Writer judges Hal Clement, Robert Silverberg, Frederik Pohl and Jerry Pournelle

Why Is Writers of the Future the Top of the Top Writing Contests

If you are an aspiring author or know someone who is, then this article is for you. Find out for yourself why Writers of the Future is the top writing contest in the world and why you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by checking it out.

Created by L. Ron Hubbard to Provide for the Future of Science Fiction & Fantasy

Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg

“What a wonderful idea—one of science fiction’s all-time giants opening the way for a new generation of exciting talent! For these brilliant stories, and the careers that will grow from them, we all stand indebted to L. Ron Hubbard.”Robert Silverberg

For over three decades, Writers of the Future has grown to become the premiere writing competition of its kind in the world.

The Contest is free to enter with the ability to upload one’s submission online making it available to anyone anywhere on the planet. (English language only.)

The Contest is open to those who have not professionally published a novel or short novel, or more than one novelette, or more than three short stories, in any medium.

But, it’s a review of what Contest judges and past winners turned-to-Contest-judge say about the Contest that makes it clear why it is now the top writing contest in the world.

Kevin J. Anderson

Multiple New York Times bestselling author Kevin J. Anderson, a Contest judge since 1996, notes that perhaps L. Ron Hubbard’s greatest legacy is that with this Contest he has created another generation of writers.

Rebecca Moesta

Bestselling YA author Rebecca Moesta, a Contest judge since 2007, discusses how the Contest provides for the future of Science Fiction and Fantasy. 

Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Writers of the Future winner from the first year and Contest judge since 2000, Nina Kiriki Hoffman talks about the importance of paying it forward. 

Dr. Doug Beason

For Contest judge Dr. Doug Beason, the Contest provides a sense of family and a sense of togetherness, everybody there to help each other out. 

Tim Powers

Multiple World Fantasy Award Winner, Tim Powers explains how the Contest takes promising writers and provides a future.

Dr. Jerry Pournelle

New York Times bestselling author Dr. Jerry Pournelle was originally mentored by Robert A. Heinlein and became a Contest judge in 1986 to follow in Mr. Heinlein’s footsteps of paying it forward.

 

Proven Track Record for Over Three Decades

The Winners

For 34 years, the Writers of the Future Contest has established itself as the top merit competition for speculative fiction. Hear it from the winners themselves what it means to win the Contest.

It Levels the Playing Field

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Participant in the first workshop in Taos, NM in 1986 and now Contest Judge, Kristine Kathryn Rusch was interviewed by SciFi Magazine about the Writers of the Future Contest.

“To my knowledge, it’s the longest-running contest currently going on in science fiction,” says Rusch, when asked why Writers of the Future is such an influential force in the sci-fi world. “It’s anonymous—which is important—and it only deals with new writers, which levels the playing field a bit. It’s also had tremendous success. The writers chosen have for the most part gone on to have great careers. I think that comes from having professional writers as judges and not academics. Writers know what makes good fiction.”

Robert J. Sawyer

The only thing the judges will see is the story itself with a number assigned to it. They have no inkling of age, sex, nationality or ethnic of the contestant. So it is only by the merit of the story alone that will determine a finalist or winner. Contest Robert J. Sawyer explains how this is: 

Judged by the Best in the Industry

From its inception, the judging panel of professional writers have been some of the most celebrated names in the science fiction and fantasy field. The judges for the first Writers of the Future volume in 1986, included Gregory Benford, Algis Budrys, C.L. Moore, Robert Silverberg, Theodore Sturgeon, Jack Williamson and Roger Zelazny. The panel of judges has continued to grow with many of today’s masters of science fiction and fantasy who were themselves winners in the formative years of the Contest.

Judges at the 1996 Writers of the Future Awards ceremony at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

(Left to Right): Doug Beason, Kevin J. Anderson, Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, Algis Budrys, Jack Williamson, Frederik Pohl, Tim Powers, Gregory Benford and David Farland.

For a full list of Contest judges past and present, go to the Writer Judges section.

Judges at the 1996 Writers of the Future Awards ceremony at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

 

The Judging Process

Here are Contest judges David Farland and Robert J. Sawyer discussing how the judging process works.

 

Writers & Illustrators of the Future:

The Search for Tomorrow’s Legends

Click here to enter the Contest.

Sign up for our Writers of the Future newsletter for writing tips and updates from Contest judges and winners.

 

International Space Station

Science fiction is the herald of possibility: How fantastic fiction has become science fact.

Science fiction—earlier termed fantastic fiction and later speculative fiction for its probing, multi-sided search of the world of “What If?”—has anticipated major developments in science and technology for decades.

Concepts now gaining widespread scientific recognition—ranging from microchip implants, robot drones and teleportation to the existence of other planets at the rim of the observable universe—were initially conceived of and written about in short stories and novels decades ago by science fiction writers such as Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, to name a few. To the general reading public, these were good books to read. But to aspiring scientists, engineers and astronauts, such fantastic fiction was the fodder of dreams.

First skywriting

Castrol created the world’s first skywriting advertisement at the Epsom Derby in 1929.

In 1889, Jules Verne wrote his short story, “In the Year 2889,” where he predicted skywriting, which became fact in 1915 and began being used commercially in 1929. He also predicted video chatting which became fact in 1964.

In 1903, H.G. Wells wrote his short story “The Land Ironclads” where he predicted tanks that became fact in 1916.

First Tank

The first official photograph taken of a Mark I Tank going into action, at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, 15th September 1916. The man shown is wearing a leather tank helmet. Copyright: © IWM.

In 1911, Hugo Gernsback predicted radar and solar calculators in his short story “Ralph 124C 41+.” Radar became science fact in 1935 and solar calculators became fact in 1978.

And there are the science fiction stories that are only now becoming science fact.

In 1897, H.G. Wells, in his story The Invisible Man, originally serialized in Pearson’s Weekly, predicted making a person invisible. Only recently has this started to become science fact as in this video

In 1930, take the instance of Charles W. Diffin with his story “The Power and the Glory” where ray guns were postulated. While we don’t have “ray guns” per se, laser cannons do exist which you can see in this video.

In 1949, L. Ron Hubbard’s “Conquest of Space,” is a series of short stories published which, told from the future looking back, reveal that space was finally conquered by heroic individuals through privatization of space flight and the incredible risks they took to accomplish it. This is only now becoming science fact with the likes of Elon Musk (SpaceX), Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic) and Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin).

And what of the future?

That remains to be seen. But what we can say is that it will still be the inspiration from great books to be read by writers of the future.

Keynote speaker for the 2015 Writers of the Future Awards Ceremony, William Pomerantz, Vice President Special Projects Virgin Galactic, spoke to the annual winners about how science fiction provided his initial vision and it was again science fiction that enabled him to persevere in the realization of his dream of space flight. He stated, “I owe a huge debt to you and to those who have come before you. It was through science fiction that I learned that optimism, and through science fiction that I reclaimed it rather than falling victim to that jaded skepticism of our modern world.”

Want to discover what fantastic fiction is inspiring tomorrow’s science fact?

For more information on science fiction, fantasy and those who create it sign up for our newsletter HERE.

Larry Niven at the Writers Workshop

Tell Me a Story by Larry Niven

I can’t help you sell your early work in the 1980’s. To enter the field my way you’ll need a time machine set for 1964. That’s when every novice was trying to write New Wave, except me, and an ecological niche was left wide open.

I can’t tell you how to write, not in a thousand words. I’ve been telling what I know as fast as I learned it for twenty-two years. My collaborators now know everything I do. I’ve spoken on panels and published articles on writing. Is there anything left to say?

Maybe.

I

If you want to know that the story you’re working on is saleable, try this: I tell it at a cocktail party. I dreamed up “The Flight of the Horse” one morning, outlined it that afternoon, and by that night was telling the tale to a clutch of cousins. I held their attention. I didn’t miss any points. I kept them laughing. The noise level didn’t drown out anything subtle and crucial. Then, of course, I knew how to write it down so I could mail it and sell it.

I told the sequel the same way (“Leviathan!”) and sold it to Playboy for what was then fantastic money.

This makes for good memories. It’s also a useful technique.

Some of the best stories simply can’t be told this way, and I can’t help you write those. Nobody can. They are rule-breakers. Try some early Alfred Bester collections. But any story you can tell as a cocktail/dinner conversation, without getting confused and without losing your audience to distractions, is a successful story.

So. You want to write a story, and be paid for it, and know that it will be read? You want that now, no waiting? Tell me a story. Tell your brother/wife/cousin/uncle a story: tell anyone you can persuade to listen. Persuading is good practice: you need skill with narrative hooks. Watch for the moments where you lose your listener; watch for where you have to back up and explain a point. Your audience will tell you how to write it. Then you write it.

You won’t need this forever. You’ll learn how to tell the tale yourself.

(My normal audience in the beginning was my brother. Thanks, Mike.)

As for the untellable story, that one depends on subtleties of phrasing or typographical innovations … that one you can postpone. You won’t have the skills to write it for a few years anyway.

II

We working writers, we’re not really interested in reading your manuscripts. We can be talked into it, sometimes, via the plea of relatives, or sex appeal, or someone to vouch for you.

Do you know how difficult it is to persuade, say Ray Bradbury to read one of your stories? Have you tried yet? You’d be a fool not to, if you’ve got the nerve. An hour of a successful author’s time could be worth a lot to you. What he says will apply to most of your stories.

Ray turned me down twenty-two years ago. He said he didn’t have the time, and he was right.

But we can be persuaded. So here you are, a novice who’s sold a few stories or none, and somehow you’ve talked an established writer into reading one of your stories. What do you do then? Give him your worst story, the one that most needs improving?

A novice writer did that to me when I was also a novice. He told me so after I told him that if I could think of a way to make it saleable, I’d burn it.

Give him your best story! The best is the one most worthy of improvement. It’s the one where your remaining flaws shine through without distractions, and you’ve picked the man who could spot them.

This shouldn’t need saying, but it does. I’ve heard counterarguments. Look: even if you’ve sold one or two, they just barely passed; they could have been better. You know that. He knows how.

(But don’t bother Ray. A thousand novices have broken their hearts trying to write like Ray Bradbury. He has a way of implying a story in insufficient words. It looks so easy, and it can’t be done.)

III

If the story you’re telling is a complex one—if the reader must understand the characters or the locale or some technical point to understand what’s going on—then you must use the simplest language. Your reader has his rights. Tell him a story and make him understand it, or you’re fired.

This is never more true than in hard science fiction, but it never stops being true.

If you don’t have anything to say, you can say it any way you want to.

IV

Do your research. There are texts on how to write, and specialized texts on how to write speculative fiction.

Learn your tools. (For instance: the indefinite pronoun is “he.”) You can create imaginary languages, but it’s risky.

Always do your research. One mistake in hard science fiction, in particular, will be remembered forever. Remember: you’re on record.

V

Start with a story. Tell yourself a story. Are you in this to show off your stylistic skills? They’ll show best if you use them to shape the story. Calling attention to the lurking author hurts the story. The best character you ever imagined can be of immense aid to the right STORY; but if he’s getting in the way, drop him.

A good stylist really can turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse; and he’ll be forgotten in favor of the average yokel who had just brains enough to start with silk.

VI

Don’t write answers to bad reviews. It wastes your time, you don’t get paid, and you wind up supporting a publication you dislike. Granted it’s tempting.

VII

Every rule of writing has exceptions, including these, and I’ve broken many.

You’re not good enough to do that yet.

This article by Larry Niven was originally published in Writers of the Future Volume 2.

 


Larry Niven

Larry Niven

Larry Niven was working on his master’s degree in mathematics when he dropped out to write science fiction. He broke into professional SF writing in 1964 and has been going strong ever since. Now a giant in the world of science fiction, he is best known for his Known Space future history, a still-growing series of more than thirty novels and stories. Ringworld, the most famous of these titles, won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards. He later co-authored a series of novels with fellow judge Dr. Jerry Pournelle, including the celebrated national bestsellers The Mote in God’s EyeLucifer’s Hammer and Footfall. Larry Niven received the L. Ron Hubbard Lifetime Achievement Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Arts in 2006. He has been a Writers of the Future judge since 1985.

man doing research

Analyzing What to Write

When you decide to write a novel, screenplay, or any tale at all, you should look at a number of things:

1)  Do you like the basic concept? If you aren’t excited about a novel, chances are excellent that you’ll lack the energy to finish it. Your subconscious will rebel at the idea, and you’ll sit wishing that you were working on another project. So you have to find story ideas that thrill you. You want to write from the heart. If you don’t, you’ll just be going through empty motions.

2)  Will the story sell? You should look at the story and ask yourself, “Is this story marketable?” If it is, how marketable is it? Seriously, you might find yourself with an idea that really sounds fun to you, but which just won’t sell in the current market. For example, back in the 1920s there were a lot of magazines that featured “Thrilling Pilot Stories.”

Maybe you decide that it’s time to start a new trend, and you write a screenplay about Ulysses Samuel Adams—a bush pilot in the Everglades who has rousing adventures that feature drug smugglers, alluring swamp goddesses, the Fountain of Youth, and a dinosaur. So you spend a month writing and polishing the story. Seriously, where are you going to sell it?

The story might be fun—incredible even—but if you’re looking to make a living, it probably needs to be something that you can take to market.

So you need to understand the markets. This means that you must survey your field before you ever write a story.

This means that if you are writing a book, you will go to your bookstore and look at the books in your field that are doing well. Look at the following things:

1) How long is the book?

2) What is the reading level of my audience?

3) What are the standards of taste? For example, how much violence, profanity, sexuality, and so on is acceptable in this field.

4) Who published the bestselling titles in this field?

5) Who are the agent and editor that brought this book out?

6) When was it written? (If it wasn’t within the last five years, the information may be dated.)

7) What is the sex and age of the major protagonist?

8) Who are the viewpoint characters?

9) What are the ages and sexes of the secondary viewpoint characters?

10) What is the primary emotional draw for this book? (Wonder, romance, humor, horror, mystery, adventure, drama, etc.)

11) What are the secondary and tertiary draws?

12) What kinds of settings do the bestsellers of this type of book have in common?

13) What kinds of conflicts do they have in common?

14) What kinds of themes do these tales explore?

15) What kind of tone do the bestselling authors put across?

There will, of course, be some variation even among bestsellers, but you will find a lot of similarities, too. For example, bestselling thrillers almost always have male protagonists. Romance novels have female protagonists, but the “fascinating male” is what the protagonist seems to dwell on. In young adult novels, the protagonist is almost always 16, while in middle-grade novels the protagonist is normally 14.

In short, before you write anything, you need to take an adequate survey of the field. What’s “adequate?”

The agent Richard Curtis once addressed this topic, and he suggested that if you as a writer haven’t been reading in a field for 10 years just for enjoyment, you’re probably not grounded well enough in your genre to break in. The person who reads just one novel and then wants to break in with something similar is likely to be very disappointed.

 


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

Defining yourself

Defining Yourself

I’m going to talk a bit about audience analysis. It’s always good before you begin to write to really understand who your audience is and that their needs are so that you can better meet those needs. But it’s also important to understand who you are as an author, and what it is that you want to achieve.

Yesterday I was helping an author write a query letter, and as I did, I was thinking, “Now what more can I say about his book? What sets this apart from other books in its genre?” Those are the same questions that I ask myself anytime I’m looking at a query letter, but I don’t just ask them about the book. I ask them about the author.

A few years ago, an author I knew flew to New York to be interviewed by the legendary agent Al Zuckerman, the founder of Writers House Literary Agency. As they spoke, Al suggested that the author “define his niche in the marketplace.” For example, you might say, “I’m the John Grisham of Middle Earth.” By that, you might mean that you’re writing political/legal thrillers in a brilliantly devised fantasy setting. Is there a market for such books? Maybe. And if you think of a potential mixture that excites you, one that energizes any agent or editor that hears about it, you can instantly command a fortune in advances.

For example, years ago my former student Dan Wells mentioned that he wanted to be the “Stephen King of young adult fiction.” I thought that was an odd and interesting combination. Yet when his first novel, I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER came out, it earned him huge advances overseas and led to the start of a brilliant career.

So you as an author, when you prepare to write a book, might consider whether you want to brand yourself.

Just as importantly, you might want to look at your novel and brand it. What does that mean? It means that you set goals for your story—goals that have to do with understanding how it fits in the genre and what kind of qualities you want to achieve. When I began the Runelords series, one goal that I set was simple. I said, “I want this to start out like a traditional medieval fantasy, but by the time that a reader finishes the series, I want them to realize that there is nothing ‘traditional’ about this.” So I set out to work on biological world creation, magic systems, and so on in ways that I hadn’t seen before.

In a similar way, when I wrote my novel On My Way to Paradise I set a list of goals. At about spot number twelve I wrote, “I want to write the best battle scenes ever put into a science fiction novel.” Now, I had a lot of other goals, ones that were more important. But I was gratified when I got a gushing review from one young man who seemed not to notice all of the other cool literary things that I did: he just talked about the mind-blowing fights which he described as “the best battle scenes ever shown in science fiction.”

So ask yourself the questions: “What kind of writer am I? What do I want to achieve that is similar to some of the bestsellers of all time? How am I going to carve my own unique niche in the world? As I write this coming book, how will it help reach that goal, or does it take me off in the wrong direction? What kinds of goals do I want to reach with this novel?”

As I set my writing goals, I find that it’s best if I actually write them down, turn them into concrete, specific goals.

Give it a try!

 


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

man writing

More than Fame or Fortune

In the last couple of posts, I’ve encouraged writers to keep on going, and I’ve heard back from many of you who have been feeling discouraged. The markets are in turmoil still, but I’m seeing some signs that the world isn’t going to end anytime soon. The major publishers are stable. That means that they’re making money in spite of the turmoil.

What I believe that I’m seeing right now is this: the paper book markets are still dominating, and I think that is going to continue, despite the inroads that e-books are having. Why? It’s quite simple. Some 70% of the shoppers are still buying books in paper formats. Thus, the best advertisement for a book is the same that it was a hundred years ago: placement in the bookstores. Even many of the readers who are purchasing books in e-format are going to the stores, seeing what’s hot, and then discreetly ordering the title as e-books.

So the goal of making it big with paper publishers still seems to be a worthy one, though if you want to explore the self-publishing market, it is increasingly attractive.

So what motivates you to write? Is it dream of critical acclaim? Do you want to win awards? Or would you prefer to get paid in stacks of money? The last couple of emails suggested that you follow those dreams. But not all rewards for writing are so . . . easily categorized.

My goal in writing this year has been simple: “to write for the love of it, every day.” Whether I win awards or make a fortune isn’t my main focus. Enjoying my art is.

The truth is, you may not make a fortune. Some of us don’t. I had a friend, Ken Rand, who was a writing addict. He had a saying, “Many people will say that you can’t write, let no one say that you don’t.” Ken wrote a number of good stories and got published in the small press. He passed away from liver cancer. Before he died he asked me to agent a novel for him, one called Dare! I love that book. Several other New York Times bestselling authors loved it, too. We all gave it great cover quotes, but not one single agent or editor picked it up.

Personally, I think it’s not just a good novel, it’s a great novel. It reminded me of The Thornbirds or Gone With the Wind. But Ken never got the million-dollar advance that he deserved. He never made it to the top of the bestseller list—at least in his lifetime.

So what motivated him? The joy of writing. You need to find your own little fount of happiness. As one writer said to me yesterday, “There’s got to be something else to keep us going besides the dream of big success. For me, right now, it is the fact that my son came to me in tears two days ago. ‘Mom, your book made me cry! That’s never happened to me before!’ It’s the fact that he went around the house, saying in amazement, ‘Mom, you did it right!’ For now, that’s enough for me. I know my own kid’s opinion doesn’t count for anything in the publishing world, but what I’m saying is that I know I gave one person a satisfying read, a powerful emotional experience. That’s what I’m after, whether publishing big comes or not.”

Writers change the world one heart, one mind, at a time.

That should be enough to keep us going.

 


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

The Long Road

The Long Road

My last post was on “giving up.” I brought up dozens of books that got rejected over and over again, only to finally sell and either win major awards (like the Nobel Prize) or make millions of dollars.

I then received numerous letters from authors who have been looking at the hard times for writers at the moment and have been thinking about just that—giving up. In fact, one of them, fantasy author Dan Willis even wrote a blog about how he has been thinking of contemplating authorial seppuku.

Just remember that breaking in often takes years. Once you break in, it may take several more years to “go big.” My old friend Anne McCaffrey was an excellent example of that. She wrote several novels and literally decided to quit for good when one of them finally went big and led to a phenomenal career.

So just breaking in often takes years. The general rule is that it takes about six or seven years from the time that you begin writing to the time that you get published.

It often takes a new author another seven years of perfecting their skill before they go big.

Sometimes you do well the first time out. One of my students, Stephanie Meyer, did just that, as did Dan Wells. But for most of us, it takes much longer before they have a hit.

With my friend and student Brandon Sanderson, we went on book tours together for four years—sometimes spending as much as a month on the road—until we got to the last book in his Mistborn series. He was feeling pretty discouraged at the time. But when Robert Jordan passed away, he was asked to finish up the Wheel of Time series. Everything turned around for Brandon in a matter of weeks. Curious readers turned out in droves to buy the last book in his Mistborn series, and they discovered something that I’d known from Brandon’s first day in class—here was a wonderful writer!

Brandon is now a #1 New York Times Bestseller.

Another student, James Dashner, was struggling as a small regional author. He couldn’t make a living at it. So he needed to up his game in order to go national. He did just that, and now his Maze Runner series is one of the biggest hits of the decade. Allie Condie, another local author that I know, recently did the same with her fourth novel, Matched.

So these things can take time. How much time? Ten years ago I was working with a little green-lighting company in Hollywood called Entertainment Business Group. A couple of producers came to us with a novel that they wanted to turn into a movie. I read through it and gave them some advice, talking about art direction, how to position the movie as more of an adventure than the novel portrayed, adding beauty to it, using the low gravity on the planet to turn the hero into more of a “superhero” and so on. My friend and business partner David Cuddy went a bit further and even wrote a script for them. Their movie was going to be a tough sell, I thought.

It took ten years for John Carter and the Princess of Mars to be released.

I don’t know what struggles and setbacks the producers went through, but I know that it had to have been tough. After all, it took ten years.

But that’s actually pretty fast for a big film. The average movie takes longer than that to bring to life.

The entertainment business is tough. The road can take you over nice hills but will often lead into deep valleys where there’s no light at all. Keep going.

Developing an audience takes times and consistency. Nearly everyone who has ever had success has also met with one bitter disappointment after another.

 


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

two wooden men figures amongst chess pieces

Giving Up

Sometimes it seems that your life has a theme. In the past couple of weeks I’ve heard from several authors the words “I’m thinking about giving up.”

I worry about that. No one ever won a race by giving up.

At least when it comes to writing, I’ve never been good at giving up. My parents advised me against a career in writing. I didn’t listen. Sometimes my wife has even suggested that I go find another field—even in years when I was making fantastic money.

So I found an article about authors who didn’t give up, and would like to repost much of it. It was written by Janeen Elite, and much was taken from Jack Canfield. I can think of other authors with similar stories, but this will suffice:

While many writers lament that facing a blank page is the most difficult part of writing, others will disagree and state that it is getting “that” rejection letter that really makes writing torturous. This is because “that” rejection letter can hit right where it hurts; the old ego. “That” rejection letter can make a writer doubt their own abilities, possibly may even make them rethink their dream career and even their life’s purpose.

Well, take heart dear writers and don’t give up. Just because a strange “someone” didn’t like your piece does not mean it is not good.
The following is a list of writers who also received “that” letter. Many even received it more than once, but they didn’t let that stop them and you shouldn’t either.

Margaret Mitchell received “that” letter 38 times. The book? Gone With The Wind.

This “poor” woman spent six years writing the first installment of a series of books she wanted to publish. You would think that after 9 rejections she might have thought she was wasting her time. Children all over the world are grateful that J.K. Rowling didn’t feel that way. Her Harry Potter book series has sold over 400 million copies around the globe and even as far back as 2003 the BBC news announced that Rowland was already “richer than the Queen.”

Talk about rejection! James Joyce’s Dubliners was rejected 22 times! And even after it was published, only 379 copies were sold in its first year. To make matters worse, Mr. Joyce admitted that he purchased 120 of those copies himself.

This quote from author Judy Blume pretty much says it all. “I would go to sleep at night feeling that I’d never be published. But I’d wake up in the morning convinced I would be. Each time I sent a story or book off to a publisher, I would sit down and begin something new. I was learning more with each effort. I was determined. Determination and hard work are as important as talent.” It took Ms. Blume two  years before any of her work was accepted.

Ouch! That Hurts!

It’s one thing to receive the standard rejection letter that states that a publisher is “not looking for this kind of book at this time” because then an author can at least console themselves in knowing that it is not personal and it is not their writing that is the problem.

Quite often an author can also convince themselves that maybe their book wasn’t even read very carefully by a publisher to begin with. But how would you feel if you found out that not only was your book read, but a publisher actually took the time to tell you why it was so horrendous?

The following are actual excerpts famous authors have received in their rejection letters that turn out to be so laughable in hindsight.

“The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.” The book—The Diary of Anne Frank.

“It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA” in a rejection letter regarding the book Animal Farm.

“A very bad book…” Told to Pierre Boulle about his Bridge Over River Kwai.

“The book is not publishable,” regarding the novel Who Killed Virginia Wolfe?

“…too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling” told to Dr. Seuss, about his book And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street.

“This is a work of almost-genius—genius in the power of its expression—almost in the sense of its enormous bitterness. I wish there were an audience for a book of this kind. But there isn’t. It won’t sell.” told to Ayn Rand about her book The Fountainhead.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull will never make it as a paperback” the book written by Richard Bach ended up selling more than 8 million copies.

“… she is a painfully dull, inept, clumsy, undisciplined, rambling and thoroughly amateurish writer whose every sentence, paragraph and scene cries for the hand of a pro. She wastes endless pages on utter trivia, writes wide-eyed romantic scenes … hauls out every terrible show biz cliché in all the books, lets every good scene fall apart in endless talk and allows her book to ramble aimlessly …” The author was Jacqueline Susann and the book was Valley of the Dolls.

“An endless nightmare. I do not believe it would ‘take’… I think the verdict would be ‘Oh don’t read that horrid book’.” This was written about The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Here is another wonderful critique Mr. Wells received about The Time Machine, “It is not interesting enough for the general reader and not thorough enough for the scientific reader.”

“This will set publishing back 25 years,” written about The Deer Park by Norman Mailer

“We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” Written about Carrie by Stephen King.

“Do you realize, young woman, that you’re the first American writer ever to poke fun at sex.” Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos.

“I haven’t really the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say… Apparently the author intends it to be funny—possibly even satire—but it is really not funny on any intellectual level … From your long publishing experience you will know that it is less disastrous to turn down a work of genius than to turn down talented mediocrities.” The author was Joseph Heller—the book was Catch-22.

“It would be extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish it.” Was in the rejection letter that Ernest Hemingway received regarding his novel The Torrents of Spring.

“An absurd and uninteresting fantasy,” regarding Lord of the Flies.

And probably one of the all-time greatest ironic rejections is:

“You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character,” told to F. Scott Fitzgerald

As you can tell from the quotes written above, some publishers just don’t have a clue. So start saving those rejection letters. Who knows? Maybe one day you can show them off when your book hits the best-seller list?

 


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

dart board

Precision

I’ve just finished reading through thousands of stories for some writing contests—a job that has taken several weeks. It would take longer, but of course, I don’t always have to read an entire manuscript in order to know that it is not publishable. In looking at stories and determining just why they aren’t publishable, I can usually narrow the reasons down to a few common mistakes. One of the most prevalent reasons for rejection is that the author uses imprecise language—and so says nothing at all.

Consider the following sentence: “He moved through the trees.” Now, try to visualize that. Do you as a reader see what I’m imagining?

I guarantee that you aren’t.

Maybe you can visualize something, but chances are almost nonexistent that you will be able to draw close at all. You see, the nouns and verbs are all so generalized that we can’t get a handle on anything.

Let’s start with the subject of the sentence: “He.” What am I supposed to visualize? “He” could be just about anyone—a six-year-old boy out on a camping trip, an escaped slave trying to evade the hounds, or a hunter down in the Amazon rainforest. I’ve read stories this week where “He” turned out to be an astronaut, a dragon, a robot, a lion, or various other creatures. Do you see how the word “He” doesn’t really communicate anything at all?

An author is like a radio transmitter, while the reader is the receiver. As an author, it’s your job to send out clear signals to the reader. A “vague” word is a fuzzy signal, one that is unlikely to be deciphered.

Now, there are usually three levels of specificity to nouns. A very general noun, “he,” might refer to something that is male. We can then become more specific by putting the subject into a subcategory, such as a convict, priest, explorer, and so on. That’s not much better, but it’s a start. To really be specific, we need to get to the level of individuality, the third tier on the specificity chart. We need to know that we’re talking about Bubba Perdot, a 15-year-old Cajun alligator hunter who was born and raised in a shack on the Black River, outside of New Orleans.

Let’s move on to the verb, “moved.” There are dozens of ways to “move.” You can be conveyed on a vehicle or an animal. You can hike. You can stagger, stalk, stumble, race, fly, hop, roll, ski, and so on. The word “move” doesn’t tell me anything at all about how your character is moving. So let’s get back to Bubba. Let’s have him poling a pirogue.

Now consider the object in the sentence, “trees.” There are all kinds of trees in this world, and depending on the story that you’re writing, this world might not even be the one that you’re writing about. I was born and raised in Oregon. When I think of trees, I immediately think of Douglas firs—a nice evergreen. But I’ve seen evergreen forests in China where the trees have a very alien appearance. I have a friend who was born a few hundred miles south, and so when she thinks of trees, she’s imagining giant redwoods. A person from the high mountains might imagine groves of aspen, while one from Virginia envisions live oaks. The word “tree” is so vague that it is useless. So you have to name the types of trees. Let’s have Bubba poling through a cypress grove. Now, if you’ve ever been in a dense swamp in Louisiana, where you find yourself boating along narrow channels, you can understand how Bubba might be thought of as moving through the trees. You might object and decide that he’s really floating over the water. He is actually doing both at the same time.

Yet even to have him moving through a specific kind of tree is a cheat. If you want to do this right, you may need to go to the exact spot where you are setting the tale and describe it with great care. You see, when you go into a cypress swamp, there are dozens of species living together.

But do you see how much better you communicate when you are precise? Sending out clear signals will solve most of your communication problems. It may be that your reader isn’t adept at receiving those signals.

The person who writes an opening sentence that reads “He moved through the trees,” has told me nothing at all.

In order to bring a scene to life, you have to be specific. Years ago, I recall reading a description of a dog, written for an assignment. If I say the word dog, you can’t envision anything. A dog can be a big black Newfoundland, or an English Spaniel or a silver fox. But even those descriptions are just second-level generalities.

In order to really create a particular dog in your reader’s mind, you have to get down to details. Most people only managed to give a general description of the subcategory that the dog belonged to. But one young woman described a coyote that she saw foraging in her garbage can in the mid-morning. The coyote was female, a young mother, with distended breasts that swayed with every move, and patches of hair chewed off by her hungry pups. The author described the hunger revealed by the coyote’s emaciated form, the determined way that she picked through tin cans and tore at wrappers, trembling and frightened all the while. When the author read her paper, there was no doubt in my mind that this was one particular dog. If I ever happened to see that coyote while out on a walk, I would probably even recognize her, and think of her as an old friend.

That’s your goal, to choose specific details that bring your tale to life.

 


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.

stack of blocks balanced

Questions of Balance

I’m currently judging the Writers of the Future Contest for the third quarter. After my first pass, I was able to narrow the field down to just 228 possible finalists. These are all stories that started well, from people who knew how to write.

As I delve into these stories further, I have to be pretty critical. After all, I need to narrow the finalists down to just 8. Sometimes I find pieces that are beautifully written but have a particular weakness, a blind spot that the author has, and so I get nicely written stories that, unfortunately, just miss by a hair’s breadth. I want to examine some of those pieces today.

I had two stories where the authors had a wonderful ear for dialog but lacked visuals. For example, in one tale, where a young man lives in a desert town, there are only half a dozen inhabitants. We learn their names, but don’t get physical descriptions of the characters. The same happens in another tale set in a 15th Century cyberpunk vista. I love both the stories and will probably put them through as finalists, but I worry that the authors could have added just a tad more detail.

Of course, there were other good stories where almost all of what I had was dialog, long exchanges where all I had were name tags as identifiers—no external descriptions at all, no internal thoughts, no sense of setting. It’s fairly common for writing instructors to say, “It’s good to have these kinds of exchanges once in a while.” The teachers are right. It’s okay to have those—if we know who the characters are and understand the back story enough so that we can visualize what is happening without having the proper beats in the conversation. When overdone, such tales sound more like radio dramas.

In other stories, I have plenty of physical description, but very little audio. Now we’re into silent movies. The author may spend four pages describing things, but have no conversations.

Now, I’ve had stories told from a single point of view where having a dialog is almost impossible, and I’ve published at least one. In that case, it was a tale told by an astronaut who is skydiving over Jupiter. Great tale, told as well as it could be done.

But if you have a character who has no dialog within the first four pages of your story, and yet that character has the capacity for human interaction, the chances are good that you’ve got a problem.

Most of the time, the author is engaged in what I call “hesitation.” He or she begins narrating backstory in the hopes of finding a good place to start. Normally, such tales need to have the first few pages cut, since the author finds a good opening eventually.

But sometimes the author is just a very “internal” person—someone who thinks much more than he or she speaks or acts. So the tale ends up being an internal story of personal discovery. That’s not a bad thing, but such tales tend to be much weaker than stories where the characters actually do or say surprising things.

So when you write your tale, take a look at it in chunks of two or three pages. Is it all dialogue? Is it all internal? Is it all narration? Is it description of sights with no smells?

If so, you may have a problem with balance.

 


David Farland

David Farland

Guest Blogger, David Farland, Coordinating Judge of the Writers of the Future Contest.

David Farland is an award-winning, international bestselling author with over 50 novels in print. He has won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for his science fiction novel On My Way to Paradise, the Whitney Award for “Best Novel of the Year” for his historical novel In the Company of Angels, and many more awards for his work. He is best known for his New York Times bestselling fantasy series The Runelords.