The official website of Scottish Author David F Porteous
Another quick excerpt from the book I'm currently writing. This exchange takes place between Isobel Greenhill and her granddaughter Caprice Howard in the back garden of the house owned by Judith Howard (Isobel's daughter and Caprice's mother).
“Why isn’t my mum a witch?” Caprice asked her grandmother. Isobel Greenhill was sitting on a chair in the back garden with her feet propped up on another chair. She had her eyes closed and her face titled to an afternoon sun that was still high above the tall trees beyond the well-tended and substantially decorative vegetable patch. It looked almost as if Isobel were sunbathing, apart from her green coat, which she wore buttoned all the way up to her chin.
The garden at the back of the house was enclosed by high hedges and the only signs of neighbouring buildings were a few roofs and frosted bathroom windows. The village was a place of strictly observed rules, boundaries and privacy. If there were other girls and other grandmothers in adjacent gardens they were as far removed from Caprice as the Martians.
Isobel did not open her eyes when she replied.
“Your mother is a witch.”
“But she never does any spells,” Caprice said.
“Ah. Is that what you think being a witch is?” Isobel asked. “Spells? Broomsticks too, I imagine? And cats that speak to you in Latin?”
“And it isn’t?”
“Oh, yes,” Isobel replied with a puff of derision that clearly indicated the truth was the opposite of that. “If you can be bothered teaching a cat how to speak Latin. And if you don’t mind carrying around a broomstick everywhere. Being a witch can be like that. But those are distractions. The first thing a witch should learn is that there is nothing a witch should learn.”
“I don’t understand,” Caprice said.
It had been dry for several days and she sat on the grass a little away from her grandmother. Bees scoured the lawn for the daisies that grew everywhere else, but which Judith Howard had the gardener regularly excise. The hum of the bees was like the sound of distant mowing and Caprice – who had never been stung and had no fear of it – was not disturbed by the infrequent fly-bys.
“How did you learn to speak?” Isobel asked.
“I don’t remember. Probably from my mum and dad.”
“And how did you learn to hold a knife and fork?”
“The same way.”
“And if you had been born in China and your parents were Chinese, how would you be different?”
“I would speak Chinese and use chopsticks.”
“Most likely,” Isobel replied, her eyes still closed. A bee seemed about to land on the old woman’s nose, hovering in the air above her face for a frozen moment until she frowned and the insect sped off like a black and yellow firework.
“So,” Isobel continued, “how would you learn to be a witch?”
Caprice was sure this was a trick question, but she couldn’t think of any way to answer it than by saying, “I would watch other witches and do what they did.”
“Then you would fail,” Isobel said, though there was no expression of surprise or disappointment in the way she said it.
“There is magic that you can learn from books or from instruction, but witchcraft is not like that at all. I could teach you how to spin straw from gold and turn wine into water. I could show you how to fold up space to change a great hall into a cupboard. I could give you the secret of eternal age and ugliness. Under my instruction you might hold a bottle with a bolt of lightning and dance on a dragon’s wing. But having learned all these things you still would not be a witch.
“Witchcraft is the magic we learn from ourselves, by understanding who we are, who we will become and what we want. As we become wiser, we understand ourselves more, and through understanding ourselves we understand everything. All the things you think of as magic are tricks. Useful, yes, but if you understand yourself you can do anything. Or you can do nothing. That is the power of witchcraft.”
Caprice thought about this and replied, “But why doesn’t my mum do spells?”
“A long time ago she fell in love with a boy, who fell in love with someone she wasn’t. Do you know the story of Narcissus?”
Caprice shook her head, and was about to speak – since her grandmother could not see her – but Isobel spoke anyway.
“Narcissus was a beautiful boy—”
“Shouldn’t you say handsome?” Caprice interrupted. “Because he was a boy. Boys are handsome and girls are beautiful.”
“Nonsense,” Isobel said with another snort. “Handsome is a word for horses and hounds. Only a mother should ever call a boy handsome, and only if the boy is her son, and her son is ugly. Narcissus was beautiful. One day he saw his reflection in a pond, fell in love with it, then committed suicide. What does that teach us?”
“Don’t look into ponds?” Caprice replied. “I feel like there should be more to that story if it’s supposed to have a moral.”
“I see. Well.” Isobel cleared her throat. “A long time ago, at the edge of a wood lived a hunter whose family were all passed away. He had a house and a bow and such things as young men of that age of the world were accustomed to; and he was neither poor nor rich, and what he hunted in the forest he ate, and the pelts he sold for coin to meet all his other needs.
“The hunter was tall and lithe and his hair was black as a midnight hurricane. He took lovers when he wished, both men and women – in those days that was more common than not. But never for more than a night and though they loved him, he felt no emotion that survived the dawn of the new day.”
“Shush. It so happened that while in the woods a young witch saw the hunter. She was strong and determined and she decided that she would take the hunter to her bed, and perhaps make him her husband.”
“Oh that’s how witches have always done things. You’ll do the same in your time. Now stop interrupting.
“The hunter did not see the witch as she was, he saw a plain girl of the forest, far less impressive to his eye than the people of the town whom he could seduce as he wished. He did not scorn her, but he did not want her either, and if the witch had as much sense as determination that would have been the end of it.
“It was not.
“The witch followed the hunter and watched him when he bent to a pool of water to drink. The hunter saw his reflection and realised that he was what he desired most in the world. And the witch, who was very powerful indeed, realised that in all the world the hunter was what she most desired. Using her great magic, the witch put aside all that she had learned about herself, all that she had ever been and could ever be, and she became the hunter’s reflection. She rose up from the pool and the hunter loved her as he loved himself.”
“The hunter doesn’t kill himself in that story,” Caprice said.
“No,” Isobel replied. “In that story it is the witch who kills herself; the moral is the same. Neither witch nor hunter had imagined how the years would pass, yet such passage is always predictable. Their beauty faded. Each year they looked the same and each year they liked it less, until their reflection served only as a reminder of those regrets which a lifetime piles up. They died on the same day. At the end, neither could recall who had been the beautiful boy and who had been only his reflection.
“There aren’t a dozen witches in the world who could cast a spell like that, even if they were foolish enough to want to.”
Caprice considered that for a long time. She hadn’t thought of her mum and dad ever being in love. They just were. They ate dinner. They went to church. On birthdays and at Christmas they gave each other small gifts. If that was love, it wasn’t as interesting or exciting as books and films made it seem.
Caprice asked, “Is this why you and dad don’t get on?”
“I don’t get on with most everyone, my dove,” Isobel said. “Don’t let that worry you.”
“Will I be a powerful witch?”
Isobel opened her eyes and looked at Caprice for the first time in half an hour. She smiled, and Caprice thought it was a sad smile.
“Yes,” Isobel said, in her style of answering questions simply and directly, while giving as little information as possible.
“Will I be a greater witch than my mum?”
“We must hope so.”
“Will I be a greater witch than you?”
The question made Isobel’s Greenhill’s eyes bulge, and she made an attempt to smother a laugh with a throaty cough.
“Who knows?” the old woman asked after recovering her composure and she shrugged dramatically. “Let’s begin, and then we’ll see.”
Just sharing a small piece of work in progress on the third book - which has a title, but which I'm not going to tell you. This a conversation that takes place between Campbell and Stockton, relating the latter's experience with werewolves . . .
"I met a man once, his eyebrows were heavy and his hands thick covered with coarse black hair.”
“He told me a story that I believe, about how he had been bitten and lived and did not change when the moon waxed full. I asked him how and he told me—”
“Drink lots of water,” Campbell interrupted. “Pretty much all health advice comes down to sleep, exercise, diet or drinking lots of water.”
“He told me that the wolf is hungry because it needs to be fed. He told me that his brothers knew he had been bit and they knew he had to die. Remember in those days every credulous villager went around wreathed in garlic and amulets, and alternated the veneration and immolation of toothless crones who spoke to trees. According to the mad old woman they most recently listened to, the proper way to deal with a werewolf was to cut off all of its limbs with an axe, bury the four limbs in four graves aligned towards Jerusalem, then put the body, head and a pile of rocks into a barrel of wine and throw the barrel into the ocean.”
“That’ll do it,” Campbell confirmed.
“Understandably the brothers couldn’t bring themselves to do any of it. This man was their brother, they loved him, they had no idea which way Jerusalem was, and wine was very expensive. Instead they found a cave in the mountains near where they lived, they put their brother inside and they rolled a stone over the entrance. For six days they waited; three before and three after the full moon.
“On the morning of seventh day they returned to bring out his body and give him a proper burial according to their traditions. He was their brother, they loved him, they couldn’t leave his bones to rot in some mountain cave, and – what was even more important – he’d taken all the family’s money into the cave with him so he knew they would have to come back for him.
“Rolling a stone into place was, the brothers discovered, much easier than rolling it back out again. It took them hours to uncover the entrance and, as is so often the case, after so much work the final revealing happened quickly. Rather than find a beast, or the body of a man starved to death, their brother stood at the entrance to the cave—”
“How big was this cave?” Campbell asked.
“He may have crouched at the entrance of the cave. In any case he emerged; a little thinner perhaps, but alive and well. Now the brothers rejoiced. Because they loved their brother, and they had their money back, and they hadn’t told their elderly mother about the whole cave in the mountains bit before they did it and she was furious.
“So they went home and all was well. Though nobody doubted that there were werewolves, people began to disbelieve that the beast that had bitten our protagonist was such a creature. Others said that the cave in the mountains was obviously magical and suggested that anyone with an illness should be confined inside for a week to see if they got better. This idea did not immediately appeal to any sick people in the village and was never tested.
“Never?” Campbell asked.
“No. A few days short of a month later the first brother – the one who had been bitten – should I have given them names?”
“You’re the writer.”
“Let’s say the older brother was called Krebotkin and the others brothers . . . well if I name them then I have to decide if there were two or three.”
Campbell said, “I was imagining three.”
“Tom, Dick and Harry,” Stockton said. “A few days short of a month later Krebotkin killed Tom and Dick. Harry and their mother had gone on a pilgrimage to a distant church, to pray on the bones of a saint who was known to cure feelings of homosexuality.”
“Oh that Harry,” Campbell said ruefully. “He just couldn’t leave the miller’s son alone.”
“The pair returned to find slaughter,” Stockton said. “And Krebotkin had fled into the woods, or mountains, or another terrain feature, and they never saw him again.”
“So this Krebotkin in your story was a werewolf?” Campbell asked.
“Yes,” Stockton said. “He was. Obviously when he finished telling me this story he tried to kill me and so I broke his neck, hacked off his limbs, buried the pieces in several graves orientated towards Jerusalem and drowned the rest of him in wine. Because really, if you didn’t, after all that, you’d have to be some kind of schmuck.”
I DON'T WANT TO HAVE A BLOG!
Hopefully the warmth of that opening has encouraged you to read more. I don't like blogging. Blogging feels a lot like I'm an old man sending letters to the editor of a print media artifact created from wood pulp and spit. It seems old hat. Even older than that, perhaps - it seems pre-hat.
But here I am, blogging. And there you are, reading. I presume.
I'm going to keep this blog updated more regularly and more frequently. If you're following me on Facebook and Twitter then you'll have seen a number of updates about cover art and the forthcomingness of an audiobook. These things will be the subject of future blogs.
What I wanted to introduce to you today is the concept of regular progress, behind the scenes work on what I'm doing right now. I'm going to call these posts IWHSYDHT(F) - which stands for I Write Harder So You Don't Have To (Facepalm) - and in them I'll introduce you to terrible, inhumane acts of crassness which I commit in first drafts and which I then correct in subsequent drafts.
That's a good idea, right? There's no way this could ever come back and bite me in the future - like suddenly in the future, like before the end of this post? Nah, that's never going to happen.
The first change is in Singular itself. With the revision of the cover I took the opportunity to dip back into the book and make a small change due to an issue we encountered when recording the audiobook. It was only when listening back to a section featuring the creature (It) that I realised I'd put a really lazy and repetitive sentence in and somehow this had got by my normal editing process.
The original sentence was:
"The world grew from fist-sized sphere to fill the whole of its vision in three exhilarated breaths - and grew larger still until it felt the jarring strike of something hard against its whole body as it broke the threshold that separated one reality from another."
The reason it struck me was because there are three "hole" sounds. "Whole of its vision", "whole body" and "threshold". Using the same word twice in one sentence is criminal; thrice is . . . more criminal. Mugging an old lady, criminal. Punching a goat, criminal. Low class, unwashed, criminal.
The revision was:
"The world grew from fist-sized sphere to fill its vision in three exhilarated breaths – and grew larger still until it felt the jarring strike of something hard against its body as it broke the threshold that separated one reality from another."
Now, those revisions having gone to press, as it were, I see that second "grew" laughing at me. And I realise it isn't the word "grew" laughing at me - it's god.
Hopefully future blog updates will make me seem less of an idiot.
Almost every word you ever read was a coward. You write enough words and you get to know them for what they are; their character. Words are pliable, twisty, squirmy little bastards you can’t play chess with. Some are glass fragile, facetted, intriguing and pointing in a dozen different directions. The worst of them are smoke, holding shape and meaning for a second, but changeling like a perjurer’s testimony.
A good word means only one thing and means it only once – he is focussed in one direction and means to expend himself in one purpose. A good word is a punch and should carry all your weight; the lean, the step-in – elbow up!
A good word is something better than fearless: a good word is brave.
Vasily Smyslov, the Soviet Grandmaster, used to twist his chess pieces after moving them, screwing them into the board, daring his opponent to take them; putting up a palisade of oblique bishops and cardinal rooks. And the ambition of anyone who would call themselves a writer must be to put words down with equal conviction. To dare time – our enemy – to take their meaning.
But the brave words perish first. The unexpected. The portmanteau. The found sound. Time melts their faces. And the ones that remain are the reworked words, like train timetables – all gloss and promises that won’t be kept in this country. Survivors, with all the guilt of the colaborator.
Almost every word you ever read was a coward.
For posterity, I include the mock graduation speech I prepared for a contest offered by American author of young adult things to read, Maureen Johnson. In Britain we don't have the tradition of students delivering speeches, but if we did, and if I'd given one, this would not be it.
It's my belief that after submitting this, Maureen blocked me on Twitter.
It was either this speech or the pictures of me wearing only a confused expression.
In either case, here it is.
I have watched you prepare, these last four years, for the war that is to
come. And I am not impressed.
I, who have laid waste to worlds more ancient by far than the tarnished
bauble of this [check note cards] Earth, have seen great civilizations train
their young in a thousand ways. Yet none, I think will prove as inadequate as
Knowing as you must that our attack shall come from the edge of space –
where, even now, our mighty fleet assembles – you must surely realise that your science, your engineering, your mathematics are woeful by comparison to ours. Your study of the history of art seems pointless; almost a parody of reason.
Your art we shall burn – except for the items you have already burned as
artistic statements – these we shall reassemble using advanced technology and put on display. You shall all be made to see these displays. Tickets will be expensive. And the lines shall be long.
Only your swim team seems prepared for the psychological warfare we shall
unleash on you, when our timed-release penis-shrinking drugs kick-in, just
before the Fourth of July weekend.
You believe that because you have endured these scant four years that your
works shall be proud and that in this glorious summer the sting of death will
not touch you.
You are mistaken.
We shall deprive you of all those things you hold most dear. Holiday sales at
electrical goods stores, the beach, apple pie – including combination fruit pies
that contain apple, really good drugs, Dancing With The Stars and almost all
The only place left to eat will be Wendy’s – and not the good Wendy’s, the
And once we have crushed your spirits, we shall install a Vichy government to rule you harshly – as is our tradition. To prevent any feelings of sympathy,
this government will be made up entirely of another species. In Earth’s case,
rule of the planet will be ceded to the bees, and their powerful stings shall
keep you in fear, because that thing about bees only being able to sting you
once and then they die? That’s bullshit. Most bees can sting you as much as they like.
And they like to do it a lot.
Also, the bees who rule you will be Africanised.
Now please stand while Danny plays your new national anthem on the kazoo.
My second book - The Death of Jack Nylund - will be released on Kindle and in print 1st October 2012. This will be the first of nine novellas in the Gods & Monsters series.
The Death of Jack Nylund follows US Federal Marshal Clay Falk and private investigator Walter Black as they move from different sides of the country searching for Jack Nylund - who is lost in all the ways a man can be. Set in an alternative 1922 where the ancient oligarchs work in shadow to rule mankind, and war against each other for wealth and power, The Death of Jack Nylund brings the horror of H P Lovecraft to the criminal world of Raymond Chandler and George V Higgins.
Expect more information about The Death of Jack Nylund as publication date approaches. But for now you can check out the Map for a few location-specific paragraphs from the new book and scan the Wurdle for character names and key words.
Exciting times :)
Singular was finished about a year ago. I always say the best way to appreciate a book is by reading all of the words in the book in sequential order. But a close second is reading only the most common 100 words in the book, as a big mashed-up pile on a page. Enter Wordle.net - one of my favourite free text summary tools.
Now you can, by looking at this simple image, identify the names of the key characters in Singular and see that I have quite the passion for similie. I like like like a man who likely has issues with the word love.
I follow Tim Ferris on Twitter, because this time last year I harboured a secret belief that I too could transform myself with kettle bells and roughage. A successful non-fiction writer and life-guru, Ferris occasionally posts writing-related things and so my interest in him out-lasted my interest in combination vitamin supplements.
This is all preamble, but he posted a link to an article about the value of classics and said that he wouldn’t read any new books for a while. The author of that article made the point that people don’t make the effort with classics because they’re difficult, though ultimately that much more rewarding and worthy than new books.
This put a bee in my coif and I’ve been twitching about it since. Old books are better. New books are too rooted in the now, too trendy, too blah. Whereas an old book is a memorable evening of dining and dancing with an elegant, thoughtful lover – a new book is a hand job in the back of Hyundai: immediately satisfying in a very unsatisfying way. Like as not you’ve heard this argument before. Like as not you’ve heard very smart people agree with it.
I’d recently treated myself to a Kindle and decided that I’d read a few classics – by which I mean free books out of copyright – which I knew by reputation by experiencing them in other media. A few years ago the BBC did a wonderful costumed adaptation of Tom Jones: A Foundling. A thundering, rollicking story full of sex and off-colour humour. I was looking forward to Tom Jones the novel as much as a coach load of elderly ladies on a trip to Vegas look forward to Tom Jones the singer.
I was disappointed. The language in Tom Jones is still entirely accessible despite being more than 250 years old, but it was about as badly written as any book I’ve ever picked up. I sashayed through the first oddball chapter where Henry Fielding berates the critics history has forgotten for opinions they haven’t expressed yet and pushed into the book expecting a little more focus and directness.
I was disappointed. Imagine if you could load sentences into a shotgun and fire them at a page to form paragraphs – that’s Fielding. And indeed most of his contemporaries. The effective, direct structuring of English was yet to emerge and it was perfectly normal for novelists and essayists to wander with the same deliberate purpose found in cats chasing butterflies.
Skip ahead a century and a half to Oscar Wilde – a man better quoted than read – and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde seems to have written a novel only as a way to link together his witty remarks, which are in concentration actually rather annoying and clearly of the same form.
A few years back an author tried sending in the subtly altered books of Jane Austen to publishers and was baffled by the response he got – nobody wanted them. I was less baffled. As far as I was concerned that response was inevitable because, while the books are a delight, they are read today not because of their literary merit but because of the strength of the Austen brand. (Mark Twain, most famously, was not a fan of Austen’s style or characterisation).
The difference between old books and new isn’t just the language and it’s entirely possible for a book written rather in arcane English to be published and be successful – such as the unexpected noughties hit Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. But Clarke has a modern – and better – understanding of the mechanisms of fiction than any of her influences. The book is a success not because it reads a bit like Dickens, but because it reads like Dickens would write a book today.
The snobbery of declaring that all the good books were written before we were born and that all of modern literature is trivial is manifestly false. There were contemporaries of Aristotle who felt that all art and reason belonged to a previous age and every generation has been awash with people ready to dismiss to the present. The truth is that modern books aren’t just the equal of the works of previous centuries – they are objectively better. An Austen book submitted today should be rejected by a publisher and there is no classic book that would not benefit from an editor and another draft. Pretending that it’s somehow noble to plough through language abandoned for its uselessness is silly and does considerable disservice to the current generation of writers.
Stop two on Singular's virtual tour - guest blogging at Been There, Read That.
"I never give advice. Or at least I never give advice I don’t regret later, when an older, wiser me looks at my advice, shakes his head and chuckles. But I’m going to opine in this case and with the full knowledge that I’ll regret it later..."
Continue reading here: http://bit.ly/meItLD
Where Am I?
dfpiii.com is the official website of David F Porteous. Use the tabs to learn more about David, his books: Singular and The Death of Jack Nylund, or read his blog.
(<<< The blog is over there).