It’s always a weird experience when a friend gives me something they've written to read for my opinion. If it’s a first draft, their expectations are sky-high, though since nothing is yet set in stone there’s a little flexibility for constructive comments. (I always call them "comments," rather than "notes" which sound far more imperious, a haughty checklist of things that Must Be Followed. But it's just comments, my personal opinion. It might be good, experienced opinion, but still opinion.) The tricky part is asking them how detailed do they want my comments to be? Because I say I can be cursory or go into great detail, which might be much more than they want. And most people say, “Oh, tell me everything and be totally honest.” Though what they’re thinking is that they want to hear me say, “Okay, I am being totally honest here – not since William Faulkner has writing moved me so much. And that’s my totally honest opinion.” Anything less tends to really annoy them.
(Not everyone -- I have two talented friends who dearly love rewriting, Bart Baker and Rob Hedden. Rob actually loves rewriting so much it's almost to an obsession, to the degree that it’s become a joke, even Bart the Rewriter considers it hilarious. On the other hand, another friend always said he wanted a totally honest reaction, and after a couple of totally honest reactions for his work, I didn’t get sent any more. To be clear, it wasn’t that I didn’t like what he wrote – I did -- but the problem for him was that I didn’t think his first drafts were without flaws and needed no changes.)
Trickier, though, may be when a script or manuscript is finished, and in final form. If you see problems, there’s not much you can say. Because it really can’t be changed. So, how do you get across an honest reaction when anything critical can only hurt?
The most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever had to read was an early draft of a play by Larry Gelbart. Now, Larry was probably one of the great American TV-movie-theater writers of the 20th century. And that’s not hyperbole. Among his voluminous works were the Tony-winning Best Musicals A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and City of Angels, Oscar nominations for Oh, God! and Tootsie, developing the TV series M*A*S*H for which he won an Emmy, the HBO movie Barbarians at the Gate, writing for the legendary Caesar’s Hour, getting 17 Emmy Nominations, being inducted into the TV Academy Hall of Fame and…and…and…and… (that's just the surface).
And it isn’t that I’m not at that level, but that I can barely even see it. However, Larry said he liked to give me his works because he knew I’d be honest with him. (I once asked if he had a hard time getting reactions from friends because He Was Larry Gelbart, and so they’d all be loath to tell him if there was anything they didn’t think was right? And he said, in all honesty, yes, and that was a problem. Because he knew drafts all need work, but no one would tell him what wasn't working. So, I felt an added obligation.) As I said, there was this one play he gave me -- and it was very good. And later got produced and got good reviews. But there was one scene in the early draft that I just didn’t think he got across the way he wanted. I was wary (the very low-key word) about how to tell him that, but he was appreciative with all the comments, and rewrote the scene. And it was better -- but…but (and this was the hellish part) it still didn’t work for me. So…er, um, ack, how on earth do I tell Larry Gelbart that?? When I give comments to writers, they always begin with “This is only my personal opinion.” But still… But I had to tell him, it was why he gave me the draft, and with much hesitancy and coughs and ahems I did. And he was appreciative, because that’s who he was. And addressed more changes. And happily the play got finished, was extremely good and got successfully produced.
I say all this because the other week a friend, Ed Zuckerman, gave me his new book to read. And when I say it was his new book, I don’t mean the first draft -- or even the final draft. But a hardcover copy because it’s just been published. So…aghh, what do I say if I don’t like things in it -- or don’t like it at all? "Wow, it was beautifully typeset!"
I first met Ed when we played in a weekly softball game of Writers Guild members. I tended to pitch much of the time -- and Ed is something like 6’17” (okay, yes, that’s an exaggeration, but from where I stand close to the ground, that’s how he seemed), so whenever he came to the plate, I would generally fear for my life. Usually, I prayed that we’d be on the same team.
Happily, Ed is an accomplished writer, and the book is very enjoyable. So – phew! My old concerns of pitching to him and seeing my life flash before my eyes disappeared. To put his talent is perspective, among his many credits Ed wrote on the TV series Law & Order for around 20 years, give or take. In fact, he co-wrote my favorite three-part episode for the show, their sort of version inspired by the O.J. Simpson case, which they called “D-Girl,” “Turnaround” and “Showtime.” But his credits go far beyond that, over 100 from series like Miami Vice to Star Trek: the Next Generation, JAG, Blue Bloods and a lot more, but over 50 writing credits from Law & Order. So, I knew he knows his stuff.
His novel, Wealth Management, is a financial thriller set in Geneva. It centers around three friends from Harvard business school whose lives have periodically crossed paths romantically and in their individual fields of hedge funds, international banking, and investments. And bit-by-bit, their personal and professional stories overlap with global terrorism.
What struck me is that Ed tells the story in an interesting way – moving between about a dozen characters, jumping the story around in chapters that are mostly no more than three pages. That gives the book a very cinematic feel, something I suspect was intentional because it keeps the story moving at a fast pace, which is important since a lot of the action is, in essence, about moving paper. But what I think he does best for my taste is give “backstories” to almost all the characters, and not just the main three – even including a very minor character, a Syrian street kid who does a bit of pick-pocketing, and so we learn how he got to that point. It’s not critical to the story, but it makes his character more real whenever he comes on the scene, rather than as just A Plot Point. All of this fleshes out the story a great deal, making it more involving, understanding motivations of most everyone, rather than knowing only about the main characters and relying solely on the plot to create interest.
If I had one quibble, it would be that it with three main characters and covering so many other characters – all of whom are easy to follow – I wished on occasion that it focused on just one or two main characters to feel more grounded with them on where the story was going. But ultimately, that’s not what this story is. It’s meant to be a whirlwind affair to keep you wondering, filled with various surprises. And in the end, the three main characters do create a foundation to it all.
The larger point being that it was a pleasure to tell Ed. Not that it mattered all that much, since, in fairness, the book has been published regardless of what I said. But I know that should we ever find ourselves on a baseball field again, and I’m pitching to him, there’s a good chance the bat won’t come flying at me.
To anyone interested, the book is available here.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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