An earnest question: "What is your writing process like? That is, from "I have an idea!" to "Time to put this on Amazon!" how do your stories typically unfold?"
I said it deserved a more detailed answer, so here we are.
1. The idea
Truth is, for a writer, there's never any end of ideas. Ideas are not the hard part if your eyes are open. It's finding the ones that matter and doing justice to them — that's the hard part.
Over the last couple of years I moved from jotting ideas down on paper and in notebooks to keeping a wiki. This turned out to be not only a great way to preserve the ideas, but filter them and perform triage on them. Sometimes an idea that didn't seem to have any resonance when first jotted down will turn out to have thunderous importance later on. (That's assuming I bothered to go back and read it in the first place; more on that later.)
Wikis work more as a scrapbook than a notebook. If I find an image I like — for a character, or maybe for a locale — I can throw it in with no more effort than if I were just jotting something down.
What makes an idea stand out is for it to fulfill a few key attributes that makes it worthy of the time, something I've touched on before. If something comes along that fits all the criteria, then I'll put it into the queue and consider it. Setting the bar high keeps me from thrashing around with ideas that seem more interesting at a distance than they do up close.
One thing I've seen a lot of other writers struggle with is when they come up with an idea, then run into some other incarnation of it they didn't know existed. The worst version of this is when some book or movie comes out right in the middle of when they're working on the project, one which seems to poach everything they thought of.
Trouble is, this kind of thinking is delusional. What you think your thing has in common with something is not what other people might see — and then there's the fact that most of them simply don't care. The provenance of a given idea is something that only matters to students, critics, and snobs, and nobody creates to make those people happy. Your take is always going to be your take, and if you're worried about people making unfair comparisons, then delve all the more deeply into what it is you-and-only-you have to bring to the material.
There's always something you'll be bringing to the idea that nobody else does. Find it.
2. The rehearsal
Turning an idea into a story doesn't happen automatically. A lot of toss-and-test is involved, and so when I get an idea I find myself running through a whole bunch of different possibilities with it — mentally trying out one scenario after another for how a story could be derived from the idea.
l call this proces "rehearsing", and sometimes an idea only becomes a story after months or years of passive rehearsing. Once I have an idea of where things start and where they end, and what a rough run-through of the story might be like (especially in terms of what the emotional impact of it is), then it's ready to move to the next step.
At any give time I might have three or four ideas in rehearsal. That's normal, since it helps to be patient. It took easily a decade before the clutch of ideas that lay at the heart of Flight of the Vajra made it all the way out of rehearsal.
Some people get self-conscious about the idea of rehearsing. I do it anyway — it's something I feel like I can't create the story without in the first place — but I can see why it would be easy to feel inhibited about it. Roleplaying exercises or some theater lessons might lend some insight. (The more interested I get in other art forms, the more I find things I can bring back that enrich my own work.)
As a general rule, do not take a roleplaying game transcript and count that as a rehearsal. An RPG and a novel are not the same thing, do not unfold the same ways for the same reasons, and are not contrived for remotely the same ends. I know, I know — other people have already done exactly this, and for all I know you might well be able to pull it off and make me eat my words. But it's generally not a good place to start, because it keeps you that much more from finding the things in the story that's wholly yours, instead of something that's a bit of yours and a whole puzzle of other stuff from other people. (Then there's all the issues of copyright and ownership of material, and is that the kind of 55-gallon drum of worms you really want to be opening up? Probably not.)
3. The treatment
Once a candidate idea is out of rehearsal, I sit down and write an end-to-end treatment or outline of the story — a scene-by-scene synopsis, not just bullet points. (This is where I am now with Palace of the Red Desert.)
This serves two functions. It helps establish a proper throughline for the material, but it also helps me get a grip on where to put all those little moments or opportunities that bubbled up during rehearsal (some dutifully written down, some created on the spur of the moment). Think of it in the same way one furnishes an empty house, and in doing so realizes the desk belongs along the far wall and not the near one.
A lot of the life or death of a story is in those little touches, or the "cracks in the sidewalk" as a friend of mine once put it. What gives the story its color and definition often comes from those things, and so it helps to create a process to allow them to come forth and be recognized for what they are. When I found things in Vajra that looked like inconsistencies ("this wouldn't last more than a generation!"), I refocused some parts of the story to be about that very problem. That was more interesting to me than just waving my hands and insisting things were a certain way because we had a story to tell.
4. The manuscript
Once the outline survives a few read-throughs, the actual drafting process starts. This is where you again discover how, sometimes, the outline doesn't survive contact with the actual story. Things invisible from 30,000 feet up become massive obstacles — or opportunities! — that were never seen before. Some of them might derail the story or at least detour it, but that's not something to flinch from. Maybe the real story was somewhere else all along, and we just couldn't see it. The only way to find out is to plant one's butt in a chair and type.
During any of these last three stages, things come up that don't quite fit anywhere, but are worth remembering all the same. For any one project, I keep a "goodie file", a version of the "goodie board" concept that was used in Walt Disney Studios for things (design concepts, shot ideas, etc.) that were interesting but ultimately couldn't make the cut. Sometimes those things can inspire an answer to something else in a totally different vein, so they're worth hanging onto and revisiting during the course of the writing process.
One thing I've found about the goodie file after having used it across three or four different works now is, apart from remembering to use it, how surprisingly difficult it can be to detach yourself from the state of mind you had around something when you added it to the file. This particular line of dialogue was in the context of that scene; consequently, the original scene always comes back up whenever you look at it. On the other hand, if you forget about what the context was for that item, it may no longer be useful in the first place. Tough dichotomy. But you have to be willing to see these things as nothing more than raw material. Whatever the original impulse was behind them, it was a product of its moment in time, one that might no longer have a connection to anything you're doing anymore.
First draft: get it down. Second draft: get it working. Third draft: get it cleaned up. In some ways, the second draft is more important than the first, because that's where you make the decisions about what shape the story is ultimately going to take — how it will live up to the promises it makes to the reader.
Editing: I generally don't do a lot of cutting or reorganizing by that point — most of that kind of work I do in the context of the outline, unless something really surprising happens — but draft #2 is a good arena to make hard decisions about what stays or goes based on how it plays in context. Any fan of the "deleted scenes" section for a movie's extras ("cut for pacing") will understand what this means; if you don't, watch a few movies with bonuses and sense how things would have changed if the deleted bits had been left in. More is not always better.
Music: During the rehearsal and treatment processes, I'll often cobble together a playlist of music that fits the material. Most of that music is reserved for meditating on the work — the rehearsal and treatment stages, again — rather than for listening to while writing. For some reason the latter is terribly distracting to me. Instead, I have a set of playlists I use specifically for writing time — just enough music to be a sonic bed, not enough to be distracting.
5. The presentation
This only applies to things I publish myself (that might be changing soon, one hopes), but the minute a project is a "go", I'm working on the presentation for it all the way through. I've gone through dozens of cover designs for a given book before settling on one that embodies what I'm looking for and looks good.
Graphic design is not easy, and it takes quite a lot of toss-and-test to produce something that looks like it can sit on the shelf next to other books. I'm always amazed at what other people think constitutes an acceptable design — or, for that matter, an unacceptable one.
6. The postmortem
Back when I was a kid, Hitachi used to have a TV commercial that ended with the tagline "Even after it's yours, it's still ours." The gist was that even after the company sold you a TV or washer or what have you, it prided itself on circling back and figuring out what it could do better, seeing where it had made mistakes, etc.
The same goes for any book I've released. Not one of them is "perfect"; not one of them is meant to be. They get to a certain point where they meet all the requirements I had laid down for them, and then I let them out into the world where they stand or fall on their own merits. But that doesn't stop me from thinking about them — where they fell short, what they attempted to do and didn't reach. Not for the sake of fixing them up, but for understanding how, next time around, I can avoid making the same mistakes.