Welcome to Storytellers Unplugged. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!
This is my farewell post to everyone. Thanks for reading me for the last year and a half. I had a lot of good things to say and enjoyed doing it. But right now I don’t have much to add to the great conversation and would rather give an opportunity to someone else.
So I’ll leave you with my very first posting for Storytellers where I tell the story about how I had to call my mommie to understand a rejection letter. Here it is.
Please keep in touch. You can find me online in a lot of corners, but the best place is www.westonochse.com
By Weston Ochse
I saw an article about Gary Paulsen in a trade magazine the other day and clipped it out. For years I’d been trying to think of the title of this book I’d read when I was young and there it was in the article. Hatchet.
Or so I thought.
You see, when I lived in New Jersey as an eight year old kid, I’d read this book that stuck with me. It was about a boy who was lost in the woods… you’ll have to forgive my memory. Some of the details are sketchy. The setting was the Catskills, which were not all that far from where I lived. As a kid in 1973, I had a pretty idyllic life– definitely a Bradbury Dandelion Wine time. I had the run of the small town we lived in, pedaling my bike furiously from one place to the other. I had one of those banana handle bar, ten dollar, indestructible bikes bought from a creepy guy at the edge of town who sold bikes and lawnmowers and probably hooch. My folks worked far away and I remember getting out of school, rushing home, throwing my books down and taking my bike everywhere. There wasn’t a trail in the woods I didn’t know. I knew of the special places, like the bushes with the broken beer bottles where I’d occasionally kneel and sniff like an animal, the smell of stale beer as foreign to me as it would be to any creature of the forest. I remember finding the skeleton of a small animal and storing it in a box that I buried in the woods; one which I’d come back to and investigate with the reverence of a Smithsonian scientist.
Then my mom brought home a book.
Hatchet is about a young boy who survives a plane crash in the Yukon, but that wasn’t the one I was thinking of. My Side of the Mountain is the one I’d read back then and damn, but that book affected me. This boy runs away from home and lives off the land in the Catskills for two years. He carved fish hooks. He made his own bowls. He was like a Jedi-Eagle Scout and I remember wanting to be him. Every time I’d pedal away from home after that I told myself that I could survive out there if I wanted. I could run away and be able to fish and eat and hunt just like that kid. There were times I almost didn’t come back. After all, I’d read the book, and like any How-to Manual, as long as I followed the directions of Jean Craighead George, I’d be able to survive.
The next year I read My Brother Sam is Dead. By James Lincoln Collier, I think this was the first book that made me cry. The novel thrust me into the American Revolution with the protagonist who lived and breathed 1775. I learned about patriotism, duty, loyalty and death. This novel truly affected me. Later when I was a father, this was a book I bought specially for my son, just so he could maybe experience some of what the book meant to me.
The next year we moved to Tennessee. This would be about 1975 when I was ten, or maybe the next year, I can’t be sure. I remember ordering a book from the weekly reader program. I brought the exact change in, put it in the envelope with the paper I’d filled out, and waited an impossible three weeks. When it came, I was astounded. For the life of me, I cannot figure out the title, though. I googled and searched, but I just can’t find it. But I can tell you the plot. The book was about a young boy kidnapped and taken to communist China by his father’s nemesis. The boy learns Chinese and the ways of the people. He’s treated as a second son by the Chinese man, but the boy knows better an always holds the hope of rescue in the back of his mind. Eventually his father comes and saves him. After a perilous journey, they both escape China. To this moment I can remember lines in that book. I know that you have to boil the liche nut to get it to make a dye so you can cover your skin.
Fast forward to now.
I’ve read thousands of books, but arguably, these three books I mentioned affected me more than any others. They directed my life. After twenty years in the Army, most as an intelligence guy who speaks Chinese, I can’t help but believe that each of those books had a major influence in my life. I can set a snare as easily as I can boil a liche nut. Sam taught me humanity, the same humanity I levied as a soldier bearing one of the greatest responsibilities a country can bestow.
It’s utterly amazing how books can influence us. And with that knowledge, I’m becoming more and more cognizant of what I write. There were times as I was learning my craft that I wrote pretty much anything that came to mind. And that was fair. After all, I was in the learning process. How could I learn without practice? But now I feel I have the bones to do about anything I put my mind to.
Recently, I was asked, wrote and had published a story that I took the greatest care with in the WW II anthology A Dark and Deadly Valley. I was concerned that, because I was writing about the immediate aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima, I might not do the horrible day justice. I spent an inordinate amount of time researching and trying to find the perfect way to write the story. Eventually I settled on a personal account by a survivor who’d related how he’d been waiting for a train in the station when the bomb had gone off. When he awoke, he and hundreds of other commuters were fused together, their skin melted by the blast. I decided to begin there. So far every review has pointed that story as a star of the book.
Hiroshima Falling is a story of which I’m proud. I couldn’t have written it ten years ago. I couldn’t have written it five years ago. I doubt I could have even written it two years ago. I think I’ve grown in my writing and in that growing found a way to see past the story to the
I hope one day I can write a story that will affect a child or an adult in the way those books affected me. I could have been a businessman, I could have been a doctor, or I could have been a priest. But those books, the amazing writing and characterization and description somehow wove their way into my subconscious and directed who I was to become.
To direct one’s future.
Now, that’s talent.
Incidentally, the rest of the Gary Paulsen article went on about how he was proud to be a teller of tales. So I’ll leave you with this: “I’m a teller of stories. I put bloody skins on my back and dance around the fire, and I saw what the hunt was like. It’s not erudite; it’s not intellectual. I sail, run dogs, ride horse, play professional poker and tell stories about stuff I’ve been through. And I’m still a romantic; I want Bambi to make it out of the fire.”
I think I’m a lot like Paulsen. I write about the stuff I’ve been through. Pretty much all of my writing is experiential fiction. I envy those who can create whole cloth plots from the ether. I can’t do that very well.
I’m not that guy.
And I’m not sure if I’m a Bambi guy, either.
But I am a romantic, and I’d give anything if Old Yeller would survive.
by Weston Ochse
So you’ve sold a story and you’re ready to pop the champagne. Isn’t this the goal for all short story writers? It’s all over but the awards voting. Maybe a Stoker or a Pulitzer or a Pushcart Prize. Maybe a movie director is going to stumble across your story and decide that this would be the perfect vehicle to carry some hot movie star to the pinnacle of Hollywood stardom. Maybe someone on the verge of doing something irrevocable is going to read your story and in a moment of catharsis, redeem his or herself and decide not to do whatever irrevocable thing they were about to do. Or maybe your story would change the world, bring people together until they threw down all guns, discarded all hatred and learned to sing Kum-bay-yah in Esperanto.
Or maybe you’ve decided that you want to pull your story and none of this will ever happen.
What would make someone want to pull a story and lose the chance to achieve one of these lofty goals? Why would someone change their mind about a story appearing in a venue? Well if you give me a few minutes I’ll tell you.
Now before you ask, yes this is a true story. And to answer your next question, I won’t tell you who the players were. The main reason is because I don’t want to turn this into a swipe at a specific market, but instead, make it a look inside my head as I made the decision to pull a story and what occurred during the process.
About three years ago I wrote and submitted a novella to a magazine that’s been around for quite a while and is held in particular esteem. They don’t pay professional rates, but that is offset by the prestige with which some hold the magazine. Me included…at that time.
The novella was accepted. I was told that it would be in a specific issue, one in which I was frankly, proud as hell to be in. It took a few years as these things sometimes do, but finally that issue of the magazine was published. When I heard, I was a bit stunned. I never signed a contract. I hadn’t been paid. But hell, I’ve been published before by a magazine and then the contract and payment came later. Not so big a deal to me.
Then I checked the table of contents and no Weston Ochse.
Thought balloons with WTF circled my head. At first I figured there must have been some mistake, but in the end, there wasn’t one. After emailing the person who accepted the story, I discovered that there’d been a conscious decision to hold my story over for the next issue because of its length; remember it is a novella. The person apologized, acted like a professional and admitted that the magazine dropped the ball in not informing me of the situation.
I accepted that apology because I understood the thought processes and how this could happen. Was I happy? No. I almost pulled my story at that point, but figured I’d let the process work a little more. After all, I’d submitted the story and they were counting on it, so I’d give them the benefit of the doubt. But I indicated that I’d like to hear from the editor personally on the subject.
Then a second person in the magazine emailed me and apologized. This person said that the editor would contact me. I was pretty satisfied at that point. I was still a little angry, but not so much.
You see, I’ve had stories published before that I wasn’t happy about, and that’s one of the worst feelings. When you have something published you shouldn’t be embarrassed about it. You shouldn’t feel bad about any part of it. Instead, you should be reveling in the achievement and preparing yourself to receive accolades. The stories I wasn’t happy about were earlier stories that had some grammar errors or some plot problems. These are stories that I dread seeing. In fact, someone came to the mass autographing at WHC in Toronto with one of these stories. The fact that I hated the story and was embarrassed to even see it was hidden from the fan. I signed his autograph just as proudly as every other one I’ve signed. But a part of me felt bad for my achievement and I didn’t want that feeling duplicated ever again.
And that includes the novella that I wrote that was accepted for a specific issue in this magazine, then was bumped to the next issue. I had to think to myself. Would I be happy with that? Would I forever look upon the published magazine and be disappointed? Was I settling for second place?
Three weeks passed and no email contact by the editor. Over those three weeks I had a personal come to Jesus meeting. Ultimately, due in large part to the unwillingness of the editor to contact me (who was cc’d on every single email in the chain by her staff), I decided to pull the story. Out of respect to the two people I’d been in contact with previously, I informed them first, and in that email I cited that one of the mitigating circumstances was the editor’s apparent unwillingness to contact me.
Then the shit hit the fan.
I got a heat rocket sent back from the second person I’d emailed telling me I’d ‘burned that bridge.’ Then the editor finally got into the fray and began to lecture me on the publishing industry actually using the words, ‘Let me give you a lesson,’ and then sliding into the trite Never Assume diatribe.
I couldn’t have been more shocked. I actually thought that I’d send the notification that I was going to pull my story, then get a few short replies, and move on with my life. Boy was I naive.
Never afraid to stand up for myself, I fired back, then the editor fired back and so on. I probably should have let it go, but it was the high-handed lecturing that I wasn’t taking well, especially since I felt that I was the affronted person. This went on for several emails until the editor unveiled the largest weapon in an editor’s cache—the threat of blacklisting.
Editor– “Here’s one final tip, and then I am done with this: Don’t piss off a publisher who has close, personal connections to every other publisher in the field. It gets you blacklisted.
No reply is necessary.”
I have to admit that I felt fingers of fear dance across my future for a moment. I’ve never had anyone actually use those words to me before.
Then I got pissed.
After storming around the house for fifteen minutes, I sent back a concise email that said that I found the threat extreme
ly unprofessional and that I would provide copies of these emails to my agent and the presidents of the professional writing organizations of which I’m a member.
And I did.
I also spoke to a few of my close writing friends.
The specifics are a private matter, and will remain so, but in the end, the great wave of advice I received went something like, “Wes, don’t even worry about it. No one has even heard of this editor before and you’re established in your field. People know and respect you. Don’t worry.”
And I’m not.
Everyone was right.
No one is going to turn down a story or a novel or a screenplay of mine because I pulled a story from a semi-professional magazine. I pissed off an editor. I burned a bridge. Both of those things are regrettable and I’ll learn from them, but it doesn’t change the single important fact that I’m no longer going to be disappointed because of a story sale.
So gone is the chance to win a Stoker or a Pulitzer or a Pushcart Prize. Gone is the chance for a movie director to stumble across my story and decide that this would be the perfect vehicle to carry some hot movie star to the pinnacle of Hollywood stardom. Gone is my chance to stop someone from doing something irrevocable. And gone is my opportunity to change the world, bring people together until they throw down all guns, discard all hatred and learn to sing Kum-bay-yah in Esperanto.
At least until next time.
Because I still have my story.
If it was good enough to be accepted in one place, it’s good enough to be accepted in an other.
And most of all, I have my self respect. At the end of the day I have to look myself in the eyes and like what I see.
And I do.
by Weston Ochse
Can too much success too soon hurt your career?
What happens when a publisher comes knocking and you don’t have anything to offer?
I never thought success would be a problem, then again, I never thought I’d succeed so fast and to such a degree. Let’s go back to 2000 and the World Horror Convention and let me set the scene. Not only was it the first convention that I’d spent more than a few hours at, and not only was this the first convention I’d gone to where I knew people, but this was the first convention I’d attended that I actually had something published.
I was stunned that everyone seemed to like Scary Rednecks so much. This was just a project David Whitman and I wanted to do to get our names out there. We never thought people would actually like it. I mean we did want them to like it, but we were happy for a roomful of polite applause, or even a year’s supply of Riceroni as a parting gift. But instead the most amazingly horrific thing happened…
I forget exactly where I was when it happened. It was Saturday night when Mike Oliveri and Brian Keene came up to me at a party and they said something like, “Dude, did Don D’Auria hook up with you?”
“Man. You better find him. He really wants to talk to you.”
After checking to see that they weren’t messing with me, I bolted, ricocheting off party guests as I maneuvered my way through early evening revelers on my way down to the main floor. It turned out that Richard Laymon and Doug Clegg had talked me up to Don D’Auria saying how wonderful they thought Scary Rednecks was and how I was coming into my own and how Don really needed to sign me to Leisure.
Don agreed and began asking people where I was.
Now let me put this in perspective that I think most of us can understand. The idea that a publisher is seeking me out was perhaps the pinnacle of my dreams and as unattainable as Sophia Loren in her prime. Never did I even believe such a thing could happen and I found myself in a hyperventilative panic, trying to figure out what I was going to say while looking for Don in the debauchery we call a writer’s enclave.
When I finally found him, he was walking out the door to attend some super secret publishers meeting where I’m sure they have all the names of all the really good writers on the wall and throw darts at them to see which will be published next. Damn but I wanted to be on that wall. And now I had my chance.
“Mr. D’Auria,” I stuttered.
He turned and looked at me. At that moment I realized I was sweating, out of breath, slightly tipsy, with a muscle shirt, jeans and combat boots. I could see the fight or flight flutter going on in his eyes. For a second I thought I terrified him, and I swore he’d run.
But he stood his ground. “Yes?”
“I’m Weston Ochse,” I said. “I heard you were looking for me.”
He stared for what seemed like an epoch and with each stretching second, I knew that my boys had tricked me good. But then he smiled. “You’re the guy who wrote Scary Rednecks.”
At last! “Yessir. That’s me. Or I wrote part of it, David Whitman wrote the other part. We co-wrote it you see.” My mouth snapped shut as I realized I’d begun to babble. “Anywaaaay, I heard you were looking for me.”
So we found a few chairs and he invited me to sit. Then he asked me about myself and I told him the five minute version of my life story. Then he asked me about Scary Rednecks and I spoke at length about it, stressing how stunned I was that people had responded so well, especially Mr. Laymon and Mr. Clegg. I tried to act humble and proud at the same time, which is so hard to do as some of you know.
Then he asked me the question.
“What else do you have?”
Sidebar 1. Have you ever been in the middle of a conversation that you thought was going so well and the other person asks you a question that makes your heart stop, sweat to bead along your brow and your jaw drop? That was this type of question.
“What do you mean?”
“I publish novels. Do you have any novels completed?” he asked. “You come highly recommended and I’d love to take a look at what you have.”
Sidebar 2. Have you ever had a dream come true only to wish it would have waited for better timing? Here I have a real live publisher asking me if I have anything he can read. How many times does this happen? I know entire writing circles who’d slit their wrists and chant I Love Donald Trump’s Toupee just to have a chance at what I had happening to me. And there I was wishing for Christ that this publisher wasn’t asking me this question.
I think I hesitated too long, because he gave me a look. I focused on his question. Do you have any novels completed. Define completed. Hmm. Maybe I had a way out.
“Yes, Mr. D’Auria. I have a novel called Scarecrow Gods that you might be interested in.”
His concern vanished as he smiled. “Tell me about it.”
And I did. I told him about the main characters. I told him about the theme. And then I stopped. I smiled broadly, hoping he’d be satisfied.
“What happens next?”
I thought a hundred ways to obfuscate, but I decided to come clean. “I’ve only just started,” I said, but hurried to add, “But I finished the outline,” which was a lie.
The light of interest died in his eyes. He sto
od, shook my hand and turned to go, but before he left he had one last thing to say. “Let me know when you have it done. I’d like to take a look at it.” Then he was out the door and into the night.
And I sat there. And I knew that I’d been granted something that hardly anyone is ever granted and I’d blown it. I’d peeked too early and had nothing left to show. I should have felt like I’d conquered the world, but I felt defeated instead.
So, I vowed then and there that I’d never feel that way again. The only way to guarantee that promise was to write, keep writing and then write some more. That was 2000. Since then Scarecrow Gods was finally finished, published by Delirium Books in 2005 and won the Bram Stoker for First Novel. In addition to a trunk load of short stories and articles, I’ve written six other novels and four screenplays since that conversation with Don. Some are being published and some are doing the agent-publisher dance. Some are languishing on my computer, waiting for that perfect time.
Recently I had a conversation with a publisher. Roy Robbins of Bad Moon Books was going to go from being strictly a bookseller to a book publisher and he asked me if I had anything that might interest him. He wanted a novella.
That grand night of UNsuccess with Don D’Auria had taught me more than anything and gave me an almost maniacal drive to write. So when Roy asked me, I remembered a novella I’d written for myself a year before, pitched it to him, he read it, then signed me to a four figure contract.
A private part of me knew that if I hadn’t been working all this time, I never would have come through and had a novella he’d want. The public part of me cheered the success. But all of me knew that I’d missed an amazing opportunity back in 2000 when a publisher had come knocking and I had nothing to give.
Never ever agian.
So come knocking.
I’ve been writing and have some things to show you.
by Weston Ochse
Do any of you have the WHODAT Pet Peeve? Do you just hate it when who is used in place of that or which and vice versa? Then grit your teeth and check this out.
The man that ran down the street is my brother.
The car who ran into the man was driven by my sister.
My brother and sister, them which were involved in the accident, died horrifically when their car struck the delivery van containing two dozen dwarf monkeys from Indonesia.
Besides this being a lesson in bad driving, not running down the middle of the street, and never transporting Indonesian dwarf monkeys in delivery vans, these exemplar sentences also provide clear cut examples of a common error in sentence construction. Who vs That (or the WHODAT) choice is commonly mistaken by writers both new and old. I see the mistake repeated on television or at the movies at least once every ten minutes. I read it in newspapers everyday. Today in our classified section there was this: Custom Home Builder Looking for an Entry Level Employee that is familiar with new home construction. Novels are rife with the WHODAT error as well, sometimes to distraction. In fact some of our most famous novelists have broken the sanctity of the WHODAT Covenant in the titles.
The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg by Mark Twain
The Man that was Used Up by Edgar Allan Poe
So here’s the rule as explained succinctly by Vo-cab Vitamins:
Rule 1. Who refers to people. That and which refer to groups or things.
Examples Glen is the one who rescued the bird.
She belongs to an organization that specializes in saving endangered species.
Rule 2. That introduces essential clauses while which introduces nonessential clauses.
Examples I do not like editorials that argue for racial differences in intelligence.
We would not know which editorials were being discussed without the that clause.
The editorial arguing for racial differences in intelligence, which appeared in the Sunday newspaper, upset me.
The editorial is already identified. Therefore, which begins a nonessential clause.
NOTE: Essential clauses do not have commas surrounding them while nonessential clauses do contain commas.
Rule 3. If that has already been used in the sentence, use which to introduce the essential clause that follows.
Example That is a decision which you must live with for the rest of your life.
Rule 4. If the essential clause starts with this, that, these, or those, use which to connect.
Example Those ideas which were discussed on Tuesday will be put in the minutes of the meeting.
Even better The ideas discussed on Tuesday will be . . .
So the way the exemplar sentences should read are:
The man who ran down the street is my brother.
The car that ran into the man was driven by my sister.
My brother and sister, who were involved in the accident, died horrifically when their car struck the delivery van containing two dozen dwarf monkeys from Indonesia.
So free yourself from the WHODAT Conundrum, go forth and multiply like Indonesian dwarf monkeys and spread the word.
By Weston Ochse
(Note: This article first appeared in January 2006 and has been the favorite by far of readers. I’ve had more than a dozen English teachers ask if they can use the article in their class. Needless to say, I was honored to allow it. Happy Holidays to everyone.)
We all started somewhere. None of us appeared as fully-formed writers able to detect passive voice after that first gurgling breath.
This was especially true for me. My journey to grammatical confidence was a long one. Even after high school, it took a while to figure out what the teacher really meant when she explained to the whole class the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. I was too busy reading ahead in my literary reader, so it wasn’t until later that a friend in a critique group pointed out the difference to me along with the usage.
Grammar came to be at odd times. Sometimes I’d parse the information on my own while reading a novel or the bathroom wall at a truck stop. Other times I’d have to ask, usually depending on fellow writers, professors and critique groups for charity. On rare occasions, an editor would point out my flaws in a crimped and harried hand, barely legible instructions scrawled in the margins of a form rejection which I treasured and tried to decipher as if it were a map I’d been handed to the secret island of Published Professionals, hidden behind a layer of clouds far out in the Sea of Perseverance. On the rarest of occasions, an editor would set aside his or her own time and prepare a rejection letter detailing my grammatical malfeasance in such a way that I could not help but realize that my writing has been grotesquely suffering from ignorance.
This happened to me in 1997 the first year I began to write. Among the stories that will never see print is one called A Popular Judgment– a preachy morality tale thinly disguised as a JRR Tolkien meets Judge Roy Bean meets LA Law sword and sorcery melodrama. I remember thinking at the time that my talent was extraordinary, my plotting visionary, and the story an amazing contribution to literature. I knew in my heart of hearts that the story was destined to be placed in the Hall of the Literary King so that those few worthy souls who dared the perilous trek to grammatical excellence, could look upon it with reverent awe at the Temple at the End of the World, knowing that they could never equal the story in quality or insightfulness.
What was amazing was that it didn’t end up in the trash. For my first rejection for this story was from the magazine World’s of Fantasy and Horror, formerly and currently known to the world as Weird Tales. The rejection letter ran four pages of evenly spaced, informative and forever helpful guidance on all of the rules of grammar I’d deftly avoided while writing the story. This was no form letter, but a personalized indictment on my skill as a fictionalist, one which I took as divine guidance, instead of devilish damnation.
Among the many rules I’d trampled in my haste to see my words in print had to do with a little known (to me) concept called ‘the antecedent.’ You may have heard of this pesky invention, particularly in reference to pronouns. Clearly I had never heard of it, for the phrase ‘your continual and repeated misuse of antecedents to their pronouns rendered many passages indecipherable’ caught me entirely off guard. At first I was certain the editors were having their way with me. I figured they’d jerked the word from the ether, laid it on the page, and sent it to me, them all sitting on their thrones in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, snorting beers and laughing at my expense. So, not quite believing that my stellar writing was as indecipherable as described, and thinking the editor may have been a few beers short of an 18 Pack, I checked the dictionary. To my profound amazement, I discovered that the word did exist. Antecedent was an actual word.
From Miriam-Webster Online Dictionary
Main Entry: an•te•ced•ent
Etymology: Middle English, from Medieval Latin & Latin; Medieval Latin antecedent-, antecedens, from Latin, what precedes, from neuter of antecedent-, antecedens, present participle of antecedere to go before, from ante- + cedere to go
1 : a substantive word, phrase, or clause whose denotation is referred to by a pronoun (as John in “Mary saw John and called to him”); broadly : a word or phrase replaced by a substitute.
Seeing as how it was a real word, and not something created in an anagram engine, I was beginning to see an inkling of what they meant. After all, I had a whole bunch of pronouns in the story. I thought I knew what they were doing, but maybe they’d gotten out of control, which pronouns were prone to if left unattended.
Deciding that I’d go to the Master of All Things Grammatical to solve this problem, I called my mother and the conversation went something like this–
Me: “Hi mom. What’s incorrect use of an antecedent to a pronoun mean?”
Mom: “Hi son. I’m fine thank you. So is your father, although I keep telling him he needs to lose some weight. Too much butter, you know. Now what was your question?”
Me: “What’s incorrect use of an antecedent to a pronoun mean? I mean if I was to use this antecedent-thingy incorrectly what would happen?”
Mom: “Did you get another rejection?”
Me: “Saying I did, and pretending that I got a letter telling me that I incorrectly used the antecedent to pronouns, what would that mean?”
Mom: “You know you really should have finished college.”
Me: “Mom. Concentrate.”
Mom: “I’m just saying. They would have taught that to you in college had you attended and not decided to party your scholarship away.”
Me: “Mom. I’m going to hang up.”
Mom: Sighing dramatically, “Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. He fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after. Who fell down?”
Me: “What are you– Oh! That’s easy. Jack fell down.”
Mom: “And you know that because there is only one male in the preceding sentence to which the pronoun ‘he’ referred. Now, try this one. Jack and Bill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. He fell down and broke his crown and he came tumbling after. Who fell down?”
Me: “That’s just crazy. Why would Jack and Bill go up a hill?”
Mom: “Concentrate and answer the question.”
Me: “I can’t answer the question. Who’s this Bill guy anyway? I’ve never even heard of him. I have no idea who fe
ll down. I don’t know who broke their crown. I can’t tell if it was Jack or Bill? “
Mom: “Exactly. Now go look at your story and see if there are any Jack or Bills.”
Me: “What? Who?”
And she left me to figure the rest of it out on my own. Now my Mom was a HS English Teacher, so she had more than a passing acquaintance with the rules of grammar and in her inimical way was able to teach me what I’d failed to comprehend in school, glean off the page of a novel, or parse from the wall of a men’s room. Additionally, I’ve never consciously made that mistake again, often reading back over a manuscript specifically looking for antecedent errors.
Antecedents can be troublesome. I’ve included a link for some rules and examples of other ways they can be misused. Some of you will be surprised.
Here’s the link.
Since I received that rejection letter back in 1997, I’ve been fortunate to publish a lot of stories, columns, reviews and a novel, and to each of these, I owe that King of Prussian editor a small piece of credit. You never know when good advice is going to come your way, so be open to it, or your work will never find its place in the Hall of the Literary King at the Temple at the End of the World–or for that matter, published at all.
Now take a look at the title of this article. See anything interesting?
Have a Safe and Wonderful New Year!
How My Second Grade Teacher Ruined Any Hopes I Had of Mastering the Comma and Turned Me into a Hyperventilating Stalker
By Weston Ochse
What is it with the comma? I’ve never used it correctly. My proof readers always look at me incredulously and ask, ‘Why’d you use it here?”
I shrug. “I don’t know. Because it looked right?”
My earliest grammar memory has to do with the comma. It occurred in second grade in Denver, this I know because it was the winter I used to sneak out of the house and explore the Museum of Natural History every weekend. This was the winter after the summer I chased old men around Sioux Falls with dead garter snakes until they paid me a dime to leave them alone, which was after the spring I fell on a barbed wire fence and got fifty stitches in my wrist and met my new dad. In this school in Denver, I think it was Teller Elementary, the teacher was teaching us how to use the comma and the period. I remember concentrating really hard, then after the lesson trying my hand during the practical exercise and having the teacher look at me the same way my proof readers look at me.
“Why’d you use it here?”
“I thought you said to use a comma when you take a breath,” I mumbled.
I really thought that you used a comma when you breathed and I didn’t have a comma in the whole paragraph. Why? Because I was able to read the entire paragraph without breathing. Talk about lung power. I could have been a deep sea diver if it meant never having to use a comma. I’d live a life free of commas. I’d speak in long breathless sentences, then when I’d run out of breath, I’d speak no more.
But then she said something that was going to ruin me forever. “But you have to breathe. You can’t live without breathing, so if you want to live, breathe when you read.”
Turns out, she was just using the breathing as an example, and breathing didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the comma. Years later, I learned there were actual rules for comma usage, but then, in that cold Denver classroom, I broke down into tears and sobbed before the entire class as she kept me up at the board having me read a paragraph over and over, and me trying to breath in the right place, never getting the comma right, never breathing right, until I thought that I was even a bad breather. I was going to die and it was the comma’s fault. I swear the teacher is lucky I don’t have a condition.
So I got better. I became an author. I own Strunk and White and the Chicago Manual of Style, which I use frequently when I have questions about grammar, punctuation and word usage. And unless you’re talking about the serial comma, which I’ll discuss later, Strunk and White and the Chicago Grammar Mafia agree with each other, which helped me tremendously.
So with that in mind, I’m not going to write about all the things commas can do, how glorious they are, and what sad, little, crabby, laying-down-on-the-job single-assed-quotes they become when used incorrectly. Instead, I’m going to talk about the couple of occasions I just can’t seem to get it into my head when to use the comma correctly.
Quick review: Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet.
- The rat, fink bastard shot the cop, but forgot to run away.
- The cop knee-capped the gang-banger, yet forgot to get a loaf of bread on the way home.
- The junkie failed to score a rock, so banged her head repeatedly against the brick until unconsciousness gripped her in the cold icy hand of despair and….ah hell, you get the point.
Another review: Use commas after introductory a) clauses, b) phrases, or c) words that come before the main clause. Common starter words for introductory clauses that should be followed by a comma include after, although, as, because, if, since, when, while, then.
· While the zombie was chewing on the hand, the cat scratched at the door.
· Because her alarm clock was broken, she was killed by the meteor crashing through the roof.
· If your nose falls off, you ought to see a doctor.
· When the birds stop falling from the sky, we’ll shovel the driveway.
She was late for class, because her alarm clock was broken. (incorrect)
The cat scratched at the door, while I was eating. (incorrect)1
I always make this mistake. I’ll shove a comma before every because, then, while, although, if, while and after regardless of where it appears in a sentence, because I remember that imbecile of a second grade teacher who told me to put a comma when I breathe and that if I don’t breathe I’ll die.
Say it with me and breathe where you see a comma…If your nose falls off, you ought to see a doctor. Try this now and breathe where you think there should be a comma…The cat scratched at the door while I was eating. Did you breathe between door and while or did you hold your breath like a deep see dive
r? In this case you shouldn’t have used a comma.
So when a dependant subordinate clause is used at the beginning of a sentence (such as this one I just wrote), use a comma. But if the dependent subordinate clause follows the main clause then don’t use a comma. Is that right? Hell, then if one never began a sentence with a dependent subordinate clause, they’d never have to use a comma to separate clauses. And they’d die because they’d never breathe!
Now for the serial comma. Doesn’t that remind you of a serial killer? Maybe that’s what the comma really is. It’s a grammatical serial killer of any hope of understanding grammar.
Here’s the rule: The serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma or Harvard comma) is the comma used immediately before a grammatical conjunction (nearly always and or or) that precedes the last item in a list of three or more items. The phrase “ham, chips, and eggs” is an example that is written with the serial comma, while “ham, chips and eggs” is identical in meaning, but does not include the serial comma. 2
If my second grade teacher were here we’d be all fouled up.
…ham (breathe) chips and eggs…
…ham (breathe) chips (breathe) and eggs…
Repeat that last sentence ten times and you’ll come across as a stalker.
So what’s the big deal? I really shouldn’t have that much trouble with the serial comma, because if you look at it, there is no wrong answer. There are two schools of thought and both of them are correct. I think my problem is that if there are hard and fast rules for every other nit-pickin’ corpuscle of grammar, then the serial comma should conform as well and figure out what it’s going to do. How unfair is it for the serial comma to have it both ways and the period
to be stuck with its job? Or the question mark– how do you think it feels? It’s always asking, but never gets to know the answer. Only the period knows the answer, but it’s never allowed to question. The period has to accept everything without condition. I’m telling you, in the grammar universe, the serial comma is equal opportunity’s worst nightmare.
I really have to get it out of my head that a comma equals a breath. I think if I can somehow manage that, I’ll find a sort of peace. My irrational problem with the serial comma has more to do with my fear of not breathing than of being correct.
If, I, ever, see, that, teacher, again, I’m, gonna, whap, her, upside, the, head, with, a, comma!
Now who’s the hyperventilating stalker? I’d like to go back to that winter of 1972 and tell the little toe-headed boy sobbing in front of the blackboard that there are things in the world far more important than the comma. I’d like to scoop him into my arms and tell him that he can breathe any time he wants and not to worry about the psychotic grammarian who likes to scare little kids. I’d like to whisper to him that he won’t die for lack of a comma.
But I can’t go back. All I can do is tell everyone I know that the comma is a war torn bit of punctuation that is at once over-used and under-appreciated. Don’t be afraid of the comma. Look at the rules, try and use the comma well, and go in peace. Because like I want to say to that younger version of me, but will never be able to, you won’t die for lack of a comma unless someone is told– Kill him not save him –and they breathe in the wrong place.
1. Using Commas; Purdue Writing Lab; http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/grammar/g_comma.html
2. The Serial Comma; Answers.com; http://www.answers.com/topic/serial-comma
By Weston Ochse
I could go on and on about this topic. I considered giving examples of successful authors from Socrates to Stephen King. Maybe revealing secret methods each author uses. I thought of talking about my own writing, showing how my great secret has worked for me. For instance, in the last five years I’ve written six novels. By the end of 2007, I will have written nine novels if my schedule goes as planned. I thought of polling fellow authors to gain a consensus. I thought of doing a lot of things, but in the end, I decided to let the words speak for themselves.
So here it is.
Drum roll please.
And as the fanfare dies down, and the confetti is brushed from the hair, you lean forward to read the following words…
–Write five pages a day every day.–
That’s the great secret to novel writing.
Five pages a day isn’t daunting. It’s very doable. Write two in the morning and three in the afternoon, or vice versa. Write them all at once. Write one page every hour. That’s only 250 words.
Five pages a day equals a 90,000 word novel in three months.
Five pages a day equals three novels a year with time for editing and a vacation to Bermuda.
Too often when we sit and stare at the screen and imagine the novel, the whole process seems daunting. 400 manuscript pages. 90,000 words. 509,764 characters if you include spaces. 415,558 if you don’t. 3,031 paragraphs. 7,963 lines. Talk about daunting. With numbers like that why would a writer even try to write a novel? I’d rather take up underwater basket weaving or Zero-G origami.
But remember my great secret to writing a novel?
Five pages a day.
Writing five pages a day is so easy that anyone could do it.
by Weston Ochse
There is no denying the popularity of coming of age stories. From McCammon’s Boy’s Life to Simmons’ Summer of Night to Barker’s The Thief of Always to King and Straub’s The Talisman and everything in between, placing children and young adults in dire circumstances and voyeuristically adventuring with them through the threat seems to be a favorite literary pastime. When I wrote Scarecrow Gods and told the coming of age tale of Danny, it was as much an homage to those great tales that had come before as it was my signature addition to the great body of coming of age works.
Wikipedia defines Coming of Age as a young person’s formal transition from adolescence to adulthood. The nature of the transition varies and could be anything from the normal methodical matriculation to the age of majority or something more forced and immediate, such as an event or series of events that engender change in the adolescent’s outlook and interaction with the complications of life.
But why are these stories so popular? My belief is that it’s not that we enjoy reading about children, but rather that because we were children, we can as adults more easily relate as we relive many of the things that happened to us as they happen to them on the written page. Children as protagonists are archetypical and represent everything good and hopeful. As a rule, Children aren’t evil, nor do they commit irredeemable crimes. Thus the child or young adult as the protagonist is us, or how we’d want us to be, if given the chance to insinuate ourselves into that plot.
In Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life, Cory Mackerson discovers for the first time that not only does a world exists outside of Zephyr, Alabama, but evil exists in his formally perfect universe as he tries to come to grips with his father’s newfound fears. The threat of loss is woven throughout the plot, creating a sort of literary panic as we walk alongside Cory as the events unfold.
Dan Simmons’ Summer of Night begins on the last day of school as students are being released for the summer. All of us can remember that impatient joy barely held in check as we sat, listened to the teacher speak Charlie-Brown-Grown-Up-Speak, watching the clock on the wall inexorably herald our freedom. In the book, five adolescents roar into summer, only to discover that their group many be the only thing that can save their friends, families and maybe even the world from the giant worms, the dead soldier, the principal and a preternatural rendering truck that follows them like a stalking dog. I still remember a scene where they are in the corn atop a tractor in fear for their lives and I remember being as nervous for them as I ever was for myself.
In perhaps one of the greatest tour-de-force coming of age novels written, the powerful talents of Stephen King and Peter Straub are combined to provide us with The Talisman. In this book, Jack Sawyer journeys from America’s East Coast to the West Coast to find the talisman that will save his mother from a horrible death from cancer. Wonderful in its otherworldliness, the reader is keenly aware that the boy’s mother is dying and that every delay and detour could mean that he’d miss the chance to save her.
I’ve spoken long into convention nights with friends and fans about these books, each of us happy to have read them, but harrowed by the readings of them. We lived the characters to such degrees that the very act of processing the words through our minds brought about a literary transubstantiation. Many of us admitted to crying in each of these books, well-aware that as adults we should be old enough not to allow our emotions such free reign, but were unable to control ourselves as we re-came of age with the characters.
My son turns eighteen today. He has not had to face giant worms or werewolves or a supernatural rendering truck, but his life has had its share of tribulation. Since his ninth birthday, he and I have been separated by sometimes great distances. Divorce is a hard lesson for anyone to learn, but for a child it’s even harder. Their whole perception of love and trust is shattered and has to evolve so that they can adapt to this new strange family system that has formed. I saw him as often as I could, when I could. Sometimes the Army kept us apart. Sometimes it was time. Sometimes it was money. But I tried not to let these keep us apart for long. We spent every summer and most holidays together.
And today he’s eighteen. He’s learned to do so much without me. He’s been in his share of trouble. Bad grades and cute girls have conspired to keep him from over-achieving. All in all, if he was a character in a novel, he’d be pretty normal. An experienced author would realize that to make his life more interesting, they’d have to add some unique character device. Well, that was already done. One thing I left out was that he was born with birth defects- a clef lip and a clef palette. Not something that would handicap him physically, but something that could create enough emotional baggage to sink a cruiseliner, especially considering the mean potential of children and their need to build themselves up by bringing other’s down.
I’m a huge fan of coming of age novels. I like to step into the shoes of the characters, experience their innocence and wonder, and succeed in the end against almost impossible odds. But that’s just pretend. I don’t have any real emotional stake in the characters of the novels because they aren’t real people. While thinking about my son’s birthday and the childhood he’s leaving behind, I couldn’t help but think that he starred in his own coming of age novel—a true life memoir of one boy against the world, against genetics and fate, struggling to become the man everyone thought he should be, the man he wanted to be but didn’t really know to be. He lived the life like any character lived their plot and I, his father, lived it as a reader.
There were times when I had as much influence over events in his life as a reader would the events in a novel. I was a voyeur, helpless to stop what was happening, even when I knew they’d lead to a bad end. I didn’t live with him. My relationship with his mother was such that she would hang up the phone at the first hint of conflict, even if it meant talking about what was best for our son. I had a certain amount of control and influence, but my success was predicated on my son’s willingness to follow my dictums, and my ability to deliver my messages in a package palatable enough for him to swallow. When I wasn’t looking, which was far too often, he did what he wanted, his wishes and my desires only sometimes intersecting.
My son’s real-life coming of age novel was sometimes a comedy, sometimes a drama and sometimes a horror. There were times I didn’t think he’d make it. There were other times that made me cry as I stepped into the footsteps of the character, my son, and tried to cha
nnel the emotions he was most certainly feeling. There were other time when I was, frankly, too scared to open the book of his life because I knew what was going to happen in the next chapter. But like in fiction, characters live and do things whether you read them or not, and any fear of reading what was about to happen in my son’s novel did nothing to change the prosecution of the plot, my hesitation meaning as much to the universe as my the real-life tears I shed for Cody Mackerson at the end of Boy’s Life.
Now that my son has turned eighteen, I’m closing the novel of his early years. Now that he’s come of age, the coming of age novel must end. The last chapter ends with these words: with a good heart and a discerning mind, he passed to adulthood, not quite ready for those challenges life was going to throw his way, but willing to battle through them, for he was a man, and that was what men did.
As readers we read coming of age novels to relive the hopes and possibilities of a character’s future. As writers we write coming of age novels to entertain and battle test morals we’ve come to embrace as graduates of our own coming of age novels. Most fathers are reoccurring characters in their own children’s coming of age novels, able to influence and advise as each plot device unfolds. And then there are us unlucky few who are voyeurs to our own children, readers of their coming of age novels, turning pages with as much fear as courage, hoping that by the end of the novel, our children, those bastions of our unparalleled love, will survive to live on.
I am proud to say that my son has made it past the first book in his trilogy of life. Book two is adulthood, and although I’m once again forced into the role of reader, for this I am not as lonely, for all of us are powerless in the face of our children’s adult momentum as we are forced to turn the pages of their destiny as they step, day-by-day through life.
Good Luck, Zachary. You were an exciting read. I look forward to our next volume.
(For a glimpse at my son in action click here.)
**Thanks to Richard Steinberg. He asked me to trade with him so he could write an essay about his mother. Of course I jumped to his aid, but in doing so, realized that the day he traded me for was my son’s birthday. Too much coincidence for me to let it pass.