Thanks so much for trusting me with Flightless. Reading this book felt nothing like work. In fact, I sometimes did less pleasant work before rewarding myself with your manuscript, which was breezy, moving, and above all, honest.
Just as a slow song is harder to play than a fast song—you have to get every note exactly right—a simple story is in many ways harder to tell than a complicated story. Witty one-liners and amusing descriptions notwithstanding, your narrative maintains an intense, dogged focus on Dax’s disintegration. That you can keep my interest with such a simple story is a testament to your skill and empathy. The most heartbreaking part of your memoir is not your inability to help Dax (though that is of course sad), but your refusal to give up on him and, finally, your doomed effort to understand him. Let’s talk about how to make your manuscript even more focused and heartbreaking.
I took a class with Wells Tower in which he talked about the “Faberge egg”—his term for the beautiful, delicate thing that the writer smashes at the climax of her story. In this case, the Faberge egg is your relationship with Dax. But you could do a better job of building it up before you smash it.
I think you intend to take us from the first stirrings of giddy romance to the crest of happiness to the depths of despair. As it happens, you end up taking us from moments of mild disappointment and red flags to scenes of major disappointment and red flags. It may be that the end of your relationship with Dax colors your recollection of the beginning, or it may be that Dax disappointed you more often than he made you happy from the start. In any case, your story will be more satisfying if you put more emphasis on the good parts in the first hundred-odd pages.
Think of your book as having two parts: the upswing and the downswing. In simplistic terms, your job in the upswing is to make us love Dax. Your job in the downswing is to complicate that love: to make us hate, forgive, and pity him in turn. At the end of the book, we should have a complete picture of—in the immortal words of Sarah McLaughlin—this “beautiful fucked-up man.”
You’re great at conveying the terror, pathos, and maddening repetition of the downswing, but you could do better at showing me the beauty, joy and wonderment of the upswing. Indeed, from the moment we meet Dax (“He wore an ill-fitting blazer and kept his arms tightly crossed, as if signaling that he wasn’t open for conversation”) to your first conversation with him at a party (“I had been talking to this guy for one minute and it felt like we had gotten ourselves lost in a dark, windowless room”) to your first hiking date, in which Dax is late and then ditches you, you make him seem narcissistic, antisocial, and emotionally unavailable. Most of the ensuing scenes contain the same micro-cycle of high expectation followed by disappointment.
Beyond Dax’s beautiful eyes and brown hiking boots, I want to know what drew you to him. I want to see what makes him so special and magnetic. I want to know why you fell in love with him. You don’t have to elide his bad behavior, you just have to make us understand why you yourself were so willing to overlook it.
One way to do that is to show us more happy moments, in jokes, and couple rituals. Another way is to put the bad parts in summary and the good parts in scene, which we’ll get to in a moment.
On the flip side, I think a climactic outburst could help focus the downswing. Was there ever a moment in which you lost your patience?
I have a lot of sympathy for Dax. My sister died of an overdose in 2008, when she was twenty-three. I know that addiction isn’t a choice—at least, not in the way we normally think of choices. Nevertheless, I felt so frustrated with Dax. Just once, I wanted you to completely lose your shit, to scream at him, to say everything you’d been holding back. Such an outburst would help your narrative reach a new pitch of feeling. And even if it never happened, you could write the scene and then let us know it’s only fantasy.
Scene vs. Summary
You might think of the difference between scene vs. summary as the difference between showing and telling, or the difference between a scene in a movie and a voiceover. A scene takes us through an event moment by moment, beat by beat. It often involves dialogue. Here’s an example of a scene:
“Are you an anxious person?” I asked.
“Do I seem anxious?” he responded. What made me sad was…
Here’s an example of summary:
If I could attach a color to this part of my life it would be the intersection of dark blue bleeding into turquoise. When I was with Dax things felt fresh and mysterious but when I wasn’t with him I felt tense and anxious…I more than liked the look of having Dax around and I wanted it always, but the problem was Dax was hard to find. For over a month he lost his cell phone and yet I was the only one dealing with a problem. Dax didn’t mind at all.
Dax’s presence brought me a profound joy I had never felt before.
Let me dispel one myth right away. Showing is not ALWAYS better than telling; scene is not always better than summary. Each one has its uses. Scenes give you the opportunity to add more detail but require more time from your reader. In general, you want to skip the boring parts, put the most interesting parts in scene, and summarize the joins. Summary is also a great way to reinforce what you show us.
The problem is that, although you tell us Dax made you happy, you don’t show us. Most of the scenes are an excavation of the ways he let you down. At the beginning of your novel, the balance of your scenes should show how he brings you up, or at least how you brought yourself up by loving him.
Show us how he made things feel fresh and mysterious. Show us how he taught you about the world. If you’re comfortable doing so, you might also show us more of the physical intimacy that bound you together.
In general, the scene-summary balance feels off after page 50. You put a lot of the beginning in scene and a lot of the rest in summary. Because Dax does so many hard-to-forgive things, I’d continue to put good moments in scene, including his marriage proposals in Chapter 24 and his visit to LA in Chapter 36. I’d also put one of your shoplifting escapades into scene, because even though it’s a bad habit, it’s a good moment in your relationship.
Finally, I’d add some scenes that show the flavor of your New York City. The Kabbalah party in Chapter 25, for example, definitely deserves more details. So does the joint with the pregnant woman in the stairwell in Chapter 11.
College Stephanie vs. Present-Day Stephanie
Let me momentarily embody your nastiest critic. This isn’t what I think, but it’s what someone out there might think. I’ll further preface this by saying that my college experience was a lot like yours, so if you’re living in a glass house, I’m in there too. I just want to warn you that someone else might throw stones.
Are you ready?
Rich spoiled white boy spends mommy and daddy’s money on drugs. Rich spoiled white girl goes out for dinners and drinks and stays with her addict boyfriend for too long. Cry me a river.
You do state that Dax is spoiled, but you never mention or acknowledge your own privilege. Whether Dax’s parents had more money than your parents is irrelevant. Some people are going to be predisposed against sympathy for either you or Dax.
You can to some extent disarm your critics with candor. Love is love; pain is pain. Still, you might find a way to acknowledge that you are in general lucky, and that your problems are first-world/privileged-person problems. Maybe you didn’t have the perspective to see this in college—I certainly didn’t—but you do now, and present-day Stephanie is narrating this.
You should also take another look at the end of Chapter 30. It makes sense that you resisted your parents’ advice about Dax, that you didn’t want to be a “caged-in puppet,” and that you didn’t want your actions to be “inorganic.” Those phrases capture the mindset of a college student, but I think you should use the moment to differentiate present-day Stephanie from college Stephanie. Acknowledge that your parents had a point, and that to some extent, you were being stubborn.
You might want to revisit some of your descriptions. When you call your French family “mosquitoes,” for example, you make yourself look judgmental. The trick to ridicule is to present absurd details with a dry touch and let us draw our own conclusions. Later, you sound a bit Mean Girls when you write, “And my Uncle David drove his family in the other van. Five golfers from Palos Verdes: creased khaki shorts and oversized woven Bottega purses type of people. Very J Crew.” I don’t necessarily think you intend “Very J. Crew” to be a slam, but your readers might hear sneering.
Finally, I think that you might reexamine Dax’s addiction and your own.
Addiction and Intervention
It seems fairly clear that Dax had a problem long before anyone fully acknowledged it. Do you think, in retrospect, that you could have done more to help him, or acted sooner? I don’t say this because I think you did anything wrong. As I said, I know how hard it is to help an addict, and you were about as supportive as it’s possible to be. My only point is that some reflection about how you could have acted sooner might make your memoir stronger. “Find fault with yourself” is a bad maxim for living but a good maxim for writing.
Speaking of self-reflection, I think you ought to draw out a parallel that is so far only implied: Dax is addicted to drugs, but you are addicted to Dax. Your addiction is almost as destructive as his.
I had some trouble keeping track of the side characters. Netta was the one who stayed most clear in my mind, because I knew what she did for a living, and because most of her scenes reminded me of her job.
Although you want your main characters to be round, it’s sometimes okay to make your side characters flat—as long as they are vivid caricatures. Give us one or two characteristics that can serve a leitmotif and remind us who each character is: Frank always wrinkles his nose to resettle his glasses; Sid asks, after every meal, if you think she ate a lot; etc..
You could make this more grabby by shortening it to a page or so and waiting until the last possible moment to tell us that Dax is mentally ill. Surprise us with the revelation of his demons.
I think your ending is sad and appropriate, but it doesn’t give me a sense of closure. Consider adding an epilogue.
feels a bit stuck-on. You don’t refer back to your anxiety about your parents, and this is the only non-chronological chapter other than the prologue. Can you tie this in to your relationship with Dax?
also feels stuck-on. I’d fold it into another chapter. Show us Dax banging his head on a lamppost in scene, and then tell us how it used to embarrass you but you’ve come to accept it.
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- Establish how old you are, how old Dax is, and what year of school you’re in more quickly.
- You might texturize your narrative with some information about school or classes.
- It might be fun to excerpt lines of your screenplay, especially if you tweak them to seem melodramatic, or if you find (or make up) a part that sheds light on your relationship with Dax.
- Read “The Year of Getting to Know Us,” in Emperor of the Air, by Ethan Canin. He does a great job of showing emotion through action.
- Read A Sport and a Pastime for lyrical sexy scenes.
- Less “you see” and “I should tell you that.”
Summary of My Recommendations
- More scenes showing the good times.
- Make Dax more likable at the beginning.
- Add a climactic, total shit-losing moment.
- Less disdain; more awareness of how others might perceive college Stephanie.
- Consider not just Dax’s addiction to drugs but your addiction to Dax.
- Condense the prologue; add an epilogue.
Stephanie, I know it can be upsetting to hear criticism of something you poured yourself into. It’s hard not to take it personally, especially considering that your piece is so personal. Despite my many suggestions, though, you should be incredibly proud of what you’ve produced. You’ve nailed the hardest part: you’ve written something true. I have total faith that you can make your memoir even more swift, idiosyncratic and gut-wrenching
Good luck with revision!