Writing a novel is a very complicated process. It demands at least some foreknowledge of the plot, the structure must be established prior to the first draft, and each chapter should be outlined before one actually begins to write. While many prefer to write a novel in a less restrictive way, I have found that a meticulous and thorough period of preparation is necessary for me to complete the best first draft I possibly can. In fact, prepping the story is, in my mind, the most important period in a novel's creation.
I begin each novel, of course, with an idea - a concept. I am aware of the setting, major characters, and a few significant pieces of the plot, but the concept must be elaborated upon before I can simply type away on my laptop. Once I have that concept, I tend to focus my imagination around it for a few days or a week. I try to feel the attitude of the story, enter the perspectives of the characters, envision certain chapters and scenes, and decide upon the story's general direction.
Once the direction, characters, and the details of the concept are established, I get to work on an outline. I always start with the first chapter in the most basic way. I simply state in a sentence what that chapter contains. Let's look at an example from The Breacher - my favorite chapter when Nathan saves Dakota from the Screechers in the Reaches. The summary for this chapter would be a mere "Nathan runs from Screechers/Saves Dakota/Jumps off waterfall". I do this for each of my chapters until the last. This is where the bulk of the plot is created. Here, I can develop the plot and subplots around the central direction of the story without being delayed by the details.
When every single chapter has been summarized, I do a second run-through in which a full paragraph is written about each scene. The paragraph includes the fundamental events, some of the primary dialogue, and the purpose of the chapter. This is done for all chapters.
Following the second phase of plotting, I spend a much longer period of time elaborating upon each chapter once more. This run-through, however, does not involve a single paragraph. From start to finish, the whole chapter is described in detail. I follow the action and most of the dialogue in a very basic, very simple style. Back to our Breacher example, I wrote something along the lines of: "Dakota runs from Screechers. Porter wants to find a cave, and they do, but it is a dead-end. Nathan proposes they hide, and they wait behind the foliage as Screechers begin entering the cave. Nathan closes his eyes..."
This outline is what I take with me to the first draft. As I begin to actually write each chapter, I paste its outline beneath and follow along as if it were a manual. Referencing The Breacher's example again, I would fully write Dakota's flee from the Screechers, describe in greater detail and complexity the stone pass and the cave, and fill-in the dialogue between the team.
I do this for each chapter until the first draft is complete. Once I have that foundation, the real battle begins: editing... But that's a whole other story.