Winning Writers of the Future Was

Guilt-inducing

“I’m going to make such an ass of myself,” I explained to Dr. Unicorn*, my best friend who moved away last summer.  “It’s a contest for beginners, and I don’t think of myself as a beginner, and when I won I’d sold enough stories to be disqualified twice over, they just hadn’t come out and the contest doesn’t count them until they do.  I’m having backward Imposter Syndrome, where I feel like I’m too qualified to be worthy, and I can’t talk about this with other writers because, come on, who the hell gets uncomfortable about winning things because they’re too successful?”

And that was basically it.  I felt like my level of ass-ness was directly proportional to how awesome winning was, because it was a win that should have gone to somebody who was a beginner, who did need the validation winning the contest would give them.

“Is this the sort of thing where friends and family would come to support you for?  Because I’d go, if you wanted me there.”

Awesome

That was the moment where all of the awesome of winning finally sank in.  It was like putting sugar in black tea or a dash of salt in cake batter.  On my own, I look at me winning and I see all the writers who haven’t been as lucky as me and had the same opportunities I’ve already had, who would get so much more out of winning, and who work really hard for it, quarter after quarter, and I feel like I cheated them.  Dr. Unicorn let me short-circuit that, made it something cool, let it be this awesome thing that was going to be fantastic.  I needed that. Bewildering

I started preparations for WotF in November.  I had to – I run my own business and if I didn’t I’d never survive a week away and absorbed by something else. My flight out to the workshop left on April 7. My first official communication about the workshop, including such information as the exact dates, came on February 15.  If dependent on ASI, I’d have had less than two months to prepare for the trip.

I didn’t get a schedule or agenda of any sort for the workshop until the day I got there.  What they gave me was a lie, more likely to lead me into error than actually represent what was happening.  They were irritated when Dr. Unicorn hadn’t already made travel plans for an event we had no information about.  During the workshop week, they’d get irritated when somebody believed the printed schedule and wound up wrong, or missed a thing because they’d been pulled away for a photo shoot, interview, etc.  It wasn’t malice.  They really are that disorganized and badly managed.

Heartwarming

This contest has had such a huge, massive impact on so many people that there’s a sort of “induction into tribe” effect surrounding it.  Past winners reached out to create spaces for the new winners to connect, ask questions, get the logistical details that ASI wasn’t together enough to provide.  The generosity displayed by those people, and then during the week itself by the judges and other professionals who don’t have to be there or do anything, but do anyway because they care and think it’s important to teach the industry and the business to the new people who are getting in and might not have any other way of learning…it’s astonishing.

I don’t mean they’re being pure altruists.  It’s in their interests to find fresh talent and build relationships with them.  But they’re far, far more generous than they have to be merely to accomplish that, and the fact that they care is enough to make the contest and the experience something special.  Things become valuable simply because people value them.

Heartbreaking

ASI’s first question when they called me was whether I’d be bringing a spouse.  I did a little dance, then gloated a bit when I said, “No, but my best friend is coming down from Seattle for the gala.”  Best friend.  I don’t mean boyfriend.  I don’t mean partner.  I mean best friend.  I mean the person who gave me the space I need to feel like I deserved this.

“Oh,” they say after a long, awkward pause.  “Well, good for you.”

The next day I got an email letting me know that the men would have their measurements taken for tuxes during the workshop week, and somebody would be in touch with the girls about acceptable colors for their dresses.  My grandmother, who loves clothes and buying me pretty things, was taking me shopping when I went to visit her.  I tried to find out from the contest what their guidelines were.  I got my dress six weeks before leaving for the workshop.

The guidelines finally came three weeks later, when their hair and makeup coordinator asked me for a picture of me in the dress.  The gorgeous dress my grandmother traipsed around Richmond with me to find.

The only question I have is if your dress is not too tight. Something like one size or even two sizes too small? It is true that the dress is probably made to be fitted but sometimes is looks better to have it not too stretchy. That is a bit of a concern I have. Is there a way to trade it for a bigger size?

And when I replied saying that my dress fit fine, but I’d be willing to wear a tux if they were concerned?

 I’ll look at it when you have arrived. If needed I will find a solution in locating another dress. I have done it many times. I am made responsible to have you all look great. I just am looking for a back-up in case, so I am not having to handle any last minute which I am sure you understand. What is your size?

One of the stories I didn’t get to hear about the contest until after I won was about the winner they made cry over her dress.  The awesome, fantastic celebration of the launching of a new writer’s career, and they made her cry.  Over a dress. Oh, and it’s not that anybody would ever say anything to Dr. Unicorn about them not being a straight man, but they shouldn’t dress too femme because the people at ASI don’t really like that.

I very nearly didn’t go.

Inspiring Have you ever watched somebody as they realize they have a shot at their dream?  I mean watched the actual realization happen, over the course of several days, where they get tired and overwhelmed and it just clicks that they’ve got what it takes?  I get high on that.  It’s part of why I like working with first time buyers as a Realtor – seeing somebody realize they get to have a thing they deeply want but didn’t actually expect to get is amazing.  The workshop week was full of that.  And watching other people watch it happen and seeing how it affected them was fantastic, too.

Embarrassing

It’s possible I dove over furniture to hug Dr. Unicorn upon their arrival Thursday night.  I’m not sure.  I know I was mid-sentence with Mark-from-Kobo, stopped to say, “Excuse me a moment,” and then I was hugging Uni.  There was furniture between where I’d been and where Uni was, and I don’t remember going around any furniture. Whatever I did, it was with grace and dignity, and I am not ashamed.

Infuriating The winners are not real people to ASI. It’s not malicious.  From ASI’s perspective, there are no real people, just pawns in their great publicity machine designed to sell books with L. Ron Hubbard’s name on them.  The workshop is a side effect, and one which clearly gets in the way of their staged publicity shots. All of their shots are staged.  They will drag you out into the afternoon L.A. sunlight, even when you’re protesting that you’re over-heated, extremely photo-sensitive, and already have a massive headache from too much daylight, then expect you to harass strangers on the street so they can film you “interviewing a stranger” for your 24-hour story. Then they’ll ask you to do it again, except could you give me that smoothie you’re clinging to as a defense mechanism?

They’ll stalk you while you’re trying to write that story to the point where the only way to avoid them is to leave the building.  Then turn off your phone, because they’ll call you to have you stage “writing” for them.  They’ll take your drinks, your bags, your jackets, whatever they think doesn’t fit with their image, and it might take days for you to get them back, if you ever do. By the end of the week I’d been triggered into disaster mode so hard that I had a pharmacy, snack bar and toothpaste in my bag, which I was clutching for dear life.  It’s been several weeks and I’m still twitchy whenever somebody’s behind me with a camera.

At the gala, they fed the vegetarians London broil.  They fed everybody London broil.  They never asked about whether there were vegetarians.  The ones who got to eat instead of being dragged off for more photo ops or for documentary interviews were lucky.  The writers never got to see the displays of the artist portfolios put out at the after party. That really bugged me since I was very invested in the artists by then.  ASI dragged me away from the signing so I could give an interview that was not remotely subtle in its attempt to bait quotes praising L. Ron Hubbard.  I’d rather enjoyed talking to strangers while signing their books.

But honestly, the most infuriating part?  Before the interview, they handed over forms with blank fields and generic release  language and asked for your signature.

“What should I put into the blanks?” I asked.

“Don’t worry about it.  We’ll fill that out at the office,” they answered.

That’s more or less the opposite of the model for good business practice they ought to present.  Especially to beginners and new people who might not know better and are there to be mentored.

Relaxing

This is definitely more of a commentary on my daily life than the typical workshop experience, but I worked less that week than I had any week all year.  Right up until my body figured out I was on the west coast and it should adjust my sleep cycle accordingly, I was the best rested I’ve been all year, too.  Having a week to think, breathe, and do nothing but books and writing and related things?  Fabulous.

Then again, preparing for the workshop was a significant source of extra stress in the first part of the year.

Bonding

“How’s your week been so far?” Uni asked during post-hug unpacking.  I’d just seen my art for the first time a few hours before and I was absolutely buzzing about it.  Half an hour later I was nearly finished talking about all the people I’d met and liked.  And giving their back stories and details.

“There’s Randy who’s hilarious and sweet, and Kat who’s into board games, and Amanda who had me as her roommate until you got here and manages to be adorable about missing her kid, and Tim who’s the published finalist and I think he doesn’t think he belongs here but he’s great and needs to figure that out, and Megan who’s accepted my challenge to a cage match to defend the honor of our respective artists…”

“So, you’ve basically adopted everybody?” Uni asked.  “I should have guessed you were going to adopt everybody.”  I may have used a rude gesture when I replied.

Validating

I compulsively read reviews of my stuff.  Bad reviews don’t hurt my feelings – I sorta like them – but I’m desperate to find out whether the people who read it got what I was trying to do, they understood what was happening, whether the story worked.  My 24-hour story was one of the three that got critiqued by the group.  Tim Powers called out absolutely everything I’d put into it, and pointed at exactly the things I’d done in order to put them there.  That was my personal win for the week.

Ass-making of self

After the gala, when everybody was punch-drunk and hanging out in the lobby, I was talking to Randy, Megan, and Leena, three of the four first place winners.  Randy had just won the grand prize.  Megan got teary.  Then Leena.  Shortly, Randy joined in. I pointed and giggled.  Then offered hugs.  Then giggled at them some more. Though I wonder whether one can actually make an ass of one’s self if one is always an ass.

Disappointing

While I was thinking very seriously about not going to the workshop, I decided that, you know what, I can’t possibly be the only person getting patronized and insulted by ASI, and while I can certainly walk away without feeling like I’ve done myself any significant harm or losing something I need, I am, as noted at the beginning, very lucky.  Not everyone is, and maybe I have a responsibility to see things through and not be quiet, because I have very little to lose.  That made it better, gave me a way to go without being a willing victim marching into a bad situation.

I was sharing the emails I got from the hair and makeup person as they were coming, and getting feedback on my replies since I was, by then, so emotionally bankrupt I didn’t trust my instincts.  What was Uni’s suggested reply when, in order to rescue me from my error in dress size selection, ASI asked me for my dress size?

“My size is fire and death!”

I made a T-shirt.  I offered to make one for anybody else who needed to turn the nonsense into a joke, rather than a threat.  There were some takers. FireandDeathEditedThere were private emails from past winners offering consolation and support and suggestions for where I could run for rescue if things got bad while I was there.  Because, apparently, winners needing rescue is a thing.

There were also less private emails from past winners telling me I ought to feel more grateful, and that unnecessary drama is just that.

And the general sense that this contest wasn’t so much a validating, awesome prize I’ve won, as a force of nature to be navigated and endured.

Mixed

I went expecting to come back with a clear answer about whether or not I’d have preferred to just spend the week in Seattle. I don’t have it. The good parts were awesome.  The bad parts were devastating.  There was a range in the middle that was more or less obliterated by the extremes.  I certainly could have done without the stress and nastiness in the weeks leading up to the workshop, when I had to orchestrate leaving my life for a week to walk into a situation where I more or less expected to be treated like garbage, and had my expectations met several times.

But once I got there, there was entirely too much good to elide or gloss over.  I’m going to be ambivalent about this experience, qualified in my recommendations around the contest, for a long, long time.  That’s absurd.  There’s no reason for any of the downsides, no justification.  There are too many people who care too much; too many things that are too good.  I went to the workshop expecting to end it in a rage and advise everybody to run screaming.  I walked out wanting to be able to recommend the contest without caveat.

I can’t.  But I want to.

*This is a pseudonym, obviously.  The pertinent individual requested that I use one. They didn’t get a choice about what it was.

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17 thoughts on “Winning Writers of the Future Was

  1. The next time we’re at a con together, we can have a loooong chat about the experience….because I think all those reactions are valid ;o)

  2. I am appropriately mortified. For “fully in support of you, this is unacceptable, I can’t believe I haven’t heard about this before” values of “appropriately.”
    Thank you for the write-up. I am not in the least bit ashamed to admit that I am now quite happy that I no longer qualify, so I’ll never have the guilt of tacitly supporting ASI with my participation.

  3. You made your point early in your article, it should’ve stopped there.

    “I see all the writers… who would get so much more out of winning, and who work really hard for it, quarter after quarter, and I feel like I cheated them.”

    I feel the same way. Thank the lord for loopholes, huh?

    • I’m afraid an article about the whole experience which ended with a conversation that took place in November would have been rather incomplete.

      I am, however, confused on what you mean by loopholes. Not only was I clearly eligible for the quarter in which I won, I could have entered in the following quarter, after my finalist status was announced. The contest’s position was unambiguous about my eligibility – the discomfort came entirely from me and wasn’t really sensible or justified, something I intended that section to convey. If that wasn’t clear, the error is mine, and it’s a known flaw, I’m afraid; I am prone to expecting readers to be sharper and more intelligent than they are.

  4. “Loophole: An ambiguity or inadequacy in a system…” Yes, the rules are very unambiguous, but still inadequate.

    I doubt that, with all the skill you have in making clever comebacks and insidious remarks, you could be so easily “confused.” You are very witty.

    You were very clear that the discomfort came entirely from you. And that shows a human, admirable aspect of yourself.

    You couldn’t have had the benefit that this contest was created to give, as you’ve already had those opportunities (as you yourself said).

    So really, the ungratefulness is not your fault.

    • You couldn’t have had the benefit that this contest was created to give, as you’ve already had those opportunities (as you yourself said).

      I’ve had similar opportunities, not the same ones. I definitely got a great deal out of the experience, which I took careful pains to talk about (and discussed on their own in two other posts that went up before this one). But if you my eligibility was a problem because of the opportunities I’d already had, then I wonder what change you’d want made in the rules.

      I’d been to Viable Paradise, which is an audition-based workshop with a similar structure to WotF, but a lower student:teacher ratio, heavier focus on craft, and larger student body per year. It is, arguably, a more rigorous workshop than Wotf (depending on what you’re criteria you’re focusing on in determining rigor). So should all VP alumni be disqualified from Wotf? If so, would extend that to all audition workshops such as the Clarions, or just that one?

      I’m already well networked in the industry, in part because I’m a member of a forum where lots of industry people hang out and have met them through there and at cons, and in part because of the work I do with Strange Horizons. Are you going to exclude Con attendees, people who are active in online communities, or volunteers for active magazines? How are you going to draw the lines? And how are you going to account for the narrowing effect this has since somebody could do most of these things without writing a word of fiction, speculative or otherwise.

      I already have an extensive knowledge of how the business angle of the industry works, in part because I run my own business and some things are universal (tax write offs, agency relationships, marketing technique and approach, standards for correspondence) and in part because I’ve made a study of it since I was sixteen. I’m curious about how you’d design the rules to filter that out, too.

      Or is the real problem that I don’t think it’s appropriate to take somebody in a vulnerable situation, target them specifically because they’re new and therefore likely to be vulnerable, and then treat them poorly?

      I apologize if I’ve misunderstood you or I’m coming off as harsh, but you’ve touched on a pet peeve of mine, namely the culture of awe and self-abnegation that grows up around new writers who think that any success or positive attention they get is somehow a gift from untouchable powers rather than something they’ve earned on their own merit. Publishing is a business. Writers are producing a product. If what any given writer writes is a good product for which there’s demand, they sell and have success. An editor who buys your product is not doing you a favor, they’re doing their job. To think otherwise is to be disrespectful and insulting to the editor, to the other writers they work with, and to the readers who buy and read the publication. The business is about providing good material to the audience, not doling out favors to those who are sufficiently worthy.

      I’m not grateful when somebody buys a house I’m listing, either. And I certainly wouldn’t be grateful if, after buying the house, they called me fat, were irritable with me because of problems they caused, and patronized me about my post-closing brunch companions.

      Given that I get paid much, much better for selling a house than I do for fiction, my tolerance for abusive practices in the publishing industry is that much smaller.

  5. “you’ve touched on a pet peeve of mine, namely the culture of awe and self-abnegation that grows up around new writers who think that any success or positive attention they get is somehow a gift from untouchable powers rather than something they’ve earned on their own merit. Publishing is a business. Writers are producing a product. If what any given writer writes is a good product for which there’s demand, they sell and have success. An editor who buys your product is not doing you a favor, they’re doing their job. ”

    I agree with you 100%. I believe that writers are far more valuable than they give credit to themselves. I don’t believe that getting known comes as a gift from any untouchables or anything near the fact. But it is a two-way street.

    When Signet Books bought the paperback rights to Stephen King’s “Carrie” for $400,000 it could be considered a stroke of luck for King (it was when he switched careers to be a writer). But it could also be considered an even better stroke of luck for Signet Books who sold millions and millions of copies of the book. Both greatly benefited. It’s a mutual relationship. (Although King arguably worked his arse off way more than any publisher, as evidenced in his book On Writing.)

    Look, I would be insulted as well if I were told I couldn’t wear a dress (or suit) that my grandmother herself picked out for me. So that’s perfectly understandable—I wouldn’t be in a terrific mood either. However, to go around and conclude that the overall opinion of a bunch of people is “The winners are not real people.” is upsetting.

    “I apologize if I’ve misunderstood you or I’m coming off as harsh” No it’s ok. You’re not coming off as harsh, just inaccurate.

    One stylist person goes off and says something and now everyone is an unthinking machine? I’m sorry but I have a personal friend that often volunteers for the contests (Mrs. Fairy, we’ll say) and she is one of the most truthful, friendly, and warm-hearted people that you could ever meet. So, I take offense only when your blanket accusations encompass good people who don’t deserve it.

    Say what you’d like about people you’ve had bad experiences with, that’s fine. Just don’t do drive-by accusations.

    A while back, Mrs. Fairy told me, with bright eyes, all about one girl who came over for the contest (I believe 2-3 years ago) from Asia who came to the US for the first time and blew everyone away with what she could do. All Mrs. Fairy could talk about was this girl and how she really blossomed, what she learned, and how happy her entire family was. Some of the details evade me as it was a few years ago… The point is that the only reason my friend volunteers is to make a difference to contestants. Unfortunately there aren’t enough Mrs. Fairys to help every contestant (and I don’t even know if she was there this year as I am no longer in LA and didn’t talk to her about the contest this year, hence my interest in checking things out online.).

    So no, an editor may not be “doing you a favor,” but a volunteer is.

    I apologize if I’m coming off as harsh, but it’s one of my pet peeves when someone insults a friend of mine they don’t know the first thing about, and quite probably never even met.

    • Jorge, to characterize my problems with how ASI treats the winners as, “One stylist person goes off and says something and now everyone is an unthinking machine?” demonstrates a lack of thorough reading of the post that I suspect says more about your interest in defending Ms Fairy than your standard reading comprehension skills. Just about every single interaction I had with ASI before going to the contest was a problem – the dress thing got the most post time because it was what happened in email instead of over the phone. I listed several things that happened during the workshop that were problems, as well.

      Furthermore, I took great care to scrub identities of the people I was complaining about (they’re recognizable to people who know, but not the random folk on the internet) because my point wasn’t at all about the individuals, but the way the organization approaches the winners. I am absolutely unwilling to back down from or apologize for saying, “The winners are not real people to ASI. It’s not malicious. From ASI’s perspective, there are no real people, just pawns in their great publicity machine designed to sell books with L. Ron Hubbard’s name on them.” This is a completely accurate rendering of the impression consistently and thoroughly created by ASI for me and, based on discussions with past winners when I went to them with a, “Is it me, or is this ridiculous,” I am far from alone.

      As I said in the post; the contest is a wonderful experience. The experience that had such an impact on Ms Fairy is also common, and that got a whole section to itself in the post. But is far from flawless. I was not speaking hyperbolically when I said I nearly didn’t go. If I were marginally less stubborn, the fact that I could get plane tickets to Seattle for less than what I was getting paid for the story would have clinched things in the other direction.

      If Ms Fairy is in fact a member of ASI rather than an industry or past winner volunteer, and it is in fact not ASI’s intent to treat the winners like pawns in their publicity machine, there are some serious and significant attitude, approach, and logistical adjustments that need to be made. These are changes I suspect they are supremely uninterested in making since it’s been 30 years, and I am far from the first person to point out the problems. They aren’t going to change, so I may as well make it easier for people to know what to expect going into this.

  6. That sounds pretty dang bizarre. Did anyone tell you about the queer winner who had the contest request that he remove references to his character’s non-hetero sexuality? Yeah.

    I stopped submitting a while ago even though I had been a finalist twice. I heard too many weird stories and the Scientology connection seemed too odd.

    I maintain that the best contest you ever won was the VP list Box o Books contest!

    • I have spoken to that particular past winner, at length. They were actually somebody who convinced me it was okay to enter in the first place, and were then graciously useful when I was going, “I need a reality check – this is insane, right?”

      And yes, the Box o Books win was phenomenal! I discovered stuff I really liked and, er, still haven’t actually read all of them.

      • I hadn’t read all of them. Is that a terrible thing to admit? The Greg Keyes series is fairly spectacular, as I recall. Kind of grimdarky before grimdark, but then not dark enough that it’s not fun.

      • I really liked that one – I had read epic fantasy that wasn’t doorstopper length in a long time.

        I made it through the Gunslinger on sheer force of will and have the King on my “someday” list for finishing off. I’m assured the prose gets better and I’ll like the atmosphere enough to make up for the rest, or I’d forget it entirely – I really didn’t like that book.

        And Way of Kings was interesting, in a, “I don’t think, ultimately, that I liked it, but I’m really eager to read the sequel,” sort of way.

  7. Ms. Fairy is actually not an ASI staff proper. She does however volunteer for the contest.

    Point is, you’re generalizing into every single person there which isn’t true.

    That’s all I’m saying.

    You can’t speak about people you haven’t ever even spoken to or interacted with. It’s not only common sense but decent manners, as you wouldn’t want someone comparing you to an associate/friend that is nothing like you. That’s just to be unbiased and unprejudiced (Not judging before). Only if someone was clairvoyant and omniscient could they know those things.

    I obviously used some exaggeration in my last comment that makes it seems like I had “lack of thorough reading of the post.” That is a fair assumption based on what I wrote but still untrue. I did see and read all of the reasons for your annoyance—which are not unfounded. I just commented in an unthorough way.

    If there is a meeting ground that we’ll ever get to it’s that. It’s not “all ASI.”

    Listen, if everyone at ASI was as you are splattering on them (as a whole), there would be no contest and your post would not exist. All and any positive things you wrote about would be non-existent. There are people hard at work who make those things, both ASI staff and not. (Regardless of all the negative and mixed emotions you very elaborately described).

    Am I saying that your experiences were not real? No, of course not. They were valuable enough, interesting enough or at least inciting enough for me to read them and come back here… lol.

  8. Pingback: Having A Moment | Spencer Ellsworth

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