People of the forest, people of the water

My editrix and I both love the following scene, but we’re debating about whether to leave it in or pull it out for inclusion in another book.  It is one of my darlings, as in ‘kill your darlings’.  We’re meeting later this week and I’ll let you know.


“Esther, why do Dad and Lloyd fight so much?”

Esther leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes for a minute before she answered. “Two different worlds, sonny. There’s always been problems between folks who make their living off the trees and the rest of us, fishermen and oystermen. The sawmills were never all that good for the fish, but ever since your dad’s paper mill came in it’s been killing off……Gahdammit!”

Esther put down her glass, launched out of the chair, and stomped across the concrete floor toward Jimmy Basket, an Indian kid about my age, who had just kicked over a five-gallon bucket of fresh-shucked oyster meat onto the floor.

“Gahdammit! Cultus siwash!” Jimmy cringed. From his embarrassed look I figured he’d been called a worthless savage more than once. The shuckers lined up at the long metal table hooted and shouted good-natured abuse at him; they’d all been on Esther’s bad side at one time or another.

Jimmy looked over at his mom for support, but she just shook her head and turned back to her work. She was a short, quiet Indian woman with thick black hair that hung down in a long braid. She divided her time between shucking oysters during the winter and weaving baskets of cedar bark and local grasses to sell during the rest of the year. When things were really busy she brought Jimmy to the oyster shed to clear empty shells off the shucking table and take them out to the yard. Esther said it was as much to keep Jimmy out of trouble as to help. He wasn’t slow or stupid, just clumsy, the way I’d been a couple years earlier.

“Git on over there and wheel those shells outside! No, leave these oysters alone; I’ll clean ‘em up. Miserable, heathen…….”

Her voice trailed off. She retrieved the spilled oysters and carried them across the room to the deep sink, rinsed them, and dropped them in a colander to drain. Then she came back and plopped herself down, breathing hard. “Swear to God, if it ain’t cockroaches it’s piss-ants. Hand me that bottle. Okay, your dad and Lloyd. How much do you know about the mill and oysters?”

“Only that I heard Uncle Lloyd talk about there not being many oysters the last few years. He says Dad’s mill’s the problem. Dad says no, and Lloyd says yes and then they start arguing again. What’s the mill got to do with it?”

“Can’t rightly say.” She poured a little brown liquid into her glass, held it up to the light, then added a little more. “All I know is that the mill uses chemicals to turn trees into paper and there’s some nasty stuff left over when they’re done. The mill dumps it in the bay, the tide brings it down this way and the oysters die. Gotta be a connection somehow.

She took a long sip and set the glass down. “When I was younger, we used to harvest mostly Olympia oysters. You know Mark Twain? Tom Sawyer and all that?” I nodded. “Well, he loved to eat Olympias. Said it was the closest thing to heaven on earth. Now they’re pretty much all dead and gone and we have to farm Pacifics. Shut that door, Jimmy!”

Jimmy wrestled the full wheelbarrow through the shed door and outside, but not before the wind had sucked most of the warmth out of the shed. Esther grumbled and told me to stoke the fire in the stove. Outside a gasoline engine coughed into life. Immediately there was the sound of wheels creaking – the conveyer belt leading up from the shore to an opening at the top of the shed – and another load of oysters came rattling down the silo and onto the shucking table. Uncle Lloyd came through the door and the workers picked up the pace.

“Rain’s letting up a bit.” He gave me a smile and a nod, stripped off his rain gear and stepped over to the stove. “I grabbed Jimmy; sent him down to fork some oysters off the barge. You need him inside?”

“Nah. He’s been losing me money in here. Will’ll help out if it gets too busy.” She turned to me. “You should ask Lloyd about the mill and your Dad.” Lloyd’s smile faded. He pulled off his wet gloves and draped them across the dome of the stove.

“Not any secret,” he said. “You mind?” He took Esther’s glass, poured it half full, and drained it. “I always thought the mill runoff was killing the shellfish around here. I been working the beds since I was younger than you, so I know the pattern. The mill runs full speed ahead and the next season half the oysters are dead or dying. And we’re having the same problem this year.” His face was grim. “Your dad doesn’t see it that way; says there’s no evidence. But he only looks at the tests they do at the mill. I walk the flats every day and smell the stink of dead oysters.”

“What’s gonna happen?” I asked. I had a sudden picture of empty smokestacks, my dad’s favorite smell of sulfur gone from the air, the mill whistle silent at noon. What would Dad do? What would we do?

“Gotta come to a head sometime. I don’t know how the two sides are gonna figure this one out. The mill’s been talking forever about doing something with the runoff; even tried trucking it to pits north of town but it still leaked into Goldsborough Creek and back out to the bay. There’s just too much of it and they don’t want to spend the money to get rid of it properly. And your dad and I aren’t the only ones arguing about this. Yeah, I think something big’s gotta happen, and soon.”

The engine outside sputtered to a halt and the sound of oysters rattling down the chute faded away. Lloyd grabbed his gloves and rain slicker and headed for the door, giving me a friendly squeeze on the shoulder as he went by. Esther pushed another stick of wood into the stove and I sat there, sick to my stomach with worry .


Kill Your Darlings

Hola, faithful readers!

Here’s the latest installment in the Saga of the Aspiring Author.  Or the Author who aspires to get published by the New York Big Five, at least.  Earlier I wrote you about my first rejection letter, how my editor prepped me for being turned down by agents I wish to have represent me (numerous times, she said; expect many rejections and learn to live with them).  Yesterday I got another rejection.  This time the agent was kind enough to add some perspective to the mix.  She said that, while she saw me as a strong writer, and while some of the chapters I sent her were great, others just didn’t resonate with her and served to slow down the narrative.  She felt that I didn’t grab the readers by the throat and drag them into the action early enough.

When I got the email I took my coffee out on the deck, threw some Purina dog chow down to the geese waiting in the slough below, and sat for a while in the early morning sun.  I thought about how the novel had taken shape: five years of half-true recollections and fantasies riding piggy-back on facts.  Our family dog Chub.  Oystering on Puget Sound.  My Great Aunt and the geoduck with a neck ”pert near as thick as a donkey’s dick’.  And I realized that the whole back story of Shelton and the mill and pollution killing the oysters just didn’t enhance the novel.  Great prologue material, set in italics and of some interest historically, but irrelevant to the work as a whole.

Trouble was, I loved that part of the story.  I loved it so much that I ignored (forgot, actually) my editor’s warning about pacing.  Yesterday we talked again and discussed Faulkner’s warning to authors: “In writing, your must kill your darlings.”  My darlings were parts of the manuscript that I’d fallen in love with but which ended up being distracting to my readers.  They were fine in the beginning, and I needed them like trees need branches to bear fruit.  But as the story progressed and the characters grew and took on different lives, then some of the people, locations, and plot lines had to be pruned away.

So it’s time to take them out, gently, and put them in the graveyard.  Or maybe limbo.  That’s it – a limbo file, and they can be resurrected at a later date.  If they were compelling enough to grab my attention in the first place, there may yet be a life for them down the road.

My First Rejection Letter!!

Hi Everyone, Mary Rosenblum, my wonderful editor, helped prepare me for the inevitable rejection letters once I started sending out queries to agents. Today I received the first one, thanking me for submitting my manuscript but noting that “it isn’t quite what we’re looking for at present.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that my writing sucks or that the agent didn’t like the content (although both of those are possibilities). Mary reminds me that even if the story is strong and well-written it may not be the ‘flavor of the month’ for the NY publishers. Can’t sell stories about overcoming childhood trauma when the market is thirsty for vampires.


Six years ago I found myself in South Florida for the winter; newly married, newly retired, and with lots of time on my hands.  The mortgage career I had grown to hate was now in the rear-view mirror, and stretching out in front of me were hours and days during which I would be accountable to no one and tasked with producing nothing.  I had the luxury of getting up whenever I wanted, taking long walks on the beach, staying up late reading trash novels, and sleeping in the next morning.  I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven.

After a couple of weeks I started to panic.  What was I going to do with all this freedom?  I had started working before I was ten, harvesting cascara bark with my older brother John and selling Burpee’s seeds.  By the sixth grade I had a full time paper route.  I had worked my entire life and I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t have a job.  Now I was officially retired and I couldn’t imagine starting over again in a career.  What to do?  I started getting up early in the morning – really early, for me, like 5:30 – and began working on a journal.

The next winter we went further south, to Puerto Escondido on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, down near Guatemala.  It was a trip we were to make each winter for the next six years.  We’d leave Portland at the end of December and come back in May, tan and a few pounds lighter, having eaten almost nothing but fruits and vegetables for four solid months.  Each trip I’d fill up another notebook or two with observations, letters to grandchildren, short stories and poems.  I wrote about our little fishing village and what it was like to be a gringo in Mexico.  I wrote about growing up and moving around the country as my dad’s work required.  I wrote about the joy of having children, the anguish of divorce and the long arc of healing afterwards, and the unbelievable luck that led me to my wife Jackie.

After a while whole stories began to almost write themselves, stories about everything from our first dog in Shelton and being almost run over by a boat in Mexico (all true), to fiction pieces inspired by people I’d met and places I’d lived.  Some of the pieces began to link up with others to create a longer narrative.  I didn’t intend to write a book, but describing that process is what this Blog is all about.

Publishing 101

Hi, faithful readers,

I took a two month hiatus from the book after an agent in Florida agreed to look at the entire manuscript. I’m learning that the road from finishing a manuscript to actual publication is a lot longer and more fraught than I had expected.

The process goes like this. You send out a query letter and some chapters to pique the agent’s interest. If the writing and the subject strike a nerve the agent will ask to see the entire manuscript. Then the agent sells the thing for big bucks to a NY publisher and you’re on to fame and fortune.

Actually, no.

I’m finding out that, one interested agent notwithstanding, the chances of a book ever getting published with the Big Boys in NY are close to nil. It’s important to submit to many agents (after doing a lot of homework about what they’re interested in), expect a raft of rejection letters (if they ever respond at all), and don’t give up the day job.

So in the interests of keeping you all up to date, here’s a sample of the query letter I send out to agents. You can be sure I’ll let you know as soon as there is some action on the other end of the fishing pole.


Overview: ‘Sunrise, Yeomans County’ is a coming of age story about social and racial prejudice, sexual predation, revenge, and redemption, with lifelong repercussions for all the main characters. I lived in both the Pacific Northwest and the Deep South during the Civil Rights era described in the story, nevertheless ‘Sunrise’ is almost totally a work of fiction.

Thanks for taking time to look at my work.

Mike DesCamp 503-407-3443

Synopsis: A message arrives from Yeomans, Georgia, signed only with the letter J, and Attorney Will Letour, comfortably retired in Portland, Oregon, is pulled back half a century to a place he has spent his entire life trying to forget.

After strife between his logging and oyster growing relatives in the Pacific Northwest tears his family apart, Will’s father is forced to accept work at a mill in Deep South Georgia. The family arrives at the height of the Civil Rights conflict – Catholics in a Baptist town, Yankees in a Confederate world.

Will’s brother Jack, his best friend and protector, withdraws into a life of football and moonshine. Will is bullied and ostracized. His only friends are Dal and Jenny, two other bookish outcasts. His father is unable to help him as he struggles to fit in.

Only two other adults play a strong role in his life. One is his Biology teacher, Jenny’s father, who educates him on Confederate history and venomous reptiles. The other is his music teacher, whose attentions are as dangerous as the deadly snakes that Will learns to handle.

The family’s time in Georgia is cut short after death strikes close to home, ugly and personal.

Now, fifty years later, Will is forced to face the part he played in another death, one that has haunted him his entire life. His only path to resolution and redemption will take him back to Yeomans County.

Editors and Agents and a Recipe For Success

Just picked up from the ‘Literary Midwife’, a literary magazine in Portland, OR, by Mary Rosenblum, the best editor in the world.

…..and now we get to the ‘Agent’ part of the post…

Editing is the expensive part of publishing and that’s the part that most self publishing writers overlook.  Hey, it’s an awesome book, they know it’s an awesome book and so do their friends!   But remember, you want about 30,000 strangers to think it’s an awesome book, too.

Let me share Mike Descamp’s story with you.   Mike Descamp brought me a novel for a full content edit.  He had submitted it to a friend, an editor in the NY publishing world, and it had been politely and firmly rejected.   I had a lot to say about that book, suggesting he make some big changes, including remove a character who simply didn’t belong and reorganize the way the story unfolded. That’s a lot to ask of a writer and I give Mike a lot of credit, a LOT of credit, for trusting me, listening to me, and making some signifcant changes in that book.

It shaped up into a powerful coming of age story with some echoes of Catcher in the Rye, the loss of innocence of To Kill a Mockingbird, but also the modern darkness of family dysfunction and child abuse. For all that, it’s a book of redemption and hope, and will leave readers satisfied.  I’m very proud of the work Mike has done on it.

Mike met an agent at a casual writing event recently and the agent graciously, if a bit reluctantly, said she’d look at a pitch, then asked for a chapter by chapter outline and thirty pages.  We worked on those together and sent them off.  I cautioned Mike to expect a looong wait, but lo and behold, she called him about a week later, to say she had looked at the outline, started reading the pages, he’s a powerful writer, and please send the whole book.  She’s taking it to New York.

I’m not in any way taking credit for Mike’s success. Sunrise Yeomans County is a powerful story and he is indeed a very strong writer.  But he made some beginner mistakes that hid its strength and we worked as a team on this book, with the same goal;  make this story as powerful as it could be.  And it is powerful.   Great work, Mike, I really expect this agent to sell the book to a New York publisher, and  I’m looking forward to seeing it in print! Thanks for being such a cooperative client, you’ve been a joy to work with!

So, the bottom line is that you must have a strong book and you must promote it.  Those are the key elements to success in publishing today, no matter how you go about it.  Hmmm.  Now that Mike has his book placed with the agent, he has time to go spend on that website.  Great picture on the page, Mike, excellent!  Now get to work!

Check out Mary at

About the Blog….

This is a blog about writing a book.  It’s not an autobiography.  It’s also not about real people, family members, or events that have happened in my life.  As they say, “any resemblance to any persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental”.

Well, that’s not entirely true.  Ideas have to spring from somewhere, the characters have to have a skin and somewhere to walk around in order for the story to take place, and some of them might vaguely resemble one’s less-than-attractive acquaintances.  But on the whole I’ve taken pains to avoid real people and events.  And I have access to good legal advice (Hi there, Robin!).

So, some facts….

It is a fact that our family lived on Puget Sound up in Washington State, and that Dad worked at a paper mill there.  It is a fact that when the mill closed in the late 1950’s he moved the family, all ten of us, down to Deep South Georgia.  We were truly ‘strangers in a strange land’ – Catholics in a Baptist community and Yankees in a society that still hadn’t forgiven the North for winning the Civil War.  Our arrival coincided with the Centennial celebration of Georgia’s secession from the Union.  The first year we were there members of the Ku Klux Klan, hooded for anonymity, rode in the Fourth of July parade.  This was the background for the story, but all else is fiction.

Pretty much.

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