Whence Writers of the Future? A Proposal…

So this is something I’ve been mulling over the past few weeks.  This post is more me thinking aloud, in a sense, because I don’t think I have any firm conclusions or answers.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’ve submitted twice now to the Writers of the Future contest – going so far as to earn an Honorable Mention on the first of those two submissions.  I was and am pretty proud of that accomplishment. 

Writers of the Future, as you no doubt may be aware, is basically the premiere, most high-profile writing contest for new, upcoming, unpublished and undiscovered SF&F authors.  The contest is only open to writers who have published 3 or fewer short stories, and who have not published a work of novelette-length or greater.  The prizes are pretty lavish: 3 quarterly winners each year (with first, second, and third prizes of $1,000, $750, and $500, which alone are already pretty generous awards) – and from this pool of 12 quarterly winners a single annual winner is selected, with an additional cash prize of $5,000.  That’s a pretty incredible prize.  Heck, that’s the same as the median advance for a first-time SF&F novel contract: meaning that Writers of the Future winners are getting paid as well for their short stories as many first-time SF&F novel authors are getting paid for an entire book.  On top of this, the 12 quarterly winners are whisked off to a week-long workshop where they’ll learn from and hobnob with the various titans of the industry: established and recognized authors of SF&F.

All of this is unquestionably wonderful.  And because it’s open only to aspiring authors who have not yet made it, the contest makes for a great place to test one’s skill as a writer.  The entries are judged blind, so the only things in play are the relative merits of the stories that have been submitted and the relative tastes of the judges reviewing them.  There’s no personal favoritism.  Established and recognized authors aren’t going to get the publication slot simply because of their name recognition and because name recognition sells.  So I’ve seen it as a wonderful place to let my work sink or swim largely (although not entirely, as I’ve pointed out before) on its own merits. 

But there’s another side to this story, I am beginning to learn.

I’ve long known that the Writers of the Future contest is connected to Scientology.  The full name of the contest is the “L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest”.  It’s tough to move in SF&F circles for long and not have learned at least a thing or two about Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.  For instance, author John Scalzi talked about the connection back in 2008. But this connection didn’t bother me.  Scientology, I reasoned, was a wacky, far-out religion, sure.  On a religious level I couldn’t more strongly disagree with their ideas – being that their theology is in a very real way founded on a badly-thought-out Space Opera.  (Hubbard himself was not the best of Science Fiction writers, even if he was very prolific.)  But other than their Space Opera doctrine, I figured they were a relatively harmless bunch, overall – especially in the day-and-age of the internet when that doctrine was free for anyone to explore for themselves on the internet: Wikipedia hath pierced the veil of Scientology Secrecy.  But inasmuch as Writers of the Future was owned by and operated by Scientology but was not directly linked in a “You have entered the contest, now join the religion!” way, it didn’t bother me.

But then several weeks ago, Jim C. Hines – a previous winner of Writers of the Future – posted some of his thoughts about the link between Writers of the Future and Scientology.  Jim was concerned that the Church of Scientology and the WotF contest were more closely linked than he had been lead to believe.

And then in his comments, a former-Scientologist and writer/blogger in her own right, Deirdre Saoirse Moen, sprinkled some links to her own blog where she discusses her own relationship with Scientology, Writers of the Future, and their various practices.  And the stories she tells are horrifying

And then Jim C. Hines’ post lead to a few articles in The Village Voice on the topic, with still more horror stories.

At the same time, another author and blogger I follow – Jay Lake – who is also a previous winner of Writers of the Future and simultaneously an outspoken atheist did an interview with Writers of the Future – which at least in some ways signals that he’s probably not too concerned about the the relationship.

All of which is very confusing for me.

On one hand, the things that have come out about what goes on behind closed doors in Scientology are extremely disturbing – and suggest that the production of Writers of the Future books may be irreconcilably linked to some of these egregious practices.  On the other, as a convert to a religion that is frequently portrayed in an unflattering and inaccurate and distorted light in the media, I know that you can’t believe everything negative that you read about an unpopular church (even when a lot of it is based on some reality, the portrayal can distort things until they are unrecognizable).  So it’s hard to know what to believe.  How much of this stuff is true, and how much is based on only a kernel of truth that has been distorted into something deeply ugly?

I don’t know.  But reading these things have made me profoundly uncomfortable with the Writers of the Future contest.

Still… aside from these potentially dark and troublesome underlying issues, the contest has been a tremendous force for good in the SF&F writing community.  Some excellent authors have gotten their starts in the business in part through their excellent performance in the WotF contest.  The contest has provided an opportunity to excel that is not always open in other avenues.  And they’ve done so in a way that’s high-profile and very generously remunerative.  And the industry and community needs for an opportunity like this to exist.

As I’ve thought about these issues, I’ve considered what alternatives to Writers of the Future exist – or might potentially exist.  Right now, there’s nothing quite like it.  But wouldn’t it be great if various luminaries in the fields of Fantasy and Science Fiction got together, and chipped in a little bit to a kitty, building up a small but viable endowment for the establishment of a contest and award for unpublished and undiscovered authors?  An award unencumbered by links to suspicious activities on the part of a sometimes shady and secretive religion?  It wouldn’t have to be quite so fabulous – if the prizes were even half what WotF offers, and maybe even included only a weekend seminar with established writers , that would still be something quite remarkable.

In a sense, I’m proposing just that.  Oh you writers and established luminaries of the field – whether you have been linked to Writers of the Future in the past or not – won’t you consider this?  Think of all the great careers that have been launched because of WotF.  Think of the stories we would not have if not for this contest.  And consider carefully whether it would not be better to have such a high-profile, respected contest that was free of any possible association with harmful or dangerous practices.

But what I propose isn’t an easy, or cheap, thing.  Running a contest like this will require some administration.  And judges.  And of course the money for the prizes.  Some of this can be achieved through volunteer efforts.  But you’d want the contest to be self-sustaining, so that the endowment grows over time to continue to pay the prizes every year: and that means that it would have to be well-funded from the get-go.

But I am not a very widely-read blog author as yet.  Certainly I don’t believe that any of the big-name authors to whom I am addressing these proposals have more than an iota’s chance of running across these comments.  So there’s little chance my proposal will go anywhere. 

And in the absence of a high profile, non-Scientology-backed major SF&F writing contest open only to new and undiscovered authors… I don’t know what else to do.

In that sense, I still think that the WotF contest is one of the best opportunities I have to test the quality of my work and to try to gain exposure.  While I’m not comfortable with the close coupling between Scientology and Writers of the Future, I’m also not comfortable snubbing my nose at this chance to let my work rise to the top.

So what do you think, dear reader?  How would you treat all of this?

17 thoughts on “Whence Writers of the Future? A Proposal…

  1. There really isn’t anything comparable that is free to enter for new and unpublished writers. I’ve entered the contest a couple times previously. I wonder how profitable (if it all) it is to run something like this. To start, I imagine it might require a wealthy patron / endowment much like university scholarship funds. There’s also the problem of getting people to buy the anthologies produced. The contest runners would then also need to be publshers.

    Something to think about definitely.

    • Yeah, all those things you mention are reasons why I say this wouldn’t be cheap or easy to do. But it is possible. I think to make it work would take a coming together of a large number of big names, editors, and other persons of distinction in the industry. WotF works because it has the financial support of the Church of Scientology, which is a considerable financial engine. A rival contest would have to have a similarly broad base of support – and it would have to come from the industry professionals to make it legit.

  2. Unless you are in it for the prize money, I would suggest that the solution to your legitimate dilemma is that you revise your premise. I see two reasons you’d want to get exposure by winning a contest. Either 1) to earn the recognition you deem necessary to get the attention of an agent or a publisher; 2) to earn recognition, period. If we agree the latter is attainable through other means (if not through other contests), there remains only the former. And this idea is a product of the legacy publishing industry. Joe Konrath and Barry Eisley have been particularly vocal about it, but underneath their idiosyncrasies, there is true wisdom: self-publishing is simply today the way to go, there is no denying it: creative control, financial returns, potential readership, etc.. It’s not a 100% winning strategy, but neither is the legacy industry, and that’s the point. In this context, winning a contest is certainly not something you have to do at all cost in order to be read (and certainly not to finish the book in the first place, the only thing that truly matters). I guess my point is, you do not _need_ this Faustian bargain! 🙂

    • I’ll start by saying, right off the back, that I am no disciple of Joe Konrath and Barry Esiler. But I see no reason to revise my premise. Why, for instance, would I want to discount the prize money? $5,000 is quite a decent sum of money. That, in and of itself, is a significant and important motivator. Beyond that, it’s more than about earning just recognition. It is about recognition, but also praise, a sense of accomplishment, measuring myself in a level and equal marketplace, and other things that are harder to explain in a short comment. None of those things are immediately achievable through self-publication.

      The fact is, although Konrath, Eisler, their disciples, and those who like to quote them or reference them all like to talk about how Self-Publishing is the One True Way today, but that’s a self-disproving assertion. There are anecotes of a few here and a few there getting successful with self-publishing. But there as many or more anecdotes of authors struggling to get noticed, struggling to get sales, struggling to break through the noise and pablum of folks who’ve jumped the self-publishing bandwagon before they’ve developed the skill to be worth a reader’s time. It’s not the great Utopia Konrath would have us believe. It’s no easier nor any more utopic than traditional publishing. What’s more… can you honestly believe that self-publication would’ve been the superior way to go for, say, Suzanne Collins? Or for Epic Fantasy stars Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss? Unequivocably, these and many others have seen very substantial success in pursuing the traditional publishing model. I haven’t heard a word of Hollywood knocking on Konrath’s door, yet. But, well, I just saw the Hunger Games movie last weekend and it was pretty awesome.

      The fact is, both traditional publishing and self-publishing each have their own pros and cons – you reference some of the pros of self-publishing, and those are mostly undeniable. But you seem to be blind to the cons, and also blind to the pros of traditional publishing. The fact that they have different stengths and weaknesses gaurantees that for some people self-publishing will be the best option, but for other people traditional publishing will be better – because not every writer is the same. Things are changing, and these facts may yet change – it may yet be that self-publishing will become the universal best option. But right now it’s not universally true, and honestly I don’t beleive it every will be universally true, though I’m willing to be corrected on that stance when there’s more evidence. For now… let’s just say I’m skeptical of anyone who’s preaching a One True Way.

      • I was not saying it was the One True Way. Things are shifting and such transitional period means both sides have something to offer. However, I was saying this is clearly the way of the future, because this shift is happening across several industries, for instance with music and film. The wind is going in this direction. This is undeniable. Independent creation has never been as high as today. This are exciting times we’re in!

        The problem is this. You said: “But there as many or more anecdotes of authors struggling to get noticed, struggling to get sales, struggling to break through the noise”. This is a likely outcome whatever you choose to do. However, you have more control over your own fate when you self-publish. It is easier to get better at it when you are your own failure. Whoever self-published and failed and then whined about it probably deserved such a fate. This is not how it works. Self-publishing is hard work and a bit like running your own business. But at least you can try again. That’s the point. Try convincing a legacy publisher to publish a second run when your book fails. Try seeking another publisher with your book if your former publisher does not help you…

        Recognition comes from readers and what matters is the way to reach them. You should not need anything else. “Stars” in any industries are picked by, pushed by, nurtured by industry actors, by the gatekeepers themselves who weed out everybody else but their chosen people. The impression of “big insider club” this gives can be enticing, because you want to belong to that Big League. This is understandable because this used to be the only way in. It’s not anymore. Do you write to be read, receive great fan mail, interact with your readers? Or do you write to see your name spoken in Hollywood? Do you simply seek the personal and deeply rewarding pleasure of knowing you’ve changed someone’s life, or do you just want to see your name in the NY Times? What is your definition of success? Self-publishing is a gamble, but it is a bottom-up approach, extremely democratic in a way and this has created “stars” in all art industries, if that is your goal.. But the older way is top-to-bottom and closed. This at least an equal gamble.

        In any case, my comment applied to reasons for pursuing contests other than monetary. Nobody is against winning 5 grand, me included. 🙂

      • You have some true points – although it’s not altogether clear to me, in fact, that “indie” is the undeniable wave of the future. (In the other industries you cite, the fact is that the very successful – those whose creative work is enjoyed by more people and who make the most money from those creative endeavors – are still those who are backed by the traditional industries. This is still true in the music industry – yes some people listen to and prefer indie music, but the large majority of music that is consumed and the majority of musicians who make a good living doing what they do are still those supported by traditional music labels – and it’s extremely true in the film industry, for example.) From what evidence I can see, it appears to me that self-publishing or indie-creative-work isn’t so much the “undeniable future” as “undeniably an important part of a much wider and more robust future ecosystem”. It’s a wonderful option to have, but it’s just one of many options.

        The thing is, of course it’s hard work to succeed in self-publishing. Just as it’s hard work to succeed in traditional publishing. My point is… there’s nothing inherent there that makes it always a superior option, and given the trending, it likely never will be always. For some it will be and for some it still won’t be. And that’s okay. It would suck if self-publishing were the only way because then only the people who are good at self-publishing will ever get read, and not those who are good at writing and other forms of hard work but not good at doing the things it takes to get noticed in self-publishing.

        I also notice that you keep harping on this false dichotomy – that success in the traditional model, hitting the NY Times bestseller, or whatever is somehow antithetical to “being read, receiving great fan mail, interacting with readers”, etc. Nothing could be further from the truth. How in the world you’ve come to the conclusion that somehow traditional success is mutually exclusive with being read I don’t know. For myself… I simply don’t read any self-published work, as yet. In part that’s because I do not own an e-reader and likely will not own one until they are rather less than $50 for a good quality reader; it simply doesn’t make any financial sense to me otherwise. But in part it’s because the authors I’m interested in, the ones who write stuff that appeals to me, they’re all traditionally published.

        The way I see it, traditionally-published authors are still getting read by more people, and are seeing greater success. Breaking into that is hard, sure, but that’s no different than breaking through the noise in self-publishing.

        My point in bringing up stuff like Hollywood, though, was to demonstrate this: the upside success potential in traditional publishing is significant. I write, yes, because I want to be read and that is the most basic motivation. And sure, that’s potentially possible with self-publishing. But I write because I want to make a living writing. Frankly, that’s not likely to happen no matter whether I self-publish or traditionally publish. (The evidence available to me on either path is not encouraging as to how financially remunerative an average “successful author” would be.) But if I’m looking at upside potential… well… Konrath and Co look to be near the top of the heap in self-publishing, and their level of success looks very attractive. But the upside in traditional publishing is more attractive, at least to me.

        Which is my whole point. Different people will approach this question with different goals and different decision-making criteria. That’s important. It allows those different people to reach different conclusions that are individually the right choices for them. And it’s okay for these different options to co-exist and for different authors to choose different paths for themselves. I’m glad it’s that way, now, and I prefer it to be that way, personally. And I suspect, for the next couple of years at least, it will continue to be that way.

  3. I’m intrigued by the various resources and it’s an interesting question. I’d certainly want more information on the actual connections with Scientology as a religion. I think there would have to be more of them to dissuade me. Good things still often come from suspect sources. It tempts me to read some stories from several different WoTF anthologies. Despite a desire among some involved to lead young kids to Scientology through the distribution of the anthologies, my guess is that the stories themselves will contain universal themes that could just as likely lead a child to consider any faith or even no faith at all. I would only be concerned if it was proven that the stories consideration included a design for perpetuating the ideas of Scientology, but at least for now, it does not seem like they are chosen for any other reason than the quality of the work.

    • Well, you don’t need to worry about the story selection. The stories that get published are the winning stories – and the winning stories are selected by the judges. The judges, themselves, are a group of noted luminaries and published authors from the field of SF&F. To my knowledge not a one of them is a Scientologist, and their selection criteria is not influenced by Scientology nor its doctrines or ideas. So your intuition that a reader can approach one of these anthologies without being influenced toward Scientology should be exactly correct. No, the concern I expressed is not about the potential for recruitment. It’s that there’s some suggestion that the physical production and manufacture of the books, themselves, is done through the exploitation of Scientology members in demeaning and dangerous environments without commensurate pay: or in other words the possibility based on some of these stories that the members are exploited as slave labor for the purposes of book production. That’s a frightening thought.

      • Yes, that would be a completely different story. It also seems to me that it might be bordering on illegal if that were to be taking place? I’ll have to go back and take a look at the links I didn’t hit. I didn’t draw that connection from what I read or the comments I perused.

      • I’d been reading a lot on this topic lately, and I may have missed a link or two when I compiled this post. So the one I read recently that talked about the production of books may or may not have been in the links in this post. (I’d have to go back and check them all.) Certainly, it would be illegal, of course. The difficulty, apparently, in prosecuting something like that would be in finding a way through the secrecy of the organization. Apparently the Church of Scientology has a history of thwarting the government on such matters… That secrecy is another reason it’s hard to gauge how truthful or accurate these claims are.

      • Interesting… well thanks for sharing regardless. I suppose in the end we all just choose to vote our conscience through our actions. And who knows, maybe some group will initiate something else to help aspiring authors that is as effective as Writers of the Future has been as you’ve suggested.

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