How to win the Writers of the Future contest

To quote one of my favorite old movies from the 80′s:

CHARLES DE MAR: I’ve been going to this high school for seven and a half years. I’m no dummy.

I originally put this up on the Writers of the Future phpBB forum, but I wanted to repost it here for everyone who doesn’t visit that forum, but is still curious about what it takes to get called up to the WotF ‘majors’ and, ultimately, get a base hit — or a home run!

These are just my opinions, of course. But seeing as how I never got a rejection — four Honorable Mention and two Finalists, one of which won — I do think I have my finger somewhat on the pulse of the contest.

NOTE: Please read recent volumes of the contest anthology. I’d recommend vol. XX through XXV, if you can get them on-line or at your local Big Brick store. My first three entries were all Honorable Mention, but I didn’t crack Finalist until I’d begun purchasing and reading the anthology. Each one has a minimum of 12 good examples of what it takes to succeed with the contest. If you do nothing else, this is the one thing I’d recommend most. Not all of the stories will be to your liking — and I suggest you ignore totally which stories placed where in which quarters — but pay very close attention to the ones you do like. Re-read them if necessary. Let them percolate across your creative unconscious for awhile. Think on what it was about those stories which tickled your fancy, and ponder for a moment what you might want to do with your stories to get them to the same place of impact, with your readers.

Here are some things I noticed, for myself.

1) Put your Science Fictional or Fantastical element right up front. Don’t play around with this, or reach for too much subtlety. Granted, the stories in WotF books run the gamut on this. But contemporary stories where the SF or F element is too subtle, or very abstract, or very under-the-radar, might still be good stories, they’re just not wearing their SF and F credentials on their sleeves enough to make the WotF cut.

2) Avoid doing “downer” stories. We all know it’s become chic in the literary field to write “down” fiction, because “downer” stories are basically code for realism, because as every good emo knows, life is pain and suffering and you can’t write real fiction and be a real writer if you don’t write about pain and suffering. Especially on a quasi-existential level. Pah! I say, pain and suffering are fine, but they must serve a purpose in the story. A positive purpose. They must either drive your character towards a more positive outcome, or they must be crucibles that transform your character into a better person(s) than they were before. Pain and suffering — for their own sake — aren’t what WotF is interested in. So have your story and your protag(s) follow a more or less positive arc, or at least end up somewhere that, when you read between the lines, appears to be taking them in a positive direction.

3) Don’t go bashing religion. Here again it’s chic — in SF especially — to get up on a soap box and lecture the unwashed about the evils of Belief. This might be fine for other markets or contests, but it’s my inexpert opinion that you hurt yourself doing this. In fact, I’d suggest taking the opposite road. And I don’t mean bible-thumpin’. I mean, explore a religious theme, make a character or characters sympathetically religious, etc. Religion, as an artifact of human behavior and society, can be endlessly fascinating. It can also be a tremendous informant of a character’s ideals, thoughts, motivations, etc. Doesn’t even have to be a religion we’d recognize from modern day. Make it up! But make it relevant. Delve into what it means to Believe. Or, have your character torn between the secular and the theological. Make this part of the character’s inner journey, either away from an incorrect spiritual perception of the universe, or towards something that seems more consonant with a fundamental truth or otherwise defining aspect of the character’s perception.

4) On that note, your character(s) ought to be going on a bona fide voyage. A trip. A journey. Current literary cant dictates that Good Fiction is a talking-heads, painfully self-absorbed thing. Grand journeys are soooooooo passé. Everything has to be angsty and happen inside the character’s head, or it’s no good. Again I say, pah! Take the reader — and your protag — on a grand ride. Go places. At the risk of sounding corny, dig out that box of “kids cereal” SENS-O-WUNDA™ that you put in the closet long ago, and shovel a few scoops into your next WotF entry. Grand vistas. Big places, with big people and big ideas. Get large with your perspective and your characters. Then, dovetail this Big Adventure Thing® with an inner voyage (see #3 and #5.)

5) Your character needs to be going on an internal quest at the same time he or she is going on an external quest. And no, angsty navel-gazing is not a substitute for personal evolution. Have the events and the travels and the exploits of the story change the character(s) on some level, so that they’re not the same at the end of the story than when they set off. This might actually be the most important part of all, beyond everything else I’ve already mentioned earlier. Because this is where you’re liable to Hook The Reader© with the emotional and psychological and spiritual development of the character(s) as they surmount or face down the external challenges you set before them. In the end, your story won’t matter to the readers if your story doesn’t eventually matter to the character(s) in the damn story.

To recap, I am not an expert, and these are just my theories. If you have been struggling with rejections and rare HM — but no semis or Finalist stories — or if you’re brand new to the contest and would like to have a Cliffs Notes on success, then give my advice a shot. Try it out. Take it for a test drive. See if it makes a difference. It might.

CAVEAT: Of course, if you’re literally brand new — meaning you’re truly a Fresh Aspirant with very limited experience writing anything at all — there is no replacement for homework. You’ll have to write a lot of words to improve, and probably none of them will score you a win — or a sale — right out of the chute. Take it in stride. Do the homework anyway, and enjoy the teaching and the exploration of the words. Don’t fret, just work. And when the rejection(s) come, don’t let it go to your heart or your head. It’s not personal, it’s just business. File them and get back to work on the next story. You can’t win if you don’t enter, and you can’t enter if you don’t write, print, package and mail.

In the U.S. Army we’ve got a Soldier’s Creed. I often think there are aspects of the Creed which can apply to life as well — not to mention Big Dream Pursuits, such as getting published and having a writing career.

To quote the Creed:

I will always place the mission first.
I will never quit.
I will never accept defeat.

That is all. Carry on.

About Brad R. Torgersen

Science Fiction & Fantasy Author - Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell award nominee
This entry was posted in Advice, Writers of the Future. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to How to win the Writers of the Future contest

  1. Meloni says:

    Hey Brad,

    I’ve seen you over in Hatrack and also at the Kris and Dean Show. Congrats on the win, and I love your blog. It’s now in my bookmarks so I can look you up regularly. Take care.

  2. Hi Meloni! Nice to hear from you, since it’s been awhile. Thanks very much. Feels good to have won WOTF. Now, the real pressure is on. Gotta step it up.

  3. Debs says:

    Thanks for this advice, Brad. It’s so good I’ve had to share it, with my pals.

  4. Thanks Deb! Are you entering the Contest currently?

  5. Debs says:

    I’ve got something with them at the moment, but after that I’m ineligible — which is sad, but good.

  6. Alex J. Kane says:

    Rereading this bit of advice always helps my spirits toward the end of a WotF entry. I feel like this quarter’s going to be my best shot yet — I’m finally writing something that I think is almost professional-caliber. And yet, perhaps consequently, I’m finding it hard to find the ending. I’m stuck in the middle.

    It might be time to “interview” my characters, although it concerns me that that’s even a viable option. It’s like admitting that we’re insane, and that’s why we write stories. But I’m having so damn much fun with this one. :-)

  7. Good work, and good luck, Alex! My first Finalist, I had a “feeling” too. Sometimes those feelings can amount to something. If you want to fire it my way and let me have a look, feel free.

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  9. mattmayner says:

    Hey Brad,

    Matthew Mayner, (Moose) here. I just got a Honorable mention, in quarter 3! Thanks for encouraging me to enter the contest. I probably wouldn’t have done it without your encouragement.

    Now I just need to finish my latest story to submit before the next deadline.

  10. Hey Matt, good work! HM is top 10% out of an estimated 1,000 entries per quarter. That is top drawer, sir. Do indeed keep up the good work and make sure you’re entering as often as you’re able. HM means you’re very close to the Finalist circle, you just need to keep at it. Again, nice one!

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  14. Michael Stout says:

    Brad, I applaud you for your success and for your generosity for giving the rest of such great tips. I just got my first rejection, but they were cool about it. Your thoughts helped me decide which stories to send in and which to save for other contests. Thanks so much and keep on doing what you do so well.

    mfstout

  15. disperser says:

    I’m curious . . . do you get any feedback with the rejection (i.e. “you are OK, just not good enough”, “you suck, and should switch to plumbing”, etc.), or is it more along the lines of “thanks, but no thanks”?

  16. Semi-Finalists do get feedback. Unfortunately, they are the only ones. Even non-winning Finalists don’t get feedback. But you can know you’re hitting close to the bullseye with Honorable Mention, Silver Honorable Mention, and Semi-Finalist.

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