In unrelated news, apparently it has come around again on the guitar, and it's time to talk about How One Gets Published. Which, honestly, is maybe not the best way to put it, because the object, after all, is not so much Getting Published as Building A Career As A Writer.
However, one step along that path is breaking into print, which is a major milestone in any writer's life, whether we're talking first nationally published short story or first novel, or both. For the purposes of this essay, we're going to talk about novels, with short stories being recognized as a category under that.
And the problem is that I can't give you an easy set of steps to follow to break into print as a novelist, because everybody's path is different. There is still no magic get-published button. But I can give you a series of strategies which either worked for me, or for friends.
1) Write better.
ccfinlay once said to me, "There is always room for excellence," and I think it's one of the best pieces of advice I've ever gotten. Whatever level you're at as a writer, don't assume it's good enough. I've adopted, as my personal artist's motto, two phrases. One of them is There is no such thing as good enough.
2) Develop a voice and a vision.
Art is not about following the rules. (The second part of my motto is, There are no rules. There are only techniques which work or do not work. ) Have something to say, and say it in a manner that is clearly and uniquely your own.
This takes time and practice. Garage bands all sound the same, but I can pick out an unfamiliar Pete Townshend lick in about half a bar.
The infamous million words of shit, and the equally infamous ten-year writer's apprenticeship (mine was closer to twenty, but I've always been slow), are the process by which we develop this voice. Visual artists call it confidence of line; we call it narrative authority. Only practice earns it.
Whenever they tell me children want this sort of book and children need this sort of writing, I am going to smile politely and shut my earlids. I am a writer, not a caterer. There are plenty of caterers. But what children most want and need is what we and they don't know they want and don't think they need, and only writers can offer it to them.--Ursula K. Le Guin
3) Write, edit, submit.
We all know this part, right? Write stories. Revise them. Submit them to paying short fiction markets or to non-shyster agents (or to those few legitemate novel publishers who still take slush) in a manner consistent with the guidelines of those markets and the generally accepted practices of publishing. (Most markets will have their guidelines online. SFWA also has a page where they discuss the business of writing and proper manuscript format.)
It is not necessary to build a career as a short story writer to sell novels, but a few nice short story sales never hurt. On the other hand, my novel sales really drove my short story career into the major markets: before my first novel sale, almost all my short fiction sales were to teeny tiny indie magazines. (I love teeny tiny indy magazines. I still read slush for one.)
4) Build a peer group.
Find some like-minded writers who are on their way up and stick with them. Learn the ins and outs of the business from them. Share what you learn with them. Compare notes, share experiences, talk about editors and markets.
You need each other: trust me on this. Good places to look are serious online writer's forums (Absolute Write, Baen, Forward Motion) and online workshops (Critters, the OWW). Be aware, however, that there's a lot of misinformation out there. Check what people tell you.
Also, this is the most effective form of networking. No, really. As you become a more accomplished writer, you will find your peer group expanding kind of naturalistically. Knowing people as people is far more effective than trying to insinuate yourself into their circle for business purposes. (They can generally tell if that's what you are after.)
5) Get stubborn.
I first submitted a story to Asimov's when I was a sophomore in high school. I finally sold them one when I was 35. My first published novel was my fourth finished novel--and not the first version of that foruth novel either--and there had been many, many false starts before.
Persistence is vital.