Thanks to Sandie for inspiring this post.
On Tuesday I posted a list of things which will help you get an offer of publication from a publishing house. Some of you might have been surprised that writing a good novel wasn't point number one of my plan. Now, writing a good novel is important but is it the most important thing? Unfortunately not. The more research I do the more I realise that writing a good novel is not enough and, in some cases, not even necessary. If your idea is original enough and you have followed the other steps, than sometimes you don't even have to have a good novel to get published.
I don't know if the days ever existed when an aspiring author could think up a story idea, write the book, submit it and get published but if they did exist they certainly have long gone. Everyone is writing at the moment and publishers are inundated with submissions. At the same time book sales are dipping. So how do you get your book to stand out from the slush pile?
You have your idea but don't write it just yet. I'm not suggesting you manufacture a novel and write what you think publishers want and will sell (although that can work too). What you need to do is research. Doing it before you write the novel will save you a lot of time and major rewriting afterwards. Are there a lot of books already published that have a similar idea to yours? If so, how is yours different? See what themes are popular at the moment. If your idea adds something new to, let's say the paranormal romance genre, then it might do well in today's market. If it's merely a retelling of Twilight, no matter how good it is, it won't get looked at. See which publishers are publishing what. Does your idea fit more into popular trends or does it create a new one? Which publishers prefer playing it safe and which will take a chance on something different? In the genre you are planning to write, what kind of angle does your publisher prefer? Are their books mostly in first person, do they go into the characters emotions or are they mainly surface action?
After doing your initial research it's time to do some work on your novel idea to see how it will fit in with what you have found out. Publishers want books that are easily marketable and authors who know how to promote their work. Write out your novel idea as if it were a sales pitch. What are the unique selling points of your novel that will make a publisher - or a buyer in the bookshop - want to read it? Who is it aimed at? What age group is it intended for? You are going to have to do this work anyway, so you might as well do it before you write your book, it will save time in the end.
Now it is finally time to start writing. You have to be in passionate about your idea if you want other people to read it, but if you also want to make it as a professional writer you need to know how to structure your writing so that it has the best chance of selling rather than just vomiting up your idea in a 150K word mess. You have to think of its final destination and audience at all times. Perhaps you love the idea of exploring your main characters childhood sporting triumphs but unless it drives the story on and is of vital importance, leave it out. Every word has to matter. Good writing is where you slave and sweat over every word but when read it appears effortless and flows.
So you have written your first draft. Now read it, see how the finished project fits into the sales pitch you initially outlined. Are some ideas fuzzy? Has it wandered off the point? Have new ideas cropped up that make it better than the original? Work on it again and write your second draft. And your third. And your fourth, and so on, until you have a book that is as clear as your initial vision and is polished to a diamond sheen. Publishers want to see the finished project, not potential. If your book isn't there when you submit it, they won't want to read it no matter how excellent it is.
After, during or before you write your novel you should also be working on short stories. If possible, write some stories set in your novel world or featuring your characters in a different setting. Once again, think of your audience and the publication you are going to submit to. The more you write the better your writing will become and the discipline of writing a good short story will help with your novel. Having a story published in Asimovs or Jim Baen's Universe is going to look great in your submission package to the publisher. It shows that you are professional and that your writing is good enough for a respected magazine in your genre to take a risk on it. It gives a plus point to both you and your writing. Remember, a publisher wants to invest in you as much as the book you are submitting.
Developing your craft takes time and hard work. You can't expect to become a professional athlete over night, nor can you expect to write the perfect novel or short story first time around. You learn and improve the more you do it. When submitting to magazines, remember the turn around time can be weeks if not months, although most of the major publications will try to get back to you as quickly as possible. If the thought of submitting to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction seems daunting, then try writing stories for smaller publications first. You may not be able to list them on your CV when submitting your novel, but getting accepted still shows that someone liked your work and each acceptance will spur you on.
I hope this has explained why writing a good book isn't the only or most important fact when seeking publication. Yes, you need to have a solid product to sell, but it is merely the tip of the iceberg. All the hard work is the bulk underneath the water.
Of course, there are always exceptions and I know there are as many ways to get published as there are different kinds of cheese.