First, finish your book. Make it the best book possible. When you send it out (that's called shopping it) it is going on a job interview. It has to be and look its best.
And yes, it DOES take forever, but you write your next book while you wait. I had three books finished when my first sold. They bought ALL of them and wanted more.
And publishing is a weird thing. You NEVER start at the bottom when you submit your work. You start at the TOP and work down.
Find the biggest danged publisher or agent possible and send your work to them. They are more able to accept books from new writers than a small press which doesn't have much in profit to invest in a newbie. Most small presses release 4-6 books a year, while a BIG house releases 100's.
The money is better, too. ;>)
Always obey YOG'S LAW: "Money flows TOWARD the writer."
This means NEVER pay to get published or to enter contests or pay a fee-charging agent. NEVER. Obey Yog's Law and you won't get ripped off.
Go to the 808 section of your library which has all the books on writing, publishing, and submissions.
Writer's Market 2010 will be in the reference section. It lists all the commercial publishers and what they're looking for.
Go to a bookstore. Find books like yours. Look inside the front pages to get the publishers' websites. Follow their submission guidelines to the letter.
Look up websites of writers with work similar to your own. See if they mention who reps for them. A short polite mail asking if they can recommend an agent is not out of place. Do not tell them about your book, that's seen as poor manners.
This site is a SAFE writer's board run by pros. It is free and they can help you stay clear of the sharks in the publishing pool.
You don't start shopping your book around until you've gotten solid feedback on it first. AW has a Share Your Work forum where other writers can give constructive crits.
Feedback, beta readers, polished, and re-polished, a book has to be the best you can make it before you send it out. I thought my first was ready, but two years of rejections and rewrites taught me better.
(It did sell, I landed a multi-book contract.)
But you can't be in a hurry, or assume you'll get paid a fortune. The Brenda Hiatt link below will give you a general idea about book advances. Always assume you will get the lowest number. You'll be the newbie on the block. It takes time to work up to getting the real money.
STAY AWAY FROM PUBLISHAMERICA. They are the BIGGEST ripoff site of them all. They say they're free and don't want your money, but that is a LIE. You end up buying overpriced copies of your own book!
Just google "publish America" + "scam" and find all the writers who got ripped off by them. They are what is called a "print mill." you don't want anything to do with them. They ruin lives and careers.
If any publisher or agent advertises on Google, it will only lead to a scammer or a vanity house. A real publisher or agent doesn't advertise!
Get Strunk and White's ELEMENTS OF STYLE. All writers have that book and use it.
Again--the 808 books at the library will help you on all this!
Helpful sites for writers:
And just because you've finished a book doesn't mean it's commercially viable. Pro writers finish a book and always start writing another. It keeps your head from exploding while you're waiting to hear back from agents and editors!
See you on Absolute Write! ;>)