Fake Sci-fi and Fantasy

A little over a year ago I decided to try my hand at writing fiction specifically sci-fi. If I’m going to write a story that sells then I need to know what is selling. After a long hiatus of reading sci-fi, I re-started subscriptions to the “Big Three” sci-fi magazines: Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and Fantasy & Science Fiction. I also occasionally read online publications Clarkesworld and Daily Science Fiction.

Most of the content is quite entertaining, well written, and I would consider it worth the time to read.. Unfortunately, not all of it fits very well into my own personal definition of science fiction or speculative fiction or fantasy.

The writer’s guidelines for Analog say in part…

We publish science fiction stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse. Try to picture Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein without the science and you’ll see what I mean. No story!

I suppose to be fair, that definition is somewhat limited to what most people would call “hard science fiction” and I admit that is my favorite sub-genre.

Asimov’s takes a somewhat broader view in their guidelines which say in part…

In general, we’re looking for “character oriented” stories, those in which the characters, rather than the science, provide the main focus for the reader’s interest. Serious, thoughtful, yet accessible fiction will constitute the majority of our purchases, but there’s always room for the humorous as well. SF dominates the fiction published in the magazine, but we also publish borderline fantasy, slipstream, and surreal fiction. No sword & Sorcery, please. Neither are we interested in explicit sex or violence. A good overview would be to consider that all fiction is written to examine or illuminate some aspect of human existence, but that in science fiction the backdrop you work against is the size of the Universe.

Although they are emphasizing character over science, I think it’s fair to say they are seeing the science aspect as something essential to the genre.

F&SF, as its name implies, embraces broader material. You won’t find any fantasy or supernatural content in Analog. F&SF’s guidelines say…

Fantasy & Science Fiction has no formula for fiction, but we like to be surprised by stories, either by the character insights, ideas, plots, or prose. The speculative element may be slight, but it should be present. We prefer character-oriented stories, whether it’s fantasy, science fiction, horror, humor, or another genre.

That’s an extremely loose definition which I suppose explains why this is my least favorite of the three although I do enjoy it a great deal. I’ve been known to skip over some of the pure fantasy stories that didn’t catch my interest but I read most of it. One of my complaints below is about a story from F&SF and I suppose that story does fit their definition but that doesn’t mean it’s my cup of tea.

Editors are free to publish whatever kind of stories they want. My award-winning autobiographical article “The Reunion” published in the September 1987 issue of Indianapolis Monthly Magazine was nearly rejected because it was written in first person and didn’t really fit the usual format of the magazine. Editor Deborah Paul then decided “I am the editor and just because I’ve never published anything first person before doesn’t mean I can’t start now.” Indianapolis Monthly Magazine readers probably have certain expectations but I doubt they are as specific as those of the readers of genre magazines. When I read a magazine with the words “science fiction” in the title, that’s precisely what I expect to see.

Sadly, on occasion, I’m seeing the stories that I don’t feel really fit that category.

There was a story several months ago and I’m sorry I don’t remember which of the three magazines it was in and I don’t remember the title. It was set on Mars and it was the story of colonists who I believe were farmers operating greenhouse structures to grow crops. There was a mystery involved that implied someone was sabotaging their equipment. It was done in such a way to make it look like neighboring farms were sabotaging each other. Spoiler alert… It wasn’t any of the farms. It was some mining company trying to drive out the farmers so that they could claim the area for its mineral rights.

Except for the added peril of the harsh environment of Mars, there was absolutely nothing about this story that I would consider inherently sci-fi in nature. This exact same story could have been told with few changes if it was set in the farmlands of America. It probably would be more credible in pioneer days but it could possibly be a modern story about disputes between landowners and big corporations that want to exploit a region.

I got the feeling that the sci-fi elements to the story were only there to give the story a market. You’ve got the three print publications that I’ve been talking about in addition to lots of other online markets for genre work. Where would you sell such a story if it didn’t have this added on, nonessential sci-fi element?

If you go back and look at Asimov’s guidelines, They asked for character-oriented stories that just happen to have a science setting. However, this particular story didn’t have especially compelling characters. The only thing that it really had going for it was the mystery of who was sabotaging the operation and why. Again, the only thing that the Mars setting added was a bit of peril provided by the harsh environment.

Let’s take a counterexample of another story set on Mars. I thought it was going to be an ordinary murder mystery that unnecessarily took place on the Red Planet. Appearing in the May/June 2020 issue of F&SF is a short story “The Plus One” by Marie Vibbert. The story opens with a US Marshal stationed on Mars who is the only law enforcement personnel in the area. She is called to the scene of a dead body found in a small survival tent found at the edge of a crater. My initial expectation was that this was an ordinary murder mystery that had absolutely nothing to do with being set on Mars. The main character’s insatiable passion to solve the mystery was enough to keep me interested but it was nothing extraordinary. It appeared to be the kind of story you can see on any one-hour police procedural TV show.

I’m sorry to spoil the mystery but I have to tell you the end of the story in order to make my point.

It turns out that the woman perished from exposure when the heat on her survival tent failed. She had come to Mars as a Plus One with her wife who was employed by a private mining company. She herself, was jobless. When her wife fell ill and died, she had nowhere to go. The stereotypical heartless corporation felt no responsibility towards her. She applied to the US Consulate on Mars for a trip home but another ship would not be leaving for nine months. Because she was “in no imminent danger” they would not provide her with temporary housing for more than one month. Everywhere she turned, she was turned away. People said she should’ve sought temporary employment with some company but according to the narrator, that would involve walking long distances across the planet with nothing but your environment suit and your temporary shelter to support you.

The Marshall filed misdemeanor charges against the company and the consulate for failure to provide emergency aid which was a fundamental law given the harsh environment of Mars. On the other hand, it was a misdemeanor and they would’ve had to pay a fine towards the deceased’s burial cost and to their estate and heirs. That’s not the kind of punishment one might expect for what was essentially negligent homicide. When the Marshall’s bosses ordered her to withdraw the charges and drop the matter, she refused which resulted in a one-month suspension. This risked putting her and her husband who was a Plus One in the same position as the dead homeless woman. In the end, they banded together with other neighboring colonists to create the first and only homeless shelter on Mars. It would provide temporary housing for anyone who needed it until they could catch a ride back to earth.

This did turn out to be a story that needed the unique setting of Mars. It illustrated that even as we colonize other planets, we are still going to face the same social problems that we face here on earth. We have the unrealistic expectation that new societies established on Mars, the moon, or even interstellar colonies will be a futuristic utopia in which such problems do not exist. It is a cautionary tale that warns us that social justice issues are going to follow us wherever we go. It is an excellent example of what a good sci-fi story can and should do.

A couple of more positive and negative examples from that same issue of F&SF I would like to briefly discuss. “Babylon System” by Maurice Broaddus is a story of a Jamaican man named Lij who is incarcerated under harsh circumstances which dehumanize people and insist that they give up their names and use only their prisoner numbers. There are android guards and at one point our main character reveals that he is some sort of clone or manufactured human who has no bellybutton. However, his clone status nor the robot guards add anything essential to the basic plot or atmosphere of the story.

The indomitable spirit of the main character, his struggle to maintain his humanity in an inhumane system, his desire to reawaken the humanity of those around him who have lost theirs, and the background of his Rastafarian culture all make for a compelling narrative. However, the sci-fi setting adds absolutely nothing to the story that is essential. The introductory paragraphs explain that this is part of a series of stories by the author about that character. Perhaps this character’s broader narrative is more firmly rooted in a sci-fi world butt based on this installment alone, I cannot recommend it as a sci-fi story on that basis alone despite its other merits.

Concerned that my own status as an old white guy and my inability to connect to the experiences of ethnically and culturally diverse characters might have soured me on the story, let me make reference to yet another story from that same issue. “Dontay’s Bones” by Darian Darrell Jerry is a short story set in the impoverished areas of Memphis, Tennessee. A young African-American man struggles to get by in this harsh setting and does all he can to avoid selling his soul to a drug dealer by joining that operation. On the surface, there is nothing at all sci-fi nor fantasy about this particular setting. However, a series of bizarre events unfold that hint that there is something dark and evil going on. Given the title of the magazine, I wasn’t sure whether it was sci-fi or fantasy. Whichever it was, it was deeply rooted in the narrative. While there was some hint that some of the strange occurrences could have been drug-induced, the end of the story reveals that what was occurring was real. I won’t spoil the outcome because I’ve already done too much of that in this blog.

While one could argue that you could tell the same basic story without the fantastic elements, I felt like the genre elements were so intricately woven into the narrative that it works for me as a genre story. And for an old white guy, I can’t honestly say I identify with the characters No matter how liberal or “woke” I consider myself. However, adding the genre elements to the story made it accessible to me even if I have no experience or personal context that would make me connect to an inner-city character so culturally and ethically different from myself.

Well-written sci-fi and fantasy should open our minds to worlds and possibilities that are beyond our experience. “Dontay’s Bones” did that for me. “Babylon System” did not.”

Whatever your definition is of sci-fi or fantasy, I think they should be an expectation that those elements are an essential part of the story. That doesn’t mean that character, plot, atmosphere, narrative, and language are unimportant. But I want my sci-fi to be real sci-fi.

To quote comedian Dennis Miller with his standard sign-off after his rant at the end of his show “That’s just my opinion… I could be wrong.”

Author’s Journal: My First Indy 500

This is the sixth in a continuing series of posts about my experience (limited as it is) as an author. Click here for a complete index of all the stories in this series.

We now come to what was my last print publication to date… Another article in Indianapolis Monthly Magazine published in the May 1994 issue. It was about my first experience attending the Indianapolis 500. I have been going to the track on practice and qualifying days since I was six years old. However, because there weren’t very many good seating options for someone in a wheelchair, I didn’t attend the race until 1993. That year, they built a new wheelchair platform in front of the grandstand from the start of turn three until the beginning of turn four. We managed to get tickets and see the race for the first time. After that, I attended the 500 and the Brickyard 400 until about 2004. I don’t exactly remember the dates but a 2003 incident I will describe in a moment contributed to my decision to quit going. One of the problems was that the Brickyard race was in late July or early August. For two years in a row, the temperatures were forecast to be 90° or above and I knew I couldn’t stand that so we gave away our tickets. After that, we didn’t renew.

On October 22, 2003, there was a fatal accident involving driver Tony Renna during a tire test day when no one was in the grandstand. There was no video of the crash because it was during a private test. Photos of the aftermath showed that the car got into the fence and knocked down one of the steel poles. The steel pole crashed into the wheelchair platform about 50 yards east of where I normally sit. Had that accident occurred on race day, fans would have been seriously injured or killed. I didn’t really feel safe sitting there anymore. At the 2010 race which I did not attend, there was another crash in that area and after looking at the video it seemed clear to me that one of the tires of the car had penetrated the fence. I wrote a Facebook message to local reporters who were bragging about how the fence held up and I told him to take a second look at their own video. I’m certain I could see one of the tires bouncing around underneath the grandstand and disappearing behind the wall. The reporter wrote me back and said there was no penetration of the fence but he was wrong. This YouTube video is a little blurry and doesn’t show it as well as the original.

Also, the hassle of getting in and out of the track got worse. My disability was getting worse as well. I like to listen to the pit crews on my scanner radio but in order to be able to work it properly, I needed to push buttons using a wooden stick that I held in my mouth. It was difficult to keep my head up straight in order to do that. The wheelchair platform was a bit wobbly and every time someone would walk by I would often have my head fall over. If I put my head back against the headrest, I couldn’t operate the radio and it was difficult to turn my head. If I had to sit in one position for the entire race, couldn’t operate my radio, and didn’t feel safe, it just wasn’t worth it anymore so we quit going. I still went to practice a few days but we sat in the wheelchair section and I quit touring the garage area.

For purposes of this blog, I really don’t have any interesting stories to tell about how it was written or published. I went to the race. It was an amazing unforgettable experience. I wrote about it. Indianapolis Monthly agreed to publish it in the May 1994 issue. There is a photo of me sitting at the track in a heavy coat. We went over there probably in February or March with a magazine photographer to take that photo.

The more interesting story is rereading it now many years later. Shortly after I got my first webpage which was probably in the late 1990s I’m not sure, I posted the uncut version of the story. I had titled it “A Race Fan’s First 500” but the magazine retitled it “Being There”. I didn’t particularly like the change. Along with that uncut version online I included about eight or nine photos we had taken that day. I don’t know where the originals of those photos are. The online versions had been cropped and resized rather small because in those days a high-resolution screen was only 800×600 and the Internet was running at dial-up speeds that were at best 56K. My current Internet downloads at 200 Mb/s.

While digging through some memorabilia recently I found the original magazine and decided to put up a version that was “as published” rather than my director’s cut. I was shocked at the differences. My director’s cut was terrible. While there were some details that got cut that wish had stayed in, some of it rambled a bit incoherently at times. I’m hoping that what I had put up as “the original longer version” was actually an early draft. Some of the changes in the published version sounded like something I would write. So either editor Deborah Paul was good at fixing my mistakes in my style or this online version that I had up for a long time was actually an early draft. At least I hope so.

One of the things that surprised me upon rereading the story was how vividly I described things such as the smell of the place. In my writing, I’m not really big on describing the ambiance of a place. I’m much more comfortable with straightforward exposition. I often wonder how some authors can spend pages talking about how the sunlight glinted off the morning dew. That’s typically not my style. But when it came to the visceral experience of watching Indy cars go by at 200 mph and you are only 10 feet away from the fence, I did a pretty good job.

One thing that surprised me about the article was it said that at that race it was the first time I had seen a car hit the wall in person. I wondered if that was some sort of poetic license or exaggeration. The online version shows a photo of me at the track at age 6 and I told the story of how I made fun of the fact that a driver named Norm Hall had hit the wall. I thought it was funny that it rhymed. But I was sitting in the main straightaway and didn’t see it. I went to the track on practice and qualifying days many times throughout my childhood but we always sat in front of the pits. Through my high school and college days, I spent a lot of time at the track. But some of it was on the main stretch and some of it in the infamous Snake Pit infield area. In college, I spent lots of time touring the Gasoline Alley garage area with my video camera. I didn’t really start spending time in the wheelchair section in the South chute until the time this article was written. Sitting in that area for practice and qualifying as well as attending the race for several years I saw plenty of crashes. I mentioned in the article that the year before I had been there when a driver was killed. I heard the crash but did not actually see it. So it may have been true that that crash was my first in-person witnessing of wall contact.

I thought that while I’m at it, I would tell a couple of stories that were not in the article. I mentioned I had been at the track several years ago when driver Gordon Smiley was killed in a qualifying accident. My mom, her friend Georgianna, and Georgianna’s daughter Teresa who was severely disabled with cerebral palsy were sitting outside the third turn watching qualifying. We had seen several attempts to break 200 mph. I saw Smiley go by on a warm-up lap and I looked away at something else because he really wasn’t expected to be up to full speed at that point. I heard the crash and looked up and saw a cloud of debris sliding down the track out of sight. Later at home, we saw a reply on TV and the car had indeed completely disintegrated and his helmet could be seen rolling down the track. Many fans speculated at the time that he had been decapitated in his head was still in the helmet. I never heard any official word about that until I looked up the incident in the Wikipedia article linked below. It quotes the Speedway medical director saying that the helmet had come off along with the top of his skull. His brains were smeared across the track. There is a YouTube video link at the bottom that shows the crash. You can’t see anything identifiable of his body but you can tell how badly the car disintegrated.

Gordon Smiley was not a likable or popular person. He gave bad interviews and did not socialize with the other drivers. It was kind of sad to see the other drivers try to say something nice about him. The best they could say about him was “well… He wasn’t a very friendly guy and didn’t hang out with the other drivers but we are really sorry he died.

There was one other minor memorable event that day and this is as good a time to tell the story as any. I mentioned Mom’s friend Georgianna. They had worked together on various disability advocacy projects and worked in the volunteer agency that my Mom helped found known as the Council Of Volunteers and Organizations for the Handicapped (COVOH). Her daughter Teresa has very severe cerebral palsy. I think she was about 12 years old and it was so severe that she could not communicate at all. When she was uncomfortable, all she could do was moan or grunt. Georgianna repeatedly tried to reposition her in her wheelchair and guess what was bothering her to no avail. At one point she spread a blanket on the ground, took Teresa out of her wheelchair, and laid her on the blanket. The girl finally calmed down. Georgianna very matter-of-fact said, “Teresa isn’t dealing with her handicap very well today.” It was all that mom or I can do to not burst out laughing. It was one of the greatest understatements I’d ever heard. We weren’t laughing at the poor girl. It was just the way Georgianna had stated it. It was sort of a spoof on the idea that the goal of a person with a disability is to be well adjusted. Teresa was exhibiting the epitome of the opposite of that. In the years following, anytime I was having a bad day, I would say, “Chris isn’t dealing with his handicap very well today.” As my mother got older and had multiple medical problems including lung cancer she often used the phrase as well about herself whenever she was having a bad day.

Going back to stories specifically about the Speedway, the Gordon Smiley incident wasn’t the only time that we had encountered death at the Speedway. My mom had been there in 1964 when popular driver Eddie Sachs and rookie driver Dave MacDonald were killed in a fiery seven-car accident on the second lap. My mom was sitting on the main straight away but she could see the fireball and black smoke. There is a YouTube link at the bottom of the page that shows the crash. One of the views is from the main straight away and that we give you an idea of what my mother saw. She said it was sickening because they knew surely someone had been killed. I was at home in the backyard listening to the race on the radio. My next-door neighbor Mike Tillery had climbed up on the roof of a storage shed in his backyard to try to see the release of thousands of balloons at the beginning of the race. The fourth turn where the incident occurred is the closest corner to my house. Mike said, “Somebody crashed!” He could see the black smoke rising into the air and soon it rose high enough that I could see it as well on the ground. While researching this incident I read the Wikipedia article about Eddie Sachs and it explained in detail that the car that MacDonald was driving was an experimental design and many people had suggested he not race it because it was too dangerous. See the link at the bottom of the page. Although she did occasionally return to the track in subsequent years, she never attended the race again until we all went together in 1993.

Mom said that one of the eerie aspects of the incident was when track announcer Tom Carnegie came on the PA system to announce the deaths. He would begin with a solemn voice saying, “Ladies and gentlemen may I have your attention please.” After a brief pause, he announced the deaths. Everyone knew immediately what he was going to say because everyone was wondering if the drivers had survived and you could tell by the seriousness of his voice that he was about to announce that they did not. Neither Carnegie nor his successor Dave Calabro ever asked for your attention in that way unless they are about to announce a death. Mom said that on that day the entire Speedway became completely quiet except you could hear people had transistor radios that they were listening to the race. On the radio, they had not yet made the announcement. While we didn’t hear any radios on the day that Smiley died, it was a very eerie quiet when the announcement was made.

There was one other death at the Speedway and again, I heard it but did not see it. On May 17, 1996, Mom and I had parked in the Museum parking lot between the first and second turns on a practice day. Just as we were getting out of my van and heading towards the handicapped seating area, we heard tires screech and a crash. We later learned that it was a crash involving popular driver Scott Brayton. I listened on my scanner radio the rest of the day to hear how he was. At one point, I heard officials talking saying, “When are they going to make the announcement?” At that point, I knew he was dead. A few minutes later Dave Calabro came on the PA with the worst words in motorsports “Ladies and gentlemen may I have your attention please.”

In contrast to Gordon Smiley, drivers were quite shaken at the loss of Brayton. He was an extremely outgoing and likable person much like Eddie Sachs had been in his day. To give you an idea of the kind of man that he was, for several years they gave out an annual “Scott Brayton Award” given to a driver who “best exemplifies the attitude, spirit and competitive drive of Brayton.” I always thought of it as racing’s version of the Walter Payton award given by the NFL. According to Wikipedia, they have not given the award since 2009. I’m not sure why.

The story I recounted in the article was about the great seats that we had to watch the race but there was one other time in 2005 when I had the opportunity to see the track from the viewpoint I had never seen before. My friends from church Bill and Lydia Ritter invited me to come with them to the track for a reception in one of the suites on the main straight. Bill Ritter was the basketball coach at Northwest high school when I attended there. Because of his volunteer work which included a missionary trip to Africa and the fact that he was an all-around wonderful person, he had been inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. Each year that group that invited to the track I practice day and he invited me and my parents to join him. We got to watch practice from the air-conditioned comfort of the suites and I also was able to take the elevator to the roof of the suites to get the spectacular view of the main stretch and the first turn. Except for the day when my dad carried me up about 10 rows when I was six years old, I had never seen the track from an elevated position. Here are a couple of photos from that great day thanks to my late friends Bill and Lydia.

The first time I had ever seen the Speedway from an elevated position in person. Thanks to my friends Bill and Lydia Ritter who invited me to an event on the main straight suites, I was able to ride an elevator to the roof of the suites where I could get this wonderful view.


Another view from the roof of the suites this time working back towards the entrance of the first turn.

For the most part, my memories of my years at the Speedway are fond memories. I remember the year that my cousin Johnny and I hung out in the snake pit on a rainy qualifying day. Some drunk guy climbed over the fence and ran down the track and naked. I remember the countless hours of girl watching at the track. I remembered the day I was on my way out of the track to meet my mom who is going to pick me up outside the tunnel at gate seven and the tire came off the rim of my wheelchair. I tried to limp onward on the rim but the tire got tangled up and disengaged the clutch on the motor and I was stranded. I was rescued by a stranger who was a journalist who covered the Speedway. I later found out that my rescuer was the father of Kathy Breen a friend of mine from church. I remember the thrill and excitement of every race I attended. I was there when they broke the 200 mile-per-hour barrier. I was there in 1996 when Arie Luyendyk set a track record of 237.498 mph. It is a record that will likely never be broken because after that they changed the formula for the cars to slow them down. I was there in 1994 when Jeff Gordon won the first Brickyard 400.

This year when Hélio Castroneves won his record-tying fourth Indy 500 I had to watch the race in bed because they couldn’t get a home health aide to come on the Memorial Day weekend. I cheered and cried when he won the race. When Al Unser, Jr won the race in 1992 he said with tears in his eyes, “You just don’t know what Indy means.” Maybe not… But it means a lot to me too.

Links of interest

A Weird Story about the Internet, the Indy 500, Cheesy Sci-Fi, and 60s TV.

In 1994, I wrote an article that appeared in Indianapolis Monthly Magazine about the first time I went to the Indy 500. I’ve been a lifelong race fan and had been going to the track for years but did not actually attend the race until 1993 when they built a new wheelchair-accessible grandstand that made it easy for me to attend.

A few years later when the Internet became a thing, I posted a longer version of that story on my website accompanied by several pictures I had taken that day. One of them was of actor Eric Braeden riding by in a pace car along with a parade of other celebrities. Here is the photo I posted with the online version of my article.

If you clicked on the photo, it took you to a page titled Dr. Forbin I Presume? showing a photo with the following text.

Here actor Eric Braeden speeds by in a pace car during pre-race festivities. He played a computer science genius, Dr. Forbin, in one of my favorite cheesy sci-fi thrillers Colossus: The Forbin Project and he played the German Field Marshall in the ’60s TV series The Rat Patrol.

He is however more widely known as the rich and powerful Victor Newman in the soap opera The Young and the Restless. (Which I’m embarrassed to say, I watch every day.) But part of me still thinks of him as Dr. Forbin.

The article was up for maybe two or three years before I got my first email in regards to the article. The first one was in reference to what I said about the TV show “The Rat Patrol“. It was a World War II action show that ran for 56 episodes from 1966-1968. The email was from a self-proclaimed expert on Nazi uniforms who explained to me that the character was not a Field Marshal but in fact a captain. It included a detailed explanation of the various patches and ornaments on his uniform. A simple search to IMDb also provided information that the character was called “Capt. Hans Dietrich” but I think the guy just wanted to show off how much he knew about Nazis like that was something one would brag about.

Sometime later, I got another email from a guy who had done a search on the 1970 movie Colossus: The Forbin Project. This was in the days before Wikipedia and possibly for Google. I don’t know what search engine people were using but the guy had done a search on the movie and found my website. He had watched a movie late at night on some TV channel and had fallen asleep before it ended. I had said it was one of my favorite cheesy sci-fi thrillers that he wanted me to tell him how the movie ended. I obliged but I won’t spoil it here except to say it didn’t have much of an ending.

This was in the early days of the Internet. Today’s someone searching for information about the actor would never get to my old, hand-coded HTML webpage. That page still exists here: https://cyborg5.com/hcp/500/newman.htm. I did a Google search on the exact phrase “Dr. Forbin I Presume” which is the title of that webpage. Google couldn’t find it.

I don’t know what year I got those emails but those early days of the Internet when you could put up a tiny little handmade webpage and have people find you by thankfully long gone. Much more restorative sources exist than me.

You might wonder why tell the story now? I’m working on another installment of my Author’s Journal blog series and I was updating that old handwritten HTML version of the story to a WordPress page. I decided to create this blog post as a sidebar.

Author’s Journal: My First Book Published

This is the sixth in a continuing series of posts about my experience (limited as it is) as an author. Click here for a complete index of all the stories in this series.

In January 1993 I published my first book. It was a book about computer graphics titled Ray Tracing Creations. Ray tracing is a way of making photorealistic computer-generated images. Unlike other rendering methods, ray tracing creates realistic-looking reflections. Technically I was a co-author who got second billing but about 60% or more of the book was my work. This is the story of how I got involved in ray tracing and how I came to write this book

CompuServe and Me

As I mentioned in my story about my magazine feature “The Reunion“, in the early 1980s I got involved in the online community known as CompuServe Information Service. It was a precursor to the Internet and predated much more popular America Online or AOL as it was called. CompuServe was a very expensive service costing up to $6 per hour to connect. I would not have been able to afford it if I didn’t get a job as a forum moderator/discussion leader on a variety of forums. In those days they were called “SysOps” which was short for System Operator. If you worked as a discussion leader or SysOp you would get a “free flag” which would give you free connect time as long as you are working in your designated area.

My first free flag was in a group called NipSig which was short for National Information Providers Special Interest Group. It was a meeting place mostly for newspaper people who were supplying content for CompuServe. And eventually was renamed Issues Forum because it turned into a general discussion group for politics and a variety of other issues. There was a subsection called “Handicapped Issues” and I was a discussion leader in that group. I met friends there that are still friends today and that was nearly 40 years ago. Most notably my friend Pamela Bowen who was a newspaper editor had encouraged me as a writer and gave me the courage to write that article about the reunion.

Online Sex

One of the subsections of the Issues Form was about sexuality and it eventually spun off into a forum of its own forum called HSX or Human Sexuality Support Groups. I moved over to that forum to lead a subgroup on disability and sexuality. That particular subgroup didn’t generate much activity. Only a handful of people participated in the forum. Once they had discussed their relationship issues related to their disabilities there wasn’t much else to talk about. When an opening came along for the head sysop of that forum I took the job. It wasn’t so much as a discussion leader but just the day-to-day maintenance of the message boards and upload areas screening for inappropriate content etc.

Go Graphics

If you were a full-fledged sysop and not just a discussion leader you would get a free account that was good anywhere on CompuServe, not just the area you managed. One of my favorite places to hang out was the Graphics Forum. In 1990 I left HSX and devoted full time to the graphics forum. I had been involved in the graphics forum for several years. I was there in 1987 when CompuServe first introduced a graphics file format called Graphics Interchange Format or GIF. When a revised standard came out in 1989 it included the specification for overlaying partial images in a way that could create very rudimentary animations. I wrote some software that would help piece together multiple images into a very crude animation. This was MUCH less sophisticated than the animated GIF files you see today.

My Claim to Fame

One of the popular things to do with this new format was to scan softcore porn images and upload them. There were special adult-only sections in the HSX and the Graphics Forum for these uploads. Although I cannot prove it, I am claiming that I made the very first animated porn image ever created in GIF format. I found a very grainy low-quality nude image and using a paint program painted on a pair of underwear. Then I animated it so that the underwear came off. I still have the image stashed away somewhere but as I said, I can’t prove that it was the first such image ever created. I know that 99% of the GIF images in existence at the time came through the CompuServe forums. I had one of the very first programs capable of creating an animation. So I’m confident it was the first animated porn GIF ever made. Now back to our regular story.

Ray Tracing

One of the subsections of the graphics forum was a gathering place for programmers involved in the open-source graphics rendering program. There was a guy named David K. Buck who had a program called DKB-Trace. He decided that he didn’t want to work on development anymore. He donated the code to a new team of developers led by a programmer in California named Drew Wells. Drew formed a new group and renamed the software Persistence of Vision Ray Tracer or POV-Ray for short. The program was completely text-based. Using the POV-Ray language you would specify the location and shape of various objects, their color, reflective properties, texture, transparency, etc. as well as the location and intensity of several light sources and location, direction, and field-of-view of a virtual camera. The program would then take this information and render a photorealistic image. It was all done with text that had to be parsed and converted into something that can then be rendered.

Sometime around 1990 perhaps 1991 I submitted my first piece of code to the project and eventually became a very active developer. I added code that allowed you to put in mathematical formulas to position objects. Previously you could just specify the X, Y, Z location of an object with raw numbers. Or you could initialize an identifier such as width, height, length to be particular values that can be referenced throughout the specification of your scene. But before the code I added, there was no way to put in a formula such as “width+index*5”. In my senior year of college, I had taken a graduate-level 600 course in compiler design so it was trivial for me to know how to parse an expression such as that. At one point the POV-Team gave me the nickname “parse meister”.

The Book Deal

Cover of my first published book Ray Tracing Creations. You can click on this image or any other images in this blog for larger versions.

In 1992 our team leader Drew Wells made a deal with a computer book publisher known as Waite Group Press run by a man named Mitch Waite. Drew was given the task of writing a book called Ray Tracing Creations. He had only written a very few short chapters and the book wasn’t going to be much of a book at the rate he was going. I don’t remember if I offered or if I was recruited to submit a reference section to the book. It would be detailed documentation of all the commands and functions available in the POV-Ray program. Below is the table of contents of the book. I wrote the introductory chapter which was 30 pages and the reference chapter which was about 230 pages. Another team member named Dan farmer wrote chapter 6 on animation that was about 30 pages. Drew wrote the remaining pages about 200 long.

Table of contents for Ray Tracing Creations. I wrote chapters 1 & 7.

Here are the “About the Author” pages. That blurry image of Drew really look that bad in the original book. It’s not that I did a bad scan of it.

I dedicated the book to my online friend Pamela Bowen who was a newspaper editor from Huntington WV. She had read much of what I had written long CompuServe including my magazine article “The Reunion” and I was so grateful that she had encouraged me to write that I had to dedicate it to her. People said “What you couldn’t have dedicated it to your mom or dad or something?” Later when we did the second edition of the book I dedicated it “To my parents… Who taught me that I could do anything.”

I believe the book sold about 6000 copies. I think I was paid a flat fee of maybe $1000 and Dan got a stipend as well but Drew got most of the royalties. Drew had lots of personal issues going on in his life and if I hadn’t stepped in to complete the book it would’ve never happened.

The book came with a 3.5″ floppy disk containing the program. Unbeknownst to the POV-Team in general, Drew had promised the publisher that they would have exclusive rights to distribute the program with a book. The problem was, the software was completely open-source. Anyone could make copies and distribute them however they wanted. There was only one official version but in general, it was a free program. When a couple of magazines decided to distribute our program on a disk with the magazine, the folks at Waite Group got pretty upset. We had to go through a lot to get them to defend our exclusive deal. We were constantly sending threatening letters to people telling them that they could not redistribute our program if it was bundled with some sort of print publication. The whole thing was a nightmare.

The Second Edition

Cover art for Ray Tracing Creations, Second Edition.

About a year later I was recruited to update and revise the book. This time it would be my book with Drew getting second billing. I don’t recall if he got any payment of royalties for the second edition. I know that I got real royalties this time. It was about $1 per book and it sold just under 6000 copies. Between the two versions of the book, we had made pretty extensive updates to the program and so this new version of the book reflected those changes. The book was also translated into other languages. Somewhere around here, I have a version in Portuguese that was sold in Brazil. I received a small one-time fee for the foreign language versions.

By this time Drew was completely missing in action and I had taken over management of the team. I refused to call myself the “team leader” and I retitled the job “team coordinator”. It was a reaction to the fact that Drew had led us into a real mess and I wanted to have a more cooperative group decision-making process. Hence the name “coordinator” rather than “leader”. I contributed a small section to a couple of other graphics books published by Waite Group Press and I was paid a small flat fee for the contribution.

My Big Failure

I don’t recall if it was after the second edition of Ray Tracing Creations or if it was between the two editions but at one point they wanted me to write a new book. This one would be entirely mine. It would be more of a tutorial on how to create images rather than a reference manual like the books I had written. There was a brief tutorial in Drew’s chapters but they wanted an entire book that was a how-to book rather than a reference.

I wrote a sample chapter that they liked and they sent me a contract to sign. The big problem was they wanted it done by a certain date. After writing another chapter or so, I realized that it was moving much too slowly. There was no way I was going to be able to complete the book in time. I kept putting off signing the contract and they would send me emails asking me what was wrong. Finally, I gave them a call and tried to talk to Mitch Waite himself. He was unavailable but I talked to one of the associate editors. I don’t remember his name.

I admitted to him that the reason I hadn’t signed a contract was that I was wrestling with the possibility that I just couldn’t do it. I asked him if I could have more time. I estimated it was going to take me maybe five or six months more than whatever deadline they had set. I’m thinking it was two or three months. I don’t remember.

They wouldn’t budge on the deadline. They said that the first book had created momentum and that they were on a schedule where they wanted to publish something every five or six months I think. I don’t remember. This was a rather small market and they were putting out a catalog of new titles to send to retail and wholesale book buyers. If I delayed, it would leave a hole in their schedule. I just gave up.

In July 1994, Ray Tracing Worlds with POV-Ray was published. They hired another POV-Team member Alexander Enzmann as the primary author. In our group, he went by the name Xander. Another team member named Lutz Kretzschmar who lived in Germany had written a program called MORAY that was sort of a primitive CAD graphics modeling program that would let you create objects in sort of a primitive wireframe version. It didn’t give you an accurate preview of what you’re scene was going to look like. After you created the wireframe preview, it would export files in POV-Ray format. They included a copy of his program and he contributed a chapter and got second billing as co-author. I contributed an appendix that outlined the difference between the earliest versions of POV-Ray and the latest one.

Now that I think about it, this book must have come out between the two versions of Ray Tracing Creations because I’m pretty sure my second edition covered a later version than the one bundled with Ray Tracing Worlds.

The reason that they were able to create the book so quickly is that much of it focused on how to use the CAD program. I had never used MORAY and would not have been able to write such a book.

As I mentioned earlier, the normal way of creating a scene to be rendered was to type it out in a special computer language as an ordinary text file. It takes a lot of time to explain how to do that. Using a CAD program is easier. Unfortunately, the MORAY didn’t support all of the features of POV-Ray.

I was disappointed we never did publish a book about the detailed usage of the text-based method of creating a scene. I considered the possibility of going ahead and writing the book on my own time and submitting it to them on spec but I was getting burnt out on working with the program and never did write that other book.

The Rest of My POV-Ray Story

I don’t remember exactly when, but shortly thereafter I stepped down as the team coordinator and handed things over to a guy named Chris Cason who lived in Australia. The program has gone through a couple of minor revisions since I left. Chris Cason still manages the team although I don’t know how active they are lately. I don’t think there’s been an upgrade in several years.

Other CAD software and rendering programs such as Autodesk Fusion 360 and Blender are easier to use and produce spectacular results. They are completely graphics-based and you can see what you’re working on while you are working on it. You don’t have the disadvantages of a clumsy text interface. They do not use ray tracing to generate images. Ray tracing is incredibly slow. However some of the advanced graphics cards being sold for PCs these days have ray tracing algorithms that produce accurate reflections that are not possible in other forms of rendering. Even Pixar has gotten into the ray tracing business. Some of the scenes in Cars 2 and later Pixar movies had ray tracing effects.

I initially got into ray tracing because I wanted to create my own images. In my teens and early twenties, I tried pencil sketches as a way to create art but I never got good at it. One of the things I learned the hard way is why artists paint on an easel. I had to lay my paper flat on a table to draw. I would prop up my head on my left hand and often my head was at an awkward angle. Some of the drawings didn’t look too bad until you pick the page up and looked at it directly. It had all sorts of distortions because I was drawing it looking at the page at an angle.

Eventually I lost much of the use of my hands so the only way I could create images was on the computer and ray tracing was the perfect way to do it.

In 1995, I made a Christmas card with a ray traced rendering of two angels hovering over the little town of Bethlehem and the Star of Bethlehem shining down on the city. I created a new ray traced Christmas card every year from then until Christmas 2019. There was one exception. In 2016 a few years ago I took angels from the 1995 image and found a way to export them in a format where I could make physical objects using my 3D printer. I also printed tiny buildings of Bethlehem and the Star. I pasted the star on a dark blue cardboard background and photographed the scene re-creating the 1995 image.

For Christmas 2020 I had completely run out of ideas. The cards were expensive to print and it was time-consuming. I didn’t send Christmas cards that year and probably will not this year.

One of my blogs http://graphics.cyborg5.com/ gives details about some of the images I’ve created and how I made them. Here is a photo album of all of my Christmas cards on my Facebook page. They are public images and you should be able to click on the link and see them even if you are not a member of Facebook.

I’m Looking for a New Roommate/Caregiver

I’m looking for at least one possibly two new roommates/caregivers. Although most of the people who read this blog post already know things about me. I’m going to start from the beginning and assume you know nothing because I want friends and family to be able to forward this post to as many people as possible whether they know me or not.

Who is Chris Young? And why does he need a roommate?

Hi, I’m Chris Young. That’s my photo on the left. I’m 65 years old (will be 66 in July 2021) I have a genetic neuromuscular disease similar to muscle dystrophy. It’s called Spinal Muscular Atrophy. You can read more about it here. I lived in the same house on the northwest side of Indianapolis in the Eagledale area just north of Speedway ever since I was three years old. My parents took care of me their whole life. We lost my mom 12 years ago and my dad two years ago. When my dad was ill, my sister Carol moved in to help take care of both of us but she needed to move on with her life so I began looking for a new roommate who could help be a caregiver.

My dear friend Barb Alkema and her adult son Josh moved in here in May 2019. They have been a great blessing in my life and have taken good care of me. But things change and situations evolve and it’s now clear that Barb needs to move on to new adventures. Her own health is questionable and she doesn’t want to get to the point where she gets incapable of taking care of me suddenly. Also, her boyfriend Ed who lives in Toledo is facing some challenges of his own and she feels she would be better suited to caring for him. I can’t blame her. She’s given me two good years of her life that has been a great blessing and I wish her, Josh and Ed well.

Barb and Josh will be leaving in a couple of months and my sister Carol will return to help me transition to whatever kind of care I will be getting next. I’m hopeful that I can recruit someone who would live here and help take care of me the way Barb has done the past two years. Carol can help out for a while but that is not a permanent solution to my problem. If I don’t find a long-term solution of someone else who can move in here, then I will have to choose a skilled nursing facility.

A couple of years ago I took a tour of one in Greenwood and it looks like it’s a pretty nice place. It’s clean, doesn’t smell, and there are other people there like me that I can associate with. I wouldn’t be stuck in the same wing with a bunch of Alzheimer’s patients who didn’t know what was going on around them. The room is small and I would have to share it with someone so it would really be a huge change for me. Obviously, I would like to stay in my own home as long as possible.

What Kind of Care Do I Need?

I need someone to be with me 24/7. It’s not safe for me to be alone at any time. I have a trach that helps me breathe and when my lungs get congested we suction out my trach with a suction catheter. I have a G-tube that I use for all my nutrition. I don’t eat anything by mouth (except when I cheat on special occasions). The problem is that my throat muscles are very weak and I have difficulty swallowing. If food or liquid gets into my lungs I’m in deep trouble. I also have a suprapubic catheter connected to a leg bag for urine.

I have a home health aide that comes in every morning at 9 AM to get me a bed bath, dressed, put on my back brace, and get me into my wheelchair. Throughout the day I need someone who can suction the trach as needed, do my G-tube feedings three times a day, and assist me with other minor tasks. Sometimes my back brace needs a little adjustment (a strap looser or tighter). Barb has been taking care of me during the day and she can put me to bed at night using a Hoyer patient lift. She has some medical issues of her own and it’s easier to get me to bed and disassemble me than it is to assemble me in the morning and get me up. Because of regulations, my home health aides are not permitted to do G-tube feedings, trach suctioning, and they are not permitted to be alone with me in case I need suctioning.

At night I use a ventilator. I’m not really dependent upon the ventilator for breathing. I just use it like a CPAP or BiPAP to help me sleep but you can’t use an ordinary CPAP/BiPAP when you have a trach.

Although the job of taking care of me is basically 24/7, I also have a respite nurse who comes for four and 1/2 hours twice a week. I could probably qualify for as much as 15 hours per week of respite nursing. Barb has been using that time to run errands, go to the gym (pre-pandemic), and go to doctor appointments. Some days she just goes out and takes a walk in the park while the respite nurse is here. Currently, she is scheduled for 9:30 AM-3 PM. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We can reschedule those hours at different times if we have lots of advance notice. For example, when Carol moves back here we will move my respite hours to evenings or weekends. One of the problems with respite nursing is it works best when it’s on a regular schedule. So we can’t just arbitrarily call up and say “We need someone at this time and date.”

Who Can Do This?

The short answer is anyone with a normal amount of physical ability. The trach suctioning and G-tube feeding are not rocket science. Although the home health aides are not permitted to do it while they are here, I’ve trained friends and family to be able to do these things. For example, if I go out to a movie, concert, or sporting event I take my portable suction machine with me and my friends or family take care of it as needed.

In addition to these activities there is also some slightly more gross stuff to deal with. My urine bag needs to be emptied. And in the evening after I go to bed is usually the time when I need to get on the bedpan. It is not difficult to get me on or off the bedpan. You roll over, stuff it underneath me, roll me back on top of it. After I’ve finished my business you have to roll me off, wipe my butt, and clean up the bedpan.

You would be responsible for maintaining the house, cleaning, laundry, your own cooking etc. The kinds of things you would be doing if you were on your own.

I have a van with a wheelchair lift. I need to be taken to doctor’s appointments and whatever other activities I might need to do. However I don’t really get out very much.

At one point I was thinking perhaps a couple of college students would be good roommates but trying to juggle their schedule, nursing schedules etc. might be pretty difficult. Having had Barb here for two years who is on disability but still somewhat physically capable I’m thinking someone like her who is perhaps physically fit but recently retired might be a good candidate. There is no smoking in the house. Barb and Josh smoke on the back porch or in the unheated garage during the winter. No heavy drinking. No recreational drugs. I really prefer no pets even though Barb brought 4 cats with her. She keeps the litter box well cleaned and if you brought pets I would expect the same. As I told my friends when Barb moved here, given a choice between 4 cats and a nursing home I would get used to the cats. Still, it’s not my preference.

When someone asks who is Barb? I describe her as a friend, roommate, caregiver in that order. She’s my friend first, my roommate second, and my caregiver third. I would hope to build such a relationship with another person.

Is There Any Other Help Available?

Because my current roommate Barb was able to be here virtually 24/7 (except when the respite nurse was here) I did not qualify for any other assistance except for the home health aide in the morning. However when my sister was living here while my dad was ill and after he died, we were able to get nine hours per day of nursing service five days a week so that she could go to work. Unfortunately, that system just barely worked. Even though we had reasonably reliable people, there were always incidents where someone had to call in sick at the last minute, their car would break down, their children or other family had issues. Sometimes they just needed to take some time off for vacation. It was extremely difficult to get replacement nurses, especially for last-minute schedule changes. That meant that my sister Carol would end up either going to work late or not at all. I have other friends who sometimes are able to fill in in an emergency situation but they have lives of their own and cannot always help.

So while technically I could have a roommate with a full-time job, it would be better if I had someone who is retired or available throughout the day. The nursing support just isn’t foolproof. After Barb moves out in a few months, my sister Carol will be here a few more months. She currently has a work-from-home job working for the Indiana 211 Information Line. Thanks to the pandemic (if you can say such a thing), many people are now working from home. As long as you could take a minute or two breaks when I needed something, a work-from-home person would be ideal.

What Does It Pay?

Short answer… Not much. You get free rent, free cable (including HBO and Showtime), free Internet, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Disney+, free utilities, use of a desktop computer, use of the entire house, your own bedroom. And that’s about it. However recently thanks to a benefactor, I might be able to pay a small stipend or provide some additional expense money. My resources that I could devote to this could be as much as $1000 per month. However, if I have more than one roommate, that $1000 is the grand total per month. I could not afford that per roommate. I’m still working out some of the details about how this compensation would work. So the benefit really is all in the free housing.

My house has 4 bedrooms. One is mine and one is my office although if we needed another bedroom I could move my computers and other office stuff into the family room. We have a bath and 1/2. Air conditioning, washer and dryer. Refrigerator, gas stove, microwave, and dishwasher. The dishwasher was a big selling point when Barb moved here :-).

More about Me

I’m pretty easy to get along with. I’m addicted to TV. I love sci-fi and action movies. I’m basically a nerd. I have a BS degree in computer science from IUPUI. I write technical articles about assistive technology. I designed and built a variety of AT gadgets including a gadget I call my “Ultimate Remote” that allows me to control my iPhone, TV, cable, computer mouse, and other gadgets all with just three little pushbuttons in my right hand. Below is a video that my friend Bill made when he was helping me make a new version of my remote control. While he was here, I took him on a tour of all of my assistive technology and gadgets. The video below will give you a little more idea of what I’m capable of doing or not doing and how my gadgets work. It talks a little bit about my day-to-day life.

Here are some other links of interest.

Also browse around this blog and other blogs that are available on the menu at the top of this page. It will help you get to know me better.

What You Can Do

First of all pray. Pray that the right person is available to keep me out of a nursing home. If you don’t believe in prayer just wish me luck.

Think about your family, friends, colleagues, people from church, social circles, everyone that you know, and think about whether or not they might be able to help me out. Feel free to forward this article to anyone you want to and have them forward it or repost it as well.

Finally if by chance, you might be interested in free rent in a nice house, free cable, free internet, interesting company from a smart and funny guy, all in exchange for being stuck here with me most of the time and wiping my butt as needed… Then contact me. Email me at cy_borg5@cyborg5.com and we can talk via Zoom, Facebook, FaceTime, or phone and/or set up an in-person meeting. Let’s talk about the possibilities and perhaps we can work something out to our mutual benefit.

And keep praying.

Author’s Journal: Hooray! My First Rejection!

This is the fifth in a continuing series of posts about my experience (limited as it is) as an author. Click here for a complete index of all the stories in this series.

I’m celebrating today. I got my first rejection letter!

I’ve not had a lot of things published but I have published a few. I’ve been talking about them in this series of blog posts that I’m calling “Author’s Journal”. I’ve got more articles to write in this series about things that have gotten published. And then something happened today and I simply realized it had NEVER happened before.

I got a rejection letter. (Actually it was an email.)

Anyone who has ever tried to sell their written works probably has enough of these to wallpaper their entire house and then some. Every bit of advice I’ve ever heard about writing is that getting rejected is something that’s going to happen a lot. I ran into a guy on Facebook who had written some sci-fi stories and he got 50 rejections before he had his first sale. But for some bizarre reason (and certainly not because I’m such a brilliant writer) until today I’ve never been rejected. I never thought about the fact before. I never realized how extraordinary it was.

Let’s take a quick review of the things I’ve published. In a previous blog post I talked about 2 technical articles I wrote for an obscure computer magazine called “Microsystems”. They were a couple of little file conversion utilities that I had written for computer disk systems that no longer exists. If there had been the Internet back in those days it would’ve been a couple of simple blog posts and maybe a dozen people might have stumbled onto it if they had done the right Google search. But because these niche magazines in the early days of personal computing were so anxious for content, they agreed to publish my first article and a few weeks later I submitted part two and they brought it as well. They even republished the magazine articles into a book that was sort of a “best of” collection even though the title didn’t say that. Read my blog below about how inappropriate it was for my articles to be in that compilation and the story behind the story.

Author’s Journal: My First Print Publication

The second thing I had published was my autobiographical article “The Reunion” which was published in the September 1987 issue of Indianapolis Monthly Magazine. It was a memoir of me growing up attending a special education school called James E. Roberts IPS School #97. They had a reunion at the school that I attended to celebrate that it was closing and all the special ed kids were being mainstreamed into regular education. The visit to the old school brought back lots of memories and I chronicled them in that article. While “Microsystems” was anxious to publish my technical article, Indianapolis Monthly very nearly rejected my story. You can read the story behind the story of “The Reunion” in this post from Author’s Journal which also includes links to an online version of the original magazine article.

Author’s Journal: My Award-Winning Article “The Reunion”

My next published work was a book that I contributed to called “Ray Tracing Creations” about ray trace computer graphic rendering. I was part of a team of volunteer programmers who built an open source rendering engine called POV-Ray. The team leader, a guy named Drew Wells, got the contract to write a book about our program. He got tied up in his personal life and only wrote about five chapters and couldn’t finish it. Because I was the next most experienced and knowledgeable person on the team, they reached out to me and I wrote the rest of the book. A short time later we did a second edition rewrite and I got top billing over Drew. It’s not like I wrote something on my own on spec, submitted to a publisher, and waited for a reply. So in this case there really wasn’t a chance of a rejection letter unless what I wrote was just so awful that they decided to scrap the entire existing project. I’ve not yet chronicled the story behind that story. Look for it in upcoming blog posts.

I also had a second magazine article published in Indianapolis Monthly about my first time attending the Indy 500. Although I had been a lifelong race fan and been to practice and qualifying countless times my entire life, I had not yet attended the race itself because prior to that there wasn’t a good place to sit in a wheelchair. The story behind that story will be featured in a future Author’s Journal. While this story could have been rejected, they already knew me and liked my work. This story about my first 500 wasn’t as emotional or moving as “The Reunion” but it was good enough.

Since then I’ve been doing technical writing for the Adafruit Learning System in which I talked about various maker projects I have created most of them involving assistive technology for the disabled. The folks at Adafruit were familiar with my projects because I would show them off on their weekly video show and tell chat room. They had also seen some of my technical blogs and they were happy to publish my articles. Initially I was paid in free merchandise but more recently have been paid monetarily. Again this was a situation where they knew my work, they were anxious to have it, and the chance of getting completely rejected was relatively small. Click here for a list of my technical articles on the Adafruit Learning System.

Some of my best writing has been in my personal blogs but of course I’m the publisher. I’m not going to reject my own work 🙂

This entire Author’s Journal is being written because last summer I decided to try my hand at writing fiction specifically science fiction. I’ve written a novella that was initially 24,500 words long. The problem is the major sci-fi magazines like their novellas in the neighborhood of 20,000-22,000 words long. I worked hard to get it down to 22,000 but that still is going to limit my market.

While I was working on that, I had a dream and when I woke up from it I had the idea for a short story. A very short story. Just 300 words. That’s too short. Some of the sci-fi magazines publish extremely short things under the category of “Poetry” and although it wasn’t necessarily written in verse and did not rhyme, it did have a sort of lyrical poetic nature to it. Maybe it was free verse. Maybe it was a very very short story. I didn’t know.

I was so excited that I had been inspired to write this clever little short piece and had not planned on writing that I did way too little research on where I should submit it.

The obvious choice was the “Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction“. It was a little bit surrealistic and so it was more fantasy than sci-fi. Unfortunately at the time they were in the process of changing editors and had closed the magazine to new submissions until they published their backlog of purchase stories and sets of new editorial goals under the new leadership. My favorite of the top sci-fi magazines is “Analog Science Fiction – Science Fact Magazine” but they mostly publish what we might call hard science (technology, spaceships, computers etc.) That left “Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine” as the remaining one of what I would describe as “The Big Three”.

The story took me less than a half hour to write. I spent less than an hour deciding Asimov would be my first choice. I uploaded it with a note saying “I don’t know if this is poetry or a very short story but I thought I would submit it anyway.”

They say wait five weeks for an answer. I was also supposed to get an email acknowledging the submission which I never got. But when I would go to the submission website and type in my receipt number it said that my story had been received.

Shortly after submitting it, I discovered there was an entire category called “Flash Fiction“. It consists of extremely, extremely short stories never longer than 1500 words. Unknowingly I had written flash fiction which Asimov typically doesn’t publish. It turns out that Analog does publish flash fiction occasionally. They had one in their November/December 2020 issue. But again this wasn’t sufficiently hard science Analog-like.

I did find an online webzine that pays professional rates of about eight cents per word. It’s called “Daily Science Fiction“. They publish a new story every day that comes to you free by email or you can go to their website. Everything there is flash fiction under 1500 words and preferably under 1000 words. Perfect for what I had written. They publish all sorts of speculative fiction including sci-fi, fantasy, and another category I had never heard of cald slipstream. Apparently slipstream is sort of a bizarre otherworldly kind of writing that is not mainstream but slipstream. Maybe that’s what I wrote.

Realizing how inappropriate my choice of Asimov was, I was a bit anxious to get rejected so that I could submit it somewhere else. It is strictly forbidden to submit the same item to multiple publishers at once. If they catch you, you could easily get blacklisted. Maybe not from the whole industry but certainly ruin your chances with the publications involved.

When the five-week waiting period was up, I still had not heard back anything from Asimov’s. They said if you don’t hear anything after five weeks that you can email them so I did.

Again I explained that I didn’t know if what I had written was poetry or perhaps flash fiction… Probably the latter. But they said if you don’t hear anything in five weeks I can email you so here I am asking what’s my status. Then I added a paragraph… It said something like “By the way I’ve got this novella. Your guidelines say that you ‘Rarely publish anything over 20,000 words.’ I’m working on a novella that I’ve managed to trim down to 22,000 words. I suppose if I was an established author you might stretch your limits but has a guy like me who is unpublished got a chance with a 22,000 word story?”

I fully expected them to write back saying “The rules are the rules. Go away kid… You’re bugging me with this 22,000 word crap.” Much to my surprise I got a very nicely worded email explaining that poetry goes to a different editorial process and can take up to two months. And that my novella wasn’t extensively over the limit and they suggested I go ahead and submit it. They said if we like it and it’s too long we will help you cut it.

I had been through that before. “The Reunion” was too long and the editor there gave me another chance to trim it and then she trimmed some more and put back in some things I took out. So it was a bit of déjà vu.

I still had some final edits to do on my novella but my plan was to submit it at 22,000 words and see what happens. A friend of mine is doing some final proofreading for me and I should be ready to submit it very soon.

Meanwhile today Asimov finally rejected my flash fiction. I was so happy. Now I can send it somewhere more appropriate and have a better shot at it. I have submitted it to Daily Science Fiction. They say that they try to respond quickly but if you haven’t heard anything in four weeks you can contact them. There is a place where you can look up the status of your submission online. So now we wait and see. Maybe I will get another rejection which is okay.

Also over the weekend I finished the first draft of a sequel to my as yet un-submitted novella. This one has come in at 16,000 words so I won’t have to do any major surgery on it to get it within the standard writers guidelines.

I will keep you posted as the story develops and I will be working on more installments of Author’s Journal telling the stories behind the stories of what I have published.

Author’s Journal: The Lost Story “Cold Chills”

This is the fourth in a continuing series of posts about my experience (limited as it is) as an author. Click here for a complete index of all the stories in this series.

In the first installment of my “Author’s Journal” series, I told the story of a short story I wrote for a creative writing class in high school English. The story of how I wrote the story can be found here.

Introducing “Author’s Journal”

In that journal, I couldn’t remember the name of the story and didn’t know where I had a copy of it although I knew it existed somewhere.

I found it!

I went through a dusty old box on the top shelf of my bedroom closet and found the folder with my high school writing projects in it. Here is a PDF scan of the original handwritten manuscript complete with the teacher’s notes correcting my spelling in numerous places as well as a couple of other issues. I also have a handwritten note from her praising the work. In my journal a couple of months ago I could not remember the substitute teacher’s name but the note says “Mrs. Allen”.

Here is the complete text of the story as written with only the spelling errors corrected.

Cold Chills
by
Chris Young

 

Man has always had two ambitions: to build a better mousetrap and to commit the perfect mortar. I have done the latter to the man who did the former.

David Brown was my victim. He had been a friend and business partner for some time until he dumped me from the company two months ago. We were in the pesticide business and our main product was rat poison. Business had been slipping because of bad talk about pesticides polluting the environment. People would rather clean up the trash to get rid of the rats than by our poison.

Then Dave came up with the answer. His formula affected only rats. It altered their chromosomes so that only male offspring were produced. In a generation, the racks would be extinct because there would be no females to reproduce. Dave put the product on the market the week after our partnership was legally dissolved. He had ruined me and I had to return the favor.

I once read a mystery story where a man was stabbed with a sharpened icicle. The motor was never caught because no weapon was found; it melted away. The idea started out as just a wild notion, and I didn’t take myself seriously at first.

Then, just to past time I started to work out details, but just to pass time. The longer I worked on my plan the more it appeared possible. Also as my plot started to gel; I grew more hateful each day toward my lost partner. I would look out my bedroom window and stare transfixed at the glistening spears going downward from the eaves of my house.

Then I did it. On the night of December 30 I left my house and walked around the side and carefully snapped off an icicle. As I walked towards my car, I chipped off pieces with my pocket knife till there was a clean sharp point. I left the heat off in my car so that the 10° weather would keep my weapon sharp. I knocked at the door with my icy weapon behind my back. Dave answered the door.

“Well, if it isn’t Bob Johnson my old partner. Come on in.”

I tried to stay calm, “I just wanted to let you know that I’ve decided I’ve been foolish about holding a grudge against you for putting me out of business.”

He smiled, “Well now, isn’t that sweet of you. Now, tell me why you’re really here.”

I slowly made my way over to him and patted him on the back. “Well, me tell you about it.” My arm swung around with every ounce of force in my body.

He dropped.

I pitched my icy weapon into the fireplace and left without closing the door. I drove down the street and went into a bar and got very drunk.

The police questioned me and never suspected me after I told them our partnership had been dissolved.

Three days later I attended the funeral. I was the last person to leave the church. As I walked out, I stopped on the top step to watch the hearse drive away. I reached back to pull my collar up to shield myself from the cold wind when a cold crystal clear icicle fellow from the eaves of the church and slid down my back.

p.13 Capital City Star
January 2, 1973
Robert C. Johnson died today in front of St. Peter’s Catholic Church of a heart attack. He was attending the funeral of his former business partner, David R. Brown, who was mysteriously murdered earlier this week.


The header on the original manuscript says it was for English VI, March 16, 1970.

The teachers notes written by hand in red ink on the story worth follows…

On the front cover she wrote “Very clever story-Good use of words. Good introduction A-

There were numerous spelling errors such as spelling “always” as “allways”. As she read the story to the class she said to me “You know better than that.” The truth was I didn’t. I’m a terrible speller.

On the last page she wrote “I like the ‘irony of fate’ending.”

Then she attached a handwritten note as follows…

Chris,

This is a great story! You have a natural knack for telling a tale. This one is suspenseful and well organized. Your sentences and phrases are well formed.

The “better mouse trap” gimmick is worth repeating or at least mentioning, a second time.

About the title – Why not “A Partnership Dissolves”, using of course, a play on the word “dissolved.”

As for myself, I prefer the story to end with – “… our partnership had been dissolved.”

Knowing when to quit is a neat trick to learn.

Many thanks for sharing your story. You have the potential for a “selling” author.

Mrs. Allen

I had remembered her saying to me in person that I could’ve shortened the ending and repeated the comment “know when to quit.” But I seem to recall in person she simply suggested leaving off the news article and ending it with the icicle down the back. But her notes say that it should end after the police questioned me. On the other hand she liked the ironic ending so that speaks to leaving at least the irony and perhaps cutting the news article.

One other item after discovering this actual copy of the story… I was positive that I had used the phrase “recombinant DNA” as a technobabble catchphrase for the way that the poison worked. I was surprised it wasn’t there. It was a sort of genetic solution but I didn’t use that phrase which was a big catchphrase in 1970 in the world of genetics.

So there it is. My first great work of science fiction mystery published online for the first time ever in broad public. I hope you enjoyed it.

Author’s Journal: My Award-Winning Article “The Reunion”

This is the third in a continuing series of posts about my experience (limited as it is) as an author. Click here for a complete index of all the stories in this series.

It began… with an invitation in a small hand addressed envelope. The end result has been a serious reevaluation of my life goals.

If you have been following my Author’s Journal series, you know that I like to have a killer opening line or a killer opening paragraph. It just so happens that the above paragraph (with a couple of extra words thrown in where the ellipsis is) is the opening paragraph of an article I wrote for Indianapolis Monthly Magazine that was published in the September 1987 issue. The story was titled “The Reunion”. That opening paragraph also serves as an appropriate opening paragraph of this particular story about how “The Reunion” came to be.

Cover of Indianapolis Monthly Magazine September 1987 in which my our award-winning article “The Reunion” appeared. Unfortunately no mention of it on the cover.


Table of contents Indianapolis Monthly Magazine September 1987

I’ve already written a blog page giving some of the background of how I wrote the article but I think in this version I’d like to go into a little more depth. If you have never read my article, I’m going to suggest that you stop now and go read the article first. If you don’t have time to do that here is a brief overview of what it was about. Here is a link to “The Reunion”

“The Reunion”

“The Reunion”: Cliff’s Notes Version

“The Reunion” is an autobiographical true story of a class reunion I attended at James E. Roberts Public School IPS #97. The school was built in 1935 as a school for handicapped children mostly in response to the polio epidemic. It was one of only 2 special education schools in the entire state of Indiana when I attended there from 1960-1973. The other one was in Gary Indiana. If you had any kind of handicap or disability anywhere else in the state of Indiana you could not go to school. The local school district would provide you with a homebound tutor which was a poor substitute.

In 1969 the Indiana General Assembly passed the “Mandatory Special Education Act” which required all school districts throughout the state to provide special education programs “in the least restrictive environment”. It’s a bit amazing that such a law needed to be passed because the Constitution of the State of Indiana required that all children be given a “Free and appropriate public school education.”

The legislature gave school districts 4 years to implement this law which was the year I graduated high school. My mother had worked diligently with an organization known as the Council of Volunteers and Organizations for the Handicapped (COVOH) to get the law passed. She often said “Sometimes we build our bridges behind us.” Meaning of course that even though I would not benefit from the law, future generations would. Most school districts created their special education programs integrated into regular school buildings. While you might need to take a long ride on a short bus to get to the special ed school, at least there was the possibility of interaction between special ed and regular ed kids. Wherever possible, handicapped kids were “mainstreamed” into regular classroom programs.

So while Indianapolis Public Schools had been ahead of the times by even having a special education school, after the passage of the Mandatory Special Education Act their segregated approach to special ed was behind the times. In 1986 the school was closed and all of the children were either mainstreamed into regular education programs or moved to a different special ed school that only served the most severely multiply handicapped children.

The envelope I received was an invitation to a reunion for all of the Roberts School alumni no matter what year they attended. It was to say farewell to the institution. For me it was an opportunity to look back, remember the good times, reflect on the bad times, do some forgive and forget kinds of things. If you want more details… read the article.

Historical Context

To understand how and why I wrote “The Reunion” you need to understand where I was in my life at that point. So here’s a little bit of background…

Although I attended Roberts School all the way through high school, my last three years of high school I only attended half days at Robert. The other half of the day I attended my local neighborhood high school Northwest High School. After graduating from Northwest I attended IUPUI and earned a BS degree in computer sciences. I worked for two years as a computer programmer at the Indiana University Department of Medical Genetics located in the research wing of Riley Children’s Hospital. After two years, I developed congestive heart failure and after recovering I no longer had the stamina to work an eight hour day. I attempted to start my own work from home computer consulting and programming business that I called Cyborg Software Systems, Inc. However it never really went very far. It wasn’t so much a career as it was a hobby that barely paid for itself. I ended up putting more money into the business than I took out. By 1986 I had pretty much given up on it.

Although I was an active volunteer at my church teaching the Catholic faith in Thursday night classes for people who wanted to convert to Catholic, and I was active in other church activities, I really wasn’t doing much with my life. I spent a lot of time on the CompuServe online network which was sort of a predecessor to the Internet. Working as a moderator of an online discussion forum I was able to access CompuServe for free. It was very expensive costing approximately six dollars per hour to connect. I could not have afforded it without the free access.

I was doing a lot of writing at the time. Most of it was a personal journal that I would occasionally share with online friends especially a woman named Pamela Bowen who was a newspaper editor from Huntington West Virginia. Her professional opinion meant a lot to me and she convinced me that I had a way with words.

One of the problems with all of the online writing that I was doing and journaling that I was only sharing with a small number of friends was that it seemed like I was spending more time writing about life than actually living it. I would go out. Have some experience. Sit in my office all alone and write about it for a week. And then maybe get the courage to go out and do something else.

If you read the entire article you can understand what an emotional experience it was for me to attend the reunion. This was something that was going to require a lot of introspection and journaling to work through everything that it happened and all of the memories that were dug up as a result of attending the reunion.

Rather than just share these thoughts with one or two friends online, I begin writing the story of the reunion as a series of messages in a disability discussion forum on CompuServe. You may have noticed that the format is slightly episodic and that’s how it was originally written as a series of I’m thinking perhaps a dozen separate messages.

The reaction to the story was phenomenal. Lots of people online had wonderful things to say about it. It wasn’t just my editor friend Pamela although she thought it was great as well. I printed out copies and shared it with family and friends who were not online. There was a growing pressure from everyone who read it that I should try to get it “published for real” because in those days online publishing didn’t really count for anything.

Of course telling the story was a catharsis for me. It was a way of getting it all out of my system and putting it all behind me. I didn’t really want to deal with the issues once I had written it all down. It’s sort of like one of those spiritual exercises where you write a letter pouring all of your demons out onto paper and then burning the page afterwards.

Enter the Enneagram

I don’t recall when I first heard about Enneagram but I think it was perhaps a few months before I attended the reunion. The Enneagram is a psychological theory of human personality that is based on ancient teachings of Sufi mystics from Afghanistan and dates back nearly 2000 years. As a modern psychological theory it didn’t take off until the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1984 Maria Beesing, Robert Nogosek and Patrick O’Leary published a book titled “The Enneagram: A Journey of Self Discovery”. My friend Judy Chapman attended a weekend seminar with Patrick O’Leary at the Beech Grove Benedictine Center. She came home very excited about it and loaned me a copy of her book.

The Enneagram postulates that there are 9 different personality types. It’s not the first system of classifying personalities. You’ve probably heard of Type A, Type B, and Type C personalities. There is also something called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator which has 16 different personality types. While most classifications of personalities can be determined by test, Enneagram does not lend itself well to such methods. Other personality types such as Myers-Briggs is based on “conscious rational choices”. The Enneagram however goes deeper and asks what is your inner motivation behind your external behaviors. The only way to accurately know one’s Enneagram type is to take a course on the subject under the guidance of a skilled facilitator and then to try to discern one’s own type from that knowledge. If someone tries to tell you your Enneagram type then you don’t really own it and you cannot benefit well from the insights obtained through the study of the system.

I could write an entire book about the Enneagram so I’m not going to go into much detail here. (In fact I narrowly missed out on the opportunity to write such a book but that’s a story for another day.)

Short version is that Enneagram has 9 personality types numbered 1 through 9. There is no value such as one is better than nine or vice versa. It turns out I am a type FIVE. We are basically introverted, knowledge seeking people who live inside our heads. We observe the world but don’t often participate in it. Maria Beesing who was one of the authors of the book taught my first Enneagram retreat weekend course. She told a parable about a type FIVE. (There is an embarrassing story about my initial misunderstanding this parable that I will tell elsewhere someday.) The parable goes something like this…

Once upon a time there was a FIVE who had spent their entire life collecting knowledge. One day they decided that their gift to the world would be to write down everything that they had ever learned. They went to an upper room in their ivory tower surrounded by great tomes of knowledge. Books piled to the ceiling everywhere. They begin frantically writing down all of their collected knowledge. During the process they realized how incomplete their knowledge was in certain areas so they studied more and more books trying to complete this great work. They became so obsessed with writing that they forgot about everyday necessities like sleep, hygiene, food. Eventually they died of the effort. Someone else came along and discovered them. They took care of the body and then set about cleaning up the room. They could not make heads or tails of all of the writing because it was not yet organized in a coherent form. They gathered up all of the papers and destroyed them.

Although I had already discerned myself to be a type FIVE, this particular cautionary tale really convicted me. That’s what I had been doing with my life. My office was my ivory tower. I would sit and write for hours at a time only occasionally coming out to get more input for what I was going to write. And although I did share it with very few people, is the idea of putting it out in public for everyone to read was antithetical to my nature. One of the other stories they tell about a FIVE is that they are the kind of person who will not loan you a book for fear it will come back with the pages empty.

I mentioned that I did some teaching at my church. The way I would typically prepare a lesson would be to study the topic and have about 10 times more information collected in my head than what I would actually share in the lesson. Another indication of my Enneagram type. But I also could see the personal rewards that I got when I did share my collected knowledge. With the positive feedback I had gotten about the reunion story from online friends, real-world friends and family perhaps trying to get it published wasn’t such a bad idea. If I was going to break out of the compulsive behavior of an unredeemed FIVE, I think I needed to try publishing so that this work wouldn’t stay in the ivory tower and get thrown out with the trash.

Indianapolis Monthly Magazine

Somewhere along the way I saw a TV interview with a woman named Deborah Paul who was the editor of Indianapolis Monthly Magazine. She said, “I never feel like an experience is complete until I’ve written about it.” Now there was a person who understood my perspective. I could have said that same thing. So I figured if I submitted an article to them, it might be well received by a person who thought that way.

I took the online messages and merged them together into a slightly more cohesive narrative. Fixed some spelling errors and cleaned up some grammar. I submitted it to the magazine sometime late in 1986 or perhaps early 1987 I don’t recall exactly when.

A few weeks later I got a note back from Ms. Paul saying that she was about to send me a nice rejection letter but she started reading the article and couldn’t put it down. She didn’t know what to do with it. She showed it to some of the other people at the magazine and they didn’t know what to do with it either but they found it quite compelling. She said she would get back in touch with me in a few weeks.

The follow-up was a phone call from her. She said that there were problems with the article.

  1. They never publish first-person essays
  2. It doesn’t fit the format of the magazine
  3. It is way too long

She finally decided that just because they never published anything written first person before didn’t mean that they couldn’t start doing it now. She said “I am the editor and if I want to change the format of the magazine I can do it.”. Unfortunately it was still way too long. She said to me “You put your soul on paper. I’m sorry to say we only want half your soul.” She gave me the option of taking it somewhere else and hoping that they would publish it or having them publish a stripped down version. While she could have edited the article herself she realized that it was such a personal matter that she wanted to give me the opportunity to resubmit a shorter version. I very gladly agreed.

Ultimately what was published took out a few more paragraphs than I took out in my edited version and she actually added back in a couple of items that I had taken out.

Because it was somewhat school related they decided to hold it until their September 1987 issue.

After it was published, they routinely had a first-person feature in many other issues (even though I think some of them were ghostwritten by staff members based on interviews).

The Aftermath

First page of “The Reunion” as it originally appeared in Indianapolis Monthly Magazine September 1987

I’ve already chronicled some of the events that occurred after the publication of the article. The short version is that the magazine won awards for publishing my article and several other human interest stories. And I won “Best Magazine Feature of 1987” awarded by “The Indiana Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists – Sigma Delta Chi”.

Please take a look at this article titled “Making of the Reunion” for more details about the awards and some contact I had with people mentioned in the article. I also dug out some old VHS tape that I shot at the reunion and uploaded it to YouTube. I also wrote about what the old school building is being used for now. It has been turned into an apartment building. Read all of that in this article which also includes a link to the YouTube video shot at the reunion event.

Making of “The Reunion”

If you read the end of the reunion article, I had come to the conclusion that I was going to not just live my life in the ivory tower (although I didn’t use those words). I talked about applying my computer skills to assistive technology for the handicapped, I talked about not giving up on pursuing relationships with women, and I speculated that I would write a book perhaps an autobiography.

That first goal I’ve been pretty successful. I write tutorials on the Adafruit Learning System about various assistive technology devices I’ve invented. Here is a link to the technical articles I’ve done for them. Although I never have gotten married. I did have several more very successful relationships with women. And I did write a book. Actually 2 editions of a book. It wasn’t the autobiography I was planning on writing. I was concerned that would be too introspective and put me back in the ivory tower. But I did publish a book about computer graphics which will probably be the topic of the next installment in this series.

When I attended my third Enneagram seminar in August 1987 right before “The Reunion” was published I got to thank Maria Beesing for everything she had taught me about Enneagram and I told her how I had gotten down from my own ivory tower and gotten published on my first attempt. I later shared with her the story of the awards it won. I attended a total of 10 Enneagram workshops including a two-week training program which certified me to teach the course that Beesing and O’Leary teach. Although I have not taught that particular course I have integrated Enneagram topics into other teaching that I’ve done. There are dozens of other stories I could tell about how the insights of this system have helped me grow personally and to understand myself more fully.

This wasn’t the only article I had published in Indianapolis Monthly Magazine but we will save that story for another installment.

The bottom line is that the positive experience I got from writing that article, getting it published, getting wonderful feedback, and actually winning a top award in its category have encouraged me to keep writing all these years. But I don’t let that writing be a substitute for actually living my life and I make sure that when I write something I actually share it with people.

Author’s Journal: My First Print Publication

This is the second in a continuing series of posts about my experience (limited as it is) as an author. Click here for a complete index of all the stories in this series.

In my previous installment, I talked about a short story I wrote for a high school creative writing class. Although it’s an interesting story and I was pretty proud of it, I never attempted to get it actually published. In this installment I talk about the first time I was actually published.

I’m not sure exactly what year it was but it was probably 1980 or 1981. This is the story of a two-part article that I wrote for a personal computer technical magazine. If you have a hard time following technobabble talk or are not interested in the early days of personal computing, you can skip this section called “Technobabble” and read about the actual article that I wrote and had published.

Technobabble

This was back in the days when personal computers were brand-new. Although you could run out to Radio Shack to buy a TRS-80 Model I off-the-shelf and there were a few computer stores where you could pick up an Apple ][ Computer, many of the people who were using personal computers built them from kits. You would buy a basic chassis with a motherboard. Motherboards these days contain almost everything your computer needs… your CPU, slots for memory modules, USB ports, and perhaps built-in graphics processing… the most common motherboard in those days was something called an S-100 Bus backplane. Except for perhaps a voltage regulator or some capacitors and resistors it had no active components. It was simply large a circuit board with a number of slots that had 100 pins each. You would plug-in various circuit boards whose edge connectors would fit into these slots.

My first personal computer was a Cromemco Z-2. It consisted of a huge box about the size of a microwave oven that was capable of being mounted in a standard mainframe or minicomputer mounting rack. It had a massive power supply with a transformer that was a cube about 5 inches each way. It had capacitors the size of concentrated frozen orange juice cans. And it had an S-100 bus.

July 1997 advertisement for Cromemco Z-2

Plugged into that bus I had a processor card with a 4 MHz Z80 processor. There was an EPROM card which if you’re not familiar stands for Electrically Programmable Read Only Memory. In those days nonvolatile flash memory had not been invented so if you needed to write something permanently like a boot loader or a bios you had to burn your own ROM. If you made a mistake or wanted to upgrade the firmware you had to take out the chip, expose it overnight to a strong ultraviolet light which would erase it, and then burn it again. I also had a board for I/O connections which included a serial port, a parallel port, and a cassette tape interface. Another board had 16 K bytes of RAM memory. And finally there was a board used to generate a video display that was 64 characters by 16 lines of text with no graphics. That board was connected to an ordinary 12 inch black-and-white TV set fitted with a little RF modulator tuned to channel 3. About half of the circuit boards I bought preassembled but the other half were kits. You got the circuit board ready-made and a bag of parts. You had to solder them in, clip off the extra wiring, bolt on a heatsink or two and then hope you did it right.

My first computer after it had been upgraded with 2 floppy disk drives


Close-up of the insides of my computer showing the various circuit boards mounted in the S-100 bus motherboard.

I bought the system shortly after the famous blizzard of January 1978 which shut down the city of Indianapolis for three days. I was working as a computer programmer at the time. During the shutdown, I sat around and read Byte Magazine and swore that as soon as things thawed out I was going to buy a computer. I ordered the first pieces on Valentine’s Day 1978 and it took my dad and I several weeks to get it assembled and up and running. Initially the only way to save or load programs was on cassette tape. I don’t remember how long after I got the initial system built that I decided I needed to upgrade by adding a 5.25″ floppy disk drive. Later still I added a second floppy disk drive. The floppy disk controller I chose was made by a company called North Star. They had their own line of S-100 computers but they also sold their disk systems separately. As was common in those days, their operating system and its formatting system wasn’t compatible with anyone else. Eventually they began to make available other operating systems that had been converted to use North Star hardware.

The most popular operating system for 8-bit computers with the exception of Radio Shack and Apple was an operating system called CP/M. North Star had its own DOS called NSDOS that was completely incompatible with CP/M. Eventually North Star did make CP/M available for those systems and I did purchase a copy that I used for many years. But before that came along, there was another alternative to NSDOS called the UCSD p-System.

This was a portable operating system developed at the University of California at San Diego. It was built around the Pascal programming language which was one of the first so-called “structured languages”. While early languages like BASIC or Fortran would let you write code where the flow of the program could jump all over the place in a confusing manner, Pascal was one of the first modern programming languages that forced you to structure things more carefully. It made programs more reliable and easier to read. Structured programming probably isn’t a term that a young programmer today would even understand even though every language you use now such as Java, C++, Python and others are structured languages.

Programs for the UCSD operating system would be written and Pascal and compiled into something called p-code. Then there was an interpreter which would actually execute the p-code. The idea was that once you had compiled a program into p-code we could then be moved to any other kind of computer whether it was a huge mainframe, minicomputer, or a personal computer with a different kind of CPU. There was a p-code interpreter for each of them. The UCSD p-System was later made available for the IBM PC as an alternative to PC DOS. Although this ability to move compiled programs to different kinds of computers was supposedly the big idea behind the UCSD system, I never used that capability and my guess is not many people except in university settings made use of that capability either. The UCSD system was just the best, easiest to use way to write programs in Pascal and that’s why I and many other people adopted it.

I really loved writing Pascal and I loved the way the USCD operating system worked. The major problem with all these different operating systems is that not only was the hardware incompatible between various manufacturers (only North Star could read and write North Star floppy disks), the way in which the data was written on the discs was incompatible. CP/M converted to North Star hardware still could not read NSDOS discs or UCSD discs and vice versa. Note again at the time I had not yet begun using CP/M but I did want to be able to transfer data files between NSDOS and the UCSD p-System.

I needed to be able to transfer files between systems because under NSDOS I had written a small text editor that could be used for rather primitive word processing. It was basically a version of the DEC-System-10 line editor called “line-ed” that I had been using at IUPUI. It wasn’t a “WYSIWYG” word processing program (What You See Is What You Get). It was just a line by line text editor. I called it CUTE which stood for “Chris’s Universal Text Editor”. It made possible lots of puns such as “I just wrote this CUTE little program”. My mom and I used that CUTE little program for ordinary word processing. But if I was going to switch to the UCSD system, I needed to recover my text files from NSDOS discs.

There were ways that you could do a raw read of any track or sector of a floppy disk using the BIOS of the UCSD p-System. So I wrote a program using UCSD Pascal that would read and interpret the file directory of an NSDOS disk and then locate the file itself and write it to a UCSD readable disk. It was actually two utilities. One would transfer from NSDOS to UCSD and another one that would transfer from UCSD to NSDOS.

I Got Published!

If perhaps you skipped the previous section the bottom line was that I wrote to little utility programs that allow you to transfer text files between two different kinds of incompatible operating systems. My programs converted files between North Star DOS and another operating system called the UCSD p-System. These were both somewhat obscure operating systems. Most people used something called CP/M but this had nothing to do with that. Now we continue with the story…

There was no Internet in those days and I’m thinking that I didn’t really get onto CompuServe until 1981 or 1982 and this was before that. So there was no way to share these handy little utility programs with anyone else except to try to publish an article about them. It was such a small niche of people who would even need them that I didn’t try for a big computer magazine like Byte or Creative Computing. But there was a small publication called “S-100 Microsystems” or sometimes just “Microsystems” that seemed like the kind of place that would be interested in these utilities. So I wrote an article about one of the utilities. My poor mother was given the task of proofreading it which was next to impossible with all of the technical jargon and it. The best she could do was look at spelling and punctuation. At the time we had an IBM Selectric typewriter that had been fitted with a series of solenoids connected to a parallel port. I had written a small driver that would send text over the parallel port and it would type on the typewriter. I used that capability to print out the article. I mailed it off to Microsystems magazine and began polishing up part two of the article about the conversion the other way. I did mention in my submission letter that I would be sending them part two in a few weeks.

The day after I mailed part two I got an acceptance letter for part one. They were going to pay me $200 for each of the two parts totaling $400. I was ecstatic! I was a published author!

Microsystems was only published six times a year and my articles appeared in consecutive issues. I proudly showed them off to friends and family. The little handwritten acceptance note from editor Sol Libes was tacked on my bulletin board in a prominent place. It was really too small to put in a decent frame. I don’t know where it is today. It might be stuffed in a file cabinet somewhere.

Also somewhere in this house (only God knows where) are those two issues of Microsystems magazine containing my articles.

My Second Publication

I thought that was the end of the story. I didn’t have any other clever programs up my sleeve so I had nothing else to write about. I thought maybe someday I will get another bright idea and try again.

I’m guessing it was about a year after my articles appeared that a package came in the mail containing a book titled “Programmers Guide to CP/M”. The cover described it as “an in-depth look at the most widely used microcomputer DOS in the world. Edited by Sol Libes Editor, Microsystems Magazine”. My thoughts were “Gee that’s nice. He published a book and I guess since I was one of his authors published in his magazine he sent me a free copy.” The book went on the shelf and I never bothered to look inside. Although I probably was starting to use CP/M by that time, I was learning enough on my own to use it and didn’t need to read a book about the topic.

By the way, I mentioned earlier I couldn’t find copies of the magazines where my article appeared. I did find a copy of this CP/M book and its copyright page says 1982 so that’s how I estimated when all of this occurred. Anyway on with the story…

Another several months passed and I got a check in the mail for another $400! It was for the republication of my articles in a book titled “Programmer’s Guide to CP/M”. I said WTF! I had my mom grab the book off-the-shelf and we looked at the table of contents. Under Chapter III “CP/M on NorthStar Systems was my article “DOS/BIOS Directory and File Conversion (Parts I & II) page 79”.

Under any other circumstances I would’ve been jumping for joy about getting published in a real book instead of just a magazine and indeed the extra $400 sure was nice. But in fact I was highly insulted. The title of the book was “Programmers Guide to CP/M”. Every other article in the entire book was about the CP/M operating system. My articles were in a section about CP/M on North Star Systems. Well… It was about North Star Systems but it didn’t have jack-shit to do with CP/M. If the editor Mr. Libes would make such a mistake by putting my non-CP/M articles in a CP/M book that told me he never really understood what the fuck the articles were about in the first place. The money still spent the same but it was a big letdown that my work really wasn’t appreciated for what it actually was!

I don’t remember if I wrote him a letter but I seem to recall I may actually have called the guy on the phone. Basically I thanked him for republishing my articles in the book and thanked him for the extra royalties. But I pointed out to him what I described as “an embarrassing situation” where my non-CP/M articles appeared in a CP/M book. I don’t recall if I got so nasty as to say something like “Did you not really understand what those articles were about?” But I certainly let my confusion and disappointment be known. His explanation was that the original title of the book was going to be “The Best of Microsystems Magazine” and that’s why my articles had been chosen to be reprinted. They had changed the title as a marketing ploy thinking it would sell more copies as a general CP/M handbook. Okay I thought so I’m “among the best” yawn. It still seemed more of an insult than an honor. My articles did have to do with North Star Systems and they were included in that section of the book with other articles about North Star. Maybe some North Star user would see them and find them useful.

I don’t remember in particular what I spent the money on. Probably some new program or hardware upgrade. The money still spent the same but it wasn’t exactly the kind of recognition that I thought it was going to be. I knew that Microsystems was a small (not quite as bad as fly-by-night) magazine that was only published for a few years. I knew it wasn’t the big time. But I certainly expected they did have an inkling of what it was they had really published.

I’ve not had another opportunity to write technical articles in print. However I do maintain a technology blog where I document a lot of my projects these days. I’m also very proud of the tutorials I’ve written for the Adafruit Learning System online. Adafruit Industries is a wonderful electronics company in New York where I buy all of my electronic parts. It’s interesting that the CPUs that I use in these gadgets note from Adafruit parts are more than a thousand times more powerful than that first giant microwave oven sized computer that was my first. One of the things I enjoy about tinkering with these tiny microcontroller boards is they give me fond flashbacks to those early days when you had to build everything yourself. Initially I wrote articles for the Adafruit Learning System in exchange for free parts to build the projects. But now they also pay me to write articles as well. At least I know that they really do understand and appreciate my work there. It’s been a very rewarding relationship working for them. Here is a link to the articles I’ve written for them.

In the next installment of my Author’s Journal I will talk about an award-winning autobiographical magazine article I wrote for Indianapolis Monthly Magazine.

Introducing “Author’s Journal”

This is the first in a series of blog posts I’m calling “Author’s Journal”. Click here for complete list of the articles in this series.

I’m seriously thinking about writing a novel. Or novella. Or novelette. I’m not really sure about the difference but I think it has to do with word count. And since I don’t know how long the story is going to be I won’t know till it’s done.

It’s going to be a sci-fi story. It’s an idea I’ve had rattling around in my brain for many years. If it should happen to get published it would be my first published work of fiction. I’ve always said that I know how to tell a good story but I’m not so sure I’m any good at making one up. That’s what has kept me from writing fiction up until now.

I’ve only been at this project for about a week and it’s been an interesting journey so far. I’m a little bit concerned the story of writing the book is going to be more interesting than the book itself. But anyway I decided I wanted to write about the process of writing as I do it. Normally I would share such items on this blog but I don’t want to spoil my story before I actually get it published. If it turns out it doesn’t get published then I will put it online for free anyway along with the Journal of how I wrote it.

Author Andy Weir wrote his famous sci-fi novel “The Martian” which was later made into a hit movie with Matt Damon. He put chapters online for fans to read as he was writing it. Soon his fans requested he publish it in e-book format so they could read it off-line. He put it on the Kindle store and wanted to give it away for free but they wouldn’t let him. The minimum price he could put on it was $1. Eventually a publisher bought the rights to make a print version and he sold the film rights making a fortune. I don’t know that I want to risk that. So for now I’m not ready to share the story nor the story of how I wrote the story. But maybe someday.

I can however tell the story of how I wrote my previous published works. So that’s what I’m going to do in this new series is go back and talk about the other things I’ve had published (all of them nonfiction) because that stuff is already out there and it won’t spoil the story. Here is the first installment of my “Author’s Journal”. Or I suppose we take a page from moviemaking and call this “The Making of… whatever”.

Unpublished Fiction

Okay change of plan already. I said I’d never had any fiction published and that’s true but I want to talk about one piece of fiction that I wrote for a high school creative writing class. It’s the first thing I wrote that anybody ever had anything nice to say about and I was pretty proud of it so if we’re going to start at the beginning of my “career” as an author we need to start with the short story I wrote in high school.

I’m guessing it was probably my junior year at Northwest High School. My regular English teacher had a week or two off for some reason. It might’ve been my one teacher who took time off to get married but I’m not sure that was this particular time. I know I did have a teacher who took a brief leave and we had a substitute. I wish I could remember the name of the substitute but she was absolutely awesome. I remember discussing her with my friend and classmate Dennis Adams. We agreed that the reason it was a good thing she was a substitute teacher was it would’ve been a shame to share her gifts with just one class. She really had a way of bringing out the best in her students.

Anyway we had to write a short story. There is an adage that says “write what you know” and so I decided to write a bit of science fiction. That was 95% of what I read in those days (and still is).

I stole the basic premise of the story. My dad had told me he had read a story or seen a movie somewhere sometime where a guy got away with murder by stabbing someone with a sharpened icicle. The murder weapon had melted and evaporated leaving no trace of the weapon or fingerprints. I decided to steal that idea as the basis of my own little murder story.

I need to explain first that everything I know about writing short stories I learned from Edgar Allen Poe. Most notably from his classic short story “The Cask of Amontillado”. The complete story can be found at that link. The opening line of the story is “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.”

That’s the whole story in one sentence. Everything that follows is simply the details. It doesn’t explain who Fortunato was in any detail. It doesn’t say how he injured the author. It’s just the story of how he plotted revenge. He lured him into a basement wine cellar for a taste of amontillado wine. Then he shoved him into an alcove, chained him to the wall, and sealed up the alcove with bricks burying him alive.

This shocking and brutal ending is what most people remember about the story, but for me it’s that opening line that is so important. In one brief sentence he really told you the entire story. To me that is the absolute essence and perfection of the short story form. That’s what I wanted to go for.

So back to my semi-plagiarized sci-fi murder mystery. We were going to commit the perfect murder by stabbing a guy with an icicle. But why would we want to commit this murder? It is not exactly a crime of passion. You have to get somebody to a place where you have an icicle handy. You have to prepare it to a sharp point and keep it cold until you can do the deed. This clearly had to be premeditated and carefully planned. After all you don’t commit the perfect murder by accident.

It takes three elements to commit first-degree murder: motive, opportunity, and means. We had the means with the icicle. We could craft an opportunity. But what was the motive. Poe didn’t give one in his story. It was just an insult of some kind but we never learned exactly what.

Somewhere along the way I came up with the idea that committing the perfect murder was something that had been pursued ever since Cain slew Abel. Although I believe people are fundamentally good, there is always something inside us that tempts us to do violence against our perceived opponents. We’ve always been searching for the perfect murder. It’s one of those eternal quests like building a better mousetrap.

Wait a minute!

What did I just say?

My muse had spoken. I had my opening line. I had my hook that would tell the entire story in one sentence and draw you in to make you want to read more. I had my Cask of Amontillado opening line which read as follows…

“Man has always had two great ambitions. To build a better mousetrap and to commit the perfect murder. I have accomplished the latter on the man who accomplished the former.”

That was my entire story in one sentence (well actually three) but certainly one short paragraph. Somebody built the better mousetrap. The only reason you would want to kill such person is that somehow he cheated you out of that honor. So our perpetrator and victim were business partners. The “I have accomplished…” means the story will be told first person in the same way that Amontillado was told. Like amontillado it was a revenge story.

So I wrote the story. I already had my method to commit the so-called perfect murder with the melted murder weapon. Now I had to build the better mousetrap. That’s where the sci-fi elements came in. Our inventors used recombinant DNA (a big catchphrase in the 1970s for genetic manipulation) to create a virus that would be deadly to mice but harmless to any other species. Our victim and narrator were business partners. The business went downhill and went bankrupt. Then one partner started a new business and suddenly had a breakthrough that made him a millionaire for building a better mousetrap. Our narrator was certain that he had developed the idea previously but ran the business into the ground so he could start over and keep the profits to himself.

Apart from the big opening line, I had also learned the beauty and ingenuity of a plot twist. Something shocking at the very end of the story that gives the reader something unexpected. You grab them at the beginning. You lead them on a journey. You have to finish on a high note as well.

So I had our narrator standing on the steps of the church after his partner’s funeral gloating as the hearse pulls away. It’s still a cold winter day and a gust of wind comes along. He reaches to pull up the collar of his coat around the back of his neck and as he does so, and icicle breaks loose from the eaves of the church and slides down his back. The story then concludes with a newspaper item saying about our narrator had died of a heart attack on the steps of the church just after the funeral of his friend and former business partner.

The substitute teacher whose name I still can’t remember absolutely adored the piece. She read several excerpts from some of the best stories in the class but she started with mine. She heaped praise on the piece especially focusing on that opening paragraph. She said to the class “I’m going to read you this opening paragraph and I want you to guess which of your classmates wrote it”. She read the paragraph and at least three people identified it as mine. I don’t know what about their opinion of me lead them to identify me but I couldn’t have been happier.

Then she pointed out that I had misspelled “always” as “allways” and looked at me and said “You know better than that”. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I really didn’t 🙂 I’ve probably told the story before that several of my elementary school teachers exempted me from so-called “busywork” such as spelling drills and math drills because they thought I was so smart I didn’t need them. To this day I can’t spell worth a damn and I can add a column of numbers three times and get three different answers. God bless spellcheckers and spreadsheets.

My favorite substitute teacher concluded her review of my work by giving me a piece of advice which was “know when to quit.” She thought that the news clipping at the end was unnecessary. I guess I wasn’t confident that the reader would know that the guy who killed someone with an icicle was killed by an icicle. I’ve not really had much of an opportunity to apply that lesson but I’ve never forgotten it. Although the advice was “know when to quit” it really was in essence “trust your audience.” I try to do that.

At the end of the semester, they give you a folder with all of your homework in it so you can review your grades. But they want you to turn it back in so that you can’t sell your term paper to someone next year. I kept my copy of the story when I turned my folder back in. I don’t remember the name of the story. I’ve got that copy around here somewhere and if I find it I will post it online.

Even though the piece I’m working on now is going be longer than a short story, I still needed an attention grabbing opening line. It’s got one. I won’t spoil it for now. Not quite as good as the better mousetrap versus the perfect murder but still enough I hope it makes you want to read more.

In the next installment of this series I will talk about the various nonfiction things that I’ve written and have had published. Stay tuned.