If you really, really, really want to become a published author, it's actually pretty easy (at least in Canada - more on Canadian publishing in another blogpost). Or, I should say it's fairly simple to get published if you do your homework.
Aha... that's the problem...
There are always exceptions and wild stories of overnight success, but the reality is that most writers have to have some kind of credibility before an agent or publisher will even look at them. It's like that old circle of (il)logic: Can't get a job without experience, can't get experience without a job...
If becoming published really, really matters and it's your number one dream, then you're going to have to jump through a few hoops and do some work for free. Suck it up, Princess...
Few agents/publishers will give you the time of day if you don't have a track record... so build one.
In my case, I checked out some community papers. Little monthly papers usually operate on a shoestring budget... meaning they don't really have much of a staff roster... meaning that they are receptive to content they don't have to pay for.
"The Voice" (a monthly paper centred on and available in East Toronto) published three separate articles I sent them.
The first article (which I sent in time for their September issue) was about learning opportunities in the area: yoga classes, French instruction, music lessons, etc. Their September issue (naturally) focused on Back to School, so my little piece on general interest courses and lifelong learning fit in.
The next piece I sent them was timed for their February issue. Brrr... Winter, cold, snow, Spring Break soon, get away, go south... I wrote a little piece on vacations in warm places, but with a twist: I wrote about "volunteer vacations" - building a school in Guatemala, helping out at an orphanage in India, etc. Sure enough, The Voice accepted this article.
The third piece I had published in The Voice was another article centred on the neighbourhood, and the idea relates a bit to the article mentioned above. I wrote about volunteer opportunities in the East Toronto and included a range of ways to give back to the community. There were descriptions of volunteering at hospitals and long term care facilities, working with animals at a shelter, and so on.
While I wouldn't say that these articles directly landed me my first publishing contract, they certainly helped. When I began querying agents (only two) and publishers, I could honestly claim that I had been published. To prospective agents and publishers, this can matter a great deal.