When I first started writing novels I thought that you start at the beginning and write your way to the end, and that’s exactly how I wrote my first one. It didn’t turn out so well. The characters did all kinds of cool stuff but the plot spun in weird circles and I absolutely hated the ending. Also it was a little short to be called a novel. I decided that it wasn’t worth saving.
My second try I decided that I needed to do a bit more preparation. I made an elaborate plan for a mystery/romance. Then I wrote it. Once written I decided it was pretty terrible and in the rewrite I ended up taking out the whole mystery sub plot and just focused making the romance seem plausible. This is actually what I consider to be my first real novel because I did all the steps: from writing it, through editing, and its now in a finished state that I can proudly let other people read. I will admit it’s a very odd story and everyone who has read it says “I kept expecting something to happen.” which is not what I consider the highest of praise.
I read an interview with Terry Pratchett where he talks about how his stories are written in the same way a climber might toss grappling hooks over to nearby peaks and haul himself across the fog beneath him. I took this to mean that he has some solid plans for his books but he also lets the journey lead him where it will.
My third novel (or my second depending on how you count) was written with an amalgam of the two former writing ideas. I did work out a plot but I let the characters change and grow as I wrote the story. I think because of that this story has a lot more promise than my first two. Edits continue and I find myself noticing how I could have made things easier on myself, and so on my next book I’m being a bit more careful about making sure my characters are doing things for the right reasons that the plot makes sense before I actually sit down and write scenes.
I’ve read about people who plan everything out and they write great novels, and I’ve read about people who never plan anything and just wing it. In the end I don’t think I can emulate either style, it’s a balance for me.