A discussion began recently on the Writing list of The Internet Writing Workshop about the initial publications of famous writers before-they-were-famous.
Dawn Goldsmith, a writer whose essays appear regularly in The Christian Science Monitor, posted an interesting response.
I believe the way to publication is first: strong writing -- of course.
But also build your writing business. Network, market, learn to be a professional about all aspects of the writing business, know your markets and what they want, give them something they aren't finding elsewhere, be persistent. Associate with other professionals. Join organizations and do what it takes to establish contacts and links and friendships so that more and more people will know you and your work. Educate yourself. Never submit anything that isn't the best you can do. Don't slack, don't be lazy, don't fear to try something new or push yourself to grow and get better.
Take workshops. Meet and greet editors and those who can help promote your writings. I know this works for nonfiction and I feel certain it works for fiction. Target the markets you need to get your work seen. Find out what literary magazines the editors and publishers and agents read and watch for new talent. Find a mentor.
Join groups like IWW or writing groups so that you can help each other. It doesn't hurt if you have published authors in those groups who are willing to help you get your work seen. Enter contests -- those that will get your writing before editors, agents, and publishers.
And don't sell yourself short. Don't dream too small, either. If you have something that Playboy would publish -- submit it. I think that King's success in Playboy, etc. may have fit his style with that market. Find your niche and go after it. Stephen King had a new voice, a new style, a new genre -- he wrote what he felt the need to write and he did the best he knew how. I think the key really is to follow your own writing needs. Whatever you really want to say -- say it. And then find the market that wants it. The stories, the novels, the movies, the documentaries -- we remember the ones that moved outside of the mainstream or the norm and made a new statement.