Read various interviews with different writers and you'll find that there is no hard and fast rule when it comes to preparing the ground for your novel. Some plan meticulously, write notes, chapter layouts, character boigraphies, back stories for the alternative or future universes they are creating. Others work more loosely, planning a little, but letting their characters shape the story rather than making them conform to a set path.
I fall into the second category. I started with a rough idea of the kind of story i wanted to tell, where and when it was going to be set, a couple of characters and took it from there. All very loose and laid back. I got about a hundred pages in and realised that the characters weren't working. I wasn't happy with the story that was unfolding around them, so i stripped the manuscript back to about page twenty, dropped one of the main characters and completely changed the shape and feel of the story. It took a lot to delete those eighty or so pages. But one of the 'rules' of writing is not to be too precious about what you have written. Inevitably you are going to have to edit your manuscript, take bits out, change bits around. That beautiful passage that you sweated over, that scented, sculpted adonis of prose that was going to win you literary accolades just doesn't fit in with the story you are trying to tell. It has to be cut. You'll be devastated, but in the long run (cliche count: 3) your manuscript will be all the better for its exclusion.
I've gone off track a little. Maybe its because i know i have that daunting task ahead of me. I'm already mourning the loss of certain passages and snatches of dialogue. So planning comes down to a couple of things really. Firstly, the type of novel you are trying to write. Crime novels and Thrillers need planning, every twist must have a viable reason, every character must be in the right (or wrong) place at the right time. Jeffery Deaver, a bestselling crimewriter said recently in an interview in Writing Magazine (Nov 2010):
'When i come up with an idea for a book, that is just the starting gate. I then spend a great deal of time elaborating on that by doing an outline and i don't write a single word of the prose until the outline is completely finished.'
Secondly, the kind of person you are. I'm the kind of person who doesn't read instructions. My planning was fairly loose. It got me into trouble at the outset as i've described, but as the manuscript grew from those ashes it gave the characters room for development and threw up some unexpected outcomes. It meant i could lie in bed at night and imagine the character's next steps and how they would react in a particular situation. It gave me total freedom. The downside is that it feels as though i've been writing this first draft forever.
This of course is just my experience as someone who has not yet published a novel. To get a broader view read some interviews with published writers and see what they say about the writing process. They're the ones doing it on a regular basis and getting paid for it.
So what did i start with? Well, i knew my main character, i knew my setting and i knew i wanted to write 90,000 words. I've made notes as i've gone along. Little sketches of thought, an intersting scenario, a reminder of the loose ends and plot threads that need pulling together. But these are changing all the time, not massively, but subtley.
And if i could start all over again? I would probably write an outline. It would still be brief and it wouldn't be legally binding, but it might help me get the story down on the page a little quicker. At the end of the day (cliche count: 4) it's up to you, because only you know how you work best. You may be a planner, you may plough straight in. Whatever you do just remember to give your characters space to breath and to grow. After all it's as much their story as it is yours!
By the way, 4,500 words to go (ish). I'm getting nervous.