HERE BE DRAGONS – How one man charted his path to success through L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest
When you look at the tattered edges of old nautical charts, often you’ll find a wicked sea serpent threading through the water. There is even a medieval globe with the inscription: HERE BE DRAGONS. It probably didn’t mean the explorers had run across dragons (although I’d like to think so); it meant they hadn’t explored that location and if you decided to travel there, you would do so at your own risk. You were navigating uncharted waters.
Much of writing is exactly that. No two writers’ journeys are the same because we all have unique circumstances and we are all singularly unique individuals. You can read and study what others did to find their course across the vast oceans of writing and publishing, but in the end, you have to chart your own path, catch the wind in your sails, put your hand to the tiller, and guide your ship to the destination that’s right for you. It’s your journey. You haven’t traversed these waters before. There will be perils. There will be dragons. But if you hold fast and fight to the last, there can also be rich rewards.
A 40-YEAR TALE
My journey to the stage of Writers of the Future has been a 40-year tale. It began at 15 when I submitted a science fiction story and won the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards—the same contest that first discovered Stephen King, Peter S. Beagle, Joyce Carol Oates, and a host of iconic names in the Arts. It became my first professional sale when it sold to Science World. With over thirty first place awards that followed in speech and writing events by the time I was 18, one would have thought smooth sailing to a professional writing career was just ahead. But my story has had several false denouements, thinking I had made safe harbor, at last, only to be sucked into a whirlpool filled with sea serpents slapping their scaly carcasses across my deck, snapping toothy jaws at my jugular. It’s a tale of triumph and woe where THINGS GET WORSE and had I told it to you, you might have even shed a tear … until you realized that no one becomes a professional writer without facing down at least a few dragons of their own.
My dragons were the usual: abandoned by my mother; a runaway escaping a violent father; living with uncaring foster parents; taking foolish risks with drugs because I didn’t care if I lived or died; waking up in a hospital and realizing the next time I might not; building a successful business only to be sued by an SEC receiver for a massive sum I had never earned; winning that seven-year court battle in spite of the receiver seizing every penny we had; and just when the court said no harm no foul and handed us our life back, the recession took our new business, the bank took our home, and cancer took my wife’s health. You know. Dragons.
And then I had an epiphany, as characters often do in the depths of their Dark Night. I had just brought my wife back from the hospital after two cancer surgeries and a second nuclear treatment—in fact, she was still radioactive, and I couldn’t be within ten feet of her. I realized then that I would never be one of those people that achieve that peachy life where health stabilized and finances secured and I could block out the time necessary to become a full-time professional writer. I decided then—against all the foreseen clinic visits and scans and therapy for my wife—that I would find a realistic goal for my writing that I could achieve within my circumstances.
I plotted a fresh course. What would be a reachable destination? I had never lost sight of the fact that winning Writers of the Future had launched many SF writers’ careers—people I knew personally like Dean Wesley Smith and Kris Rusch and Nina Kiriki Hoffman. I had entered the contest for over twenty years at this point when I had my epiphany. I had earned many Writers of the Future certificates—from honorable mentions to semifinalists—all the way back to the first coordinating judge, Algis Budrys. I had also won some major international contests and had achieved a second pro sale to Star Trek: Strange New Worlds 2, published by Pocket Books. And I had garnered innumerable personal rejections by the top editors in speculative fiction. I had earned enough positive proofs to know that if I intensely focused even my limited energy and free time on one specific goal, I had the potential to make something great happen. So I chose to focus all my energy on winning Writers of the Future by entering every single quarter, come what may.
CHARTING A COURSE TO WIN WRITERS OF THE FUTURE
Charting that one simple course was the key to changing everything for me. One story, written every quarter, submitted to the contest before midnight on closing day. Meeting that personal commitment in spite of the trials sweeping through our life taught me dedication to a specific task and how to meet deadlines. And in meeting each deadline, I wrote a lot more. I modified my goal to push my abilities to the limit by writing fresh stories outside my comfort zone. The writing came easier, because I was regularly exercising my writing abilities, and I was riding the edge of my imagination. I discovered I could write faster and better than I had ever believed possible. In short, dedicating myself to never let a Writers of the Future quarter go by without submitting a fresh story pushed me to generate the skills necessary to become a professional writer.
Of the fifteen quarters I entered after making that decision, I received honors from the coordinating judge, David Farland, fourteen times—the last being my finalist and second place win in the fourth quarter of Volume 35. But something else happened as my skills grew. I hit a definitive breakout moment.
What’s a breakout moment? In sailing, there is a directional wheel diagram called Point of Sail. It marks out a vessel’s direction of travel under sail in relation to the true wind direction over the surface of the water. A sailboat cannot sail directly into the wind. But there is a point in sail position called close-hauled, where a vessel is as close to the wind’s direction as it can go without losing power. You get to that point by adjusting the sail to the proper angle relative to the direction of oncoming wind and trimming it so the surface is taut, generating maximum lift on the sail. It takes a lot of practice, but you know it when you hit the perfect mark—the sail quits luffing and goes drumhead tight and the sailboat leans with power, gliding like a bird across the water. It’s a rush to go from being in irons—stalled on the water—into close-hauled tack.
A breakout moment in writing is much the same. Writers know when they hit it. You’ve probably experienced it yourself or watched it happen to a friend. For ages, nothing seems to be selling for them, and suddenly, everything is, to solid, career-building markets. Be happy for them. They worked long and hard to get that moment to occur.
My breakout moment happened last November. In the space of two weeks, the wind rushed my writing vessel, I heard that pop as the sail went taut, and my writing career moved into close-hauled trim. I had just had my story “War Dog” published by a pro-paying anthology, and they hired me to narrate it (it went on to win Critters Readers’ Choice Award for Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Story of 2018). Two days later, editor Alex Shvartsman hired me to be podcast director for a new pro-science fiction magazine called Future Science Fiction Digest, and the first story I narrated also became a Nebula nominee. Three days later, I got the call I had won a full scholarship to the Superstars Writing Seminar—one of the best writing seminars in the country. Two days after that, I got the call from Joni Labaqui I was a finalist in Writers of the Future 4th Quarter, and a week later she called again with her famous line, “Moon, are you sitting down?” I had won second place. ALL of this happened within exactly two weeks. As I posted the news to my social media, someone joked that I was an overnight success, because that’s what a breakout moment looks like. I responded, “Yeah, I’m an overnight success, forty years in the making.”
WINNING WRITERS OF THE FUTURE
In April 2019, I attended THE best workshop for new speculative fiction writers in the country, conducted by David Farland, Orson Scott Card, and Tim Powers—each writing heroes of mine, each authors of many books on my bookshelves. And I saw the release of Writers of the Future Vol. 35 on the Hollywood stage and was honored to have my award handed to me by Dr. Gregory Benford. But most importantly, I got to speak my heart about my journey, how I had been entering the contest for 25 years, how much I loved the contest, and how I had written a story in 36 hours in a desperate hail Mary at the very end of the contest year and had won. It was a euphoric moment as the crowds cheered to my tale.
And after that whirlwind, you go home. Perhaps this is the most dangerous moment for an up-and-coming writer after sailing at peak potential, close-hauled, soaring under best of trim. You go to a few signings at famous bookstores when you get back and then, no more wind. No cheering crowds. No fans asking for your autograph. If you’re not careful, the wind could entirely spill from your sails. You could lose all momentum. You could enter that dreaded point of sail called the no-go zone. But the old sailors called it something else: in irons, shackled in place. Bad things happen to captains when they lose the wind and their sails luff and the ship enters the dreaded doldrums. When you’re dead in the water, dragons can come, and they can be the worst of dragons: fear, self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy.
Well, I worked mighty hard to get to this particular point on the map, and I’m determined not to let that happen. A good sailor doesn’t let the wind slip from his vessel’s sails. Momentum is a powerful thing and hard-won. For instance, the day I had to drive to Seattle to catch my plane for the Writers of the Future workshop, I told myself I couldn’t leave until I finished suggested edits on a story I had gotten back from the editor of Deep Magic magazine. I got to my hotel way too late that night, but I had met my deadline. My reward? When I came home, I had a contract waiting for me, and my historical fantasy about a Spanish captain will appear in Deep Magic this Fall.
I then read our Writers of the Future anthology from cover to cover. I found brilliant advice from Mike Resnick, directing us to sell the reprint on our stories, especially to foreign markets. I had never thought about this before—when you’re a new writer, you don’t have a lot of published stories to even consider such things. But I knew Future Science Fiction Digest gets many of their stories reprinted for a huge audience in China, and they happened to be calling for stories to commemorate the Moon landing. I had a Moon story! I queried the editor, got his approval to send him “Super-Duper Moongirl and the Amazing Moon Dawdler,” and he sent me a contract. The reprint now appears in Future Science Fiction Digest, Issue 3. I was also commissioned to create the podcast.
SINCE WINNING WRITERS OF THE FUTURE
Other good things have happened as well. The funniest? Walking into the local casino where I dance and hearing the band leader announce across the PA system, “Hey folks, that famous author Wulf Moon is with us tonight. He’s been tearing it up on the writing scene!” And a stranger in the crowd actually got up and shook my hand! I guess I can say I’m “Locally Famous!” I also sent a letter to Donald Maass of the Donald Maass Literary Agency to give him a progress update on my novel. Don represented me long ago on a Star Trek novel that didn’t sell, alas. And then, all those dragons swamped my ship. I went to the Superstars Seminar primarily to renew my friendship with Don. We had lunch together, and he asked about my current work-in-progress. As I detailed the world his eyes lit up. He said in all his years, he had never heard of anything like it, and he said to send it to him, to send him anything I’m working on, in any stage of development. I’m really happy he’s so interested, as being a mainstream published novelist has been my ultimate goal. Now, Don knows I won another international writing contest, that I’m published in a #1 bestselling anthology, and he has a sample of my latest work.
So I’m using the gust of wind the good people at Writers of the Future have filled my sails with, but I’m sharing that power with others as well. I post tips on how to win the contest on the Writers of the Future Forum. My “Moon’s SUPER SECRET Bonus Challenge” topic has over 30,000 views. Many have told me the encouragement shared has helped them to start writing and submitting again. Two that accepted my challenge made Finalist, and several have said their recent honors were because of the help and tips I’m sharing. They did the work—all I’m doing is encouraging them to set the same goals that I did that finally got me my win. And I’ve just enjoyed a fresh honor from Author Services—president John Goodwin invited me to be a moderator in the Writers of the Future Forum.
AND NOW ITS MY TURN TO START PAYING IT FORWARD
Navigating your own uncharted waters toward the new world of professional writing will be one of the most challenging ventures you’ll ever engage in, but it’s worth every effort. I hope you’ll listen to my Writers of the Future Podcast interview and a video interview I did while in Hollywood, as well as visit my website at www.driftweave.com. I’ve sailed these waters successfully now, and I’m trying to help you navigate toward your own win. Come join us on the Writers of the Future Forum. You won’t find a better place for new writers to get encouragement from seasoned veterans, there to help you to stay the course. And if you keep beating back those dragons that slither across your deck and NEVER let them conquer you, you’re going to become powerful, and you’re going to discover something.
Writers of the Future Podcast—Wulf Moon
Wulf Moon interviewed in Hollywood
You are now stronger than they are. You transformed. When you unroll that nautical chart, you’re going to be right over that serpent mark, and you’re going to look about, and there’s going to be no one there but you.
Because … HERE BE DRAGON!
All the beast!
Wulf Moon is an Olympic Peninsula writer, artist, and narrator. Moon wrote his first hard SF story when he was fifteen. It won the national Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. It became his first pro sale in Science World.
His story “Seventh Heaven” was published by Pocket Books in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds II. A Borg love story. What could be sweeter?
His conquistador fantasy story, “War Dog,” was published by Third Flatiron. It won the Critters Annual Readers’ Poll award for Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Story of 2018.
Moon recently won the international Writers of the Future Contest. His story “Super-Duper Moongirl and the Amazing Moon Dawdler” first appeared in Writers of the Future, Volume 35, and was reprinted in Future Science Fiction Digest, Issue 3.
Moon is an approved narrator for Apex Publications, PodCastle, and Escape Pod, and has narrated numerous episodes for Gallery of Curiosities and Third Flatiron. He is podcast director for Future Science Fiction Digest. Enjoy more of his work by visiting www.driftweave.com.
Thank you for sharing your story. You deserve every success you have garnered. Your story reminded me of the sailing song “She Must Be Beautiful” by Janis Ian. “She must be beautiful, so beautiful, to have stolen the wind from my sails.”
Thank you, Candice. Sorry I missed this comment! You’re too kind!