How to Make Your Query Stand Out / Agent Jill Marr

Agent Jill Marr, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency

Agent Jill Marr, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency

Every writer goes through it—the painful process of penning the perfect pitch letter. Compared to writing an 80,000 word novel or coming up with an incredible, stand-out non-fiction project, writing the ideal query to agents and editors is the act that makes normally sane people feel the need to scream into the night, pull their hair out and stab themselves in the neck with that dreaded red pen.

The mysterious query thing is all so subjective—for instance, there are touches that I love but others don’t, and I’ve definitely heard about issues that other agents have that don’t bother me. (One agent hates it when you start your letter with a question like “Have you ever fallen down a well, were left rotting there for days, and lived to tell the tale?” My agent friend would say, “Nope” and press the reject button). Personal preferences aside, though, there are some things you can do to keep from sabotaging your initial introduction.

To start with, be sure to spell query correctly if you put it in your subject header. Seriously. You’d be surprised. I received an email today entitled “Querie.” I didn’t even bother opening it. I hope it wasn’t from Harper Lee, telling me about her next big book that she’s finally ready to send out to the world. I would advise you not to put the word query in your subject header at all. As I only get queries to my submissions email, it’s redundant and wastes valuable space.

Next, you should know—with absolute certainty—to whom you are writing. It’s pretty annoying to get a letter addressed to Mr. Marr or Jill Mohr, Maher, or otherwise. It certainly isn’t a deal-breaker but it is annoying, and you don’t want an annoyed agent reading your query. We’re a surly bunch, to be sure, and while we don’t need to be sucked up to or bribed, it’s important to start our relationship off on a good note.

Starting off things on a good note will include catching the reader’s eye immediately. I’ll admit it, I skim. But I read the first couple of sentences carefully before I start trying to just hit the highlights of the letter. So do yourself a huge favor and start out strong. There are many books out there that will tell you to write immediately what your genre your book is, how long it is and to cover the basics right way but I personally find that a bore and can smell a template query letter as soon as I open it.

So rather than drone on about what does and does not work when it comes to kicking off a strong query letter, I figured I’d show a few examples of real-life openings that didn’t work for me:

Dear Agent (seriously, at least try to address the agent or editor personally. “Dear Agent” is always a turn-off, doubly so for “Dear Agents.”)

XXX is a drama based on true events that is double spaced and 66 pages long.  (The entire book is 66 pages long? First, I have no idea what that means because I don’t know what format it’s in but it’s too short. Definitely know your word count.)

Dear Jill Marr,

I’m seeking representation for my completed 80,000 word, adult, science fiction manuscript, XXX. (I don’t take science fiction so you just wasted time for both of us—be sure to do your homework about who is looking for what and submit appropriately. A good place to look is Publishers Marketplace. It’s not expensive to subscribe and it’s updated about industry happenings daily. Most book sales are announced on their site and you can see what agents have sold and what editors are looking for there.) 

This is a query letter regarding my novel XXX. I attach a brief synopsis and around the first 50 pages of the manuscript. (Nothing was attached…oops! If I’m really intrigued I’ll email to ask but most likely I will just move on to the next query letter. Don’t limit your chances and be sure that you are thorough.)

Dear Agents:

I have written a thrilling adventure story, entitled XXX, that I am confident will become a best-seller as well as a successful motion picture, and I would like you to represent my interests. (A double-whammy here—this author addressed me as “Agents” and is telling me that he is confident that his book will become the next best-seller. I do give him mad props for not going on to tell me that his mother and all of his friends have read the book and “love it.” Another major no-no. It’s great to get yourself beta readers and, if possible, a wonderful blurb before you send out, but if the endorsement doesn’t come from someone with a recognizable name, leave it out.)

Dear Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency,

This was my first book and I was so excided about writing a true story about my life. My family members told me that I could never do anything like this, because I have only a 3rd grade educational all due to fact that my mother had taking me out of school so she could run around on my step dad while he was working and I had to keep the house clean up for her. This is the reason why I was unable to read or write like the other kids. (I think this one really speaks for itself.)

Dear Ms Marr,                                                                              

Thank you for taking the time to read XXX a contemporary fantasy novel of 43,000 words, aimed at 11+ years. I am always delighted to receive feedback, and happy to make any corrections or revisions. (Don’t send me something you think you might have to edit down the line. I want your very, very best work. I love editing and we are very hands-on at SDLA but if a manuscript has too many flaws we just don’t have the time to rewrite it with you. Although it is good to know that you are willing to make revisions, I’d include that in later correspondence. This was a red flag for me, and the fact that the entire book is only 43,000 words is not good—that’s technically a novella. This author has a lot of work to do, aside from her agent homework because I don’t take fantasy.)

There are also several ways to stand out in a good way. Here are a few examples of some first lines that have caught my eye recently:

Because of your interest in historical fiction and mysteries, I think you might be interested in my novel XXX. (Okay, this one is a little dry but the fact that the author found my bio and saw that I am looking for the genre in which she writes was helpful and it worked. I can’t remember if I asked for pages on it though, so that’s not a good sign. Let’s place this particular lead in the “so-so” category.)

There is simply not enough room in a Toyota trunk for a spare tire and a dentist—a lesson Charlie Miller learns quite by accident. (Hello! This is a great way to start off a query. I’m getting that it’s going to be a mystery or a thriller without the author even having to tell me AND I’m getting a feel for the author’s voice; there’s humor and a certain playfulness to it that I really like. This one is a winner and not in the Charlie Sheen sense of the word.)

Gabriella has never met a man more exciting than a murder. (Again, this one works because the author is showing me so much, but in a new and different way. This character is a loner and someone who deals with death and murders. I already like her!)

It’s so important to catch an agent right away so put some serious thought into those first few sentences and be sure to do your homework before you send out. It’ll pay off for you. What I will leave you with is that agents need writers as much as writers need agents. Every time I open a query letter I hope it’ll knock my socks off. I don’t make any money rejecting people. So I’d much rather love your query and be able to sell it than not.


Jill Marr is an acquiring associate agent at the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. She graduated from San Diego State University with a BA in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing and a minor in History. She has a strong Internet and media background as well as over 10 years of publishing experience. She wrote features and ads for Pages, the literary magazine for people who love books, and continues to write book ads for publishing houses, magazine pieces and promotional features for television. After writing ad copy and features for published books for years she knows how to find the “hook” and sell it. Jill is interested in commercial fiction, with an emphasis on mysteries, thrillers and horror, women’s commercial fiction and historical fiction. She is also looking for non-fiction by authors who are getting their work published regularly in magazines and who have a realistic sense of the market and their audience. Jill is looking for non-fiction projects in the areas of self-help, inspirational, cookbooks, memoir (she especially loves travel and foodie memoirs), parenting, history, sports, current events, health & nutrition, pop culture, humor and music. Some of Jill’s recent and soon-to-be-published books include Nancy L. Cohen’s Cracked: Sex, Politics, and the Unmaking of America(PoliPoint Press), Martha Biondi’s Black Revolution on Campus: 1968 and its Legacy (UC Press), Doulas A. Wissing’s The Perfect War (PoliPoint Press), Market Mind Games by Denise Shull (McGraw-Hill) and Lexi George’s series Demon Hunting in Dixie (Kensington), Jaden E. Terrell’s series that includes Racing the Devil and A Cup Full of Midnight (The Permanent Press), Jay Michaelson’s God versus Gay?: The Religious Case for Equality (Beacon Press), Rick’s Cafe: How I Brought a Screen Legend to Life in Casablanca (Lyon’s Press) by Kathy Kriger, William Jones’ More than the Dream: The Untold Story of the March on Washington, Flat Spin (The Permanent Press), a thriller from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Freed and Argyle Armada: Life with America’s Top Pro Cycling Team (VeloPress) by Mark Johnson.


(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/).  To be a part of this series, contact Beth at beth@killernashville.com.)

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About Clay Stafford

Clay Stafford is an author / filmmaker (www.ClayStafford.com) and founder of Killer Nashville (www.KillerNashville.com). As a writer himself, he has over 1.5 million copies of his own books in print in over 14 languages. Stafford’s latest projects are the feature documentary “One of the Miracles” (www.OneOfTheMiracles.com) and the music CD “XO” (www.JefferyDeaverXOMusic.com). A champion of writers, Publishers Weekly has identified Stafford as playing “an essential role in defining which books become bestsellers” throughout “the nation’s book culture.” (PW 6/10/13)
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2 Responses to How to Make Your Query Stand Out / Agent Jill Marr

  1. Stacy Allen says:

    Jill, re-read this today. Your wisdom is inspiring. Thank you.

  2. darar68 says:

    Reblogged this on Dara Rochlin Book Doctor and commented:
    Great advice by Jill Marr.

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