I could give you a blow-by-blow of the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future week — the workshop, the gala event — but such things have been blogged before, and in any case I don’t necessarily want to bore anyone with a, “and then this happens and then this happens,” chronology of my time there.
What I will do, however, is attempt to impress upon you my estimation of the value of the Contest. Economic, professional, and otherwise.
Writers of the Future requires no entry fee. Like any honest fiction competition, all Writers of the Future requires of the entrant is a willingness to follow basic rules of writing: start a story, finish a story, format it correctly, and send the story to the correct address. Beyond that, there is nothing for the entrant to do, save for waiting for results — preferably done while writing new fiction, both for entry in future quarters of the Contest and/or submission to other markets.
Assuming one does win, the equations look like this.
CASH PRIZE. Every writer who Places in every quarter of the Contest receives prize money determined by tier. 3rd Place — which is what I won — gets $500.00 US immediately upon winning. I got my check for $500.00 from Author Services Inc., the literary foundational company that runs the Contest, roughly 45 days after I found out I’d won. 2nd Place winners get $750.00 US, and 1st Place winners get $1,000.00 US. By any standard, these are phenomenal pay rates for short fiction, and I challenge anyone to find another entry market in the science fiction and fantasy field which offers this kind of money to non-professional authors as a rule of market operation. If we use me as a test case, we can begin to construct a grand total value for the Contest, with things only improving if we extrapolate for higher Placement for other potential winners.
Grand Total = $500.00 US
AIRLINE FARE. Barring those few living locally to Southern California, almost all Contest winners are flown free-of-charge (compliments of the Contest) into Los Angeles International (LAX) Airport. Depending on how close or how far you are from L.A. your fare will vary. I am a short desert jump from Salt Lake City to L.A. so my flight was on Southwest, which if reserved far enough in advance only costs maybe $100 to $150 US for a round trip. So estimate $125, with expenses going up from there depending on your point of origin.
Grand Total = $625.00 US
TRANSPORTATION & HOTEL ACCOMODATIONS. Upon arriving in Los Angeles you are picked up (compliments of the Contest) by an Author Services representative and driven across town to Hollywood, where you are booked (compliments of the Contest) into your room at the Roosevelt Hotel — site of the original Academy Awards, and current home of the Contest awards ceremony & gala event. I don’t know what a cab costs in L.A. or even a shuttle bus, but I’d wager $60 is not a gross estimation. Room cost for a double room — you will get a double room because all contestants room with an assigned co-winner — is about $300 a night. Split that down the middle and you’re looking at $150 a night over 7 nights, which amounts to $1,050 + $60 or roughly $1,100 for travel and lodging.
Grand Total = $1,675.00 US
MEALS. Food is one of the very few items you will be expected to pay for yourself, though here again there are benefits because the second half of the week is chock full of “special” suppers which are provided (compliments of the Contest) for all winners. In my case I had the BBQ social with the judges, pizza after the completion of the short story challenge, the banquet on the night of the gala itself, the late-night winner party burger fest, farewell dinner the following night, and the many complimentary sodas and snacks available at Author Services during the length of the week. All I really had to pay for were some breakfast foods, and some of my dinners and lunches — again, almost all coming during the first three days. Once the judges arrive, the free food starts to roll in. I figure the pizza was $10 per head, the BBQ another $20 per head, the banquet at least $50 per head, the burger fest at $30 per head, the farewell dinner another $20 per head, and sodas and consumables came out to probably $30 per head for the week. That’s $130 per head for the week — and I am probably underestimating.
Grand Total = $1,835.00 US
WORKSHOP TUITION. Earlier this year I went out and did a week of workshopping in Lincoln City that had a lot in common with the Writers of the Future workshop: it was comprehensive in coverage, professionally focused, taught by two industry professionals with impeccable track records. It cost me $700 for the week to pay for those instructors’ time, and they both lived locally to where I traveled. Writers of the Future has to bring in its two instructors, which adds overhead, so I estimate total tuition cost for the time and expense of having Tim Powers and K.D. Wentworth at our disposal to be roughly $1,000 per contestant for all seven days. That’s probably an underestimation, but it’s a good, rounded figure.
Grand Total = $2,835.00 US
GUEST INSTRUCTION. Here is where the figures begin to boggle. For the first three days of the workshop, you have Tim Powers and K.D. Wentworth almost exclusively. But by the fourth day, the judges of the contest — and any professional guest authors who happen to be past winners, and who have come back to visit — begin to roll in. They are accessible at the workshop itself, giving one and sometimes two-hour blocks of guest lecturing, and they are available non-formally at the Roosevelt hotel bar, lobby, and during and between various social events. I have a tough time estimating how much this would cost a person, to bring in all these extra professionals to an already expensive workshop. The Contest pays for all of these people to come out, often at far more expense than even the winners, and with a little back-of-the-envelope math I guesstimate that the Contest spends perhaps as much as $3,000 per head to have all the judges and other guests come in, which accounts for roughly 15 bodies. Divide that by 24 (all winners, both sides of the Contest) and that’s $1,875 per winner. Guesstimated.
Grand Total = $4,710
GALA EVENT. The awards ceremony is the most difficult for me to calculate, in terms of per-winner cost. The gala is a full-scale Hollywood-standard awards event, complete with professional stage and lighting, professional dancers, professional television and media equipment, production and crews. I don’t have a ghost of a clue how much it costs to set that up, nor do I have a ghost of a clue how much is being comped (courtesy of Author Services and Galaxy Press) together to accommodate guest speakers — like June Scobee, our guest for the 26th annual event. I am going to wager that the gala costs tens of thousands of dollars to put together, if not over a hundred thousand. That might be way high, but it’s probably way low. So we’ll (wildly) ballpark gala expenses at $100,000 between man-hours and equipment and supplies. Again divide this by 24 winners, and we arrive at a gross guesstimate of $4,200 per contestant.
Grand Total = $8,910.00 US
FIELD TRIPS. This year’s Writers of the Future featured two significant field trips to two locations: the Delta Printing plant handling this year’s print run of the anthology, and the Borders book store in Pasadena handling this year’s mega-signing following the gala. A modest charter coach costs about $1,000 for a half day. Figure $200 extra for VIP who traveled separately. That’s about $100 per winner, once the math is done. Delta sported us a business breakfast, and Borders had some goodies too. So stack on probably another $50 per head.
Grand Total = $8,960.00 US
TROPHY & CONTRIBUTORS’ COPIES. The Writers of the Future trophy is a serious piece of solid acrylic, with an artful feather done up in its center, plus plaque. A trophy of that size probably costs $50 to buy from a trophy manufacturer, and the 1st Place and Grand Prize trophies are even bigger, and presumably more expensive. Per contract, all winners also get 12 copies of the anthology, which has a per-unit retail value of $7.99.
Grand Total = $9,106.00
SUNDRY. I am quite sure there were many things going on behind the scenes at Writers of the Future that none of us were even aware of, and all of which cost money to get, or deliver, or have executed on our behalf as winners. I am going to ballpark that $500 was expended per winner on all sundry hidden expenses.
Grand Total = $9,606.00
PUBLICATION PAYMENT. All winners get a check from Galaxy Press upon official publication of the book — usually determined to be the date of the gala — which is equivalent to the amount of their prize. In my case I got $500 per contract.
Grand Total = $10,106.00
I want you to take a look at that figure — over $10,000 US — and realize that in many ways, I probably left out costs or underestimated costs. The actual per-head Grand Total is probably even larger. Especially if you figure that two Grand Prize winners each walk away with $5,000 on the night of the gala. So if you’re one of those lucky people, the actual Contest value for you is liable to be $15,000 US or higher.
And all it costs — for you as the entrant — is the price of paper, printing, postage, time, and effort.
Thus $3.00 US + your time and effort can = $10,000 or more, and the experience of a lifetime.
I don’t think people should enter or go to Writers of the Future to be spoiled and pampered, though it is 100% true that Author Services and Galaxy Press will spoil and pamper you. I don’t think people should enter or go for the pro comps, though it is 100% true that the pro comps are second to none in the field — just ask Mike Resnick. I don’t even think people should enter or go for the money, though it is 100% true that the money is top-rate for short SF and F fiction, especially considering the entry requirements are ‘novice’ level. I also don’t think people should enter or go for the publication credit, though it is 100% true that the Contest and the resultant anthology is widely regarded in New York and elsewhere as a high-visibility, very tough market to crack — the kind of thing that ranks up there with the top SF and F short markets, like Analog and Asimov’s. I further do not think people should enter or go for the ‘Hollywood’ experience, though it is 100% true that leading up to and during the gala event, every winner is treated like and made to feel as if he or she is, for one week and one night especially, a superstar in the business.
No. The real value of the Contest, is the knowledge imparted and having exposure to working professionals all working professionally. You can’t put a price on having access to Tim Powers and K.D. Wentworth for a whole week. And you certainly can’t put a price on having all of their compadres flown in solely for your benefit — long-time professional writers who have been working at the top levels for decades, and who know virtually everything there is to know about how to write, how to be a writer, what to watch out for, what to think about trying (or not trying,) and who will give you (compliments of the Contest) a base-line professional background on which to form future goals and plans. As I noted earlier, to pay for all of this you’d have to fork out hundreds or even thousands of dollars to attend an entry fee workshop of similar caliber, and even then you’d probably be getting half or less the total talent.
I personally cannot think of any other operation in the business where I can sit and listen to Tim Powers and K.D. Wentworth, then Jerry Pournelle, then Dave Wolverton, then Kevin J. Anderson, then Robert Sawyer, then Steven Savile and Ken Scholes, Rebecca Moesta and Nina Kiriki Hoffman, and on and on and on, for a whole week — for the cost of a little paper, a little postage, and a little effort to write and submit a good story. You could attend a dozen cons and hit three times as many con panels, and not get that kind of “face time” with the star authors in the SF and F fields. Especially when one considers the social aspect. At cons you are just another face in the press, and might manage a handful of questions which might get short answers. At Writers of the Future you have nearly unlimited time to ask every possible question you can think of, on any subject, at almost any time, because there are always pros in the lobby of the hotel, floating around at Author Services before, during, and after class, and attending the social events.
Consider the following: the magazine Locus threw a room party about mid-week in honor of the late Charles Brown. During which myself and a few other winners — past and present — were able to sit at the feet of Mike Resnick and listen to several hours of war stories from his 40+ year campaign in the publishing business. Mike is an entertaining speaker in any setting, but you get him going about some industry kerfuffle or other ‘dirt’ that goes back to the old days, and he’s off and running, and suddenly you’re transported back to the 80s, the 70s, or even earlier, to a time when science fiction and fantasy fiction was a Wild West of weird, charming, talented, and fascinating people.
And Mike isn’t alone. All of the guest lecturers and judges can tell stories like that. And in every story, there is usually a lesson or a moral to be learned. Never explicit. You have to be kind of quick on the uptake to figure the lessons out for yourself. But they’re there. And they’re the kind of lessons you can’t put into a booklet or spell out on a syllabus. Because they’re wisdom lessons and as usual, most wisdom cannot be terrifically imparted in the classroom setting. Not really. It’s the kind of thing that must be imparted informally, in the moment, when the brain is switched out of Student Mode and you have dropped into that “open” place where you’re having fun and laughing and the wheels are spinning and suddenly you realized you just picked up on something, and oh hey, Mr. or Ms. Pro Author, what about… And what about the other thing… And… Do you see how it happens? Can you imagine it? For days and nights and days? Over drinks and food and weaving in and out of wild conversation?
All for the cost of a little paper, printing, postage, and time and effort to tell one good story.
Being an aspirant writer very often sucks shit. You’re by yourself, you have few people to talk with about your writing who give a damn or take you seriously, you spend a lot of time and some money on workshops and supplies and computers and stuff. And all you seem to get all year long are crappy rejection slips that never tell you why you didn’t sell, nor what may have been “wrong” with the story, nor even if you came close at all. So you get discouraged, you get claustrophobic, you feel isolated and the entire thing begins to seem futile.
Winning Writers of the Future and then going to the week and the gala, is like flooding wind into your emotional writing sails after months (or years!) of floating slackly through the doldrums. When you win and go to Writers of the Future you get to escape solitary confinement. Nobody will laugh at you, look strangely at you, or think you’re either egotistical, fooling yourself, or act jealous of you because you’re daring to do something they are not. Everyone you meet will either be a writer just like you, at your level, or a writer further down the track who will cheerlead for you, or one of the Author Services or Galaxy Press people who treat you like a VIP and make you feel like, at last, you deserve some recognition for what you do.
Writers of the Future is also a place where magic — real, actual magic! — truly happens. That is not an exageration and I am not making that up. Don’t believe in magic?
Allow me to give examples from my experience.
As the workshops wound down, we writers got to enjoy the “unveiling” of our artwork for our stories, by our artists. My artist is a delightfully lovely and ferociously talented woman from Singapore who does pro-level manga and anime-type line drawings. My artwork for my story looks like it’s ripped right out of Æon Flux, the animated series. Talk about fanboy moment! I gushed all over Jingxuan Hu for minutes on end. She had fantastically manage to capture the signature imagery that I myself had originally seen in my head, translated it through the lens of her own vision, and rendered a delicious fusion that literally made me stop and go, “Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow!” Many other writers have talked before about the emotional gratification of seeing their stories rendered visually. It was truly a profound thing to see what Jingxuan had created, and I was both humbled by and impressed with her effort. Can you put a price on that? Advertise it as a “perk” of the Contest? No. But it was there, and it absolutely floored me.
During the gala pre-show they had some choreographed artsy dance stuff going on, you know, aerialist girls in leotards doing acrobatic stuff on hanging hoops, etc. During that pre-show some colorful hooded creatures with no faces came gliding out on what seemed like roller skates. They were blue and purple and green and so forth, and everybody was kind of like wow, this is weird and different, and the more I watched it the more I was like, okay, that’s from my story! So Joni Labaqui is walking down the central aisle and I flag her down and ask if they did that on purpose, and she says yes, the dance company read all of our stories, and pulled out certain things to put into the show. So not only did my illustrator exactly capture some of the key imagery from the story, the choreographers captured it too. The level of gratification that engendered, to see my story element — the same key iconic image element Jingxuan had mined for her artwork– rendered in moving visual, physical art form, was just amazing. Can you put a price on that? No, I don’t think you can.
But it got better.
During the frenzied book signing after the gala, all of the dance company girls and the women who designed the dance show came up to me and were all asking about what I thought of the show, and I was gushing endlessly about how astounded I was that they pulled out my signature image and rendered it for the stage. Because my story began with that single image in my head — no story at all, just an image — and bam, almost two years later, my “image” is a moving character on a stage? Then they really blew my socks off when they had some of the dance girls secretly go get back into costume and come back out with these character outfits on, and I turn around and… Oh my goodness!! Larry Niven has talked about his first cons, and seeing fans show up dressed as Kzinti and especially the Pierson’s Puppeteer, coming at him; and how special that was. This moment after the gala was like that for me: oh wow, here come my characters, alive as day! I was about as high as a kite. So much fun, and I kept gushing and gushing and gushing. Can you put a price on that? Well, you know the answer.
After the gala event cranked down enough for me to get a breather, I cracked the book for the first time — oh wow, I am in a book! At last! I wondered who had their stories both before and after me, so I flipped through the pages. My story is amidships in this volume, right before the center card, and lo and behold, which pro writer has his writing advice article directly after mine in the book?? None other than Dean Wesley Smith. Dean is my mentor! He has taken more time than just about anyone else to help and encourage me! How fantastic is it that I get to rub shoulders with Dean in print? I don’t know if Galaxy Press planned that. I don’t know if that was on purpose, or what, but you simply cannot put a price on that kind of moment. Overwhelmingly satisfying, so much so that you literally feel light on your feet — like it’s all you can do to keep from skipping around the room and clapping your hands like a small child.
THAT LINGERING QUESTION:
I have occasionally run across writers (and even one small editor) who look askance at Writers of the Future, because the Contest is L. Ron Hubbard’s greatest lasting legacy — besides Scientology. I have heard it said by some that they are nervous to enter and possibly win, because they have heard it said that the Contest is a Scientology operation, and they’re not terribly interested in anything that has anything to do with Scientology or Scientologists.
I can only state what I know from experience. During my entire time in Los Angeles, not a single individual associated with the Contest breathed a word to me about Scientology. Were some of the individuals working at Author Services or Galaxy Press themselves Scientologists? I don’t know. I can’t read minds and I can’t read souls. But you know what? I don’t think it matters worth a damn. L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest isn’t about Scientology. If it were, I do not think it would have endured as the premiere entry portal in the world of Science Fiction and Fantastic literature. What matters is that Writers of the Future is about writers and illustrators getting a doorway into the professional world. And whatever reservations a person may have about the Contest, due to rumors or speculation, I would suggest that the huge number of professionals — who came out of the Contest, who judge the contest — is its own best evidence that the Contest is, in the words of Mike Resnick, a class act.
If that’s not enough to lay your unease to rest, well, there are a hundred other aspirant writers standing behind you, ready and eager to take advantage of everything I’ve spelled out in the article above. Move aside, and let those without reservation get on with the business of entering and winning.
SO ENTER THE CONTEST, AND DO IT!
Do it, because the money is top drawer. Do it, because the prestige is also top drawer. Do it, because Tim and K.D. are waiting for that next batch of 12 writers to walk in, sit down, and begin their careers as professionals. Do it, because Mike Resnick is waiting to tell amazing stories about the business, late at night, at the room parties. Do it, because Robert J. Sawyer is bouncing off the floor eager to impart his wisdom. Do it, because Kevin J. Anderson and his wife Rebecca Moesta are also waiting to impart wisdom. Do it, because you will meet 11 other writers just like you, who will at the end of the week be inextricably linked to your career birth, and you to theirs — and you will come away with amazing new friends as a result. Do it, to go learn from some of the best and oldest Names in the business — some of whom might have been your writing heroes since you were a child. Do it, to prove the doubters and scoffers in your life wrong. Do it, to lay your own fears and doubts about your ability to rest. Do it, because it’s there, and it’s waiting to be done. Do it, because it’s the thing to do.
Thank you to everyone who made the last week one of the most amazing in my life, and perhaps the most amazing in my entire writing career.
ETA: Please check out fellow winner Alex Black’s photos, and his blog! Great stuff!