From Ideas to Planning to Prose

We’ve been blogging at Idle Hands for exactly one month, one week and one day, charting our attempts to write a collaborative comic fantasy novel about Satan’s days in retirements on earth. We’re now in the process of writing some actual prose. This comes as a bit of a surprise to me because I usually spend up to six months planning a novel before writing a single scene. However, our planning process for the Clovenhoof novel may have been quick but has nonetheless gone through a number of stages…

After playing index card games in the pub and sifting through our BWG friends’ ideas, we came up with some themed groups of ideas that would become chapters. One such chapter was the one in which Satan (aka Jeremy Clovenhoof) forms a rock band. These are some of our friends’ ideas for that chapter:

  • He writes his life story as a rock opera
  • He flicks through albums of Heavy Metal artwork going “wrong… wrong… wrong…”
  • He wears sunglasses indoors and acts like a knob.
  • He does a pub/student gig and is a surprising success and gets his first bit of attention from women. He is baffled by this.
  • His career appears to be a success but all the venues, groupies and even the audience have simply been bought in using his redundancy package.
  • Sings Karaoke – maybe this is how it starts…?
  • Learns the guitar – from zero to genius in 30 minutes. Either that or his fingers are too short to form proper chords and he takes up the ukulele instead.
  • He books symphony hall.
  • · It appears to be a success, but then it is discovered at the last minute that his songs are all just like Black Sabbath records played backwards, so all is cancelled, money lost.

Heide and I then plotted these chapters onto an exciting wallpaper graph and picked out a chapter apiece to plot in more detail. I chose to plot a chapter on ‘dating’ and Heide chose the ‘rock and rock’ chapter. Her plot synopsis (about 2,000 words total) began like this:

Scene 1 – Clovenhoof is working on a writing project. His life story, so far. He reads out the version where he tries it as rhyming couplets, like a Rupert story. He scraps that. He reads out the version where he tries biblical language. He scraps that. Maybe he tries it in the style of Bridget Jones’ Diary? Eventually he flounces around a bit and scribbles down some key phrases like “It was just a blast!” and “Nobody parties like a Sinner” and sulks for a while. Nerys turns up at the door with Ben reluctantly in tow. She wants them both to share their New Year resolutions. Of course they didn’t make any. She makes them sit down and write them there & then. She supervises, and pretty well writes them herself. Ben is to get out and about more and buy some t-shirts that aren’t black etc etc, Clovenhoof is to find something constructive to do with his time and think about his self-image, maybe get some new clothes etc etc. Nerys wants to learn a new skill…

The synopsis was brilliant but I couldn’t write straight from that; I had to make myself much more comfortable with its ideas and themes. And so, I sat down in the pub and converted Heide’s synopsis into a mind map of the whole episode.

It might look chaotic but that web of information, showing how different plot elements link together, helped me get a better grip on the whole thing. Now with that mind map, I could see what each scene or exchange contributed to the entire plot.
The plot was in place but, with a 6,000 – 7,000 word chapter to write, I wanted a paragraph by paragraph guide as to what I should be writing at any point in time. This essentially involved the unpicking of the mindmap and laying it out flat or, to put it another way, taking a walk around the maze of my mindmap, noting each point I passed through on the way. The beginning of my final step-by-step plan looked like this (the number is the wordcount I should be at when I write that bit):

  • Bringing something upstairs 328
  • Harp 408
  • Nerys: new skill 487
  • Resolutions 566
  • C: Do something constructive 646
  • B: Get out more 725
  • Pub 963
  • Miserable new year 1,042
  • Failed return to hell 1,122
  • C’s creative project 1,201
  • Pro-satan agenda 1,281
  • Thoughts of Michael 1,360
  • C’s need for purpose 1,439

And then, finally, one golden afternoon, I sat down and started writing:

Clovenhoof tried to ignore the sounds coming from the stairway outside his flat, the dull flat thumps and the sharp juddering snaps. He also successfully ignored the hissed reprimands and the wheedling replies but it was the loud crash followed by a long and inventive curse that piqued his interest.
He opened the door and looked out.
Nerys stood, fists on hips, staring furiously at Ben and the large upright parcel perched on the stairs, a parcel that was threatening to crush Ben and bear his remains down to the ground floor.
Clovenhoof cleared his throat.
“What the hell is this?”
Nerys gave him a bright smile.
“This is my New Year’s resolution.”
“To kill Mr Kitchen?”
“No, it’s –“
“It’s admirable,” said Clovenhoof. “Worthy, even. Best of luck.”
He began to close the door.
“I think Ben could do with a hand,” said Nerys.
“I’d love to,” said Clovenhoof, “but I’m not really a problem solver. Definitely not a completer-finisher.”
“Help me,” whimpered Ben.
“I’m more of an ideas man, Ben. I mean, I had this guy at the Old Place. Sisyphus. Now, he’d have been ideal.”
“Just do it,” said Nerys.
By the time the parcel was in Nerys’ living room, Clovenhoof had chipped a hoof and Ben had a livid graze on the back of one hand. Twinkle was sniffing around the package’s base.
“What is it?” said Clovenhoof.
“It’s a harp.”
“As in instrument of the angelic hosts?”
“Yes.”
“I was clearly pushing in the wrong direction.”
“I thought you were,” said Ben.
Nerys stroked the brown cardboard wrappings tenderly.
“I’ve always wanted to play a musical instrument.”
“A recorder would have been easier,” said Clovenhoof.
“And lighter,” said Ben.
She scoffed.
“No sense of ambition, you two.”
“Oh, I have ambitions!” said Clovenhoof.
“Wearing a permanent butt-grove in your sofa is not an ambition.”
Clovenhoof looked at Ben.
“I don’t think it is,” conceded Ben.
Nerys shook her head at them, it was a weary, loving shake of the head, much as one might give before putting a dog down.
“You men are happy to let life pass you by.”
“Me?” said Ben.
“Sitting in your dingy flat playing with your toy soldiers is not healthy.”
“They’re miniature scale models,” protested Ben but Nerys wasn’t listening.
“You need to do something constructive with your time,” she said, jabbing a finger towards Clovenhoof before swinging it on to Ben. “And you… you need to get out more.”
“I see,” said Clovenhoof coldly.
“Now, who is going to help me unwrap this and set it up?”
“I – “ began Ben but Clovenhoof spoke across.
“Kitchen can’t.”
“Oh?” said Nerys.
“He’s got to go out more. New Year’s resolution.”
“Oh, well, you…”
“I’m taking him out,” said Clovenhoof, already pushing Ben towards the door. “Doing something constructive with my time.”
They were out on the landing before Nerys could reply.
“Where are we going?” said Ben.
“Alcohol.”
“Alcohol’s not a place.”
“It’s a destination.”

I accept that my approach to writing can seem cold and clinical but it works for me. It doesn’t mean there isn’t room for spontaneity. The plan can change even as I’m writing it.

Sometimes it even surprises me.

Yesterday, out of nowhere, Clovenhoof acquired a pet mould called Herbert . I didn’t plan for Herbert to appear but appear he did. And I can already see how his role will prove vital in the overall Clovenhoof plot. Honest.

Posted in 2011, Writing Tagged with: , , , ,
2 comments on “From Ideas to Planning to Prose
  1. Kim says:

    Outstanding. I really want to read this. I love the process you go through to get this finished project. Do you find that it's easier having someone to bounce ideas off?

    I was always against collaborations until studying and saw how well too people can write together.

  2. Iain Grant says:

    Hi Kim,
    The process we go through to plan the novel together is an interesting and convoluted one. The system we have of gathering ideas, one person plotting, the other writing and the first re-editing has become second nature to us. At the start we spent all our time saying things like "Is that ok with you? Do you mind? Am I treading on your toes?" and now we write, change and edit each others work with greater ease.
    We have an interesting challenge ahead of us right now. We are about to begin writing the final chapters and all the plot threads we've created (attic-dwelling Satanists, accidental cannibalism, hidden corpses, naughty school children, dead vicars, etc, etc, etc) need to be brought together in a satisfying conclusion.
    Heide and I have LOVED (it needs capital letters) bouncing ideas of each other and challenging one another to write stuff we've never written before but tomorrow morning we will be sitting down (in the flesh for once, not virtually) with a very big bit of paper and like some mad conspiracy theorists will try to link the madness we've created into a unified whole.
    Wish us luck.

    We should have the novel finished within a couple of months and, if we're lucky, Pigeon Park Press will be publishing it at some point in the second half of the year.