Sunday, 20 July 2014

Why is your story going to grab people? A nugget of query letter gold.

How do we prove that our story has wide appeal, that there’s a market out there just waiting to find it? A query letter to agents or publishers needs to show that it taps into some widespread impulse in society – a desire or a fear that drives people, and that they’ll respond to in our story.

This week I discovered a nugget of query letter gold in an article about the hit series, Long Lost Family:

Courtesy of

 If you haven’t seen Long Lost Family, do watch it, but not without a large box of tissues. It features mothers who gave up a child for adoption, often due to the social mores of another era, and who are now searching for that child years later. Also featured are adoptees searching for a birth parent. In all cases, the trail has gone cold, so that ITV’s adoption and tracing experts are the last desperate hope.

My novel Unspeakable Things is about Sarah, whose mother died when she was four, and who has been told nothing about her. Pregnant herself, she moves back the abandoned family home and becomes obsessed with a quest for answers, for which she depends entirely on her long-lost uncle.

Here in a nutshell is the story:
‘Pregnant editor, Sarah, is told that her dead mother suffered hereditary madness after childbirth, and tried to kill her, but is her uncle’s story true? Sarah must discover the family’s dark secret before her baby is born.’

I wanted to show that the story taps into a deep-seated need to know where we come from, so I  researched how many adoptees begin a search for their birth parents when they themselves are expecting a child. Unfortunately, adoption statistics are really hard to come by, so I found myself quoting outdated statistics in a rather dry way. I needed something much more compelling.

Imagine my delight when Twitter led me to an online Telegraph article about Long Lost Family, which last year had an audience of 5.2 million (get that, query letter readers – a huge potential market!) In it, Nicky Campbell, one of the programme’s presenters, himself adopted at birth, summarises its appeal:

‘We’re talking about the most basic-to-life things: attachment, identity, belonging and love. It’s all the stuff that makes the world go round. I think that’s why it resonates with people. They see echoes and reflections and shades of themselves within it.’

Nicky Campbell, I have long enjoyed your shows on Radio 5, your intelligence and humour (with this week this gem: ‘You know how you sit round as a family and debate the great issues of the day, well we were doing that last night, and I’d like to put it to you now. Vinegar. Are you largely for, or against?’) Now you have described with perfect brevity what drives my heroine, and I thank you for that nugget of query letter gold.

What impulses do your stories tap into? Or what books do you love because they evoke a deep response in you – a fear, a desire, a longing for adventure, a fiercely held belief? To start the ball rolling, I wonder if the reason I loved Catch-22 so much as a teenager is because it taps into a feeling you have at that age that much of what you’re being fed as truth or duty is in fact insanity, and you’re the only sane one, trapped inside it. I’d love to hear your favourites and the reason you think they grabbed you!

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