My writing process is sometimes (okay, a lot of the time) full of fits and starts. I'm sure you know how it goes: the ideas in our heads are sometimes stubborn to make the journey to the page. What I find the most helpful for making headway on a project is having an outline in place.
Have you ever heard the terms "plotter" vs. "pantser?" In writing forums and on Twitter, a lot of the posts I've read suggest that writers fall into one category or the other. Either you plot your book scene-by-scene and then write according to that plan, or you sit down with an idea in your head and write by the seat of your pants.
I feel like I fall somewhere in the middle; I absolutely have to have a clear idea of where the story is going, and a rough outline of what scenes and conflicts my characters will encounter before they get to the end. But if things change as I write (especially when my characters surprise me or I realize that they wouldn't make that particular choice), I give myself permission to alter the outline, and I'll often re-plot as I go along.
If you saw my previous post about the awesomeness of Dungeons & Dragons, or if you've ever DM'd/GM'd an RPG session, you'll know that you have to leave room for your players to make their own decisions, and your carefully plotted story can go right out the window when your friends realize WAAAYYY too early that the town's mayor is the head vampire, and stake him in his office before the quest was even supposed to start.
Anyway, when I first decided to tackle writing a full-length novel, I had those same old fits and starts. My hard drive houses three partially-finished books that I tried writing before I embraced my need to outline, back when I was trying to pants the whole way through. Then I stumbled across this blog post about plotting a novel, and I loved the quick outline template that I found at the bottom of the post (reproduced below for your copy/paste pleasure). The outline is based on Michael Hauge's Six Stage Plot Structure, and I find it so helpful for helping me map out the main structure of my stories.
You'll notice there are percentage markers; I treat those as rough guides, and don't really hold myself to them at all. I think those percentages actually vary a lot depending on the genre, and they don't always feel quite right for every project. For me the real strength of this tool is the way it helps me plan for rising action, complications, and periodic climaxes.
Hope you find it as helpful as I do!
ACT I – 25% of the scenes
0-10% Stage I – Setup
10% Plot Point #1/Inciting event: (The things that sets the hero on the path to trouble)
10%-25% Stage II – New Situation
25% Plot Point #2/Change of Plans: (First major event that upsets the status quo).
Act I Climax: (The event that makes it impossible to turn back now)
ACT II – 50% of the scenes
25%-50% Stage III – Seeming progress
50% Plot Point #3/Point of no return: (Learns the full scope of the problem)
Midpoint Climax: (Introduces a twist or unexpected event)
50%-75% Stage IV – Complications and higher stakes
75% Plot Point #4/Major Set back
Act II Climax: (Increase the stakes and decreases the hero’s abilities)
ACT III – 25% of the scenes
75%-90% Stage V – Final Push (Crisis. Things can’t continue as they are.)
90%-99% Plot Point #5 Climax (The action the protagonist takes to resolve problem)
99%-100% Aftermath/Wrap Up: (Ties up loose ends and foreshadows the future)