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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 17, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Writers of the Future and Lifetime Achievement

After L. Ron Hubbard founded the Church of Scientology, he didn't forget his roots as a writer. He had been one of the top writers of the "pulp era" -- the age before television, when people got their one-hour cop and detective dramas from inexpensive magazines.

There was a huge market for short stories then -- and for not-so-short ones, too. And writers could make a living from penny-a-word publication.

A living? Do the math. Double-spaced manuscripts run about four pages to a thousand words, so a 10,000-word story is about forty pages long. For that, you'd be paid a hundred bucks (or $200 at two cents a word, $400 at four cents).

In the 1930s, a hundred bucks went a lot farther. A loaf of bread was less than a dime and a quart of milk was under fifteen cents. Twenty cents could buy you ten pounds of potatoes or three cans of Campbell soup. A pound of hamburger meat was twenty-one cents, and a penny had enough value prices were often written as cents: The ยข sign appeared on mechanical typewriter keys.

The clincher, though, is that you could buy a good car for six hundred bucks or less, and a decent house for less than $5,000. (But you had to save up the money for most purchases -- there were no credit cards, so buying on credit required that each individual merchant trust you, individually, enough to let you run a tab.)

The "slick" magazines paid more than the "pulp" publications. ("Slick" and "pulp" refer to the kind of paper they were printed on. People is printed on slick paper -- the kind that can take a sharp color image -- and most newspapers are printed on pulp.)

Slicks cost far more to print and therefore cost more at the newsstand. They paid their writers at a higher rate, too -- so that F. Scott Fitzgerald could be paid a thousand or more for a story that appeared in a slick. You could live considerably richer if you sold regularly to the slicks -- but you'd be competing for a lot fewer publication slots.

Hubbard was one of the top writers of the era. His name on the cover sold copies of the magazine. He wrote pirate adventures, detective stories ... but his favorite genre to work in was science fiction, which in those days was brand new.

Skip ahead to the last years of Hubbard's life. He knew he was getting old, and he no longer needed to make his living from writing. But he spent the last years of his life thinking up and writing the longest sci-fi work ever created: The novel Battlefield Earth and the sequel series Mission: Earth.

He did something else, too -- he created Writers of the Future, the best literary contest ever, in order to find and help promote the careers of new writers of science fiction and fantasy.

I was skeptical when I first heard about this contest back in the early 1980s. I don't think of fiction as a competitive sport. But Hubbard, and the people he put in charge of the contest, did everything right in creating Writers of the Future.

First, there was no entry fee. They did not fund their contest like a sweepstakes, by charging the hopeful young writers for the privilege of offering their stories.

Second, they run the contest as a quarterly event. There are three prizes every three months, so that by the end of each year there are twelve winners. That means that if you enter the contest, you don't have to wait for a year to find out the results. (A year is an eternity in new-writer time.)

Third, the judging is up to professional editorial standards. They proclaim that "awards are adjudicated by professional writers only," but "professional writers" aren't necessarily good judges of writing. I've been a professional editor and I know from experience that editing is a completely different job from writing, and people who are good at one aren't necessarily good at the other.

From the beginning, Writers of the Future has been served by great supervising judges. Beginning with Algis Budrys, and continuing today with Dave Wolverton (who also writes under the name David Farland), every single submission is judged, not by some anonymous slushpile reader, but by the same judge who selects the preliminary slate of contestants.

Believe me, not every story is read in its entirety -- you have no idea how bad some of the submissions are, and the judge has to keep his sanity. Usually you know within a couple of paragraphs if the writing is so awful that there is no hope for it.

But if it shows some skill, and the actual story is promising, the judge reads every word. Once a slate of finalists is chosen, the supervising judge then submits the finalists to a panel of professionals -- and I have served on such a panel several times.

I've never seen a bad story in that group of finalists. Judging for Writers of the Future is a pleasure, because their standards are so high.

Fourth, they publish an annual anthology of the winning stories, called Writers of the Future, and it's rare when that is not the best original anthology of the year. In fact, if you want to see the best new work of each year since the early 1980s, read the whole run of Writers of the Future anthologies.

This year marks the publication of the thirtieth volume in the series, and it is as good as ever. Besides the winning stories, there are reprints of stories by three longtime professionals: L. Ron Hubbard himself, with a story published the year before I was born; Mike Resnick, one of the best short fiction writers ever; and (blush) me.

But the highlight of this and every volume of WotF is the contest-winning fiction. Science fiction and fantasy thrive by constantly reinventing the genre, and the way this is done is by bringing new writers with fresh ideas into the field. WotF lives up to that ideal -- these stories will take you places where you haven't been before.

Take "Animal," by Terry Madden. Set in a future where a crowded Earth has no room left even for a zoo to keep living samples of rare species alive -- holographic films allow "virtual" experiences with lost wildlife -- "Animal" is the story of a zookeeper who not only wants to save the last gorillas, but also wants to bear a child of her own.

In "Giants at the End of the World," a merchant brings travelers along on the difficult journey to a nondescript town called "The End of the World," and he suspects that a particular woman has come along on this journey so that she can end her life in that portentously-named place. I finished reading this story a little frustrated that we learn so little about the titular giants -- so I'm happy to say that the writer, Leena Likitalo, is at work on a novel built around the story.

By the way, this is truly a world contest -- two of the writers, Finnish Leena Likitalo and Russian Oleg Kazantsev, wrote their stories in English even though they are not native speakers of our language. This is an incredibly difficult thing to do, but if you want a career in writing sci-fi or fantasy, you have to be able to reach the English-speaking audience. And there are writers from Australia, Canada, and Britain, so the contest draws from around the world.

Fifth, the prize money is noticeable. The quarterly winners are paid $1,000, $750, and $500. In addition, each year one of the quarterly first-place winners is selected as the Grand Prize winner, and the author receives an additional $5,000.

But as nice as the prize money is, the book is far more important, because it can do what the prize money can't: Create a demand for more of the authors' work. I can promise you that while you won't love all the stories equally, there will be stories in this book that make you want more from that author.

Sixth, and most important, Writers of the Future can launch a career. Right from the start, some winners of the contest have gone on to have distinguished careers as writers in the genre of sci-fi and fantasy. They have won the top awards in the field; they have placed books on bestseller lists.

It's possible -- indeed, it's quite likely -- that most of these writers would have had careers anyway. Nothing was going to keep contest-winners Dave Wolverton or Karen Joy Fowler or Nina Kiriki Hoffman or Robert Reed or Patrick Rothfuss from succeeding. They had the talent and the drive to create both the quantity and the quality of work that would bring them an eager audience.

But winning the WotF contest gave them a quick leap out of the blocks. When an unknown writer submits a novel or story manuscript to an editor, and the cover letter says, "By the way, I won the top prize in the quarterly Writers of the Future contest this past spring," the editor is going to sit up and pay attention. The contest has earned a great deal of credibility in the field.

The contest administrators and Galaxy Press don't just hand out the prizes and then forget the winners. They track the subsequent careers of contest winners, and keep a library of the books and magazines in which their works appear.

They give contest winners training in how to handle book signings, television and radio interviews, and other public relations opportunities. They help them learn how to use social media to attract potential readers.

Also, the annual awards ceremony includes an intense writing workshop for the winners. I was one of the co-teachers the third year of the contest, and I incorporated some key elements of Algis Budrys's workshop in the way I teach my own writing classes.

This year, I had a chance to talk to the winners for an hour as a "visiting writer" in the workshop, and I could see that Dave Wolverton and Tim Powers, two of the best writers working today, had done a superb job of teaching this year's workshop.

And I will immodestly tell you that some of the winners -- this year and in past years -- have included former writing students of mine. It was nice to see my kids make good.

The annual workshop and awards ceremony culminates in one of the most smoothly run awards shows I've ever seen. It helps that the winners already know they've won -- it means they have a chance to prepare their brief acceptance speeches.

The contest administrators also give them some training in how to make an acceptance speech that leaves the audience liking you -- I wish they could give that training to Golden Globe and Oscar nominees.

But the glow from winning an award or attending a productive workshop only lasts for a little while. What makes Writers of the Future an important part of the science fiction and fantasy genre is that the writers who win the contest go on to bring further honor and prestige to it by the fine work they produce in the following years.

I tell my writing students that if they are writing sci-fi or fantasy, they owe it to themselves to submit all their stories first to Writers of the Future. Why? Because they won't keep the stories tied up for very long, and if they win, the anthology is the best possible launch for their careers.

I realize that this advice relegates all other sci-fi publications -- including my own online magazine The Intergalactic Medicine Show (http://www.intergalacticmedicineshow.com) -- to publishing losers of the WotF contest. But I'm content with that. For one thing, only new writers are eligible for the contest. And there are a lot more good new writers each year than the contest can possibly select as winners.

It's also worth pointing out that five years after the contest began, they added Illustrators of the Future to the contest. The winning illustrators are assigned to illustrate the stories in the WotF anthology, so you get a sample of their work -- and the contest is every bit as effective in helping launch illustrators' careers, as assignments begin to come in based on their work for the anthology.

I believe that if you're in the business of publishing short fiction, you should pay illustrators to create visual images to help draw readers into each story. That's why my own magazine has illustrations for every story, and not just for the cover.

Writers of the Future, vol. 30 is now for sale in bookstores everywhere. You could not get a better introduction to the best that science fiction and fantasy have to offer today and in the years to come.

*

One of the events at this year's Writers of the Future Awards event was the presentation of a Lifetime Achievement Award to ... me.

"Lifetime Achievement" is an odd kind of award to receive. It's not tied to any particular work, so that I could imagine that it recognized not only my bestselling books but also some of my favorites that didn't perform as well in the marketplace.

But "lifetime" carries a few implications with it. For one thing, how do you judge a "lifetime" of work until that lifetime is over? I was joking with Larry Niven before the event that I really owed it to the contest organizers to die at the podium during my acceptance speech. Not only would it help bring publicity to the event, but also it would guarantee that the award really did recognize a completed lifetime.

Larry approved of the idea and I think he might have been vaguely disappointed that I ended up reneging. What a shame to waste a publicity opportunity like that.

I'd like to think that my best work is still ahead of me. But I'm also aware that most writers are not like Isaac Asimov, who was doing the best work of his life when he died. Most people fade a little as they get older. The last works of fine writers like Agatha Christie and Ross Macdonald were far from their best. I can't think of any reason why I would be immune to the effects of age.

Besides, readers choose which books and stories they'll care about most and remember best, and if I am remembered only for a novel I wrote in 1984, and not for the better books I wrote after that, I'm not going to complain: Writers are lucky if readers care about and remember any of their works, and a writer is a fool if he criticizes his readers for liking the wrong book.

Besides, I like Ender Wiggin, too, and I'm glad readers have taken him into their hearts.

So even though I hope my lifetime isn't all that close to ending, and I hope to yet create my best and most memorable work, I'm quite happy to accept an honor like the one the Writers of the Future people extended to me this year.

And if the event led me to pay special attention to the publication of this year's anthology, and my review leads some of the readers of my review column to buy a copy and read the stories, everybody benefits. The anthology is worth the money -- and more than worth the time spent reading it.

It's also worth pointing out that it takes more than a little courage to present an award to me at this time. We live in a political era of hate and punishment, and because of my support for traditional marriage in 2008, there are those who now seek every opportunity to enforce a blacklist against me.

When my name is announced as a participant in an anthology of stories, or as a contributor to a charity auction, the Inquisition immediately hounds the editor or charity administrator with dire threats of boycotts and bad publicity until they withdraw my name.

The idea is, apparently, that if you support the Wrong Side in an election in America today, you will be punished forever, and your career, whatever it is, must end. What disappoints me most is the number of writers who eagerly join in blacklisting a fellow writer for political speech.

Because of Galaxy Press's association with Scientology, they are no strangers to being on the receiving end of hate speech and punishing publicity. People have already done their worst in attacks on Scientology over the years, so they can't be intimidated into not giving an award to someone who is being blacklisted as I am.

Still, many people and groups respond to bad publicity by becoming gunshy; I'm happy to learn that Galaxy Press responds to it with courage and a bit of defiance. Giving me a lifetime achievement award this year took courage. They were casting a vote for freedom of conscience. I'm doubly grateful.

*

The other night I finally got a chance to take my wife to the best Mexican fast-food restaurant anywhere: Poquito Mas, a minichain in the Los Angeles area.

They match Chipotle Grill in the high quality of their ingredients, and they have a more varied menu. Because LA is close to the ocean, they can offer a lot of high quality fish and shellfish; but what counts for me and my wife is that everything on their menu is delicious, from their wide variety of salsas to each kind of meat and cheese and bean.

The tortillas are fresh and not at all rubbery; the enchiladas are as good as in the finest table-service restaurants. Indeed, Poquito Mas really is on the boundary line -- you order at the counter, but they bring the food to you and clear it away. I've never received anything less than friendly, accurate service. So if you're in the Los Angeles area and you hanker after a good Mexican meal, you really owe it to yourself to try Poquito Mas.

But I have to warn you: After you eat there, other Mexican restaurants are going to seem a little disappointing. I only wish they would expand (without sacrificing quality) to Greensboro, North Carolina. LA is a long way from home for me ...


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