The time it takes for an idea to form into a full story can vary a lot. Sometimes, they jump into your head fully formed and all grown up. Other times, it can take weeks, months, or even years to fully develop to the point it's ready to be put down into words. Sometimes, you get an idea you know that you aren't ready to write effectively, so you put it aside.
When I attended Orson Scott Card's Literary Boot Camp in June of 2005, we were instructed to take five index cards and generate mini-stories. It was an exercise intended to teach the writer how to find the story ideas that surround us. Those ideas are there. They are always there. The difference between the beginner and the experienced writer is, in part, knowing how to find those ideas and turn them into stories.
During this exercise, we were to find two story ideas out of books or magazines, two out of observation of things around us, and one from interviewing a stranger. Those index cards ultimately led me to write two of my published stories, Cats and State Secrets. The idea I was most excited about, and felt had the most potential is the one I used to generate my boot camp story. That story has never been shopped because it really is chapter 1 of a novel.
That story idea was so good that Card several times asked if I brought it with me, or if I came up with it through the exercises he assigned. Absolutely it came from the exercises, and that idea alone was worth the price of the workshop.
I have kicked the tires of the novel I plan to write since the workshop. I wrote a short story of about 6000 words that I'm still shopping around. It has the disadvantage of also feeling like chapter one.
At the time of the workshop, I had just finished writing Neanderthal Swan Song for the first time. finishing that novel was really the first step into becoming a real writer. It proved I could finish a project of that size. At that time, I knew I wasn't ready to tackle a novel based upon that idea, and I estimated that wouldn't get to it for another five years.
It has been three years since that idea formed, and I do have enough experience now to write the novel. I'm also already about 23,000 words into another novel, and I would like to finish that one first. That's okay. The Boot Camp idea needs a lot of research. I've already done quite a bit of that research, but it needs more. It also needs a lot of planning to pull off.
The novel I'm working on now, Rigel Kentaurus, has two major points of view, one for each of the major story lines. Neanderthal Swan Song was quite linear, even when I redrafted the whole thing. This new one will have as many as five independent story lines and I have yet to figure out how to tie them all together at the end. I also haven't figured out the climax of the story.
That is one of the major problems in writing. The translation of the "Cool Idea-TM" into story can be difficult. It took me months and months of simmering to allow Rigel Kentaurus to gel enough for me to start writing. This new novel will likely take more.
One thing sits in my favor. Once I have the current project well-understood and I start planning the next project, my subconscious tends to start working on the new project. As I get closer to the end of Rigel Kentaurus, I have no doubt the new project will gel.
I generally work on short fiction between novels, just to keep my inventory up and keep my name circulating. I'm projecting that work on the new novel will start in the spring of 2009, depending on Rigel Kentaurus. That book has been a slog, but there have been a lot of extenuating circumstances around my progress.
Once I start drafting the next novel, I may disclose the idea and discuss how the plot for the novel develops. Suffice it to say that during Boot Camp, the reaction to the "Cool Idea-TM" was extremely positive.