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

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 merge 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.