Lately, as my friend J.M. Martin will attest, it usually takes me a few tries before I get a story right. And even then, it is hardly right. But it is at least good enough to submit by that time. Unfortunately, the only way to shorten that time--to really get to the meat of the story after some lengthy experimentation--is just to practice and get better.
A recent example. I labored over a 7,000 + word story that started out with a group of adventurers standing in front of a cave, about to embark upon some dungeon capers. It wasn't a horrible idea, specifically because I wanted to work on character interaction, dialogue and flow. It was an exciting story with the typical dungeon humor, two battles and an interesting ending.
But something bothered me about the story. For one, the length. Nothing wrong with a longer story--if you can get past the cliche premise--but it just seemed like I was beating around the bush about something. My character interaction was fun, but it just did not seem honest...it did not make me feel anything. One of the characters screamed at me "you've only just scratched my surface!"
Who am I not to listen?
So I started again...right in the middle of the story, with a burst of revelation from one of the characters. I then found it necessary to have only one battle sequence, and my screaming character was next appeased. I ended up with a new story that was around 3,500 words; it was more serious and more real to me.
I realized then that the original story was simply an exercise to get to know my characters better. What a way to do that! Hours and hours spent writing only to realize that it needed to be redone.
The lesson is that there is nothing wrong with spending some time with the story in your head before spouting words. Mediate on it, sleep on it, or do whatever it takes to sniff out the real story.