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Future, as you no doubt may be aware, is basically the premiere, most high-profile writing contest for new, upcoming, unpublished and undiscovered SF&F authors.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.
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?