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

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.