Writing is fun and pretty easy. However, being a great writer is crazy hard and takes a ton of work! Getting noticed by an agent or publisher is nearly impossible. NEARLY. Here's my basic outline of how to bring your A Game to the table.
PART 1 - getting started
The first step is to write. Sit your butt down and let you fingers do the talking. Then, and I can't SHOUT this loud enough, FIND A CRITIQUE PARTNER!!!!!! They are essential to your success. Yes, I'm sure there are a couple of people who are so brilliant they don't need an extra set of eyes to dissect their work, but let's be honest, 99.99999999% of us, including myself, aren't that person. Yes? Okay, now stay with me. DO NOT ASK A NON-WRITER TO CRITIQUE YOUR WORK, ESPECIALLY A FRIEND. Yes, I made this mistake, and here's why it doesn't work: when you write your first novel, it will suck horribly and you will have no clue. You will think it's brilliant, and your poor, dear friend will not know how to tell you, "you are the worst writer in the world!" It puts them in a horrible situation.
BUT a writer will know how to say, "I made this same mistake, but it was pointed out to me the word 'that' doesn't need to be in every single sentence in your entire manuscript." And they will add a :) to let you know their words may seem harsh but they are coming from a loving, helpful place.
Okay, are you still with me? Now you have a honest cp to point out all the rookie mistakes you are making. This isn't someone you know very well, but by the time they've gone through your entire manuscript and hacked it all to pieces with red lines, highlights, and tons of notes saying how terrible it is followed by a :), that person will be your closest friend.
So, your ms has been dissected, now you need another pair of eyes on it. CALLING ALL BETAS. This is where you ask one or two people to read through your entire ms (which is in much better shape and close to querying). Beta readers won't and shouldn't be nearly as detailed as a cp. They will typically give you their overall thoughts on pace, plot, and characters.
Now for the disclaimer. It's okay to be picky when choosing cps and betas. In fact, you NEED to be picky. Typically, they read your work and offer their FREE critique in exchange for you to do the exact same thing for them. It is an equal exchange of works. So you want to make sure you connect with that person on a writing level because you will be reading their manuscript too. Start with 1-3 chapters. Make sure you enjoy their writing, otherwise you will be miserable when reading 300+ pages. Also, you want someone who writes a similar genre to yours. It doesn't have to be exactly the same, but a picture book writer who has a ms complete at 2k words, might not want to exchange with an adult erotica writer who has a ms complete at 150k words. Right?
Now that you've found cps and betas and have edited your ms so many times you can't see straight, WRITE A QUERY. I will be the first to admit this is a crazy hard thing to do. You've spent months perfecting your ms and to summarize all that into ONE PAGE is just cruel. BUT IT'S IMPORTANT YOU GET THIS RIGHT!!! This is where you want to invite every writer you know to chime in with their opinions. QUERIES ARE HARD. ASK FOR HELP.
Start with the people who've read your ms. Let them get you to a basic starting query. Then send it out into the world. Post it on your blog for your followers to pick at. (And be grateful for all their help).
Once you think it's good. Send it to Matt at The Quintessentially Questionable Query Experiment. He is brilliant and SUPER helpful. And you will get to meet a bunch of new writers when he posts it publicly to be ripped to shreds. It's scary, but the end result is what matters!!! Those people are all there to help.
There are other means of help. Queryshark is one I know many people have used, but I haven't personally.
Taryn Albright offers great deals for her professional help at low costs. I recommend using her services. It's just a few dollars for a query crit. I've used her services MANY times. But I do think this should be your final step, not your first.
Think of your query as the heart of your ms. Yes, your ms has life, breath, blood pulsing through its veins, beautiful eyes, a southern drawl, and all that jazz, BUT the query is the extra piece that is needed for it to survive. It seems so small, but without a strong query, it doesn't matter how "great" your ms is.
So, now that you've got a polished ms and a strong query, it's time for research.
Websites like QT make this easy. I don't know a single writer who doesn't or hasn't used QT at some point. This website tells you which agents rep which genres, their requests %, plus it links you to each agent's agency website. Query five to ten agents at a time. DO NOT RUSH. If you get to ten queries and they all come back as a rejection, then you should take another look at your query and opening pages, make adjustments, then send another batch of 10 queries.
And use twitter. I refused to join twitter for the longest time because I "didn't have time". Well, I'm telling you to make time. Twitter is such a great way to get a feel for the agents' personalities.
DO NOT INTERACT WITH THE AGENTS. Sit on the sidelines and silently watch. Most agents do not want to "chat" with some new writer who just joined twitter. Instead, use twitter to connect with other writers and do interact with them. Chat, be friendly, build relationships. Once you've shown yourself to be "normal" and not some Creepy McCreepster,
Oh and, ENTER CONTESTS!!!
You will learn so much by reading other entries that made it. And many times you'll get great tips on your opening page and/or your pitch. Heck, you might even make it through and get to showcase your work in front of agents!! It's a win-win either way. Here are my top three favorite contest blogs.
Go. Write. Be brilliant.