Let me put in a brief disclaimer. There are many talented writers out there who have amazing books and, for whatever unfortunate reasons, just haven't gotten published yet. You never know if something totally weird and unfair is going to happen to you, but...
In most cases, writers need to forget about publication and focus on just writing a good book.
If you write a good book, I mean a really good book, a book with great marketing appeal and wonderful characters and an engaging hook and strong writing that keeps editors and agents up all night reading, then chances are getting published will come naturally. But here's the catch, which I have painfully learned through personal experience. Writing a good book is hard. It takes a certain something (creativity? originality? perseverance? luck?) that can't be found in how-to books. It takes years of study and failure and emotional upheaval and heartburn medication. It's often much easier to focus on concrete, manageable tasks like making list after list of agents, obsessively reading publishing industry blogs, reformatting your query letter again and again, networking with (stalking?) editors and agents, and trying to uncover the "secret rules" to publication. Trust me, I've been there. And don't get me wrong--researching agents and preparing a professional query letter is extremely important. But not nearly as important as having an salable, gripping, wonderfully good book.
So how do you know if you've written a good book?
- FInd critique partners you can trust to be brutally honest, not just to boost your self esteem (though these can be nice too)
- Get professional feedback through contest and conference critiques
- Read dozens (at least) of high-quality, successful books in your genre and target age range. Be brutally honest with yourself. Is your book as good or better than those, while still feeling totally fresh and new?
I've heard of authors who break all the publishing rules and send queries on pink paper or misspell names, and you know what? Agents and editors are only human, too. The number one trait they look for in writers is great writing, not rule-following. While we should always try to carefully read and adhere to publishing guidelines, try not to let the "publication rules" overshadow your real job as a writer: to write.
Megan Shepherd is a young adult writer living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Her debut novel, THE MADMAN'S DAUGHTER, comes out in early 2013 from Balzer+Bray/ HarperCollins. She is represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary. Contact Megan on her website, follow her on Twitter or Facebook, and find out more information on her books at Goodreads.