W&N Fiction

Don’t mention Terry Pratchett! Or: How to submit your comic fantasy novel . . .

Gollancz Author: - October 21st, 2011
Editorial Process, Fantasy, Publishing Tips, Terry Pratchett

With this week’s publication of Snuff, it seems a perfect moment to talk about comic fantasy.

There are few submissions that I dread more than the ‘brilliant comic fantasy novel’. If I’m honest, it’s a pitch that makes my heart sink when I see it, because the pitch is always the same: ‘This is my hilarious comic fantasy novel. All my friends have read it, and they think I’m as funny as Terry Pratchett’. For most of the comic fantasy submission letters I see, that’s the only thing they tell me about the novel.

Some pitches have promised ‘as funny as Terry Pratchett or your money back!’. Some have included funny excerpts from the manuscript to convince me that I hold comedy gold in my hands. One even offered a list of the brilliant one-liners waiting for me when I turned the page. Another hopeful explained in their opening letter they had never read a comic fantasy novel because all the published ones were dreadful (I didn’t ask how they knew), but their submission was different: all their friends had read it, and had declared it better than Terry Pratchett.

There’s a theme to these submissions.

And that’s what’s so frustrating.

. . . so I would like to offer a suggestion. If you have written and plan to submit a comic fantasy novel, don’t tell the editor or agent you’re contacting that ‘it’s as funny as Terry Pratchett’. We have all heard it before, we don’t believe it and – more importantly for you and your submission – if you’ve written a successful novel then the humour is probably not the most important, or most compelling, element of it.

I appreciate that this sounds scary. I’ve just taken away the two most obvious selling points – but bear with me. Pratchett’s novels are so successful because (among other reasons) he has written a collection of fabulous, endearing characters in an amazing, entertaining, often surprising world. And he tells a great story. The same is true of Robert Rankin and Tom Holt, both brilliant authors writing in a comic mode, and I suspect that their plots and characters are as key, if not more so, to hooking readers as their humour is. The comedy is only one of the things we read their novels for. And so my second suggestion: think about your novel, your characters and your story. They should be the heart of your project and, however funny your writing, it’s your story which will keep readers coming back for more. So focus a little more on the ‘fantasy’ instead of the ‘comic’, more on the narrative than on the way you have written it, and you might find you are pleasantly surprised by the results.

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3 Responses to “Don’t mention Terry Pratchett! Or: How to submit your comic fantasy novel . . .”

  1. The LHC says:

    Couldn’t agree more, just ploughing through Snuff at the moment and I’d describe Terry Pratchett as no more than humerous, you don’t really laugh out loud (although to be fair I’ve been pretty close on several occasions with this one), it’s more amused recognition of the human traits and frailties that you never thought about before but seem so obvious once he mentions them. What keeps me coming back is the brilliant stories and endlessly fascinating characters and places, which is what so many others in this genre lack.

  2. AL says:

    I have read books by Terry Pratchett, Robert Rankin and Tom Holt, which is probably one of the reasons I have pitched my Grim Reaping novel somewhere in that area. The thing is, I know many complained that some of Pratchett’s recent books (Monstrous Regiment being a prime example) have not been as funny as his earlier stuff. In the end, humour comes where it comes. When the Exorcist was first released it was the most terrifying thing to have been seen on screen, when it was re-released a decade ago it actually raised a few laughs in the cinema audience. Humour isn’t something that you can really produce, it is either there, or it isn’t. No matter how much I admire these authors, to me adding their name in a submission letter in any context more than “my audience demographics probably lie in the same area as…” is basically saying I have nothing to declare but my inability to sell my work based on its own merits.

  3. To make comparisons in terms of talent is just setting yourself up to be pulled apart. Although I do agree with AL’s comment re mentioning authors with regard to demographics and market segments.

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