I’m writing this before the pre-order phase of Righteous Judgment. I thus have no formal standing to preach how to write a novel, how to market oneself, or how to get agented and published.
Yet I’ve put in the legwork to share with new authors what the industry will be expecting.
Publishers (and thus agents) are not looking for new authors with the single greatest novel—they are looking for authors who will make a career (going forward) of good writing: building a fan base, sticking to a genre, producing book after book. Don’t get confused with nonfiction, where famous people can publish just an autobiography or a general can publish the story of a war.
You’ll be expected to have read a lot in your genre, and to be able to compare your work to other recent successful novels. I think there are two parts to this: reading makes for better writing, both technically, and to understand what’s fresh vs. clichéd; and bookstores/libraries will need to know how to sell your book, meaning publishers (and agents, in turn) will want to have this “shorthand.”
Having limited writing credits substantially raises the bar; successful older first-time novelists aren’t usually first-time authors, but can cite at least magazine or newspaper credits.
Belonging to a writing group is recommended by almost every author, and is sought by agents.
Attending writing conferences, esp. genre-specific ones, are tremendously educational. Conferences with agent-pitching opportunities may be the only way to ensure that you’ll get unbiased feedback on your story. (Yes, unfortunately, this requires a financial outlay)
About your novel
Works of fiction should be complete before you make submissions to agents.
Submissions with grammatical errors will be rejected—“the editor will fix those” doesn’t work for new authors.
If you haven’t learned at least the material in Stephen King’s On Writing, you must, and I recommend doing so before writing. (If you have a degree/certificate in writing, you’ve probably covered that material.) You don’t have to like his novels to like and learn from that book.
You’ll hear numerous glowing references to Strunk & White (The Elements of Style) when seeking advice.