By Paul Ramey
A few years ago I had the pleasure of encountering and totally devouring Brian Wilson’s SMiLE project. For those who don’t know, Wilson was the musical genius behind The Beach Boys, penning most of their hits and known for his soaring vocal range. By the late 60’s his evolution saw him holding his own against the creative powerhouse that was The Beatles, and his competitive nature drove him ever forward into experimental sounds and ideas.
SMiLE was to be the grand culmination of his musical journey, and surely his masterpiece. Then, a year and a half into the project, Wilson broke down, shelved the reels and reels of SMiLE pieces already recorded, and let the project fade into myth. Scattered bits of this lost masterpiece appeared in later Beach Boys albums, but without the cohesion Wilson had intended, those bits were little more than interesting songs.
In 2004, a much older and braver Wilson and his own band stepped back into the project, declaring that they’d play the entire mythical SMiLE album live – a monumental task considering that, not only had it never been released as an album, but had never even been finished. There is a wonderful documentary out there that records the process, as they discover what was lost and create the final pieces that had never been completed. I watched this documentary over and over as my fascination for SMiLE grew. Without SMiLE (or, rather, the legend of it and those scattered fragments), there would likely have been no Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, or ELO’s Out of the Blue, and countless works by others who’d heard the scattered remnants. And now this man who had lived in the long, dark shadow of his own unfinished masterpiece for over 30 years was finally going to pull back the curtain and dare to make the SMiLE legend real? It was mesmerizing to watch it happen, and I highly advise all creatives to seek out this amazing documentary, called Beautiful Dreamer.
Why am I writing about this? Because, out of absorbing Brian Wilson’s own musical journey and process came one of the most useful conceptual creative tools I’ve ever found, and I use it constantly while writing novels.
It is called the string of pearls. Wilson would record many segments of a song separately, with a general sense of order in mind. He would then take these separate pieces and string them together, and make a song (Good Vibrations is an obvious example). So instead of playing the song straight through, he’d move some pieces around and puzzle it together. I love this idea, and often do the same with my stories. My new novel-in-progress (the next Edgar Wilde mystery) has three “parts,” and I already have key chapters written in all three of those parts. I already have pearls at the beginning, middle, and end of the string, and I already know each one will find a final place somewhere in those locations because I already have an overview of how the characters and plot should develop. So instead of starting at the beginning and just writing forward, I hop around, going to many different places on my plot “string.” Then I drop down into a scene and capture that pearl. And those first pearls I capture inevitably inspire backward and forward within the storyline, so there’s a payoff there as well – one scene suggests the tone and momentum for those scenes leading up to and flowing forward. Eventually, all the pearls will be there, and will bump up against each other, and may even be moved around quite a bit before the process is complete. And finally, I’ll have that beautiful string of pearls Wilson was so fond of.
There’s another positive aspect to consider about this kind of approach. Whenever you hit a roadblock (and who hasn’t?), instead of beating your head about it right then and completely stalling your flow, you can put that “pearl” on a shelf and jump to someplace else in the story where the path is easy and clear. In the meantime, I find that those roadblock pearls tend to quietly work themselves out in the back of your head, and will be waiting for you later. So it’s not only freeing, but can also be very efficient, time-wise.
Do you write linearly? Do you write out the story in a direction, from start to finish? Consider instead exploring your entire string of pearls. You never know which one may be ready to be brought up from the creative depths.