Nick Brown on Agent of Rome

Posted on: 04/06/2015 with tags: agent of rome, historical fiction, Nick Brown, Rome

From one word to one hundred thousand: Nick Brown on writing an ‘Agent of Rome’ novel

It’s scary. Less scary than it used to be – but still scary. No matter how many times you do it, writing a book is always a big, intimidating task.

At some point (certainly no less than ten months before the publisher’s deadline) I get to work. As the series has been going for a while now, I usually have a rough idea of how the story will unfold. My first port of call is a messy Word document entitled ‘plots’, and I will once again go over the dozens of concepts (big and small) that I have come up with over the years. Some are good, some are crap; I’ll probably only use a few. From there it’s on to the dozens of files listed under ‘historical info’ so I can review the mass of notes and see what might fit the story this time.

Now for the plot chart, a method I developed after getting myself into a tangle on the second book, which was fairly convoluted and much more of a mystery than ‘The Siege’. The chart is divided into five columns: chapter; date/time; ‘antagonists’; ‘protagonists’; sub-plot. This helps me keep track of who is doing what (and when). The chart may sound impressive but the truth is I often don’t look at it for weeks and regularly have to correct it later when I realise I’ve gone off on a tangent – well, it’s a novel not a geography project!

Time to actually start writing. I generally try to do 2000 words a day (in the morning – I edit in the afternoon). Sometimes I manage more; often it’s less.  When I started writing novels, the first draft was an absolute disaster zone. But after four years doing little else I reckon I’ve passed Stephen King’s magic one million word mark and the difference is massive. Challenges like sequencing and the balance of dialogue/description become much easier.

At around the halfway mark, I start to get a bit nervous. I’ll make sure the first hundred pages are in decent shape and get them off to my agent – just to check that it’s not complete rubbish.

It’s very rare for me to change anything fundamental once I’ve started writing. Having said that, I never get going without being certain I have a few of what Stanley Kubrick referred to as ‘non-submersible units’, which I interpret as a handful of crucial ideas/moments/sequences around which to base the story. I also need to know my ending; and be excited about the prospect of executing it.  

Once I’ve done about five drafts on my laptop, it’s red pen time (I taught for ten years – can’t resist). You start to identify things like continuity issues, inconsistencies and so on. I’ll probably do four paper edits then send the script to my agent again. As this stage, he will usually offer some telling points which I will consider and react to if necessary. The revised version is always better.

Then the novel goes to the publisher. What ensues seemed to me on the first occasion incredibly onerous and protracted. But even then I knew it was entirely necessary. These days, I at least know what I’m in for: editor’s comments (and the redraft that follows); the copy edit; then finally checking the proofs. It’s a team effort; different people will notice different things. By now I will have checked the text about fifteen times. At this point, I never want to do so again!

Cut to nine months later: it all seems worthwhile when that glistening hardback arrives in the post and thousands of hours of work are distilled into that single collation of paper and ink. You could sit back, thumb the pages, glory in your achievement and relax.

But unfortunately you don’t have time – by then you’re already well into the next one.

Amy Dolman

Post author: Amy Dolman

Amy is responsible for the smooth running of the H for History website, and enjoys reading history-based fantasy. She also like to photograph sites of historical interest in her spare time with a cup of bovril and a pork pie for company. Favourite period of history: Ancient; Favourite historical read: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave; Upcoming book i'm most looking forward to: Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick

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