One of the questions about writing I often get asked is the general one about how to become a writer. Often the person asking this question thinks of this as a get-rich-quick thing -- dash off a book one weekend, send it off to a publisher, then get a huge check in the mail when it becomes a bestseller (pardon me while I collapse in hysterics). Or else they've only seen information from vanity presses, so they want to know how much it costs to get published. Here's a very high-level, general look at how to become a published writer:
1) Read. A lot.
For most aspiring authors, this goes without saying, since the urge to write usually comes from a love of reading. At some point, a lot of avid readers will either think "I could do better than this" or "I want to do this." But those "I could dash off a book next weekend and be a bestseller" people generally aren't big readers, and all it takes to dissuade them from this scheme is asking them what they like to read. Once you decide to pursue writing, your reading will change, though. You should read the classics in your genre, the recent bestsellers and recent books by new authors. All of this will give you a sense of the genre conventions and the cliches, what works and what doesn't and what's selling. You've probably read a lot of these things anyway as part of what sparked your drive to write, but read them again with a critical eye to analyze the characters, plot, pacing and other story elements. I think it's also good to read outside your genre. There are romantic elements in most stories in most genres, so read romances to learn how to build emotion. There are mystery or suspense elements in many stories, so read mysteries or suspense novels to learn how to build that kind of plot. Read poetry to learn ways to use language to paint a picture. Read non-fiction to learn how the world works.
2) Write. And rewrite.
A writer writes. Talking about writing isn't writing. Your first efforts may not be publishable. They may be your learning books or stories, but there are very few cases of anything worth doing where you can do it perfectly the first time you try. It takes practice and repetition. Write something, put it aside for a while as you write something else, then come back to it and revise it. Lather, rinse, repeat. I would almost recommend putting your first novel aside for a year without submitting it. Go write other stuff. Then when you come back to that first novel, you'll probably cringe. You'll be glad you didn't let an editor or agent see it.
3) Study the craft.
This can involve reading books about writing, reading writing magazines, going to writing workshops and conferences or joining writing organizations. Or it can just be seriously studying published books. Some people have an innate instinct for storytelling and can be successful without study. Some people even find that analysis and study is stifling. But if you're not satisfied with the quality of your work or if you're not achieving the results you want, consider doing some studying.
4) Study the business.
It would be lovely if we could just focus on the art without sullying it with commercial considerations, but if you want to be a published author, you need to learn about the business side of things. That's the best way to avoid career-limiting moves or being taken advantage of by scammers. Learn which publishers publish your kind of books, and learn who the editors and agents are. Learn how to work with editors and agents and what to expect from them. Learn what's in a publishing contract. Learn the process through which a book goes from submission to publication. Learn the proper way to submit a book and the business etiquette of the publishing industry. You can learn this from some of the writer's marketplace books. There are also books on how to get a novel published. Join a writing organization. Read blogs written by editors and agents. Read other industry blogs. Network.
I think this step is one of the most important these days because the industry is changing so rapidly. Not too long ago, it was pretty much an absolute that the path to publication was to submit to agents or publishers. Now there are people breaking in by being successful in electronic self-publishing, and given the risk-averse nature of the industry, I wouldn't be surprised if publishers started using electronic self-publishing as a kind of slush pile. Instead of taking a risk on an unknown debut author, they can hand-pick the authors who have already found some success. But that means even more industry knowledge will be required. You'll have to know a lot about what it takes to publish a book and operate a business.
5) Submit your work.
Once you have a manuscript that's the best you can make it and you're armed with knowledge about the business, you can begin the submission process. As part of your study of the business, you'll have learned the pros and cons of going through an agent first and decided which route is best for you. You'll also have researched the legitimate publishers and agents and have a target list, plus you'll know something about how to submit a manuscript. The odds are good that you'll be rejected a few times. Your first book may not make it, but then you'll move on to the next one. That's the part that separates the published authors from the dreamers. The dreamers get discouraged when they aren't an instant success, and that means they'll never get published. The ones who get published are the ones who keep trying.
As an aside, I'd still recommend at least trying the traditional route even if self-publishing becomes the new slush pile because you never know, you could still sell that way, and even if you don't, going through the submission and rejection process will teach you a lot while helping you develop a thick enough skin that you'll be less likely to have one of those embarrassing Internet flip-outs when your book gets an unfavorable review because that's the first criticism you've received. There's something about going through the process that helps give you a sense of professionalism that is often lacking in people who just threw the first thing they wrote up on Amazon.
Of course, all of this is overly simplified, but I tend to think that the publishing world is one of those areas where the steps are pretty simple in theory but very hard to actually carry out. I frequently use the analogy of losing weight -- it's a relatively simple formula. You just take in fewer calories than you use, generally by eating less and exercising more. But actually doing it is a real struggle, and current obesity rates indicate that a large percentage of the population has difficulty with it. Likewise with publishing, all you have to do is read, write, research and submit, but only a small fraction of people who try are able to do it successfully. On the other hand, if you don't do these things, you're guaranteed not to be successful.