by Special Agent Laura Davis (a.k.a. Hex Quillion)
Today is May the fourth, and aside from Star Wars Day, there’s another reason to celebrate: the release of this year’s Writers of the Future anthology! The winners of the competition were announced at the recently held awards ceremony in Hollywood, California. Honestly, though, the awards ceremony is just a sparkly spot in the huge, brilliant picture that is Writers of the Future.
This is not just another book award. It’s a program, a process, a system for shaping new writers and ensuring that the genres of science fiction and fantasy continue to grow and mature as art forms. It builds an integrated community of writers who support each other and work together throughout their careers. “It’s an awesome thing,” said Writers of the Future judge, Todd McCaffrey, who is a science fiction author and son of the late, great Anne McCaffrey. “This is a chance to break into the industry in a huge way, you don’t have to pay any money, thank God. You can submit four times a year, and you’re going to be read by a professional writer first, and finally, judged by a whole bunch of professional authors. Your name’s not on whatever you submitted, so nobody knows who you are, they don’t know your sex, they don’t know how old you are, nothing! Which is really pretty cool.”
It began with L. Ron Hubbard. Say what you will about Scientology, or even about Hubbard’s own writing, but his founding and endowment of the Writers of the Future program was certainly his greatest legacy to the literary world and, quite possibly, the greatest legacy ever left in the genres of science fiction and fantasy.
Hubbard began writing in the early 1930s, and started out, as many authors did at that time, writing for pulp magazines. At a penny a word, he had to learn to crank out as many words as possible in as short a time as possible, in order to eke out a living. He wrote on an old Remington manual typewriter, as he put it, “until I am finger worn to the second joint.” Writing for pulps was extremely competitive, and Hubbard found that he had to learn any lessons he needed the hard way, because “the gentlemen of the craft” were not eager to share advice with potential competitors.
Hubbard believed that there should be help and mentorship available to neophytes, and, to that end, in 1935, he became President of the New York chapter of the American Fiction Guild, and he published an essay entitled “The Manuscript Factory,” in which he shared his advice on the business of writing. “You are a factory,” he wrote. “And if you object to the word, then allow me to assure you that it is not a brand, but merely a handy designation which implies nothing of the hack, but which could be given to any classic writer.” He continued publishing his essays on the craft and business of writing over the course of years.
There was actually a proto-version of Writers of the Future, which Hubbard started in 1940. It was done through a radio show called The Golden Pen Hour, which aired on KGBU in Ketchikan, Alaska. The show was designed to inspire new writers, and the Writers of the Future contest was intended to level the playing field for new writers. “Anyone but professional writers may participate,” stated the rules.
In 1981, Hubbard founded Author Services, Inc., which began as his private literary agency, and has since grown to include not only administration of the Writers of the Future program, but also Galaxy Press, which publishes Hubbard’s fictional works, and the L. Ron Hubbard Theatre, which produces The Golden Age Radio Hour: a weekly theatrical readings and performances of Hubbard’s work.
The current iteration of the Writers of the Future program began in 1983, and among its winners are some of our most talented contemporary authors: Dean Wesley Smith, Dave Wolverton, Eric Flint, Patrick Rothfuss, and Brad Torgerson, to name just a few. The contest has four submission periods each year, and each quarter, three writers and three illustrators are chosen as finalists and awarded cash prizes. At the end of the year, the four first place winners from each of that year’s quarterly competitions are judged against each other for the grand prize Gold Award, a publishing contract, and a $5,000 cash prize.
The truly amazing part, though, takes place the week before the awards. All 12 of the year’s winners are invited to come to Hollywood for a week of hands-on writing workshops taught by Tim Powers and Dave Farland, with guest lectures from the judges, who are all seasoned professional writers, and other industry professionals. The workshops and lectures are hosted in the Author Services building. Spending a week working there is, in its own right, a prize. The building’s interior is paneled in warm, honey-toned wood, and there are inviting spots to read and write anywhere you look. There’s a wealth of artwork and photographs, most pertaining to Hubbard’s books. The library is loaded, not only with Hubbard’s own work, but also with the books of the winners and judges. The halls have display shelves filled with an incredible collection of pulp magazines, some dating from the ‘20s and ‘30s, and of course, there’s a dazzling display of award trophies. The staff are friendly and solicitous. When you visit, it’s clear they are proud to welcome you to their beautiful writer-haven.
Author Services’ Executive Director, Gunhild Jacobs, said, “It’s such a joy! All these young, creative people … Our family is our winners. Every year, we get another 24 or 25 ‘children,’ and it just keeps growing and growing.” She added as she handed me a gorgeous volume of Hubbard’s essays from the ‘30s, “He wanted, already, back then to give advice and help to novice authors.”
Writers of the Future judge, Managing Editor of Galaxy’s Edge magazine, and science fiction author, Mike Resnick remarked, “I’m in my fifty-third year as a freelancer, but if I had to work in an office, I’d want it to be in this building. It is the most comfortable and comforting place you’d ever want to work. And I’m not a Scientologist, I’m a devout atheist, but nobody ever mentions the word ‘Scientology’ in this building … Here, it’s strictly writing … Everybody here is so nice … it sure does make for pleasant surroundings.” It really does, and it contributes to the sense of family that Writers of the Future creates among its participants.
One of this year’s winners, Kary English, explained, “My cohort, they all feel like family. I have 13 new brothers and sisters, and they feel like tribe. These are my tribe. It’s like graduating from high school and we’re all signing each other’s yearbooks. We’re that close and that cohesive, so that part has been amazing.”
“It’s not quite a fraternity,” said author Eric Flint, a past winner and current judge with Writers of the Future. “There’s certainly a network that’s built out of it, there’s no question about that. I won this contest 22 years ago. The coordinator at the time was Dave Wolverton, who is the coordinator today. He stopped doing it for years, and there was someone else doing it, but he’s back. I stayed in touch with him, and through him, I got an agent, and that helped me get published. The networks get built up. Whether they get maintained or not depends a lot on the individual. Some individuals really stick with it, while others drift away. In a way, it kind of reminds me more of graduate school, where you get a group of people who studied under a certain professor and they sort of wind up working in the field together. Part of what gives any professor prestige is how many of his students end up doing research and influencing. It’s probably more like that, than like a fraternity.”
And that’s another part of the magic: the judges and mentors. They volunteer their time and advice, not only during the judging periods and workshop week, but throughout the year. “I can’t pay back,” explained Resnick. “Everybody who helped me is either dead or rich, or both. So, I pay forward. And most of us feel that way … That’s what all the judges are doing here … Once I see a beginner with a lot of talent, I’ll collaborate with them to get them into print. Because nobody turns me down these days. As an anthology editor, and now as a magazine editor, I’ll buy from them to get them into print. If they’ll show up at conventions I’m at, I’ll introduce them to editors, I’ll introduce them to agents, I’ll do anything I can for them, and it just seems like a natural thing to do. The field has been so good to me, this is how I thank them.”
“Everybody says all these great things about us, but at the end of the day, it’s just enlightened self-interest,” said McCaffrey. “We’re all readers first. We want more stuff to read. I can re-read any stuff that I wrote, but I already know how it’s going to end, because I wrote it. We’re just trying to get more writers out there. It’s marvelous.”
McCaffrey explained how critical it is not only to foster development of the craft of writing, but of the business side, as well. “If you look at what L. Ron Hubbard said about why he set this thing up, he said that art and artists are the people who are looking at the future of society. We’re the dreamers. You know, we’re usually underpaid and starving. He wanted more people to be dreamers, though I don’t think the starving part was on his list. The idea was that, on some level, we are the people that come up with ideas that people like Steve Jobs want to do. We just throw them out because, well, who wants to develop all that stuff and become a billionaire? It depends upon what you want in life. If millions and billions means you have to have a 24-hour bodyguard, and people are trying to blow up your house and your dog every day, well, then I’m not so sure I want that. If being a full-time writer means that I don’t know when I’m going to be able to feed my cat next, I’m not sure I want that, either. There is a happy medium.”
The program is a benefit to the judges, too. While they’re pouring out their mentorship and support, they’re networking with the future generation, and strengthening their bonds with their contemporaries. “The thing about the contest,” Flint continued, “is it’s got a Hell of a track record … Sean Williams and I came out of that year. We’ve had the most successful careers, and Tony Compton’s had a good, solid career … Thirty one years is a very long time, and what you get by then is graduates of the original judges who have now become major authors.”
Flint added, “The other thing that happens for the judges is that that becomes its own network also. They all tend to overlap a lot, because what you’ll get is a dozen to twenty judges, and by now, I know all of them. I have fairly regular contact with most of them. I’ll run across them at other conventions … With some of them, Kevin Anderson and Mike Resnick and about a half a dozen of them, I have very close relations, either collaborating on novels or, in the case of Kevin and Rebecca [Moesta], Dave Wolverton, and I, we teach a seminar together.”
Resnick calls the writers he takes under his wing his “writer children.” These include Tina Gower and Laurie Tom, who are both previous Writers of the Future winners, and his two latest additions, both winners from this year’s contest. Resnick lights up as he talks about them, “The new one [Kary English], she’s the only one who is up for a Hugo. I bought that story [“Poseidon’s Eyes”] that’s on the ballot, it’s for my magazine. Yeah! I found a good author! I found another good author, [the Golden Pen] winner, [Sharon Joss]. I’ve already assigned her a story for my magazine. Blondie, I call her. Those two, really good this year.”
He got even more animated as he continued talking about English, “That was her first story, and it’s on the Hugo ballot! You betcha, we’re going to push the Hell out of her! We’re bragging about her for the next two issues of the magazine. We’re going to set up an autographing for her at the World Science Fiction Convention. I’ve told her I want two more stories. I gave her the subject matter for one … the other, anything she wants, it’s pre-sold, just get it to me.”
Tom returned as a mentor to this year’s winners. She talked about her experience, “One of the nice things, coming back as a returning winner is I get to watch all of this that I went through, without the stress of having to go through it … I did the signing, and I get to be there as moral support for the winners … Sometimes they’re a little intimidated, they’re like, ‘I want to meet the judge, but he’s my idol! I can’t talk to him!’ But, they can talk to a returning winner because we’re closer to their level, and we totally make ourselves available for things like that. We can say, ‘Hey, I’ll take you over to meet your literary hero that you can’t talk to on your own!’ They brought back Orson Scott Card this year, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God! It’s Orson Scott Card!’ Even for me, even though I’ve been here for a while, and I know how to act professionally, it’s still, ‘It’s Orson Scott Card!’”
The workshop week is intensive, and aimed at helping each winner to sharpen his or her skills to a fine point. One exercise several of the participants mentioned is the “24-Hour Story.” Each writer takes a random object from a box. One of these objects, a cigar cutter, has become famous (infamous?), due to the writers who have chosen it and the stories that have been built around it. The writers are taken to the library to randomly grab a book, and then they go down to Hollywood Boulevard and have a 20-minute chat with a stranger. The object, the book, and something taken from that conversation must all be included in their stories, which they have 24 hours to write. Though everyone who talked about it sighed heavily somewhere within their descriptions, most of them also laughed and showed a sense of accomplishment at the results.
Golden Pen winner, Sharon Joss explained how this whole process, but especially the workshop week has set her foot on the path to a serious writing career: “To be honest, once you win Writers of the Future, it really forces you to take a good, hard look at yourself and where you are, in terms of your craft and your career, because what I did to get here is not going to be what I need to do to get to the next level. You’re leveling-up your craft, your connections, your visibility: Your life changes, and I want to be, I’m going to be, ready for that. That means stepping up the craft, stepping up on everything.”
She continues, “This week here, it changes your entire outlook. It changes your whole mind about the writer you want to be. Are you really committed to being this writer, or was this your end destination? For some people, winning the award is the destination, but for me, this is just the beginning of the path. Here, you can get mentors and connections and access to knowledge that you didn’t have because you didn’t have a context for it earlier in your career, where you’re just trying to put together the best story you can, so that you can maybe make a sale. Now, this is my business, this is my life, this is my chosen path, and these are my peeps! It’s entree to a bigger world. This is the only place you can get this. You’ve still got to do the work; it’s not free, but they’ll take your call.”
The Writers of the Future anthology is a landmark, each time it comes out. It’s our introduction of the next wave of creativity that will shape our reading future, it’s the fulfillment of at least two dozen dreams, and it’s a moment of shining pride for those who have taken the time to share their experience and knowledge with science fiction and fantasy’s next generation.
This is the first in a two-part series on Writers of the Future 31. The second part includes more from the winners, past and current, on their plans and projects, and how Writers of the Future has influenced them beyond the contest, as well as more history and perspective from the judges. Please check back for the conclusion of this series next Tuesday, May 12, 2015.