One of my most common emails (that I get, not that I send--just clarifying) is from people who have completed their novel and they want to know what to do next.
My first response is: rewrite it.
I don't tell people that because I don't want to discourage them. They'll get plenty of discouragement from agents/editors/publishers. Besides, for all I know said optimistic writer has already rewritten the thing 17 times.
I usually tell people about agentquery.com It's a great resource for authors. You can search agents by genre and the site gives you all sorts of useful information like the agent's submission guidelines and what sort of chocolate to send in order to bribe them. Okay, the website doesn't really tell you about agents' favorite chocolate, but it should. If I was an agent, that's the first thing I'd have listed there.
Anyway, here is the checklist I should give people before they submit anything.
1) Have you read any books on writing? If the answer is no, you're not ready to submit. If the answer is yes, but you've only read one or two, you're also probably not ready to submit. Writing is like playing the piano. Most people who are self-taught are not going to be all that good at it.
Here are some great writing books for novelists:
Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King
Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain
Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham (Actually anything by Jack Bickham)
GMC Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Deborah Dixon (You need to go to the publisher's website for this one.)
Anything by Gary Provost
Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
If you write non-fiction or picture books, get and read the books that pertain to those genres. Ditto for romance books, westerns, whatever. Blogs on writing are also very helpful. For example, if you need to write an action scene involving angry grapefruit, you'll want to read my last blog.
2) How many times have you gone over the manuscript yourself?
If the answer is twice, you're not ready to submit. For first time novels, you need to send that baby out to lots of readers for critiques. Don't just send it to your mom or friends. They'll tell you that it's great--and they might even believe it. After all, they love you. You need to have a network of fellow writers or well-read friends that can give you tough love. If you don't have that, pay for it. Revising is the difference between selling and not selling.
3) How long have you let the manuscript sit, unread?
If it's only a few days or a couple of weeks, you're not ready to submit. One of the truly weird things about writing is that you can't see your own mistakes when you write them. This goes for missing words but it also applies to unclear dialogue, bad description, etc. The story works beautifully in our minds, and so that's what we see on the paper. Let your manuscript sit for a month. Two or three months is better. (Which is why it's great to send a manuscript to an editor and then not get the revision letter for a couple of months. By that time you can look at it with fresh eyes.)
4) Have you ever gone to a writers' workshop or conference?
If not, why not? If you want to publish you probably should go to a conference that addresses your genre. You'll meet people who know about the industry. You'll get advice from pros, and you'll get tips about what's selling and what's not. If paranormal is a hard sell (which it is right now, by the way) and you're pitching your paranormal romance, you may run into problems. Not knowing why something is rejected is one of the most frustrating things about this business. Stay up to date about what's going on.
Besides, a good writers' conference will energize you. That's why people go back year after year.
5) Have you bought all my books?
Actually, this step might not really help you, but it would help me so I'm including it.