1. Write a book.
This is a tremendous amount of time and work. Shutting yourself up away from your friends and family. Tapping away at computers and missing crucial bits of TV and movies. (Frequent refrain at Casa Shadowchurch: What just happened? What did she just do? Where'd that monkey come from?)
Complications To This Step: It doesn't always get you to step two. Oh my gosh no. I mean, I know some writers sell their first books - and well done them! - but even in their case, I doubt that book is the first piece of writing they've ever done. I bet there've been scribblings as a kid, beginnings of other books, poems.
And for most people, it's not the first book. I have written thirty-four books. I have published two and will unless disaster strikes publish a third. After that, who can say? I can say this: I will not be publishing all the books I've written. Many of them are bad. So so bad. Astronomically bad. Even if someone offered me a big truck full of money, I could not cope with the shame of knowing others would read those words. (Those words include such sentences as 'But was giving her the cut direct at Almack's enough? Embarrassment might be a bitter drink, Julia reflected, but not so bitter as that from the bottle on her papa's desk marked POISON.' Also the immortal line 'Suddenly, ninjas.')
So you slave away for a year or more, and you are left with a pile of paper that is good for nothing but the attic. It may take you a long time to realise this. Sometimes you will not give up, and you'll be right not to! Sometimes, though, you will have to table it. Shelve it. Shove it under the bed, and move to the next thing. Even though it really hurts. I still hear the voices of some characters in books I've had to put in the attic. (Shut up kids! I might revise you someday. Until then, no funny business up there.)
I have heard people say in horror 'You have to write a whole book?' Yes, you do. Already-successful writers can sell on proposal (summaries of novels, can be 1 to 60 pages long, I've seen both) but the vast majority of new writers have to write a whole book. And then they have to throw out that whole book and start all over again, with no consolation but 'Well - that's one book closer to The One. Maybe THIS one will be The One!' Like dating. Dating lots of different people you have made up in your brain.
My advice for what it is worth (this is free on the internet so - uh - nothing!) the writers I think are most likely to be successful are those who never give up on writing itself, but who can give up on a certain project. (Or thirty of them.)
2. Get a literary agent.
Sometimes people skip this step. They can if they like! If they are totally amazing at negotiating, then at contract language, then (if you haven't sold your foreign rights to your publisher) at finding good foreign publishers. Then you negotiate with them, and fiddle with those contracts. Next step, to movies, and finding the right people and getting a good contract! Also if you think whenever problems arise (I hate my cover/My book's publication date has been pushed back four years/My editor wants me to add Martians with probes in the middle of the love scene!) you will be able to deal with your publishers all by yourself and be perfectly cool, calm and collected in achieving your ends.
If all that is true, go ahead, and know you have my undying admiration. If it all sounds like it might be beyond your grasp or within your grasp but leave you with little time for actual writing, a literary agent is good to have.
Complications To This Step:Doesn't always get you to Step Three. Your agent will send your book to say, ten editors s/he's chosen. They may all say no. Next round! They may all say... And so on, until your agent may advise you to put that one on the shelf, as well.
Also other stuff can happen! The Lovely Kristin Nelson isn't my first agent. When I was seventeen, I had a literary agent in London. She very, very nearly sold a book of mine.
It was terrible. The heroine was reincarnated - with a totally different personality - every chapter. The publisher, I think, thought they could do something with it: total rewrite while still using Cute Little Me as a writer? I don't even know. But at the time, the suggestion of drastic changes sent me running screeching my cute little head off, because I Was A Genius, How Could They Not See? And so the publisher backed off in a hurry because I was obviously going to be a nightmare to work with.
Every writer who's ever signed a bad contract, there but for the grace of my seventeen year old delusions of genius go I. It's so, so tempting to seize desperately at any chance of publication. But think long term.
3. Get an editor.
Once you have a good, legitimate editor, you are PROBABLY going to get published. (Though if your editor gets fired, or someone embezzles all your publishing house's money...)
It may take a while. (Publishing dates get pushed back all the time for a million reasons.) It may also not turn out like you planned. Basically there is a whole new set of problems. But, you are published! Success! Step 4 - Maybe Profit! A Little!
Shortcuts To The Three Steps
Self-publish! It totally worked for Christopher Paolini!
... Name ten other people it worked for! Christopher Paolini had a lot of other factors weighing in there, plus he did end up getting published by a traditional publisher. Lightning can strike twice but it is awfully unlikely. I have a (very talented, and traditionally published too) writer friend who used amazon's self-publishing lark with a (wonderful) book of hers. So far she has made five dollars. (I am not exaggerating for humorous effect. Five sweet, sweet dollars.)
Be a celebrity!
Actually that does work. But it's kind of difficult to become a celebrity, and then you're so busy celebritying, generally you have to hire a ghostwriter to write the book, so it's not even your book, and people are following you around claiming you're dating Jake Gyllenhall all the livelong day.
If you become accidentally famous for some freak accident involving melons and pandas, go ahead and use the fame to publish a book. Also, try to date Jake Gyllenhall. Why not?
Doesn't work. I mean, I've done it, and I've also been published, but I also ate daffodils this one time. There is no connection between the two things. Write fanfiction if you think it might be fun, and never eat daffodils. They are not delicious.
This publisher says they will publish me, and see, a contract, so I can just sign it!
Get a literary agent. They will know if it's a legitimate publisher (though you can also find this out often through the magic of google) and they will know if it's a fair contract. If you really, really don't want a literary agent, then get a lawyer to look at the contract at least. (If you are a lawyer yourself, well done! Good idea! Like becoming a celebrity, probably too much trouble if that's all you want your lawyering degree for.)
Get to know published authors!
I know many aspiring writers. I can advise them on their work, and have done so! I don't know how helpful I am, but I do know... some stuff... about publishing and writing... so maybe a little helpful, and I hope that is nice! But I haven't been able to get anyone a book deal. I wouldn't have the faintest idea how to do it: if I tried people would give me funny looks. It's just not how publishing works. Writers write - publishers publish!
Every writer I know knows aspiring writers. They haven't been able to get them book deals. Knowing friends who can give you good advice, always nice! But it's no guarantee of anything. Do the three steps. It doesn't matter who you know in the end. (You can always get to know people after you are published, at book fairs and things. See also, One Day I Will Surely Meet Megan Whalen Turner, And Tell Her How I Love Her, And Then She Will Back Swiftly Away, O Glorious Day...)
Do work for hire, or book packaging!
This can vary widely. Book packaging, sometimes it means having a book that will say on the front it's by you and only you, but the publisher gave you a description of what they wanted the book to be about, and you get a lump sum but not any royalties. Some very successful books are written this way! There's nothing wrong with doing it: I once talked about doing it. When given a description to write by, I then changed the description to be more feminist and exciting (to me). Kind of changed it completely.
... Shockingly, I did not hear back about that project, because I was doing the equivalent of handing someone a grapefruit when they had asked for a carrot. But other people can and have done it super well. However, I still recommend a literary agent. They will look at the contract, and explain what the drawbacks and pros of the situation are.
Then there is work for hire. James Patterson has a factory with writers in it, who write books according to his outlines, and they will have his name on the front (other writer's name will be somewhere also). When I was wee, I read the Animorphs series by K.A. Applegate, and the Sweet Valley High series by Francine Pascal. I was shocked to realise, a couple years in, that many of the books in these serieseses were written by different writers. Other people have been shocked to realise that the writer for Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys was totally made up.
People have loved these books. I have loved these books. They have been a part of publishing since forever. These days, I do tend not to read them, because the writers of those books tend to be hidden away, and reading an author you love is like being in love: nobody else will do. I want that experience, and I try to find it.
But some brilliant writers write these things. I remember one Sweet Valley High book, where Good Boy Todd Wilkinson went Goth, and the people of Sweet Valley were utterly confounded by this turn of events until Bad Boy Bruce Patman was like 'Someone in make-up. NEVER FEAR. BRUCE KNOWS WHAT TO DO' and whistled at him. Genius I say. GENIUS. If only I hadn't been too young to know the truth behind 'created by Francine Pascal' I could have found out the author's name.
So that's totally doable as well. If it ever came up, I bet I would write a book set in Sweet Valley. (It would be called 'Bruce Patman Makes Out With Everybody.' ... Mind you, I bet that might be a bit 'handing grapefruit to someone who wants carrots'-ish as well.)
But have a literary agent to make sure the contract is fair, and you understand fully what you're getting into. You see where I keep going with this.
Shortcuts are very tricky! Often they do not work. You end up in a marsh, wailing despairingly as your friends try to fish you out with umbrellas. (That... never happened to me, of course.) Think of a literary agent as a friend with an umbrella.
Obstacles To The Three Steps
People will tell you that what you are doing is bad. This happens to everyone, all the time, and it never stops. (I have been telling James Joyce I think his books are atrocious for years. Does he ever listen?) One squillion times have I heard 'oh This Published Book is so terrible, it will be a snap for me to get published.' (Yes, I've heard it about my own books. And then I break out my internet death ray! ... It doesn't work yet, but one day, my friends. One day.) Tastes are subjective! Maybe they're right, maybe they're wrong, you may never know and may always want to stab them with a spoon, but try not to yell at anyone on the internet.
People will sometimes tell you what you do is bad, and how to fix it. Sometimes, they will be right. Try taking their advice - you can always go back. And if you're feeling unhappy about taking their advice, stop. If their advice worked amazingly, go back to them and also, sing them love songs. 'Baby baby, you were right about my descriptive language. Honey honey, also the emotional arc. Won't you be my critique partner 4 lyfe. Baby baby, you were so right.' (If one is seeking critique, I hear good stuff about www.critters.org)
People will tell you the thing you want to do is bad. My MFA had many cool things about it, including a publishing business seminar and this truly amazing course on children's literature, but the fact I wanted to write teen fantasy was baffling and appalling to them. Everyone was very kind: people told me I was really talented. But stop doing what you want to do, because it is bad was still a prevalent message.
It was a message I'd heard before. Once when I was in my teens, I got a letter from a Real Writer who had read one of my (awful, terrible, bad) books for some reason. I think an agent I'd submitted to gave it to the writer. The writer wrote me the kindest letter imaginable. I cried over it. I tried to write a response and was much, much too shy. The writer advised me to write realistic fiction, and I tried, I really did try, and I was bored out of my skull and gave up. This writer is now writing a successful fantasy series, so I hope they decided fantasy was awesome in the end.
Write what you want. Inform yourself as fully as you can. Listen to criticism. Follow the three steps, unless you have a good reason not to. (Write book! Get agent! Get editor.)
... Simple, right?
It does sound kind of hard. But as I think Terry Pratchett (a dude who writes his own books, despite the fact that his health problems would make a factory kind of understandable) said, the only way harder than the hard way is the easy way.