Share a book signing with Anne McCaffrey. Network with authors from around the world. Stay at the Hilton Garden Inn across from the Pacific Ocean. Attend a weeklong workshop with Tim Powers and K.D. Wentworth. And get paid. A fantasy world? No—
I still remember the phone call. Saturday, 4:37 pm, May 7, 2005. I don't recognize the voice on the machine, can't make out her name. "I'm phoning from the Writers of the Future offices in Los Angeles." Suddenly her voice takes on the most seductive quality imaginable. This could prove to be my first professional sale.
I play the message five times. Like a reluctant first date, she doesn't leave a number, only an e-mail. I shoot one off in record time. And wait. It comes back. Message undeliverable. Ack! I misspelled her e-mail address! I fix my mistake and send a second message.
Six o'clock comes and goes. Doubt, given plenty of time to sprout, gnaws at my frail hope. Was my entry too late? Deferred to the next quarter? Lost in the slush pile? Water damaged? I entered the same story a few years prior. Had it therefore been disqualified?
"Is this Lee Beavington?"
My heart pounds. "Yes."
She asks where I work, if I have any previous publications. Then: "Your story placed second in the first quarter of the Writers of the Future contest. Do you know what that means?"
"Yes," I manage to say. "But I'd like you to tell me."
I listen in rapturous awe. Never have words sounded sweeter.
At the heart of Writers of the Future is the largest science fiction writing contest in the world (details here). The contest runs quarterly and is entirely free, open to writers who haven't published a novel or three or more short stories professionally. The Writers of the Future staff never reveal how many entries they receive. "A lot!" is all they tell me, not wanting to discourage future entrants. Thousands per quarter, rumor has it.
Winners are flown to L.A., Seattle, Cape Canaveral, New York—
My journey to San Diego began fifteen months after that phone call. The queue for security at the Vancouver airport stretches beyond the length of the Air Canada check-in counters. I find the tail end only to realize the line snakes back on itself a dozen times. Nervous sweat hangs in the air, yet I'm far more anxious about the acceptance speech I have to give on Friday.
One hour later I hope my feet don't smell as I doff my shoes for a burly security guard. At U.S. customs, my beard and longish hair are certainly no asset. They wave me through and I get on the plane, which soars over the American border, past the urban sprawl of Seattle, and down the voluptuous Californian coast.
In sunny San Diego, I'm greeted by a man waving a Writers of the Future sign. Good lord, I have a driver. A cameraman films me leaving the airport once, twice, then a third time. Is my arrival really that momentous?
Another winner (Diana Rowland) and I are taken to the Hilton Garden Inn. Across Carlsbad Boulevard, the salty scent and clear waves of the Pacific roll over a bluff-lined shore. The hotel lobby reminds me of the most opulent Hindu temples in India, where my travels took me the previous three months. I have shifted worlds, gone from deprivation to decadence. Chlorine drifts in from the courtyard. I hear kids splash in the pool. Everything is sterile and ornate, a palace for the privileged. Such a hotel lacks spirit; but then, business is an entirely different animal than religion or creativity, a disheartening epiphany that strikes me three days later.
Diana and I check in, pose for more photos, and I'm shown to my room. Brandon Sigrist is my roommate; as a first-place winner, he has the opportunity to pocket an additional five grand by week's end. After a swim in the ocean's warm body, I let my flight-weary muscles soak in the hot tub. The setting sun heralds the arrival of other writers—
That night our five-day writers' workshop begins. The literary leaders, Tim Powers and K.D. Wentworth, with 20 novels between them, make an odd pair. Tim is verbose, frenetic, comedic, constantly insightful, his spastic energy compelling us to listen. He goes through 50 cans of Coke by week's end. Kathy is short, calm, jovial, a quiet source of wisdom. She is friendly but aloof, letting Tim lead. Where Kathy is the solid foundation, Tim is the entertainer, the one that might let us get away with something.
A former winner-turned-judge, Kathy is the first to wade through the slush of Writers of the Future submissions. She commented on an earlier entry of mine.
Has potential, but needs a better ending.
That handwritten message pushed me over the rejection hump. Almost there now, my inner motivator said. Keep trying.
I look around at my fellow aspiring—
"Study your item," he insists. "It must play a part in your story!"
As a further test, we are ushered into vans and delivered to the San Diego suburbs. Dropped at the curb, I wander into a store with exotic pets. I'm in search of a gullible stranger, a walking and talking research vessel. My challenge? Engage someone in conversation, glean something intriguing from the dialogue, and incorporate that into my 24-hour story. But a baby bearded dragon doing rhythmic push-ups in his sand-filled terrarium isn't much help. I try at the photo shop next door.
"Can I help you?" a friendly, heavyset saleswoman inquires.
"I'm looking at photo albums." My interest is genuine. My friend and I took more than 3,700 photos on our recent trip to Asia and Africa.
"Yes! We have lots! Come have a look..." She's far too gracious and good-hearted to have worked here long; the retail world has yet to graduate her as another customer service cynic. Somehow, without guidance, the conversation turns to her troubled family life and future dreams.
"My brother is dyslexic. That's inspired me to become an educator." Voil´! My research is done.
That evening, I take to my room and hammer out a couple thousand words. Keen to write about my world travels, I incorporate them into "A Gift" by giving the bracelet the apparent power to teleport. Stonehenge, Eiffel Tower, New Delhi, the Serengeti, the lion fortress of Sri Lanka—
At nine, the paparazzi barges in. Two pairs of hands rearrange my chair, desk, laptop, books—
The following afternoon, after our morning workshop session, I find Tim Powers in the courtyard next to the pool. I walk past, heading to my room to revise my hastily written piece about a dimension-hopping bracelet. But I stop and think. Should I spend this time picking over "A Gift," or sit and have lunch with a two-time winner of the World Fantasy Award? Six cokes and dozens of witty anecdotes later, Tim looks as happy as I feel.
A few words about the hotel: such extravagance both electrifies and intimidates. As a child on family road trips, my parents parked the station wagon on roadsides for the night to save money. Mom's poverty-stricken upbringing and dad's eight years as a hippie help explain our economical accommodation. At the lavish Hilton Garden Inn, the cost of staying a single night could easily feed an entire family in India—
A few words about shoes: in Hindu and Buddhist temples, all footwear must be removed. This is a show of respect (and to perhaps keep the floors clean). In some ways, this hotel reminds me of an Indian temple. It's shiny, grandiose, revered, in a prime location, and filled with the most devout. I decide to show my devotion the way I know best: off come the shoes and socks in a small act of rebellion to keep me grounded.
This leads to one of the most exciting moments of the week: discovering my story's illustration. Melanie Tregonning, an Australian artist, dramatizes "Evolution's End." To maintain suspense, the Writers of the Future staff kept these award-winning illustrations under lock and key.
"Time for a surprise!" Tim announces.
The procession of soon-to-be-professionally published file down a hall into a hotel room full of artists. The plush carpet folds softly between my toes. Gorgeous black-and-white prints in elaborate frames stand next to their respective creators. A quick scan reveals a giant heart with roots, a man with a skull for a head, and a lost city of the future. None of those look right.
Then, behind the glass of a picture frame, I spot Sarah.
Sarah is my favorite character from "Evolution's End." She peers into a cylinder holding a single-celled alien organism. Wisps of cloud set the scene behind her. On the page of the actual book, one can't see the craftsmanship of Melanie's illustration, the entire image created one dot at a time. I love every detail on the full-size illustration, including the emotion on Sarah's face: subdued awe with a hint of the terror to come. Melanie thanked me for writing a story she liked—
As I wander to admire the other illustrations, someone calls out, "Hey! That guy's not wearing any shoes!"
This quickly becomes my trademark, to the palpable amusement of the others.
Let me step back for a minute—
Nevertheless, there are underlying ties between the contest and the Church of Scientology. One helps support the other financially, which as contest winners we can't simply ignore. Yet the contest is endorsed by many science fiction writers who have no affiliation with Scientology, notably Anne McCaffrey, Robert J. Sawyer, Andre Norton, Neil Gaiman, and Algis Budrys. Judging is blind. However, to be accepted into what is arguably the most illustrious science fiction contest in the world is to accept funds from the estate of L. Ron Hubbard. For me, it's like a vegetarian eating veal. One has to weigh this clash of ideologies against the benefit given to aspiring science fiction authors, including no entry fee, large payouts, and retaining full rights of their works. Perhaps Hubbard's greatest legacy is the literary careers his Writers of the Future contest has launched. That is something I am proud to be a part of.
Back at the Hilton Garden Inn a parade of guest speakers talk about editors, agents, book signings—
Thus, after Tim's week-long inspiring mantra—
Wait a second. Everything was going pretty good here. Now a red flag is waving like mad. What was that last one?
"It's very important," John continues, "to look presentable. Get rid of the long hair and beard. The beatnik look isn't going to cut it."
I feel everyone's eyes boring into my back—
Does hair length relate to talent? The majority of my favorite authors look like sasquatches. But I suppose that isn't John's point. When you are starting out, you want to make the right impression.
This business pep talk is all well and good. Outside the creative aspect of writing lurks the cutthroat reality of who makes it and who writes for the void. But as far as I'm concerned, if you have to get a haircut, change your appearance, and ultimately pretend to be something you are not, then I would never make the attempt to succeed in the first place. Being authentic is the best way to develop your writing talent, because you end up filling pages with truth.
And so the big day arrives, with much pomp and circumstance. My tux doesn't feel right, like snakeskin on a mammal. My roommate, Brandon Sigrist, helps straighten my cufflinks and cummerbund. After rehearsing my acceptance speech for the hundredth time, I head down to the lobby and the waiting limousine.
I've never been in a limo. Unfortunately, my maiden voyage is anything but glamorous. Nine of us squeeze inside, forcing me to hold my knees together above the floor. Stuck in rush hour traffic under the California sun, I'm reminded again of India and the hot, cramped buses surrounded by a million motorists. Given the choice, I'd trade this limousine for a three-wheeled auto rickshaw.
The limo stops. I wipe the sweat from my brow. The Prado restaurant resembles a castle complete with battlements and tower. Dinner is a formal affair—
Next, we're chauffeured to the location of the ceremony: the San Diego Air and Space Museum. My parents—
"Are you one of the writers?" she inquired. Dressed in a smart-looking tuxedo, the man eyed this colorful woman with the extravagant shawl and gold-sequined hat with a smidgen of irritation. Turns out he was the president of Galaxy Press. "No," is all he answered.
"My son is one of the winners," she happily explained.
The man wasn't impressed. "My name is John Goodwin. I've been putting on this event for years."
With that remark, the proud mother and portentous president parted ways. In John's defense, I imagine the stress of putting on such a gargantuan (not to mention inspirational) event must have put him on edge.
When I arrive, a sea of people prepare to flood the front stage. The winning writers and illustrators, ushered into a backroom, wait in a line for makeup and hair. I skip out on the makeover, contentedly ungroomed, and find the nearest bathroom. One last pit stop to settle the butterflies.
In the museum's central atrium, I take my seat among five hundred. A palpable excitement hangs in the air, not to mention the two planes suspended above us by steel cable: an original Ford 5-AT-B Trimotor and F-4S Phantom II. A blue galaxy provides the stage backdrop, crested by a giant feathered quill. Six towering columns glow with light. To the left gleams a giant photo of the late L. Ron Hubbard. To the right, a near-equal photo (just slightly smaller) of the as-yet-veiled cover of Writers of the Future XXII lays hidden by enormous blue velvet drapes.
After a lengthy introduction discussing the life and works of Hubbard, the winning writers are called up one at a time. With "Evolution's End" having placed in the first quarter, my name comes second. After ascending the four steps to the stage, Nina Kiriki Hoffman hands me my award—
Then the flashes stop, and I am suddenly alone. The podium beckons, imposing yet grand, a throne guarded by editors and mistresses of the submission slush pile. More eyes than I can recall stalk me to center stage. I focus on two pairs and thank my parents: Dad for being my most studious editor, and Mom for encouraging my dream. As I leave the stage, recognized and accomplished, the applause from the crowd matches the thunderous gratitude in my heart.
After the speeches, from short and tearful to strong yet winded, the gold winner prepares to take the stage. This prize goes to one of the first place winners, the judging kept secret until now. Who will it be? Blake Hutchins, Diana Rowland, Michail Velichansky...
And the award goes to Brandon Sigrist for "Life on the Voodoo Driving Range!" My roomie for the week, in a state of excited shock, ascends the podium for further kudos—
Now for the finale. John Goodwin surveys the audience, pauses, and readies the unveiling of Writers of the Future XXII. I fall under the spell of anticipation. Someone mentioned finding a pixelated thumbnail of the cover online a few days prior. But I carefully steered clear of spoilage. Years of writing, revision, and rejection had brought me here. I secretly dread that fantasy cliché: warrior women in bikini armor. I don't want Xena on the cover.
John throws his arm back. The velvet falls away, a grand disrobing to reveal the book. A noble figure, holding a dragon helm, stands front and center; a ghost-blue starship soars overhead. What a spectacular vision!
The guy on the cover looks familiar. Flowing brown hair, bushy eyebrows and moustache, a full, unruly beard—
More photos, this time of the group. With crooked bowtie and gel-free hair, I smile widely.
The rest of the evening is a blur of faces and books. Each author—
The day after the ceremony, I see my story on the shelf and share a book signing with Anne McCaffrey. I'm tempted to call the reality police.
That week shared with the other science fiction writers created a real sense of community. Who else takes squids in space seriously? Swimming laps in the pool, I remember overhearing David and Michail talk philosophy and arguing over the merits of Miyazaki's latest film. Being workshop buddies with the other David. Swapping travel stories with Sarah, who researched rabies in India for her Ph.D. thesis. Being roommates with Brandon, the gold award winner (and his elated call to his wife to tell her he had won!) Sharing a ride to Anaheim with Blake, and talk of future writing plans. Then there was Mike's dramatic, slow-motion tumble in the lobby—
Many lessons were learned that week in sunny San Diego. I remember pondering why I write. Artistic integrity bears an inverse relationship with commercial concession. Given a price, art becomes product. This shady path leads to writing for an audience—
I think back to a Saturday afternoon in May, and the momentous phone call at 4:37 p.m. Afterward, I called everyone I knew. Family and friends said I never sounded more excited in my life. No surprise—