It took more than 35 years for Brian Wilson to record his classic album, Smile, released in 2004. From its inception in the mid-1960s, Smile was
the most acclaimed unreleased album in the annals of rock and roll. Brian Wilson abandoned the project in the late 1960s amid personal problems, negative feedback from The Beach Boys, and pressure from his record label. Brian’s fans were thrilled when he finally decided to record Smile. It’s an amazing album—a three-part suite of songs that showcase his abundant songwriting talents.
What can fiction writers learn from Brian Wilson’s experiences with Smile? Many writers have started a first novel (or even a second, third or fourth novel) only to abandon it. It might sit on a hard drive or a floppy disk somewhere. Maybe it wasn’t good enough or the idea was sound, but
the execution was bad. Perhaps we just were not mature writers. Whether we return to those early works or never look at them again, abandoned projects have value. If nothing else, the experience of completing a novel teaches writers how to structure a story, how to develop characters, how to place obstacles in front of the characters, how to build a story to a climax, and how to craft a satisfying resolution. Your first effort may be poorly structured or populated with flat characters. What’s important is that you learn from those early experiences. You may have a bad story, but it may include a compelling character you can use in a future novel. You may even decide to build a new story around that character.
As a general rule, I believe it takes two or three unsuccessful novels before an inexperienced writer finds his or her voice, learns to master the art of story arc, character development, dialogue, scene development and all of the elements that go into a successful novel. There are exceptions. Harper Lee comes to mind. To Kill a Mockingbird was her first and only novel. A number of authors have published a blockbuster first
novel, but the majority of inexperienced writers have to be patient and get the bad writing out of their system so they can learn and grow as writers.
I completed a bad novel in 1997 and I was 150 pages into a second novel before I abandoned it after two years. In my first novel, I made every rookie mistake: an overly complex plot, too many characters, florid descriptions, and a muddled theme. My second effort was better, but I ditched it. It was a political novel. While I was writing it I read Joe Klein’s novel, The Running Mate, and it hit me. This was the kind of novel I wanted to write, but I lacked Klein’s talent at that stage in my writing career.
I learned from both experiences. I stayed away from novels for the next six years. I wrote mainly short stories during that time, but I read a lot of
novels as well as books and articles on fiction writing. By the time I started my first real novel, Small Change, in 2007, I was more confident. I felt I knew how to write a novel. I wasn’t sure I knew how to write a novel others would want to read, but I knew how to structure the story, how to develop believable characters and how to write realistic dialogue.
What have you learned from your abandoned projects?