I used to just roll with it. I'd start with a blank page, one simple idea, and type until it became a story. Once I used a bingo chip sitting on the table beside me as a starting point. These kinds of exercises are always fun when you want to get your creativity flowing but I've realized that this method works best for short stories, but not novels.
I need to plan my novels. I don't want to be formulaic but for the sake of sanity, a formula for writing a novel is helpful. In my masters course, our tutor showed us how to structure a novel with mini-climaxes. The story works up to something, there's the climax, it levels out, then it works up to a new climax. (Something like this below)
I spent last January to May rewriting my first 20,000 words three times because I still hadn't figured out the right plot. I'd tried a bunch of different ways to plot my novel, including writing plot points into a calendar. E.g. "On Thursday, Dec 14 - This happens" and "Two weeks later on Dec 24 - This happens." I needed a visual timeline structure to organize the ideas in my brain.
This is what I knew:
I knew my story's timeline went from August to December
I knew my main character's motivation changes at one specific climax in October
I knew as I wrote that new ideas would come to me, so my plot points needed to be loose enough to welcome changes
I made a calendar outline first, but that was too formulaic and gave me zero room for changing anything. I decided to combine the calendar outline with a subway map-style and the mini-climax outline. I've made a mock-up here to show you what I mean by using the Disney's "The Lion King" plot. *This isn't to say that these are the "climaxes" in "The Lion King", they are just plot points. I liked the visual of the incline structure better than a horizontal structure—this design works best for my creative process.
Once I finish writing everything that happens in the month within my novel, I print it out, mark it with a pen, and then I edit/add pieces on the computer. Then I move on to the next month and do the same thing. I've also got each month as its own document and I keep track of how many words per document in an excel sheet.
I have a huge-ass binder full of timelines, characters, locations, character's work and school schedules, character backstories, and maps of Edinburgh. I also use Pinterest boards for character and locations inspiration. Once I start writing, I'm able to remember little characterizations about each character, how they'd react to situations, and their way of speaking. I remember to put in foreshadowing clues to the major climaxes or I make note of a clue idea I have and I slip it in later during the editing process.
learn to love the process
Writing a novel is draft, after draft, after draft. You need to learn to love the editing process. If your plan is to write something and make it perfect the first go, you're kidding yourself. Your idea will change, the plot will change, the characters' motivations will change. Taking a pen to my work is my favorite part.
I'm not a writing machine. I can write consistently, but I do get stuck. When I get stuck, that's normally when I print out my work and read through it. I also like going for a walk, cleaning the flat, or working out and just thinking about what I want to write next. I can't create anything when I'm looking at a blank Word Document, thinking "Just write something!!!"
Some of my peers can't believe I write 2,000 words a day, others can write 5,000 words a day. I used to think 1,000 was a lot per day and now I can write 2,000+. I've been writing creatively for over 10 years now and studying it for 6. It gets easier and you'll be blown away by what your imagination is capable of.
It's officially the start of my second year and I've got 52,000 words right now. Technically I have 18,000 - 48,000 more to go but with editing and re-writes, overall I'll be writing close to double that. But I love it. I love all of it. I think the goal in life is to love what you do, isn't it? If you are a writer, you know how I feel. If you're interested in writing, don't hesitate. Just get a pen and paper or your computer out and start. The magic of creating your own work is that you can do whatever you want with it.
I hope this helps you get inspired and understand a bit more about what I've been doing this year.