There is no rule. No tried and true path to take that will promise a contract and a big advance. It’s a crap shoot really, though I do think there are certain steps most authors endure on the road to publication.
1. Being vulnerable. The first time you let someone read your work is by far the worst moment of vulnerability. Worries fly at you: will they laugh in your face? Will they tell you it’s perfect, then snicker behind your back? Will they tear it apart and proclaim that you will never, ever make it as a writer? I remember the sweaty hands, the feeling of nausea, the expectation…ugh. Sickening.
2. Finishing a draft. Yes, it might sound simple, but actually finishing a novel is a huge feat. Some people never get there. If you have, you’re ahead of the pack already.
3. Knowing when to stop. Revising, that is. You want your manuscript to be as polished as it can possibly be before approaching the dreaded Query Letter process. Careful you don’t use revision as a procrastination tool, though. I did it for a long time, always saying, “I’m almost ready…” or “I plan to write a query soon, once I just…” No one is ever totally ready. Just get your work out there already.
4. Letting rejections slide off your shoulder and into the trash. One thing I wince at is when a writer says they’ve lost hope after receiving one or two (or even ten!) rejections. Is that it, I then ask. Rejections hurt, especially rejections after the agent/editor has requested material and shown some excitement. I don’t know why I never let a rejection get me too down, but I didn’t. I just tossed it into the trash, or deleted it from my inbox, and moved on.
5. Realizing agents and editors are real people, and not soul-sucking demons guarding the gates to publication. Yes, there was a time I saw agents as total rock stars. I would gasp in awe of them when they walked past me at a conference, or an editor, or an author. “Those” people were the Brad Pitts and Angelina Jolies of the world. It was so freeing to realize agents are actually nice and approachable, and editors actually do want to find books to publish by new writers. I know, weird, right?