My first novel is completely off-the-cuff, which is unsual for me, as I like to plan things. This time last year, my husband and I were talking about short stories and things I used to write in high school. I was lamenting that I hadn't written any fiction for years and probably couldn't do it anymore. He challenged that, and I started dreaming up my protagonist, just to see if I still had an imagination. Turns out I do, and the story has evolved along the way. I'm sure to find inconsistencies during the rewrite stage, but I hope I've told an engaging tale.
I've already had some ideas for a sequel, as well as a separate Steampunk story, and I intend to do more forward planning for those.
I outline extensively, staring from a 4 point outline and working it from there. I also write with acts in mind and move towards those goals.
I lay out the four points: Opening, plot point 1 (moves the story into act 2), Plot Point 2 (moves the story into act 3), and then the close. These points become whole chapters once the writing starts. After I'm happy with those 4 points I start adding more.
Open: how things start. Uncle Owen buys the droids.
Hook: A quick summation of what this story will be about and sets the stakes. If these were a romantic comedy, the two characters would meet here. Luke discovers the hologram.
Plot Point 1: this kicks the story into gear. forces are moving into place to stop the protagonist and all the side plots are about to take over the story. Luke decides to go to Alderaan, and become a Jedi like his father.
Mid point: remind the reader of the original story, and the stakes. they have to save the princess, they are her only hope.
Plot point 2: things get out of control, The protagonist must act, now, or everything is lost. The world will be destoryed, the love of his life will leave and hate him forever, whatever the stakes are this is where they come back. They've escaped the death star, but the ship is being tracked to the rebel base. they must do something.
Dark Moment: the protagonist put into action his plan to save the world or whatever, and he failed. But wait...there's hope! If only he can.... The protagonist said I love you to the girl (for the wrong reasons, of course), and she walked away. Luke is the only one left in the trench, the targeting computer says there is not much time left (and everyone who has used the targeting computer has failed to hit the target), and the death star is clear to fire on the rebel base. Obi-wan tells him to let go and use the Force.
Close: Victory! He has won the day, gotten the girl, or whatever the rewards are. Modern story theory says he had to sacrifice something important to get this goal. In Notting Hill, Hugh Grant (a shy quiet man by nature) must live life in the spot light as Mr Julia Roberts. Luke had to sacrifice R2 but he's just a robot so it doesn't really count.
That's a basic outline for me. The middle sections between PP1 and PP2 are the sub/second plots that force the protag to run around. In star wars this would be when they're on the death star, have to escape, and fight Vader.
Can it lead to formula plots? Of course. But once you get a feel for how they're built you can discard, split up, or expand elements.
My work has been different each time. It also depends on the intended length of the work. I typically have a beginning and an end in mind, as well as a handful of scenes or moments I want to work in along the way, and then I set up a plot that lets me hit all those things. I outline it in general terms only, and then I start writing.
While I'm revising, I then add or remove bits that no longer work or need to be expanded upon. Sometimes things veer off course dramatically and it leads to a "back to the drawing board" moment or two. I like to think I'm getting better at avoiding that, but I don't think that's actually true. >.>
Plotting, for me, is an organic thing. I have an outline at the outset, usually very solid ideas of conclusion, significant events leading thereto, and general goals and secondary quests - but the story tends to develop around the characters. (This character-centric habit probably derives from a decade of keen fantasy role-playing.)
Characterization for me is vital to the development of the tale, as any group of personalities of sufficient strength to be termed 'heroes' will mould and shape the world and events around them, as well as be pushed and pulled along by them. This is the reason why I simply cannot 'paint by numbers'; that is, compose a detailed blow-by-blow treatment of exacting detail, then simply write it all out in prose. The fact is, my characters don't tolerate that kind of shoehorn treatment, and frequently revolt, wander off on tangents, or simply stage a sit-in and refuse to proceed with my lofty and cast-iron plans.
As such, I'd define my plots as a plant that is nutured, fed, allowed to creep and grow, is occasionally pruned or trimmed, and with any luck will eventually bloom into something that can be appreciated!
I prefer to plot in general terms. Create a sort of road-map to the ways the novel will travel. Usually it comes out to one page per hundred or so in the finished manuscript. The original plotting process takes a week or two of actual writing after kicking ideas about for several months at least. Then during the writing process it's all adjusted and tweaked, deleted, moved, or ignored as seems prudent. In the writing process more things are chucked and new ones added in as needed until everything works and flows smoothly.
I hope that helps.
I use the 3 Act/8 sequence screenwriting method for plotting. It's not as constricting as it sounds, and it helps tremendously with pacing. Scrivener ( http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php ) is an excellent program for plotting, as well, and lends itself to the 3 Act method, although it's strictly for Macs.
I took an online course with Alexandra Sokoloff, a fabulous author and former screenwriter. Here's the workbook based on that course: http://www.amazon.com/Screenwriting-Tricks-Authors-Screenwriters-eb.... I can't recommend Alex's class enough. She completely changed the way I write. Since I adopted this method my plots are tighter, my pacing is spot-on, and my world-building is clear and consistent, creating a very cohesive and readable story.
Both the 3Act method and Scrivener are a huge help when writing a series. It is extremely hard to write a cohesive series without extensive plotting and good record keeping.
Actually Scrivener is now available for Windows as well :)
Some people really like it but I do better with just Word. They have a free trial, though, for anyone who is interested in trying it out.
I gave Scrivener a try and found it great for edits. Its tools and how it allows you keep track of characters and arcs anw the ability to shift around whole scenes is great. But for drafts I prefer Word. It's just the whole 'blank page in front of me that's asking to be filled' thing.
I think the Scrivener for Windows free beta has finsihed through, and now it's a one off $40US fee. Other windows users may want to give yWriter a try. It's similar to Scrivener but is free.