I think when I started this writing business, I was under the impression that all I had to do was write a great book and things would take care of themselves one way or another. That being the case, I moved to Peru where I could live on about $300 a month and just dedicate myself to practicing my craft. I locked myself in a room and produced about 15 book length manuscripts in 5 years.
Although I'm going to spend the remainder of this article giving you all a bunch of tips and tricks, I suppose it is true that the most important aspect of being a writer is actually learning how to write. The BEST way to learn how to write is by writing. I remember Jack Kerouac said something to the effect that he didn't feel comfortable with his work until after he had written 1,000,000 words. So let that be your goal. Write 1,000,000 words and then start submitting.
Is getting a degree in English important? To this I would say emphatically no. You have to remember that degrees are like going to a department store. You pay a lot of money and you get what you want. As long as the university gets their cash, you get your piece of paper. I have a friend with a Master's Degree in English, and he's never written anything for all I know (at least, he's never had anything published which he's been paid for). It's sort of like those guys who try out for American Idol and claim they've been studying music for 10 years, only to have the judges tell them that they're terrible and they should stop wasting their money. All that being said, I do have a degree in English, but in hindsight I wished I'd gotten a degree in something more useful (something where I could conceivably get a job to support my writing habit).
Well then, what is important? The answer is reading, writing and submitting. Go to www.ralan.com and simply work through the different markets. Start with the "For the Love" markets and then work your way up. Don't think about making any money, because you won't. Heck, even if you become the greatest writer of your generation, you still probably won't make any money. However, you will meet some interesting people, and you'll probably have a positive effect on many people's lives, so just continue to do it.
What's next? As you continue to develop you'll have to continue to work on your query letter. When you first start out, you won't have any publications to list obviously, but as things proceed (over the course of a decade...be realistic), you'll be able to include links to where your stories have appeared. I prefer including links in my cover letters to just titles since it allows the reviewing editor to quickly and easily check them.
What are reviewing editors looking for? Remember, these guys want to make money too, so you have to convince them that you can help them with that. Actually you can't just convince them; it has to actually be true. So what you need to do is develop a loyal following. Blogs, email newsletters, and Facebook pages are extremely helpful with this. You have to be able to show that when something of yours is published, you are capable of sending thousands of people towards that publication to check it out (again, creating this list of followers can take a decade, so be patient).
Facebook, email, blogs, Twitter? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Use anything and everything that's out there to draw attention to yourself (you might want to take some computer science courses to get the necessary programming knowledge...minor in English because that will help too). Make a Youtube video and hope that it goes viral. Use Digg, Reddit, and other social networks to promote your stories. Once something gets published, you should be able to organize a media blitz that takes you the equivalent of a 40 hour work week to launch.
Really? You mean I can't just dreamily write my books in the privacy of my own house and hope to be "discovered?" Well you can, and actually if that makes you happy then more power too it. The one most vital piece of advice is to simply keep writing! However, you also have to be a little bit realistic. How are you going to get "discovered" if you never show your work to anyone? And how likely is it that you'll show your work to one person and that will be the ONE person in the world who can truly understand its potential. Make no mistake, this whole writing thing is a lot of work for very little pay. Sure, there are some people who have had their works become worldwide phenomenons, but those people are the exceptions. For most of us, writing is a 40 hour work week, and if we clear $10,000 in a year we are ECSTATIC (you better learn how to pick up good stocks as well because you're going to have to triple that just to survive in the US).
But just keep writing. You really can't take too much from the reactions your writing gets until you have written 1,000,000 words (and that takes a long time). Don't let anyone discourage you, but be realistic at the same time.