There are only three parts of your story to worry about: the beginning, the middle, and the end

I’ve moved on to my second proof copy of A Housefly in Autumn. This incorporates all the changes I made to the first proof. I normally go through four or five proofs before I am satisfied that the book is ready to be presented to the public.

In the first proof copy I made numerous changes, none of them major. A few of them were actual errors, but most involved making sentences more efficient. It’s amazing, the little things you don’t see until the manuscript holds like a real book.

The first proof had me worried about typographical errors and other embarrassing occurrences. I feel better about that stuff now, but the second proof brings its own worries.

These are big picture worries, about the overall execution of the storytelling.

Beating up the proof copy

My wife’s proof copy is already taking a beating, and she’s only just begun.

If you break a story down into beginning, middle, and ending, that leaves only three parts to worry about. This reduces the number of worries and gives you more time to worry over each thing.

I most recently obsessed about the middle. Before the first proof, I rewrote much of the middle, trying to transform parts that retained too much “telling” into more “showing.” Since this novel has a large oral storytelling component, in which a character literally tells a story, there were some limits to how much of this I could do.

I’m not saying I won’t obsess about the middle again, but since I just finished doing that, the middle will have to go to the back of the line.

For now, I’m focused on worrying about the beginning. It is an axiom of modern fiction that you have to grab the reader by the throat at word one and not let him breathe until he is irretrievably engulfed in the story. This concept is so well revered that a fair percentage of books now begin with explosions or with characters burying (or digging up) dead bodies.

Those incidents aren’t appropriate for this book, so I’m toying with adding a flash forward to an action-packed scene at the beginning. I need to do this without it seeming too much like a cheap gimmick. It also needs to fit with the historical setting, when people began a story at the beginning, regardless of where the bridges were set to blow.

If I can’t figure out how to work in some page 1 fireworks, I guess I’ll have to hope that my beginning is interesting enough. Meanwhile, I’ll worry that it’s not.

I have not spent much time obsessing about the ending. I’m pretty comfortable with it, except for maybe the last couple of pages. I haven’t found time to worry about a mere page or two, but I will at some point.

Do the last lines bring home the points I worked hard to make throughout the book? Or are they relics of the book this used to be, before it matured and added meat to its bones? These are the questions that await my future obsession with the ending.

Maybe that will come with proof copy number three.

Books I can’t remember

I can’t quite pull off blaming my inability to remember the overwhelming majority of what I read on the French. Even though the French are not doing a single thing to help me with this problem, they are not to blame. I can’t remember what happened in books written by Americans either.

It’s not uncommon to forget what happened in books you didn’t enjoy. Do I have the slightest idea why Mr. Darcy came to visit the Pride and Prejudice gang? No, I do not. But I was forced to read that book at some point during my schooling. I didn’t want to read it, and I was happy to forget about Mr. Darcy and his visit to the sorority house right after I failed the pop quiz.

But am I normal in forgetting the plots of books I enjoyed? My overall memory is no worse than average, so why can’t I remember anything I read? The one hypothesis I have concocted (the French are to blame) does not stand up to the scientific method, so I am at a loss.

This affliction wouldn’t be bad if there were only 100 books in existence. Then, it would be a pleasure to forget all the plots, once I had burned through the library. I could read the books over again for the first time. But there are far too many books in the world to have to go back and redo the ones forgotten.

I don’t even get to come off as “well-read” in literary conversations. I have to say things like, “Yeah, that was a great book, but I’ll be damned if I could tell you why.” If you ever get into a literary conversation with me, you might as well start off assuming I’m a poser.

Here are four books I really enjoyed reading, and the sum totals of what I remember about them.

The Count of Monte Cristo – Some guy (presumably, The Count of Monte Cristo) is jailed unjustly. He escapes, possibly by playing dead (that might be the movie version, or some completely different book – not sure). Somehow, he works his way back into high society and formulates a precise list of all the other high society folks who have wronged him. He plans a specific revenge for each of them, and then I don’t know what happens after that. My guess is that he works his plans to perfection and reveals his true identity to rub it in. Honestly though, he might just as well fall down the stairs and break his neck. I really don’t remember him doing anything specific.

NOTE: This is the French not lifting a finger to help me with my troubles. What I remember most about this book is the overabundance of characters with similar French names. I couldn’t understand how one character was so ubiquitous until I figured out that he was actually three different guys.

Dumas

Dumas: A Frenchman who confounded me by giving all his characters French names. What nerve!

Ethan Frome – A farmer type guy brings home a young girl to live with him and his wife. That doesn’t even really sound right, but I’m going to go with it. Anyhow, the farmer starts to like the new girl, and that becomes a strain on his marriage. This might have happened in winter, because I have this image of a horse-drawn sleigh. There may even have been some kind of sleigh wreck, but I’m probably just making stuff up now. I remember I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this one. I don’t remember why.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame – This hunch-backed dude works as the bell ringer in a big church. He falls in love with a beautiful gypsy girl who is out of his league. The priest, or some other big-wig of the church is also there, and he’s not such a good guy. The hunchback ends up taking a header off the bell tower, or something terrible like that, and I don’t know what happens to anybody else. I remember being impressed with the storytelling in this book, with the exception of one miserable chapter that described the city of Paris, in whichever century the story took place, to excruciating detail. The names of the French people in this story didn’t vex me at all, which puts another nail in the coffin of my sole hypothesis.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin – There’s a cruel slave owner in Kentucky (?) who owns Tom as well as some others. There’s a little girl involved in some way, and she has to cross over the river on broken ice, which is considered somewhat dangerous. Whether or not she makes it is anybody’s guess. Also, the final disposition of the other characters is unknown. I remember being pleasantly surprised that this book read much less like a political tract than I’d expected. It was actually an entertaining story. I cannot begin to tell you why.

Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe: Not as preachy as she looks.

I wonder if there’s a name for my disease. How can I enjoy reading certain books so much, and then not remember a thing about them? It’s discouraging, especially now that I am resigned to exonerating the French and leaving my own mind to shoulder the blame. I would love to be able to tell you why The Hunchback of Notre Dame is such a great story; I just can’t. But after this, I’m sure you will have the confidence in me to just take my word for it.

Am I the only one with this condition? Are there books you’ve enjoyed but can’t remember? Did my hazy recollection come close to the plots of any of these novels?