The king is dead. Long live the king.

It’s finished.

The first draft of Rhubarb is in the can. It’s 100,243 words long and took 53 days, starting from November 1.

So where to I go from here?

First, I do a quick read-through. I copy edit what I’m capable of catching, but mostly I make sure it says what I meant it to say. Then I pass it on to my (to quote NYT technology columnist David Pogue) “AMAAAAAZING” wife Julie. She will copy edit the crap out of it, and make notes. Then the fun starts. Second, I revise. Depending on Julie’s comments and my own feelings after a few days away from the document, the revisions might be huge, minor, or both. Third, more editing and revising. Fourth, some editing. Fifth, some revising…you get the idea. At some point in the process, Julie wants to read it out loud to the kids. (It’s rated PG, maybe PG-13 for violence involving aliens, and mild language.)

So what have I learned from this book and this NaNoWriMo experience?

1)      Have a plan. I’d had the general story in my head for a while, but I took a couple of weeks in October to outline the plot, figure out arcs and pacing, flesh out the characters, and work out the technical details. It doesn’t matter that the book ended up bearing only a passing resemblance to the outline. That thinking, that starting place, was indispensible.
2)      Have strategies. As I veered wildly from the outline, I often found myself in un-navigated plot waters. I used to bang my head on my keyboard, cry angst, and release the dogs of woe. Now I take the advice of my copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide: Don’t Panic. I plop down somewhere comfortable with my notebooks, note cards, Excel spreadsheet, and a hot beverage. I might take a long bath or shower (again taking the advice of Douglas Adams). I’ve taken naps, draw maps or schematics, written academic style papers, whatever it takes to get over the speed bump. But I’ve had to learn these strategies through much torment. It’s good to have a whole arsenal of tools at the ready.
3)      Know when to write. I’ve tried not to be a rigid writer. I eschew rituals and spaces set exactly so. Since I do a lot of my writing out of my office, I have to be flexible. But I’ve come to the realization that I work best in the afternoons and evenings. Writing before noon feels like slogging through cold, moldy oatmeal. Whereas if I shut my door at 7 p.m. and put on music, I will be startled at 10:47 by my poor wife, desperate to sleep after I’ve been rattling her floor with my sub-woofer for hours. Some evenings, Julie’s found me legitimately disoriented to find myself at home, and not baking rhubarb pie in a double-wide trailer home in rural Montana. This is called flow, and I’m convinced it’s why writing is so addictive.
4)      Know when to have fun. I tend to be obsessed with the details, which I suppose is a decent quality for a sci-fi author, but it can often bog me down. Even if it doesn’t all make it onto the page, I want to know how the world works. Is there a plausible scientific explanation anything and everything? It’s easy for me to get lost in research, even for the most trivial things, such as the volume needed to produce vat-grown beef tissue on a space station, probabilities of genetic disease occurrence, whether there’s a Hooters in Bozeman, or even (for Rhubarb specifically) types of nuts and bolts. I took another bit from Douglas Adams to heart for this book. When Arthur Dent is asked about the Heart of Gold Infinite Improbability Drive, he says, “Don’t ask me how it works or I’ll start to whimper.” It’s a freeing philosophy.

And finally, I can’t wait for rhubarb season to try my hand at baking the best rhubarb pie in the universe. I hope my mother-in-law, the original baker of such things, doesn’t mind.


Ten-Day Forecast

Ten days into NaNoWriMo, and Rhubarb is on the rails, humming along at a safe and steady pace. I’m well ahead of my word count goal. And it takes only six cups of coffee and/or tea per day. I’m happy with this first draft so far. Although, boring as it sounds, I feel a bit like the plodding tortoise.

It’s hard to say that I was the hare during last year’s NaNoWriMo. I did work steadily and I did “win.” However, I was pouring a dream book (as in a book I dreamed, not a book of my dreams—see previous post) out of my consciousness, molding blobs and chunks of my life into a cohesive story. It was extremely personal, often draining, sometimes very emotional. That book consumed me and still haunts me, even though I’ve stopped revising it. (Again, read the previous post.)

This year, I feel more like a creator, a professional novelist, if you will. Since the main characters aren’t me, or people that I have been close to, I feel no compunction about putting them through hell for my amusement. (A light and funny hell, with a flaky crust.) I think about this book constantly, even when I’m not writing, (Epic showers are particularly good places to sort out the next chapter) but I don’t feel tortured by it. I’m having fun, I’m not stressed, and I’m hoping that shows up on the page.

So what do the next 20 days hold? I will reach 50,000 words several days before Thanksgiving (unless an aircraft carrier-sized asteroid hits the Earth) and will have a finished manuscript long before mid-December. I’ll ignore it for a couple of weeks, and then in January, I’ll start revising it. Forty or fifty drafts later. I plan on publishing it via Amazon.

But what about regular publishers and getting it into bookstores? Let’s just say that the wall between self-publishing and legacy publishing is currently in the process of crumbling. My goal is to get some of my work published the standard way, but the new e-publishing trend has created an amazing opportunity for new writers to kick the door open, get noticed, and maybe,just maybe, get paid in the process. (Click the link there, it's hilariously relevant.)



Dust Jacket Copy

People always ask what I write.

“Sci fi,” I reply. “Novels,” I add.

They nod politely and make noises of feigned interest. My answer is a quicker conversation ender than Splash’s trombone. I’m sure these people imagine that I’m writing Star Trek/Star Wars mash-up fanfic. We must. Save. The Ewoks. Warp 10, Mr. Chewbacca. Raawwwhhhrrr. Or creepy trans-species alien erotica. (No example will be provided.) Why do I let them wonder?

I’m been reluctant to discuss my work for two reasons: one lame, one counterproductive.

Lame: I don’t possess the natural gift for against-all-odds self-promotion that would seem to be necessary to be a successful author. I hate to embarrass myself and don’t want to bore anyone. Hence, the five years it took me to start a blog.

Counterproductive: I never took the time to boil down my projects into seven-page synopses, let alone single sentences. I never had my elevator pitch ready. This was a mistake. I should have my pitch holstered not just for agents at writing conferences, but also to trade to the barista for my double-shot Coffee Americano, to mumble open-mouthed to my dentist, to amaze my kids’ friends. You never know who might publish you, who might someday be willing to drop $1.99 on Amazon for the ebook, or who might hand you a Hugo Award.

So here you go…the “dust jacket copy” for the novel I’m preparing for NaNoWriMo. Enjoy. Tell your friends. Coming soon to a fine ebook publisher near you. Guaranteed. (Sweat beads form on forehead.)

By M.H. Van Keuren
Martin knows every desolate mile of Eastern Montana’s highways. As a traveling salesman, his only companion is talk radio, especially “Beyond Insomnia with Lee Danvers.” Its reports of the paranormal keep Martin entertained—and hopeful that there’s more to the universe than selling screws and nails to far-flung, small-town hardware stores.

A bright spot in Martin’s routine is the complementary breakfast at a motel in Brixton, a junction town well past its sell-by date. But it’s not the watery coffee, day-old pastries, and pre-mixed waffle batter he loves. It’s Cheryl, the housekeeper who sets out the breakfast.

The townsfolk guard Cheryl jealously from the likes of Martin—who, to be fair, has more noble intentions than most. But Cheryl has room for only one man in her life, the ailing stepfather who raised her. As much as Martin dreams of rescuing Cheryl from her minuscule town life in the middle of nowhere, she steadfastly refuses to be in need of rescuing.

Martin’s chance comes when Cheryl’s car breaks down and he stops to give her a ride. To thank him, she bakes him a rhubarb pie, and he works up the courage to ask her out on a date. She agrees—but then she’s gone. Left town for a guy she met on the Internet, or so everyone says.

But Cheryl’s stepfather doesn’t buy it. He blames Martin for her disappearance, sending Martin on a search for the truth. What he uncovers about Cheryl’s family and Brixton’s history is far weirder than anything he’s ever heard on the radio. Especially if it’s true that Cheryl’s salvation lies in discovering a long-lost secret recipe for rhubarb pie—which might just be the best, and the most dangerous, pie in the galaxy.



Don’t look for a presidential proclamation; there isn’t one. All you have to do is to set aside your life for 30 days and write at least 50,000 words of an original novel (a mere 1,666.66 words a day). The observance of the month is slightly more beneficial to society than International Talk Like a Pirate Day, is almost as froody as Towel Day, is marginally less likely to get you truck-bombed than Everybody Draw Mohammad Day, and will definitely cheese off your significant other more than March Madness. There’s even a cool website run by a nonprofit to help you do it.

Last year, I woke up one October morning having dreamt a complete novel, the title, the characters, the plot, everything. It was semi-autobiographical, not sci-fi, and felt important to me. I scribbled the ideas down but lamented that I didn’t have a chance to write it while the dream was fresh. The next week, I learned about NaNoWriMo. I shoved my other project kicking and screaming into a drawer, signed on at the website, cracked my knuckles over my keyboard, and counted down the minutes until November 1.

I hit 50,000 words on November 20 and finished the first draft of the manuscript in early December—about 90,000 words. It turned out better than I ever dreamed. However, in all the excitement, I missed an important detail. My story was interwoven with lyrics from dozens of songs. So unless I wanted to cough up an estimated $200,000 in licensing fees, my book was never going to see the light of day. (If you come by sometime, I might let you read it. If I say no, it means you’re probably a thinly disguised character.)

So I wrote a dud. NaNoWriMo was still a great time. It gave me another chance to go through the process of getting from a blinking cursor to The End. I don’t have a magic dream book this year, but I’ve got an idea simmering on the burner. You’re probably not in this one. But you’re welcome to join me.


Dramatis Personae

 M.H.—a currently unknown novelist, author of this blog
Julie—the wife of the novelist, a magnanimous person, the reason this blog exists
Wallclimber—the eldest son, a teen
Splash—the second born son, a tween
TBA—the agent to the novelist, an enlightened individual
TBA—the publisher of the novelist
TBA—a chorus of readers, critics, and Internet trolls

Act I
Setting: The East Coast, 2006
M.H. and Julie are handing off their children in a Burger King parking lot halfway between their workplaces. He is returning from the nearest major convention center, and she is on her way to the night shift on the copy desk of the local newspaper.

M.H.: Managing convention center operations requires such long hours and horrendous commutes. I long to be a novelist.
Julie: A worthy goal. I, too, long for something different. I have gazed into my crystal ball and have heard the death knell of newspapers. (M.H. raises a questioning eyebrow.) Perhaps I should quit and become a freelancer years before every other copy editor in the nation gets laid off.
M.H.: How irresponsible of us to consider quitting our jobs. Don’t we realize that the economy is going to crash in two years?
Julie: We can make it work.
M.H.: Are you sure?
Julie: Sure.
M.H.: Really?
Julie: Really. Sounds fun.
M.H.: If it works, we’ll look like geniuses.
Young Wallclimber and Young Splash (from inside the minivan): What are you two talking about? You’re plotting to ruin our lives, aren’t you?
M.H.: But heaven help us if it doesn’t…

Act II
Setting: A Rocky Mountain state, 2011
The family is gathered around the dinner table.

M.H.: Do we look like geniuses yet?
Julie: My freelance business is thriving. Huzzah.
M.H.: Splash, are you relatively happy and well adjusted?
Splash: Pie!
M.H.: Wallclimber, are you relatively happy and well adjusted?
Wallclimber: Hunh?
M.H.: I’ll take that as a yes.
Splash: Dad, when are you going to publish a book so you can take us to Disney World like you promised?
M.H.: You see, son, the publishing world is going through a lot of turmoil, and I’ve been teaching myself the craft of…
Splash: Boring. No more excuses. Get published.
Wallclimber: We’re going to Disney World?

Opens with a blog…