That'll get the Scientologists' backs up...
For those that don't know, L. Ron Hubbard as well as being a science fiction writer and founding a religion, as one does, also set up a writing competition, Writers of the Future. It was one of his better moves, his way of paying it forward and, as far as I can tell having thrown my hat into the ring sixteen times, not a way of reeling in adherents. That said, I've yet to get the invite to dress as a penguin and accept a gong. I'm vulnerable when dressed as a penguin. I'm not sure what I'll agree to.
Eligibility depends on avoiding getting anything sci-fi over 3000 words professionally published more than three times. This is something I have proved exceptionally able at, having an almost god-like gift for it. There's a non-life changing cash prize, but the main benefit is the profile-raising, the networking, the workshopping, as well as the expenses-paid event (bring your own penguin suit). And, natch, your story crops in a very highly regarded annual anthology.
As previously blogged, I've just had a second silver honorable in a matter of weeks (the competition is quarterly, but confirmation of placings can be a tad erratic). Sounds great, if misspelt, but take a look at the list: there are a lot of us. Honorable mention is pretty much just an encouraging way to say 'fit for purpose', and I've had a number of entries that didn't even do that.
It's now three and a half years since I was a finalist (yes, my writing bio does call this 'recent', but I'm thinking big here, like geological eras big) and one of the things charming contest director Joni Labaqui said when I went from finalist to losing finalist was that editors will be eager to read manuscripts that reached such nosebleed heights. I'm not so sure. If anything, I've struggled to get stories that have been through the contest to fly (and that's without editors knowing their status). I’m beginning to wonder whether there’s some curse on stories that have had the WoTF stamp of near approval.
Here's the roll call.
Q2 2016/17, that losing finalist, was a weird fiction parallel worlds, post-apocalyptic tale about graptomancy. Clarkesworld, Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Liminal Stories, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lightspeed, Analog, Strange Horizons, tor.com, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, Interzone, and another dozen pro and semi-pro venues have said no, and only tor.com went out of their way to say nice things about it. List of SFWA-recognised venues left that fit genre and length: zero. That said, the Grinder (where you can find links to all the publications mentioned) shows it as the story with the longest waiting time for the pro-paying market it’s currently with, so here’s hoping.
Q4 2016/17. Honorable mention. A 3,500-word alt. history horror story. Thirty-one rejections, including one from The Dark in, as noted on my spreadsheet, 'five fucking minutes'. A near miss with Asimov's, though.
Q3 2017/18. Honorable mention. A 9,000-word cyberpunk fantasy. Batted away by another ten venues, but recently invited back by Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores. Since pushed away again by them at a slimmed-down 7,500 words, but with a coy eyelid flutter and wave of the fan, more rewrite notes, and a suggestion it can still shed some fat. One of us is reeling the other in slowly.
Q2 2018/19. Silver Honorable. A 4,000-word Frankenstein's monster tale set amongst 1970s Jewish New York tailors. I don't make things easy for myself, do I? One of my personal faves, it has not proved a fave with any of thirty-seven venues who've also seen it, although Analog had nice things to say about it.
Q3 2018/19. Silver Honorable. A 14,000-word horror triptych. Rejected by another seven since. Analog liked its (or my) style, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, however, gave it such scathing feedback (Hard to tell who the main character is or what sort of world this is... garbled... disjointed and jarring... lost interest... incredibly unlikable from the get-go... after the time-skip, it got more and more annoying... a rambling, mystical, murder story... by the end, it had made no and did not make, any sense... did any of it actually happen?... good for the first part, then slowly drowned in a sludgy quagmire of eldritch goo) that it got even under my thick skin and I haven't sent it out since.
Q3, 2019/20. Silver Honorable. A time-travelling yarn, was rejected by seven SFWA-recognised venues as a 3,500-word effort before being rebuilt from the ground up and submitted to WoTF as a 9,000-word story. So far only rejected twice elsewhere but being a rewrite and above 6,000 words inevitably limits pro-market possibilities.
Q4, 2019/20. Silver Honorable, after being unplaced a year earlier. 8,000 words, psychopunk-cyberpunk. Rejected seven times, including most of the SFWA-recognised venues it could go to, in an earlier draft; already booted into the long grass by Apex in its current form.
Another eight have failed to place. Of those, one, an 12,000-word slab of weird fiction that grew out of a 5,000-ish (it varied) story rejected by twenty-three venues (including WoTF in 2015), got a rewrite so fundamental it's essentially a whole new story. Of its first incarnation Charlie Finlay said "I got to the end of the story and had no idea what it meant either..." , which I took as a complement. He also gave some advice about strengthening it, which I took on board, so it's a disappointment that it didn't tickle the WoTF judges in either guise. Another has been politely declined seventeen times, but has been held for over eighteen months by Nightscape Press for a possible volume 2 of Nox Pareidolia.
The other six have racked up 104 rejections - including a near miss with Shoreline of Infinity and encouragement from Strange Horizons, but not many other positives - with only three eventually published: Litter Picking on the Moon; The Loimaa Protocol, which also made it into this year’s Best of; and May Nothing but Happiness Come Through Your Door. The first two are anthologised in 24 0s & 2, too.
So, the numbers are clear. Getting your name on the roll all of almost worthies correlates with total failure to launch, whereas proof of an inability to write leads to a fifty percent success rate (and the Grinder tells me fewer than a quarter of the pieces I’ve written get snapped up for cash). So, the curse of Writers of the Future is proved? Yes?
Not so fast, I think. If every pro venue adopted such a stratified approach, above simple acceptance, rejection, or, by exception, an encouraging note, I think you’d get the same mix, with the confusion of Analog’s and WoTF’s warmth and Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shore’s antipathy towards the same text being nothing newsworthy.
We’re in William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything” territory. You'd think that the market for science fiction would have some kind of consensus over what's required, but once you hit a basic quality threshold it becomes a very subjective game. What's meat and drink for one editor is stinking bilge for another. You can go mad by trying to follow the market or stay true by writing what you want to write about and, if the market bites, then so much the better.
I'm currently polishing a 10,000-word tract set in two parallel St Petersburgs, neither of which is this world's St. Petersburg, about an aging mathematics professor who becomes the number zero. First port of call, Writers of the Future, Quarter 1, 2020-21. Should be right up WoTF's street - and box office poison everywhere else...
2084. The world remains at war.
In the Eurasian desert, twenty-year old Adnan emerges from a coma with memories of a strictly ordered city of steel and glass, and a woman he loved.
The city is the Dome, and the woman... is Adnan's secret to keep.
Adnan learns what the Dome is, and what his role really was within it. He learns why everybody fears the Sickness more than the troopers. And he learns why he is the only one who can stop the war.
Persuaded to re-enter the Dome to implant a virus that will bring the war machine to its knees, the resistance think that Adnan is returning to free the many - but really he wants to free the one.
24 0s & a 2
Twenty-four slipstream stories. Frequently absurd, often minimifidian, occasionally heroic.