I'm often asked for advice, so I'm going to write a page with advice, and to make sure that my advice is taken with a grain a salt, the first piece of advice I have to give is that reading is subjective. I may love something, you may hate it. That's true with any art form, visual, music, movies, and the written word. You must be true to yourself--however, if you have a dozen editors tell you that something is a cliche, trite, or overdone, it probably is, and you need to step back and take a look at your work.
Writing can be different for different people. Diaries are something many people keep, and some, especially those written during historic eras, later become best sellers--often after the record keeper is long dead.
So, there is writing for your own pleasure, and there is writing for publication. First up, and this isn't always easy, know what you're writing. Any bookstore has shelves, and certain books go on certain shelves. Often, when I ask someone what they're working on, they'll give me a vague description of many things. This is fine, because I'm your friend, or I'm trying to help you. But when you're trying to publish with a major commercial publisher, they want you to know exactly what you're doing and what your market is going to be.
My next suggestion. If you're going into fiction, write what you love to read. The world is wide open right now. Mysteries, slashers, horror, romance, sci-fi, fantasy--we've reached a point where publishers have discovered that there is a market out there for so many types of fiction. Even "mixed" fiction, or fiction that crosses the lines and appeals to readers of many genres. But know what you're mixing, and always know why you should be writing what you're writing. That doesn't mean that you have to write books with bridges in them if you're an engineer. It's valid to say that you are working on a cozy mystery because you've spent your life reading every possible book of that genre you can find. Or suspense. Or horror. You spent your life watching Hammer films. You lived for Poe, or even more literary authors. Settle in your mind what you want, what your goal is with your writing, and then take steps to reach that goal.
Smart steps. Writers love company. They love the company of other writers. Writers usually know what's going on. They know when a new house has opened. They know when an old house has opened a new line. They even know if a particular editor has a bee in his or her bonnet when it comes to a certain type of fiction, or even a place, or name. In selling, these things can make a difference. If you're far away from any known civilization, there are still dozens of talented and published authors offering courses on the Internet. You can be part of Internet readers groups.
I know people who are successful, published authors who have come from every walk of life, from those who have achieved several doctorates to those who might still be working on their GEDs. Men and women. CEOs and stay-at-home moms. They all have one thing in common--they love to read. They may not spell brilliantly, they may not have the most amazing command of the English language. But they are willing to learn, and they read like crazy. They write, because they have loved so much to read.
They are story tellers.
And on to that particular piece of advice--get your story down. Tell your story from beginning to end. Make it exciting. Don't wear yourself out correcting and re-correcting page one. Once you're told your whole wonderful story and you don't think your first page is or first pages are worthy, go back. But don't make yourself sick of a story before you've told it.
Listen to advice, and throw out advice. When an editor who has the power to buy your story suggests you change something, that's really the time to do it.
Learn to take criticism. Learn to weigh it. What is valuable, and what is someone's opinion that might not be shared by a larger audience, your audience. If you've been reading like crazy, you will know what audience you are striving to gather. Again, all opinions can be valid, but the opinions that matter are the ones that come from those who can buy your book.
Don't try to correct things at first--make sure you do correct them before you send them off. They will not reject an amazing story because of errors, but they will put down a "maybe" story if it's costing them their eyesight. Make sure your manuscript is double-spaced, margined, as free from typos as you can make it, and as clean and neat. That's after you've given your heart to the story.
Buy Writer's Digest Writer's Market. The current issue. Or get it at the library, if every penny counts. You can find out who is buying what, and how they want it submitted. Address your manuscript to the name of the editor at the house you have chosen who is actively purchasing your type of fiction. (Or nonfiction!)
People can be born rich. They are not born published. Sure, sleep with the president, and it will be easy to sell a book. Not always feasible! Nor can everyone be a sports star, movie star, or personality. You may have luck immediately, you may spend time looking. If you're serious, you tell your story and make it wonderful. You learn how to write a great query letter that will tell an editor cleanly what your book is about, why it would fit perfectly with the publishing house, and why you're qualified to write it. You will learn how to write a succinct synopsis that excites an editor. Remember, it must tell the whole story--they do not want a synopsis that ends with, "And you won't believe what happens then!"
Be Internet savvy. (I'd have given a lot for that talent!) You can do research on the Internet, you can market on the Internet, you can find out about publishers on the Internet.
The path to publication is never the same for any two people. If you're rejected, hopefully it will be with a note. The note will give you advice. See if you can make it work. Send out to a number of houses. Know whether they do or do not accept multiple submissions. You'll now know this because you'll have Writer's Digest Writer's Market, or lots of friends a few steps ahead of you because you've joined a group. A group that you can find on the Internet, such as (key words) Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and Horror Writer's of America. There are so many more; most regions have fiction groups, most junior colleges offer creative writing.
Don't do it if you don't love it. Don't write if you don't read--you'll really annoy other writers a whole lot! Sometimes, you'll just write something, you'll find an agent, the agent will love your work, it will go on auction, and someone will give you a zillion dollars. Sometimes. That's not the norm. You'll probably go through trial and error. You'll have to get a rejection letter and smile at your wife or husband, girlfriend/boyfriend, and kids or friends, and pretend like a little piece of you isn't insulted and breaking. A little suffering is good, because it's a tough field, and you need to be tough. And, besides, most of the published people out there have been rejected, and we're human, we want you to suffer a little, too.
Keep at it. If you want it, never say die. Tenacity is nine-tenths of law.
Time . . . .
Working all day? Ten kids? Laundry? A household to support? Yes, it's very hard. But be committed. If it's a page a day, in a year, that's 365 pages. Whatever it is that you give, do it as religiously as you would pump iron if you were trying to be Mr. or Mrs. America. (Or Ms.)
There's some basic advice, and remember, weigh what works for you. Every person out there is different, and that's the beauty of what we do. If you're down, remember J.K. Rowling had been rejected many, many times. Often, you have to find the right home.
Tell a great story. That's the most important. Tell a wonderful story, and while you're shopping it, sit down and tell another wonderful story. Don't ever stop. Don't ever, ever let anyone tell you that it's a pipe dream. Dreams are lost because we believe they can't be reached. Believe in yourself. Think Nike. Just do it.