What works best for me is to have a few main scenes in mind, and then write to get from one to the next. The whole process is very organic for me. If I go to the trouble of writing out an outline for a fiction project, I almost never write the story itself.
I'm an into-the-mist writer. It's hair raising, and many of my writing mornings start with "I can't!" But not plotting in advance opens the door to that magic of the creative process that writers in centuries past called the Muse or in spiritual terms is often called "being a channel." One of the tag lines in that delightful movie Shakespeare in Love was, "It's a mystery!" They were talking about theater, but it struck a chord with writers too. One of the things I love about talking with other writers is hearing them describe my experience of having characters come alive and talk to me. It might be hard for them to speak freely if I dictated the terms of each scene in advance. I do have a structure to follow: since I write traditional mystery, my "outline" is 1. someone dies; 2. my sleuth investigates; 3. we find out whodunit, usually through a denouement of confrontation and action. I'm also weaving in the personal life of my protagonist and his friends--the part of traditional mysteries that I love the most as a reader. And since I'm writing now and not in the 1930s when the puzzle was all, I know stuff has to happen. In every chapter, I ask myself, "What happens?" It may be high drama or the planting of a plot point, but each chapter has to have some purpose. If my scene is unfolding without one, I know what I have to do.
I don't think it's a matter of what works best. Every writer's process is whatever feels comfortable to him or her. When I started writing DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER, all I had was a title. In fact, I'd had it for years and sometimes thought I'd never get to write the story. Now that it's getting published, I know I have a series, so subsequent manuscripts (I'm working on Number 4) start with a title, my protagonist and his friends, and the next stage in their lives. The title gives me theme and setting. Number 4, DEATH WILL EXTEND YOUR VACATION, is my Hamptons mystery. My characters are clean and sober, so I'm weaving gourmet cooking and eating disorders into this one. Everything else was up for grabs when I started. Now I'm halfway through the first draft, and my victims, suspects, and murderer are set. All I have to do is get them where I know they're going by Labor Day (in fiction and in real life too). Liz
I start with a rough idea of where the story is going to end up and a few thoughts as to points I want to hit along the way, and then just stumble ahead. I tried outlining once, but it just got in the way of the natural flow of the story. Things that happen along the way, the dialog, etc, tend to require flexibility of me in my writing, so an outline seems like a waste of time for me.
I outline novels. At least I did with the last two, and I probably will in some way for future ones. I'm a big-picture person, and an outline is the best way I've found to keep me on track, keep the entire project in perspective.
It's fluid - I won't make the characters do something that's against their nature - it's more deciding what happens and then allowing the characters to decide how we get there (because they probably would have anyway). If I don't outline I get overwhelmed by those kinds of details. Motivation, for instance. I analyze things to death and I start to lose the forest for the trees.
However, the more short stories I write - which I don't outline - the more I see the joy of discovering what happens as I go along. So I would stay open to writing a novel this way too. Someday.
I've had editors ask for the outline before I began writing - but when it's fiction, definitely prefer not to use it. It's so great to be surprised at the people and story as I go. When I have to think or stay on a planned path, it doesn't seem to work as well. So wondered if others had to do the outlines - I think some crime novels are so very tightly written and move so well from beginning to end in a way that builds suspense and keeps the reader guessing until almost the last page - those made me wonder if they were outlined in advance! Thanks for all the responses here. Everytime I start a project, I keep thinking, maybe I should've tried to outline this!
I seem to be in the minority camp, where I plot fairly intensively beforehand. With a short story or an upcoming chapter I'll break it down into detailed scenes, with later chapters left a little more vague, but firm enough to dictate an arc. I find it very difficult to write a scene unless I've seen it play out in my head as a movie beforehand. I also hate rewrites, so doing the editing in my head in advance saves pain later on.
Most of my 'into-the-mist' moments happen in the shower or walking to the shops, all those times I'm thinking about the story whilst away from the keyboard. This means my characters have always been dictated by plot, rather than vice versa, but within the requirements of a scene they still surprise me. The other day I wrote a scene with a girl checking an eBay auction for my detective and it was only whilst writing that I discovered she was also on Instant Messenger pretending to be her boyfriend's best friend telling him that he fancied her.
This seems to be a totally personal decision that works for people who do what works for them. Elmore Leonard and Ian Rankin, from what I've read, don't outline. C.J. Box does. P.G. Woodhouse was said to have outlines longer than his books (which is odd because they all seem to have essentially the same plots).
I learned early on that to get ideas I have to write. Outlining (even for school research papers) had to come later because those roman numerals are supposed to have thoughts next to them. I didn't know what the main points would be until I'd written for a while. Same with fiction. I usually get to a point where I start keeping a calendar, to make sure days don't have thirty-five hours worth of events in them, and I take lots of "what if" notes. But the actual outline comes (if it shows up for work at all) in the last chapters, trying to draw a map so I can be sure everything is fitting in with the best emotional punch.
It would be more efficient if I could dream up a story and outline it, then create characters and issues and etc. but that's not how my brain works. Even in school, I had to sneakily write papers ahead of time so that when it was time to hand in the outline, I could do it. If a publisher insisted, I'd still have to write the story first, then find out what it was about.
Since several here in this thread are St. Martians, that outline requirement may depend on the editor. I haven't been asked for one (yet - touch wood).
Outlining gives me a headache. I'll have some key scenes in mind, a general direction of the story, who the people are and how it ends, but nothing beyond that. If I need to give an outline, it's sparse at best, hitting just those items. Anything more detailed and I choke.
Interesting comment by Barbara making the analogy to school research papers and needing to know the thought beneath the heading in order for the heading to be meaningful. It made me realize that in complete contrast to my mysteries, I always outline in advance for teaching or talks, and once I have the headings, I feel completely prepared--I know what I know about these talking points (in contrast to not having made it up yet in fiction), and I can riff on them spontaneously till the cows come home.