The 4 Golden Rules of Being a Writer

Here are four lessons about writing and finding an agent that I have learned the hard way. I hope you will read them and save yourself a lot of time and trouble. It is hard to calculate writing time, but I would estimate that, over the past ten years, I have wasted up to eighteen months by not figuring all this out earlier.


Guest column by Anne Fortier, author of the
New York Times bestseller Juliet, a novel
about a young woman who discovers that
she is descended from Shakespeare’s Juliet. The
has sold to 32 countries worldwide, and
came out in the US on August 24, 2010.
She is originally from Denmark


1. Start at square one.
The world is full of people who know people who know an agent … but you can save yourself a lot of time and disappointment by ignoring them. Because the truth is, no one really knows anyone, and even if they did, it is probably not going to help your chances one bit. So, instead of chasing after those elusive people and waiting in vain for introductory e-mails and phone-calls, simply tell yourself that there are no shortcuts in this race; if you run around looking for them, chances are you will still end up back at square one, wondering why you just wasted six months on hearsay.

2. Do your homework. Yes, I’m afraid so. Just as there are no shortcuts when it comes to finding an agent, there are no shortcuts when it comes to your manuscript and query letter. I hardly need mention that your manuscript needs to be 1) finished, 2) brilliant, 3) formatted correctly, and 4) edited to near-perfection, but allow me to emphasize that the same goes for the query letter. You can save yourself a lot of time and unnecessary rejections by following the established rules about query letters. So, go ahead and buy that annoying book about how to compose and format query letters … and follow its recommendations. Don’t rush. Don’t try to squeeze through loopholes in your smarty pants. Invest the time and do a proper job; this is the most important page of your entire manuscript.

3. Pitch your book before you write it. What I mean by this is that you can save yourself a lot of time and headaches by thinking ahead to your query letter as early as possible in the writing process. Once you’ve done your homework and know what a query letter needs to accomplish, you are very likely to look at your finished manuscript and groan. Because how do you pitch that rambling, pointless, dead-boring excuse for a book? Hey, it looked so good while you were writing it, but now that you have to pitch it to someone else, you realize just how un-pitchable it really is. There are no murders, no explosions, no secret society … Well, too late. So, make a point of thinking through the story early on, with the pitch in mind.

4. Don’t jump the gun.
Or, perhaps more to the point: Don’t foul your nest. The book world looks pretty darn big from your office chair, but it actually isn’t. So, once you have compiled that beautiful list of desirable and reliable agents (once again: by doing your homework), make sure you don’t waste it. Don’t send query letters to more than one agent at a time. Don’t say you’ve finished a book if you haven`t. And above all: Don’t test the water by sending your second-best. Be patient. Finish the book. Write the most attractive query letter ever. And then sleep on it. And sleep on it again. Remember: an agent is not some opponent you need to blitz; an agent is someone who would like nothing more than to be your ally. All she/he needs is a good reason.

From First Draft to Finished Novel has
instruction, checklists, and worksheets
that touch upon everything from plot
conflicts to the art of editing and
polishing your manuscript.


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9 thoughts on “The 4 Golden Rules of Being a Writer

  1. Drew Patrick Smith

    Ok, I think Fortier has some great ideas, but I agree with everyone else: definitely send submissions to more than one agent.

    I disagree, though, that unpitchable books are those without murders, secret societies, and explosions. Really? All books need and/or should have these Hollywood movie type plot devices in them? Even television has realized that bigger doesn’t always mean better. They might make writing the pitch easier, I’ll give you that, but it doesn’t mean the book itself is any more likely to be good or likely to sell.

    I also don’t like the idea that writers should create query letters before a project is near completion. Projects change over time and trying to commit to a pitch before its written, for a project that could take years, could be very detrimental to the writing process.

    Instead, learn to write a quality query letter. As Fortier stated, they’re not that hard, and if you do it right, you can truly learn to pitch any project.

    More thoughts on my blog.

  2. Catherine Johnson

    There is always someone out there at any one time talking about procrastinating, and it does make me wonder if we are all sending things out too soon or missing a step because we’ve been writing for ages, shouldn’t we be getting on with it by now. Thanks for this, quality over quantity.

  3. Cindy A

    I came here to write what several people already have. You must query more than one agent at a time or you could be querying your 10th agent in the year 2027. As Chuck said, five to seven at a time is about right.

  4. June Goodwin

    That is so true about pitching your book before it’s written. I’ve found that writing a query letter makes me tighten the premise. I’ve even gone back and rewrote parts because of the query, so yeah, it truly helps to be able to conceptualize your story right off the bat.

  5. Kimmy

    Great advice except for this, in my humble opinion:

    Don’t send query letters to more than one agent at a time.

    If I sent out one query and waited to hear from that agent, I’d be dead by the time someone might have some interest in my book! I’ve had no response, responses after four months, and next day responses. If we sent out one letter and waited, we would never get published.

  6. Chuck

    Agreed. I think you should query a moderate number of agents – say 5-7 – at a time. So I think the general point is "Do not carpetbomb agents," and that is a universal guideline.

    I like Number 3! I think, by writing out your pitch, you are forced to confront things like: What are the stakes? How does the main character change? What complications arise in your Act II?


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