E. L. Doctorow compared writing to driving. You know where your destination is, but you can only see as far as your headlights. At first I thought this promoted flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writing. But I don’t really think it is. I think it is true we can’t always see how things are going to come together as we are writing, entirely. However, there should be (has to be) a destination. Perhaps, you will find a shortcut, or you will take the scenic route. Perhaps you will near the destination and realize that you ought to stop somewhere else.
But you’ve got to know where you are headed. Effective businesses have a mission statement, a primary goal. Effective people have goals for their lives. A good book has to have a goal too.
Knowing where you are headed is key before you set out to tackle anything you write. Perhaps you’ve got to write a little to figure it out, or do some writing exercises or brainstorming. Sometimes you’ve just got to sit back and think about it. In fact, I would argue that one of the most important parts of the writing process is simply thinking about the story, sorting things out in your head a bit before you set out on the journey.
You could just start writing, just like I could just start driving down the road and seeing where I end up. But most likely I would waste a lot of miles and gas. What a shame to write half a book and realize you’ve got to go back and totally re-start the story, because the direction has changed! Believe me, I have been there. It is tough to throw something out you’ve worked hard on. I could have saved hours upon hours if I had thought things through more before writing.
Don’t neglect the planning time. Spend some time with it, have fun with it, embrace it. Think about what your characters are like and what the story-world is like. Jot down a chapter if you need to. But figure out what the real story is, and figure out what the goal, the endpoint, of the story is. You will discover all kinds of things along the way, but if there is no destination, it will be wandering and rambling.
Begin with the end and then move forward. Every scene you write will be more effective the first time around, and you will assuredly reach the destination faster.