyce-like prose of Wolfe’s mania and cast it from the mouths of his characters.

After pausing the movie for a few moments about 40 minutes in, not completely sure what I thought of it, I came back to the film and immediately realized what was challenging me. This was a stage play that was unaware of its identity.

Once I had that in my mind, the movie proceeded to unfold beautifully and naturally.

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Defining the act of falling in love

As a writer and editor myself, I was enthralled by the ongoing debates over how best to describe the emotions of falling in love and that tortuous feeling of having the words you bled to write being torn asunder with the simple stroke of a red pencil.

I understand, however, that not everyone would be as appreciative or have such a personal connection to these scenes.

The movie was eviscerated by the critics I read, and rightly so if viewed as a movie.

“Hammily acted, overstylized and lacking in subtlety.” – The Guardian

“Dressed-up box full of second- and third-hand notions.” – The New York Times

The Independent reviewer apparently saw what I saw:

“The acting, along with John Logan’s script, belong to the theatre.”

Like many stages plays, there is essentially no build up, and we are immediately dumped into central relationship of Perkins and Wolfe, two artists straining to make the other see his vision for the project at hand. Thus, when Kidman’s Aline or Linney’s Louise show up in the story, we are given almost no backstory to help us understand their perspectives or reactions to the intellectual love affair that blossoms.

And to the subtlety comment, Logan inserted F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) at the nadir of his career as an omen to Wolfe about what lies ahead, and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) as an emblem of a man who possessed his life, much as Wolfe tried to do and failed.

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The fates: Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald & Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway

But perhaps the biggest tell for me that this was a stage play—and something that hits the subtlety debate—is the hat that Perkins wears throughout the entirety of the film. No matter where he is, no matter the time of day, no matter how he is otherwise dressed, Perkins wears his grey Fedora. It is what allows him to maintain his control on the world.

And because of its importance to Perkins—the true hero of this story—the hat is what brings power to the film’s close, in a scene that could otherwise be seen as cliché (and may yet be, by some).

The audience for Genius will be a narrow one, unfortunately. It has, however, piqued enough interest in me to look into the works of Thomas Wolfe, as well as A. Scott Berg’s biography of Max Perkins.

 

See also:

Colin Firth and Jude Law’s literary bromance needs an edit (The Guardian)

Michael Grandage should have stuck to his day job (The Independent)

‘Genius’ puts Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe in a literary bromance (New York Times)

Feedback, not criticism (or worse)

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A friend of mine recently wrote a screenplay for a sitcom. Not a spec of an existing show, mind you, but rather an entirely new idea she developed.

In accomplishing this feat, she joined rarified company. For every person who has written a television pilot, there may be a thousand people who have written a spec script and millions who have never put pen to paper (finger to keyboard).

And like any good writer, she wanted her work to be as good as it could be, so she asked a handful of people she knew—including me—to read it and give her feedback.

Unfortunately, as I later learned on sending her my feedback, she was ready to chuck in the writing game because of scathing criticism from another reviewer, who essentially told her that her pilot was complete crap (or worse).

My friend is talented and is in the process of maturing her style. And the feedback I gave her was honest and critical, but it was also designed to help her improve, not make her quit. The pilot was still raw, but there was merit in many aspects of it, and the rest could be easily improved.

Sadly, it seems her other reviewer was less interested in helping her find the gems in her work.

To the writers out there, I say, pick your reviewers wisely, and before you take any of the feedback to heart, consider the source and get input from more than one person.

Feedback that is overly critical or overly praising is largely useless…and potentially lethal.

To the reviewers out there, I say, be honest but be constructive. It does no one any good to rip a work to shreds and leave it in tatters. It doesn’t make you more powerful. This isn’t even about you but about the work.

At the end of this post, I have links to pieces I have written previously on receiving and giving feedback. And below, without giving away my friend’s identity or her concept, I offer the opening of my notes to her.

Good luck and good writing to everyone!

 

My favourite insight of all time on writing for television is that pilots suck. Let me repeat that:

PILOTS SUCK!

The challenge with a pilot is you have to do soooo much structural heavy-lifting and still try to tell a coherent story.

  1. You need to establish the premise.
  2. You need to establish the perspective of your protagonist and therefore your concept.
  3. You need to not only introduce all of the regular characters and their relationships to each other, but also make them engaging.
  4. You need to give the audience a sense of what a typical episode might look like so they know when they can go pee.
  5. And did I mention that you also need to tell a coherent story?
  6. Oh, and one last thing for the sitcom writers…you have to be funny.

 

So, massive kudos to you for writing a sitcom pilot and doing a decent job of it. You’ve covered all of the points above, but you haven’t really nailed them yet. And for me, nailing them hinges on your decisions about point #2…

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See also:

Giving Feedback – The Reviewer Strikes Back

Receiving Feedback – Part One

Receiving Feedback – Part Two

Unlucky Lucy – a review

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What if every time…

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someone tried to tell you something…

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they inserted a photo or video…

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that showed the same thing they said?

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Pretty irritating, eh?

Welcome to the first 30 minutes of Luc Besson’s Lucy, released to theatres this weekend.

(I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers, below.)

What could have been—should have been—an amazing sci-fi thriller about the possible repercussions of a young drug mule who becomes exposed to the drug and slowly finds her brain building to 100% functional capacity, was instead a massive disappointment weighted down by a ton of metaphoric sledgehammers and drowning in a sea of over-exposition.

To be sure, there is a really interesting movie somewhere in the middle of the morass that ironically becomes its own metaphor by the end of the movie. But it’s as though Besson the Director didn’t trust the story written by Besson the Screenwriter to simply let the story explore itself.

As the drug takes hold of Lucy, she goes from being an interesting female character (if a little cliché) to an automaton who simply narrates…literally narrates…what is happening inside her.

The drug lord Mr. Jang has the emotional range of complete indifference to mild irritation, which no doubt also expresses the feelings of acclaimed actor Min-Sik Choi, who portrayed him.

Even the calming voice and reason of Morgan Freeman’s Prof. Norman quickly gives way to befuddled camera-mugging and WTF?

The only truly interesting character was French police detective Pierre Del Rio, played beautifully by Amr Waked, who clearly functions as the eyes of the audience. As a friend of mine pointed out, even he at one point turns to Lucy and asks “What do you need me for?” What, indeed.

Lucy cast

To be certain, the visual effects in several parts of the movie were stunning, but as with so many movies I’ve seen in the past few years (e.g., Prometheus, Transcendence), the visual effects have become sleight-of-hand to keep you (or try) from seeing the weaknesses of plot and character.

The action sequences highlighted in the trailers take about as much time in the full movie as they did in the trailer, and so little is ever in doubt with the plot that the movie truly cannot be described a thriller.

But perhaps where the movie was most disappointing was in its promise to explore the nature of what it is to be human when faced with super-human capabilities. THIS is what the movie should have been about!

But Besson largely discards the question as quickly as he raises it in two short scenes involving a call home to mom and a simple kiss. And in both cases, Lucy coldly explains her conundrum, her human fears represented by the odd tear drop down an otherwise lifeless cheek. Rather than see Lucy struggle with her transformation, we watch her turn into a robot bent on a mission…a mission that she basically accomplishes without struggle.

But just to be sure we get the great metaphysical concepts behind the story, Besson then reverts to his earlier legerdemain, smacking the audience around with a brutally metaphoric journey through time and space. I give you intergalactic sperm meteors…you’ll know then when you see them.

And all this rancour without even touching on the biochemical, biomedical, anthropological and astronomical issues that run rampant in this mere 90 minutes.

This could have been an amazing movie. It wasn’t.

(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission.)

I don’t hate movies!

This may sound like an unimportant statement, but as a newly minted screenwriter, I was starting to worry that I seemed to dislike every movie I watched in theatres or via Netflix.

Now, I must admit that I have spent much of my life as a hypercritical asshole, a picker of nits most egregious, so it perhaps came as no surprise that a movie had to be pretty solid to impress me…but when you go through dozens of movies and find all of them meh, you start to worry. Or at least, I did.

You see, I slowly began to doubt my own understanding of what makes for a good film, or more importantly to me, a good story. And as someone who has decided to be a professional storyteller that is a worrisome doubt to have.

Movies that I have found lacking despite their acclaim

Movies that I have found lacking despite their acclaim

The recent fare that I had heard wonderful reviews of or that had won awards:

  • Blue Jasmine – good performance by Cate Blanchett in a completely forgettable movie
  • The East – incredibly slow melodrama in which none of the characters was note-worthy and a moral dilemma on which the screenwriter and director refuse to take a position
  • Life of Pi – hated the book, bored by the movie…would have been more likeable as a Disney flick
  • Vicky Cristina Barcelona – boring people with no ties to the real world (like a need for money) screwing
  • Noah – missed opportunity to explore the more interesting character of Tubal-Cain
  • Dom Hemingway – a wonderful portrait of the eponymous character, a terribly flawed story (my thoughts)
  • Enemy – 2014 Cdn Screen Award as Best Picture, thief of 90 minutes of my life (my thoughts)

I have many colleagues who will defend some or all of these movies to the hilt and yet I found each of them somewhere between seriously flawed and downright insulting.

Clearly, I was the problem. In my zeal to craft my own stories, I had become myopic on what a good story is, what good characters are.

And then I watched The Boy In The Striped Pajamas.

Wow. I was blown away, not just by the subject matter, but by the story itself, the unique perspective and the richly drawn characters.

Sure, there were one or two small moments where I tilted my head askew, but they did not linger. Nor did they snowball in my consciousness as they were few and far between.

Movies that have renewed my faith in storytelling

Movies that have renewed my faith in storytelling

Last night, I watched The Reader.

Not as blown away, but still enthralled. Rich characters, slow revelations, palpable conflict both within and without.

I don’t hate movies.

I have no time for movies that fail…and more importantly, I aspire to and am inspired by movies that succeed.

Doubts remain, but thankfully, they have diminished.

Finding the Critical Sweet Spot – Part Two

Available now stamp

In the last post, we talked about the challenge of finding someone to critique your work in a way that was actionable; someone who was neither too hard nor too soft on you. Below, we continue the conversation by address the need for that person to be available for ongoing discussion and the limitations of options like coverage services.

Availability: A lot of screenwriters rely on coverage services to get feedback on their screenplays and there are a number of reputable organizations and readers out there.

The challenge, I find, with these services is that they tend to be unidirectional and/or very brief. You send your work, you receive a written report, you may receive an oral report—which allows you to ask questions—but ultimately, it’s “here you go”.

You can get more, you can have follow-up, but it’ll cost more.

As well, I think you really miss out on improving your own skills, knowledge and understanding of story through the critiquing of the work of others.

I also worry that the use of a professional service when your work and skill sets are at a nascent level is largely a waste of their time and your money. The feedback you receive will likely be so broad, so sweeping that it could easily overwhelm you. As well, any minor change you make at one stage is liable to make any of the remaining feedback moot.

Better, I think, that you find someone who is also trying to grow their skills, who understands and shares your needs and fragility. They want and need your help as much as you want and need theirs, and so you’ll be more apt to make time for each other.

Again, it is about building a relationship of trust.

Transient state: Unfortunately, no two people develop at the same rate, and even if you find yourself in a trusting artistic relationship, you will likely find that one of you is ready to move forward faster than the other. It happens in all facets of life.

As your Art develops, you will find that your needs change, and that the partner that got you to one stage of development cannot get you to the next one. It is time to bow to your partner and move on to the next one.

If you’re lucky, both of you recognize this and move on without acrimony. Not everyone is lucky. But for your Art to flourish, the move is necessary.

I wish I could tell you that there is an easy way to make the transition, but in my experience, it is like the end of a marriage and the need to start dating again. The footwork is shaky and the verbiage is awkward, but you won’t die of embarrassment.

The key is to remember why you’re doing this, why it is important to you, and then to simply move forward.

You’ll be okay.

 

Coverage services I have used or have had recommended to me:

Marsha Mason at Why The Face

Terry Zinner at A Film Writer

Scriptapalooza Coverage

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission because it was available now)

Finding the Critical Sweet Spot – Part One

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One of the biggest challenges I have faced in developing my writing was in finding the right people to critique my work. Classes have helped, as I’ve come across some wonderful instructors, but otherwise, finding people who (a) gave me actionable feedback and (b) were available for ongoing discussion has been tricky.

Actionable feedback: To really move your Art forward, you need outside opinions, but those opinions need to be of the variety that helps you see not only what works and what doesn’t, but also how to understand both and push the work further.

Although praise like “I loved it” is nice and criticism like “I just didn’t feel it” can be crushing, neither helps you develop your Art because neither offers you specifics. This is typically a sign of someone who is not near your skill level and cannot articulate their thoughts (not meant as a criticism of the person offering feedback).

Likewise, you don’t necessarily benefit from a critique of someone way above your skill level. Through no fault of their own, these individuals are likely to take certain information for granted and provide feedback you cannot work with because you don’t understand it and/or that overwhelms you in terms of sheer volume. This, I believe, is why so few experts in any discipline are good teachers of that discipline. We all simply forget what it’s like not to know or know how to apply “the basics”.

Instead, we need to find someone who is roughly at the same skill level as ourselves and ideally, who suffers different weaknesses or challenges than ourselves. In such a situation, a symbiotic relationship can form.

These are the people who will recognize and help you see what is working while at the same time, point out the problem areas and offer insights (or commiseration) on how to address the issues.

Such a meeting of equals will also help ensure that one of you doesn’t feel like you’re doing all the heavy lifting in the relationship and getting very little in return. This is critical in building a relationship of trust, particularly when both of you are making yourself vulnerable in exposing your Art, untested.

In the next post, we’ll look at the availability question and then wrap up with a brief discussion of the transience of it all.

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission…how sweet)

First d(r)aft

Three days. I have three days to come up with another 10 pages from my latest screenplay for a reading and critique in my screenwriting class. And I have nothing.

Well, that’s not technically true. I have something. I have the architecture of my screenplay written out…I know where I want to go and what steps I need to take, broadly speaking, to get there.

But those are just a series of incomplete sentences that barely fill a page. I need 10 pages of a screenplay. I need narrative (not too much, as is my wont) and dialogue, and yet everything I write right now reads like crap. Absolute, utter drivel.

Welcome to the first draft.

I love to brainstorm and come up with new ideas. Ideas for new screenplays. Ideas for scenes within those screenplays.

Brainstorming is exciting. Everything is possible, so I am at my most creative. Nothing comes off the table, and every idea leads to several others.

I love to plan. I like to arrange those ideas into a semblance of order…it is quite literally the assembly of a puzzle. What if I moved this scene from the first part of Act II to just before the climax? How does that change the story?

But at some point, I have to stop brainstorming and planning. I have to start writing. I have to take those incomplete sentences and turn them into coherent scenes of people interacting with people—directly and indirectly—to accomplish goals and thwart those of others.

And even that description of the process sounds interesting. But then I begin typing and my words take on the feel and smell of two-week old cod.

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If the mom character was any stiffer, you could iron shirts on her. Why not just have the son respond “Oh yeah!” and euthanize all of your creative ambitions?

You want the boat captain to do what? Even the most psychotic of fishermen wouldn’t contemplate that idiotic move! What was your research: old Popeye cartoons?

You suck! You suck! You suck!

Okay. Feel better now? Had your little tantrum. Your little pity party. Ready to move forward? Take a deep breath.

This is your first draft, and it’s gonna suck. That’s what first drafts do. But it’s the first draft that sucks, not you.

The idea is still sound. Story improvements you can’t see right now will arise in the workshopping process. The dialogue can be massaged and the narrative edited…in your second draft. You can move some of the scenes around to enhance the conflict…in your third draft.

The only thing about what you are doing today that is anywhere near a final draft is the name of the screenwriting software. [NOTE TO FINAL DRAFT: Give some thought to changing the name of your software. Too much pressure for some of us to handle.]

You’ll be fine. Your story will be fine.

Just start typing…

Death by a Thousand Meetings

Committee (n): 1) a group of individuals specializing in irreversible creativity vivisection; 2) last known location of a good idea. See also: elephant’s graveyard.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing anyone creating art is less the generation of new ideas and more the knowledge that at some point, you will have to release your art to an awaiting world; aka, relinquish control.

Now, we can (and have) discuss the illusion of control at any phase of the creative process, but there is no denying that if you want your art to be appreciated by others, you will have to pass your newborn into someone else’s hands…or worse, someseveral else’s hands.

For writing—my predominant area of interest—that moment can come quite early in the creative process, whereas for other art forms, such as sculpture or painting, it may appear quite a bit later (please correct me, if I under- or misstate things).

You must respect your art. You must protect your art. But you must also realize that if you intend to share your art, and perhaps even make money from it, you must be somewhat flexible with your art. When you bring it to the world, it ceases to be all about you.

A teacher once suggested that upon completing a play, Shakespeare merely became another critic of the work. His opinions on meaning and significance within the play were simply one more voice and held no more sway than those of any other critic. I don’t know that I agree—what self-respecting writer would?—but I see the point.

When I write a screenplay, I need dissenting and diverging voices to ensure that I am not leaving things out or glossing over important plot or character points that are clear in my head. At the same time, I must be sure that my vision is protected, lest I start writing someone else’s screenplay.

I understand, however, that if I want to turn this screenplay into a movie or television episode, I will have to relinquish some of the control to the hands of studio executives, producers, directors, actors, directors of photography, sound teams, and in all likelihood, the third cousin of the guy who runs the craft services table. I have to be comfortable with the idea that each of these people wants to (actually, must) contribute in some way to the final product to give them a sense of ownership. They too are artists.

I am struggling at this stage with several television projects I have been developing. I have a computer filled with TV series concepts and/or pilot scripts, and I am trying to decide with what production companies to share my babies. Like Smeagol, I stroke my precious and have a rampant distrust of everyone.

How do I know the company I choose shares my vision, will protect my baby, isn’t just a group of ravenous Orcs? I don’t. I can’t, ahead of time.

What helps is watching fellow writers who rabidly protect their newborns at a much earlier stage in development. Who in a reading group, spew buckets of foamy spittle while savagely defending the use of the word “vivisection”, or primal scream that their protagonist’s motivations are obvious to anyone with half a brain.

I am doing the same thing with my projects, only at a later stage and mostly in my head (and possibly with just half a brain). Just as they have to learn to let go or at least lighten up, so do I.

In writing this post, I am coming to realize that my art is in the writing of the screenplay, not in the making of movies or television. Thus, when the screenplay is ready to move on, I must let it go and hope it flourishes…even if I am not ready to let it go. The art must grow and breathe, regardless of my personal reluctance and fears.

Committees are still evil…you will never get me to say otherwise…but unless I am willing to do everything on my own, which would not do justice to my babies, committees are a necessary evil and less dangerous to my babies’ successes than on overbearing, overprotective parent.

 

For a humourous take on the evils of meetings, please also see the recent blog post by Ben’s Bitter Blog: Meeting Bitterness.

Giving Feedback – The Reviewer Strikes Back

Okay. So, now that we’ve discussed asking for and receiving feedback, is there anything we should consider before giving feedback.

We’ve all been on the other side, awaiting a kind word or a withering criticism from a respected compatriot or senior, so we should all be aware of the power of the right word at the right time. You have been given an honour by the recipient and should give him or her and the work the respect they deserve.

Below, I offer some thoughts on how to approach the feedback process when asked, but (sorry for the broken record) I want to hear what you think too.

Feedback is personal. It reflects who you are, what you believe and how you feel. Don’t try to make it otherwise, lest you lose any value it provides. The writer asked you for very specific reasons. To give them anything less than you is a disservice.

Make sure, however, that your feedback is more than just opinion, even though that forms the basis of it. There is a world of difference between superficial criticism and thoughtful critique. Criticism is about saying what you feel. Critique is about asking yourself why you feel that way and discussing what it means with the writer.

Ask questions. Be sure to ask questions both before and after you’ve completed your analysis. What kind of feedback are you looking for? Is there anything you specifically want me to keep an eye out for? What was your thinking behind this scene or character?

Without knowing the answers to these kinds of questions, I don’t think you can offer the most effective feedback. Likewise, the answers may provide you with a framework on which to build your feedback or tell if you’ve misunderstood something significant.

Be honest. Never be afraid to tell the truth, no matter how brutal. You’re the best judge of what you think the writer can handle, but by the same token, they’ve asked for your help and holding back may be counterproductive. It’s possible to be honest without crushing someone, and I don’t mean making a shit sandwich (good news-bad news-good news). Rather, walk them through your thinking as you read their stuff and, even if they don’t beat you to the conclusion, at least they understand your reasoning.

And wherever possible, don’t leave them hanging. Offer suggestions as to how the work could be improved or fixed. If you have no ideas pre-emptively, brainstorm it with them. If nothing else, it will show the writer that you’ve invested in his or her work.

DON’T COPYEDIT. That’s not feedback, it’s copyediting. Unless the spelling of a word or the punctuation of a sentence significantly impacts the meaning of a sentence, leave it alone. It ends up being a distraction from the important conversations. If their climax sucks (you’ll want to be more specific), who cares that they should have used a semi-colon or incorrectly used “its” instead of “it’s”?

Put it in writing. Even the most seasoned writer will miss important tidbits of information while scrambling to take notes on your feedback. By writing your feedback out, preferably within the manuscript itself, you give the writer the chance to follow what you’re saying and how you’re saying it, rather than focusing on the details of the feedback, which they can do at their leisure.

Look for the bigger picture. As you compile your feedback, look for trends or commonalities. As with receiving feedback, ask yourself if any groups of notes refer to the same issue; e.g., a lot of scenes take too long to get started or could be started later without losing the story. Be ready to provide examples, of course, as the bigger picture is typically less obvious, but try to avoid getting stuck in the weeds.

Besides, if there are fundamental issues with the story or its presentation, then all of the nitpicky stuff is unimportant and you’ll be wasting your and the writer’s time.

Your feedback; the writer’s work. Even if you inscribe your comments on stone (see “burning bush”), the writer does not have to agree with you. It is important as you analyze someone’s work that you remember it is their work. Although you can help them develop their voice and style, it is not your task to change their voice or style. Likewise, and more importantly, it is not your job to convert their work to your voice.

Me acting like I could ever teach anything about comedy to the very funny ladies Nicole Rubacha and Megan Mack

Me acting like I could ever teach anything about comedy to the very funny ladies Nicole Rubacha and Megan Mack