Shredding The History Of Old Manuscripts

As a teenager destined to write the next Great American Novel, I wrote for history and saved every single page (including pages I should have crumpled up and tossed into the waste basket). Generations of English majors would toil to trace my inspirations through the voluminous pages of my old manuscripts. And then the REAL WORLD™ intruded. Becoming a writer became a childish fantasy. All those old manuscripts from my teenage years were lost when I became an adult. The story ideas from that time continued to bang around in my head for years, which drove me crazy at times.

When I became serious about writing in my mid-thirties in 2006, I still wrote for history and saved every single page (except for those that I crumpled up and tossed into the wastebasket). I eventually wrote 80+ short stories, a 25,000-word novella, a 120,000-word unpublished first novel and several aborted novels. This filled out a four-drawer filing cabinet in my office and four storage boxes in the closet. I also have stacks of file folders with unfinished manuscripts on a back table in my office area.

Keeping paper manuscripts made sense back in the snail mail submission days when I had 50+ manuscripts circulating in the slush piles, spending $100 USD a month on office supplies and postage, and visiting the post office every six weeks. Drowning in paper came with the job. A successful writer would have numerous filing cabinets lining a long wall in his office.

When I stopped writing literary short stories and started writing speculative short stories in 2009, snail mail submissions gave way to email submissions. Soon I had 30+ short stories published in anthologies. Those published short stories later became ebooks. I slowly embraced the mythical paperless office as I used paper less often for editing my manuscripts.

After my father passed away from lung cancer this past May, I went through and tossed out 98.8% of his stuff. A sad reality when you consider that we go through life to accumulate stuff that our heirs will toss into the dumpster after we die. I brought a heavy-duty paper shredder to destroy his financial and medical paperwork.

I recently realized I was no longer writing for history but for business. As a small business owner, I have numerous problems with writing new content, publishing ebooks and maintaining websites that needed solutions now. Writing the next Great American Novel was no longer a practical business goal. History can sort itself out and generations of English majors can suffer without my help.

Besides, if my heirs will be tossing out 98.8% of what I owned at the end of my life, I might as well get a head start by shredding my old manuscripts. Before I shred a set of manuscripts, I made sure that I consolidated all the electronic files into my DropBox folder. I’m planning to move the file folders off the back table into the filing cabinet and destroy any working papers after a year. The mythical paperless office might become a reality in 2013.


A Fraudulent eBook Purchase At Smashwords

I get email notifications whenever someone purchases one of my ebook titles at the Smashwords website, which is less common than the sales I get from Amazon. About 99.98% of my sales on Smashwords come through the third-party premium catalog (i.e., Apple, Barnes & Noble, Sony, and many others). I was happy to have a sale. And then I read the notification email. Five copies of my newest flash stories ebook in a single transaction. This was a fraudulent ebook purchase.

How did I know that this particular transaction was fraudulent?

All my direct sales through the Smashwords website are single-copy orders for an ebook. Although it’s possible to purchase multiple copies of a single ebook to gift to other Smashwords readers, five copies in a single transaction was irregular. Even more so when I don’t have a large enough fan base to send copies flying off the virtual shelves. If I did, such a transaction would be buried—and perhaps undetectable—in a lengthy sales report.

If you’re a Smashwords author, you have to read the site updates on a regular basis. Reports of credit card fraud appears from time to time when such activity impacts numerous writers, usually after the sales reports gets updated and prior to the quarterly payments being paid out.

Why would someone use a stolen credit card to buy ebooks? The two most common reasons are:

  • Buying single copies of numerous ebooks to post on an illegal download website for others to read for free.
  • Testing the buying limits of the stolen credit card by purchasing multiple copies of a single ebook.

After I logged into the Smashwords website and clicked on the comments link at the top of the page, I reported the transaction as being suspicious. My sales report got updated forty-eight hours later to reflect that the original transaction voided due to a fraudulent credit card payment and the $4.05 USD I earned from the sale reversed.

Traditional authors were often advised to go through their quarterly royalty statements with a fine-tooth comb and report any irregularities to their agent or publisher. Indie authors must do the same with the sales reports from the ebook retailers. Credit card fraud hurts everyone in this business.

How I Slept My Way Through Kevin Pollak’s Book Signing

Kevin Pollak was at Barnes & Noble for his new book, “How I Slept My Way To The Middle.” I never heard of him. According to my roommate, Pollak’s has the best impersonation of William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk. Ho-hum. Stand up comedians put me asleep. When Pollak mentioned Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise and Arnold Schwarzenegger in one breath, I woke up to realize that he wasn’t only a stand up comedian.

The staff at Barnes & Noble, for whatever reason, set Pollak up on the storytelling stage inside the children department. Not the most appropriate place for an adult to read an adult book full of adult words about working in Hollywood. He did his best to hem-and-haw his way through the various cuss words as parents and children drifted in and out of hearing range. I’m sure some parents didn’t want to explain to their young ones what the letters D, F and S really meant when not brought to you by a Sesame Street character.

Pollak told several stories about working in Hollywood, including a few he read out of the book.

My favorite story was Pollak working on the set of “A Few Good Men” with Tom Cruise, who had a $500 pen from a New York City specialty store to write notes in the script. After he tried out the pen and commented how nice it was, Tom Cruise gave him a $500 pen as a present. He couldn’t use the pen since it was really nice and he might lose it. Tom Cruise sent him another $500 pen with a note to use that pen. The same pen he took out to sign the books.

A ghost writer helped Pollak write the book in a rather unorthodox way: they had 15 two-hour Skype (online video) sessions recorded that the ghost writer transcribed and printed out for him to edit into finished form. This worked will for him since he didn’t have to write anything and the transcriptions caught his storytelling voice that he uses for his stand up comedy.

The biggest surprise was to discover that Pollak was born in San Francisco, lived in San Jose as a kid, and moved down to Los Angeles. Not often do you hear about a local boy making it big down in Southern California. Despite being a local boy, only 15 people came out to the book signing. A book signing at a Barnes & Noble store in Kansas City brought out 75 people, probably because the book signing was in the front of the store and not inside the children department.

Pollak claimed he hasn’t had a REAL JOB in 20 years since he starred in “A Few Good Men” in 1992. It’s the ambition for every actor to get hired without having to audition for the part on the basis of their past work. An ambition I think every writer wants to have in regards to their work.

Writing About Stereotypical Video Game Characters

The Trenches

I based my first and still unpublished novel on my six years as a video game tester for 30+ games and a lead tester responsible for ten games. Drawing upon all the stories and incidents from working at Accolade/Infogrames/Atari (same company, different owners, multiple identity crisis), I wrote a ghost story involving a group of thirty-something video game testers who been in the business for too long. At 700 pages and 125,000 words, I had no clue on how to edit it and stopped working on it.

And then The Trenches came out in 2010.

This web comic came from the creators of Penny Arcade and PvP, the two most popular web comics about video games in general. I read the first few strips and stopped reading. They were going to cover the same territory that I did when I wrote my novel. Although I still had thoughts about revising my novel from time to time, I didn’t want my efforts being influenced by this web comic.

With my first novel tucked away in a storage box in back of the closet, my short stories started appearing in a dozen anthologies and I started publishing my own ebooks over the last few years.

While browsing Kiwiblitz a few weeks ago, I followed the link back to The Trenches and read the entire archive from beginning to end. As I expected back then, the web comic did cover the same territory as my first novel: a clueless manager, the female tester overweight and Jewish, and the main video game is a space western.

Did the creators of The Trenches break into my apartment and stole of a copy of my manuscript? Not at all. The video game industry is one big incestuous family, where stereotypical characters are as common as fleas on a hound dog.

The usage of stereotypical characters allows the writer to introduce a character that the reader immediately recognizes and add something different to make that character unique to the story. The lead tester in The Trenches, for example, wears a kilt, implying that he is of Scottish-descent and has the brass balls to wear it at work. The homicidal ghost in my novel isn’t the scary little girl cliché that populates most horror-survival video games but is a friendly looking troll-like creature with very sharp teeth.

Does reading The Trenches changes anything about the stereotypical characters in my novel?

On the surface, it changes nothing. You can’t have a video game company without a clueless manager—or management—to make the lives of the testers unbearable. I’m keeping the lead female tester as is since her weight and Jewish identity are themes for several critical scenes. I might jettison the Western theme for the main video game to avoid overlapping The Trenches too much. If anything, my stereotypical characters need more uniqueness to stand out against the competition.

Get Amazon To Price Match Your FREE Smashwords eBooks

If you want your ebooks on both Amazon and Smashwords to reach the widest audience possible, you need to have FREE ebooks for readers to sample your work. Smashwords makes this easy by letting you set the price to FREE. Amazon, however, doesn’t allow you to set the price to FREE. The workaround is to get Amazon to price match your FREE Smashwords ebook.


For Amazon price matching to work, your Smashwords ebooks are enrolled in the third-party premium catalog (i.e., Apple, Barnes & Noble, Sony, and many others) and the price set to $0.00 (FREE). You will need to wait six to eight weeks or so before the newly published ebook or price update appears at least two prominent ebook retailers.

  1. Open in your web browser to two ebook retailers that has your FREE Smashwords ebook. Apple and Barnes & Noble are usually the first to update.
  2. Open the corresponding Amazon page.
  3. Click on the “tell us about a lower price” link underneath the product details on the Amazon page.
  4. A small pop-up box will ask for the URL and price for the lower-priced ebook.
  5. Copy and paste the URL from the first ebook retailer and set the price to $0.00.
  6. Do this for the second ebook retailer.

If you do this every day for a week, your Amazon ebook will be price-matched to FREE the following week. This may happen sooner (a few days) or later (two weeks). You need to be persistent until the price change takes effect.

Amazon has price-matched seven of my FREE Smashwords ebooks and given away 2,571 copies over the last three months, resulting in a slight increase in sales for PAID ebooks and reviews on the FREE ebook.


Price matching works well if your Amazon ebooks are in the 35% royalty tier, which is about half the royalty rate from Smashwords and has fewest restrictions.

If your Amazon ebooks are in the 70% tier and/or the KDP Select program, you’re making money on Amazon’s dime and have to play by their rules. I’ve heard reports that Amazon have threaten authors with canceling their accounts if an ebook in the 70% tier are found for a lower price elsewhere. If you’re in the KDP Select program, you have to remove your ebooks from all other ebook retailers and can only promote your Amazon ebook for FREE only five times out of every 90-day period.

You will get some flak from the “professional” writers who publish their ebooks only through Amazon (especially in the KDP Select program), accusing you of breaking the rules and warning dire consequences when Amazon finds out. Relax. The “professionals” writers signed their souls over to Amazon are now chafing at the restrictions imposed on them and watching enviously as indie writers have greater success at all ebook retailers.

If Amazon does threaten to cancel my account for whatever reason, I’ll be happy to inform my readers that they can find my ebooks elsewhere. Although Amazon is “the world’s largest market” (a favorite mantra from the “professional” writers), my Amazon sales are 20% or less of my overall ebook sales. In short, I don’t need Amazon. As an indie writer, I’m not obligated to help Amazon sustain their ebook monopoly at my expense.

100 Flash Stories For NaNoWriMo 2012

This year I decided to give NaNoWriMo 2012 a shot by reviving an idea that I started and abandoned for NanoWriMo 2010: writing a collection of 100 500-word flash stories. (I have no evidence that I did anything for NaNoWriMo 2011.) This time I wrote down 100+ ideas on 3×5 cards. Most of which were headlines taken from the weird news section. Others are old story ideas and situations that I have noticed in daily life.

All of these ideas are worthy of being turned into a flash story. None, however, have grabbed me by the literary throat to be written immediately. I need to write 25 flash stories per week. Since I want to keep my weekends open for other writing projects, I need to write five flash stories per day from Monday through Friday to finish.

On Halloween night, I’m going to pick five 3×5 cards from the stack and take them to work the next day to think about, write notes and scribble down a rough outline. After I get home from work, I’ll write three pages for each flash story in a 70-page spiral notebook. Writing the rough draft of the flash story will be quick. Revising and polishing a flash story takes two to four hours. This is why I’m writing everything down on paper instead of using a computer.

Although I only need 100 ideas to write 100 flash stories, I want to have 150 ideas in case I have a few uninspiring stinkers from the list below, and have more than 100 flash stories written by the end of the month. Unless I overwrite a few flash stories, I may fall well short of the 50,000-word goal.

I have no intention of publishing this collection in its entirety after I revise and polish all the flash stories. A dozen are for submitting to the annual flash anthologies, some to expand into longer short stories, and most for submission to publications and/or included in original flash story collection ebooks that I’ll put in 2013.

Updated 11/04/2012: This NaNoWriMo, like all the others, had a great idea and terrible execution (i.e., it never got off the ground). This list of flash story ideas should keep me busy writing throughout 2013.

Flash Story Idea List

  1. Blue ice falling from airplane passing overhead into kiddie pool.
  2. Man walks into the BART tunnel that goes underneath the San Francisco Bay Area.
  3. Large blue eyeball from sea creature washes up on beach.
  4. Mother glues daughter’s hands to wall and beat her in punishment.
  5. Flu shot makes arm sore and falls off as person turns into a zombie.
  6. Bullied girl makes video before committing suicide.
  7. Planet with four suns.
  8. Orbital skydiver.
  9. College students beheading exotic animal at casino.
  10. Zumba instructor arrested for prostitution.
  11. Sewer smell at cemetery.
  12. Nude old men sitting in front of coffeehouse.
  13. A deep secret outed by social media.
  14. Teenager steals celebrity’s sports car from showroom floor.
  15. Spacecraft going down the street.
  16. Someone pretending to be Big Foot on side of freeway.
  17. Husband cooks wife in oven.
  18. Haunted house scare pictures.
  19. Politician crashes soup kitchen for photo-op.
  20. Mysterious invitation to a tech media event.
  21. Dial day for new area code.
  22. Mother leaves young daughter at store with stolen groceries.
  23. Father shoots masked bugler who turned out to be his son.
  24. Creativity as a psychological disease.
  25. Indian Bad Habits Poster: Throwing litter into street.
  26. Indian Bad Habits Poster: Gambling.
  27. Indian Bad Habits Poster: Quarreling.
  28. Indian Bad Habits Poster: Teasing animals.
  29. Indian Bad Habits Poster: Playing with electrical wires.
  30. Indian Bad Habits Poster: Playing with tools.
  31. Indian Bad Habits Poster: Flying kite on open roof.
  32. Indian Bad Habits Poster: Damaging public property.
  33. Indian Bad Habits Poster: Eating uncovered and fried foods.
  34. Indian Bad Habits Poster: Stealing.
  35. Indian Bad Habits Poster: Playing on the road.
  36. Man robs bank for $1 USD to go to federal prison for healthcare, food and shelter.
  37. Snail rancher.
  38. Aliens at a comic convention.
  39. Talking urinal cakes (“Hey, buddy, stop pissing on me!”).
  40. Robo squirrels versus rattle snakes.
  41. Iranian hostage crisis (1979).
  42. Puppy disappears from animal shelter.
  43. Parents run strip club out of foster home.
  44. Uninvited visitor who won’t leave.
  45. Apartment blaze blamed on man cooking squirrel with propane torch.
  46. Man dies after cockroach eating contest.
  47. Plastic-wrapped truck brings out the bomb squad.
  48. A black-and-white costumed girl shot in backyard by relative who thought she was a stunk.
  49. Newspaper cancels extra Sunday subscriptions for extreme couponing enthusiast.
  50. Two naked men set their house on fire, break out car windows, slaughtered animals and assaulted police officers.
  51. Robber with fake mustache robs drug store.
  52. Man dressed as a superhero harassed by police.
  53. High school students has fantasy sex league game.
  54. Gas stations robbed of 300+ gallons of gas at night.
  55. A fireball erupts over a major city and crashes in minister’s backyard.
  56. Robber puts cash into bag but grabs bag of rolls and shoots partner in ass during a failed restaurant robbery.
  57. An abandoned green transfer mail box terrifies a little girl.
  58. A person sees blue cars everywhere.
  59. A murder at a diplomatic event.
  60. A store display cell phone stolen and plugged into computer via USB connector.
  61. Freight elevator guy with stool and newspaper: “If you don’t know where you’re going, get out.”
  62. A 3D monster that can only be seen with 3D glasses from the movies.
  63. Friends travel into country to see meteor shower on hill that forms the backside of the county dump.
  64. A little boy witness the police storming a nearby apartment at night.
  65. End of world with bear, sheep, supernatural cloud formation, computer geeks and Unix end of time (2038).
  66. Gay slurs painted on bicycle seat of bike parked in back of restaurant kitchen.
  67. After meeting each other, getting married and buying house, husband leaves as if everything was a one-night stand.
  68. Roman soldiers fighting off giant squid.
  69. Parking lot stall has cigarette butts, dental floss, jello containers and a condom wrapper.
  70. Aliens intercept Voyager spacecraft and visit Earth with Richard Nixon masks.
  71. A bus shuttle to train station stops being routine with motorcycle gangs, witches, vampires and other monsters.
  72. Two boys dress up as a 1950’s couple, with boy dressed as a bobby sox girl with balloon boobs.
  73. A human tries to help an alien escape Mars after the Alien Sedition Act passed.
  74. An unemployed person makes money in the virtual economy while growing poorer in the real world.
  75. Teenagers stumble upon a secret military base underneath a shopping mall.
  76. Man wakes up every morning with a different healed wound without knowing why.
  77. Broken window in attendant booth at gas station.
  78. Muscle man dressed as Conan the Barbarian in front of costume shop.
  79. House explodes after thieves try to steal antique stove without first disconnecting the gas line.
  80. Old man dies with $200 in the bank and $7 million USD in hidden gold inside house
  81. A food truck serving food to homeless pets.
  82. Kill what you can eat or be killed by what can eat you.
  83. Angry husband confront’s wife lover in lover’s garage and shot dead (castle defense).
  84. Police kills mountain lion at retirement community.
  85. Young girl’s dead body found in recycling dumpster.
  86. Surfer killed by shark off the Southern California coast.
  87. Invasive grass cultivated for bio-fuel program.
  88. Firefighters find dead woman in burning house.
  89. Murder-suicide at retirement community.
  90. Thieves arrested by police for tailing van with valuable silicon chips.
  91. Strip club claims tax exemption for “performing arts” by dancers.
  92. Scientists convicted in court for bad earthquake forecast.
  93. Dying man votes from his deathbed.
  94. City park gets large donation.
  95. Bodega (Spanish neighborhood store) sells something else besides soda and candy.
  96. Bayonet and horses.
  97. Big Bird.
  98. Binders full of women.
  99. Teacher fired for running porn website from school laptop.
  100. Dead guy kept on dry ice in shed.
  101. Couple eat cockroaches for world series tickets.
  102. Parents confiscate their teenager’s cell phone to post bizarre pictures of themselves on Facebook.
  103. A presumed dead man shows up for his own funeral.
  104. Coworker shows up via telepresence device (i.e., robotic or hologram).
  105. Man standing at urinal tries to high-five as world series run announced over PA system and 75 men stare back at him.
  106. A leopard shark falls on golf course after bird flies five miles inland from ocean.
  107. Cop accused of planning to kidnap, rape, torture and cook woman.
  108. Algebra teacher arrested for idling car in high school parking lot with pot and cash in the glove box.
  109. Mother comes home to find children dead in bathtub.
  110. A “frankenstorm” barrels down on the coast.
  111. Homeless man named Elvis Presley killed in accident.
  112. White teacher calls black student a slave.
  113. Black cat at animal shelter.
  114. Female karate student kicks intruder out of apartment.
  115. Political signs stolen by politician’s husband.
  116. Lynched zombie hanging from fraternity house window.
  117. A coffin-shaped outhouse leaves people dying from embarrassment.
  118. Thief steals 80,000 pounds of walnuts.
  119. Drunk woman tries to save ducks from storm.
  120. Man loses leg as cross falls on top of him.
  121. Thugs vandalizing a bus after sports game turn on people recording them.
  122. Trick-or-treaters were given cocaine instead of candy.
  123. Fairy costumed woman arrested in Halloween heist.
  124. Thief steals takeout food vehicle and delivers orders.
  125. Woman found “shot” in her car was a drunk woman wearing zombie makeup.
  126. Hacker changes freeway signs to something less informative.
  127. Goat chases the paper boy into a tree.
  128. Woman drives on sidewalk to avoid school bus unloading children.
  129. Man refuses to come off top of bus.
  130. Deers go window shopping through automatic doors.
  131. Man flashes woman, woman flashes gun.
  132. Santa Claus hangs from ceiling by his beard.
  133. Parents and little brother lost trying to save dog from surf as daughter calls 911.
  134. Photojournalist takes the picture of a man getting run over by train.
  135. Dead pet turned into diamond ring becomes curse for owner.
  136. A fish caught and return two times and kept the third time was pregnant (a father-daughter fishing story).
  137. Loss Swiss Army knife while fishing at pier.
  138. Twenty human heads found in steel drum at airport.
  139. Wife killed her husband for a second time (misleading headline).

Creativity As A Psychological Disease For Writers

According to a recent BBC report, creative people are suffering from a psychological disease: “Writers had a higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse, the Swedish researchers at the Karolinska Institute found. They were almost twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves.”

For most writers, this isn’t news. If you’re going to put pen to blank paper, you are crazy enough to see and describe what doesn’t exit. I wouldn’t be writer if I haven’t gone to the funny farm as a child and an adult.

After being misdiagnosed as mentally retarded due to an undetected hearing loss as a young child, the school system put me into special ed classes at different schools around the county. Despite blowing out the evaluation tests at the genius level, the teachers treated me like a well-behaved idiot and I learned next to nothing. The teenage years were not kind for overweight geniuses in the special ed classes. I subsequently dropped out of high school in the ninth grade, stayed home for the remaining high school years, and taught myself from library books.

I suffered bouts of depression during that time. Writing in a journal often relieved the emotions I was going through. That sometimes became a head banging exercise in itself as I struggled with the limitations of my fifth-grade English skills. (My reading comprehension was well beyond college level.) After several years of working with my father in construction and despite not going back to high school, I entered San Jose City College as an adult student. My English writing skills got better and writing in my journal became less of a struggle.

And then I became a Christian in the campus ministry.

The writing journal became a “quiet time” notebook for writing down what I learned in my bible studies. Shortly after moving into the brothers’ household in downtown San Jose, the notebook mysteriously disappeared. I started a new notebook. A bible talk leader “found” my old notebook a month later, asking me pointed questions that were relevant only if he had read my notebook (which he denied doing). I already had trust issues coming into the church—this didn’t help. I discovered years later that “missing” notebooks being read by others in the church weren’t an uncommon practice.

I started self-censoring what I wrote and destroying my notebooks after I got done with them. The doubts—the voices—plagued my mind for the next 13 years, being a writer without a creative outlet. This torment ended when even the leadership thought I was too crazy as a Christian, kicking me out of the church and insisting that I get counseling.

A year of counseling liberated me from my emotional struggles. I was able to give myself permission to do what I always wanted to do as a child: be a creative individual. Painting and pottery consumed me for the next few years until I answered the siren call of being a professional writer. I started submitting my short stories in 2006, and, after 300+ snail mail rejection slips, publishing regularly a few years after that.

The voices are gone. The doubts still remain. I’m a writer, a nut job in progress.

Being Unable To Write In The Dark

A spate of rainstorms interrupted the autumn heat in Silicon Valley this week, bringing gray clouds and cool rain. Perfect writing weather—and then the power went off. Back in the snail mail submission days, I would have lit a candle, grabbed the latest work-in-progress manuscript and picked up pen to continue writing. Not anymore. My MacBook didn’t have enough juice for an extended blackout.

With email submissions over the last three years, and writing 500 word or less blog posts for nearly every day for the last six months, I have finally embraced the mythical paperless office (more or less). I have gotten so comfortable with creating and editing everything on the computer screen that I haven’t printed out any manuscripts in a long time.

When the lights went out in Silicon Valley—okay, just my little neighborhood in the San Jose City College area—I had nothing to work on under candlelight. I have folders of unfinished manuscripts waiting for my undivided attention, but nothing I wanted to pick up in the dark. As for a blank page and a pen, my mind drew a blank as to what to write. For the first time in years, I wasn’t prepared to write anything.

A disconcerting feeling, being unable to write.

Power goes out, can’t work anymore. Light a candle, still can’t write. Nothing to do but to wait, read an ebook on the iPad, and watch the battery meter tick down from 49% to nothing.

And then the power comes back on. The computer and the Internet return. Everything goes back to normal again. The writing that I was doing before the power went out resumes as if nothing had happened. Weird.

The Passing Of An Influential College English Instructor


If you’re a longtime resident of the San Jose City College neighborhood, it’s not hard to wonder at what sporting event was being held at the stadium. The bright lights illuminates the overcast night, the loud speakers reverberates the cold air. A quick Internet search often reveals what’s going on. But it sometimes doesn’t. While browsing the campus newspaper, City College Times, I learned that an influential English instructor had passed away earlier this year.

After dropping out of high school in the ninth grade and working with my father in construction for several years after I turned eighteen, I went back to school to avoid being a construction worker for the rest of my life. The adult program at the local high school refused to take me as a student. With my college-level reading skill and everything else at the fifth grade level, it would take five years to get a high school diploma. They sent me to the Adult Re-Entry Program at SJCC, where I got my two-year associate degree without a high school diploma in four years.

Ms. Kathleen Colligan was my instructor for English 092, “Introduction to English,” in Fall 1992, which was my first full semester after taking a Saturday class each semester for the previous school year. Like everyone else in that class, English wasn’t my strong suit and I sucked at grammar. Less than two weeks into the semester, she offered extra help on grammar for anyone interested in coming in on a Saturday morning.

Four of us showed up that morning. Ms. Colligan wrote a sentence on the blackboard and asked us why we thought the sentence was grammatically correct. I raised my hand with hesitation, and, when she pointed to me, I said: “It felt right.”

For most English instructors, writing by instinct is pure heresy. You need to know the rules of grammar, be able to dissect a sentence into discrete components, and correctly identify each of those components by name. In short, you had to be a grammar Nazi. If you didn’t know your grammar, you couldn’t be a writer. This frustrated me to no end over the years. A dark art that would prevent me from ever becoming a successful writer.

Ms. Colligan asked me why I felt the sentence was correct. I explained that I have read extensively—about 800 books during my teenage years—to know that the sentence “felt” correct even though I didn’t know “why” it was correct. From there she guided us into learning why the sentence was grammatically correct without penalizing us for not knowing.

That became the first of many lessons I learned that particular semester. Twenty years later I have 30+ short stories in print, wrote numerous blog posts and published my own ebooks. I’m still feeling my way through grammar, but I know enough to know when the grammar checker in Microsoft Word is being wrong and sometimes inconsistent.