When I was a kid, I had a couple of recurring dreams. One of them involved surviving (and sometimes not surviving) a full-on zombie apocalypse. The other involved the Giant Dipper, the great old roller coaster at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
And, yep, for you fans of eighties horror movies, that's the same roller coaster in The Lost Boys. My dream had nothing to do with teenage vampires, though. In it, some friends and I were making the slow, initial ascent along the steep grade at the beginning of the ride, gearing up for the big plunge which set the coaster into overdrive.
Except that's not the way it worked in my dream. Halfway up the track the Giant Dipper started to sway. Quicker than you could scream "Earthquake!", we knew that we were in trouble. Our car stalled out. Old white-washed two-by-fours creaked beneath us like an arthritic skeleton. Nails screamed and boards started splintering. Scrambling, my buddies and I piled onto the track and started pushing the car to the top of the grade, figuring our only chance of survival was getting it over the hump, jumping back in, and riding the roller coaster to safety before the whole thing collapsed like a pile of Pick-Up-Sticks. In my dream we'd put our shoulders to it and muscle that car, and we'd work against gravity, and we'd gain inches and backslide feet and start again. Sometimes we'd make it, and sometimes we wouldn't. In that way, I guess the odds of surviving crumbling roller coasters and zombie apocalypses are a lot alike.
Anyway, the last few days I've been remembering my roller coaster dreams as I work on a novella. At first I thought it would be a short story -- hoped so, anyway, because I had already jumped the deadline -- but then it turned into something bigger. Which is kind of like setting out to build a carny ride and building a Giant Dipper instead. Still, I kept at it, hammering up two-by-fours, slapping on white paint, doing some John Henry action nailing down steel rails... In other words making progress, but a little bit too slowly to make me happy, and with too much uncertainty to let me rest easy at night.
Oh, I'd done all right up to a point. I'd laid track for half the story. The plot was going fine, and the characters were developing nicely. An aside: I'm one of those guys who figures out how to write a story by doing just that -- writing. I don't necessarily know a lot going in. Usually I start off with the seed of an idea, or maybe an opening image enticing enough to start me looking for the tale that goes along with it. I play with those initial bits of inspiration, and I wait for the creative cylinders to fire in my imagination that'll give me more.
Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. If things take off, I settle in and keep at it line by line. I tend to write stories in sections that are two to five pages long, and I craft the early ones as if I'm building a foundation, and then a framework. I outline as I go, jotting notes on 3" x 5" catalog cards I've scavenged from library jobs (yes, I believe in recycling). Most of these notes focus on plot and character. But as I get in further into a piece, I begin to look for something else... something that will stitch together the aforementioned elements and jolt enough lightning into the whole enterprise to make the story's blood start pumping.
I don't like to define what that something else is too exactly. Oh, I could try. I could crank out some terms from Lit Theory 101 and toss them your way, but those always seem a little antiseptic to me. Or too specific. Let's just say what I'm looking for in that something else is the heart of the story. Beating, bloody, and alive. And, hey, I admit that's a little visceral, but that's the way I like it (which is probably no surprise considering that so far in this essay my Metaphorical MixMaster has churned up zombie apocalypses, roller coaster calamities, and even John Henry -- all I can say is, at least I'm sparing you any boxing metaphors this time out).
Anyway, that something else is what every story really needs. Plot is fine, so is character, but the heart is what the story's really about. It's what makes the other elements live and breathe. And while the heart may develop from the plot or the characters, I don't necessarily hear it pumping until I'm well into a tale. Working that way can be kind of scary, like performing an operation when I can't even feel the patient's pulse.
Which means that sooner or later I have to get in there with the literary equivalent of a defibrillator to get things pumping. And that's why -- for me, anyway -- writing the first half of a story is usually a lot harder (and slower) than writing the second half. To get back to my dream of the Giant Dipper, it's like that long and desperate slog pushing the roller coaster car up the grade, muscling it towards that exhilarating race down the other side that ends with this writer's two favorite words: The End. For me, that slog is the hardest work there is in writing, and the most frustrating. Plus, there's no way around it. Either I find the story's heartbeat and muscle my roller coaster car over the hump, or I don't... in which case the tale hits the dead file, making the sad transition from "work in progress" to "story fragment ready to join yesterday's coffee grounds in the garbage pail, along with that tuna-fish can the cat licked out."
That's the uncertain territory I've been charting with this novella for the last week. It stalled out on me, but I kept my shoulder to it and kept pushing. Even in moments when I wasn't rereading the manuscript, the story didn't stray far from my thoughts. I spent several days looking for its heart. Rereading what I'd already written. Thinking about the situation I'd set up. Thinking about the characters I'd created, and who they are, and where they're going, and why. Thinking about sound and fury (because there's a lot of that in this story), and what it should signify, and what an empty deal the whole tale would amount to if I couldn't get a clue about that.
And that's when I started to hear the first murmur of a heartbeat. The story takes place in the old West, and it's about a group of characters looking for a mythical place that may or may not exist... a cave where dead men hunger for the blood of the living and humans are treated like so much cattle. Fifteen pages in, I had my guys sitting around a campfire out in the desert, listening to the youngest among them tell a story about the place. He's the only one who claims to have been there, the only one who knows (at this point in the story) whether the cave is real or not. That's the scene where I hit a wall, and my unlikely band of adventurers sat there for several days waiting for me to push their story forward. The wind whipped around them and the campfire crackled, and I hunted for words right along with the narrator. I thought about those men -- the preacher, the bounty killer, the blacksmith, the dynamite man, and the kid with the scorched face who earns his money telling stories in a bar. And it was that last thing that finally struck home. Because each of those characters had his own story, but for a couple of them those stories were a kind of currency. I thought about that currency, and -- most importantly -- how those two men used it. And pretty soon I began to hear a heartbeat out there in that desert, and that's when I knew I'd found my tale.
Right now, I'm hearing that heartbeat loud and clear. So let me say adios and get back to work. I'm over the hump. It's time to pile into my metaphorical MixMaster of a roller coaster alongside John Henry and those post-apocalyptic zombies, and take it for a ride.