When people ask me why I became a judge for the “Writers of the Future” contest, I tell them that it was AJ Budrys’s fault. Until AJ worked his will on me, I was making it a point to stay as far as I could from Dianetics and Scientology and all the other weird things that my hero and mentor John Campbell had chosen to believe in. (Hieronymus Machine, Dean Drive, et many a c.)
It wasn’t simply that I didn’t believe in Scientology as a religion. I didn’t, but then I don’t believe in your religion, either, whatever it happens to be, because I don’t “believe” in anything that has to be taken on faith. People who take faith-based actions have caused many, probably most, of the world’s messiest disasters, from our present economic catastrophe to most, maybe all, wars.
So when AJ phoned me one morning to invite me to become a judge in the new “Writers of the Future” contest sponsored in L. Ron Hubbard’s name by the Scientologists, I didn’t let him tell me how nicely they would treat me and what a wonderful deal it would be for struggling writers. I just said no and declined to discuss it.
That’s where it stood for a few months, until AJ got back on the phone. He reminded me that when I turned him down, he had recruited Theodore Sturgeon to take my place as a judge, and then sorrowfully let me know that it wasn’t working out. Ted’s health had begun to fail. He was now hospitalized, at death’s door and with no hope of recovery — or of managing to read the dozen manuscripts that were sitting by his hospital bed, written by the first group of contestants, who had already been waiting far longer than was fair. So would I please, just this once —?
How could I refuse? I couldn’t. I didn’t. I told AJ to ship me the damn manuscripts. When they arrived I put everything else aside to read them — I was working as Bantam’s science-fiction editor in those years, plus writing my own books, and so without a lot of spare time on my hands. Then I read parts of the stories again. Then I emailed my votes to Author Services, which is the action wing of “Writers of the Future,” and then I went back to my life, feeling pleased with myself for having given a friend a helping hand in an hour of need. And then — Well, then things changed.
When people ask me how I wound up as an almost 30-year veteran as a Woffie judge I usually give them the short version: “I signed on to do them a favor, and then I just forgot to quit.” But it is a little more complicated than that.
My basic feelings hadn’t changed, pro and con. Let me give you the major arguments, as the debate had gone on in my head: To begin with, there are some pretty unpleasant things that have been said about pernicious practices of Scientology, and I believe that at least some of them are true. On the other hand, they’re not the only religion that has done lousy things, and at least I’ve never heard it said that Scientologists have murdered anyone. (That’s more than I can say for most of the major religions I know of.)
Looking at the other side of the argument, the pro-Scientology one, religions over the years in general seem to have given comfort to many people. That arguably is not necessarily a good thing, because the comfort of religion has frequently been employed to make people, usually poor people, accept manifestly unfair treatment without resistance, on the grounds that accepting evil in this life will buy them an eternity in heaven. (That’s what Karl Marx was talking about when he said that religion was the opium of the people.) On the other hand; most lives are marked with serious sorrows of one kind or another, and it does appear that religion can make these burdens perhaps a little easier to bear.
I have to say that I deem that to be a powerful argument, maybe the only meaningful one, for putting up with the problems religious beliefs cause. There is not so much comfort to be found in this world that I want to take any of it away from anyone who has found some.
And, anyway, the specific matter we were discussing — the “Writers of the Future” contest — is by and large a good thing for writers, who need all the help in getting started that they can get. And the Woffies have been kind to me, kind enough to spare me most of the Hubbard idolatry that does creep into some of their activities as well as kind in many creature-comfort ways. So I have stayed.
Oh, not without occasional qualms.
I said that the contest is a good thing for writers, which it is, but even good things may have some flaws. There’s more of the idolatry in the annual awards ceremony than there used to be. Ron’s name is everywhere, the giant photos of him stare down from the stage and, perhaps most of all, there is the way almost every winner prefaces his remarks with thanks to Ron for making the whole thing possible. All of that is the unarguable right of the organizers, of course, since they pay the piper, but it strikes me as annoyingly heavy-handed.
Nevertheless, when unpublished writers ask for advice about how to get their careers moving I always advise them to enter their stories in the WotF contest. It’s easy enough to do. You go to a bookstore and ask them for a copy of L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future. Each copy contains an entry blank, with the contest’s address, and a copy of the rules and rewards. (Or you can get them off the web, but it’s a good idea to read some of the winning stories.) Type out a nice clean copy of your best story and send it in to that address. Three months later, do the same with your second best story. Three months after that, your third best, and you keep on doing that every three months until you run out of stories. (Which actually you should never do. You’re still writing, aren’t you?)
The reason for doing it that way is that the contest is organized on a quarterly basis. Every three months, the staff gathers up all the stories that have accumulated in that period, makes copies for each quarterly judge and ships them out. When the judges have finished their deliberations, the winner gets $1,000, with lesser amounts for second and third place. Then, when the fourth quarter has been dealt with, the four quarterly winners go to a different set of judges, who pick the grand winner, who gets another $4,000, to make the total an even Five Large. (An amount which seemed a lot more impressive twenty-odd years ago than it does now, but, hey, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth having.)
The thing to remember is that each quarterly batch is separate. One batch may be twice as good as the next. Or, through the luck of the draw, may just have more or fewer good stories. Or — a bad deal for you, as I know because it has happened to me in other awards — there can chance to be two or more stories in the same batch, each of which is really good and would be an easy winner, if only the other or others had been in different batches. That would be tough luck. But it’s a problem you can’t prevent, so that’s why you try to be in as many quarterly batches as possible.
Okay, suppose you do win, what then?
Then Author Services flies you to wherever the awards are to be given out that year, usually around Hollywood. (But now and then at a more interesting venue. Some past ceremonies have been at the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle, at the Houston Space Center and at the United Nations in New York.) There they will put you up in a nice hotel and provide you with three decent squares while you’re there. And there will be at least two events going on. The big one is the actual awards ceremony where, unless you are lucky enough to be female, you will be asked to wear a tux. There you will get up on the stage to accept your award and say thank you, and then you socialize with a bunch of other winners, some other writers and a collection of more or less celebrities at a subsequent buffet. (Nice food, by the way.)
The other main program item during your stay is a kind of post-graduate writing class. I can’t tell you as much about this event as I might like to, partly because I am not entirely in sympathy with it, and thus haven’t agreed to be one of its teachers for a good many years. (I do usually show up for a spot of Q&A with the students sometime during the week.) That doesn’t mean that I think you should try to skip it. I don’t think that. Parts of what they do involve some ingenious teaching methods that I think would benefit any writer. Other parts, maybe not, because they are also too heavily imprinted with Ron, including some of Ron’s own words on the subject of how to write.
The trouble there is that most of those are brief bits taken from three-quarters-of-a-century-old issues of Writers Digest. They are jokey, polemical, sometimes acid, and they don’t read to me like something that Ron intended to make writing easier for his less successful colleagues. They read like something Ron wrote on a day when he’d just finished three short detective stories and a novella about this grizzled old prospector and his ancient pack mule, and it was still too early to meet his dinner date so why not use the time to write a quickie for an extra $25 from the Digest?
I could be wrong, of course. But I don’t think so.
Author Services has also reprinted quite a chunk of Ron’s actual 70-some-years-old fiction which, I believe, the students are encouraged to read and learn from. Read them, sure, if you like. But I wouldn’t think you want to use any of them as models for your own work. There’s not much market for 1930s-vintage pulp in this part of the 21st century. That is, there isn’t unless — sometimes — it happens to be written by L. Ron himself.
Let me try to explain what I mean by that. Nearly thirty years ago a book called Battlefield Earth appeared under Ron’s byline. My copy reached me around dinnertime on a day when I had just finished packing for a next-day flight to Europe. It was a thick book, science fiction, written in Ron’s familiar, over-the-top, buckeye satirical style. Having finished eating and all the domestic business of putting the kids to bed and so on, I remembered the book and carried it up to my office on the third floor, meaning to look it over when I got back from wherever it was I was going that time.
But I glanced at the opening pages before I put it on the when-I-get-a-free-minute shelf. And then I read the next page or two.
And then the next.
Battlefield Earth is a long book, but I didn’t put it down to get some sleep. I read straight through that night, didn’t close the book until the sun was high in the sky and I just had time to get dressed and get to the Red Bank airport, where a puddle-jumper flight would take me to connect with TWA’s morning flight to Heathrow.
Now, I can’t account for this. I’ve read a lot of really great books in my life, but very few of them have kept me up all night when I was going to have to travel several thousand miles before I would be in the same room as a bed again.
I’m not even comfortable in saying that Battlefield Earth is a good book. In many ways it isn’t. In some qualities, like style and plausibility and depth of characterization, you’d have to say that Ron had a tin ear, but it sold a lot of copies and they weren’t all to devout Scientologists.
Is a puzzlement. Especially when you consider that Ron’s success with Battlefield Earth inspired him to sit down and write the longest science-fiction novel in history, and one of the worst, the disastrous ten-volume Mission Earth. That one didn’t keep me up all night to read. I couldn’t finish even a single volume.
So what made the difference?
I don’t know. There are some who allege that Ron didn’t write, or at least didn’t write all of, either work. That’s possible; I don’t know about either of those questions.
Personally, I don’t think we need to find explanations for any writer’s uneven quality. It could just be that some days he just had ideas that he was better equipped to handle than others, and I could point to F. Scott Fitzgerald as another writer of whom that could be said. Ron made his reputation with a bunch of rather short sf and fantasy novels around 1940, but they’re not all even in quality, either.
By the way, collectively the winners of Woffie awards have compiled an impressive record of sales to regular markets after they had won their contests. So whatever they were taught doesn’t seem at least to have done them any harm. Few of them are writing anything that resembles any of Hubbard’s work, either, though, so perhaps I don’t need to warn winners to be careful of what they read.