I recently got an email from a writer who had just finished their first draft of a novel. Some friends had read it and recommended they try and get it published. They wrote to me asking if I could give them a few suggestions on how to go about it. What made me really love their email was this-they also asked me what sorts of things they should avoid! YAY!
Here was my reply:
Where to start?
Edit, edit edit! Then when you think you're done, hire a professional editor to go over it again!
While you're doing those edits, spend some time figuring out who your target audience is. Age, what they read, what they like. You will need to be conversant on this when you pitch your story to an agent or publisher. It will also help you narrow the field when you are researching agents/publishers. You will want one that is successful at approaching this audience. It sounds simple, but this can take some real time and thought.
When you have an idea of your audience you can start checking out LMP (Literary Market Place). You can sign up online for it, or most larger libraries will have the latest copy in their reference section. Now is where you start looking for an agent/publisher. Another good tool is the latest edition of Writer's Market.
Things you will need before you ever send out your first query:
A short marketing hook - statement/plan for your book. Who is it aimed at and why will they want to buy it? How will you participate in this plan.
They will want to know if you have:
A website/blog, a twitter account and Facebook page. If you don't have all of these , now's the time to get them set up and start reaching out to that future audience of yours! What online chat groups (related to your book/genre) do you participate in?
You will need an outline of the book, and a synopsis (no more than 300 words) of the story. Don't worry about giving away endings - they want to know how and what happens in the story before they commit to read it. They deal with hundreds of submissions a month and have no time to waste on trying to guess whether your story is worth further investigation. They'll just skip on to someone else. It's best to prepare both of these as some will want one, some the other.
A brief bio - 2-4 sentences tops. Here's your chance to shine-include the writing groups you belong to, magazines/books that have published your articles-generally anything that helps them get a sense of what you bring to the table.
A complete manuscript that includes a VERY polished first 5 chapters. In all likelihood they will ask that you send the first 3-5 chapters with your query letter. Make sure you have a professional editor go over your manuscript with a fine tooth comb BEFORE you start the query process. (I know I said that before, but it bears repeating!) Agents/Editors who see too many grammatical errors, misspellings, or misused words will quickly file your letter in the round file (trash).
And please don't say things like 'all my friends (or family) love it'. Friends and family are rarely objective and are already a guaranteed sale. And unless your brother or sister is the Book Reviewer at the New York Times, agents/editors just don't care.
When your ready to write that query letter at last, stop and do some more research. Books like How To Write a Bulletproof Query can be a great help.
Hope this helps.
Oh, and if/when that first rejection letter rolls in - check this list of famous authors and how many rejection letters they got before they sold their first story!