The Vanity Project

So listen. On July 4, I was listening to one of my favourite albums, and mused aloud: “I wonder how many other people have written a ghost story based on The Ghost of Genova Heights.” By July 17, I had finished a first draft of just under 23,000 words, most of it written in a mad rush of about four days near the end. Currently it’s around 28,000 words and, though it needs one more light editing pass, it likely won’t be getting any longer. It felt intensely urgent and personal to get the words out – it felt like being sixteen again, and paying cash for my first computer, and writing into the dead of night, writing till my arms and back hurt and I fell asleep in classes the next day, writing as if words had to be drained from a spillway to prevent some kind of disaster. I hadn’t written like that for years – not since (she said meaningfully) the end of 2014, when my friend MHK talked me into submitting a piece of fiction for the first time in the hopes of receiving money.

Not since I began writing with the intention of selling what I wrote.

Because long before I was done, I knew that the story would never be sold. And the rationale behind that decision/fact began to split into two blog posts, two discrete streams of endless rationalization and apologies and excuses and glosses that would end up being longer than the piece itself. “Oh shit,” I kept thinking, “I’m really going to have to write something about this thing that I wrote, aren’t I? Jesus Christ. It’s like Inception in here. There’s a schism, the centre cannot hold, I really cannot not write something about it. I wish I knew what restraint was.”

Well, I don’t, so here’s why it’s never going to be sold:

  1. I can’t. There are, for very good reasons, no markets for novellas like this – it’s not fantasy (not enough speculative elements), not horror (the ghost isn’t very scary), not romance (there’s one smooch), not historical fiction (I actually made up an entirely different England and abolished the monarchy). So first, no one’s available to buy it. But secondly, supposing such a market did exist, it’s simply not saleable. There’s no conflict, no climax, no character arcs. There’s nothing of the formulas I’ve been told to obey by a hundred different venues. “We want stories with a strong beginning, middle, and end!” “There has to be tension and conflict!” “Things can’t just happen!” “What are the stakes?” “Likeable characters!” “Three-act structure!” “Five-act structure!” Instead, it’s just the story of a broken young man who returns from war by the skin of his teeth, and is haunted by some motherfucker that he thought was his friend. Ben isn’t even a particularly sympathetic character; he represents no one; he is not aspirational; he is not even a warning. He is unemployed, has no family, is in constant pain from what the doctors insist should be a healed injury, is probably suffering from PTSD, can’t sleep, can’t eat, and would, if he were alive today, surely be diagnosed with profound clinical depression. Things just happen to him, and he tries to roll with the punches as much as he is able. But really, it’s 28,000 words of Ben being, more or less, completely out of cope. He just cannot cope any more. There’s no more coping. He ran out during the war and it never came back. There are no heroes in the world to which he returns; there are no villains. There’s nothing to fight. He can’t even fight the ghost. It’s everything a piece of fiction is not supposed to be. The writing rules have been broken, but without sufficient competence to get away with being ‘experimental’ or ‘post-modern’ or whatever. At best, if you were feeling generous, you could say that it’s an affectionate, if not accurate, aping of Victorian literature. I have learned well from the local magpies, I copy voices well. I’ve done it in a ton of my stories. Look at ‘The Adventurer’s Wife,’ aping Howard and Lovecraft; look at ‘And Sneer of Cold Command,’ aping Mieville; look at ‘Instructions,’ aping an actual instructions manual. Maybe, pitiably, I have no voice of my own. Maybe I just copy whatever I’ve read that seems to have a useful voice to repurpose into my next piece of fiction. What editor would want to buy that? But then, on top of that:
  2. I won’t. I won’t. I will not. I actually don’t want anyone else to read it. It’s a story that I like tremendously, and am aware that others won’t like, for the reasons above, which are completely valid for people who read a lot of fiction, and for some reason – unlike everything else I’ve written for the past 2 ½ years – it’s a non-issue. I didn’t write it for other people to like. I wrote it for myself. And so I’m designing a cover now, and deciding on a dedication and acknowledgements (Stars; but who else?), and picking fonts, and going through the text to choose illustration points and fancy initials, and soaking my pen nibs in dilute Windex and hot water to get out the last little nubs and scraps of dried ink (this is a priceless tip for very small nibs), and looking at my schedule: when will I have time to thumbnail, then pencil, ink, scan, clean, and frame? (I am going for something like this , which fits the timeframe of when the story is written, and which can probably be done without driving me to drink, unlike the watercolour illustrations I originally had planned. Not actual watercolour, I mean. Digital.) When I am done, I intend to have a short, black and white illustrated storybook about an England that never was, and two young men who made horrible mistakes during a war that shouldn’t have happened, and there may be – if I can figure out how – a single physical copy, which I will stuff in my house somewhere and never read.

It seems a bit bonkers, doesn’t it, to put in all that work for no one else to see? Work that I’ve already decided no one else will like, because I see its flaws too clearly to fool myself that others will forgive and even embrace them as I do? All that work into a genuinely fucked-up little novella that couldn’t have the restraint of a short story or the breadth of a novel, and petered out into mediocrity somewhere in between, not deliberately, which would suggest a plan, but out of apathy and the absence of craft. All that work. Like Jesus, you guys, why bother? I’m always exhausted after Ye Olde Dayjob, and can only work on my writing or art for a couple of hours, so it’ll take me a week just to thumbnail. Pencils could be two or three months. Ink, forget it. Inking assumes that I won’t splotch or blob or knock over the entire, full bottle of Speedball across my desk (not that I speak from experience or anything). Ink could be the next thousand years.

It’s a vanity project, pure and simple. Could it be fixed such that it wasn’t? Sure. Probably. I could either, like I said, cut it down to a short story (I mean, only about three things actually happen in it) or expand it into a novel (it’s not unmanageably far off). However: I am not going to fix it. I am not going to touch its flaws. I wrote the story I wanted to write, with the freedom of knowing that no one else would ever read it. I love it more than I love the bass line in the song, and that’s…listen, that’s a lot. It’s kind of a lot.

Someone I know on Twitter wrote a novella recently and decided to crowdfund its release – I can’t remember if it’s coming out as a dead-tree version or strictly ebooks – and she raised something like $5000, or anyway I think that was the goal. (I backed it myself, as it so happens; I like the premise and I already know she can write like a motherfucker.) She said it’s her way of getting an advance, but I assume it’s also to cover a last professional edit, maybe ebook formatting, cover design, stuff like that. That’s something I could have done for this. But I can’t bear the thought of it being out in the wild, you know? It’s just so damn… unpublishable. Unmarketable.

Notice I’m using words that are related to monetary value. I don’t think it’s not good. And I don’t even mean that from a literary sense – from any objective reviewer who’s looked at a decent amount of fiction, it would be panned. Or possibly fired out of a cannon straight into the sun. I mean I can recognize the difference between what’s good and what I like. Two very different things, most of the time. This is one; it’s not the other. I’m not motivated to make it both. And to try to make it both would destroy what I like about it – the coziness, the lethargy and long golden sunlight of an English autumn, the mist, the cups of tea, the woolly mufflers, the candlelit parties, the chilly mornings, the suffering, the sense of thwarted adventure. It is fundamentally incompatible with a structure or a formula, and I won’t slice off its soft fluffy edges so that it can be wedged into that box. It just cannot be fixed, you guys. It can’t, and I won’t.

“Bit defensive there, huh?” Damn right I am. I mean, look at the length of this blogpost – look how many words are in it, how it’s overstayed its welcome. I am defensive about it. I am trying to defend something I love, knowing it’s something that no one else loves, and not bully or shame myself into changing it to be likeable to others. (Why, it’s a bit like Ben in that respect.) Sometimes you just have to stick to your guns, and no one else will understand why, and you have to be able to say “It’s OK, it’s not for you.”    

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