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Luc’s Adventures in Writerland, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Interviewing Strangers


This post was brought in from the old version of my writing site, and refers to a trip to the Writers of the Future workshop in 2003.

(By the way, much more conscientious people than myself have posted journals on the Web of their Writers of the Future experience. By contrast, I’m just slapping this account together on the plane home, when I really should be catching up on my sleep after a late night and an early morning.)

(Later addition: Having slapped together what I could on the plane home, I then took a well-deserved, five-month break from this very arduous memoir before finally finishing it at a time when I really should be catching up on my sleep. Or editing my novel, take your pick.)

In August of 2003, I attended the Writers of the Future workshop in Los Angeles. If you’re not already familiar with it, Writers of the Future is a quarterly contest for unpublished and slightly-published writers of science fiction, fantasy, and other kinds of fiction where things that just don’t happen in everyday life go ahead and happen. Three winners each quarter receive a significant cash prize, publication in the annual anthology, a generous payment for use of the story in the anthology, and a week-long writers workshop with well-known fantasy and science fiction writers. The same folks who run the Writers of the Future contest also run the Illustrators of the Future contest, which is a very similar event for illustrators. Fortunately for all of us, they run the writers’ and illustrators’ events at the same time, so the writers and illustrators get to spend time with one another. Prior to the event, the illustrators create one illustration per story to include in the anthology.

Writers of the Future was started in 1983 by L. Ron Hubbard, a celebrated and extremely prolific writer of (among other things) science fiction and fantasy. In his spare time, Ron flew, captained ships, explored the remote corners of the world, became a Blackfoot blood brother, founded a worldwide system of drug rehabilitation centers, invented Dianetics, and founded the religion of Scientology.

Before I go further with this, let me address what seems to be one of the most popular questions about Writers of the Future:

Q: When you go to the workshop, do the people who run it try to convert you to Scientology?
A: Uh, no, actually. They’re happy to answer questions and are generous with materials and answers if you happen to be interested in learning about it, but I couldn’t discern any agenda at all of converting people or even any suggestion that they wanted you to learn about it. I’m a polytheistic Quaker and never expressed more than a basic curiosity about Scientology, and it would not be a great exaggeration to say I was treated like royalty.
Q: So is this going to be a happy-faces-and-flowers essay about how wonderful those L. Ron Hubbard people are?
A: Well, yes. I don’t have any particular opinion about Scientology or Dianetics, and I think it’s important to remember that ultimately Scientology is (to my limited understanding) the most important element of Ron Hubbard’s work for those administrate his legacy, but as to this organization’s habit of bringing unknown writers to a nose-bleed altitude of exposure and good treatment, I have nothing but good things to say.

So, no Scientology, but we did learn a lot about Ron Hubbard. We saw several exhibits, read some of his writing about writing, and otherwise got to know a lot about the guy. This was along the lines of someone asking, “Say, would you like to know a few things about the really unusual and successful guy who just flew you out to Hollywood for a great writer’s workshop, put you up in the nicest hotel you’ve ever stayed in, treated you to a gala awards ceremony, and just incidentally is giving your writing an enormous boost to help start your career?”

My answer to that was “yes.” Coincidentally, so was everyone else’s. And although I was wildly fortunate to have had the opportunity to go to the workshop as a published finalist in 2003, to my amazement I get to go a second time as a 2nd-place winner for this year’s contest. Which means that I will be going back to the exhibits about Ron Hubbard and filling in any gaps in my knowledge of him that may remain after my first trip. To which I say, thanks for the boost and by all means, tell me more!

Remember patrons who made the careers of starving artists like, say, Mozart? Ron Hubbard is one of those guys.

But back to the contest: Each quarter there’s a first, second, and third place winner, and zero to maybe a maximum of seven published finalists. About which I should explain: now, the twelve winning stories each year would make a perfectly respectable-sized mass market paperback, especially considering that they insert a few articles on writing and related topics by big-name science fiction and fantasy people, and keeping in mind that there’s a one-page illustration for each story. However, it seems that Galaxy Press (which publishes Ron Hubbard’s fiction as well as the Writers of the Future anthology) likes to put a few more stories in for the reader’ money, and also likes to give a few more writers a chance to participate in the workshop, so from among the finalists (of which I’m told there are perhaps 5-8 each quarter, though I don’t have that number from any official authority) they sometimes choose one or more in a given year to publish in the anthology. Except for not getting prize money, being a published finalist is virtually identical to being a winner: your story gets published, you get a generous payment for the piece, you get to attend the workshop, and you’re called up to the stage at the awards ceremony to be recognized for your work.

That was how I came to the Writers of the Future workshop in 2003, as a published finalist. I submitted a short story called “A Ship That Bends” to the contest for the April-June quarter of the 2002 contest; in the Fall, I found out that I was a finalist and they asked if they could hang onto my story for possible inclusion in the anthology, to which I said, “Hell, yes!” In the Spring of 2003, they notified me that in fact they would publish the story in the anthology, which meant I was going to Hollywood for the workshop. This was not disappointing news.

Q: How many finalists do they publish in the anthology every year?
A: It varies. Some years there aren’t any published finalists. In one year I think there were something like five or seven. I suspect the main consideration in terms of whether or not a particular finalist is published in the anthology is how much the judges and/or the editor like the particular story. Another important factor is how big the other stories in the anthology are, but this year there were two stories that ran about the maximum length, 17,000 words, and they still included two published finalists.
Q: Can a contest winner keep submitting stories to Writers of the Future?
A: No. The contest is only for writers who are fairly new to professional publication and who have not won the contest before.
Q: Can a published finalist submit more stories? And if so, do they ever end up winning in another year?
A: Yes and yes. In fact, I found out shortly before coming to the workshop that my novelette “Bottomless” won second place in the Jan-Mar quarter for the 2003 contest, which means that I’ll be back at the workshop next year!

I should mention, by the way, that the contest runs October through September: the first quarter of the contest for the anthology that was just published was Oct-Dec 2001, and the last quarter was Jul-Sep 2002-so keep in mind that the workshop happens the year after the story is judged.

Q: Did you meet anyone famous?
A: I did, and almost without exception the well-known writers, artists, musicians, and actors I met were wonderful, considerate people. All of them devoted time and attention to the contest to give their support to us new, unknown writers and artists. It was damn humbling.
I had the great privilege to meet:
Tim Powers, World Fantasy Award winner and author of any number of really enjoyable fantasy/SF novels
K. D. Wentworth, multiple Nebula nominee, former Writers of the Future winner, and accomplished SF/fantasy writer
Sean Williams, former Writers of the Future winner and author/co-author of a number of recent science fiction and fantasy novels, which I’ll be reading as soon as I can get my grubby little hands on them
Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta, authors and co-authors of multiple bestselling science fiction novels, many of them in shared universes (Dune, Star Wars, Star Trek)
Other legendary figures of science fiction like Hal Clement, Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, James Gunn, SF photographer J. K. Klein, Yoji Kondo (aka Eric Kotani), and others
Music greats Chick Corea and Gayle Moran
The accomplished SF illustrator Frank Wu
And so on. All turning out in our support with other luminaries I didn’t meet directly (although some of the other writers and illustrators did), like Denise Duff, Jason Lee, David Carradine, Mark Isham, and Robert Silverberg.
All of us writers and illustrators in the anthology made (brief!) speeches as we were recognized during the awards ceremony. My best advice for the speech is this:

  • Be brief
  • Heartfelt sentiment is good; pretension is bad
  • It’s nice to remember that Ron Hubbard is the founder of the feast, and
  • Don’t say anything that sounds stupid or Jerry Pournelle will make fun of you. (I am not kidding. In my brief speech I thanked a series of people, including “… my wife, Orson Scott Card, my Literary Boot Camp readers …” Some people, including Jerry, chose to think I was saying my wife’s name was Orson Scott Card. Some overly cheerful fellow writers chose to rib me about it in ink when I asked them to sign my anthology. Moral: don’t say anything stupid.)

Top things that did not go wrong at the awards ceremony:

  • No raspberry crumb dessert got on my or anyone’s rented tuxes. Quite seriously: if I had spilled any of that stuff, I would have looked like a pig for the rest of the evening.
  • No one tripped on the stairs to the stage, and we were all concerned about that
  • No one made any horribly inappropriate jokes, although one about not being able to take one of the lucite Writers of the Future trophies on the plane because it could be used as a deadly weapon was getting close.
Q: What does a writer need to do to be a winner in the Writers of the Future contest?
A: 1. Follow all the rules posted at
2. Make sure your story is not only speculative (science fiction, fantasy, etc.) but gets to the speculative stuff early enough that the judges can tell it’s speculative.
3. Use good grammar, spelling, and manuscript format
4. Have interesting characters in a compelling situation
5. Introduce tension or suspense early in the story-and keep it up
6. Write a satisfying ending (if you’ve read my story, my apologies on this point; I’ve learned my lesson)
7. Let your imagination roam: Writers of the Future really rewards imagination, and they’re open to a wide, wide range of story types
8. Read the current and previous anthologies to help you get an idea of what winning stories are like. And yes, I’m in the current anthology, but no, I don’t get royalties (they pay the writers a flat fee for their contributions).
9. Even if you don’t place, keep submitting! My WotF finalist was my fifth submission to the contest, and my second-place winner was my eighth. I used the contest as a goad to remind me to get to work and write new stories.
10. Avoid teenage angst pieces and elf-related fiction if you can. Really.

Even if you do everything on my comprehensive 10-point list, you may not win. Maybe your story was interesting, but not so interesting that the judges couldn’t put it down and say “No” to it. Maybe the story happened to be a kind of story or have a subject that a particular judge really dislikes. It doesn’t matter: if WotF tells you you didn’t win, send your story to another appropriate market. And don’t wait to hear on one story before submitting one for the following quarter: sometimes it takes them more than three months to get back on the judging.

Q: What was the workshop like?
A: Small muffins, big ideas. The workshop was taught by Tim Powers, assisted by K.D. Wentworth. These are both enormously talented writers, who moreover are really dogged in their work. They are Professional Writers Who Write Good Stuff and Make a Living From Writing and Related Work.

There are a series of tasks, with related reading to do in the evening from Ron Hubbard’s essays. There’s a day spent in library research and an exercise where you go out onto the street and try to engage someone in conversation to learn about their life-without giving away that you’re doing this for a writer’s workshop. A horribly, horribly difficult exercise for those of us who have difficulty starting conversations without having some excuse to do so.

And then there’s the short story that needs to be written in one day. For some people this is a first time experience and a serious eye-opener. For me it wasn’t much of a stretch, as I write a lot of my stories (first drafts, anyway) in one day. For some other attendees it was also not an unusual exercise. In my case, I tried to make it as educational as possible by building the story in a much more prepared and constructed manner than usual. It didn’t work for me to do it that way (I wrote a lot of my story, then scrapped it and wrote the way I usually write, although informing that with many things I learned at the workshop), but it was an eye-opening experiment.

And then there are the speakers: Among them this past year were Bill Widder (eye-opening information on giving interviews and other promotional work), Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta, Hal Clement (who has since passed away; a sweet man from what little I knew of him, and a great loss), David Carradine (on doggedly building a career despite difficulties and setbacks), and Eric Kotani.

I’m still in touch with a number of the writers from the workshop, and but for bad organization on my part would also be in touch with some of the illustrators. These colleagues I met were a remarkable, eye-opening group of people who continue to drive my career, and I hope to continue to be in touch with them for years.

Q: Do winners ever go on to big success?
A: I don’t know; ask Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Karen Joy Fowler, Robert Reed, Dave Wolverton, Sean Williams, Eric Flint, Syne Mitchell, K.D. Wentworth, or any of the other writers who have launched a career on it. Already since winning the contest (I’m not saying necessarily because of the contest or the workshop, although surely they didn’t hurt) several of the writers I met in August have made a big splash. Jay Lake has been getting published in virtually every major and close-to-major speculative fiction there is for the last year; Carl Frederick has had stories in Analog and Artemis, among others, while winning the Phobos science fiction contest not once, but twice; Steve Savile is about to see a novel of his turned into a TV movie-and some of the rest of us are working pretty hard at this stuff, too.

Is that all? Surely not. I should probably describe the sense of fiendish glee I had at spiriting James Gunn off to dinner at an Uzbekistani restaurant and together with my roommate having the full benefit of his knowledge and insight on science fiction for maybe an hour and a half.

And I should convey how really, really wonderful the pool is at the Hollywood Roosevelt. Or try to get across the gasp-for-air-wonderful feeling of watching Chick Corea work a piano ten feet away from my chair, and later being surprised by Gayle Moran and Chick waving me over to introduce themselves. Or the feeling of seeing fourteen artists unveil fourteen phenomenal illustrations to us wondering writers.

Well, but I’ve gone on too long already. If there’s anything you really need to know, by all means e-mail me at luc at lucreid dot com.

Do it now, before I’m too famous to notice you.*

*Just kidding.

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