Okay, if I really wanted to start at the beginning, I'd start with where ideas come from, right? Wrong. Because if you have to ask where to get ideas, I'm thinking you want to be a writer, as opposed to wanting to write. Most of us who do this a lot have ideas popping up all over the place. Goofing off with a writing prompt for the sake of the exercise: boom, why isn't this a book? Eavesdropping on the Metro. Dreaming. Whatever. You have ideas. The hard part is beating the amorphous bits of mental fog into a story someone will pay money to read, or at least will read voluntarily. Someone besides your mother.
Thus, I'm going to assume that we have picked one idea to run with. We are ready to start solidifying the fog. Right away we face the first big decision. No, not 1st person or 3rd, not genre (well, okay, maybe genre). But the BIG question: do I outline this first, or fly by the seat of my pants and just start writing?
To digress: when writing papers for school, an outline is invariably a good thing. Otherwise your essay will wander all over the map and you are apt to get a bad grade (yes, I do have an outline of sorts for this essay, though it is all in my head). For those of you who have to write non-fiction for school, I'll share an approach that used to work pretty well for me back in the day, when I had no idea what I wanted to say and a paper due at 9 a.m. the next day. I'd make an outline. Often it would at first look like this:
Then I'd stare at my notes some more, stare at the typewriter (I wrote many of my college papers before the PC was common), and maybe add a line under Introduction. Something like a thesis statement: This paper will demonstrate that Shakespeare was intoxicated when he wrote Timon of Athens (another note: this is a very poor thesis statement. One would hope that by the time the paper is turned in the thesis will be a little smarter, even if it says the same thing). Maybe then I could dream up a couple of points to write under "Body" to suggest how I'd do that. Then I might make a couple of sub-points. And so on, hoping that each thing I wrote would give me another idea. Eventually I would have enough notes that I just needed to turn them into coherent prose and I'd have an essay.
That is not a bad way to write a five-paragraph essay. Maybe it's not even a bad way to write a novel. I wouldn't know. I haven't tried.
When it comes to writing a story, I most likely have a character or situation that wanders into my mind and won't leave, so I start writing about him, her, or it. The idea takes hold and I keep writing. Somewhere in there I get a vision of more or less where the story/book is going to end. I suppose that you could say that at that point I have something much like that initial outline--I know where I'm starting (because I already started there, though sometimes I have to go back and find a better place to start--the outline may tell me that), and where I'm ending, and I know that a bunch has to go in between. But I have never yet, at this point (let alone before writing at all), stopped and written down an outline.
If I get really stuck, and the story is going nowhere--or everywhere, which is just as bad--that's when I start to think about outlining for real. My current work in progress, a somewhat parodic fantasy, has an outline now, with some detail for the first few chapters (which I'd already written when I did the outline), then a list of chapters, each of which says "Another adventure along the way" (adventures to be decided on when we come to them). Finally we get to a couple of chapters at the end and there's a little more detail, because I know where I want to end up, assuming a dragon doesn't carry my characters off so far they can't get back.
That's about as detailed as I've ever gotten with an outline at this stage in my work. I was inspired by reading bloggers who talked about how helpful it was to have created detailed outlines before starting NaNoWriMo. I'm not sure my level of outlining is what they were talking about.
Here's where I get to something that might be useful:
Even if I write the whole rough draft with no outline and no idea where I'm going (as I did with my first two novels, one of which took 15 years to write and is so scattered I can't even find all the pieces), somewhere in the editing stage I write a detailed outline of the novel I've written. Chapter by chapter, scene by scene. Not only does creating the outline give me a great tool for revisions (and for summaries/query letters), but by the time I've done it I really know where the story hangs together and what makes no sense. This has been particularly helpful with Murder Stalks the PTA. It is extra important with a mystery to make sure all the clues are present at the right time and place.
Once the outline is made, I can use it when revising as a place to dump all the comments like "this scene stinks!" and "????". Then I can refer again to my annotated outline, rewrite some more, revise the outline to match the new version of the story. . . you get the picture.
Some of you may be thinking by now, "wouldn't it have been easier to write the outline first and not have such a messy draft?" That's an understandable attitude, and it might work for you. It doesn't for me. I like to jump into the story and let it meander a bit, and I'm not very good at following directions.
Even my own.
That's my two cents on outlining, which turns out not to have come first after all. What's yours?