MEET THE WRITER/S OF THE FUTURE!

This is my story of the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest, and the Writers of the Future events, which I attended in 1998 and 1999, first as a published finalist, and second as a third-place winner.  If you win third place, you receive a $500 prize, and a generous payment for your story appearing in the Writers of the Future Anthology.  If you're a published finalist, you get a plaque, and they do pay you generously for appearing in the book.  A talented artist illustrates your work, and you even get to meet the artist at the event.

Until 1999, there was no such thing as a published finalist coming back and "winning" the next year.  But in 1999, there were three of us who accomplished this feat, and one of us (no, not me!) actually won the Grand Prize.  If you win the Grand Prize, you receive not only a plaque, but a $4,000 check, and a gorgeous lucite trophy.  If you were one of the first-prize quarterly winners, you also got one of these great-looking trophies.  The winner was my friend Scott Nicholson, who wrote "The Vampire Shortstop."  The other writer who was a finalist from 1998 and who returned as a winner in 1999 was my other good friend Ron Collins.  Ron has been to the Dale Carnegie school -- there's no way on earth (or in outer space) that I could exceed Ron's fantastic method of giving speeches, kissing plaques, or winning friends and influencing people.  

This is all unbelievably ancient history to me now.  I remember the events distantly, like poorly-recalled dreams.  All I know is that Ron and Scott are still my friends, and I revel in their continued writing successes.  They both have way better web pages than me.  Visit Ron Collins' page or Scott Nicholson's page to see what I mean.

I'm writing this because I want to tell readers about "what it's like to be a writer."  And Ron and Scott and I are just starting out -- we're not well-established writers who have written dozens of books about . . . you name it.  Probably none of us will ever surpass Isaac Asimov's total of more than 600 books written, or even Jane Yolen's impressive library of more than 150 books.  Lest you think that this first-time occurrence of three writers being finalists in the Writers of the Future Contest one year, then returning as winners the next year is some kind of "accident," let me disabuse you of that thought.  I don't even talk about Ron's novels with him much, but I know that he's written at least four, and this is in addition to a short story total that must rival mine -- and I'll let that number out of the bag right now:  I've written one novel, am working on two more, and more than 100 short stories, umpteen novelettes, a couple of novellas, and that isn't counting the ones I really dislike, am embarrassed by, or never finished.  As far as Scott's concerned, he's got novels that are out circulating among editors, agents and publishers right now.  Yes, you read that correctly:  novelS - plural.  I believe that Scott has written six novels, and his short story total definitely rivals or exceeds mine, or Ron's.  

Ron took the cover of Analog magazine last year with his story "The Taranth Stone."  He's not real happy with me (just joking!), because my novelettes (I might not be as prolific, but one of mine generally equals two of yours, Ron and Scott) appeared on the cover of the January and July, 2000 issues of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  Scott's first story collection, Thank You For the Flowers, was published last year to great reviews.  If you came here from my main page, you know that "I got one too" - Without Absolution.  All this goes to show that they weren't out of their minds when they chose our stories two years in a row for the Writers of the Future contest.  The point of that contest is to help new writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror by giving them an opportunity to be published in a great book, to receive a generous monetary award, and to participate in a fantastic week-long workshop with professional writers and editors like the founding contest judge Algis Budrys, and former Grand Prize winner and successful, bestselling novelist Dave Wolverton, and the other judges who include writers like Tim Powers, Kevin Anderson, Jack Williamson and Frederik Pohl.

That said, I have always felt that I went to the Writers of the Future contest two years too late.  Why do I say this?  Because the first story I ever entered in the contest was "Jonny Punkinhead," which was also my first professional science fiction and fantasy sale.  It appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in June, 1996.  This was barely not-a-novelette.  Yes, it was a short story.  When I finished this story in early 1995, I knew that I'd "done something."  From what I could determine at that time, it was "publishable."  Inside, I knew that I'd done the very best that I could do.  It was a breakthrough story for me in more ways than one.  Through this story, I began to learn what I was really good at as a writer.  It was about a subject very close to my heart:  inspired by the homeless, desperately poor children I worked with through my "day job" at that time -- the director of a charity devoted to helping people in need.  I "invented" the idea of "changed children," and did much research on slow viruses and genetic mutations to come up with a scenario by which such a disaster might occur.  Oh, woe is me:  I left all of this "background information" out of the story and instead wrote about what might happen if somebody . . . oh, somebody like me . . . had to try to take care of these kids who were throwaways -- the unwanted, the unloved, the bizarre.  Kids with heads like pumpkins and three eyes.  Kids like "Jonny Punkinhead."

I then "did my thing" and put that sucker in an envelope and sent it out (one at a time) to every reputable science fiction and fantasy magazine that existed at that time.  Guess what happened?

Yeah -- you got that right -- it got rejected just like the crummy stories I'd sent out earlier had been rejected.  Two of the editors, who shall forever remain nameless, actually used these words, and you honestly don't know frustration until you've experienced something like this for yourself:  "This is an award quality story, but . . ."  But -- "I ain't buying it."  The story was rejected by Kristine Rusch (let's not single Kris out -- she was merely one of a substantial group of editors who all agreed -- and I only mention her because she returns later on in this tale in a much happier way), who was the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction at that time.

After it was rejected by everybody who paid anything, I entered it in the Writers of the Future contest.  I received a postcard telling me that the entry had been received, and I filed that away and kept on writing.  Something else -- I don't remember.  It wasn't very good, obviously, or I'd remember it better.  One day, having racked up something like 40 rejections, I was considering hanging it up.  I was getting up at 5:00 a.m. every morning and writing until 7:00, when my little girl Meredith woke up.  She was about three at the time (now she is eight).  

Well, here I went, trudging out to the mailbox.  Another big manila envelope.  Yes, back in those days, I was still sending out full SASE's with full postage so that the whole manuscript could be sent back.  I opened the envelope and quickly recognized "Jonny Punkinhead."  

"Oh, great, Amy, another failure," I thought.  Then out came this big old letter, and I could tell it wasn't written by me.  Out came another letter, too, this one shorter than the first.

The first letter was five pages long, single-spaced.  It was from Dave Wolverton, who was head Writers of the Future contest judge at that time.  "Fred Pohl and I both thought that this was the first prize winner," the letter said.  Dave went on to discuss my story in detail, my writing in detail, and by the time I finished, I could hardly breathe.  Even then, though, I was still thinking, "why the heck don't you just pack it up - you still didn't win and they're sending the story back, unpublished."  That's right -- I was the "finalist" -- I hadn't even managed to make third place.  That quarter.  Dave said that the story was "publishable," though, and he urged me to send it to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, where he felt it would be a "good fit."  He didn't know the truth:  that it had already been there, and like General MacArthur, it had returned.  I was truly in a quandary.  How to send a story "back" that had already been rejected even if Dave Wolverton said it was good -- that it was right?  Then I read Fred Pohl's letter.  You may not know who Fred Pohl is, but if you love science fiction, you really should:  author of The Space Merchants, Man Plus, and the Gateway novels and the best editor in the field for many years.  I was aware as I read his letter that Fred Pohl had picked a number of incredibly successful, wonderful SF writers out of his "slush pile" while he was an editor.  Among them, he had "discovered" Cordwainer Smith -- and as far as I was concerned, Cordwainer Smith (also known as Paul Linebarger) was a God.  And Fred Pohl wrote a short letter, but he said, "being able to read stories like this is why I have continued to judge this contest over the years."  He called my story "award-quality" and my writing "beautiful," and I believed him.  That was when I started to cry.  That was when I decided not to quit.

I should have gone to the Writers of the Future deal in 1996.  "Jonny Punkinhead" should have been in that book.  But instead, following Dave Wolverton's advice and guidance, I made the few small changes he suggested and sent it back to Kristine Rusch at F & SF.  And this time, she bought it.  I received the famed check and contract in the mail from Ed Ferman, the owner and publisher (at that time . . . for the magazine's history until today, when it is owned, edited and published by my now-friend, Gordon Van Gelder).

"Jonny Punkinhead" has since been reprinted several times, and it remains very close to my heart.  Not just because it was my first "good" story, but because it really meant something to me.  It meant something to me then, and it means something to me to this day.  Judging by the letters I received, and comments I've heard from others -- it meant something to other people as well.  Kris put it in the "new writers" issue of F & SF -- there were no "names" on the cover.  Like the Writers of the Future Contest, and like my manuscripts, I just kept on "returning," to be on the cover some four years later with "Chromosome Circus," a sequel of sorts to "Jonny Punkinhead."

I kept writing.  It took me a long time -- two years, probably -- to recapture what I'd had when I wrote "Jonny Punkinhead."  I wrote competent, even moving stories in the meantime.  But stories like "Jonny" don't come every day.  Stories like that come from heartfelt honesty, caring, and sincerity, as well as from skill and constant practice.  How many words had I written before I wrote "Jonny?"  I'm not sure.  It wasn't the "million words" that I heard Harry Turtledove speak of -- he said that writers had to write "a million words" before they became publishable, professional writers.  How many rejections did I get before I re-sent that story to Kristine Rusch, with Dave Wolverton's help?  Forty-two.  And after that, another eighty rejections to my next sale.

I entered the Writers of the Future Contest sixteen times.  I was four times a finalist, and one time I managed to eke out that third prize -- and that was my last possible quarter of eligibility.  Once you have three stories in print, they do not let you enter any longer.  I had sold more stories than that, but I managed to keep it going as long as I did because of those key words:  "in print."  Publishing can be a slow business, and stories that have been sold can take two years or more to see print.  

I held my 1998 finalist story off the market so that it could be in the Writers of the Future book, because of Dave Wolverton's kindness, help and advice.  Knowing that my "time was running out," I entered a story that I'd never submitted anywhere to the contest during that last quarter of 1998, that appeared in the 1999 book and won the third prize.  That was a little goal of mine at that time:  to win something in the Writers of the Future contest -- just to be able to say that I'd done it, really.  Entering and regularly getting "finalist" and not winner just made me more committed to this goal.  Kevin Anderson, one of the contest judges (you may know his name because you've read and enjoyed one of his many bestselling books, such as Dune: House Atriedes) told me that he'd entered the contest many times also, and had never won -- becoming ineligible because he was selling so many stories and, soon, novels, as a professional writer.  Dave Wolverton told me that Lois McMaster Bujold (you might know her name, too) was a finalist, but not a winner in the contest, either.  She, too, began to sell her novels and has gone on to a wonderful career with many dedicated readers and fans.

Now, in terms of those rejections, it's a lot easier to sell what I write these days.  Yes, it does get easier.  Do I still get rejected?  HEAVEN'S YES - but it's not the hard, bone-crushing, soul-killing rejection of those early days.  If I write a "Jonny" quality story, I'll not only sell it, I may even get attention and some praise as opposed to the proverbial "stick in the eye" or "this is an award-quality story . . . but."

I have hope, these days -- and even more than that -- no one can take away from me what I've already written.  No one can take "Jonny" from me, or tell me that he's "not a winner," because I know that little boy is a winner, even if he lost hope in his own story.  Even if he smashed his own head against the wall just the way I wanted to do back then.  

I really wish that I could have gone to the Writers of the Future contest as a less-jaded writer.  I wish I could have been as starry-eyed as the other writers, who were enjoying their very first recognition and their very first professional sales.  

But I also wouldn't trade being there with Ron and Scott for anything in the whole wide world.  I wouldn't trade my other friends, either.  I wouldn't trade the wonderful treatment I received from the Author Services staff (they administer the contest, take care of the workshop, and house the writers for the week they are there).

My grandfather always told me, "you have to take the bad with the good."  I guess when I was growing up and reading science fiction, my ultimate dream was to be a part of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which was the place where all the writers I most loved and admired published their work.  Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Daniel Keyes, Walter M. Miller.  Writers like that.  Even today, my work is sandwiched in issues between writers like Ursula K. Le Guin and Joyce Carol Oates.  That's not "the bad."  That's "the good."  In February, a story that I consider to be as good as "Jonny Punkinhead," only better, and at least as close to my heart appeared in the table of contents next to Harlan Ellison's name.  I know Harlan (see "Take Dat!") and my story regarding him and his influence on me is not a part of this Writers of the Future story.  But yes, it meant something to me to see my name beside his, for real, on a printed page.  The feeling was not shame, nor was it inadequacy.  The feeling was pride, and I'm not ashamed to have Harlan see my name there, or to read the story.  Nor am I ashamed to have readers see it.  I think they will know what the story is when they read it, and no, it's not a "knockoff" of "The Ship Who Sang."  It came from the same exact place as "Jonny Punkinhead."  It came from my heart, and that's where all good writing comes from.

Even if it's "an award-quality story . . . but."

Copyright (c) 2001, Amy Sterling Casil