Pennington-Potentate-Cropped

Art by Bruce Pennington

Sometimes you finish a novel, but the novel isn’t finished with you.

Last week I completed the revisions on my latest novel, a Big Weird Fantasy (title to be revealed later). I’ve been working so hard on this novel for so long (started in January then hit full-speed in June) that I hardly know what to do with myself now that my time is freed up again.

I went back to school in mid-August (I’m a high school teacher), so I had to go back to revising only during weekends and spare hours. But that was okay–I finish my first drafts during the summer, then do revisions. So for the past month-and-a-half I’ve been revising 2 or 3 chapters per week. It feels great to finally be done with the book and have it in my agent’s hands at last.

And yet…

Art by Zdzislaw Beksinski

Art by Zdzislaw Beksinski

Last night I couldn’t stop dreaming about the society of mechanical people that is the centerpiece of the novel. These “clockwork people” live primarily in a city called The Urbille, which is the center of a multi-dimensional Nexus connecting thousands of parallel earths. This novel is lingering in my consciousness longer than any other book I’ve written. Could it be due to the fact that it’s the best book I’ve ever written?

I have a theory (based on empirical evidence) that each project a writer completes makes him or her a better writer. This new book is my 5th novel, and I’m convinced at this point that it’s the best. The most ambitious. The most genre-blending. And possibly the most philosophical. But these are simply my thoughts about the novel as the writer who just completed writing it.

Art by Les Edwards

Art by Les Edwards

Writers tend to vacillate between thinking their latest work is the greatest thing ever and the conviction that it’s utterly worthless. I’m sure the day will come when my confidence in this novel as my “best ever” will begin to wane. Writers are often their own worst critics, and we’re far more sensitive about our work than we gladly admit.

Today I’ve got time to do this blog post–the first one since I dedicated all my time to finishing the Urbille novel–and I find myself wondering: Why can’t I stop thinking/dreaming about the clockwork people in my novel? Is my subconscious trying to send me a message? Or am I having literary withdrawal symptoms?

When I’m writing a novel I literally can’t stop. Even when I’m not at the keyboard my mind is constantly turning over concepts, characters, ideas, and details. This happens whether I’m awake or asleep. Indeed, some of my best ideas come from my half-awake mind. I chalk this up to the dream-state being a direct line to my subconscious. Sometimes the conscious mind can get in the way of what’s trying to bubble up from the pool of the subconscious mind. When I’m sleeping, that barrier no longer exists.

Art by Zdzislaw Beksinski

Art by Zdzislaw Beksinski

Writing a novel (at least for me) is all-consuming. It takes over my thoughts, actions, sleep patterns, dreams, musical choices, reading choices, entertainment choices. It’s hard to get “away” from the novel when you’re in the middle of crafting it. The only way out of that tunnel is through the far end, i.e. finishing the novel.

I imagine it’s a lot like giving birth. While a woman has the baby inside her, she changes her entire lifestyle to accommodate it and make it as healthy as possible. By the ninth month, she’s usually more-than-ready for it to come out of her body–the natural result of everything she’s been doing for the better part of a year. Yet after the baby is out in the world, there often comes a postpartum depression. That’s kind of how it is finishing a novel…

Art by Richard Corben

Art by Richard Corben

First there’s elation. “It’s done! By the Bones of Odin, it’s finally done!” Then there’s the come-down. “Oh, wow, it’s done. What do I do now? I’ve actually got free time.” You might think it would be the perfect time to start another novel, but that usually doesn’t happen right away. Think about it: Does a woman usually get pregnant again right after she’s given birth? Not if she has anything to say about it.

The last thing I want to do right now is start another novel. First, I’m working full-time so there’s no time to dedicate to it. Second, before you can write a novel you have to come up with an IDEA for it–and that can take months or years. Third, it takes a TREMENDOUS amount of ENERGY to conceive, draft, and perfect a novel. It wears you out. You need time to recover, just like a woman who has given birth.

Art by Bruce Pennington

Art by Bruce Pennington

The obvious choice would be to write a few short stories. Focus on short-form works until the next Big Idea for a novel comes along. For me, that usually doesn’t come until the beginning of the new year (or sometimes during the last couple weeks of the outgoing year). Writing short stories involves using different muscles than writing novels, although there are some commonalities.

Yet here’s the problem with writing short stories, at least the way I see it: In order to sell a story (i.e. get it published) you generally have to meet the editorial tastes of whomever is running the magazine you’re submitting the story to. That is, you have to write something that will “fit in” with what a publication usually publishes. However, the best short stories don’t come from following a publisher’s guidelines, they come from a writer’s personal inspiration and private conception. In other words, a writer of short stories has to make a choice: Are you going to write FOR a particular market? Or are you going to write exactly what you WANT to write?

Doing the second choice is where I am drawn to short stories. I’m not interested in “writing to the guidelines”–which is why I don’t sell many short stories. I spent 15 years trying to write something worthy of being published in WEIRD TALES. It was the Holy Grail of fiction magazines, and I started submitting stories back in college circa ’88/’89. I came back every few years with a new story and got a new rejection. But I also got amazing advice and critiques from the WT editors (mostly Darrell Schweitzer).

Weird Tales #340 Cover by Les Edwards

Weird Tales #340
Cover by Les Edwards

Eventually, in 2004, I managed to sell my first professional short story, “The Persecution of Artifice the Quill” in WEIRD TALES #340. (I actually sold two more Artifice stories to WT after that, but they never saw publication there because the magazine came under new management.) So after spending 15 years as an unofficial “apprentice” to one of the greatest living fantasy writers (Mr. Schweitzer), I’m not all that interested in honing my short story craft to meet the dictates of other editors. I learned from one of the best there is.

What I AM interested in is following my muse–creating stories that please ME, not an editor. Writing isn’t my primary source of income, which gives me the freedom to write only what I’m really interested in writing. It’s a great freedom to have.

I still sell short stories now and then. I’d sell a LOT more if I was willing to “write to the guidelines.” But I have a day job–I follow other peoples’ rules all day. I don’t want to follow anyone else’s rules when I write short stories. Especially rules that aren’t rules at all, but actually lists of editorial preferences. These preferences vary from editor to editor, and from publication to publication.

Art by Bruce Pennington

Art by Bruce Pennington

I have to admit, I wish there were more magazines out there (online and offline) that would let writers do their own thing. But most of them are looking for VERY PRECISE qualities in the fiction they publish. If you don’t write with those qualities in mind, you’re not going to get published in those mags. 

So I may crank out some short stories over the next few months. Or not. It depends on if I have any worthy IDEAS for short stories. And if I do have a worthy idea, if I do write a story, it may not find a market for months, years, or never. Seriously, I no longer have the patience or stamina to write story after story and send them out to magazine after magazine, rotating them in an endless cycle. Been there, done that–for two decades. I’d much rather write novels. 

Often I’ll write a story because there’s a themed anthology coming out and I’ve been invited into it–such as Schweitzer’s THAT IS NOT DEAD and CTHULHU’S REIGN. But for the most part I’m only writing the stories that fascinate me, that have to be told, that I can’t stand NOT to write. I regret the fact that I was so consumed with revisions on my new novel that I actually missed the window for the latest Schweitzer anthology.

Art by Bruce Pennington

Art by Bruce Pennington

It’s doing this–writing exactly what I feel most powerful about–that’s landed me my greatest success. For example, when Laird Barron picked “The Key To Your Heart Is Made Of Brass” for YEAR’S BEST WEIRD FICTION Vol. 1, I was very pleased because this is a story that no mainstream publishers wanted to take a chance on. It was rejected 9 times, then wound up as “Best of the Year.” I’ve written two more stories set in the Urbille universe, and now this new novel that blows the roof off that universe and expands it in fantastic ways.

So I find myself wondering two things in my newfound quiet time:

Why am I still dreaming about the clockwork people of The Urbille?

Fabian-Rider

Art by Stephen E. Fabian

-and-

What am I going to write next?