STEP ONE. Write a great book. Reach The End. Weep over the magnitude of your accomplishment, knowing millions of chumps go through their lives thinking, "You know, I'd really like to write a book someday," but die before this mythical "someday" ever arrives. Then take this precious literary treasure—one of the great achievements of your life—and edit it until you loathe the very sight of it. By the time you are done, it should be roughly 90,000 words, plus or minus 20,000 words, and be devoid of misspellings, typographical errors, and sentences that could only be diagrammed with a lasso and/or chainsaw. High-level editors do not have the time to take a train wreck of a manuscript, even one with a nugget of a great idea in there somewhere, and turn it into a readable novel. They expect you to be able to do that part, too. Yes, this is the hardest and most important of the Seven Steps. That's why it comes first.
STEP TWO. Repeat Step One as many times as necessary until you get it right, realizing that it will probably take many years of thankless toil, and that you will probably end up throwing away your first manuscript. And your second. And possibly your third. Virtually all authors I've met, even the world-famous ones, have at least one unpublished manuscript in their desk drawer. Two of my best author friends have eight—but, damn, did their ninth knock it out of the park. Remember: we're not talking about being published by a company that uses duct tape for binding. We're talking about the five big New York publishers and a handful of highly respected independents. And while there may be times during this process when you will think these companies are run by capricious trolls whose misery making machines are powered by the tears of unpublished writers, this is actually just their ancillary business. Their primary product is quality books. You have to keep the faith that if you write one, they'll be quite eager to publish it. Really.
STEP THREE. Ask yourself, "Do I need an agent?" And then realize that since this is the Guide to Being Well Published, the answer is: "Yes, Pumpkin, you do." Publishing companies love authors like they love their children—their unruly, sensitive, difficult children. They treat us accordingly. (And, yeah, okay, we deserve it sometimes). This means they don't let us sit at the adult table when the Important Conversations are happening. Our agents do instead. In fact, it's typical for editors to make an offer for your book without ever having met you. But you can be sure they've met your agent. It's crucial to have the right one. (NOTE: Reputable agents will take a 15 percent commission of whatever you earn and don't make a penny unless you do. Many of the best are members of the Association of Authors Representatives and follow this canon of ethics http://aaronline.org/canon. If one of them asks for money upfront, run away screaming).
STEP FOUR. Ask yourself, "Okay, so how do I find the right agent?" The answer starts with Publishers Marketplace. It'll cost a few bucks to register, but your writing career is worth it. PM reports most of the deals between the authors you esteem and the publishing companies you dream of, and it tells you which agent negotiated the contract. It even tells you approximately how much money the deal is worth (NOTE: If you are getting into writing as a get-rich-quick scheme, I suggest a more lucrative choice. Like panhandling. It takes most authors many years and many books before they can make a living at this. NOTE, PART II: While PM offers a glossary for the deals it announces, where anything from $1-$49,999 is a "nice deal" and $50,000 to $99,999 is a "very nice deal" and so on, I suggest familiarizing yourself with this real world guide by John Scalzi). Spend some time searching deals, looking up who represents your favorite authors, getting to know which agents are having success selling books that are sort of like yours, and then...
STEP FIVE. ... Write an individualized, one-page query letter to each of the agents you've identified, asking them to represent you and saying why you picked them out of the teeming gaggle of agents running around this world. The smartest piece I've read on this subject was posted by the very talented Marcus Sakey, and I'll link it here . The important thing to remember is the purpose of the query letter. You are trying to compel the agent—who may get dozens of other queries this week—to want to read your manuscript. Therefore, you need to hook them with your query letter the same way you hook a reader with the first few pages of your book. If I had to go back and write a query for my debut novel, it would say something like: "Investigative reporter Carter Ross is trapped on the fifteenth floor of a secure federal office building, having unlocked the secrets of a major drug smuggling operation. He is being systematically hunted by an armed psychopath. And all he has for protection is a ficus plant."
STEP SIX. If all goes well, one or more agents you query will request to see the full manuscript. And then one or more will ask to represent you (recall, I began this step with "if all goes well"). The right agent has two key qualities. The first is that they're influential, which means they come from a reputable agency, and/or they represent other successful authors, and/or they've signed deals for books like yours with editors in your genre. The second is that they're passionate about you and your writing (and, yes, the good ones give editorial feedback—it's a big part of what makes them worth that 15 percent). Remember that while you need to have a good working relationship with this person, you are not looking for a best friend. You are looking for someone who has a good idea about which editors are right for your work and how best to sell it. Once they begin pitching, be patient. This can be a slow process (if the publishing industry were in charge of evolution, we'd all be battling Velociraptors on our way to the grocery store). And while no agent is equipped with a magic wand—even the best strike out sometimes—you will hopefully soon be offered...
STEP SEVEN. ... A publishing contract. The deal will be expressed in the form of a number of books—one or two is typical—and an amount of money. The money is an advance on royalties. And, yes, size matters. A lot. Publishing People try to deny this, and they certainly have examples to support the notion that a book with a small advance can become big (see: Help, The; among others). But in general there is a direct relationship between the how much a publisher spends to acquire your book and how incentivized they will be to promote and market it. And with the publisher working hard to sell your book, all you have to worry about is going back to Step One. Repeat it until you grow senile, die, or write To Kill A Mockingbird.