Here is a link to an article I wrote in The Prairie Wind, SCBWI’s Illinois quarterly magazine. This about my journey in writing, and how Summer on Earth was published. I’ve always enjoyed hearing stories about how authors started writing, and what they did to get published. The title of this article is A Sprint that turned into a Marathon. I hope you like it.
Lions, Tigers and Bears Part 2
The rest of the week Larry buckled down and got to work. He woke early every morning, had a quick cup of coffee and went right outside to paint. He finished the scraping on Thursday and the trim on Friday. For the main area of the house, Donna had picked a shade of tan called Desert Sand. It gave Larry a good feeling to see the new paint go on. He’d put it off for too long, he thought. The house had started to look shabby. He felt a sense of pride as the new paint covered the wood.
In a way the job was tedious, but it gave him time to think. He knew he owed Jason for the interview. Jason was top management and his word obviously carried a lot of weight. But once he got in, Larry knew he would prove himself. He’d put in the extra effort and show his true value. The thought of being indebted to Jason was humbling, but he’d swallow his pride and, by making himself valuable to the company, he’d win in the end. The truth of the matter was that he really didn’t have to deal with Jason that much anyway. Larry only saw him a few times a year at family functions. He would now see him occasionally at work too; but he’d just have to deal with that. It would be worth it to be working again. On Saturday, he called Jason and thanked him for setting things up.
Larry continued to paint and by Sunday night had nearly finished the house. He still had to do a section in the back by the deck, but by the time he quit he was so tired he could hardly hold the brush straight. He was still a little nervous about his interview the next day, so after dinner and a quiet evening he went to bed early.
That night he had a dream. In the dream, he was walking through a forest. The grass around him was an intense green that nearly matched the shade of his jacket. The sky was a Technicolor blue and the trees were a dark ominous brown. The place seemed familiar, but at first he wasn’t sure why. It came to him when the tiger rushed out from behind the tree and pounced on him.
Larry felt the claws dig into his flesh. He could smell it’s sour breath. Though he felt he was about to die, he didn’t panic. He pulled a paintbrush from his pocket and slapped it at the tiger. The tiger’s stripes disappeared, covered by a coat of Desert Sand – but then the color changed to white and in a flash the tiger was gone.
Larry picked himself up and continued walking. He was bigger now. When the bear lunged at him, Larry just kicked out and punted the bear like a football, over the trees and out of sight. He was even bigger now, and as he realized that, he also realized that the scenery had changed. Now he was climbing the mountain. When the Yeti appeared, it was more gruesome than he remembered – huge and misshapen, covered with dirty white hair. Larry picked him up, put him in a helicopter spin and tossed him off the mountain. He watched as the Yeti smashed onto the rocks below.
Then Larry was walking through the suburban lawn. Now he was a giant. He kicked the dogs out of the way and stepped on the sprinklers, leaving gushers of water in his wake. When the gnomes appeared, Larry felt a surge of power. He wanted to know what happened after he got past them – he never had before.
Larry towered over the gnomes. He could easily crush them like bugs, he thought. He grabbed them up, one in each hand. But as he brought them up to eye level, he saw that their faces had changed. One of the gnomes was Jason, the other was Nelson from the interview.
“How’s it going, Chief?” Jason gnome flashed a neon smile.
“You haven’t done this before?” Nelson the gnome pointed his walking stick at Larry. “Well, I’m sure you could learn.”
Larry felt himself shrinking. Now the gnomes were nearly the same height as he was. He wanted to crush them, but it was too late. Nelson the gnome smacked him with his walking stick.
“No,” Nelson the gnome laughed. “You’ll never learn.”
Suddenly Larry was on his back, weak and defenseless.
“No hard feelings, Ace.” Jason gnome kicked him in the side. “Sometimes you just can’t win.”
Larry reached into his pocket and pulled out his paintbrush, but Nelson the gnome swung at it with his stick and it sailed out of Larry’s hand. Nelson smacked him in the ribs. “You forgot about the magic rocks. You’ll never learn!”
Jason gnome stomped on Larry’s hand. “This’ll just about do it, Pal.” He raised his foot above Larry’s head and stomped down. Larry saw the heel coming down at his head like an axe on a chopping block. He woke up just before it connected with his head. The room was dark and quiet. Donna lay next to him, breathing softly. It took him a minute to calm down before he could go back to sleep.
The next morning, Larry woke up refreshed and energetic. While reading the paper he had one cup of coffee, more than that and he was afraid he’d feel fidgety. After Donna left for work, he showered and shaved. The interview wasn’t until eleven, but he wanted to make sure he was ready on time. He’d picked his clothes out the night before, but he laid them out again to make sure they looked right. He had some extra time, so he shined his shoes again before getting dressed. Looking in the mirror he was satisfied. The blue shirt brought out his tan and made him look healthier, he thought. He looked confident and experienced – like the kind of man who didn’t need a job.
He checked his watch. It was almost ten now and he didn’t have to leave until about ten-thirty. Half an hour to kill. He’d already checked the car for gas and planned a route where he wouldn’t have to cross any railroad tracks. Last week he’d been too early and had to wait in the car. If he was going to wait, it would be easier to do it at home, he thought. He took off his jacket to keep it from getting wrinkled, and went out to the living room to watch a few minutes of TV.
In the living room, he noticed that the Atari was still hooked up. He hadn’t played it since last week but hadn’t gotten around to putting it away. He checked his watch again. It would take him just about twenty-five minutes to get up to the gnomes, where he always got killed. He had just enough time for one game.
He turned on the TV and the game set, inserted the cartridge and sat down to play. His elf walked across the screen. He stopped just before the right tree and the tiger ran harmlessly by. Larry continued on. It was almost second nature now; a learned behavior that made his thumbs move the right way a fraction of a second before his brain realized he needed to. He easily cleared the first level, besting the giant beaver without a problem. The second level was easy too. He knew exactly where to walk and what to do to avoid the Billy goats and the avalanches. Larry checked his watch as he fought the Yeti, but he was fine on time. He moved on.
The third level was where he’d always had the problems. He avoided the dogs and the sprinklers as he knew he would, then came up to the lawn gnomes. He glanced at his watch again. Ten twenty-two – right on time. He’d just step in, be killed by the gnomes and it would be time to go. But as he stepped forward, he tried something different than he’d done before. As he moved forward he alternately punched down on the action buttons with both thumbs. The first gnome swung at Larry’s elf with his walking stick, but an amazing thing happened. The elf reached into his pocket and pulled out a magic rock. He threw it on the ground and the gnome stopped in mid-swing. The elf grabbed hold of the walking stick and swung it and the gnome over its head and pitched it at the other gnome for a perfect strike. Both gnomes rolled like balls, end over end, away from the elf and out of the picture.
Larry nearly jumped out of his chair with excitement. He’d finally done it! This had to be some kind of omen that things were finally going in the right direction. He took a deep breath and checked his watch again. Ten twenty-five. It was almost time to go, but he was in uncharted territory. He still had a few minutes anyway. He tapped his thumb against the joystick and his elf walked forward.
Now his elf was on a sandy beach. Larry noticed that he was humming along with the calliope music. His elf walked over a sandy hill and Larry instinctively stopped. A crab scuttled past and headed toward the water. Larry smiled. He’d never been here before but now he knew the signs. He knew the game. He tapped his thumb and the elf moved forward again. Larry noticed the waves swelling and moved the elf uphill just in time to avoid the tidal wave. He checked his watch again. Ten thirty-two. Now it was time to go. But it was so hard to stop in the middle; he wanted to see what he’d have to face at the end of the beach. He decided to play for just a few more minutes. If he drove a little bit faster and made all the green lights, he could still make it on time.
Larry dodged another series of crabs and tidal waves. At the end of the beach he had to battle an old lady. She moved around in a circle, swatting at him with her umbrella. But for Larry it wasn’t difficult. He tried the same trick he’d learned for the beaver and the old lady’s umbrella opened up and the wind carried her away. The elf moved on.
Larry was in a flow now. The next level was a miniature golf course. He moved through it like he’d been there a hundred times before. It no longer felt like he was moving the controller and watching the screen, now he’d become the elf. He easily evaded the windmills and swinging bridges; he knew just what to do when he fought the evil clown. The next levels were easy too. He sailed through the shopping mall and the zoo. He had no problem with the haunted house. He wasn’t an elf; he was a wizard – the Michael Jordan of Atari.
The next level was a circus. The calliope music quickened in tempo. Larry moved across the floor of the big top sidestepping the acrobats and walking under the elephants. It almost seemed too easy. Every move was the right move. He had the pattern down. He was unbeatable.
Then he walked under the last elephant and came face to face with the ringmaster. He was tall, dressed in a black tuxedo and holding a whip. Larry cautiously moved forward. The ringmaster cracked his whip and Larry jumped his elf back. He hit the buttons furiously, throwing magic rocks in the ringmaster’s path, but it didn’t matter. The ringmaster cracked his whip again and Larry had to dodge out of the way, a near miss. He tried all the tricks he knew, pushed every combination of buttons he could think of, but nothing made a difference. The music played faster now and the ringmaster cracked his whip at a furious pace. Larry tapped the joystick as fast as he could. First left, then right; making his elf dance, narrowly avoiding the whip. The music played at a fevered pitch. The ringmaster cracked his whip again and Larry danced out of the way. But this time the whip cracked backwards, snaking around the ringmaster, tying him up and tipping him over. Larry felt a new rush as the ringmaster rolled away.
Larry sat forward in his seat. He was ready for anything now. The screen changed, but now his elf was back in the forest where he’d first started. Larry felt a letdown. He’d beaten the game, but that’s all there was. He wanted new worlds to conquer.
He sat back and put down the game controller. For the first time he noticed that the phone was ringing. With a start, he realized how much time had past. His heart caught in his throat as he saw the time – it was nearly noon. Ignoring the phone, Larry ran back to his bedroom, grabbed his coat and hurried out the door.
It was late evening when Larry got home. The house was dark and the garage was empty. It seemed appropriate, Larry thought. It matched his mood. He walked through the house, turning on the lights in each room, making the house bright. In the kitchen the answering machine blinked with three messages. Larry punched the play button.
The first message was from Nelson at BDC. Larry skipped the message; there was nothing there that he didn’t already know. The second message was from Donna. Concern in her voice, she said she’d just talked with Jason and heard that he hadn’t made it to the interview. She asked Larry to call her as soon as he got the message.
The third message was Donna again. On this one her tone was different. A forced control with an edge of anger and hurt. She said she was at her sister’s house. She’d call him sometime in the next few days.
Larry listened to the series of beeps at the end of the message, then walked into the living room. He flopped down onto his chair. He deserved whatever he got, he thought. He’d messed up. Big time. He knew that he’d hurt Donna and he was sorry about that. But in a way he was relieved that he wouldn’t be taking the job. After leaving the house he’d driven towards BDC Industries with the vague idea of meeting with Nelson and groveling to get a second chance. But after the initial panic wore off, Larry realized that he didn’t even want the job. He drove around the rest of the day, thinking.
He wanted to work again, sure, but this job was just setting him up to fail. It was a type of work that he’d never done before, in a company where everyone knew that the only reason he was even considered was because his brother-in-law was a big shot. The idea of having to kiss Jason’s ass just turned his stomach. Even if it took longer to find a job, he’d be better off on his own.
He hadn’t really tried to find a new job – not like he should have anyway. At first he’d expected the perfect job offer to just land in his lap. When it didn’t he’d basically given up. He hadn’t approached it the right way at all. There were a lot of avenues that he hadn’t even explored yet. He’d set his sights a little lower. There was something out there for him and he knew that with the right effort he’d find it soon.
Donna was mad at him now. Mad and disappointed, but she’d get over it. They’d been married for a long time and had been through a lot of hardships; they’d survived. They would survive this one too. Larry decided that he’d call her tomorrow and try to make her understand. She wouldn’t be happy, but she’d understand when she saw how hard he was trying. She’d be proud of him again.
Tomorrow would be a big day, he thought. It was a new beginning. He’d already played over in his mind all the phone calls he needed to make – all the contacts and headhunters he needed to network with. Tomorrow was a big day. He needed to put everything behind, get to bed early and get a good night’s sleep.
As he pushed himself out of the chair, he noticed the Atari game on the floor. Along with the elf game there were two other games. One was a skiing game, the other was called Knight’s Quest. Larry hesitated. Tomorrow was a new day but he still had some time tonight.
He picked up Knight’s Quest, popped the cartridge into the machine and began to play.