I was nine-years-old when I first sat in front of an old, dusty typewriter and hammered out my first story. I remember it well, too, for the Dog Days of a Nebraska summer had sent me to the cool of the basement of my childhood home, and there in my retreat from the sweltering heat, I typed out The Lost World.
During the process, the D key stuck constantly, and in the story, Professor Gray and his bodyguard, Steve, drove a space ship underground and rescued a little yellow dude named Spock. I drew 10 pictures for the 10 page story and stapled them into a booklet. My babysitter and her two sisters were my only audience for that particular work, but I still have that booklet to this day.
In sixth grade, I remember my teacher phoning my mom and telling her that I didn’t seem to be there with the rest of the class. When my mom interrogated me about my space-off sessions, I told her I was bored out of my mind. But the truth of the matter is, I had been sitting there at my old wooden desk, when I started poking the end of my pencil into this perfectly round hole that some other bored kid had evidently drilled into the pencil tray long before I was destined to sit in that particular desk. Suddenly, in my head, I heard, “No! No! Stop!”
Fascinated, I withdrew my pencil from the hole, and in my “mind’s eye” I watched as a tiny gray mouse named Tuffy popped out. He was a friendly little fellow and he flew around my classroom in his airplane. Mind you, this is two years before I even thought about dabbling in any kind of mind-altering substances. Thus another story was born.
When I was 13, I began wearing a cut-off jean jacket with an American Flag on the back. My goal was to become a biker. I had a Suzuki dirt bike and started riding the trails along Salt Creek out by Bloody Mary’s place. There, I met bikers from clubs like the Screaming Eagles, the Association, the Outlaws, the Gypsies, and even one big mountain of a guy who was an ex-Hell’s Angel. Mental images began swirling around inside my head, and I began to write with pen and paper, and I filled up three entire note books with a 900 page story that I named Wings like Eagles.
The one problem with this story was the name I came up with for the hero biker gang. When I told my friend the name of the good guys in my story, he snorted pop through his nose and explained to me what a certain word actually meant. I promptly changed the gang’s name to the Eagles, because the “Forgotten Faggots” did not have the same ring to it.
At 14, I ran away from home, got myself locked up in Westview Detention Home, and ended up on probation. I remember the day I put away my biker dreams and set a new course to become a writer. I cut the flag and motorcycle patches off of my jean jacket and rode my dirt bike out to Steven’s Creek. There I started a huge fire, and I removed all 900 pages of that biker story from my backpack. I then wrapped them in my flag, along with all my patches, and I tossed the whole bundle into the fire. I watched those writings burn, and like a Phoenix that rises from the ashes, I vowed to write something that would hopefully change lives.
I re-wrote Wings like Eagles, then added a manuscript called Scratchin’ on the Eight Ball to my collection. I had just turned 19 and due to a reference letter written by juvenile Judge Nuernberger, I became the youngest Juvenile Care Specialist at the newly opened Attention Center. The juvenile holding facility was named after Jennie B. Harrel, the same matron of Westview Detention who had locked me up in solitary confinement back when I was 14. Little did most of those kids know that I had been exactly where they were and that is why I wrote stories addressed specifically to them. I soon began to share my two manuscripts, Wings and 8-Ball, with our confined youth, and they came back in tatters, for the kids read them constantly.
I eventually submitted those two stories to publishers but never got a bite. I remember having a sit down with my friend, Dan Newton’s mom, and she showed me an entire drawer full of rejection slips, and told me to hang on because being a writer was a rough and rocky road.
When I was 22, I produced a slide presentation called, Love that sticks like Bubblegum on Tennis Shoes. It was presented with two slide projectors, a dissolve unit and a full musical background. Kids performed the dialogue and I included lots of strange sound effects such as motorcycles, vacuum sweepers, crunching ice cubes, and cows grazing on dried corn stalks. One scene included a kid throwing a soccer ball across a school playground and accidently beaning his teacher in the head. Her glasses flew off and shattered when they hit the ground. I used a large mayonnaise jar to get the right sound effect for that particular shot, and the first time I presented the show at Huntington Elementary, one elderly teacher walked up afterwards and grinned as she asked, “Just how thick were those glasses, anyway?”
For the next 3 years, I continued to present Love at schools, institutions, and at dozens of private showings. Until one day my friend, a barber by trade, was cutting this guy’s hair and telling him all about my slide show. The guy getting his hair cut was Jerry Kromberg, the President of Media Productions. He wanted to see my presentation. So my friend arranged a meeting between us. Although Jerry was impressed with Love, he rejected it as a future project. However, I left him with two manuscripts to read, Wings and 8-Ball.
A month later, Jerry asked me to meet with him, and he agreed to publish Scratchin’ on the Eight Ball. He wanted to start with 5,000 copies as he had a wide-range distribution with schools all across the nation. He set me up with an English Major, Arda Pounds, and she and I worked late night hours getting my 345 page story ready to go to press.
At that point in time, I had no clue where the quotation marks went, how to use commas, how to make a paragraph break. God forbid, if getting that book published involved passing a test on nouns, pronouns, verbs or even Proverbs, I would have been doomed! I had a slight case of ADHD when I was a kid in school, and when I should have been paying attention to the lessons on grammar and punctuation, my mind was elsewhere, oftentimes flying around the classroom with Tuffy in his plane.
I remember when the manuscript was finally done, and my artist friend called me and said, “Your publisher wants me to include a large marijuana leaf on the front cover of your book. The trouble is, I have no clue what one looks like. Could you do me a favor?”
So, I drove out in the country and picked some ditch weed. I drove all the away across town, sweating it and thinking I was going to get caught for possession! And yet because of that harrowing trip, with weed plants crammed beneath my driver’s seat, the artist, Russ Wahl, ended up with a nice rendition of his marijuana leaf on the front cover of the book.
One other thing happened just before the book went to press, and Russ called me again with a new problem. He said, “You know the young girl we have on the front cover of your book? Well, your publisher gave me an odd request, one that he thinks will sell more books. He wants me to enlarge her breasts!”
“Oh God, no,” I told him. “I know that girl’s mother and she would not want to see her daughter with super large boobs on the front cover of my book. Yes, more kids might be attracted to the book, heck, even the girl might approve, but her mom would strangle me! Just tell him you already sprayed a finishing coat on it and it cannot be changed, and leave her boobs alone!”
The book was released at the Nebraska Librarian’s Convention in Columbus, and after I spoke and sang for 450 librarians, nearly half of the room lined up to get a signed copy of my book. Jerry had brought only 15 copies with him! I lost out on about 200 sales that night. Depressed at this turn of events, I joined four librarians at the end of the evening as they sipped on alcoholic beverages. One teacher summed it up best, slurring her words and saying, “Your firth book and your stoopid publishure brought only fifteen copies? That shertainly shucks!” I’ve loved librarians ever since.
Media Productions sold 2,000 books the following six months and the sales were all over the place, Texas, New York, California, South Dakota, and the libraries and schools of Nebraska. And then reality set in. I started getting calls from teachers in Lincoln, asking me why my publisher refused to sell them my book. So I called Jerry, and after hearing several excuses as to why he would no longer fulfill orders, he asked me if I wanted to buy back my rights plus the 3,000 books he still had in his warehouse.
He wanted $3400 for the rights and $4.95 for each book. I was stunned. Where was I going to come up with that kind of money? I thought once my book had been published, it would continue to sell and then I would write the next one, and the next. It seemed my first book had hit a dead-end and yet it had been selling so well, and I still had calls from teachers trying to order more. I figured something was very wrong with this whole picture.
So I called a lawyer, Cal Hansen. This was back in 1987, and I remember Cal had to travel to Omaha just to seek advice on copyright issues, as Lincoln was in the dark ages on copyright law back then. Cal came back with some interesting news. “An author’s rights,” he told me, “revert back to the author for FREE, when a publisher is done with the work. Your publisher is evidently using your 3,000 books for a tax write off, so he has no more interest in them. Your rights come back to you free. He would have been ripping you off to charge you even a penny for them, let alone three grand. So I will make a counter offer: Rights for free and 85 cents per book on the 3,000 he still has.”
Sounded good to me. But where was I going to come up with that kind of money?
To be continued . . .