I came back to the Writers of the Future this year because I admire the contest itself, and because I love the idea of paying forward into an event that has enriched my life so much. I absolutely love helping these new winners. It’s a total blast. But when I look into the mirror, I’ve got to admit that my not-so-secret, not-so-hidden agenda included taking the opportunity to continue to learn from both the instructors and the winners. I mean, you can never learn too much, right?
So, you ask, how did everything go?
9:00 AM today marked the beginning of the workshop itself, but in reality the learning started over breakfast when Tim Powers took advantage of an impromptu connection to give two winners some early thoughts on generating ideas and taking the time he needs to get those ideas into something great. That’s how this thing rolls, you know? A winner never knows when a World Fantasy Award winning author is going to give them some personal attention.
That led perfectly into the formal event.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” Andrew Peery told me during a break after the opening session. He meant it in a good way. Peery, from North Carolina, is the 4th quarter first prize winner. The group had just walked through the Author Services Hall of Writers and been given a presentation of past judges throughout the contest’s history. People here have asked me how things have changed in the 18 years since my last visit. One thing that’s different is that the list of judges has gotten a little longer and a little more prominent. It’s very cool to think about.
One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the purpose of the workshop.
“Our goal in this workshop is to help you train yourself to be a professional writer,” Dave Farland said in his opening remarks. He and Tim then covered several topics, focusing on things like how to develop writerly habits, how stories are structured, and how to create and use suspense. And that was just before lunch. Along the way the two of them did a little brotherly bickering about the speed with this things should be done. “If you’re here, we already know you’re good,” Dave said. “But now we want to help you think about producing that good work more quickly.” Tim, followed that up with: “My first drafts take forever and are never any good.” Then he explained why that was just fine by him. I’ve seen that before, but, yeah, it holds up on second viewing! It’s always great to see how creativity is different for two such high-caliber artists.
It was a blast listening to Finland’s Ville Merilainen (2nd place, Q3) and California’s Andrew L. Roberts (3rd Place, Q4) discuss how they could apply the lessons they learned about story structure right away. Their voices rose and fell in excitement as they talked about plot points of books they are working on. “I’m doing some of this right,” Ville said at one point, but they both fell into discussions of how they needed to work on making better use of certain ideas—specifically how their characters can solve one problem, but create several more in the future (a process I think of as try/succeed, but things get worse!).
Interestingly, Molly Elizabeth Atkins, a published finalist from St. Louis, Missouri (one of two!) found a similar lesson embedded in the unit on creating suspense. “It’s interesting to think about creating suspense by chaining problems…first one thing breaks, then another, and another, and another, and pretty soon everything just goes so wrong that the reader has to be wondering how my characters are going to get out of this.”
I need to take a short diversion to mention that I miss Algis Budrys. Dave and Tim are fantastic, of course, but my own memories of the contest are covered with A. J. I will never, ever forget the look on his face when he passed a manuscript of one of my stories back at me over breakfast and said: “Pretty good.” Of course, he had a suggestion, which made the story better and which I most certainly took. Algis was a true genius and a magnificent teacher. As the winners were reading his piece on what a story is, I could almost feel him sitting here with us.
After lunch, the group got their objects.
You know what I mean right? Tim and Dave gave a little direction on how to look at normal, everyday things to create interesting ideas, then passed out what was essentially a collection of … uh … what my wife would call “junk” to the winners. I’m talking things like a length of phone cable, and a scarred up magnifying glass. A rock. A little book-like thing with a bow on it. Yes, these are the kinds of things these winners are going to make stories out of, and I literally guarantee they will totally kick ass (Can I say that here? I think I did!)
For their object, one of the winners received a one Euro piece.
I suggested he consider it an advance. [grin] Yes, you take your achievements where you can in this business, right?
The bottom line here is that this first day was just crammed full of learning opportunities. As the winners broke for their dinner break (soon to return for portraits), they talked about being overloaded. They talked about their heads spinning, and about the reading they’ve been assigned for overnight, and the three stories they are expected to have loosely outlined by tomorrow. The 24-hour story looms ahead, and the gang seems loose and ready.
I started this by admitting I was here to continue learning as much as to help out. So, you might ask, what did I learn today?
Well. I’m a story structure nerd. I loved seeing how the winners took to analyzing movies and stories in ways that I hadn’t considered. I adored being able to connect up the conversation about suspense and structure—and having the opportunity to hear C.L. Kagmi (3rd place, Q3, from Michigan) talk about how tension works in Dracula gave me an insight I hadn’t considered before (“I knew what was going to happen to Mena, but I wanted to know how it was going to come about). Hearing Dustin Steinacker (Utah’s Q1 1st place winner), and Stephen Lawson (Q2’s 3rd place winner from Kentucky) break down story structure over lunch with previous winner Megan O’Keefe, was fantastic.
So, maybe the most important lesson I learned today (re-learned) is that when you get a whole bunch of creative people together, all you have to do is keep your eyes and ears open. The lessons come at all times and from every direction. Given the excitement with which the winners worked with each other today, I have to think they were pretty much all in agreement.
Yes, I think Dave was right in his opening comments: These winners are good, professional writers.
I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.
A ton of cool pics from today’s highlights can be seen HERE.
Guest blogger, Ron Collins.
Ron Collins was a Writers of the Future published finalist in 1998 and a prize winner in 1999. He has gone on to publish about 100 short stories in prominent magazines and anthologies. Each volume in his fantasy serial Saga of the God-Touched Mage, hit the top 10 on Amazon’s bestselling Dark Fantasy list in the US, UK, and Australia. His short story, “The White Game” was nominated for the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s 2016 Derringer Award. The first four books of his current SF series, Stealing the Sun, are available now.