I've been asked a number of times, especially by newer writers, if I used an outline. For short stories the answer is simple ~ no. For novels my answer is, well, kinda sorta. When I start a novel, I'm usually (note the usually) sure of two things ~ how I want it to begin and how I want it to end. The real challenge is being able to connect the two with around 300 pages.
When I began writing Silent Kill I did not use an outline. But for each character in the book, I did use a character sketch sheet. I highly recommend this to everyone writing a novel. (For anyone interested in seeing what my sketch sheet looks like, let me know by leaving a comment and I'll gladly email you one.) These not only give you a physical description of each character, but also their history and how they think. I even have character sketches for people who got left on the cutting room floor (or more accurately, erased from the computer). Who knows? They might just turn up again in another book. Unfortunately, one thing the character sketches don't do is follow a plot line.
It's a giant milestone to finish a first draft. Don't ever take anything away from that. But after the celebration is done the second phase begins ~ editing. About halfway through while reading the first draft, I realized that some things made no sense. I had done a major screwup on a timeline. One character was worried about the kidnapped victim before they should have realized the person had been kidnapped. Oops. Do you think anyone would notice? I thought a reader or two might. It took a lot of major rewriting. One thing that helped was I went back and wrote a very brief (two to three sentence) synopsis of every chapter. Besides rewriting, I also did a lot of cutting and pasting.
(Here's a little inside trivia about Silent Kill. For those of you who have read it, you'll notice every chapter starts with the day and time. Yes ~ I do believe it adds to the dramatic effect, but the real reason I did that was to help me keep the timeline in tact.)
I learned a valuable lesson ~ make an outline! I did just that for the sequel, Playing the Hand She's Dealt (soon to be released by L&L Dreamspell). Things went fine for the first two chapters. After that I started to veer off the path. Not a big problem and to be expected. But then new characters started popping up, some of them major players. Other than the ending stayed the same, there were no similarities between where I was going and my original outline. By chapter five I disregarded the outline and came up with a solution that worked perfect for me. I went back to what I did in Silent Kill and wrote a mini-synopsis of each chapter while I went. This way it held the plot together and I was free to take it in any direction my warped thought processes desired.
I have talked to some authors who live by the outline. When they veer off their original path, they have no problem adjusting the outline. I've talked to a couple others who freestyle it all the way through. More power to all of them. For me, a mini-synopsis for each chapter while I go works perfect.
What works best for you?