Mateo, a reader in TX, recently wrote to ask if I plan my stories ahead of time of figure things out as a I go. I figured I could post my response here:
The truth is, I do BOTH. I plan my stories quite a bit ... but I'm careful only to plan certain parts (the rest I leave to discover as I write).
Before anything, I need to know my opening and closing images. These bookend images should "rhyme" with one another ... telling their own little story in miniature. You can see this most clearly in The Night Gardener: Molly and Kip are riding in a cart in both the beginning and the end … but they’re going in very different directions (even the weather is different!).
The other thing I need before I start writing is a deep sense of what is broken about my main character. I always ask: what's the missing part of them that the plot of this story can help them fix? This was huge in Sweep … which ended up being a story about an abandoned girl finding a new family. If I don’t have that element, I can’t start writing.
Beyond that, I spend lots of time drawing pictures of moments/scenes that excite me. Stuff that would go in the movie trailer. When I have about 20 of those images, I start piecing them together in a sequence that makes sense.
But that’s about it. Like any road trip, it’s important to have a sense of your general destination, but the route you take should not be over-planned. In fact, planning too much will hurt your ability to make discoveries as you write.