As an architect, I apply that same basic approach to writing as I do to architectural design of a building.
What is it?
What kind of building is it? Is it a house, an office building, a factory, or a combination of several uses? The parallel in writing is what kind of story you’re going to write. Is it a romance, a murder mystery, a coming of age novel? Both architect and writer need to know that at the beginning.
Where is it?
Where a building is located affects availability of building materials, cost, climate controls needed, orientation on the site, methods of construction, and so on. The location and setting of a novel matters in same way. One additional factor facing a writer, which is generally not a problem for architects, is “when” the story takes place.
Who is going to use it?
Who is going to use the building is more or less equivalent to the characters in a novel. When designing a house, you need to know who is going to live in it―a king, an older middle-income couple, a low-income family with six children? A rich family with six children? In the same way an architect needs to know about the users of a structure, the writer also needs to know something about the characters in the novel, such as their situations, daily habits, needs (perceived and real, which are different), expectations, goals, motivations, weaknesses.
What is the layout?
The floorplan of a building is a logical progression of related physical spaces which allows movement from one to the next and provides for the activities which take place in the building. The floorplan of a building is similar to the plot of a novel which deals with what happens, how the characters react. The plot is what allows the characters to move through the time/space continum. A floor plan has to make sense in the same way a plot has to make sense.
What is the structure?
Here’s where I get into it with other writiers. Some insist that the structure is the same as the plot. I disagree.
In architecture, the “structure” is a system which combines the building materials used and the way those are put together to achieve certain kinds of spaces to accommodate how the structure will be used. For an auditorium the architect needs to use a structural system which will span large spaces. Each structural system has advantages and disadvantages and offers the architect the ability to create certain kinds of physical spaces.
The structure of a novel is not the plot, but the way in which the story is told. Just as the architect can use exactly the same floor plan with different structural systems, the novelist can tell the same plot in different ways through choice of tense, view point, narrator, and whether the story is told as it unfolds or looking back on past events, or a combination of those. Do you move in and out of viewpoint throughout, or by scene? Is there a chapter in one person’s viewpoint, the next chapter in another character’s viewpoint? It the novel told as though one is reading a diary? Is it a series of letters? Is a secondary character narrating a story about the hero/heroine? Is there an omniscient narrator? And so on.
Structure is how the story is told. Plot is what story is told.
This approach works for me. It may or may not work for other writers, but it does seem that most novelists are able to draw a parallel between writing and another activity with which they are familiar: gardening, raising children, quilting, herding chickens with an invisible rod. Whatever. Give it a try.