To Hollywood and Beyond:
Adventures at the 2009 Writers of the Future Workshop and Awards

by Matthew S. Rotundo

The Call came on Sunday, March 16, 2008.

I was alone in the house, doing some work on the computer. I might even have been writing, or just about to.

Anyway, the phone rang. It was Joni Labaqui from Author Services, who administers the Writers of the Future Contest. She asked, "Are you sitting down?"

I was sitting down. But not for long.

She told me that my story "Gone Black" had taken first place for the first quarter of 2008.

In the 25 years since its inception, Writers of the Future has become the longest-running contest of its type. Winners get cash awards, publication in an annual anthology, and an expenses-paid trip to a week-long writing workshop taught by established genre professionals, all capped off with a formal awards ceremony. A sizable percentage of the winners go on to professional careers in the field. And I had just joined their number.

Knowing all this, I spent the rest of the day bouncing off the walls.

Then I had to find ways to distract myself for the next year or so, until August of 2009 finally showed up, and I could go to Hollywood.

JUST UNDER THE WIRE

A lucky few win the Writers of the Future Contest with their first entry. I was not among their number.

I had been submitting for years. "Gone Black" was my tenth entry. Some previous entries had gone nowhere. Others had reached quarter-finalist (now Honorable Mention), semi-finalist, and finalist levels. This in itself is an accomplishment; the contest receives over a thousand entries each quarter. Being a finalist puts you in the top hundredth of the top one percent of aspirants. Even so, years of submitting, getting one's hopes up, and awaiting results, only to find out that you've come up short yet again--that can take its toll. Nonetheless, I persevered. Most winners can tell similar stories.

As it happened, I had nearly run out of eligibility. A certain number of publications--depending on the lengths of the respective works--disqualifies you from the contest. The story that would have disqualified me had already sold, but hadn't yet been published. It came out one month after I got the Call, meaning I got my win just under the wire.
 
The lesson here is simple: submit to Writers of the Future until you either win or become ineligible.

HOLLYWOOD WEEK

The workshop and awards ceremony has been held in various locations around the country, including Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., and Cape Canaveral. For the twenty-fifth anniversary of the contest, we were flown to Hollywood and housed at the historic Roosevelt Hotel, right there on Hollywood Boulevard.

The workshop--conducted at the Author Services building, just half a block away from the Roosevelt--filled the bulk of our days. Longtime contest judges Tim Powers and K.D. Wentworth handled the teaching duties. The tag-team action between the two of them made for a nice dynamic, with K.D. very straightforward and Tim rather acerbic and funny. Their contrasting styles nicely balanced each other.

The workshop consisted of various lectures, readings, and group discussions on a wide swath of topics, ranging from tips on courting the muse to the realities of the publishing business. It is assumed that participants are already schooled in the fundamentals of writing fiction; you'd have to be, or else you wouldn't be there in the first place. The focus is on becoming and remaining a professional writer.

The highlight of the workshop, at least for me, was the 24-Hour Story.

It works like this: over the first two days, participants are given three prompts--a random object (picked from K.D. Wentworth's house, in our case), a trip to the Hollywood Area Library to research a topic of your choice, and an interview with a stranger. Yes, this last means exactly what it sounds like: we were sent out to Hollywood Boulevard to strike up conversations with complete strangers. No fair telling that it was for an assignment, or that you were a writer. Just get someone talking, and see where it goes. This can be daunting for the introvert. Given that most of us at the workshop were both writers and geeks, the interview pushed us outside of our comfort zones.

After our interviews, we came back to Author Services. At about 5:00 p.m., we were officially put on the clock. From that moment on, we had 24 hours to craft a story, with the aid of our three prompts. We were to turn in our stories the next day.

If you've never done anything like this, you might think the task sounds well-nigh impossible. The idea, I believe, is to force you into writing without editing or second-guessing yourself, and to show you what you can accomplish when your back is to the wall.

Of course, you have to break for meals, and to sleep. Complicating matters in my case, I (and the other three first place quarterly winners) had been scheduled for a podcast interview that evening, so that cut into the writing time even more.

Nonetheless, I'm pleased to report it can be done.

I spent most of that night and the following morning banging out a 4,000-word story called "The Hills." Maybe it was the creative atmosphere of the workshop, or maybe I just got lucky, but I found the entire experience relatively smooth. I actually finished a first draft by lunch, and even had time to do a few minor revisions before turning in the story.

Would that they were all that easy.

CELEBRITY TREATMENT

With the workshop behind us, the time had come to celebrate. The awards ceremony was held in the Blossom Room at the Roosevelt, the site of the very first Academy Awards.
The Writers of the Future folks put an awful lot into this event. From the construction of the stage to the video production, the entire ceremony is slick and professional--and a lot of fun.

Like the Oscars, it's a true red carpet affair. Tuxedos and evening gowns, makeup and hair (yes, even for the guys), rehearsals, and acceptance speeches. In addition, judges and previous winners come in for the show. We found ourselves surrounded by and conversing with luminaries in the field, like Jerry Pournelle, Kevin J. Anderson, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Sean Williams, and more, far too many to name here.

As a first place winner in my quarter, I was also eligible for the grand prize, the Gold Award, so I had that distraction to deal with. It would have been far too easy to be stressed out and obsessive that night, worrying endlessly over my speech, the audience, the Gold Award, all the myriad details.

Instead, I was able to put all that aside and just be in the moment. I reminded myself that it was a big, fancy party, and I and my new friends were the guests of honor. My wife and parents were there to share it with me, and they were proud of me. Truly, it couldn't get much better than that.

We took our seats, the lights went down, and the opening dance number began. Some special guests made presentations. John Goodwin of Galaxy Press played the book trailer for Writers of the Future Volume XXV, revealing the awesome Stephan Martiniere cover. Then the awards were handed out, for both the writers and the winners of the Illustrators of the Future Contest, whose workshop ran concurrent with ours.

My turn came. Tim Powers introduced me. When I went onstage, he shook my hand and said, "This is pretty cool, isn't it?"

You know, it really was.

My speech went off without a hitch--unless you count the moment when I nearly knocked over my award. It was good for a laugh, anyway. Then I returned to my seat with the trophy --a silver quill pen encased in a pointy lucite block, heavy enough to brain someone, should the urge overtake me. It was gorgeous.

The Gold Award for the Illustrators went to Oleksandra Barysheva, while Emery Huang took home the grand prize for the writers, for his story "Garden of Tian Zi." I was too happy for Emery--indeed, for all us--to be bothered with jealousy.

After the awards, we posed for many pictures, then made our way upstairs for the post-event reception--which was, for the writers and illustrators, a giant signing party. Everyone who attended the show got a free copy of the anthology, and we spent hours on end autographing. I hardly got to see my wife and folks after the show, but they did stop by to congratulate me once more.

The signing ended sometime after one in the morning. I didn't get to bed until after three.
But the celebrity treatment didn't end there. The next day, they loaded us onto buses and drove us out to a couple of bookstores for more signings. The Galaxy Press sales reps were on hand, and they had us all sign a few books for VIPs, including the SF book buyers at all the major chains. They also had us autograph a book for Writers of the Future judge Anne McCaffrey, who couldn't attend the ceremony.

Me. Giving an autograph to Anne McCaffrey. That was more than a little surreal.
That evening, Author Services treated us to one final dinner, and a special performance by jazz pianist Chick Corea and his wife, singer Gail Moran. By that time, the whirlwind week had begun to catch up to me. Even so, I didn't want it to end.

But end it did, and my wife and I came home the following day, having made a number of new friends and great memories.

ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE?

On more than one occasion, Tim Powers, K.D. Wentworth, and some of the other judges pointed out to us that we would in all likelihood never again experience anything like Writers of the Future. We would probably never be paid as well, nor would anyone ever kick up so much fuss, for any short stories we might pen in the future. Multiple award winner Robert J. Sawyer assured us that neither the Hugos nor the Nebulas, fine as they are, are as fancy as Writers of the Future. And Jerry Pournelle, in his inimitable fashion, pointed out that the brutal publishing marketplace would likely doom most of us to obscurity.

Well, maybe so. Some reading this might assume that the Writers of the Future Contest opens many doors for the winners. I can assure you, I still get rejected. A lot.

So what happens next? Can I leverage my win into best-sellerdom?

Much of that is, quite frankly, beyond my control. The best I can do is keep writing, keep improving, keep putting my work in front of those who might be inclined to buy it. Winning the contest was a major milestone for me, one that I'll always treasure, but in the end, it's just that--a milestone, a stop along the way. The elation passes, and the trophy, pretty as it is, will soon begin collecting dust.

In the meantime, I have more stories to tell. I'll go on writing them, and I'll keep the phone nearby, just in case. You never know when the next Call will come.

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