Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Living with Caligula

The Christmas shopping outing to Edinburgh has come and gone for another year. Three shops, three pubs and a suitable finale in the bar of the Balmoral Hotel, courtesy of Caligula, while we waited for the train.
The first thing I did was pop into Waterstones to see if my book was still in stock and it gave another nice illustration of the ups and downs of authordom and the way publishing works. My dad asked me how it was selling the other day, because people looking to buy Caligula as a Christmas present hadn't been able to get it in their usual shop in the Borders.
In Waterstones the first thing I noticed was a very prominent display of Warrior of Rome, the Harry Sidebottom debut novel I regard, along with Ben Kane's The Lost Legion, as a kind of benchmark of where I should be. In the first weeks it was published Warrior had a short spell in the Top Ten hardback fiction, which isn't bad.
Waterstones were offering the airport version for half price (under the guise of a special Christmas edition) along with twenty or thirty best-sellers by well-known authors, and had eight or ten out on the shelves. Caligula, on the other hand was represented by a single copy tucked away among the Js in the A-Z. It's in line with what I've found on my wanderings, a copy or two here and there taking their chance at the back of the shop. It's also what I expected, an unknown debut author will, if he's fortunate, have a nice steady rising sales curve, but after a few months, unless he/she's very fortunate it will tail away. I've no complaints about the way Caligula has been promoted, far from it. Transworld have done a great job and I've no doubt it wouldn't have sold half as many copies without the generous discount. The book is on sale from India to Italy, America to Australia and Norway to New Zealand.
And it's beginning to happen again. The first launch was so successful Blackwells in Edinburgh have asked to host the take-off of my second novel. The blog will soon be Countdown to Claudius.
Have a great Christmas and a Happy New Year


Sunday, 23 November 2008

Living with Caligula

I had a couple of interesting pointers this week to what happens when your baby goes out into the wide and unforgiving world. The first was the worst review I've had so far on Amazon, a single star and completely at odds with everything else anyone has said about Caligula. Everyone's entitled to their opinion and I think I've said before on this blog that I know the book won't be to everyone's taste but the tone and the personal nature of some of what was said made me wonder if the reviewer had some sort of axe to grind. He was particularly exercised about the death of Circe early in the book.

"The author seems to take a certain amount of pornographic pleasure in the descriptions of animals being killed. The leopard at the beginning is a case in point. Disgusting."

I'd never deny that the arena scene is a graphic depiction of what happened to animals in the Roman Empire, and I thought long and hard about whether to tone it down, but to accuse an author of taking "pornographic" pleasure in something he's written seems to be missing the whole point of a work of fiction. Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal contain some stomach-churning descriptive writing, but that doesn't make Thomas Harris a serial killer, any more than writing about the reality of the amphitheatre makes me a gladiator or an animal murderer. Which brings me to my second point.

Caligula has just been flagged up on the Animal Liberation Front's Facebook site as an example of cruelty to animals.

You couldn't make it up!

Monday, 17 November 2008

Living with Caligula

Caligula made another breakthrough this week when I got word that a Barcelona publishing company called Ediciones B have bought the world Spanish rights. They seem really forward thinking and it's possible that there could be a Spanish edition in the US, plus editions in Spain and South America. It brings the Caligula United Nations to seven, and came completely out of the blue.
One thing I haven't touched on that might be interesting to would-be writers is the money side of things. I got a great advance for Caligula and Claudius, but that doesn't mean the cheque arrived in the post the next day. I got 25 per cent on signing and the rest has come in bits and pieces (on delivery of the manuscript, hardback publication, paperback publication etc). However, I won't get any royalties until the total advance is paid back. That means any money from rights sales goes to Transworld, plus anything I earn from British/overseas English language sales and from the Polish edition, which has been out since the summer. Rights sales aren't like the advance and the sums involved (at least for me) aren't huge, so it takes quite a few to make a difference. I'll get the first statement around Christmas/New Year time which will let me know forthe first time exactly where I stand. I also experienced the first really major downside - my first tax bill - which made my eyes water. Even though I'd known it was coming and had put money aside it was still a shock to see it in black and white, and a bigger shock to disover that they want half of next year's bill up from at the same time last year's is paid! Ouch!
Still, it's all part of the learning experience, and if I'm ever going to write full time it's something I'll have to get used to.

PS Just had a quick look on the internet and discovered that the Italian edition will be published on November 27 by Newton and Compton and is entitled Morte all'imperatore!, which I think means Death to the Emperor.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Living with Caligula

Not a lot to report on the book front, but I had an interesting e-mail last week from Christina who is translating Caligula into Italian for Newton and Compton. It was on one of those subjects that probably cause historical novelists more soul-searching than anything else: units of measurement. She'd noticed that several times I'd lapsed into using yards as a measurement of distance and the publishers were wondering if all measurements should be metric or possibly we should use the latin equivalent. We agreed that to make everything metric would make the book look a bit daft, but I didn't think it was a good idea to use terms like pedes, heminae and iugera either. They're not terribly well known and I felt I'd have to explain them as I went along. Throughout most of the book I'd talked about paces, as the equivalent of a yard or metre, because this would probably be in use at the time as an approximate estimate of distance, so we agreed on that.

I'd also used 'thousands of gallons' to emphasise something in the sewer scenes below Caligula's palace and I had to find a way of showing it rather than using a measurement. Tiny details, but the kind of stuff that either makes a book feel authentic or not. One thing it shows is the kind of care and attention is going into the Italian edition. Christina has picked up several things I'd never have noticed and I know I couldn't be in better hands. I managed to get a look at the title page the other day and Caligula will be published either as 'L'ultimo Gladiatore di Roma' which I think is The Last Gladiator in Rome, or Death to the Emperor. Can't wait to see it. I wonder what's happening in Russia, Romania, Serbia and Portugal?

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Living with Caligula

Claudius has gone. I had an e-mail from Simon in midweek with his reaction to the final rewrite. I have to confess I put off opening it just in case the news was bad, but he liked it a lot. The centrepiece of the book is the battle where the British hero Caratacus attempts to stop the invading Romans at the River Thames. It was great to write, but the scale was frighteningly large and once or twice I wondered if I'd taken on more than I could handle. So I was pretty chuffed when Simon, who doesn't go in for superlatives, described it as "brilliant and epic".
Still, it's always a strange moment to send a book on its way. It's finished/complete, but you know there's more you can do to it. It's now with the copy editor, who did a fantastic job with Caligula, and I'll be interested to see what horrors she spots this time that I failed to see the many dozens of times I've read it.
It's a year since I went through this process, but the memory is as fresh as if it was yesterday. I know I'll get the copy-editors manuscript in the post in a couple of weeks. That'll be followed by the cover art. Then the book proof, then the books themselves. Finally publication day on Thursday July 16. A huge buzz every step of the way. I'll be fascinated to see what the designers come up with for the cover. Caligula was fantastic but with Claudius the opportunities for something really special are enormous.
The Emperor's elephant has taken her next big step!

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Living with Caligula

I've just come back from a research trip to Rome and am once again left marvelling at the wonderful, vibrant city it is: the breathtaking history, stupendous architecture, the astonishing prices, the miriad opportunities to be ripped off and the generous, hospitable Romans who entirely offset the last couple of observations.

It's my third trip to the Eternal City and in the last year it seems to have changed - for better and worse. Worse is the fact that you now have to pay to walk in the Roman forum, one of the world's foremost heritage sites, a place of pilgrimage for anyone interested in Roman history. Much of the action in Caligula takes place in, around and under the forum and the two hills which dominate it; the Palatine and the Capitoline. For me, ghosts walk here; the ghosts of Emperors and senators, gladiators and animal trainers, beggars and merchants, and the fact that you now have to queue up to buy a ticket and walk through a turnstile has somehow devalued it. Sure, it makes economic sense in a country which is as big a basket case as our own to cash in on one of the planet's greatest attractions, but the romantic in me thinks it should be open to everyone and not just to those prepared to pay 12 euros and be out by 5pm.

On the plus side, there seemed to be about a tenth of the visitors this time - although most of the others appeared to be queueing up to get into St Peter's at the Vatican. I also get the feeeling there's less traffic in the city centre, though after a couple of taxi trips I have nothing but respect for anyone who takes to the roads, especially around the Piazza Venezia.

One of the most amusing pastimes in Rome is to find yourself a little pavement cafe and watch the herds - or should that be flocks - of tourists straggle by, tormented by heat and thirst and always led by a matriachal/patriachal figure waving an umberella, a rolled newspaper or one of those roses the conmen keep thrusting at you for 'the pretty lady'. If you're particularly fortunate you'll be in a very narrow street and two of them will come along at once, in opposite directions, like two trains meeting in a tunnel. At this point I have to confess that I once visited Rome from a cruise ship and followed the umberella like a love-struck sheep along with the rest. Never again.

During the trip I stumbled upon the Emperor Nero's Golden House, the Domus Aurus, but unfortunately they were conducting an archaeological dig and I couldn't get inside. Nero and his sidekick Seneca will have a fairly major part to play in book three of what I still think of as The Emperor's Elephant trilogy.

My friend Ewan has shown me the template for the website and a very classy affair it is too. It'll have an in-depth biography, synopses and background on the writing of the two books so far, a pictorial section on Caligula and Claudius's Rome, a link to this blog and many of the historical sites I used to research the books. Hopefully it will also allow me to interact more closely with my readers. I've had another couple of reviews. One on Amazon, three stars but containing a lot of positives, which ended with the soul-destroying 'this won't set the world alight, but it's a good read'. It's always good to have an objective opinion though, so if anyone is thinking about putting in a review, good, bad or indifferent, please do. The other one was, interestingly, for an e-book version of Caligula and read, in its entirety, 'a good read'.

No news yet on the latest rewrite of Claudius. Simon is off to the Frankfurt Book Fair, which caused much excitement for me last year, but didn't deliver as much as I'd hoped. Still, another year, another book. Who knows!

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Living with Caligula

One of the greatest pleasures of having a book published is when people you barely know or haven't met for twenty years come up and tell you what a fantastic read it was. It happened twice over the weekend when I was at a birthday party down in Jedburgh. A girl who was in my class at school and who I'd never have tagged as a historical fiction fan told me she loved Caligula, and couldn't wait for the follow up to come out. It was also very clear that the people in my home town are genuinely proud of what I've done, which puts the thing in some sort of perspective. I had the same thing in figures today in a story on the wires at work. Apparently six million people in Britain think they could write a book, three million have started writing one and a million have completed one that will probably never be published. It's a sobering thought.

If that sounds as if I'm getting cocky about being an author, nothing could be further from the truth. I'm still filled with the same doubts and fears that have plagued me all along the way, expect more so because there's now a weight of expectation, not least from myself. I don't worry about the words or the sentences, but I do worry about what I'm doing with them and if I'm creating the kind of story someone wants to read. I'm not a conscious writer at all, I don't sit down and think, 'what am I trying to achieve?'. All I do is write, and if I'm writing the wrong thing I don't know if I'm consciously clever enough to mould it into something appreciably different. I've just sent the rewrite of Claudius, the follow up to Caligula, to Simon at Transworld. As I've explained in past blogs, there were some fairly fundamental changes and when I was working on the book I was constantly wondering if I was doing the right thing, going in the right direction. There were passages that seemed at odds with everything I'd done before. Yet when I read it three times in the last couple of weeks the whole thing seemed to blend together as if it had only ever been meant that way. And still I had that feeling of not wanting to let go, to keep it and change a word here, or a phrase there: to keep polishing it until it glowed. What you forget is that there is probably still another nine or ten months until it's published and that you're going to get another half a dozen goes at it before it's wrenched from you for the final time.

The trains are on strike this week which means I couldn't have done any writing in any case, so I'm having a short break before I launch into another book. It's half written in my head and the main characters are all real to me, but it'll be a complicated beast and I think I have to do a bit more plotting - or at least place a significant number of signposts - before I get started.

I'm still working with someone on a website, but we've passed a significant hurdle and it could be less than a month before it's up and running. This blog will be linked to it. Can't wait to see what it's like.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Living with Caligula

Just got back from bonnie Galloway and the Wigtown Book Festival and what a great weekend it was. Wigtown's a tiny place but it comes alive for the book festival and the atmosphere was fantastic. We joined about four hundred other people to hear actor Bill Paterson talk about his childhood in the east end Glasgow enclave of Dennistoun, living in the shadow of the nuclear bomb and the characters he grew up with. Bill has a wonderful voice, huge charm and a great sense of humour and deserved the ovation he got at the end. It was a bit strange, though, to hear about the genesis of Tales from the Back Green. He cheerfully confesses that it was never intended as a book, just a series of radio scripts, and that the only reason it was published was because a firm approached him. For someone who has heard hundreds of hard-luck stories from talented writers desperate to get into print that was a bit surreal.
I had a nice chat with Stuart Kelly from Scotland on Sunday, who are media sponsors this year, and I met up with Lee Randall, the Scotsman's features supremo who was there to chair a couple of events and interview some of the authors.
One of the biggest highlights of the weekend was the house we stayed in at Newton Stewart. The Brewery Pool of the River Cree flowed as dark as Guinness about four feet below the balcony of our bedroom, full of salmon and sea trout on their way to spawn upriver. In two days I saw a kingfisher, a mink, a cormorant and was treated to an impromptu flypast by a pair of herons skidding along just above the water. Our alarm call on Saturday morning came courtesy of about twenty mallards and three geese who gathered under the window demanding breakfast. Idyllic doesn't quite describe it, glorious is closer.
Dumfries and Galloway is off the beaten track, but it's full of history and beautiful wild countryside and stunning coastal views. If you get a chance to visit it, don't miss it!

Friday, 26 September 2008

Living with Caligula

Off to the Wigtown Book Festival this weekend, not to appear, just to soak up the atmosphere.
We'll be staying at a holiday cottage with our friends John and Elaine and we're all booked to see Scots actor Bill Paterson talk about Tales from the Back Green his memoir of growing up in Glasgow in the 50s and 60s. I'll let you know how we got on next week.
I've been through the follow up to Caligula again this week, polishing here, cutting there, and, as always, wondering if it's as good as I can make it. It's the story of the Emperor Claudius's invasion of Britain in 43 AD seen through the eyes of Rufus, keeper of the Emperor's elephant and hero of Caligula. I had great fun writing it, especially the battle scenes, and there's some great stuff in it. Robert Graves created the popular vision of a drooling, crippled figure of fun in I, Claudius, which like most Roman novels has its origins in the works of Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio. Suetonius throws away the Claudian invasion in a couple of lines and calls it, rather disdainfully, a minor campaign. But the fragmentary remains of a commemorative arch in Rome say Claudius fought six battles and was hailed Imperator (victorious general) by his troops 22 times, which isn't bad going considering he was only in Britain for 16 days. I tell the story of how the cripple became a conqueror with a little help from his spymaster, Narcissus, and, of course, the Emperor's elephant.
There's also been interest this week in my crime book Brothers in Arms, and I was asked to put together synopses for another three novels based around the main characters. I've always had plans to do a series so I had them pretty much to hand and they're on their way. There's a real sense of excitement when you throw your work out into the world - you never know what kind of impact it's going to make!

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Living with Caligula

One of the things I enjoy most about being an author is the little suprises that arrive when you're least expecting them. On thursday night I came home to find I'd been sent four copies of the Polish version of Caligula, which has been published by Amber and was actually on the streets of Warsaw a week before it was my book was available in Britain. It's a compact soft-backed version with the same picture on the cover and it's fascinating to see your words in a different language and to think that Kaligula is being read by people in Krakow and Gdansk.
The English version has already ended up in some surprising places. I discovered on the net that it's out on loan from two libraries in Tasmania and half a dozen in New Zealand. It's stocked in a big bookshop in Singapore, available in Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, and you can buy it on line on Amazon Japan, Germany and France. That's not to mention the editions that will soon be published in Italian, Russian, Serb, Portuguese and Romanian.
Obviously I'd been waiting to see if it would be picked up by a US publisher, but that hasn't happened. It is going to be published in America though, simultaneously in the United States and Canada on January 27. And the mass-market paperback version comes out in this country on February 12. So there's plenty to look forward to!

I completed the latest version of the follow up to Caligula on the train on Thursday night and I'm polishing it at the moment before I send it to Simon next week or the week after. It's amazing the buzz you get when you finally reach those two lovely words .........'The End'......... even though you know that there will be more revisions to come. There are a couple of things I'm not certain about - I've made some pretty radical changes - but it's a much better book. The beauty of rewriting is that small changes, a word here and there, can make such a big difference. You'd think you'd get bored of reading the same thing twenty times over, but I love it because I know that every time I'll find something to improve.

Caligula continues to do well on the Amazon historical fiction charts, jockeying for position with another couple of Roman books by first-time authors, and sitting at about seventh among the historical hardbacks, behind Conn Iggulden, Philipa Gregory and Bernard Cornwell. So I'm in pretty good company. It's interesting to compare the reviews each book has. The other debutants have about five or six times more reviews than I have, but a stange pattern has developed in one of them. It started out with a host of five-stars right after publication, but just lately there have been half a dozen one and two stars. The latest one complains he didn't even finish the book and he's been conned into buying it by the earlier reviews, which are very obviously by friends and family. Looking back over them, I think he's right and that the Amazon review system is pretty flawed. When someone puts a title on their review saying Buy this Book you can be pretty certain they're not coming at it objectively! Naturally all of mine are completely kosher. :-)

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Living with Caligula

Caligula has been making the headlines.
Unfortunately it's not my Caligula, but the 1979 softporn/hardcore (depending on your point of view) movie of the name, which stars Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren. It was hugely controversial when it came out because Bob Guccione spiced up the sex scenes after all the big names had finished shooting the film, with the result that they all, including original script writer Gore Vidal, completely disowned the final result. It was banned in Britain, but now the censors have decided to give it an 18 certificate because of its 'historical interest'.
The result is that Caligula is in the news, with stories throughout the week and a double page spread in today's outraged Daily Mail.
So is this good or bad for Caligula, the novel, with its tasteful and (comparitively) understated scenes of incest, sex, cruelty, torture and murder, and its fascinating insight into the life and true nature of the psychotic young Emperor?
The answer is that I'm not sure. On the one hand the fact that the name Caligula is emblazoned in 120pt type across two pages of Britain's biggest-selling mid-market tabloid can only be good for the book's profile, if only for the curiosity value if it provides. ie 'I wonder what Caligula was really like?' On the other, is it a good idea to be linked to what is widely regarded as one of the worst historical films ever made and a total box-office turkey?
And what does it do for my prospects of having the book turned into a film? Quite a few people who've read Caligula have commented on the fact that it would make a great blockbuster, which is exactly what you want to hear, but if it ever does come out as a movie I doubt it will be under the same name!

Still on films, I stumbled across an article on the net the other day about a well-known female newspaper columnist who is being sued by a major film company for the $700,000 dollars they coughed up for the film rights to her book in 2003. It was based on what they obviously thought was a great idea, but unfortunately she allegedly neglected to ever write the book, which I suppose would mean her publisher is also out of pocket. I'm not terribly big on morality, but the thought of taking all that money and then not bothering to produce the goods boggles my mind. But then I'm not a big name newspaper columnist.

Which brings me nicely on to Katie Price, aka Jordan, whose autobiography and chick-lit novels are currently dominating the book charts and coining in a fortune to add to her hard-pressed 'boob job' fund. Katie cheerfully told an interviewer the other day that she doesn't actually write the books, she just comes up with a few chapter ideas and then tosses them to a minion who does all that tiresome stringing the sentences together and putting in dots and commas and whatnot. And there was you thinking it was difficult to get a book published!

My last blog was something of a prolonged whinge about not being invited to book festivals and not the usual upbeat ravings of a demented, would-be bestseller writer. A good friend of mine put this into perpective during the week, when he told me he'd done a gig at Edinburgh and spent hours glad-handing only to find out at the end that he'd sold two books. Another writer I know had a similar experience, which cheered me up no end.

And finally a comment on the strange financial world of book-selling. There are quite a few Caligulas on sale on e-Bay and I thought I'd take a look to see just how much the online opportunists were asking The highest price was £59 - yes, you're reading that correctly - £59 for Caligula, life's work of Douglas Jackson, author, available from Bantam Press and all good book shops for £12.99 minus discount. It turns out the £59 was for a signed, lined and dated copy I'd sweated over (literally: see earlier bubble-wrap blog) for a specialist book company, which means my unpaid efforts have produced a potential 400 per cent mark-up. You learn something new every day.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Living with Caligula

Publicity has been on my mind, and how to get more of it for Caligula.
In a lot of ways I've done pretty well, with a wonderful spread in The Scotsman, very positive reviews in the Mail and the Sunday Express in Scotland, and some big hits in local newspapers in Stirling and the Borders. There was also my radio interview on Radio Scotland.
But where's the national publicity? Where are the reviews in The Times and the Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and the Independent? They feature dozens of books every week but never mine.
Last Saturday I did my first webchat with members of Youwriteon, the website that played such a big part in my development as a writer. It was great fun, and in the end I must have answered fifty questions from people interested in my experiences over the last year or so.
It gave me a lovely warm feeling of belonging.
But sometimes I feel like someone standing outside a window in the snow looking in at a party where people are chatting around a roaring fire.
I went to the Edinburgh Book Festival just after the webchat, to wander around and soak up the atmosphere, and I was left wondering: why am I not here? Hundreds of authors from all over Britain gathered to talk about their books. From the very famous to people I've never heard of. People queueing five deep to buy signed copies from authors who'd written books on the most obscure subjects imaginable. Every publishing house in Britain, large and small, seemed to be represented, and it had the biggest bookshop in the country, with thousands and thousands of titles; in fact every book in the world appeared to be on the shelves - except Caligula. When I talk about it to people, they say: 'You'll definitely be there next year', but we'll just have to wait and see. For a first-time author every book counts and this seemed to be a huge opportunity that I'd missed.

I also have a sense now that when a book is launched it gains a momentum powered by the goodwill of the people who buy it. With an established author that momentum is prolonged by reputation - people will keep picking it up from the shelves because it has his name on it. For someone like me it's different, once everyone you know has bought it and everyone they've told about it, you need something a little special to push it on to the next level. Where will it come from? I don't honestly know, but with Caligula there's always been a little nudge just when it was needed. Maybe it's just around the corner.

I almost forgot. Caligula will now be published in Romanian, which brings the number of languages to six - Russian, Polish (according to one website I'm already a best-seller there, but I syspect that's just hype), Portuguese, Serbian and Italian.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Living with Caligula

It's not all champagne and canapes being a writer.

'Will you sign fifty of your novels for a specialist books company?' Naturally the answer has to be yes - a signed book is a sold book, as the manageress of one store told me recently.
Yet in that simple sentence lurked a boobytrap that turned my Saturday into an episode of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em (a seventies sitcome starring Michael Crawford, for those of you too young to remember).
First, I wasn't in when they arrived, so the books were sent to the local post office. A minor problem, since it's just around the corner? Not quite. Have you any idea how much fifty books weigh? The size of box they come in? Still, I managed to get home - after about ten stops - covered in sweat and wondering what would go first, my back or my legs.
Open the box and there are no visible instructions, just two stacks of books in bubble wrap - miles of bubble wrap. These things are sold in pristine condition, so they have to be protected and I'd have to be careful how I handled them. So I got the first stack unwrapped - 25 books, twenty feet of bubble wrap. A quick signature on each book and we'll put the first batch back in the box. I don't suppose you've ever tried to wrap 25 books, stacked just so, in twenty feet of bubble wrap. It was only on the sixth attempt, with books all over the place, that it dawned on me that these things had originally been wrapped by a machine. Eventually it took two of us half an hour to get them wrapped anything remotely like they were. And still another 25 to go.
I wasn't going through that again, so I worked out that I could get at the books one at a time from the side. It was finicky and time-consuming, but at least they'd go back easily enough.
I was about five books from the end when I found the note cunningly concealed between two of them.

Dear Doug, thanks for agreeing ... lah di da ... our customers have requested that you sign, date and add a short quote from the book. Date! Quote!

The first 25 books still lie in their untidy bubble wrap cocoon, signed, but not dated or quoted. I'll get round to them eventually, but I still haven't worked out how I'll get them all back in the box, or, come to think of it, how to get the box back to the post office. Anybody know any Olympic weightlifters?

On a cheerier note, the books seem to be selling well and my old paper, The Southern Reporter did a great piece on me this week, you can read it here

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Living with Caligula

I went in to Waterstone's this morning to fulfil my promise to sign the latest batch of Caligulas and was pleased to discover it is now No. 7 on the shop's best-seller list. David, the manager, was delighted to see me and gave me a desk where I could put my name on the sixteen books they have in stock. When it was done, he slapped a black 'signed by author' sticker on each of them and back on the shelf they went. They are really happy to promote a local author, which is great.
I've come to realise it's up to a first-time author, indeed any author, to help sell every book he can, and I'm looking for other ways to do that. I've made arrangements to sign books at stores in Edinburgh next week, and I'll try to get to Glasgow before the end of the month. I've also put up personally signed copies for competitions in three local newspapers. What I'd really like is a few more reviews on Amazon, which I think helps raise the profile of a book and get it talked about. I had two, but one has been withdrawn after a crazy internet spat.
I'm also pleased to announce that Caligula has gone even more international. Portugal and Serbia have now been added to the united nations of Italy, Poland and Russia which are publishing the book.
I'm working on Simon's notes for the follow-up at the moment and I think it's going really well. I've altered the structure to remove one of the main characters and I'm now developing some of the scenes he felt had more potential. Next I'll start work on the new ending, but I know where I'm heading with it.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Living with Caligula

I've spent the last couple of days since my son came home enjoying the fact that he's here and wondering how he managed without his own personal servant in hospital. I've also been working on the rewrite of the follow up to Caligula. Simon, my editor at Transworld, e-mailed his thoughts at the weekend and as usual he got it spot on. He's asked me to cut out one major character to change the focus of the narrative and turn the spotlight on my hero, as well as a number of smaller changes that will improve the book a lot. It means a fair bit of unravelling, but I can already see the impact it's having. The great thing is that having done it once before I know just how worthwhile the effort is.
Caligula seems to be doing well, but with only Amazon to go by it's quite difficult to tell just how well. At one point last night I was 861 in books and 23 in historical fiction, which when you consider Caligula is a hardback up against a lot of mass market paperbacks seems pretty good. I'm in there with Bernard Cornwell, George MacDonald Fraser, Simon Scarrow and Wilbur Smith, which can't be bad. Our local Waterstone's has sold out and so has the bookshop in Jedburgh. The feedback I'm getting from people who've read it has been universally positive. I've also had two reviews on Amazon and they've both been five star which I think will help sales.
On August 16 I'm doing my first internet webchat on Youwriteon, which I'm looking forward to a lot. I've had good publicity from my local papers and I've offered a couple of signed Caligula's as prizes which they seem to appreciate. I also had a phone call from a guy who helps organise the Jethart Callant's Festival in Jedburgh (Jethart is the old name for Jedburgh and the festival pays homage to the Border reivers who kept the town safe in times of trial) who's asked me to speak at a dinner next year when the Callant is chosen in May. For a local boy like me it's the ultimate accolade.
I wasn't sure what was happening to my foreign publishers, but yesterday I discovered that the Polish version of Caligula is on the shelves. They've (wisely I think) stayed with the front cover image Bantam have used, but it looks great and seems to be pretty widely available. You can see it if you do a search for Kaligula Jackson Amber, or something along these lines.

Back to work tomorrow, and writing again on the train, in a funny way I'm looking forward to it!

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Living with Caligula

It's strange how life always finds a way of levelling things out. After the enormous highs of publication and the book party, this week I've had a lesson in what truly matters.
I've spent most of the week in hospital visiting my 17-year-old son who was taken in on Tuesday. He needed blood and various other transfusions, including some that took all night, and had lots of tests. Through it all he kept his sense of humour, joking with the nurses and his fellow patients. He didn't complain once, although he must have been in pain and worried about what was happening to him. I've never been so proud of him.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Living with Caligula

What a fantastic week I've had. First the publication and knowing that finally the book was out there. Then the launch party at Blackwells in Edinburgh and standing on the stairs to make my speech and looking out over a sea of faces who had come to support me. You could almost feel yourself being carried along on a wave of good feeling. A once in a lifetime experience.
People came from Jedburgh, Ancrum, Edinburgh, Earlston and Bridge of Allan to name but a few and it was great to see so many friends and family. I think I have to single out a couple of people for special mention, though. First Rab McNeil, who is a columnist for The Scotsman and probably Scotland's funniest writer. As well as being brilliant, Rab is almost terminally shy. He sent me an e-mail giving about a dozen reasons why he wasn't going to come and then turned up anyway with the lovely lady he calls 'the burd'. And Lesley Riddoch, another Scotsman columnist and one of Scotland's finest broadcasters. Lesley and I hadn't even met, but I sometimes deal with her copy when I'm editing the paper. I sent her an invitation, not expecting her to turn up. But there she was giving her support to a guy she hadn't seen in the flesh before! Absolutely brilliant.

I barely got a chance to talk properly to anyone at the launch, all I did was float about giving a word here and there and then spent half an hour or so signing books. Last night we had about 20 friends from Bridge of Allan round at the house for a drink and a blether. It was great fun and the amazing thing was that in the four days since the book launch at least three people had got through the entire 400-odd pages of Caligula. The verdict: 'It's a real page turner. I got into it and I couldn't put it down.' These people are my mates, so you could say they're biased, but their views chime with just about everybody who's read it so far and I think that's a great sign.

I keep an eye on (read that as I'm obsessed with) Amazon to see how the book's doing. It's hard to tell exactly, but I'm about 30th in the historical fiction list which I'm taking as encouraging for a first novel by an unknown writer. Caligula has been paired on Amazon with Harry Sidebottom's Warrior of Rome, which reached No. 9 in the Mail on Sunday's best-sellerlist today, which must also be good news. Now I'm waiting for the first reader reviews with crossed fingers, toes etc.

After the launch on Tuesday we travelled to the Borders to stay at Fauhope House, a beautful guest house owned by my friends Sheila and Ian Robson. Sheila's the AA's Scottish landlady of the year for 2008, a wonderful hostess and a great laugh. I signed a book for them and she had it on the table in the hall along with my Scotsman write-up and was telling all her guests to buy it. We had a brilliant time, including a lovely meal in Melrose at the restaurant they used to own, Marmion's. But the highlight was on Thursday when I spent a morning fishing on the Tweed. At 1.05pm, with my last cast of the day and after years of trying, I hooked and landed my first salmon, a 7 and a half pound beauty who was returned unharmed to go on her way to the spawning grounds after giving me a fight I'll never forget. What a week. First novel. First salmon. And I still haven't checked my lottery ticket.

A quick update on my other books. Simon, my editor, has read Claudius/The War God and in his under-stated way is giving off very positive vibes. 'It'll make a very good book.' 'I think you should make more of this character.' 'I really like the first battle scene' etc. He's sending me up his notes this week and then I'll be able to get stuck into the rewrite. I can't wait.

Stan, the agent, has sent me his reaction to Brothers in Arms: 'It's very, VERY nearly there.' He's planning to send it off to Simon in the next week or so to have a look at. Will he like it?Instinct tells me it's still at least one rewrite away from the real deal, but that there's enough evidence that it will make a great start to a great series. I have four pretty solid ideas for follow ups and wrote a wonderfully chilling first chapter for one of them on Friday and Saturday. It looks like being a busy next few months.


Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Living with Caligula

Well that's it. I am now officially an author. Caligula is on the shelves and available at all good book shops.

The last two days have encapsulated everything that's happened to me in the year since I signed up with Transworld. Monday - publication day - was a bit of an anti-climax. I went into Stirling all aquiver to see where my books were in the local Waterstone's and naturally couldn't find them. It turned out they were hidden in a pile of fiction novels towards the back of the store. Fortunately, the guy behind the counter didn't take any persuading to give a local author pride of place in the New Fiction box at the front! And that was it. The book was on the shelves and ... it was just another day.

Tuesday - the launch party - was one of the best days of my life. Ninety people from my past, present and, hopefully, future turned out to celebrate the publication of Caligula. Old friends I hadn't seen for years, people I'd invited but hadn't expected to come, and most of my family. I met and greeted everyone as they came in, they all had a drink and a chat and after about half an hour I got up to give my speech. It was the most natural thing in the world - as if I'd been doing it all my life - and at the end I gave a reading. When I'd finished, my 17-year-old son walked up to me and gave me a hug. Absolutely priceless.
The people at Blackwell's did us proud, but they were shocked at the size of the turnout. They sold every book in the shop - 62 - and I spent half the night signing them and listening to people tell me how proud they were of me. It was fantastic. A night I'll never forget. Later, the family was joined by Simon and Stan for a meal and to cap off a perfect night the kids dragged me off to a posh pub until 2am.

To give you a flvour of the night this is the bit of Caligula I read:

He looked towards the centurion in charge of the Guard. It was the Germans today. He liked the Germans because they hated the Italians.

The soldier came at his call.

“If I wished it would you kill every man in this room?” he said quietly.

For an instant, the centurion’s eyes went wide,, but then the discipline that had helped him survive a hundred combats quickly took over. His hand went to his sword.

“Of course, Caesar. At your orders!”

Should he? He looked over the faces. Senators and knights. Praetors and tribunes. Men who called themselves his friends and others who did not try to hide their scorn. The Judaean who had been boring him for a week about the problems of his benighted province. It would cause complications. He had another thought.

“If I ordered it, would you kill me?”

The soldier froze. What answer would he give to this unanswerable question?

He watched the man’s face grow paler as the seconds passed. Tiny beads of sweat broke out upon his brow as he wrestled with the terrible implications of his next words. His mouth opened and closed like a dying fish, which was amusing.

Eventually, he became bored.

“You are dismissed. W, we will discuss this further another time.”

He picked at the platter of food by the side of the throne. Really, it was all so boring. Had he tasted everything there ever was to taste? He let the long list slide through his mind. But there was a gap. Yes, there was one type of flesh he had never tasted. The forbidden flesh. He looked up. It would be interesting, exciting even. Who would it be? The fat one at the back? The athlete fidgeting by the wall? No shortage of choice.

He pondered the question for a full minute.

No, he thought, not today.

He smiled as he learned a new truth. Even he had a limit.

He wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or disappointed.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Countdown to Caligula

One hour and twenty minutes to go to the big day.
How will it go? Who knows. All I know is that I've loved every exciting, frustrating, exasperating, glorious minute of the journey.

What have I learned?
Be patient:
The world, especially the publishing world, moves at its own pace.
Don't expect too much:
At times it feels the world is marching to your door, but it's not always going to be that way.
Celebrate everything:
It's a one-off experience. I'll never again be a debut author going down this strange and wonderful road and wondering what's at the other end.
Keep writing:
Because you're only a writer when you're writing; good, bad or indifferent.

I'm a different person to the one who began these blogs eight months ago. At the start, I still wasn't sure who I really was. For about thirty odd years I've been looking for the real Douglas Jackson. Now I've found him. He's a writer.

Thanks for sticking with me.


Saturday, 12 July 2008

Countdown to Caligula

Two days to go. The interview David Robinson did with me appeared in the Scotsman arts section Critique today and it's a great read. He really caught the effort and the passion that went into Caligula and the rollercoaster road to publication, I think the picture, with Stirling Castle in the background, makes me look pale and interesting (the photographer, Ian Rutherford is brilliant - in this case he had to be) but decide for yourself. Don't be fooled by the headline, nothing in life is that easy!

Yesterday I walked up to Blackwell's bookshop to say hello to the manager and thank him for playing host at the book launch. When I reached the shop I discovered a display of my books in the window, along with a photograph. It was a great moment, but as I studied myself in the window I wondered what would happen if someone came along and stood beside me. Slightly surreal, to say the least.
I can't wait 'til Monday, even though I've got a dentists appointment. I plan to tour the local bookshops. Hope I'm not disppaointed.
The speech is written for Tuesday. I've kept it short, which will be a relief for the sixty people who have confirmed they are coming. The response has been fantastic.
I've also been signing copies for friends and family, which is great, but you actually spend more time agonising over what to say than you did on some passages of the book.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Countdown to Caligula

I woke up this morning and suddenly realised there were only six days to go. How did that happen? Everything's been moving along like treacle and now it's as if I'm at the wheel of a runaway train and I don't know where the brakes are. Publication is on Monday, the launch party is on Tuesday night. I haven't even looked at my speech, never mind written it. The two readings I'm planning to do are still just that; plans. I've got an idea what they'll be, but is the first one too short and the second one too long? I won't know until I've practised in front of an invited audience, but I'm working late every night this week, so when. I can't stand up on the train and start spouting like a Roman Emperor, they'll have me in a strait-jacket and off for a meeting with Napoleon and Henry the Eighth before you can say Scotrail.
Still, everybody says I'm cool, calm and collected in a crisis. It WILL be alright on the night. Now where did I leave my toga?

Monday, 30 June 2008

Countdown to Caligula

The last time I was live on the radio was about 25 years ago when I used to get up at 6.30 in the morning to do a sports bulletin for the then thriving BBC Radio Tweed. So it was a relief to discover that the thought of appearing on Scotland’s top books programme to promote Caligula didn’t have me completely stressed out - only nearly.
I was fortunate that guest presenter Alistair Moffat, who counts among his day jobs successful author and boss of the Borders Book Festival, is also an accomplished broadcaster and interviewer. He made me completely at ease during the countdown to BBC Scotland’s Book Café and was extremely complimentary about Caligula, which is just what a nervous author about to do his first interview plugging his debut novel needs. We chatted about our shared love of the Borders and about the festival, which was an outstanding success again this year despite a downpour that threatened to bring down the main marquee on the Saturday.
Then it was three minutes to go, two minutes to go, one minute to go. We’re on.
It took me a while to get into my stride as we talked about my motivation for writing the book and what attracted me to the malignant Caligula, but Alistair eased me into the interview and I relaxed and began to enjoy the experience. He liked what I’d done juxtaposing Rufus’s gentle love of his animals with the brutality of the relationships in Caligula’s palace, but I couldn’t take the credit for planning that. It’s really just a consequence of the story as most the really clever things I’ve been credited with are. Or are they? When I was preparing for the interview I was struck by how much of the book was written by the subconscious me and how amazing it was that buried somewhere deep was another person capable of achieving something that I didn’t think was remotely possible a couple of years ago. Maybe he/it/we planned the novel while I was half asleep, the same way he/it/we wrote what has been flatteringly described as page-turning narrative. It gives you a real buzz when someone tells you they picked up your book to take a look at it and was still reading it an hour later, especially someone who I suspect is inundated with books throughout the year.
The only point I wasn’t sure whether I’d done Caligula justice was when Alistair asked me for examples of his decadence. I should have talked about the three mile bridge of boats he built from Baiae to Puteoli and then rode across on his chariot, instead I rattled on about his legendary cruelty, which we’d already covered. The interview ended with a laugh as I was asked what my mum thought of the rather graphic sex scenes, then Alistair concluded by more or less telling the listeners to get out and buy it.
Success? That’s for someone else to decide. But I had a great time and I’d cheerfully do it again and I won’t say ‘you know’ half as often.
Alistair Moffat said he enjoyed my book and I have to take this opportunity to reciprocate. By complete coincidence I was given his latest piece of historical non-fiction The Wall, to review for The Scotsman about ten days ago. It’s a must-read for anyone who’s interested about Romans; highly readable and full of fascinating facts and insight it takes an in-depth look at the history of Hadrian’s Wall.
You can listen again to Radio Scotland’s Book Café on and read my review of The Wall at
I almost forgot. Caligula is being published in hardback in Canada in January next year, just a couple of weeks before the paperback version is out in the UK. That’s what I love about all this, there’s always something new on the horizon.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Countdown to Caligula

Another of those wonderful one-off moments when I came home from work tonight. I hold in my hot little hand the first hardback copy of Caligula. It's heavy and shiny, with that menacing gladiator glowering from the front, and the title and the sign off 'Can a slave decide the fate of an Emperor' in Romanesque writing of Imperial purple. It has my name on it, not only on the front cover, but also on the spine of the inner book in silver against dark blue. It is, in short, a proper book.
It also has Manda Scott's wonderful endorsement on the back cover and when I read it, I still couldn't believe she was talking about me.
The invites for the book launch are out. It turns out I know a lot more people than I thought, and quite a few of them have already said to me that they'll be there, so I won't be on my own.

Twenty days and counting!

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Countdown to Caligula

Today is June 14; in exactly one month's time Caligula will hit the shops, and what a relief that will be. It seems like a lifetime since I started this blog and it's exactly a year to the day tomorrow that Stan called me to say that he'd accepted the offer from Transworld and that I was about to become a published author.

Things picked up speed this week and I did my first full length newspaper interview. I wasn't too nervous, because I know the interviewer, but it was still a strange and strangely exhausting experience. You have to dig very deep to come up with the motivations for something that you actually started writing about four years ago. I didn't realise there were so many versions of The Emperor's Elephant/Caligula until I tried to explain the chronology of its development and tied myself in knots. You also have to give a lot of yourself, and for someone who is naturally reticent that can be difficult. There is so much to tell that I found myself going off at tangents,which is something I'm going to have to correct for my radio interview in a couple of weeks time.

This blog is about the downs as well as the ups and I have to record that my first published review was a bit disappointing. It was in our local paper and the reviewer seemed more interested in showing how clever he was than actually getting into what the book is about. Then again, maybe I'm expecting too much. He liked it well enough, and said he was involved enough to want to know what happened next to Rufus, the main character. He signed off by saying 'This book won't change your life', which is true, it isn't the Bible. But you could argue that any book that really involves you and draws you in does change your life for the hours you spend reading it. And one thing I know for certain, it has certainly changed mine.

The date and time has been set for the book launch party. If anyone's going to be around Edinburgh on Tuesday July 15 let me know and I'll put you on the invitation list.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Countdown to Caligula

Just a very quick update before I head for the train. I got an e-mail yesterday from Radio Scotland's Book Cafe programme asking if I could do a live interview about Caligula at the end of the month. Scary, but exciting. There'll be guest presenter on that day, a guy called Alistair Moffat, who runs the Borders Book Festival. He's also an author of some fascinating historical books on the early Celts - and his latest is about Hadrian's Wall, so he knows his Romans. I'm a big fan and we're from towns about 10 miles apart so it should be interesting!
Also doing an interview with The Scotsman's literary editor next week, which will run the Saturday before publication.
Sent Brothers in Arms to agent Stan on Tuesday. When I hit the button I had a huge sense of anticipation. I think the latest version sizzles, and the characters are people you really care about.
Spent yesterday putting together information for my web site (where do you start with setting up a web site?). Today I'll start on the final book of the Rufus trilogy.
Got to go. Have a great weekend.

Saturday, 31 May 2008

Countdown to Caligula

This blog is all about the highs and lows of a writer stumbling blindly towards the publication of his first novel. Looking back, it's difficult to pick out the high point so far. Was it when I finished the Emperor's Elephant and realised I could actually write a book, even if it was a flawed one? Or when I completed the rewrite after binning 80,000 words of the original and sensed I had created something good? Or maybe it was the day when Stan told me Simon had made an offer for it that was meant to chase everyone else away and I had to ask him to repeat the figure twice.
Well Thursday topped them all.
For the past couple of weeks Simon and his team have been trying to round up endorsements for the back cover of Caligula from writers with proven track records and major followings. We've had knockbacks from some of the biggest names in historical fiction. It's hardly surprising. Writers are usually busy writing, why should someone take time from their own novel to read the work of an untried unknown? Where is the incentive in promoting a potential rival's work?
On Wednesday, Simon was about to sign off on the cover. There would be lots if interesting empty space where the endorsement quotes were supposed to go.
On Thursday morning he sent me a message which read: 'Something to cheer up your day' and five minutes later I was doing cartwheels around the office.
Manda Scott's superb Boudica books shed light on the life of Britain's most legendary heroine and on a time which I know from experience is incredibly difficult to capture from the few historical sources available. She is hugely knowledgable, hugely talented and, I now know, a very nice person.
To have someone of Manda's stature say anything about Caligula would have been amazing, but this?

'Douglas Jackson takes us by the hand and heart and leads us into the crazy, power-soaked world of Caligula, maddest of the mad Roman emperors - and in doing so gives us an insight into the man behind the madness, the fragile, bloody balances of power and the depths to which men were forced to sink simply to stay alive. It's light and dark in equal measure, colourful, thoughtful and bracing. A worthy addition to the world of Roman historical fiction.'

It was one of those wonderful moments when you sit back and think: 'Is that me she's talking about?'

I had to read it about three times before it sank in. There was more of the same and Manda found hidden depths in Caligula I didn't realise were there: things I had subconsciously been vaguely aware of, but not consciously trying to achieve. David Robinson, the Scotsman's literary editor, made the same kind of comments, but about different areas of it, and I'm beginning to realise that Caligula is no longer my book. It belongs to, and my writing will be interpreted by, anybody who reads it. They will make their own judgments on things I've written that I barely thought about at the time.

Not everyone will like Caligula, I understand that; Rufus inhabits a cruel, unforgiving world that won't be to everyone's taste. But there is a theme emerging in the feedback from those who've read it. So far, not only have they enjoyed it - they think it's special.

On Thursday I also finally completed the rewrite of Brothers in Arms ... I have a feeling it may be special too in an entirely different way. But more of that another day.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Countdown to Caligula

Today I had one of the best, and possibly the most important, reactions to Caligula so far. The proof copies have been out with literary editors for about a week and obviously their reaction is hugely important to what happens from now on in.
It's impossible not to be a little nervous about what's happening. Have they all been shoved in corners? Picked up and thrown down again in disgust?
Well I found out where one of them has been.
David Robinson, the books editor at The Scotsman, marched up the office and shook me by the hand. He'd started reading Caligula at the weekend and hadn't been able to put it down. "It's a real page turner. I thought it was brilliant. How did you do it?" And there was a lot more of the same. This from a guy who reads books for a living? It was an incredible confidence booster. David probably has more insight into what makes a book worth reading than anyone else I know and is hugely respected in the newspaper and publishing worlds. He congratulated me on achieving things in the book I hadn't even realised I'd attempted to do.
We had a long chat. He's keen to do a feature on Caligula and author, which will be great publicity. When he left I was grinning from ear to ear.
But it made me a little nervous, too. Just what is this thing I've created? Where is it going to take me? There's a sense of a great opportunity just over the horizon, but what do I have to do to grasp it?
Seven weeks today and Caligula will be in the shops.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Countdown to Caligula

Caligula is now out there. David Robinson, the literary editor at The Scotsman, got his proof copy yesterday, which means that so has every other literary editor in the country. When he first told me, I was elated, but then the reality of all those enormously intelligent, highly educated people poring over my book with critical eyes hit me and I came over all nervous. I've read it a hundred times. I think it's good, but it's what they think that matters.
But what would be much worse than the critics not praising it, would be them ignoring it. I've worked in newspaper offices for long enough to know how many books pass over their desks every day. David has big sacks lying beside his desk, all chock full of books. I know how much effort has gone into each and every one of them, but I sometimes look at them and wonder how some ever got published. It's all too easy for someone's pride and joy to disappear into the void.

Let's hope it doesn't happen to Caligula, but only time will tell.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Countdown to Caligula

Eight weeks to go and I am now officially chewing the furniture. Another ten days has gone by and not a squeak of movement on the book. Caligula is a reality, things are happening, but all I can do is sit back and watch, hypnotised by my Amazon ratings which for some bizarre reason fluctuate between 7000th and 150,000th.
My mood hasn't been helped by the fact that progress on my crime book, Brothers in Arms, is frustratingly slow. I console myself in the knowledge that proper books are supposed to be difficult beasts, full of intellectual challenges and false turns, but the truth is I'm not used to this. Normally things flow, this squirms and grows to the point where I don't know if I can control it. It's a bit like trying to nail down jelly.
On the plus side, away from the writing and the work, I've had a very enjoyable time on the social side. I spent Saturday basking in the sunshine at Jedforest rugby sevens in the Borders. In another life (when I had hair) I used to play in the back row of the scrum for Jedforest (thirds) and I had a great time meeting old friends. I've been away for a long time, but Jedburgh will always be home.
One question I've been asked is how I became so interested in history and the Romans. The answer is that you couldn't grow up in Jedburgh and not be fascinated by history because it was all around you. In my first year at primary school one of my most distinct memories is having my picture taken with the Callant, the leader of the local summer festival which is based on the activities of the Border reivers; men with bloodthirsty reputations and wonderful names like Nebless Nick Croser, Wanton Wull and Jock O' the Side. I used to pass Jedburgh Abbey (burned five times by English armies) and Mary Queen of Scots house (the only house in the town to survive Edward 1sts 'Rough Wooing') every day on the way to school. My first job when I left school was restoring a Roman fort in the Cheviot Hills that had been torn up by foresters. I remember looking up at the gap in the hills where Dere Street passes through and almost being able to see the legions marching down towards us. History and writing and rugby seem to be all part of my DNA.
Last week I gave myself a late Christmas present and booked a day's fishing on the Tweed at a place called Tweedswood - that's just this side of the Leaderfoot Viaduct in the picture. It was great, even though we didn't even slightly annoy the salmon. When you fish, you absorb the rhythm of nature - the unceasing rush of the stream, the wind in the trees and the call of the birds - and you become closer to everything around you. Some people think it's boring. For me it's the most relaxing thing on earth. I didn't realise it when I booked it, but Tweedswood is just below Melrose, and I found myself fishing a hundred yards below the amphitheatre used by the legionaries who manned the Roman fort at Trimontium which was built on the bluff above the river. History calling again.
Today I've just come back from Glasgow, where I had lunch with Bob Low, the old friend from the Daily Record who now writes Viking books. It's the first time we've met in years, but we had a great time chatting about things that only other writers would be interested in and lamenting the slow progress of publishing. Bob's a real character, a Viking to his soul, with a beard you could hide a badger in. He's just completed the third in his Oathsworn series, and has signed a deal for another two books with HarperCollins. I think he's headed for the big time.
One thing that keeps the blog going is the comments from people all over the country who are interested in what's happening with Caligula. Sometimes you wonder if you're writing for yourself, so it's great to hear from people who've taken a look. So welcome to Joe, who said hello on the last blog, and thanks to everyone else who reads this.
To answer your question, Joe, yes, I'm writing in the hope that someone will give me enough money so I can write a lot more. At the moment I write for an hour on the train, spend ten frustrating hours not writing, then write for an hour when I'm half asleep on the way home (I think I write my best stuff when I'm half asleep so don't feel sorry for me). Sure, I might eventually move somewhere nice, but I would still write. I've found something that I really love doing and that - touch wood - I'm pretty good at. I know in my heart of hearts that I won't stop writing until I'm physically incapable of hitting the right keys on a keyboard.
I even found time to write a feature on the guy who discovered Trimontium, for the Scotsman magazine. They did me proud with a four-page spread. This is the link, although it doesn't have the same impact without the pictures.

Let's hope I've got more to report on the book next time



Sunday, 4 May 2008

Countdown to Caligula

I've been a bit remiss with the blog, but my excuse is that I've been waiting for something interesting to happen and it's been pretty quiet on the book front. I suppose this blog is as much about the frustrations that face an author in the rundown to his first book as it is about the triumphs and the great leaps forward. So I have to record that, at least on the book front, my life isn't about highs and lows - more highs and lulls. So much has happened in the past few months that you just keep on expecting something good to happen every day, or at least every week, but that's not the way it works.
The one really positive thing I have to record is that I managed to get Caligula to one of Britain's top authors, a writer who has sold millions of books all over he world, and that he thoroughly enjoyed it and sent me a lovely personal letter saying wonderful things about my writing. Unfortunately - and I fully respect his decision - he doesn't do quotes for book jackets. You could regard that as a setback, but he was so positive about what he'd read that it's actually a huge vote of confidence.
Despite the lack of activity on the surface, I know that people are working away trying to sell the book, market it and are preparing for publication - ten weeks and counting. Maybe something big is just around the corner!

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Countdown to Caligula

It's been London Book Week for the last few days and I'm pretty certain Transworld will have been doing their best to sell the rights for Caligula around the world. The little flurry of foreign sales I had before Christmas, Italy, Russia and Poland, gave me the wrong idea about the way these things work and I now realise how fortunate I was to have that early success. The last couple of weeks have been quiet on the book front, but I had word from Simon that Caligula's name has changed again. I'm now the author of Caligula - with a sub-title of: Can a slave decide the fate of an Emperor? which is a line I like, but is taking a bit of getting used to. I've just got back from Vilamoura on the Algarve on a holiday with my wife Alison and son Gregor, and his pal Ross. We had a hurricane for the first few days - at least the rain was warm - but the weather was hot for the rest of the week. The marina is great, but I found the rest of the resort a bit soulless. The best days I had were walking along the incredible, eroded red cliffs between Vilamoura and Albufeira and, surprise, surprise, at the Roman museum which is mostly an outdoor villa complex with pottery still lying more or less where it's been for the last two thousand years. Been in touch with a guy called Bob Low who I haven't seen for about ten years. He's another journalist turned author and we used to work together at the Daily Record in Glasgow. I didn't realise he'd written a book until I saw it in the shops, a historical novel - more Viking saga actually - called The Whale Road, the story of an intrepid band of Vikings called the Oathsworn. If anyone should know about Vikings it's Bob, who takes part in re-enactments, has built boats, stood in battle lines and, judging by his stories, has revelled in the mud and the blood - and the ale. By chance I had the opportunity to read his second book The Wolf Sea while I was on the way back from Portugal and I thought it was brilliant. He has an incredible depth of knowledge and a gutsy writing style that really takes you there and holds you in thrawl. If you like historical novels with an edge, it's right up with Bernard Cornwell. Three months to go to July 14 and I had another tremendously positive reaction from a friend who read one of my book proof copies while she was on holiday. She homed in on all the stuff I thought was special, but the best was when she told me: "You know, Doug, you really got the women right. A lot of male writers aren't able to do that." Until she said it, I wasn't sure I could either.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Countdown to Caligula

I've had my best review yet for Caligula. "It's brilliant. It draws you in and keeps you turning the pages. I can't believe how you pulled it all together. It deserves to be a best-seller." And this from a man who's read thousands of books in his lifetime, who knows what he likes and who wouldn't necessarily have been drawn to a book about Rome. I gave my mum and dad a bookproof last weekend when Simon sent me a couple more copies. I honestly didn't know whether dad would fancy reading it, and if he did whether he'd like it. To get his seal of approval feels like winning over the literary editor of one of the big broadsheets.

As a writer, you always live in hope, but, conversely, don't want to build your hopes up too high, but there's a momentum growing about the book that is giving me a real buzz. So far half a dozen people have read it and the reactions have all been incredibly positive. Simon liked it enough to gamble on a complete unknown. Edward who runs has one of the bookproofs and echoes my dad's view: " I think this book deserves to be a bestseller. It's really engrossing and wonderfully written." My mate Rob read the first 100 pages in two hours when he was up for the rugby and told me I should give up the day job and go for it -I haven't taken his advice yet, but it was a great endorsement.

Can a first novel become a bestseller? Realistically, the chances are pretty minimal. Again I think it's all about momentum, there has to come a point when it's not just another book, it's THE book. But the funny thing about Caligula is that there's always been that little bit of good fortune that has helped it to make that next crucial step. All it takes is for it to fall into the right set of hands at the right time and it could change everything. Only another fourteen weeks or so to to go.

That was an interesting piece by Guy Dammann about Youwriteon on the Guardian website, and it generated a lot of feedback. He was a little bit disengenuous with his digs about English Arts Council funding, but overall it was pretty positive. I think he slightly missed the point about the raison d'etre of the site, though. Youwriteon is all about encouraging people to be involved in writing and to evolve their writing once they're in. The very fact that so many people from all over the world have signed up and are taking part is surely evidence enough of the site's success so far. The possibility of getting published is the carrot which draws people in, but if someone like me is fortunate enough to find a publisher it's a by-product of what Youwriteon is all about not the reason it exists.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Countdown to Caligula

We've been working together for something like eight months now, but I finally met my editor Simon at the weekend. My wife Alison and I travelled down to London on the sleeper overnight on Thursday and then got the tube out to Ealing, where the Transworld offices are. Simon and Stina, my publicist, took us out for lunch to a great Italian place. He was just about exactly as I imagined him; young, very sharp and extremely professional. The whole lunch was very businesslike, exploring ideas for publicising the book, things I could do to help and talking about the launch, which will be in Scotland. Stina has lots of ideas for getting coverage, based on the author profile I sent her. I got a real feel for how much Transworld have invested me and in my writing and I'm determined to do everything possible to make it work.
Before lunch we had a chat in Simon's office. Behind him on a shelf was a stack of proof copies of Caligula, which gave me a sneak preview of what they'll look like in the bookshop.
Maybe it was a bit premature, but I gave him synopsis' for another four books I'm planning to write. He's made it pretty plain nothing will happen until we see how Caligula goes, but I've got a lot of writing time to make up, so as soon as he's happy with book two I'll start writing the final Rufus book, which I already have a form of. The one that really excites me is book four, another historic novel, which I already have plotted in my head and will be a real challenge to write, with a more complex structure than I've previously attempted.
London was great. We stayed at the Radisson in Portman Square and ate in a couple of really good restaurants nearby, the best of which was a place called Textures, which is a bit special, with prices to match. On Saturday we took the ultimate tourist trip on an open top bus, and I dragged Alison to the Imperial War Museum (which paid her back for the Christmas shopping). We went to the London Eye and took a boat trip down to the Tower, then joined the bus again.
Back to Brothers in Arms (version 101) on the train today. I think I'm dun cuttin' and pastin' and will soon be able to start writing again which will come as an enormous relief. Rewriting is fine, but taking something I've written to pieces is something I'll never learn to enjoy.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Countdown to Caligula

It's been a pretty quiet ten days or so - although not at work - but I'm heading down to London this weekend to meet Simon, my editor, for the first time which should be pretty interesting. We're meeting up for a chat at Transworld's offices in Uxbridge Road and then heading for lunch somewhere with Stina, the publicist who'll be masterminding our campaign. I've only been down to London a couple of times and never in the last few years, so I'm not sure what we'll do for the rest of the weekend. Any suggestions gratefully received. Caligula-wise the only thing of note was that I received a couple of book jackets which look brilliant - apart from the bloke on the inside back cover who looks far too pleased with himself. I've also been working on my crime book, Brothers in Arms, and today on the way home I finally think I got to grips with it. Stan, the agent, gave me some very good advice when I was rewriting Caligula. Basically, you set out the chapter headings and a paragraph of explanation for each, and it gives you a real insight into what you've got and what works and what doesn't in the flow of the story. It sounds like something any writer would do automatically, but it was new to me and it works.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Countdown to Caligula

I've had an amazing few days. I came home on Thursday night to find two books lying on the dining room table. That's right books. Real books.
It was completely out of the blue. I knew Bantam would be preparing paperback uncorrected proof copies to go out for review, but I didn't imagine they'd be done this quickly. Caligula: The Tyranny of Rome is a reality. It's big and bold and in your face and I love it. When I picked my book up for the first time a wonderful warm feeling came over me, and I've still got it three days later. For the last couple of years I've been dealing in abstracts: computer programmes, print-outs, thoughts and imaginings. But this is a beautiful, solid real thing that would grace anyones book shelf - and it has my name on it.
Even better, it arrived the day after I'd sent the manuscript for the second book in the series to Simon, the editor at Transworld. I've been polishing it for the last couple of weeks and when I discovered I was changing things back to what I'd changed them from on the last read, I decided it was time to let go. As I've said before, I like it a lot, but what matters is if the publisher thinks it's any good. So despite this natural high I'm on, there's still a kind of nerve-wracking couple of weeks ahead.
My next project is to get properly stuck in to the rewrite of Brothers in Arms, but first I'm going to finish a feature I'm writing for the Scotsman magazine. My job normally keeps me chained to a computer, so it's been great to talk to real people about real things again. It made me feel like a proper journalist.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Countdown to Caligula

Apologies for the prolonged absence, I was ambushed by the flu about two weeks ago and have since been struggling to rid myself of a kind of after flu flu that has sucked all the energy out of me. But enough of the medical bulletin.

Caligula is gone!

The typeset version of the manuscript appeared in the post just before I was felled by the lurgy and I worked on it for ten days or so before sending it on its way to Transworld with decidedly mixed feelings. That's it. There is no more I can do to it. No more rewrites or corrections. It's all down to the publishers' proofreaders. On the one hand there's relief that it is now, finally. truly complete. I've celebrated its completion about a dozen times now, and every time there was more to do to it after than before. But not this time. Now it's the book that people - people who buy books - will read. And that's scary. I must have gone through the typescript six or seven times and every time I had a different opinion about it. It's great. It's not. It's good. It's not good enough. People will like it. People will hate it. Totally irrational, I know, but something tells me it's what most people in this position feel. Still five months to go, it's going to seem forever.

So goodbye Caligula, hello ... the next book. Met Stan, the agent, today the only man apart from me who's set eyes on what I call The War God. And with a couple of minor reservations he likes it a lot, particularly the battle scenes, which pleased me, because they're big and bloody and epic, and I felt as if I was fighting them when I was writing them. You can smell the fear. The War God is finished - for the first time - now I plan to do a bit of polishing and get it to Simon at Transworld by the beginning of March. Another scary moment, but I like this book, and I think he will too. We're having lunch in London in a month - another first - so it'll give us something to chat about.

I learned something about the book business today that I should probably have known already. Stan has only a limited interest in The War God because it's already sold, part of the original two book deal. So he's happy to leave it to Simon and I to work on. He's more interested in the next project, the crime novel which he thinks has big potential. I thought it had too, but my enthusiasm waned when he got me to rip it apart and rebuild it. Then, halfway through, something clicked and I reconnected with the characters. I think it was when I started writing rather than sub-editing. The upshot is that we ran over a few different scenarios and now I can see exactly where the book's going and who does what to who. I like deadlines. The deadline for the new draft is the beginning of June. I can't wait to start.

I nipped into the YWO message boards today and I was saddened to see the site is going through one of those little civil wars it's prone to. Writing's about writing, not about complaining how long it is since you had a review or that somebody's given you lower marks than you think you deserve. The best things YWO taught me were patience and to roll with the punches. I suspect the second might come in handy in July.

Spent a great weekend in my old stamping grounds in the Borders at the weekend. Caught up with old friends (Shona, why did you let me drink so much wine?) and did a bit of hillwalking. We stayed in Melrose in a neat little hotel called the Townhouse (very stylish/great food) and I climbed the Eildon Hills, then walked down to the Tweed to look at the place where the Romans built an incredible stone fortress called Trimontium. The Borders Book Festival is in Melrose in June and I'm hoping to at least take in a couple of presentations to see what I could be looking at later this year or early next, maybe even take part in a workshop if I can wangle it. 'How to Roll With The Punches' sounds ideal!

Good health to all and avoid the lurgy.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Countdown to Caligula

Family were very excited when I came home last night. My eldest daughter Kara had discovered that the complete book cover for Caligula: The Tyranny of Rome has been uploaded on the Waterstone's website. Even though I'd seen the original artwork it was still thrilling to see it out there, where there had previously been a blank space. If I can figure out how to do it, I'll put it with this blog. (As you can see, I managed - let me know what you think!)

I also got an e-mail from Stina, my publicist at Transworld. It included a new author questionnaire form. The first page is fine; name, address, phone number, but then it gets complicated. Obviously I've been thinking about things that I'll need to do and ways I can make the book and the experience of writing it interesting, but now I have to put it down in black and white. I have to describe what's at the very heart of the book, talk about its genesis and inspiration, which should be fine, but I also have to tell all about me. What are your greatest achievements? Er, I've written a book ( scratches head to try to think of something else - and fails). As homework exercises go, it's a tough one, but I know how vital it is and i'll get down to it right after this. One area I should be OK is media contacts. I made a list the other night and came up with two dozen names of ex workmates in high places on various newspapers.

One of the things the form asked was whether I'd be comfortable speaking in public. I actually made a speech yesterday for the retiral of my pal Charlie Duncan, who's the associate night editor on The Scotsman. Charlie is a larger than life character and a fantastic all-round journalist and he'll leave an enormous hole now he's gone to spend more time at his weekend abode on the banks of Loch Lomond. I felt pretty good making the speech in front of about fifty people, but you're never sure whether your sounding interesting or not. Everybody laughs in the right places, but is that just out of politeness? I read about a course for writers the other day that teaches you about presentation, and if I can find one up this end of the country I think I'll sign up.

One of the people who follows my progress with a lot of interest is a fellow writer, Guy Saville, who is also a member of Yourwiteon. Guy's novel The Africa Reich was one of the biggest hits on the website - a fantastic read about how different the world would be if Britain and Germany had signed a peace deal and split Africa between them. He's working with his agent to get it published and has come up with a great idea to get it noticed. He's created a website called and is asking people to sign up and declare an interest. Please take a look at the site and send in your e-mail address, it's a great book and Guy is a writer whose work definitely deserves to be published.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Countdown to Caligula

Suddenly it all seems very real. Yesterday I got my first look at the artwork for the book cover and it looked fantastic. It's a really powerful piece of imagery that captures something right at the heart of the book. I thought it was a pretty macho picture, but I showed it to the girls at work and they said they thought it would appeal to women too, which is great. I realised that for the last few weeks some very talented people have been working to make Caligula: The Tyranny of Rome - and, by association, me - a success. It shouldn't have come as a surprise, but as a writer you sometimes get so wrapped up in your own little world of words you forget that this a serious commercial enterprise. Simon has put me in touch with my publicist and the next step will be to work out a plan of action for the weeks leading up to the launch day. It's still six months away, but it seems a lot closer now that I know what the book will look like.

I'm in purdah from the book I call The War God, which is the follow up to Caligula, so I'm working on a rewrite of a crime novel. It's a big job, basically tearing great chunks out of the structure and putting some of them back in different places. The characters are great, but sometimes I think that in deconstructing it, I've lost the soul of the book. Then again, I remember having the same feeling when I was turning The Emperor's Elephant into what is now Caligula, so maybe it's all about perseverance and creating something I can get a grip of again.

A couple of things I missed out of the story so far you might be interested in, but I'll make them short. First, the day I felt a connection with a real writer. I was reading Stephen King's book On Writing (if you haven't read it, you really should) and I came to this passage and I thought Yes! This is me. That's exactly how I feel sometimes. It was the part where he talks about how, when you're writing, sometimes you think all you're doing is shifting manure from one place to another!

Then there was the day I signed the contract. Stan invited me to a little cafe near Jenny Brown's office on the edge of the Meadows in Edinburgh. It was one of those cosmopolitan places full of interesting people. When he took me through the nuts and bolts of the contract, and then got me to sign all three versions, I realised I was probably the person everybody else was interested in. Just for a moment I felt like an honest to goodness movie star.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Countdown to Caligula

More progress, and though it's only little details, I'm disproportionately chuffed. It seems to make everything more imminent even though the Amazon countdown tells me I'm still 180 odd days away from publication.
I am no longer Doug -I am Douglas, which will please my mum, and is regarded as more authorititive in marketing circles. And Caligula, which I always had a feeling was a little ... sparse, has grown to Caligula: The Tyranny of Rome, which I like a lot. All this was revealed in the book jacket copy Simon sent me this week. It sounds so great, I can't believe it's actually me who's written it! The sales pitch is fantastic, too, but I'll keep it to myself just in case it's a secret weapon.
I sent Simon a picture of myself for a brochure Transworld were putting together for the Frankfurt Book Festival (when, incidentally, I expected the world to fall at my feet and the offers to come pouring in. Why is euphoria always such a painful experience?) but now he's asked for another one. So tomorrow one of my mates who's a professional photographer will take a set of new portraits. What to wear? To smile, or not to smile, that is the question? The good thing is that it doesn't really matter, no amount of effort is going to make me look handsome/clever/fashionable and I don't have to worry about getting a hair stylist, a polish will do fine.
Stan's been busy over Christmas with a lot of other stuff, but he finally got round to reading the follow up, which I call The War God. He says it kept him up til 3 am before he had to give up three chapters from the end, he liked it and he couldn't believe I turned it round so quickly. Four and a half months from title to The End - and all written on the train. The kids are talking about getting me a railway carriage in the garden if I ever give up work, just in case the magic wears off.
Enough for now, but a couple of things/experiences that are worth mentioning but were missed out of the story so far have occurred to me. I'll tell you about them next week.
And congratulations to Guy for getting his web site going for The Africa Reich. It looks fantastic.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Countdown to Caligula

So farewell George MacDonald Fraser, or, Bayete! as the great man himself would have said.
I grew up with Harry Flashman and as a young journalist GMF was something of a role model for me. He was a sub-editor on the Glasgow Herald and at the end of his shift he'd go home and work on his 'project'. The result was a character who has entranced generations of readers and a series of books that created a whole new genre and that I doubt will ever be surpassed.

It's not just that Flashman, rogue and philanderer, brazen coward and backstabber of friend and foe alike is a fantastic creation. It's the way Fraser took the tiniest snippets of virtually forgotten history and turned them into whole episodes of glorious heroism and ignominious defeat from which his hero always emerged, if not victorious, at least more or less unscathed and touched by glory. I probably retained more historical facts from Harry Flashman than I ever did from studying for the History O level (grade C) which is one of my precious few educational triumphs. The epic siege of Cawnpore or the Corn Laws? No competition.

Despite his many character defects there was something wonderfully optimistic about Flashman; he was often down, but never out; where others died with their boots on, he took his boots off and headed for the hills and safety. He always got the lady, more often several. And he was never short of a bob or two, even if he had to steal to get it. He's one of the few people who made me laugh out loud reading a book.

As a writer, I suspect that consistency is one of the most difficult things to achieve over such a long series of books, and Fraser managed it through a dozen novels, although I think the man himself would admit there were a couple that fell short of his impossibly high standards - Flashman and the Tiger, which reads like a concoction of early discarded pieces is the one that immediately springs to mind. He had a magic formula, but he was never frightened to change or attempt to enhance it. In Flashman's Lady (I think) when his dizzy, but delightful wife Elspeth is kidnapped and carried off to Borneo, the Flashman papers have been edited by some interfering vicar to get rid of the blasphemy. The final result didn't work particularly well, but it was brave to attempt it. Likewise John Charity Spring, the crazed slaver, whose asides in Latin I suspect I'm not alone in finding a little wearing. On the other hand, Flashman and the Redskins takes two separate periods of his life decades apart and links them by a vengeful spurned lover and is a fantastic adventure that probably gives as expert an insight into the lives and the plight of America's beleaguered Plains Indian tribes as any history.

One of the great conundrums of the Flashman books is the mystery of the missing papers. I've waited in vain for twenty years for Fraser to further enlighten me about our hero's service on both sides in the American Civil War, when he somehow contrived to win the highest decoration awarded by both Union and the Confederates, and survived Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. Then there's the part he played - no doubt hiding out in the hospital, or behind a bunch of mealy bags - in the defence of Rorke's Drift. GMF titillated us with little hints and asides over the years, but never revisited what, at first glance, would seem natural Flashman territory. Maybe he felt that the stories had already been told, or that the situations and circumstances were things Flashman had already experienced often enough. In his later years it seems to be the farther flung and lesser known campaigns that drew Fraser.

His finest work? A tough one. The aforesaid Flashman and the Indians is up there, and the opening Flashman novel where we meet Harry fresh from his expulsion from Rugby and he's dragged kicking and screaming into the doomed Afghanistan invasion has got to be a contender. But for me the Flashman book nobody should miss is Flashman and the Great Game, his memoir of the Indian Mutiny. It's a fantastic combination of Victorian derring-do, madcap cavalry charges, subterfuge, seduction, slaughter, and a spine-tingling finale that I challenge anyone to better.

MacDonald Fraser, like Flashman, was a product of his times ands both revelled in their political uncorrectness. The author served in Burma during the war, in what the participants knew as The Forgotten Army, his memoir Quartered Safe Out Here has been described as one of the finest by a private soldier by no less and authority as the historian Max Hastings, and I'll second that. As a Borderer, his history of the Border Reivers - The Steel Bonnets - is a must-own book.

If you haven't read a Flashman novel, nip out and get one now. Like Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey and Maturin novels it'll take you into a whole new world!

When I look back on my earlier posts the words that spring to mind are 'pretentious' and 'po-faced'. Maybe blogging is like e-mail in that it's difficult to get across the soul and the nuance of what you're trying to say. Anyway, enough of the Story so Far. I'll stick to the story as it unfolds. The copy-edited manuscript (bagged -twice - parcel-taped and registered) has been dispatched to Transworld and I pray every day it gets there safely. Next step will be when I get the book proof.

Have a great 2008!