Garth Nix is the author of one of my favorite trilogies (the Abhorsen books) and he has written a concise, lucid, intelligent summary of his writing process. I recognize every stage that he talks about, and I think most writers will.
“A week, a month or even years after that initial ‘small vision’ I will usually sit down and try and work out the bare bones of the story and how I am going to tell it. I look back at the notes I’ve taken and I dredge up all the salient points I’ve been thinking about it. Then I sit down and write a chapter outline. This is quite a simple affair. I write a paragraph for each chapter, describing what happens.
I sometimes wonder why I bother to do this, as my chapter outlines rarely bear any close resemblance to the finished book. I’ve usually departed from the outline within a few chapters and by the time I’m halfway through a novel there is often almost no correlation between the outline and the actual story.
In retrospect, this chapter outlining serves two purposes. One is that it makes me think about the overall structure of the novel, which I think kickstarts some subconscious process that will continue through the writing, monitoring the narrative structure. The second purpose is that it serves as a psychological prop. If I have a chapter outline, I presume I know where I’m going, even when I don’t really. In this sense the chapter outline is like a very out-of-date map. Most of it is wrong, but there will be some landmarks on it. So if I get terribly lost in my book, I can always go back to the outline and though most of it will be wrong, I might see some important plot point or notes for a character that will help me get back on the narrative road.”
“[The writer] must be in his story but not apparently in it; the story must go his way while appearing to act itself out. For this sort of skill, the short story is the practice ground. It is so short that a flaw in the point of view shows up like a spider in the cream; it is so concentrated that it forces a writer to develop great economy and structural skill; and it is so intense that like a high-velocity bullet it has the knock-down power of a heavier missile.
And a writer must knock readers down. This is what he must constantly have in mind: to make people listen, to catch their attention, to find ways to make them hold still while he says what he so passionately wants to say. He is an ancient mariner laying hands on wedding guests, staying them with his skinny hand and his glittering eye. And though creative writing as an intellectual exercise may be pursued with profit by anyone, writing as a profession is not a job for amateurs, dilettantes, part-time thinkers, 25-watt feelers, the lazy, the insensitive, or the imitative. It is for the creative, and creativity implies both talent and hard work.”
-Wallace Stegner On Teaching and Writing Fiction
Ira Glass is an accomplished storyteller (as are all the staff members of the radio show This American Life). In the following video series, he talks engagingly and intelligently about the process of writing and telling an interesting story. And though he is talking about documentary stories, his ideas also apply to fiction.