DK Mok lives in Sydney, Australia, and writes fantasy, science fiction and urban fantasy novels and short stories. DK graduated from UNSW with a degree in Psychology, pursuing her interest in both social justice and scientist humour. Her urban fantasy novel, The Other Tree, will be released on the 3rd December 2013 by Spence City. DK’s short stories include ‘Morning Star’ in One Small Step (Fablecroft), ‘Autumn Moon’ in Holiday Magick (Spencer Hill Press), and ‘Keeping It Together’ in Midnight Movie: Creature Feature (May December Publications). Find more online at www.dkmok.com, on Twitter @dk_mok or on Facebook.
by DK Mok
“Humorous fantasy is hard to sell.”
This piece of advice was given to me by the editor of a major publishing house after an open pitching session many years ago. It had taken me days to pluck up the courage to attend, and I’d spent the morning practising my pitch in the deserted loft above the auditorium. My actual delivery was a blur of nerves, and the editor’s feedback was kindly given. However, her comments about humorous fantasy stuck with me.
I don’t write comedies, but my stories often have touches of quirkiness. You’ll find the occasional rampaging octopus. It happens.
After the pitching session, I went home and took a long, hard look at my stories, populated as they were by sardonic clerics, cheerful gods, and exasperated warriors. They seemed to shuffle their feet and shrug at me, like a group of kids standing around a shattered vase. I wondered whether I should revise my stories – strip them of their eccentricities and oddball asides.
Humour can be a tough sell. It might take a reader several chapters to realise that a dramatic novel isn’t to their taste, but in a light-hearted novel, the first pun can be a dealbreaker. It’s the exquisitely subjective nature of humour that makes it such a tricky element to handle. A reader who loves Hogfather might loathe Red Dwarf. Someone might find Douglas Adams thigh-slappingly hilarious, but Piers Anthony leaves them cringing. Reading a mediocre drama might be boring, but reading a mediocre comedy can be excruciating.
Essentially, this is the point the editor was trying to make. There are speculative fiction writers who make it work. Authors such as Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams skilfully blend compelling storytelling with incisive wit, or delightful oddness, or both. But when considering the reach and appeal of a novel, gravity often trumps levity. In a highly competitive market, crowded with quality work, infusing your writing with niche humour can further limit the audience you reach. It’s a sensible argument for trimming the more idiosyncratic edges from your stories. The question is: how much do you trim before it isn’t the story you want to tell anymore?
There’s another quote I’d like to share. It’s a comment that has resonated with me throughout the years, from long before the pitching session, from before I even knew what kind of a writer I wanted to be. It appeared in an interview with a writer who I believe worked with Jim Henson in his early days. I kick myself now for not having written down the source, or the exact quote, but this line – or near enough – lettered itself deeply in my mind.
“Nothing wholly sincere is ever wholly ridiculous.”
In life, and in writing, I believe this to be true. An action, in and of itself, is just the movement of objects. It is the earnestness, and the depth of feeling behind the action, that give it meaning. A warrior defending her doomed city is no more worthy of a story than a kraken defending his cuttlefish foster-parents, if the reader can believe the emotional journey.
The characters in my stories have their peculiarities, but they still yearn, strive, grieve, and grow. From barefoot god to slacker zombie, they still struggle with issues that matter to them, and deal with consequences that shape and transform them.
Being true to your voice is no excuse for sloppy craft, or dodgy tropes, but it’s a reason to keep writing, even if there isn’t a significant market for your stories yet. Because if you write with sincerity, commitment and passion, it comes through.
One of the wonderful things about speculative fiction is the diversity of voices out there: serious, satirical, lyrical or weird. Writers who choose to create quirky stories might be limiting themselves to a more niche market, but I like to think that the readers who find these stories – to whom these stories speak – will cherish them all the more.