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Pep Talk from Grant Faulkner

photo of Grant Faulkner

Dear Fearless Writer (who might just be a little fatigued at this point),

When I was a boy, I watched a lot of old movies on TV, especially westerns. I loved horses, and I was taken by the rugged landscape of the Southwest, which was so exotic to me as a kid from Iowa. In nearly every western, there was a crucial moment when a character would accidentally step into quicksand. They’d try to lift their feet, but each time they did so, they sank deeper. They’d start to panic and flail all about, but the more they tried to escape, the deeper they sank. Their only hope was if they could grab onto a vine or if someone tossed them a rope and pulled them out.

I grew up thinking that the world was filled with random patches of quicksand. When I ventured into the woods with my friends, I fearfully tiptoed along the path, as if a sinkhole was lying in wait like a predator, ready to grab my foot and pull me down into its deathly mire. Fortunately, my worldview was inaccurate. Quicksand is a rarity in the world, and I never stepped into it… until I wrote a novel, that is.

Every novel I’ve written includes a minefield of quicksand located precisely in one place: the gaping expanse of the middle. I’ll burst out of the gate on November 1 and sail along with the grand gusts of the beginning of my novel, but then I suddenly hit a slow patch, then another slow patch, and then I realize I’m actually stuck—and sinking.

Every novel is full of such perilous moors. I call it the “muddy middle”—the place where most novels die. When you feel your words enter such swampy territory, it’s easy to concede victory to those naysaying voices in your head pulling you ever deeper into the quicksand. And sometimes defeat can seem strangely comforting. You drop onto those fluffy pillows of complacency where you expect little of yourself, and perhaps little of life. You can watch TV shows and play videogames for a lifetime and never run out of entertainment, right? But giving up is never as easy as it initially seems. That empty page is like a ghost that will follow you the rest of your life. Your story won’t stop calling you.

Here’s the thing that those cowpokes in the westerns didn’t know: the more you struggle to get out of quicksand, the more trapped you become. Escaping quicksand is actually quite easy. Your body is less dense than the sand, so all you have to do is relax, and you’ll float to the surface.

The same principle applies to getting through the bogs of your novel. Your impulse might be to panic and thrash about, but the more frantically you try to lunge forward, the more likely you’ll be to sink. If you relax, though, you can float back up to the surface of your story and catch another gust of wind.

So turn off your computer for a spell. Watch an episode of Doctor Who. Do a few somersaults. Do whatever it takes to feel a sense of lightness. If you don’t know where your story is going, that’s not a bad thing. View the blank page as an invitation to drop a bucket into the well of your imagination. Don’t write what you know, write what you want to know. Begin with a detail, a mood. Keep expanding. Keep trying different angles. Find a sentence that surprises you. Switch points of view. Just for the sake of it. Just to experiment. Remember, your mind is acrobatic. Your imagination can take you anywhere.

Once you escape the quicksand, writing one sentence will lead you to another sentence, and you’ll soon see the finish line on the horizon beckoning you. You’ll know that you can keep going by simply putting one word in front of another, and you’ll sense this great gift waiting for you. The gift of your novel. The gift of your journey. The gift of your accomplishment. Plus, you’ll know how to deal with quicksand the next time you step into it—in writing and in life.

Trying to float,
Grant Faulkner

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