Let me say that again - a lot.
I've probably encountered at least 20 people who have told me they are in the process of writing the next great American novel. You know how many people have actually finished their masterpiece? One.
Those I've talked to usually have a vague idea what they want to write about, but they haven't gotten to, you know, putting words on paper yet. The idea needs to be finessed, the time has never been there, the subtleties of plot points need work, etc. Since there is a great deal of confusion over making it from idea to finished product, I thought I'd share my thoughts.
A few folks who have written full length novels have given the same advice - just write the damn book. Sometimes it really is that simple. However, while that is indeed what you need to do, getting from A to B can be a whole lot more complicated if you want your words to form coherent thoughts.
For me, it always starts with the idea. How do I get my ideas? They come to me in random moments when I'm daydreaming. That's right, the same thing I used to get demerits for in elementary school is now the basis of my process. I walk my dogs for between 30-45 minutes each day, and that gives me time to think. Ideas pop into my head and I'll play around with them. Sometimes they yield an interesting storyline that I can work with, and sometimes they don't. However, without the daydreaming, the ideas never arrive, so that part is essential.
Once I have an idea that I think will work for a novel, like the one I'm about to start(no title yet - more on that later), I start an outline. Outline...that makes it sound a lot more organized than it really is. I have a spiral notebook that I'll start a kind of a chronological brainstorm, envisioning a story and jotting down key points. Some parts of the outline are incredibly detailed, especially if there's a scene or bit of dialogue that I just know is brilliant. Some parts are vague since most of my writing is spontaneous and all I need is a guide.
I never go more than a few chapters into the future with the guide. Why? Because a story will change and evolve a lot more than I ever expected when I started more than a decade ago, and anything more than 40 pages in the future is usually useless(this is not to say I don't know where a story is going, but even if I know the beginning and end of a story, I rarely know how to get from A to B...that's part of the fun).
I'll talk later about the leviathan of getting a story under control(much like a patch of weeds, it'll grow out of control and forever if I let it...stories over 100,000 words rarely see the light of day and are perceived by most people as incoherent rambling). However, once I get near the end, I use the outline less and less. After all, I know where it's headed now and the outline does me less good unless there is a specific piece I want to throw in.
After the book is done, I try to set it aside and not look at it for a while. It's still too fresh and too dear to my heart to allow for proper editing. Getting people to read it is the next part, but, as The Neverending Story said, "That's...another story."