In early April, I received a last minute invitation to attend the Writers & Illustrators of the Future Awards gala in Los Angeles. I wasn’t previously familiar with the awards, though I would come to learn that I’d been seeing the fruits of this event for decades. The judges and speakers included science fiction and fantasy luminaries, including Larry Niven, Kevin J. Anderson, Rebecca Moesta, Larry Elmore, Dave Dorman, and Orson Scott Card. And marquee’d above it all, the late author and controversial figure, L. Ron Hubbard.
Curiosity piqued, and never one to miss an excuse to go to California, I packed my bags and headed west for an adventure in Los Angeles.
The Writers & Illustrators of the Future Awards
The Writers of the Future Contest was created and endowed by L. Ron Hubbard in 1983 as a means to discover and nurture new talent in Science Fiction. The contest receives thousands of submissions from amateur creators around the world each quarter. The submitted stories are presented, anonymously, to a panel of judges that include some of the great luminaries in science fiction and fantasy. Art pieces by illustrator entrants are similarly judged by powerhouse professionals working in the field. Each quarter, the judges choose three winners. All of the quarterly winners are invited to attend an intensive, five-day master-class workshop where they are taught the skills and techniques to become true professionals, mentored by legends in their respective fields.
The Award Show – A Red Carpet Hollywood Event
The 31st Annual L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers & Illustrators of the Future Awards were held on Sunday, April 12th at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre. Just a few blocks from L.A.’s trendy Koreatown, the Ebell Theatre stands tall over the surrounding neighborhood, a beautiful edifice with an interior courtyard, lavish ballrooms and, of course, large and impressive auditorium.
A red carpet reception area greeted guests at the rear of the theatre. A swarm of press and photographers chronicled a long string of celebrated authors in tuxedos, sort-of recognizable Hollywood producer types in neatly tailored suits and expensive-looking dresses, and a variety of other well-dressed guests. A few eccentric outfits included top hots, steampunk touches, or blinding sequins. A number of exotic beauties in elaborate gowns proved popular attractions on the carpet. Bright, satin pageant sashes proclaimed them “Miss Something-or-Anothers”. I never got a clear look at the sashes, with the intense California sun reflecting from the shiny material.
A pair of large drones hovered above and around the crowd, each laden with video cameras, capturing aerial views of the assemblage. This seemed wholly apropos for a science fiction and fantasy award show. The buzzing flying machines amused the crowd, many pointing and laughing at the additional spectacle.
Attendees were meticulously checked against a registry, and provided with a small, tasteful gold pin of a feathered quill pen. Attached to lapels or dresses, the pin acted as ticket and proof of entry. We were warned not to remove or lose them, as anyone without a feather would be ejected from the premises. Despite how that sounds, though, all of the award show staff were exceedingly gracious and helpful. From security to press coordinators to show organizers, everyone I spoke to proved pleasant and inviting.
Impressive Pageantry, in the Shadow of its Founder
Once inside the theatre proper, I was immediately impressed by the Hollywood scale of the show. An enormous, two-story tall centerpiece dominated the stage, emblazoned with the event logo. A gorgeously illustrated science fiction background wrapped behind, a three-dimensional cityscape washed in vivid blue and orange. I found myself wishing that backdrop could be used again at Comic-Con or some similar event, being too beautiful to only be seen in person by a single audience.
I had known going in that the event was founded by L. Ron Hubbard and endowed by his company, Author Services. I was surprised, though, to see his name massively displayed on the centerpiece in lavish font, above the much smaller and restrained “Writers & Illustrators of the Future” text. I would find it equally disconcerting that, through much of the show, a large photo portrait of Hubbard hung above stage left. The portrait would raise up out of view during particular segments, only to descend again whenever anyone spoke. The result, perhaps intended, was the ever present reminder of Hubbard’s influence, but it distracted from the presence of the speakers at the podium. To the followers and admirers of Hubbard, it might have felt appropriate and respectful. To the outsider, it felt ostentatious and worshipful.
The Future will be Televised (Online)
The awards were simulcasted online with the full television treatment. Huge cameras stationed around the venue captured the proceedings from every angle. My companion and I sat near the rear of the auditorium, just under the balcony, with our compatriots from the online press. We shared our row with a revolving handful of “seat-fillers” – attractive but non-distracting men and women who filled any spot vacated by a speaker, award winner, or someone exiting for the restrooms. This prevents the cameras from capturing empty seats in the crowd during audience shots, and is common practice for award shows. Coordinators with headsets floated up and down the outermost aisles, calmly directing seat-fillers and cameras.
A pair of talented (but stylistically mismatched) vocalists opened the awards with a live musical number that seemed written specifically for the show. A CGI-heavy intro video followed, taking us on an impressive journey through the history of writing and storytelling, displayed on a pair of huge screens at either side of the stage.
Writers of the Future Speakers
Gunhild Jacobs – executive director of Author Services, Inc. – played the role of emcee for the awards. Jacobs, a lovely, elegant woman in a dark, sparkling dress, spoke with warmth and grace throughout the event. She detailed the contest’s origins and history, and the impact it has had on the lives of its winners.
Author Orson Scott Card presented the Lifetime Achievement Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Arts to TOR Publishing owner/founder Tom Doherty. TOR, and its various imprints and offshoots, is one of the most successful and influential publishers in fantasy/sci-fi. Doherty’s work has given so much to the world and creators of genre fiction. His acceptance speech was simple and moving, filled with love for his family and gratitude to the community he has spent his life nurturing. I’ll add, too, that Card – notable in the media recently for his polarizing politics – is an excellent speaker, full of humor and wit. The harsh attitudes that proved problematic during promotion of the movie adaption of his Ender’s Game story were never on display here.
William Pomerantz’s keynote speech was a definite highlight of the award show. Pomerantz is vice present of special projects at Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s effort to create the world’s first commercial spaceline. A passionate, articulate and highly entertaining speaker, Pomerantz talked about science fiction’s influence on his own career, and how the ideas in fiction have paved the way to science reality. Pomerantz’s enthusiasm was matched by his nerd-cred, sprinkling geeky references throughout his speech. At one point, he dropped the famous Battlestar Gallactica call-and-response “So say we all”, resulting in half the audience responding in kind while the other sat looking baffled. (I shared Pomerantz’s amused disappointment in the crowd response.) From all of the three hour event, his speech is the greatest takeaway, and is well worth watching in the video from the awards.
From there on out, the show dedicated itself to delivering awards and giving the spotlight to each of the winning writers and illustrators.
The Writers & Illustrators of the Future Winners
It’s important to note, here, that with the exception of two grand-prize style awards at the end of the show, none of the winners are a surprise. Twelve writers and twelve artists were selected throughout the previous year to be honored at the 31st annual awards.
Beyond the fancy statue, the cash prize, the recognition in front of their peers, though, the winners of WOTF receive a week-long workshop in L.A. before the event. Almost like a summer camp for writers and illustrators, the winners are flown in from around the globe for an intensive five days working with famed and influential masters of the craft. This world-class level mentoring, their talents being guided and nurtured by renowned professionals, is perhaps the greatest gift of the awards. To spend a week with talented peers, pushing each other to new artistic heights – this is exciting stuff that I don’t believe any other contest offers. All of the winners seemed humbled yet emboldened by the experience. I also spoke to past winners who confirmed that their WOTF sessions had accelerated their abilities and careers.
The Writers of the Future Award winners included: Michael T. Banker, Krystal Claxton, Daniel J. Davis, Kary English, Auston Habershaw, Amy M. Hughes, Sharon Joss, Samantha Murray, Tim Napper, Steve Pantazis, Scott R. Parkin, and Martin L. Shoemaker.
The Illustrators of the Future Awards went to: Alex Brock, Amit Dutta, Megan Kelchner, Tung Chi Lee, Shuangjian Liu, Michelle Lockamy, Megen Nelson, Taylor Payton, Quinlan Septer, Emily Siu, Daniel Tyka, and Choong Yoon.
While the rest of the winners were previously unpublished, not-yet-professionals, the awards also honored one published finalist, Zach Chapman.
Each winner received their award – an elongated glass pyramid with a golden quill floating inside – from an esteemed judge and mentor. Predictably, the writers made for more eloquent speakers than the artists, with wise words and exuberant affirmations for creators of all kinds. The artists were a shyer lot, several of them struggling with public-speaking in a secondary language, but all spoke sincerely about being relentless in pursuit of your art. Of all the winners, I was most taken with the deliberate, incisive words of author Scott R. Parkin, and the playful thoughtfulness of illustrator Amit Dutta.
An odd yet entertaining addition to the ceremonies were three interpretive dance sequences, inspired by stories from the award winners. These performances came unannounced before those authors took the stage. All three sequences were deftly executed, though the third – featuring two dancers suspended in air from long crimson curtains – was most spectacular. Though initially jarring, these sequences provided a pleasant artistic diversion from the talk-heavy ceremony.
At the end of the event, two additional awards were handed out – essentially best-in-show grand prizes. The Golden Pen award, the envelope delivered by tiny hot air balloon, was presented to author Sharon Joss. The envelope for the Golden Brush winner appeared via our friend the flying drone, and was presented to artist Michelle Lockamy.
The WOTF Awards Afterparty
With the awards concluded, the audience and winners were released to a reception in the attached ballrooms. One room featured impressive display tables selling the most tangible product of the awards, the Writer’s of the Future Volume 31 anthology. This huge trade paperback collects short stories from all of the winning writers, with accompanying illustrations from the artist winners. Also included are bonus stories from Larry Niven, Kevin J. Anderson, Rebecca Moesta, and Hubbard. The cover, twin to the stunning award show backdrop art, was produced by Bob Eggleton.
In the main banquet room, the winning authors sat inside a circle of tables, greeting attendees and signing the first copies of the anthology. The winning illustrators took up places around the room next to presentations of their artwork. The lines for autographs stayed busy for well over an hour after the awards.
I received a copy of the anthology for attending as press. It’s a spectacular collection of talent and powerful storytelling. And, holding it for the first time, I realized that I’d been seeing these volumes for much of my sci-fi fandom life. I love short story anthologies, and had seen previous year’s editions on store shelves and in libraries. I may have read one as a teen. But, because I’ve never had any particular affinity for Hubbard’s work, I had passed over most of them. I had no idea they were attached to a contest, particularly one with such a powerful pedigree.
The afterparty was a bit chaotic, with sales and autographing dominating the proceedings, but I had nice chats with several past WOTF winners. They all talked about how the trajectory of their careers immediately changed after winning WOTF and working with its mentors. They were also all a bit bewildered yet pleased to be pulled out of their writerly isolation again to hobnob in black-tie.
I also had a chance to speak with sci-fi legend Larry Niven, someone whose classic work was important to me in my early forays into genre fiction. Just being in a room with so many notable talents was a bit overwhelming for someone who grew up on a steady diet of fantasy and science fiction, these architects of my early imagination.
All told, the 31st annual Writers & Illustrators of the Future gala was tremendous fun. To have such a remarkably produced and prestigious event be devoted to the kind of artists that are rarely visible outside of a name on a page was quite thrilling. It would be easy, particularly from the media’s angle, to obsess over the Hubbard connection and its perceived implications. But that would be dismissive of the prodigious talent of the winners, justifiably honored and elevated by the awards. As a fan of the genres, it’s refreshing to see these creators and their works taken seriously, supported and lauded. As a celebration of the creativity and power of science fiction and fantasy, it is unique and enthralling pageantry.
The WOTF Contest for Writers and Illustrators
If you are a writer or artist working on your craft in sci-fi/fantasy, it’s well worth your time to explore the WOTF contest. Entry is free, you retain all rights to your works, and new winners are chosen every three months. Prizes range from $500 to $5,000 dollars. The benefits go far beyond the dollars, as mentioned above. As a creator, contests are an excellent to motivate yourself to put out new, better work, with hard deadlines and potential for useful feedback. Find out more about the writer’s contest here, and the illustrator’s contest here.
Many thanks to Alexi Vandenberg of Rabid Fanboy Marketing for inviting Nerd For A Living to this event.