These are great questions from a prospective brewer. Usually we get them after
the process is underway and the neophyte brewer is totally confused and worried.
Take notes. Brew often. This is an endeavor where there are many variables. One aspect to pay particular attention to is fermentation temp. Get this under control from the get-go and you'll have better results. Ales typically ferment in the mid to upper 60's. If your room temp is 65F and the beer is busily bubbling away- the actual fermentation temp will be up in the low 70's. This might not lead to bad results but compensation for the variance will improve your beer. Usually there's a 6-8 degree variance during the attenuative phase of fermentation.
As far as a secondary vessel it is a tool to be used. Most experienced homebrewers forgo the practice of "secondary" unless dry-hopping or adding more fermentables such as fruit. If you have a low floccing yeast then it can be used to help clear the beer.
Primary fermentation lasts as long as it takes. It is unwise to adhere blindly to recipe instructions in regard to primary fermentation times. This is where experience will come into play. Usually, for most low to mid strength ales the visible or attenuative phase will be over after three days. Fermentation hasn't ended but the bulk of it has. Wise to leave the beer on the yeast for a few more days on up to 14 in total. This may vary.
Try listening to this particular show: http://www.thebrewingnetwork.com/membersarchive/bs_bottling032210.mp3
There is a wealth of info here that will serve you well.
Good luck and welcome to the obsession.