Thursday, November 29, 2012

Analyzing Flawed Arc Structure, Part 2

As I mentioned earlier, I'm analyzing a flawed structure as part of an exercise to improve my own writing, specifically using the third "Xindi Arc" season of Star Trek: Enterprise.

Now, let's look at the beginning section of the arc, the first third.  This would consist of the second-season finale "The Expanse" as prologue, and the first eight episodes of the third season: "The Xindi", "Anomaly", "Extinction", "Rajiin", "Impulse", "Exile", "The Shipment" and "Twilight".

In three-act parlance, which I'm not a big fan of, this is all Act I.  And, as far as I'm concerned, that's part of the flaw here: these episodes mostly serve to put the pieces on the board, and there really aren't that many pieces.

The Prologue set-up of "The Expanse" does its job relatively effectively, but it doesn't quite hold up to scrutiny.  Earth is the victim of a Pearl Harbor/9-11 style surprise attack, killing seven million people.  The attack comes from a single-occupant probe of unknown origin.  Here's where part of the problem comes in: rather than have Starfleet actual figure out its origins, at least in part, answers are  handed to Capt. Archer by an exposition fairy from the future.  And said answers, as they usual are from poorly conceived exposition fairies, do little more than nudge in the right direction.  In other words, the information they gain could have been gained in a less clunky way, and have been just as useful.  But "The Expanse" sets the tone, puts a name to the adversary (The Xindi) and a place to find the (The Delphic Expanse).  The Expanse, itself, is set up as the equivalent of the "Here Be Dragons" part of the space map: physical laws don't work right there, and it's so dangerous even Vulcans and Klingons steer clear of it.

The true "Act I" of those eight episodes serve to establish a few core elements: the dangers of the Expanse (tied to bizarre spacial anomalies), which may be connected to a mysterious sphere; the stakes for the crew of the Enterprise, personally and globally; the Xindi themselves.  The problem is, only three of these episodes really effectively achieve these establishment goals: Anomaly, The Shipment and Twilight.  The key points in play in this section are tied to what the crew needs and wants.  They want to find the Xindi, but they really don't know where to start looking on once in The Expanse. They need to keep the ship safe from the spacial anomalies they constantly run into in The Expanse.  For the latter, there is a running subplot involving Trellium-D, a substance that will protect the ship, but that solution isn't acceptable: Trellium-D is toxic to T'Pol, so they can't use it.

This ties into the only real character arc in this section: what is Capt. Archer willing to sacrifice to save the Earth?*  His morality takes a bit of a pounding here, at one point torturing a captive pirate to get the information he needs.  He's also willing to pimp out Ens. Sato to a mysterious alien in "Exile", though that's a sacrifice Hoshi volunteers for.  He spends much of these episodes at the end of his rope, because he really doesn't see the mission as anything more than a ridiculous long shot.  IF they can survive the Expanse, and IF they can even find the Xindi, then they'll still be outnumbered and outgunned.  This comes to a head in The Shipment, where they find a Xindi refining facility.  The materials made at this facility were used in the weapon of the initial attack, and Tucker, Reed and Hayes are all ready to start blowing things up.  Archer, instead, decides to get to know one of the Xindi, and reaches an understanding with a decent man who didn't know what his materials were being used for.  Two key things accomplished: The Xindi aren't All Bad, and Archer moral compass veers back towards where Trek's is supposed to be.

The final step in this part is in Twilight, a psuedo-time travel story that nails home the stakes of failure: Earth will be destroyed if the Enterprise doesn't succeed in their mission, which they don't due to Capt. Archer being incapacitated by on of the spacial anomalies.  It is a classic Trek "reset button", but one with a point.  It doesn't just give us craziness and then undo it.

Even still, the big problem with the arc in this part is it mostly just meanders.  It takes eight episodes to do the work of three or four.**  Extinction, Rajiin and Exile are largely pointless, serving only to provide us with funny make-up, cheap titillation and a poor Beauty-and-the-Beast homage, in that order.

When it comes down to it, the first section only really does the work of the first two parts of the Twelve Part Arc Structure, when it should be doing the first four.  Once the situation is Established in The Expanse/The Xindi/Anomaly, we don't get back on point until The Shipment/Twilight to incite the plot to really start moving.  That aimless wandering in between those points is where an audience is lost. 

Next up: the mushy middle of the Xindi Arc.

*- The other character arcs set-up here are essentially minor bits of business.  Cmdr. Tucker is assigned the personal loss from the initial attack (his sister was among the seven million), but this mostly serves as an excuse to push him romantically towards T'Pol.  T'Pol's main conflict is resolved in the prologue: the Vulcan High Command don't want her on the mission, but she resigns from the High Command to stay on board.  Of the minor four members of the main cast, only Lt. Reed is given anything: bristling against Maj. Hayes, of the newly added MACO forces.      
**- I'll allow that "Impulse" does a fair amount of work of increasing personal stakes, and ties into what the Enterprise can do to keep themselves safe from the anomalies.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Analyzing Flawed Arc Structure, Part 1

Of course, there is much to learn from the masters.  But there is also plenty to learn from mistakes.  And the great thing is, there are so many out there, you don't need to make them yourself. One thing I've made several analyses of is arc structure, specifically in the work I did to create my Twelve-Part Story Structure.  Even the stuff that didn't work.

Now, for these purposes, I want to talk about something that, as a story arc, was a great example of stepping up to the plate, pointing to the fences... and then hitting a double.  Not terrible, but... not really what you were hoping to do, either.

I'm going to talk about the third season "Xindi Arc" of Star Trek: Enterprise.

I can imagine all the raised eyebrows. 

But bear with me here.  Like I said, I'm talking about flawed works.

So, some background: Star Trek: Enterprise was the fifth and final (to date) Star Trek series, and it came loaded with controversy.  As a prequel, set a century and change before the classic Trek, and two centuries before the three other modern versions, it set some fan's teeth on edge from the beginning, for a variety of reasons.*

I enjoyed the show, but where the flaws really stand out in the first two seasons, are when it comes to stakes and drama.  Stakes were, frankly, consistently low, and from that, drama stayed low.  The show barely took itself seriously, aiming more often for light comedy and cheap titillation** over any real human drama.   When you come down to it, for much of the first two seasons, the "mission", such as it was, involved tooling around and delivering fruit baskets to the neighbors.  "Hi, we're from Earth, nice to meet you!"   Yeah, the mission was "explore!", but it came off more as, "Eh, fly around and see what happens."

Season Three was where they changed things up: both in terms of trying something new for Trek in general, and in raising the stakes for the characters themselves.  The stakes were high for the show as well.  In 2003, Firefly had come and gone, BSG had a fantastic beginning***, and Enterprise was almost quaint in comparison.  The need to reinvent themselves was paramount.

So they tried a season-long arc, with a more reactive, aggressive mission.  The underlying hook was pretty simple: Earth suffers a devastating surprise attack, and the Enterprise is the only ship capable of investigating-- and possibly retaliating against-- whoever was behind the attack.  Woven into that was a crucial question: Can Trek maintain its relevance in modern television, while at the same time maintaining the core values of hope and peace that made Trek Trek?  

The overall story-arc consumes the third season, which was a first for Trek, even though DS9 had done more than its share of long-arc plotting.  But the third-season of Enterprise was far more focused towards it's arc plot, dedicating almost every episode**** to the arc, as well as the second season finale as a prologue, and the third episode of the fourth season as epilogue. 

So: we can't fault the ambition behind it.  You can definitely say they tried

With that, next installment I'll break down the arc into its sections, and how each one worked or didn't work.

*- A lot of those reason boiled down to continuity complaints, or rather "continuity", because more often than not, Enterprise didn't contradict established continuity as much as it contradicted fandom presumptions.  There are plenty of legitimate gripes with the series, but I found many hard to take seriously when they boiled down to, "This ruins my fanfic!"
**- Much has been made of the show sexing-up Jolene Blalock, which is totally true.  But, to be fair, they were just as eager to strip absolutely every cast member down whenever they could remotely justify it. 
***- The ending was another story...
****- Almost.  Which is one of the problems I'll get into.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving Quick Post

Happy Thanksgiving, all.  I've got pies and stuffing and turkey to make*, so I won't go on for too long on this post**.  I had considered just linking to some past posts, like on worldbuilding holidays or food details.   But I didn't want to be quite that lazy. 

So: state of the writer, thankfulness version.

First and foremost, I'm thankful for by amazing wife, whose love and support have kept me going through this journey.  She's put up with the many, many times I've stayed awake into the wee hours or sequestered myself with headphones on and nose in the computer, accepted the fact that my head is quite literally in some other world half the time, and has kept the fire under my feet when I get distracted.  She's willing for me to not only have giant maps printed, but to have them framed and hung in our studio.  Thanks to her I've got three novels*** in my agent's hands, and more on the way.

Second, my agent.  It's hard to quantify what an agent does for someone, but in the time we've been together, he's been a source of support, as well as inspiration.  He's pushed those three books into being better than they were without him.  He's regularly plugged this very blog.  He's working for me, and he doesn't make a dime from me until we have a sale.  And when we do, you damn well better believe he's earned his percentage. I sure do.

I'm thankful for my health and my energy, and that I've had the ability and freedom to keep working like I have been.  I'm thankful that I've just finished a draft of a short story, and wrote another short play last week.  I'm thankful that I have more ideas than I know what to do with.  Novels are cooking and brewing in this brain, and I have every intention of continuing to crank them out.

I'm thankful for all the people who've given help and advice over the past year and more-- from my mentor and friend Stina Leicht to my worldbuilding brainstorming partner Dan Fawcett to the café manager who doesn't charge me every once in a while because she likes supporting writers.  Too many people to name.  Besides, that's what the acknowledgement page of books are for, right?

All right, time to hit the kitchen, folks.  Have a good one.

*- I'm a traditionalist, but that ties to my roots as a worldbuilder and an amateur food historian.  Turkey, potatoes & corn are all native foods to the Americas.  That's important, in my mind.  That's why desert is a chocolate pecan pie. 
**- I swear, half the times I say that, I end up writing twice as much as a normal post.
***- And two trunked ones.  I don't think anything tests the patience of a writer's spouse quite like a trunk novel. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Out of Ink Season Again

For the past 13 years, I've participated in Austin Scriptworks Out of Ink ten-minute playwriting "fling", as it is called, which basically works like this: Every year in November, on a Friday evening we receive three "rules" for a ten-minute play.  The deadline is 48 hours later (give or take, since it's usually by 6pm on Sunday).  Then eight of those ten-minute plays are selected for production in April-ish. (It varies from year-to-year, but it's usually April.)

It's a process I really enjoy, and it keeps various tools in my toolbox sharp.  This is a key reason why I participate every year. 

2000:  Last Train Out of Illinois (Selected) My first year with Scriptworks, the rules involved boots, a character directly addressing the audience, and someone performing an "aria".  I had, at the time, had the vague idea of a Tom Waitsish Musical called "Last Train Out of Illinois", but all I had was Atmosphere and an Ending. Which is just fine for a ten-minute piece. 

2001: Dead Air On The Open Road (Not Selected) I don't remember all the details, but one of the rules here was an "incongruous element".  So the story involved people in a car breaking down in the desert, and then a foul-mouthed puppet shows up to save them.  When we did the reading, it was actually pretty hysterical, but I can see that as a script, it's rather thin.

2002: Freaks of Nature and Acts of God (Selected) The rules aren't quite in my memory, save "only one chair" as set.  I came up with three young women stuck in a near-empty beach house during a hurricane, who are then rescued by a pizza-delivery guy who has the wrong address.  It's probably the weakest of mine that was chosen.

2003: Danger Girl's Night Off (Selected) The rules dictated 1. something involving superheroes and 2. a seduction, so I immediately thought of a grown-up sidekick who just wanted to have a date night.  This was a lot of fun.  Elements of this story ended up fueling the core ideas behind my story in The Protectors, which you can still purchase on Amazon.

2004: Triangles and Broken Circles (Not Selected)  The rules had something to do with chalk and a ceremony, but what I wrote was pretty much weak sauce.  Can't blame it not being selected.

2005: No Entry.  This year, for budgetary reasons (I think, I could be wrong) the format changed, asking for a 5-minute radio play.  I was at something of a loss with that idea, so I didn't enter this time around.

2006: Alignment of Celestial Bodies (Not Selected) Of the "not selected" ones, this is probably my favorite.  I forget the details of the rules, but it was a sweet romantic story of a couple going stargazing, with an interconnecting Creation-of-the-World Myth of my own creation. 

2007: Hourglass (Selected) I'm really pleased with this one.  The rules involved 1. A physical transformation on stage, 2. a secret and 3. a piece of music connecting to a memory.  This may have been, for me, the most synergous set of rules.  The discovery of an old hourglass reminds an old woman of the true paternity of her child.  Hannah Kenah did really lovely work on stage going from 107 to 20. 

2008: Ten Minutes Ago (Selected)  The play goes backwards!  That was the rule that had to define this one.  The idea I was struck with here was having an innocuous instigation (a woman answering her door) lead to events that had disastrous consequences (her husband and a stranger dead in her living room), and then show it Consequences-Events-Instigation.  This one was challenging to stage, but enjoyable.

2009: The Q (Not Selected) Here, I think I bit off more than I could chew.  The core idea was about people being smuggled out of a quarantine-zone after a biological attack.  I think it ended up too dense and too vague.  I like it, I may revisit it at some point, but I'll admit in the writing, I wasn't quite "feeling" it.  So when it wasn't chosen, I wasn't all that surprised.

2010: Entropy (Selected) "Time is Running Out", "Use the Beginning and End of Finnegan's Wake" and "A Ceremony of Forgetting".  How does this NOT say "two people stuck in a time loop"?  OK, it does to me, because I'm a sci-fi geek. 

2011: Slept the Whole Way (Selected) Again, the rules sent me to an SF place: the play needed to span 3000 years and have 300 characters.  So a cryosleep ship that missed its target and kept everyone in stasis for 3000 years made perfect sense to me. 

2012: I Asked My Friend Art, And He Said It Isn't Him.  Given that I just sent this, and don't know what it's fate is, I won't talk about it too much.  I will say I enjoyed writing it a lot.  I found myself cackling and grinning much of the time, and I'm hoping that's a good sign.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Riding the Muse Where it Takes You

Sometimes it just doesn't come together.  And that's okay.

I'm in a strange position, writing-wise.  Three novels are out there, shopping at various publishing houses.  Any or all could hit tomorrow, or in a month or six months or never.*  If and when that happens, I need to be ready to shift focus to the Needs of Publication-- including and not limited to starting the Book II of whatever series hits. 

But until that happens, it behooves me to continue to produce more first-of-a-series novels, which is where Way of the Shield comes in.  It ties to the other three novels, in that they are all set in the same city at around the same time**, but it is not necessary to the other novels (as they aren't necessary to each other).  While it would be ideal for me to have Way of the Shield done, and get a deal in which all four books are published in rapid succession, that's not necessary either.*** 

This is all a rather long-winded way of me saying that no one, with the possible exception of my agent, is really asking for Way of the Shield to be written right now.  And I'd be willing to bet if I sent him something else, say something space-opera, my agent wouldn't complain. 

Which is good, because The Muse, as it were, has been muttering Space Opera and aliens and interstellar politics and how Lt. Samantha Kengle of the Terran Stellar Fleet wants people to know that the hairless monkeys from Sol III are not to be trifled with.****

And that's what you have to do sometimes: listen to the Muse, and figure out where it's taking you.  Ignoring it, frankly, just makes everything work slower.  And that doesn't mean one project is dead because focus is shifted onto another.  Quite the opposite.  It's getting a chance to breathe. 

*- Personally, I'm hoping more in the tomorrow-to-a-month range, myself.
**- Strictly speaking, Way of the Shield takes place about a week after the end of Holver Alley Crew, which itself starts about a week after Maradaine Constabulary, which starts three days after the events of Thorn of Dentonhill.  Yes, I have a whole calendar.  Yes, I am that obsessively detail oriented about these things.
***- In fact, that's pretty damn pie-in-the-sky.
****- Her language is a bit coarser on the subject.  Sailor's mouth on that one.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Perils of the Writer: False Starts

It hits like lightning across the forebrain.  The Brilliant Idea that will be the Next New Book.  And every thought is consumed with the "Oh, wow!"ness of this new idea.  It's fresh and exciting, especially if it hits in the hard-middle-slog of a novel.  Then, it inhabits your brain like new lover, with promises of how everything is going to be easy and light and problem free and THIS is the project you should be working on.

And the initial worldbuilding snaps together, characters are as clear as day.  You open up a document and just start writing, because isn't that's how it's supposed to be?  Isn't that how real writers write, right?  They just pound it out and go where the story takes them and they do it brilliantly on their first draft and that's what you're going to do this time because it's brilliant and you're brilliant and this is the best novel ever written by anyone ever and--


Somewhere between five and fifteen thousand words, the fiery passion part is burnt out, and then you're poking at those dying embers and realizing, "I don't actually have a plot here, do I?"

So you put it do the side, mourning its failure for a bit.  Get back to work on the things that need work, where the work is paying off, slowly and surely. 

But, of course, the siren call is there, summoning you back with the promise that this time it's going to work.  This time it's going to be brilliant.

I've gone through this particular cycle with USS Banshee  several times now.  I do have a good sense what "went wrong" on my first few attempts: namely, that lack of plot.  But with later ones, it was almost as if I didn't want to actually get to the plot.  Put simply, I kept wanting to just write a "hang out" book.  I was having fun with the various sets of characters in different sections of the ship, just playing with the personalities, showing off shiny toys, that I could never manage to get to the point where they went anywhere for something to actually happen.  One failed draft reached 40,000 words of NOTHING

That's the most prominent false-start in my stable.  I keep coming up with new takes on it, one of which I'm currently quite excited about.  Still hashing it out, but I think this one might work.  But I've thought that before.  Not to mention, there's all the "terminal cases" I have in my writing folders.   But USS Banshee is, frankly, the one I can never give up on.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Worldbuilding, Psychohistory, and the Power of Numbers

So, now our election is over, and if one thing can be declared an uncontested winner, it's Math.  Despite having his vocal detractors, Nate Silver's meticulous statistical analysis of polls produced an electoral college map that was spot on.  You might not like what his results were, but you can't argue with their accuracy.

Any old-school Asimov fan could have told you that.  While I doubt any of us would argue that Hari Seldon's level of psychohistorical projection is probably impossible, there is a simple truth that pure math has no bias. 

Now, applying this to worldbuilding.  I will fully admit that I'm more of a numbers geek than your average writer, so I will do things that would probably make most people weep at the prospect of it.

Take, for example, my latest bit of Build Process, incorporating a dimension of time into my already-complex 150-ly radius Space Opera Setting.  I looked at my several hundred intelligent species*, and even knowing their technology level, I asked myself, "Yes, but who got their first?  How did they expand?"

So, I start with some assumptions, some of which probably have underlying errors, but work in terms of large-scale worldbuilding as a whole. It also works in terms of applying the Guns, Germs and Steel ideas on an interstellar scale.

Assumption #1: That all intelligent species in question, in this patch of interstellar neighborhood, were all at an equivalent state of Intelligent, Pre-Civilized Hunter/Gatherer at the same time.  This is a HUGE presumption, especially in terms of evolution and cosmic time.  It more or less requires some form of direct Precursor Intervention, which I've included in the model.  The point is, the bell is rung at 11,000 BC, and at that point, every species starts the race.

Assumption #2: All species hit certain Technology Level Benchmarks, and the time ratio for those benchmarks is consistent.  These benchmarks are broad brushstrokes, and don't represent the details of how a culture gets from A to B to C, or exactly what that Tech Level might mean at any given point.  But it takes into account that the journey from Pre-Civilization to Early Metalworking is a much longer one than from Late Industrial to Technological. 

Now, with those two assumptions, I add in two Randomizing factors to tweak those ratios for each Alien Civilization.  One broadly represents Ingenuity-- how quickly a species as a whole comes up with and enacts new ideas-- and the other represents Resources-- having the natural means on hand that enable enacting new ideas.  As per the underlying thesis of the Guns, Germs & Steel Model, Resources is the bigger determining factor. 

For example, for the sake of the model, I assign Humans an Ingenuity Factor and Resource factor of 1.  With the Ingenuity, the range of variance is pretty minute: with one exception (a species I wanted to beat everyone else to space by a wide margin), the range of Ingenuity is between .95 and 1.05.  No species is really significantly smarter than anyone else.** 

Resource Factor had a much bigger range, and small changes in the range could generate much larger effects.  The range was, for the most part, between 0 and 2, but for species that I wanted still in a Hunter/Gatherer phase, the RF might be well into the negatives.***

And then I generate an equation that plugs the IF and RF into the Advancement Ratio I've already created, and: Bam.  I now know to the year when every alien culture breaks the FTL barrier, and where every culture is, broadly speaking, in any given year. 

Now, whether or not this is really useful information for a writer to know, that's debatable.  It certainly falls under the Iceberg Principle of worldbuilding: stuff the reader will never see above the surface.


*- Yes, I am a loon.  We've established this.
**- Not to mention, the "Ingenuity" factor really represents several different factors that don't necessarily tie into "Intelligence", such as broad social factors that could enhance or hamper scientific advancement.  But I'm not a sociologist, and the math here was complicated enough.  A single number that represents all those things broadly was sufficient. 
***- Which could represent a lot of things: a complete lack of domesticatible animals or crops, or a sparsity of easy-to-work metals like copper or tin, for example.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Fantasy Fiction and Democracy

Let's face it: democracy is not a key factor in most fantasy fiction.  It is a genre that has its foundations built on a primarily European-based aristocracy/nobility model. One of the tired tropes of the genre is the idea of rule-through-birthright: the king of Return of the King is the great-to-the-infinite-power grandson of a long-gone king, and the rulers of Gondor are "stewards" who have essentially been waiting for an heir of Isildur to bother to show up and claim his throne.  Same thing in The Belgariad: Garion is the heir of the secretly-preserved line of Riva, and the empty throne has waited for the Rivan King to show up for 800 years.

Seriously, these are some patient people, since they go centuries working on the premise of, essentially, a temporary regency waiting for the "proper" ruler to show up, even though the ancestor who last occupied the throne is long out of living memory.*  Why do they put up with this?  Because, apparently, in this type of fantasy, birthright never fades.  Nobility is important.
 I'm not entirely immune to this: Druthal has a king (Maradaine XVIII) whose line comes from the first king of Druthal (Maradaine I), and that line being on the throne was not continuous.  There are some key differences, though: The line broke in the first place because the son of Maradaine I was something of a dullard, so other various lords quietly shuffled him to the side while someone else claimed the throne.  Second, the line was restored to the throne nine centuries later not out of prophecy or divine providence, but because a small group of conspirators discovered that a minor noble they liked was a direct descendant of that dullard son, but more importantly because the current king was a complete and total loon and they were desperate to get rid of him.  So the line claim was really only about giving their revolution a bit of extra legitimacy.  It didn't launch a golden age where everything in Druthal was now wonderful since the Rightful Line was Restored.** 

But, while I have those European nobility influences-- Druthal has a king, not to mention archdukes, dukes, earls and barons-- it also has a Parliament.  An elected Parliament, where the real legislative power lies.  Democracy is a crucial element of how Druthal works.  The people's voice is important, even if it gets corrupted and twisted and bought out from time to time.

I am having fun with that in Way of the Shield, where the partisan make-up of the Parliament, how various aspects of the press interpret what the Parliament does, how people feel about the Parliament (ESPECIALLY Dangerous Fringe Elements) all come into play.  It's messy, because democracy is messy, which is how I like it.

I won't get too political here, but the thing I love about democracy is the element of dissent and disagreement.  I love that I can have an enormous, pitched argument with someone on the polar opposite side of an issue, and the end of the day, we'll both think the other guy is just plain wrong, but neither of us is going to get taken in by the police in the middle of the night for what we said.  And in a little bit, we're going to have an election, and shortly afterwards a little more than half of us will be pleased, and a little less than half will be pissed.  But that little-less-than-half will dust themselves off and gear up for the next fight.  And that's awesome.  That's what it's about.

And, hopefully, I can work a bit of that into by fantasy writing, and get some good drama out of it.


*- Essentially, even though both LOTR and Belgariad have functionally-immortal characters.  Strictly speaking, there is living memory of Isildur and Riva, but it's not amongst the common people living day-to-day under the regency rule.
**- Also note, this is just an incident in the extensive history my insane-worldbuilder brain has created.  It's three centuries before the stories I'm telling.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Perils of the Writer: The Slow Process of Getting the Ball Rolling

¡Feliz día de los muertos!  We're now in November, which for some writerly types, means NaNoWriMo, aka Nation Novel Writing Month.  If you aren't in the know, participants pledge to write a 50,000 word novel over the course of November.  This translates to writing approximately 16,666 words a day.  Back in the early days of writing, I participated, but I don't anymore, since every month is Novel Writing Month, and at this point in my life, a pace of 50K a month for 12 months is not something I could ever hope to maintain.  Writing at my own pace is just fine by me.

In my opinion, NaNoWriMo is an excellent exercise in terms of process, in learning how to write a novel... but not one in terms of results.  The novel you write in one month won't be a particularly useful one, not without significant editing.  Briefly: I think it's a wonderful way to crank out a trunk novel.  One of my trunk novels was, in fact, a NaNoWriMo.*

But exercise and process are important, especially when it comes to getting started.  Getting a novel started is, for me, a very slow and deliberate process, in that the path from conception to writing actual text can take quite some time.  I sometimes make the metaphor of my writing brain being like a kitchen, with various projects on front and back burners.  But then there is other stuff in crockpots on back counters, slowly stewing away for years until they are really ready to work.

Phase One: Conception.   
This is, more or less, the Big Idea phase of things, where the thunderstrike of a Shiny New Story smashes across your brainpan.  It's usually the broadest of brushstrokes: Steampunk Airship Flying Through Alternate Universe Texas!  Secret Telepath War In Manhattan!  Abducted Human Wakes from Hibernation Sleep on a Dying Ship Full of other Abducted Aliens!  Cold hard truth: 75-90% of projects never get out of this phase.  It's always a bit fun and exciting, but it's also easy to mistake that Fun and Exciting for "And now I will write the book".  That never works, at least for me.  Though I suspect that many people-- at least non-writers-- believe that this phase is all you need to write the book.**

Phase Two: Setting.
Once I have an idea, I need to build the place where it unfolds.  I'm a worldbuilder, it's what I do.  For me, this phase is all too crucial: it's about placing the gears that will power the engine behind the story.  This phase can often be the longest, because it is filled with working and reworking things out. If it doesn't work, if it doesn't make sense to me, then the center doesn't hold. Case in point: when I initially conceived my Space Opera Setting, back in 2002, I created some initial star maps with colonies and alien homeworlds and such and so forth.  But as I first tried to write, this signal of WRONG WRONG WRONG across my brain was jamming things up.  Why?  It took a while to realize, but I finally hit upon it: the stars of these colonies and alien worlds, while being in close proximity to Earth, had nothing to do with actual stars close to Earth.  Back to the drawing board.

Phase Three-A: Characters.
Phase Three-B: Circumstances.
I put these two together like this because they tend to go hand in hand, but I can't honestly say which one goes first.  Both things are crucial to figuring out what the actual story is: what's happening, and who it's happening to.  It's a strange, intertwined process that, frankly, I haven't quite mastered.  Trying to craft circumstances without knowing character at the center can yield something soulless and mechanical.  But crafting characters without really knowing the story can make an unholy mess, where you end up with numerous people standing around with very little to do.  The best solution I've found is to, at this phase, focus on just the core characters and the ripe circumstances that initiates things, and let it flow from there.

Phase Four: Outline
Now that I've worked out the key elements, who, what, where, when and (to a degree) why, it's a time for a big helping of how.  Of course, I use my Twelve-Part Structure as a base, writing out about a paragraph for each part.  With that finally in hand, THEN I can start Actually Writing.
*- I gave it significant editing afterwards.  It's still a trunk novel, and that's what it deserves, frankly.
**- This is where those, "I've got a great idea for a book, so you write it and we'll split the profits!" pitches come from.