This has already been the best letter-writing summer of my life, and it’s only half over. Reading and re-reading all of them with a huge smile on my face in my usual Saturday writing spot, the Seaside Coffee House.
Writing update: As of this week, the first draft of The Valley of Steel is finished, and “A Tale of Rust Town” sent off, with a brief detour through name changes that all sounded too much like Edgar Allan Poe references (“The Night of the Raven” etc). The next order of business is to unite the first ten chapters with the rest of the manuscript, as there was a significant gap in the middle during which I edited The Glass Thief.
Speaking of that weighty tome: the “final version” might not be so final after all. I’ve managed to cut 3,000 words from the first seven chapters alone, so I’ve decided to stop querying it until I remove one of the major hurdles–I’m certain I can get the word count down to a reasonable level for debut fantasy. It will still be about lobsters, though. That’s non-negotiable. To prepare for the next charge unto the breach, I’ve taken pains to become addicted to Query Shark. The author is an agent who tears apart and rebuilds queries. Funny and educational.
Rewriting “Rust Town” was one of the more challenging tasks I’ve been faced with as a writer, and time will tell if I rose to the occasion. To go into exactly how daunting it was, I’d like to tell a work story.
Our work site for Tuesday and Wednesday was Clear Lake, a placid spot tucked away in the suburbs of Warrenton, up the coast from Seaside. The lake itself, nine acres across, is 4,000 years old and was formed in the last big earthquake. Clear Lake quickly shot into my list of top five NCLC properties for its wetlands, winding shady trails, abandoned dock, and reasonable invasive populations: only yellow flag iris is really a problem, and it hasn’t gotten away from the water. Even what happened Wednesday morning couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the place.
8:00 AM. We arrive early, planning to finish work early so that Eric, my supervisor, and my co-worker and roommate Jason can play in a soccer game in Cannon Beach. I’m always happy with an early morning, and I had my short story to work over in the afternoon, so I was on board. We had a “work party,” which would bring volunteers to tackle the population of scotch broom, at 10, so we set to work on the yellow flag iris.
Around 9, I volunteer to head into some standing water to tackle a small population of the odious fan-shaped leaves. Eric is on the bank next to me. Right before I hit the mud, I hear Ari, my other co-intern, shout, “Run!”
Let’s be clear: my lifestyle is not one that requires people to yell that at me a lot. I can’t think of whose is. Athletes and bank robbers come to mind. It’s also happened to me in a few Dungeons & Dragons sessions (although I set a swarm of snakes on fire last night, so who’s running now?). But not so much in the primary world.
That considered, I’m proud of my reaction time. About a second passed between Ari’s warning and my hoofing it up the riverbank. I’d like to get that down, but it’s perfectly respectable for now.
Another second passes before I understand what’s going on: Eric put his foot through a nest of hornets. He later told us that he thought a blackberry thorn was pressing into his face, before he realized the truth. I myself had already taken a stinger to the back of the knee when I registered that hornets were in play.
I want everyone reading this to know that my decision to throw my pants was made neither in panic nor in clouded judgment. I laid out my options, weighed the pros and cons of each, and decided that the most advantageous move in that instant would be to remove my trousers and hurl them no less than twenty feet to the south.
The second hornet that stung me had made its way inside my left leather glove, so I removed both of those and tossed them on the path. Eric had already removed his shirt and commenced slapping himself with it. Through some shouting combination of words I don’t entirely remember, Jason conveyed the information that hornets are attracted to the scent of things they have previously stung.
Interesting. While running, I recalled that first sting I took to my jeans. From this moment events unfolded as I have already related. As expected, the loathsome insects flocked to the pants, allowing me to beat off the remainder of the swarm with my shirt. We waited a few minutes for the pheromones to fade before trekking back along the yard sale we had made of our garments.
In the end, I made it out with only two stings. Ari took one, Jason got off scot-free, and poor Eric, initial disturber of the peace, got it the worst. Not only did he take seven stings, but later that day, he unearthed a beehive, and got another two stings from an entirely unrelated group of angry insects. To top it all off, the “thorn” in his face caused his eye to swell up, and he missed the next two days of work. His boss, Melissa, greeted us at Circle Creek on Thursday with a card bearing a construction-paper bee and the message “Sorry we stung you.” We all signed.
So it could have been much worse for me. I made it out with an anecdote, along with some new outdoor knowledge, plus my pants, the real victim in all this. Sitting at the Rippet House that afternoon, realizing I had 125 words to establish my reticent protagonist’s inner life and growing love for the makeshift family he’d just met, I began to think of how I could apply the hornets as a metaphor for “the process.”
The common phrase is “kill your darlings,” attributed to some guy called Arthur Quiller-Couch, but until now I’ve preferred John Muir’s version, “slaughter your gloriouses.” I have a new version now, though: throw your pants at the hornets.
People like pants. They are, as the bard tells us, comfy and easy to wear. They protect your legs from thorns, and convey a certain professionalism the pantsless cannot enjoy. But they attract hornets. The pants are those large parts of a story that seem integral at first glance, hornets here are bloat and directionlessness, and the defeatism that leads to. So many times, writing that “cannot work” can get shot in the arm from the hurling of its pants. Because, when it gets down to it, sometimes pants are just a liability.