Begin the Begin
When I was a college undergrad, this is how I wrote the majority of papers for my liberal arts classes (which I took a lot of, being a liberal arts kind of guy):
1) get up at the crack of dawn (or just before the dawn had begun to crack) of the day my paper was due and walk to the main computer cluster on campus (because I didn’t own a computer of my own);
2) sit down at a computer with a general idea in my head of what I wanted to write about;
3) write down the words and images that were currently stuck in my head, regardless of how directly they applied to the topic of the paper (if at all), write down synonyms and homonyms of the words, come up with puns and associations that played off of the words and images;
4) skip the introduction and start writing the meat of the essay, making it up as I go based on my general topic, dancing the prose around the words and images I’d sketched out;
5) go back and write the introduction, then write the conclusion of the essay;
6) print that sucker out, run to class, turn it in. (For the record, I usually got Bs and As on those papers.)
For my fellow tabletop RPG nerds out there, here’s how I generally prepare to run a role-playing game:
1) pick the setting and game mechanic bits I like the most;
2) write down words and images that are floating around in my head, things I’d like to throw into the game;
3) write up a bunch of NPCs with strong emotions and dire needs and goals, people who will want to either try to enlist the PCs or do their best to oppose the PCs;
4) tie in the setting and NPCs into the words, images, and general themes I have in mind;
5) get the players together to make characters;
6) throw conflict at the PCs and improvise wildly.
No, I’m not a plotter, I’m a pantser. My brain just doesn’t work well with planning. When I tried planning out essays in college (or even writing them well before they were due), I got bored to the point where I couldn’t motivate myself to write them. When I tried planning and plotting role-playing games I was going to run, they turned out to be not much fun for myself or the players (while the games where I’ve improvised wildly have usually turned out to be the most fun for everyone involved). No, not everything I’ve created by the seat of my pants has been brilliant–or even pretty good–but it’s the only way I know how to create and maintain my enthusiasm.
So as I get ready to write a novel, I’m not doing much in the way of plotting it out in advance. I have a general idea of the overarching plot, an idea of where we’re going to end up, but not how we’ll get there. I’ve got a few characters broadly sketched out, but I need to develop them more and come up with a few more characters before I’ll feel ready to throw them into each other and let the story happen. I need to sketch out the setting some more, having only very vague ideas of what the setting is like. And just as important, I need to write out the words, images, and tropes I want to throw in. (I’m a huge fan of TVTropes and a big believer that Tropes Are Not Bad.) I will probably not start writing with the beginning of the story but jump in at some point in media res, then go back and write the opening of the story when I have a better feel for how I want it to begin. My brain rarely goes from point A to point B to point C and on and on to point Z in a linear fashion, so why should I try to make myself write fiction (and prep for writing fiction) in a linear way?