Worry less about story development than about vivid characters. Find a premise, a simple but strong story idea, then give more than a little thought to what the story is about, not just in terms of plot but as regards theme. BY THE LIGHT OF THE MOON, for instance, is about responsibility, the burden and the beauty of taking responsibility for others. ODD THOMAS is about perseverance in the face of suffering and loss, and about how hope gives us the strength to persevere. Once you understand what central theme (and there may be numerous secondary themes) is the obvious outgrowth of your initial story idea, you're ready to think about your lead characters. What kind of people do you need to properly explore the central theme inherent in your story? When I made Dylan my lead in BY THE LIGHT OF THE MOON and gave him an autistic brother for whom he had given up anything like an ordinary life, the female lead evolved in minutes as someone who would at first be in dramatic conflict with Dylan and his worldview but whose arc of self-discovery would lead her to understand that she was, at heart, more like him than not. Once you have a theme that enlarges the simple story idea, once you have the bare bones of the characters who will best express and explore all the many ramifications of that theme, you need to trust in those characters and give them free will. (See my answer to the second question herein.) They will develop your story for you as you follow them on the path that their intellects, emotions, and values will logically take them. If they have no values, if your story has no thematic content, then you will be best served by mechanically cobbling together a plot outline and hoping that pace or novelty will be enough to carry the day. Both approaches work, but I seldom find that the second produces a book worth reading.
Question: When you were getting started as a writer, how many rejection letters did you receive? Mary, Orange, CA
I sold the first short story I wrote-"Kittens"-then wrote several that didn't sell before getting back on track. My first three novels never sold. I think I collected approximately 75 rejections -and then never got another. Perhaps you see why perseverance is one of the values my fiction most often touts!
GENERAL INTEREST QUESTIONS
Question: I'm always amazed by the names you give your characters. How do you come up with them? Johnny, Heist-op-den-Berg, Belgium