Step 1: Write.Write a lot. Or as much as you can. This is not new advice; just about any writer will tell you that the first step to getting published is to write a lot. What I hope to add to the conversation are some ideas about what might be keeping you from writing and how to get around those barriers.
Do you neglect to write because you have performance anxiety? I have a tendency to put an enormous amount of pressure on myself to write something fabulous every time I sit down. The effect is that it keeps me from writing anything at all. Don't get discouraged when what you produce isn't as good as you want it to be or isn't doing what you want it to do; keep writing anyway.
I found this talk by Ira Glass helpful; he basically says that writers, to start out, are people with good taste whose writing doesn't measure up to their taste. A lot of writers give up early. It's only by continuing to write that our talent starts to catch up with our taste.
I would never have finished the novella last month had I not kept saying to myself, "It's time to sit down and write some bad sentences. Just do it. Just write one bad sentence, and then another, and then another..." And I did! And then I looked back and discovered that most of my sentences weren't as bad as I'd feared.
My brother, who is an incredibly intelligent person as well as talented artist, once said to me that the reason he's not discouraged by the fact that what ends up on the page is not the same as what is in his head is because at some point, you have to stop looking at what it isn't and start to appreciate it for what it is. In other words, stop looking at the gaps between your vision and the reality, and start seeing what's really there. Because what's really there has value too that you will completely miss unless you're paying attention.
Another idea that's been helpful to me is that writing is about practice--or even better, play--rather than performance. If I tell myself that I'm just practicing, that helps to relieve the pressure of producing something good. Play is even better; it adds a sense of fun and discovery.
Sometimes my barrier to writing is not having a specific, inviting audience in mind. If I think I'm writing for anyone, or for no one in particular, I vacillate between over-thinking every word (what are all the possible ways this could be taken?) and getting depressed because no one will care to read what I have written. Having a support network helps a lot: kind, generous, encouraging readers who actually care about what you're writing. This could be a writing class, a writing group, a couple of friends or family members who are always interested in reading your work, or a developmental editor who "gets" you (ahem, ahem, points at self).
(Note: This is the first in a series of short posts about how to get published.)