A 50-year journey with a few twists and turns …
First of all, I’m pretty old these days. While I have it on good authority that I’m not the oldest person to have won the Writers of the Future Contest, I may be the oldest person to ever win the Grand Prize. I’ve been writing for more than half a century at this point and my journey, like any good story, is full of twists and turns.
I knew science fiction was going to be a huge part of my life when, at the age of eight or nine, I discovered the Juvenile science fiction section at my local library. (What we would now call “Young Adult.”) Why it spoke so strongly to me at the time I no longer recall. All I can remember of that moment, so many years later, was the realization that this was It. I had found my home. A place where my imagination could soar among uncounted worlds of possibility and adventure. I was hooked.
For the next few years, I devoured every science fiction story I could lay my hands on. Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Norton, Nourse, Wollheim, and all the rest. I was eleven or twelve when I first had the heretical notion that perhaps one day I could be a writer, too. (Writers were very mysterious creatures back then. Only gradually did it occur to me that writers were simply people who put their ideas down on paper.)
So, I started to write. Badly, of course. Horrifically would be closer to the mark, I’m sure. My friends and family were very kind, however, and encouraged my scribbling. Nothing came of it, of course. I sent off a few stories and received the standard rejection letters.
This continued through high school and into college. There I achieved some minor success, but nothing remarkable. A few years later, I applied and was accepted to the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy workshop, which was being held at that time in East Lansing, Michigan.
The workshop was a revelation. We had a chance to meet writers such as Damon Knight, Kate Wilhelm, Chip Delany, Orson Scott Card, Algis Budrys, and Marta Randall. I was 28 years old and sure that success was just around the corner. I remember it being one of the best times of my life up until then.
Also attending the workshop were two young writers named Dean Wesley Smith and Nina Kiriki Hoffman, but more on them later.
Reality set in after the workshop was over and we all went home. My head was full of ambition, with little in the way of common sense. The theory we had been exposed to didn’t mesh with the stories I was writing. I expected too much of myself and grew angry with what I perceived as failure, rather than the normal path of growth. Finally, rather than punish myself for not living up to unrealistic expectation, I decided I would concentrate on what really mattered. The writing.
So I wrote. Without worrying if what I wrote would sell. Without trying to sell my stories at all. I wrote what I wanted to write. Some of it was good. Most of it was not. But the joy was in the writing.
Life happened. I got into programming (an easy way to make a living in those days) and wrote in my spare time. I moved to a new state and continued to write. I studied the work of writers I admired and my writing improved. I tried emulating their styles—with predictable results. But it was still progress, still a way to learn.
Life kept happening. Word processors finally showed up, which made things a lot easier. I met the woman who would become my life partner. The internet arrived. We moved to a new state. Got new jobs. Made more money. I continued to write.
At some point, I wrote a novel. I was surprised at how easily the words appeared on the page. Page after page until I had a beginning, a middle, and an end. Maybe not the best words. Certainly not the best novel. But it wasn’t horrible, and I could make it better. I did. When it was finished, I put it away in a drawer.
And wrote another one. And then another. And then a few more. Each one went into the drawer for some future moment when it would be time to do something with them. And my writing continued to get better. Maybe not good yet, but better.
Life continued to happen. Good things, bad things. Almost before I knew it, retirement was at hand. The writing was still there. Perhaps now was the time, I thought, to dust off the ambition of my youth and let other people see what I had written. (As if anyone was paying attention.) So I did. A few of my stories sold. Most didn’t. Clearly, there was still more to learn.
And not just about my writing. The world of publishing had changed in the forty years I had been gone. Self-addressed stamped envelopes were out, submission portals were in. The number of markets had declined dramatically. Self-publishing was no longer a fool’s game. While I was doing other things, literature had gone digital.
At some point, I sent a story to a contest called the L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future. (Something I’d heard about vaguely during the years when life was busy happening.) To my great surprise, I won the quarterly Contest. There would be a workshop with professional writers. A banquet. A chance to win the grand prize.
The workshop was everything I could have hoped for. There is simply no room to go into detail here, but take my advice and enter the Contest. It’s free. If you win, you’ll end up learning more about writing, and the world of professional writing, than you can imagine. If you don’t win, try again. Keep trying. Don’t overthink it. Don’t self-reject. Just enter the damn Contest.
And, yes, I was lucky enough to win the grand prize. And among the professional writers in attendance? Dean Wesley Smith and Nina Kiriki Hoffman, two of the most prolific and successful authors in the field today. Both of whom were winners in the very first Writers of the Future Contest back in 1985. See? Twists and turns.
Hopefully, my story doesn’t end here. It seems I have a second career. Since retiring, the writing has become more important than ever. It’s literally something I feel the need to do every day or I’m wasting what time I have left.
And now, because I’m old, it’s time to give you some advice. To pay forward a little of what has been given to me so freely. So here goes, for what it’s worth:
- Write what you enjoy, not what other people want you to write.
- You will get discouraged. It happens. When it does, try to remember what drew you to writing in the first place.
- Study the writers you love. (Or hate.) The lessons they have to teach are right there on the page.
- Find your own voice.
- Learn to self-edit, to look at your own writing as if it was the creation of someone else. It’s the only way to ever become the writer you want to be.
- Don’t be afraid of what people will think. No one is paying attention and it’s not about them, anyway.
- Don’t be afraid to fail. It hurts, but it really is how we learn.
- Keep writing.
Let me just say in closing that the world will find value in what you write. Or it won’t. Beyond a certain point, that’s out of your control. Your job is to write, hopefully what you love. And while you’re at it, maybe give other people a chance to read it along the way. You never know.
See you on the page,
David K. Henrickson
David K. Henrickson won the Grand Prize in the 2023 Writers of the Future (Volume 39) Contest and has sold stories to Old Moon Quarterly, Sci Phi Journal, and Daily Science Fiction. His background is in computers, engineering, and oceanography but always wanted to be an artist. Or maybe a dancer. He currently lives in Virginia and spends his free time writing, reading, and killing monsters with his wife Abbie. He is also the author of eight novels—which he might even publish one of these days. He can be found at davidkhenrickson.com.