Monday, February 25, 2013

Writer's Ramble: Hints and Tips for Winning Writers of the Future

This year at LTUE I attended a panel on the Writers of the Future contest. Speaking on the panel was David Farland / Wolverton, the coordinating judge for the contest. Also on the panel were former contest winners, Brad R. Torgersen and Eric James Stone. David Farland opened up the contest to questions after a short introduction, and we had about 45 minutes to thoroughly pick his brain.

It was probably the most revealing panel I attended, all three days.

The contest was created by L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction author who wrote Battlefield Earth (yes, this is the same guy who started the Church of Scientology—whoever said writers weren’t known for having huge egos). If you won, the contest would grant you three things:
  1. You win enough money to make an impact in your writing career. Not a substantial amount, but perhaps enough to buy a new computer or take some really good courses.
  2. You get training. You get to go to a workshop and you get to be trained by respected bestselling authors.
  3. Recognition. You get to put Writers of the Future on your resume, and it carries a good deal of weight. Publishers are lining up to hand out writing contracts.
Sound interesting?

Here is what are the judges looking for:
  1. Your story must be a work of speculative fiction: science fiction, fantasy, horror, paranormal, etc. Any kind of romance, biography, non-fiction essay, historical fiction, etc., that does not have an element of sci-fi or fantasy will be disqualified.
  2. Come up with an original story idea that hasn’t been done before, or take an older story idea and give it an original twist.
  3. Describe things. Describe your characters. If a scene is outside, describe things in the distance. If a scene is inside, paint a picture. Use as many senses as you can. Give your reader a sense of presence.
  4. The judges would like to see more really good humor. Don’t end your story with a punch line. Don’t start out funny and end serious.
  5. The judges don’t see enough good medieval fantasy. New ideas are rare. Most fantasy stories read like Dungeons and Dragons. The monsters are the same, and the magic systems are never original.
  6. Do not submit stories where the targeted audience is children. You can have a child protagonist, if the theme is adult or if the protagonist behaves in a mature way.
  7. Develop a theme in your story. Having a theme makes a bigger impression on the judges.
  8. As far as word count, your story should be “as long as the story needs to be, and not one syllable more.” That’s a Dave Wolverton quote. That said, longer stories tend to do better because you have more time to demonstrate your talent and you can work up to a more emotional ending. The contest has a limit of 17,000 words.
What are some of the pet peeves that will get your story thrown out?
  1. The POV character wakes up and doesn’t know who they are. The narrator then proceeds to describe the surroundings, then find a mirror and describe the main character.
  2. Trying to gross out the judge.
  3. Stories that start off with gratuitously violent imagery.
  4. Stories written about main characters who are stupid.
  5. Stories that are sexist or racist.
  6. Stories that have a lot of swearing. If you drop an f-bomb on page one, you’re likely rejected.
  7. No porn, no sex.
The best way to get a feel for what the judges like to see is to buy one of the anthologies and read it cover to cover. The judges try to pick an even mix of stories: one near-future sci-fi, one off-planet sci-fi, one medieval fantasy, one horror, etc. There is no preference toward male or female protagonists, although sometimes the list of finalists comes out skewed one way or the other.

Honorable Mention
Well over 1000 stories get submitted each quarter. Fewer stories get submitted during the Christmas season, so the odds are a little more in your favor. Everything that gets submitted to the contest goes before a single coordinating judge (currently Dave Wolverton). Stories that don’t make semi-finalist are either rejected, or are awarded honorable mention. Roughly 10% of all submissions make honorable mention.
Here is what honorable mention means:
“Stories that received Honorable Mention status were good enough to merit acknowledgement for being well written. The selected stories for this category did not make the semi-finalist or finalist category. Out of the thousands of stories that get submitted to the contest, a very small percentage make it this far.” – K.D. Wentworth
So getting an HM is a solid indicator that you’re doing well with your writing.

If your story is rejected or if you get an honorable mention, you are welcome to work on your story some more and re-submit it.

All the stories that made this cut go before the full panel of judges. Stories in this category are publishable. Getting semi-finalist is something worth putting on your writer’s resume. These stories receive a special critique from the coordinating judge.

To get past this point, your story has to really stand out from the others.

These stories go before a panel of four finalist judges, who then pick the first, second, and third place winners for the quarter. As a finalist, you also have the option to include your story in the Writers of the Future Anthology.

Counting Crows, a medieval paranormal fantasy that I wrote, which took Honorable Mention in
Life, the Universe, & Everything


  1. Great post! This was one of the panels I really wanted to attend. Since I was sick all week, I desperately needed these notes! I went to last years presentation, which was just Brad Torgersen. But since Dave has been the coordinating judge, I was really interested to hear his points.

    Glad for the comment about word count. I was really worried I had to make a 17,000 word behemoth.

  2. This is definitely one of the more revealing panels I went to.

    David Farland does so much work with aspiring writers. I've seen him work with people from my own writer's group (past and current). I can't think of anyone *more* qualified to be the judge.

  3. Thank you...I'm really young and am going to enter in the WOTF contest, and needed the advice. I really hope to win, even though I'm fairly sure I don't have a chance at honorable mention. Before I submit, I'm having it edited by my English teacher and am reading up as much as I can. Sadly I cannot afford the magazines to study.

  4. There's two things that you *can* do:

    Enter as many contests as you can find. Local contests are really good if you're just starting out. There are also a lot of online contests.

    Get into the local writer's community. You can find writer's guilds, writer's associations, writer's leagues (or any similarly-named group). You'll learn a lot about the craft of writing, and also about how you can make a living as a writer--and they have lots of contests. You can also attend writing conventions (which also hold contests).

    Do a search for these things on the Internet. That's literally how I started.