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!