Yesterday, I went to my home county's annual literacy luncheon. This is actually the first time I've attended an event like this, and everything was beautiful and sparkly and the cheesecake was to DIE for. . . .
The keynote speaker was Nicholas Sparks. He didn't go into too much detail about writing/the writing process (he mostly talked about his books/life), but he confessed that he doesn't do a whole lot of outlining before he begins writing a book. He did share, however, the things he needs to know before he sits down and actually begins writing.
First, he needs to know who the main characters are (including age). He needs to know how they meet. He needs to know what is going to keep them apart (the conflict). And finally, he needs to have an idea of how the story is going to end.
Even if you're not a "plotter," this is a great foundation on which to build.
Every book I've written is the result of a different process. I do like a general outline, but I've followed some more than others (I like to let my characters take over when they can).
Since it was my first attempt at urban fantasy, The Guardian was actually a "fly by the seat of my pants" story. I was just meeting these characters, and I didn't know what would happen (just that it would end badly). I let the plot unfold the way it wanted.
I approached Vendetta differently. I already knew my characters, that they had a history together, and I knew I had to build on that. Since Vendetta was the middle of the trilogy, I also knew things were going to get worse before they (hopefully) got better. I actually wrote Vendetta scene by scene, then re-ordered it in subsequent drafts. In fact, the "love scene" is the first scene I wrote, even though it appears in the next to last chapter.
For the final book in this trilogy, I find that I'm plotting more than ever. There are SO many loose ends to tie up (and not just which guy Genesis will choose—or if she even CAN choose them). I sat down two or three weekends ago and filled about 20 notebook pages with ideas, or things that could happen, and focused on how the story would all come together. By the time I was through, I ended up with 85 strips of paper that tell me exactly how the story will unfold (this might change during the drafting process, but the skeleton of the entire book is definitely in there).
The point is: you may have to approach each book you write differently. And that's okay. If you're a hardcore plotter and find yourself letting the story tell itself, go for it. If you're stuck to an outline, keep at it. When it's not working, don't force it. Be open to trying new things.
And, according to Nicholas Sparks, it's never a bad idea to know who your characters are, how they meet, what will keep them apart, and how it all ends. Once you're there, it's time to start writing.