Writers of the Future, April 2012

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For those who aren’t familiar with the contest, Writers of the Future is quite simply the ultimate short fiction contest for Science Fiction and Fantasy writers. Nothing comes close, in terms of the scale of the thing, or what you get as a winner — both the monetary prize, the week you spend with the judges, the awards event, and the exposure you get as a result. And this year, I was fortunate to be one of those winners. The contest is now in its 29th year (my win being in year 28, and my story appearing in Volume 28 of the anthology). There is also an accompanying illustrators’ contest, “Illustrators of the Future”, which is run along similar lines.

Both contests divide the year into four quarters. On the writing side, they receive an estimated 1000-1200 stories per quarter which are then read through and sorted to get eight finalists, plus a whole load of Semi-Finalists and various grades of Honourable Mentions (one of the great things about this contest is that if your story came close, you get to know how close; the semi-finalists get a written critique too). That part is carried out by the “co-ordinating judge”, which for a number of years was the fabulously talented and dedicated K D Wentworth (who sadly passed away not long after this year’s contest was finished). As if getting your story read (and perhaps critiqued) by her wasn’t enough, those 8 finalist stories are then sent to a panel of pretty stellar judges, who then go on to select the three winners for that quarter. In the quarter that I entered, Tim Powers, Dave Wolverton (aka David Farland) and Dr Yoji Kondo (NASA scientist, who writes SF as Eric Kotani) were on the panel. And between them they scored mine in top place — First Place Winner for the third Quarter of 2011.

However it’s what you get when you win that really sets this contest apart. The cash prizes are pretty handy ($1000 / $750 / $500 for First / Second / Third place, plus for the First Place winners of each quarter a chance at the Gold award for the year as a whole: a $5000 cheque pressed into your hand — nice!). But what the winners also get is a week of writing tuition, at the contest’s offices in Hollywood, taught by some of the same stellar SF & Fantasy writers who judged the entries. And that week culminates in what for me was the biggest single event of my whole writing career — the awards night in L.A., an Oscars-style red-carpet black-tie extravaganza which for Volume 28 had over a thousand people in attendance. Tuxedos, trophies, camera crews, acceptance speeches, the works.

So how did it all start? Well for me, I’d been entering the contest since 2009. I sent my first story having heard how high-profile the contest was, but having never read any of the anthologies. So I was lucky that I hit the style of story (and quality) that they were looking for early on, by getting a finalist position at the first attempt. Unfortunately I didn’t win on that occasion (I’ve since read the winning stories and they were excellent), so I tried again the year after. (Some people enter every quarter, doing whatever it takes to have a story ready to go every three months, but I found it hard to work to that pace and was putting out one contest-worthy story a year in amongst my other projects). That second attempt got an Honourable Mention, so I knew I was on to something and had a chance of winning. So I got hold of the previous few years’ anthologies, and made a conscious point of looking for what type of stories tended to win, i.e. what types of plot and setting came up repeatedly, and which would suit the kind of stories I write. And the one I chose (First Contact stories where humans are the ones going out and initiating the contact) led to my winning story, “Contact Authority”.

(A note of caution on writing a story to match what you think a market is looking for — one time that can go wrong is when you feel compelled to write something so far removed from your own style that it feels forced, and falls short of what you’re capable of, i.e. sacrificing quality to match a perceived style. So while I picked a subject and type of setting based on previous winning stories, the style of writing was still mine through and through.)

Having uploaded the story to the new online submissions system (it used to be hardcopy only) I got a call from Joni Labaqui, the contest administrator, some time around August or September of 2011 to tell me that I was a finalist. The call was a surprise — I learned about my last finalist place by email, but it was great to hear from someone I’d previously only ever contacted by email and letter. She asked if I’d ever been a finalist before, and I told her that I had, two years before, and her reply was “Wow, that’s a good sign!”

So as the next few weeks went by I got increasingly apprehensive, wondering when the call would come. As it turned out it was one Sunday in October, after a whole day of backbreaking garden work, that the news came (I’m not sure if hard physical labour meant I’d somehow built up good karma that day — it might work if anyone wants to try it). The call was quite late into the evening (not too late, but certainly suggestive of an 8-hour westward time difference), so even as it was ringing I had an idea that this was it.

“Hi, it’s Joni Labaqui,” she said.

“Hi, Joni, it’s great to hear from you,” I said.

“Well you’re about to be even more pleased,” she said. “Because you won. You’re the first place winner of the third quarter.”

What happened after that was something of a blur — I know I asked her who my judges were, but I couldn’t remember what she said so I had to ask someone else later. And I know I asked what would happen next to prepare for the trip to L.A., but again none of it sunk in and I had to get the details afterward. But I’d won, and being a first place winner meant I was in line for the year’s gold award.

So fast forward to the week itself.

Pretty much everything for the winners is at the contest’s expense. They fly you out to L.A. (wherever in the world you live — this is a global contest) and they put you up for the week of the writing workshop. The tuition is free of charge (paid-for writing courses can be a significant outlay); the professional writers who come and teach and give their time are ours for the week; the other activities are laid on too (like the visit to the printing press where we see the books coming off the line, and the awards ceremony itself which as an event is beyond spectacular). Fellow winner Brad Torgersen has estimated the value of winning at over $10,000 (see here). If any family are coming out to join you (which mine did), you have to pay for that yourself, and if you want to stay longer and get some vacation time (which we did as well) then obviously you pay that too. But otherwise it’s all laid on.

They flew me out two days early to help get over jet lag (the only other non-US writer winner, Nick Tchan from Australia got there the day after me) so I had the first day to myself. As my wife and son would be coming out later in the week, and would be reliant on public transport to get round and do stuff while I was busy, I used that first day to scout out places they could go and check out how the buses and so on worked. So I had an impromptu day trip to the beach at Santa Monica, and spent a few hours looking round the pier and the beach and the shopping district.

Then on day two Nick arrived, followed by the US winners the day after that. And it was that evening that we had our meet-and-greet, and got to meet our tutors Tim Powers and Nina Kiriki Hoffman. (It was also around this point, definitely very early in the week, that John Goodwin, president of Galaxy Press, took me aside and told me that my story was set to be recorded to audio as part of the UK-based StarShipSofa podcast. There were a number of points where the week would prove to be even more amazing than I’d anticipated, and this was one of them.)

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The volume 28 winners, or class of 2012, or whatever you want to call them — I don’t know if this happens every year but we had a particularly good group of people this time round. Most of us knew each other at a Facebook & email level by the time we met in the flesh, and we’re going to keep in touch for a long time to come. I can confidently say that I met people that week who I will know for the rest of my life. Among the attendees were Nick Tchan from Australia who I mentioned already, Corry L Lee (whose Harvard PhD in experimental particle physics left me, a lowly rocket scientist, feeling pretty outclassed), William Ledbetter from Dallas (whose career, life story, and subject & style of winning story made for some spooky similarities between us), Meghan Muriel (who previously won the illustrators contest and is the first person to get both contests in back-to-back years), and Jacob Boyd, a member of the Eugene Oregon based writers’ group “The Wordos” who have had a winner in this contest pretty much every year for the last seven years, and which my own group “The T-Party” has been affiliated with in the past. (I jokingly referred to the Wordos as our rivals at one point — who am I kidding, in WOTF terms they’re wiping the floor with us!) (Though we have had some pretty amazing successes lately in other fields).

We had some good times in the bars and restaurants along Hollywood Boulevard, and some interesting writing-related discussions too (given that writing is such a solitary thing, meeting other writers at the same point in their writing careers is always a good thing). One subject that came up a few times was the lengths that writers with day jobs go to, in order to hide their hobby from co-workers who might not understand what they’re doing. One guy who wrote fantasy had colleagues thinking he was into fairy stories, while another who worked in an office was worried that any time he had a text document on his screen people would assume he was moonlighting and not doing his “real” job. We agreed that it’s a real shame when something so central to your life has to become a clandestine activity, and it’s interesting how widespread that feeling is.

As for the week itself, much of the tuition was about the craft of writing, things like how to describe settings in the fewest number of words (and tricks for getting away with it when lengthy descriptions can’t be avoided), how to generate suspense, what things you need to know about a character to make them come across as real, and so on. On other matters it was actually interesting to see where various judges and tutors disagreed — things like whether a deadline has to be respected at all costs (or whether it’s better to tell your editor you’ll be late but make a better job of it as a result), whether you should approach agents first when trying to get published (or get yourself an offer *first*, then find an agent to negotiate it for you), whether writing for hire, on game tie-ins and so on, is a good idea (or whether everything you do should be in your own name, and your own style). Heinlein’s five rules of writing (check them out here) came up several times (that these rules are worth following was near-unanimous), along with the tips and rules that other judges and recent winners have put together over the years.

And then, inevitably, we had to put what we’d learnt into practice. From a cold start, aided by a randomly selected prop, a randomly chosen non-fiction book from the local library, and an interview with a randomly cornered stranger on Hollywood Boulevard (“Don’t bring them back with you,” was Tim Powers’ last piece of advice before we left to find our stranger, “don’t climb into any vans, and don’t eat anything they give you”) we had to write a story of as close to publishable standard as possible, in 24 hours, with a strict deadline the next day. I actually surprised myself with what I was able to do — I was perhaps a little ambitious by deciding to do a fantasy story, a genre I’ve never written in my life, but the prompts I’d been given didn’t lend themselves to my normal SF/Horror field and I reckoned I had the outline of a pretty good story. We started by co-opting the hotel’s meeting room and forming a cone-of-silence style writing zone, then we wrote into the night. My story was looking a bit precarious at 11pm when the plot was starting to peter out, but the next morning I had some fresh ideas so locked myself away in my hotel room and got to the end. Then I met up with the others again, still occupying the meeting room, and put the finishing touches to it there. And I was cautiously happy with the result. So it was almost a disappointment when mine wasn’t chosen to be one of the three that were passed round the whole group to be read and critiqued. (But we will be getting a tutors’ crit in due course, so it will be interesting to see what that brings).

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Another highlight was the big reveal of the artwork for our contest-winning stories. As there were twelve illustrator winners along with the twelve writer winners, in the months leading up to the workshop week each of them was given one of our stories to read and create an illustration. It had never occurred to me before, but the contest organisers have a pretty critical decision to make when they match each illustrator up with the author whose story they are going to work on. If they get it wrong, the illustration might detract from the story, not add to it. And there’s more to it than just pairing an artist who draws dragons with an author who writes fantasy and so on. For instance in my case I was matched up with Rhiannon J Taylor from Chicago, who had earned her place in the illustrators contest with a set of anatomical illustrations like something from an old medical textbook, and some pretty amazing dragon imagery. It must have been clear that Creature Design was one of her strengths, so my story (which involves bizarre alien creatures being encountered for the first time) was a good match to her skills. And the illustration she produced (below) was fantastic. (I’ve always thought the illustrators get a bit of a raw deal given that the artwork that goes into the anthology, that people actually see, isn’t the artwork they won the contest with, but something they have to produce to order within 30 days after hearing they’ve won.)

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We also had a trip to the printing press where the anthology was coming off the production line. The machine that performed the final step, putting the printed sections (or “signatures”) together then attaching the cover, had an electronic display above it saying “2700”. When we were told that this was the number of books being produced per hour, and we saw the boxes upon boxes of books being packed and piled up, it really brought it home to us just how many people would be seeing the work we’d produced.

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The big highlight though was the awards ceremony itself. “Huge” doesn’t even begin to describe it — the opening musical number, the keynote speech (by futurologist J. Storrs Hall, covering among other things the explosion in our ability to control matter that nanotechnology will bring), and the presentation of the awards to each story’s author and illustrator — everything was on a big scale, and put together in a highly professional way. A number of the stories had their own dance acts choreographed and performed, acting out scenes either from or inspired by the stories themselves. Unfortunately mine didn’t get one (it’s hard to imagine what they would have done with it short of forming a human pyramid and making dolphin sounds — if you’ve read it that will make sense!) but it was good to see how some of the other stories were interpreted. Then came the moment of truth itself when I had to take to the stage and accept my award. The whole run-up to the event had been filled with increasingly frequent “Oh my God this is real” moments, and as I took my seat in the Wilshire Ebell Theatre that night they were coming thick and fast, so as I heard my name being announced and I got up to climb to the stage, I was approaching near-panic status. So it was as I got to the top of the stairs and saw Gregory Benford (yes, Gregory Benford) waiting to hand the trophy over, that I hit some kind of panic critical mass where my brain figured “either this is a dream and you’ll wake up from it any minute, or it’s real and you might as well go with it.” So I actually felt eerily calm as I took the award and went to the podium to give my speech. In the run-up to the event I’d had a pretty good idea what I was going to say up there, but as I was sitting through the first half of the show I suddenly started rewriting it in my head. So what I actually came out with was more a case of “winging it” than I would ever normally have dared get away with. As for how I handled the speech itself, some of the winners who had gone up before me had already set the emotional bar pretty high, with genuine emotion showing just how significant the whole thing was to them — something I would make an idiot of myself over if I tried to emulate it. So instead, the best advice I can give to anyone who finds themselves giving an “I’d like to thank” speech on a stage in Hollywood is: if you’re not the kind of person who can turn on the emotions in public, and you’ve realised (rightly) that it would be wrong to fake it, be sincere instead. Tell people straight out just how important this is to you and how much it means to you and how honoured you are that some of the big names in SF & Fantasy judged your work and rated it highly enough to give you the award. So that’s what I did.

For most people, once they’ve given their speech the pressure is off. For four of us however, the first-place winners from each quarter, we had another announcement to wait for — the Gold Award. And that is done at the very end, in true Hollywood style, with the winner’s name being drawn from a sparkly envelope following the immortal words “And the winner is…”

And this year, the winner was…

…not me, unfortunately. But the story that did get the Gold Award (“The Paradise Aperture” by David Carani) was excellent, and was also read to audio as part of the StarShipSofa podcast that included my own story. (The audio recording itself, StarShipSofa number 235, was a really good reading, and can be found here).

After the awards night was over we had one last day at contest HQ, being given a Dummy’s Guide to press interviews and book signings and other public appearances that an author might have to give, then it was time to say our goodbyes and head home, which having got to know these people so well over the previous week was pretty tough.

For me though, there was some holiday time to enjoy, which did at least postpone the “it’s all over” blues. And a week and a half in Southern California was great — taking my little boy to Disneyland (which was a lot of fun, but with my head still in fiction mode I couldn’t help wondering what people in some future post-apocalyptic setting might make of it, taking it for some kind of temple complex). The rest of the trip (San Diego, including the world famous zoo, Coronado, and finally Santa Monica) were great as well.

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It was after I got home that I was reunited with my trophy and my copy of Rhiannon Taylor’s illustration, which were couriered back due to their sheer size. So to get them back in my hands and choose where to put them on display helped put me back in the moment, if only for a while!

In summing up, if I had to think of the one thing that stuck with me most from the experience, it has to be the people I met. Everyone is so open and willing to share, from the contest organisers, to the judges, to my fellow volume 28 winners, to the returning winners from previous years who come to help out and give guidance and advice to the new intake. (If I had one bit of advice on this score, it’s don’t be starstruck by any of the people you meet, even the big name judges like Jerry Pournelle or Mike Resnick or Larry Niven or Tim Powers or Kevin J Anderson or any of the others. Get to know these people as normal people — normal people who have a hell of a lot of experience and wisdom to give, but normal people nonetheless. You’ll be sharing a fair amount of bar time with some of them, and even though you may be meeting your lifelong heroes, it will help to open up to them with your questions and your own experiences, and just talk about writing and publishing.)

And if I had any advice to give to someone wishing to enter the contest (on the writers’ side), I would have to say “read the anthologies”. I was pretty lucky to get some traction with my early attempts, but you really need to get a feel for what kind of story they’re going to rate highly. And trust me, reading these books isn’t a chore!

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