Recently I finished editing L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers and Illustrators of the Future, Volume 35, and in another week I’ll begin judging for next year’s anthology.
For those who don’t know what the Writers of the Future contest is, it’s a contest that was founded more than 35 years ago by L. Ron Hubbard. Over the years, it has grown to become one of the largest writing contests in the world, and five years after it was initiated, a companion contest for illustrators was also launched.
It’s an unusual contest, one that I’m proud to be associated with.
The first thing that is odd about it is that it is judged blind. As an editor, that’s important to me. When a story comes in, I don’t know anything about it. The story is assigned a number, nothing more. I don’t know if the author is male or female, old or young, straight or gay. I don’t know the race or politics of the author, or even what nation the author hails from. I don’t know if the author is my best friend or worst enemy. That takes the bias away from the judging.
In the rare event where I believe that I do recognize a story, I don’t allow it through as a finalist. I might send it back with a note, letting the author know that it is disqualified, but I won’t pass it through to the other judges, and in the one or two occasions where another pro judge has recognized a story, the judges have recused themselves from judging that batch of entries.
In short, the playing field is as level as we can make it. That’s almost unheard of in the editing world. Most editors know when they’re favorite authors submit a story to their magazine or anthology, so there is a bit of bias toward those authors. As an editor, if I’ve heard gossip about an author, I suspect that it would also sway me away from purchasing that author’s story.
But with the Writers of the Future, I have no way of knowing who wrote a piece, and that makes it easier for me to accept or reject stories because ultimately I have to make my decisions based solely on the merits of the stories.
Judging stories based on their merits alone is hard enough without adding any other pressures. You see, there can be lots of things right with a story. I search for stories that have strong ideas, ones that I haven’t seen explored before, or that are perhaps handled in a new way. I also gauge the plots of the story, everything from how well the characters are developed, how fully the worlds are realized, and how well the plotting his handled to the very final payoff of the story. Then of course I need to look at the style of the author—how effectively and beautifully the author uses language.
Ultimately I’m left trying to decide which is better—a story with stunning world creation versus one with great characters? So in the end, I’m often comparing apples to oranges to kumquats. Judging the stories becomes a challenge, and I will often have thirty or forty stories in any quarter that I think would be worthy additions to the anthology. Just narrowing the good stuff down becomes a struggle.
I also love the fact that there is no charge for entering the contest, and it can be done online. That means anyone in the world is free to enter (we’ve had entrants from 177 countries) with recent winners from Africa, the Philippines, Europe and Asia. Because it does cost money to run a contest like this, many contests—even the good ones—charge something.
But the contest isn’t just about finding winners, it’s about creating winners. One of the primary goals of the contest has been to help inspire new writers. We do that in part by awarding Honorable Mentions, Silver Honorable Mentions, Semifinalist, and Finalist awards to our entrants so that people know when they are getting close to winning. I’m also pleased that the contest administrator takes the time each quarter to write a little note to the thousands of entrants, thanking them for entering and encouraging them to try again. No other magazine or anthology that I’ve ever heard of does that.
Of course, winning the contest is the main goal for most of our writers. Each writer is awarded prize money for winning—$1000, for a first-place win each quarter, $750 for a second, $500 for third. In addition to the quarterly prizes, we also offer professional rates for payment upon publication, and once each year, we have a runoff between the four first-place winners for a $5000 grand prize.
Which brings us to the second goal of the contest: to help new authors be seen and acknowledged for their accomplishments. One of the best ways to acknowledge an artist, I am convinced, is to pay them for their hard work, and to pay them well. Years ago, Algis Budrys, the original coordinating judge for the contest, told me that he had talked to Hubbard (I assume in a phone interview) and had determined that the prize money should be enough to “make a difference” in the life of a writer. In other words, it should be enough to help them move forward and better their craft. So, when I was a winner years ago, I used my money to buy a better computer to write on and I spent a good deal on books for research, thus reinvesting in myself.
However, the contest has tried to do more than that. Each year, we have a workshop for our new winners where they learn tips from L. Ron Hubbard, Tim Powers, and me, not about writing, but about how to take writing from what amounts to a hobby in many cases to a full-time career. In that workshop, authors are taught how to generate strong story ideas, write stories quickly, and study the markets. After the workshop, our writing judges, some of the best science fiction and fantasy writers in the world, also share their own writing tips with the new winners.
We conclude the event with a gala awards banquet and the presentation of trophies to our winners, culminating with the announcement of our grand prize winners at the awards—all of which are broadcast via the internet to tens of thousands of viewers around the world.
Now, many of you probably already know about the contest. You probably know that at this point, we’ve had hundreds of writers and illustrators win, and that many have gone on to fantastic careers. You may have seen our anthology, which has become an annual bestseller in its category, and that the anthology itself has gone on to win awards.
A great many people work hard to bring the contests and annual awards events to pass. For example, we have the judges and contest administrators working throughout the year, but we also have dozens of people who help prepare the annual awards event, transport winners to and from airports, prepare food for the winners and guests, work at styling hair and applying makeup before filming the awards, and so on.
Indeed, year after year I’ve watched the staff at Author Services and at Galaxy Press (which host the contest) run themselves ragged as they work to put on the annual event and deal with any unforeseen events.
Oh, and we do have unforeseen events. We have had winners come who have had health issues or restrictive diets, and of course with each new crop, we will have to deal with winners who are suffering from jet lag at the very least. Sometimes, when we have had winners from foreign countries, it has been impossible to get them visas so that they could travel here. It seems that just about every year, there is someone who either misses a plane or has a flight get canceled. The workshop itself can be exhausting, and I sometimes worry about those who have health conditions. With the heavy workload, exhaustion, and stress of the award’s event itself, I’ve seen a couple of people over the years who found it all to be emotionally overwhelming.
The hosts of the contest take all of this in stride, and of course the contest covers the costs of the plane tickets, hotels, and much of the food. Since the awards event is a black-tie event and we know that for some people, renting a tuxedo or supplying an evening gown would pose difficulties, the contest even provides those, if guests are in need. Most folks don’t ever see how many volunteers it takes to run the event, applying makeup, dealing with various reporters and pod casters, and supplying security personnel.
But there is one other thing people don’t know about the contest—about why it exists. While there have been various speculations as to why the contest was originally created, after 35 years of not wavering, his original mission statement published in volume 1 rings very true. When he founded the contest, Mr. Hubbard talked about how there was a need for creative people to start new movements, to inspire and lead, to shake things up. The contest has never wavered from that goal. Indeed, in editing an article recently, I discovered that as far back as 1937, Mr. Hubbard mused that in story writing, there is a fine line between the arts and philosophy.
I believe that what he is saying is this: storytelling deals with problem solving. In every story, we have a character, in a setting, with a problem (a conflict or goal), and a good storyteller has the character struggle to overcome their problems—whether they are at conflict with society, with nature, or with themselves. In a great story, an artist has to apprehend the complexity of the world and the problems that will arise and then use his creative genius to envision a brilliant solution. The most powerful stories will often show how people overcome universal problems.
I think that ultimately, Mr. Hubbard was trying to encourage us to consider our future and deal with problems in advance, in hopes of making a better world.
As an editor, I can’t think of a loftier goal.
Note: We are taking submissions for Writers of the Future until December 31, 2018. Here is the link and I hope that some of you submit!