I wrote Genome, in screenplay form, without outlining first. It was a conscious decision based some reading I had done and the fact I had no idea what I was doing. How hard can it be to 'let the characters tell you what happens' like some of the pundits proclaim?
For me it was pretty darn hard. I persisted because I did not want to waffle back and forth worrying about the writing process rather than just writing. I can be distracted too easily. I need to set a path and follow it. Then look back and see if I need to try another path next time.
The retrospective of 'let the plot flow' didn't work so well for me. Granted there were times when I didn't stop writing for several hours because I got a vibe about the character(s) and what they should do next. But most of the time it was grinding, frustrating work to try and squeeze the plot line out them.
I stuck to it and managed to complete the work in less than a year. I lost track of the number of rewrites, tear this out and replace that character and oops that won't work now, sessions I had. You're going to have those anyway but without an outline to help me out, I spent lots of time rereading from the beginning to refresh my memory on 'the story so far'.
I know a large part of the problem was that I was a novice writer and didn't have the writing experience to draw on. The more writing you do the more discipline you develop; no I can't stop now for TV, I have to finish this scene or I'll lose the flow.
So, the first thing I decided to do when writing the novel was to create an outline and the cast of character descriptions from the screenplay. I didn't care how many chapters the outline had, I was more trying to get a feel for the pace of the story. I have my own opinions on 'story arc' and the 'three act structure', but I think for me these guidelines generally seem to work well. The web already has enough links to these concepts, I'll let you find your favorite.
The outline took me about a week to flesh out and it was an eye-opener when I had finished. Calling it 'weak' would have been generous. As I've said, for a screenplay maybe this is acceptable, there is a lot more that happens after your screenplay is 'optioned' and a lot of times it's not done by the original author but someone who specializes in rewrites. That's my excuse and I'm sticking with it.
For a novel I was in bad shape though. I had maybe 13 chapters of definable, cohesive story plot and a sad, incomplete cast of characters. The plot was still ok (not good) but it was pretty boring and the cast was way too small. And there weren't enough 'cool' concepts in the story. Like the sexy AI I really expanded on the novel. 'Pip' (the AI) was in the screenplay but I had not taken the time to make her fun and interesting. And yes, it's a 'she'.
The outline showed me that I needed to add subplots, better visuals, better interaction between the characters, deeper immersion into the story and a lot more dialogue. I even found errors in the screenplay where I changed character names mid-story and then changed them back again. My villain was way too obvious from the beginning as well. I don't think a story has to have a 'trick' at the end or a surprise ending, but I pretty much beat the reader over the head and pointed a neon sign to the bad guy before you even got started. Not good.
I continued to work on the outline for weeks until I felt I had a much better story to tell. I also created a section at the top for the cast of characters, including names, features like hair color, height, what they liked to wear, where they came from, personality 'quirks', etc. That really helped me keep track of my little troop in my mind and it was a ready reference when I forgot or wanted to change something.
Once I had the outline to my liking I started writing. Bear in mind that I was constantly referring to and modifying the outline and characters as I went along. But this was easy now, I had it in front of me at all times.
One of the things I'm going to do next time is find and cut out images of the characters from magazines and add them to my desk wall. I'm a visual guy and I think this will help me identify my cast more easily and keep on track in the story. At least once in the original story I had mixed up two friends by name and by hair style. That kind of thing can kill a readers enthusiasm for your story.
More the cast of characters next, I think.
Long live ePub!
P.S. 'Genome' is available in ePub format at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Links are in the upper left.