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.


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.