A few days ago, I drove to work in my usual morning stupor only to be stopped abruptly by a line of cars. The gates were down and the train horn was very loud. It is always frustrating when that train comes and backs up traffic past the light at Dillon Rd. and 95th. All the drivers were anticipating a long wait as usual. People had turned off their cars and were already messing with their phones (which I still do not understand why a person is so worried about the next Tweet, Facebook post or Instagram that early in the morning – but that is another story). We heard the long whistle blow its eerie wail. When the train passed the trees and went through the gated intersection, there were only two engines, front to back. That was it. There was no middle – no miles and miles of boxcars, oil tankers, or flats stacked two high with truck trailers – and definitely no caboose. There were only the two engines chugging along. The wait was definitely shorter than we anticipated.
This brought me to ponder a writing analogy and the ensuing life lessons:
- Beginnings always seem to be strong for trains (and writing and love).
The powerful engines have to be stacked heads to tails, sometimes more than two of them to pull their load. So, what was going on with only the two solitary engines with no cars attached?
Locomotives (“engines”) are designed to be ‘lashed up’ so that multiple engines can be controlled by the engineer in the first cab, and used to pull a chain of rail cars (a “consist”) regardless of whether the cars are passenger, freight or anything else.
In writing, beginnings have to be powerful and quick. Otherwise, no one would buy the book! When you begin a story, you are excited about the adventure, about filling the blank pages with a beautiful tale of love, excitement, danger and adventure. You want to express who you are through the characters you write. You know no boundaries, and the adventure unfolds. Sometimes there are two beginnings and two endings. Sometimes there are two tales to tell. Your story is like the cars and their contents following the engines, chugging along the dedicated path.
How many engines needed depends on the interaction between how much of a load you need to pull, and what the grade is up which you need to pull it. If you’re taking a train over the Rockies on a steep grade, you might require a helper engine to be added to even a short train. A long, heavy freight train on a steep grade can require eight engines—or even more! Therefore, the second locomotive supplies power. You add the number of locomotives required to ensure there is enough pulling power. On very long trains, say > 100 cars, a locomotive can be placed in the middle of the train. This is called distributed power. The middle locomotive is controlled from the cab of the first locomotive and add power or braking to manage the in-train forces, called buff and draft forces. One other common reason that trains have two engines, often with one pointing in the opposite direction of the other (and thus running “backwards”) is that it eliminates the need to ever turn the engines around before hooking up to another train because you can run the set of engines in either direction and have an engine pointing forward. On freight trains it’s about overcoming the inertia of the load and then keeping it rolling and then stopping.
Characters are the engines – how many depends on the power of the story and the uphill climb of the saga. The main character can have one sidekick or several depending on what is transpiring in the story line. Sidekicks may be almost as powerful as the main character. As the story unfolds, each character contributes more and more and the group has a powerful impact on the ending. The characters may seem at odds – one headed forward and another headed backwards. The story weaves and provides its own inertia, keeping the movement forward with no sliding backwards, slowly rolling to a stop when it is time.
The locomotive provides so much horsepower to pull trailing tons. The more freight trailing tons you will need more locomotives. The lead locomotive is the controlling locomotive. When you raise the throttle all locomotives also raise or vice versa. The couplers which join the individual freight car can only handle so much pull. When a train is going uphill many times you need to take off some of this pull on the coupler or it will break. The way you alleviate some of this pull Is to have locomotives push from the back of the train or in the middle of the train. In the old days each of these “helper” pushers had a separate train crew than the head unit. The head unit crew consists of a locomotive engineer and conductor. On the “helper” pusher the crew consists of a locomotive engineer, and a lookout (this is a fancy name for brake man).
The writer is the lead locomotive and is the conductor of the story – the horsepower that controls the story. She helps the characters push uphill and tries not to break the couplings along the way. Her main character is the engineer with her helper crew, with a lookout (brake man) to keep the main character on tract.
2. Why is the middle sometimes so brief?
What is that train doing? Ferrying an engine to another location to pick up the middle cars? Where is the substance of the train? One can only assume that the railroad companies have to move the engines around and connect them up to other engines for a heavy load. We can always expect a long train when moving freight over the Rocky Mountains of Colorado – a long treacherous and arduous route.
A writer always has to look out for the middle of the story. Beginnings and endings seem to go very fast, the two main engines back to back. She has to constantly look at the substance of the book. As a writer, I struggle with getting the message across without beating people over the head. I try to bring a balance to the middle and give a deeper meaning to every character and every scene. Some writers are extraordinary with brevity. Others fail in giving too few details. What I learn to do a little better each time is all in the details – giving enough to describe a scene but not overwhelm the reader. I am learning to give meaning to each character and event with less verbiage.
- Why is there no end to the train? Why are there no cabooses?
As children, we anticipated the end of the train with pleasure, running along and waving at the engineer as he blew the whistle and waved at us as he passed. We knew that he was the lookout or brakeman – maybe even more important than the driver – the engineer. He would let them know if there were any problems along the way. He had an important position. I’m sure we can explain this away with all of the new technology and automation, but it was a sad day when the caboose – and thus the operator – went away in the 1980s. It was an end of an era.
Many books give up before the end. There are fewer and fewer spectacular endings, only references to the next sequel. Endings of books should wrap the story up. It’s what we grew up with: fantastic drama and action. All books should have an abundance of action and drama and page-turning excitement. There should be resolution and hope. There should always be a spectacular ending, even if a sequel follows.
Taking a life lesson from a train, I want to continue to inspire others and give the reader hope for a better world, hope that we can survive no matter what gets thrown our way – hope to achieve lifelong dreams. I want to continue to make a difference, no matter how small. I’m not giving up and you shouldn’t either. As I begin to accept my senior status, allow myself to grow into that skin, I refuse to just get by until I die. I have hope every day that my contribution will make a change in the way we all think and live. I have had a great beginning, am living the life I chose in the middle with a bunch of great co-workers, and am striving for that spectacular ending no matter when it comes.
Happy Holidays everyone from me to you. Enjoy your loved ones and continue to read, hope and dream!
For more information about the contents of my train analogy, please go to: