How writers write varies on the writer. There's no one right way to craft a story, but after plenty of trial and error, I've found a method that works for me, and I'm sticking to it.
Until you find your own methods, feel free to take what you can use from mine.
I highly recommend reading all of the writing guides on my WRITER BOOKSHELF page. Specifically, after you write a first draft and before revisions. It'll help hone your editing skills.
From story concept to polished manuscript
* When a story idea hits, I grab a spiral notebook and start free-flowing ideas : anything goes! This is a chance to think outside the box and explore all possibilities. Draw pictures, jot character ideas, settings, premises ... let it all hang out.
* Once my brain's vomited, so to speak, I start organizing ideas. Every story needs a beginning, middle, and end. I create a loose chapter outline to get started, then go back and fill in more details later. At this point, characters are a must. I spend a long time developing my characters--who I want them to be and what makes them unique. If possible, I find pictures from the Web and print them off and doctor them up with markers to make them more like I envision.
* Characters need goals, quirks, fears, hopes, dreams, flaws, backstory. All things I need to know before I start writing. I like to figure out how they fit into their normal world vs. how they fit in the new world they're thrust into.
* I also spend a lot of time world building. How do I want my setting to appear? What unique surroundings will I offer it? How will my characters react to these settings?
* Once I have my characters and settings down, I tweak my plot. I use the Plot Whisperer's worksheet to figure out all the main points. This is essential to having a story readers will connect with. I can't recommend it highly enough. You can google the Plot Whisperer's YouTube videos and they're all free.
* At this point I'm ready to begin my draft. I keep my "story bible" nearby all the time so I can jot or tweak any sudden ideas. I know what I want from my story and characters, but I also know I can't force anything. I draft with the knowledge anything can change and I can always deviate from the pre-plot. Mostly though, my story bible keeps me on track so I can finish a draft within a few weeks. I write the first draft fast, and without looking back at what I've already written. Most important thing at this point, is getting the story out.
* By knowing what needs to happen in each chapter, I have reachable goals while I write. But I don't always know how my characters will get me there. This is where the "pantsing" part of being a writer comes into play. Plotting doesn't have to take the fun out of writing, it merely focuses in on the target. I never know what exactly what'll happen in each chapter til I'm writing it, so there are plenty of surprises along the way. Let me add, my fist drafts are very messy, but that's okay, because the harder work will come with edits.
* After my draft is complete, I celebrate. Whether it be a special dinner, or an evening out, a reward is due! It's a big deal to finish a novel... and hard work! But the work is hardly over. I let the story sit a few days, meanwhile contacting my critique partner and beta readers to let them know a new story has been finished. I set up exchanges, then go back through the story and read it like I would a new book, smoothing out areas that I rushed through, and checking for plot and character consistencies. There's always LOTS to fix, and it's hard to be objective when I'm still so close to the story.
* That's where the waiting for critiques comes in. While I'm waiting for the feedback, I read a writing guide, or a bestselling novel to get my mind in the right place. Then, once I have feedback from trusted and compatible partners, I know for sure what needs to be fixed. Usually it's culprits like pacing, cheesy dialog, unclear motivations--all things that can be fixed. Often I have to switch chapters around, delete scenes, combine characters, etc.
* Sometimes the revisions are so massive and so daunting, I need a month away from the story just to let the ideas marinate and form my plan of action. When I feel ready and can't keep myself away any longer, I go in with the hacksaw and a fresh eye and get to work.
* After revision purgatory ends, I send the story to my kindle and read it like I would any other book. This allows me to catch plenty of errors and/or plot holes, crappy dialog, etc. I read it fast so I can stay on top of the plot and character consistencies and make notes on index cards. Then I go back through the actual manuscript and fix.
* Time for more beta readers and/or agent feedback. Send off shiny new story! Hopefully at this point any edits will be minor fixes and not total rewrites. But you never know. Important thing to remember is ANYTHING can be fixed. Sometimes we have to give ourselves the chance to come to terms with out story's imperfections.
* If readers aren't connecting with the characters, that's a big problem that requires a lot more in depth work. So I highly suggest taking time to figure out characters first and foremost. You really can't do too much in terms of fleshing them out. Readers need to see them in action in their normal world first so they can relate to them. Doesn't matter how stellar the plot is, if the characters aren't fantastic, the story will never rise above mediocre.