What began as a small but beneficent gesture from a great man stuck in a small town has become an abiding legacy of creation. L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers and Illustrators of the Future contest is an incubator for humanity’s brightest minds and its noblest souls.
Science fiction/fantasy is more than a genre of arts and letters, it’s a glimpse—at where humanity has been, of man at his most essential, at the places and things people dream. It allows us to break free of what we’ve been told about who we are and the limits of what we’re capable—to reimagine a world structured and defined for us by others. It lets us conceive new rules, contemplate things that don’t behave in the way we expect, and adapt to new frames of mind and morality.
It is a rehearsal for the future, and the players assemble here.
Choong Yoon, a native of South Korea and graduate of the College of Fine Arts at Seoul National University, stands quietly in a plush, wood-paneled room in Hollywood. Yoon, who now lives in New York, is one of twelve 2015 Illustrators of the Future contest winners.
Out in the hallway wait a dozen aspiring science fiction and fantasy writers, winners in a sister competition, Writers of the Future—a highly-respected speculative fiction contest that has launched the careers of many, including #1 New York Times best-selling authors Sean Williams (Star Wars: The Old Republic: Fatal Alliance) and Patrick Rothfuss (The Kingkiller Chronicle), who says, “Without Writers of the Future, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Every three months, thousands of writers and hundreds of illustrators from around the world submit short stories and illustrations to the respective contests. An illustrious panel of judges—a ’who’s who’ of sci-fi arts and letters (including Orson Scott Card, David Farland and Bob Eggleton) select three quarterly winners in each category. Two annual grand prize winners—recipients of the Golden Pen and the Golden Brush awards—are chosen from that group.
The quarterly art and writing winners come together each April—this year, at Author Services, Inc. (ASI) in Los Angeles—for the announcement of the grand prizes, and for a week of coaching and expert-led workshops in art, writing and the publishing trade.
Prior to the contestants’ arrival, each of the 12 winning stories was assigned to one of the winning illustrators, who have since completed the art—but the writers, who are waiting outside, have not yet seen it. Yoon and 11 other illustrator finalists—hailing also from China, Taiwan, Poland, New Zealand and across the U.S.—are anxious to see how the authors react to the visual renderings of their characters and the imagined universes they inhabit.
The writers, their breath just as bated, finally filter into the room. When Sharon Joss, author of “Stars That Make Dark Heaven Light,” finds Yoon’s illustration depicting her Etta and Vox—the story’s main characters—she takes it in for a long moment, turns away, and starts to cry. “I can’t look at it,” Joss says. “It’s beautiful.”
The Writers of the Future Contest, produced by ASI, was established in 1983, the outgrowth of The Golden Pen, a small writing competition launched—somewhat spontaneously—by L. Ron Hubbard in 1940, while he was literally iced-in at port in Ketchikan, Alaska during a winter trip. At the time, Mr. Hubbard was a widely known author, with over 120 published novels and short stories and a magnanimous desire to inspire, and create a level playing field for those new to the craft. “It has been my experience that almost everyone, at one period or another … has harbored a desire to write,” he began in a radio interview on the local KGBU radio station, in which he announced the contest, inviting local residents to submit a Christmas tale. “Anyone but professional writers may participate.”
It’s been 75 years since that first Golden Pen competition, and 31 years since the L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest launched in its current form—making it one of the longest-running writing competitions. It’s also one of the largest—in influence and in scale. Aspiring authors from 171 nations have entered Writers of the Future in its span, and the 2014 contest brought a record number of submissions. Its popularity is commensurate with its credibility—and the contest’s record in identifying the genre’s rising stars. “Writers of the Future has always had the power to launch careers, and that power has continued unabated,” says Orson Scott Card, the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of Ender’s Game (and more than 60 other books) and a longtime Writers of the Future judge. “If you submit a novel and say, ‘I am a quarterly winner, or the grand prize winner, or I placed in the Writers of the Future contest,’ publishers take your work seriously.”
L. Ron Hubbard always imagined a second contest, to run alongside Writers of the Future, encouraging new talent in the visual arts, and in 1988, Lithuanian-American science fiction author Algis Budrys (then the writing competition’s coordinator) brought it to fruition.
“The contest is a way of investing in the future,” says Bob Eggleton, winner of 9 Hugo Awards and 12 Chesley Awards, and one of the most commercially successful artists in the science fiction and fantasy genres. “We need new generations of creative thinkers, artists and illustrators to create a visual culture for the years to come. The future needs vision, and for that, the future needs art.”
Winning or placing in Illustrators of the Future, now in its 26th year, is for visual artists just as strong an endorsement as recognition in the sister contest for writers. “Many winners have gone on to create terrific illustrations and art for many forms of media—not just books and magazine illustrations, but also films, game designs, etc.,” says Eggleton.
“We need new generations of creative thinkers, artists and illustrators to create a visual culture for the years to come. The future needs vision, and for that, the future needs art.”
—Bob Eggleton, Illustrators of the Future judge
The career boost comes largely from publication in an annual Writers of the Future anthology featuring the 12 winning stories, and the illustrations created for them by the 12 winning artists. The anthologies, which Publishers Weekly calls “the most enduring forum to showcase new talent in the genre” consistently receive high praise from critics and readers alike.
“No matter who wins the overall contest, every single person whose stories appear in the anthology gets a career boost,” says Card. “This anthology is read in the field. Editors read it. They’re looking for new writers. The general public also reads it, and the audience will fasten on certain writers, be looking for their next work.”
But first, the 2014 quarterly winners had to look for their own (in most cases) very first published work, as the Writers of the Future, Volume 31 anthology came off the presses—literally—in Los Angeles on April 10. “It’s one of those rare, first experiences, to hold a book with my name on it coming off the press,” says writer Daniel J. Davis.
“It’s one of those rare, first experiences, to hold a book with my name on it coming off the press.”
—Daniel J. Davis,
Writers of the Future 2015 Award winner
Davis submitted a story that percolated in his brain for two years, but that he didn’t actually write until hearing about the contest very late in the game. He sent in “The God Whisperer” 15 minutes before the third quarter deadline—and won.
That’s an entirely different experience than Scott Parkin, who submitted his first Writers of the Future entry in 1988. And then again—and again, and again. “I was a finalist three times, a semi-finalist six others,” but never won, he says.
Parkin eventually stopped writing and focused on his day job as a software product manager—until last year, when he was laid off after 25 years. “When I told my wife,” Parkin recalls, “she said, ‘Well, you’ve always wanted to be a writer.’”
So Parkin dusted off a story he drafted as an exercise in character development—“Purposes Made for Alien Minds”—gave it another pass, and submitted it to the 2014 Writers of the Future second-quarter contest. This time, he was a winner.
Davis and Parkin joined the other 2014 writer and illustrator winners for a chief benefit of their prize—a week of workshops at ASI in Hollywood, where they had the opportunity to learn from and mingle with past winners and the sci-fi genre’s cream of the crop.
“Where else could I give an elevator pitch—in an elevator—to Tom Doherty?” asks winning writer Amy Hughes, author of “The Graver.”
This year’s writing experts-in-residence also included: Kevin J. Anderson, Orson Scott Card, David Farland, Eric Flint, Rebecca Moesta, Larry Niven and Mike Resnick.
On the illustration side, luminaries included Dave Dorman, an Eisner award-winner known for his work in Star Wars, Batman, Indiana Jones and Aliens, and artists Larry Elmore, Ron Lindahn, Cliff Nielsen and Sergey Poyarkov. “I don’t care how much further you go after this—you could win the grand prize Sunday night,” Farland told the assembled writers at one of the week’s workshops, “but you’re not done. Put yourself out there. Put your heart on the line. Go for it. Any failures you have should be because you were ambitious.”
Failure isn’t a word all that familiar to Writers of the Future alumni.
Winners have published 863 novels—including 25 just this past year—and nearly 4,000 short stories. All told, Writers of The Future prizewinners have sold more than 50 million books. And since 1988, Illustrators of the Future winning artists have earned more than two-dozen major industry honors, including a 2011 Academy Award, for Best Animated Short Film, that went to 1992 contest winner Shaun Tan for The Lost Thing. Illustrator of the Future David Hartman received one of his five Emmy nominations as a Director for Roughnecks: Starship Trooper Chronicles. And winner Robert Castillo took home the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 2009 for the storyboards for Precious, another Academy Award-winning film.
Speaking of awards …
On April 12, the 31st Annual Writers and Illustrators of the Future competitions came to their climax at an awards gala at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles.
A Lifetime Achievement Award went to Tom Doherty, a longtime friend of the contest and the founder of Tor Books. Doherty “transformed the world of science fiction with his publishing company […] which he started at a time when everybody said it’s impossible to start a new publishing company,” Card said in a speech at the event honoring Doherty.
“He is a wonderful publisher, [an] honest man. No one deserves this award more than he does.”
The keynote speaker was William Pomerantz, the VP for Special Projects at Virgin Galactic, which encompasses Virgin’s aspiring commercial ‘spaceline.’ “I work in an honest to goodness spaceship factory,” joked Pomerantz—but not really. “We’re truly almost ready to open up the space frontier,” Pomerantz said. “And I fully believe that someday soon, we will fly the winner of this contest into space.”
This year’s Golden Brush award went to Michelle Lockamy, for her illustration of Michael T. Banker’s story “Wisteria Melancholy.” Sharon Joss won the Golden Pen for “Stars That Make Dark Heaven Light.”
“I wanted to win of course, but I would have been happy either way,” says Joss. “Until you get here, you just can’t imagine how big a deal this is. It does make me look at things differently. You become part of the legacy of LRH writers.”
The next contest submission date is June 30. Get more information, at www.writersofthefuture.com.
Writers of the Future, Volume 31, featuring the work of this year’s contest winners, is available from amazon.com, and at booksellers everywhere.