Abandoned Projects: What We Can Learn From Brian Wilson’s ‘Smile’

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?

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Abandoned Projects: What We Can Learn From Brian Wilson’s ‘Smile’

  1. What have I learned from my earlier projects? Like you CG, I learned the tools and techniques of writing. I learned what worked and didn’t work. And most importantly, I learned how to ORGANIZE and FINISH a project.

    Today, as I outlined and sketched descriptions for my next novella, I suddenly realized that I had written one of the scenes before. I can’t remember where I wrote it (could have been in a screenplay), but I definitely remember creating the events, location and dialogue many years ago. Since it never got produced, whatever it was, I have no issues about using it again. It’s an old building block I found at the bottom of my toy box. And this time around it fits.

    Now this was a conscious retrieval. How many UNCONSCIOUS literary puzzle pieces have I unearthed from the past without my noticing them? I suspect more than I realize, and more than I want. I try not to plagiarize myself. But sometimes it’s okay to use pre-used elements in a new way. This is what I get from previous work – having a library of literary building blocks that can be rearranged for different plots.

    I’d like to offer one off topic comment regarding one of your first posts. It was about character development. I agreed with all of your essay but I’d like to expand it a little now.

    You said that protagonists don’t have to be likable. That’s true. But I believe there has to be something about them that the reader respects or admires. A bad guy can be really bad, but he may do his evil deed with finesse, confidence and polish. We may not like what he does but we admire his skill in doing it. Or maybe we’re even intimidated, which is a spin off being negatively impressed. Even Hitler had a ton of admirers! Scarlett O’Hara had tenacity. We tend to admire people who don’t crumble too easily, even though they may complain along the way.

    I think what impresses most people is boldness and conviction. You can see that play out in politics all the time. Voters want to see “strong” leaders that won’t back down, taking it to the mat, like gladiators. It’s not the best way to compromise, but it makes great drama.

    That said, this is my story, AND I’M STICKING TO IT!

    Irv

    • Irv,
      Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I agree with you. I know I have subconsciously used traits in characters from my abandoned projects in subsequent works.

      With regard to your comment on main characters, I come back to the word “memorable.” And I agree MCs should have strong convictions (and motivations). The best main characters believe in something larger than themselves.

      Thanks again.

      Regards,
      Chris

    • Irv,
      Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I agree with you. I know I have subconsciously used traits in characters from my abandoned projects in subsequent works.

      With regard to your comment on main characters, I come back to the word “memorable.” And I agree on the stronc convictions. The best main characters believe in something larger than themselves.

      Thanks again.

      Regards,
      Chris

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