Aug 6, 2009

Query: The Jackpot (Thriller)

Great site here. Below is a version of my query that initially worked like gangbusters (6 requests out of 12 submissions). Then the bottom dropped out, and I received 30+ form rejections in a row. Would love to get a sense of whether this was a good query, or whether I just got lucky at the beginning.

Dear Agent:

I am seeking representation for The Jackpot, my 95,000-word dark comic thriller about Samantha Obeid, a Lebanese-American attorney facing a personal crisis, and her new client's gigantic winning lottery ticket, which threatens to destroy Samantha's life when her desperate boss decides to steal it.

After spending eight soul-reaving years "helping really big and rich companies get a little bigger and richer" (as she wistfully puts it), Samantha Obeid is crushed when her law firm passes her over for partner. So when the firm's janitor, Julius Mitchell, approaches her for advice about a winning lottery ticket worth nearly half a billion dollars, she sees an opportunity to salvage her career with a wealthy new client for the firm. She introduces Julius and his ticket to her boss, Hunter Pierce, hoping to revive her dreams of a financially secure future for herself and her struggling parents. But Pierce, a man riddled with more problems than he can count, devises his own plan for the ticket - to steal it.

Following a violent confrontation that leaves Julius dead, Samantha finds herself holding the ticket and risking her life to deliver it to Julius' only heir - his estranged son. But as a nothing-to-lose Hunter Pierce closes in on her, Samantha becomes increasingly drawn to the ticket and its promise of unimaginable wealth. The really bad news? Neither Hunter nor the temptation to keep the ticket for herself is Samantha's biggest problem: a homicidal mercenary with a unique take on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution has been hired to hunt down the ticket, and he will stop at nothing to find it.

I am an attorney living in XXX, and my writing credits include two short stories published in online magazines (names of stories and mags). I hope you will find that the novel’s darkly comic tone and Samantha's background provide interesting spins on popular lawyer-in-trouble thriller.

Thank you for considering my query, and I look forward to your response.

Sincerely,
David

17 comments:

David said...

This is my query (posted anonymously by accident), so I'll comment first -- I have an inconsistency in the main character's last name. This has been fixed, and it never went out like this.

I appreciate Rick's efforts in keeping this site and anyone's comments.

Don't hold back.

Rick Daley said...

I just corrected the last name.

David said...

Rick,
Thanks. Again, great work on the site.

Vipul said...

This sounds like a pretty interesting story, and I was definitely pulled along the query. Not that I'm an expert or anything, but a couple nitpicky things:

-I think you could probably do away with the first paragraph. Except for the word count, everything is covered later.

-Mentioning the homicidal mercenary at the end is a little confusing, it's not clear where he comes from or who hired him. Maybe there's a concise way to tie him into the rest of the plot?

-While I would mention the dark comic part at some point (like when you state the genre), you don't need to mention it specifically in the next-to-last sentence. Also, it's not clear from the query how her background plays a role in making the story unique.

Congratulations on all the responses so far! Six sounds pretty good!

David said...

Vipul,

Thanks. Yes, I've wrestled with whether to include the intro paragraph. Some agents blog about preferring a gentle intro like I have, others want you to jump right in.

As for the mercenary, his motive and his employer's identity is critical to the story's resolution (but to give away much more would give away TOO much). I will see if I can make that a bit clearer.

thanks again.

scott g.f. bailey said...

This isn't a genre I read, but likely this is just too long and repetitive.

I agree that the first paragraph could be cut, except for "I am seeking representation for The Jackpot, a 95,000-word thriller."

I don't know about "dark comic thriller." Is there such a thing? Like I said, I don't so much read this genre. I might rephrase that somehow.

I also agree that the mercenary seems to come out of nowhere and seems sort of over the top. It also strikes me that there's too much going on here. We don't need to know that Julius' son is estranged, or that Pierce has more problems than he can count.

"But as a nothing-to-lose Hunter Pierce closes in on her, Samantha becomes increasingly drawn to the ticket and its promise of unimaginable wealth. The really bad news? Neither Hunter nor the temptation to keep the ticket for herself is Samantha's biggest problem:" can all be cut, really. As can "with a unique take on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution". It's all too much and blurs the picture.

Maybe more like:

Samantha Obeid is crushed when her law firm passes her over for partner. When the firm's janitor approaches her for advice about a winning lottery ticket worth nearly half a billion dollars, she sees an opportunity to salvage her career. When a violent confrontation leaves her new client dead, Samantha finds herself holding the ticket and risking her life to deliver it to his son. Samantha discovers that her own law firm has hired a violent mercenary to retrieve the ticket, and she must find her client's son before he does.

Or something. Last line is weak, I admit. Anyway, cut down to the essential conflict, the terrible event we see coming that Samantha must avoid.

Like I says, I don't so much read this genre, but it sounds like the book has all the right elements in place. I think you just need to focus more in the query.

If it's a comedy, why is there nothing comic in the premise, though? Is the humor just black humor for comic relief during the story?

David said...

Scott,

Thanks for your comment. you are right in that the story contains black humor for comic relief -- it's part of my storytelling style that seeps out. think Carl Hiaasen (except he's a master, and I am but a student).

Also, as I indicated to Vipul, the mercenary is key to the story, as is the motive behind his mission.

I felt it was important to include a snippet of Pierce's motivation for wanting to steal the ticket since, after the setup, that's what sets the story in motion -- Act II, if you will.

it seems though that there are other places to tighten up.

thanks for your input.

Laura Martone said...

Hi, David.

Congrats on getting six requests... if you tighten this query up a bit, perhaps you'll get even more! I agree with the points made by Vipul and Scott... in fact, I'd like to address the mercenary issue. I realize that you hesitate to give too much away, but this isn't the marketing copy for the back of your novel... this is a query, and my understanding is that you shouldn't hold back... give the agent the beginning, middle, and end. Otherwise, the mercenary seems to come out of nowhere, which could ultimately turn a previously intrigued agent off by the letter's end.

Also, if this book has a dark comic edge, SHOW us that in your query. Right now, this thriller seems very heavy - with no humor at all - which isn't a bad thing, unless, of course, you indicate that the story is somewhat funny in your query.

Good luck!

--Laura

David said...

Laura,

thanks for weighing in -- wow, 3-for-3 on confusing people with the mercenary storyline (and I had thought that nicely added a layer of conflict for Samantha). Goes to show how a neutral eye helps.

Suzan Harden said...

David, if you don't mind my asking, what was the timeline for sending out the first 12 queries sent versus the last 30?

The reason I ask is your query sounds vaguely like Slumdog Millionaire. Mind you, I haven't seen the movie, and your story has nothing to do with India, etc. The query may triggered a similar association in an agent's brain. If the last few queries went out after Slumdog got the Oscar nod, it may simply be a question of bad timing.

Donna Hole said...

Uh, dude; I get no sympathy for a protagonist here; Samantha. She's about as greedy as the rest of the characters. If she is your protagonist, you need to give her some characteristic that makes her lovable, or at least redeemable. I liked the first plot synopsis; that she is delivering it (the winning ticket) to his only heir. But you lose me when she thinks of keeping it herself. Unless you can show a compelling, personal reason why she would be so deceitful, that might be a tidbit best left to the synopsis. Or, better yet, as part of the backstory somewhere in the acutal novel. I like a moral decision, but you show too much "all business" for your protagonist. (Samantha is your protagonist, right?)

What is the real story line here; that a lawyer is trying to salvage her career? Perhaps she is having a moral crisis that forces her to rethink her values? Or is she only trying to get the most value for her "good deed" in representing a janitor with a winning lottery ticket? And, why does he need representation?

My opinion: Make Samantha's motivations more clear; and tie in why the janitor/millionaire needs a lawyer in the first place.

This sounds like an interesting story, but I need something more personal (with the ticket or the janitor) than money or career advancement to make me root for Samantha and her quest.

"I am seeking representation for . ." sounds a bit desperate. The rest of the line is very descriptive. I liked it, and the author bio. I have a feeling that worked well.
...........dhole

David said...

Suzan,

The burst of requests came from about mid-March and ran through the end of April. The dark times began at the beginning of May. I haven't seen Slumdog either (and don't know anything about the storyline).

Donna,
You've hit on something that I struggled with throughout the manuscript -- keeping Samantha likable and heroic, but showing that she's human, subject to temptation like the rest of us (especially given the circumstances that ultimately place the ticket in her hand).

Also, with respect to her career, she's hoping that bringing in such a wealthy new client for the firm will help save her career after the rug is pulled out from under her.

Thanks to both of you for your comments.

RCWriterGirl said...

Well, the opening line was dry and a little bit awkwardly phrased (though I'm not sure it can be corrected while still retaining the information, which was interesting), but I think that's easily overlooked.

I was really enjoying how the story was unfolding, what you said would happen in your book. Then you introduced the "homicidal mercenary with a unique take on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution." This is where I said, WTF?

There was a certain amount of suspended disbelief required to believe that a partner at a lawfirm needed this ticket so badly he was going to kill the janitor to get it, and then convince Samanth to join him or kill her too. Killing tends to be done by people who are desperate or psychotic, and there's not enough info about the boss in the query to let us believe he's desperate or psychotic enough to not worry about killing two people, but I'm willing to accept I'll find that motive in the book.

However, this mercenary guy makes me say, "wait a minute." It stopped me cold. I didn't even want to finish reading the query.

There wasn't that much more to the query anyway. But, this mercenary throws a real monkey wrench in things.

One agent said on a blog said she likes to request a synopsis so she can see if the story makes senses, if it's got an exciting premise that will fall apart in the end. For me, the mercenary makes everything fall apart in the end.

I think if you're going to mention this mercenary, you've got to explain how he's connected to the ticket better and Samantha. Otherwise, leave him out, because he just stinks up your query.

The premise sounds really interesting though. I could see Samantha wanting this client to help her get in with partners (law firm partners are such cutthroat villains); I can see this partner wanting the ticket for himself (though seriously not sure why he's so desparate--I mean at big firms, partner income, even for the lazy ones who've long since stopped contributing is pretty good, compared to what us littles make); I can see Samantha being honest and forthright and trying to get this ticket back to the janitor's heir; I can even see her at some point in the journey being seduced by the money herself, tempted to be just as bad as those nasty, greedy partners. That's done really well.

I can't see some psycho mercenary with a unique take on the survival of the fittest theory. He doesn't fit--not with what you've given us so far.

Good luck.

David said...

Virtually everyone who's commented has a problem with the reference to the mercenary, which makes me think there's a problem I need to address.

That being said, I'd be curious whether you all thought:

1. I should delete the reference to him entirely?

2. I should tone it down -- "a mercenary has been hired to hunt down the ticket, and he will stop at nothing to to find it."

3. Approach it in some other way.

If it helps: The mercenary doesn't know why he's been hired to track it down, and he doesn't learn why until the end of the story (the reader doesn't either). He's been given a job and offered a lot of money to do it.

Thanks.

scott g.f. bailey said...

In re the mercenary: Either tone it down ("someone else wants the ticket, too, and has hired a cold-blooded killer to find it" or something), tone down the evil boss and make the merc the Big Bad, or take a good look at your story and see if you don't have a problem with it rather than a problem with your query. Likely it's just that too many bad guys in one query dilutes the central conflict.

Unless, maybe, you just present it as Samantha versus a host of enemies, with the focus always on her, rather than telling us so much about the boss and the mercenary. Keep it simple; keep it about Samantha. The bad guys' motivations aren't so important in a query. Samantha is the one who matters here.

Another general comment: try to use only Samantha's name in the query. Agents are always saying that too many names in so short a time is distracting.

Rick Daley said...

I don't see a problem with Samantha being tempted by the money. In LOTR both Frodo and Bilbo were affected by the rings power. I think having her start to wonder if she could take the money and run adds some depth to her struggle.

I agree that the way the mercenary is portrayed is a over the top.

The first sentence is too much. Break apart your hook and the factual information (word count and title) and the hook will be sharper.

You don't need to include so many character names. You can reference her scheming boss, the only heir, but my advice is to name the protagonist and antagonist.

Does Samanth's ethnicity have anything to do with the story? Is she challenged because she is Lebanese-American? If not, you can leave that detail out.

Form what I've read, publishers are looking for stories with a strong female protagonist. that may have been a part of your initial requests. I think this is different enough from Slumdog Millionaire (damn good movie! Haven't read the book) that it can stand on its own.

Anonymous said...

David:

I'm afraid you're unselling agents. If you chop this in half, it'll be twice as strong. You've got some wonderful stuff here.

I read this genre, and I kinda liked Darwin's Killer; the problem is that the tone of that line clashes with the rest. If it's Hiassen, go Hiassen throughout. It reads a bit like Grisham suddenly swerves into Miami right now.

This is un-Hiassened, and rough, but the direction I'd go:

After eight soul-reaving years helping the rich get richer, Samantha Obeid is crushed when her law firm passes her over for partner. So when the firm's janitor, Julius Mitchell, approaches her for advice about a winning lottery ticket worth nearly half a billion dollars, she sees an opportunity to salvage her career with a wealthy new client for the firm. But her boss has his own plan for the ticket - to steal it.

Following a violent confrontation between the boss and janitor that leaves Julius dead, Samantha finds herself risking her life to deliver the ticket to Julius's estranged son. With both her desperate boss and a hired killer closing in on her, something something something jackpot.

The Jackpot is 95,000 words. I look forward to hearing from you.