Matt Dovey, winner of the Golden Pen Grand Prize for Writers of the Future 32, shares, in this two-part series, his experiences leading up to and winning the coveted prize. Part I Chronicles the journey to and through Day 2 of the week-long extravaganza and author VIP bliss.
Amongst aspiring writers, Writers of the Future is a subject of awe and obsession. The prize package is enough to take your breath away: a $1000 top prize given out every quarter, with a $5000 annual grand prize; published in a gorgeous anthology; a trophy heavy enough to break your toes; and, best of all, a week-long writing workshop in LA with some of genre’s greatest luminaries, all paid for by the publisher, Author Services.
You can understand why people spend 25 years entering to try and win.
The Journey to WotF
I wasn’t at it for quite that long–this was my 6th entry over two years–but I had certainly gotten to the point where I wasn’t seriously submitting anywhere but Writers of the Future, because I didn’t want to “pro out”–because the contest is expressly for new writers, too many publications invalidates you.
I’d started writing my winning story, Squalor & Sympathy, around December 2014. It took a few months to write and revise, mostly needing work around how well I was explaining the magic system. I finally submitted it in June 2015, for Quarter 3 of that year.
In September, I had an email telling me I was one of eight finalists for the quarter, and the story was now with the judges.
Three weeks later, at the start of October, I was woken up at 10:30pm by Joni calling from LA (8 hours behind me), telling me I’d not only won but I’d come first. I was going to LA. I was in the anthology. I’d be competing for the Golden Pen, the grand annual prize.
It took a long time to get back to sleep that night.
The Journey to LA
As an international winner, my week started a day earlier than everyone else’s. On a Sunday morning, 7:30, I kissed my wife and children goodbye, drove the three hours down to Heathrow, had my humanity thoroughly crushed by the departures lounge for another three hours, and eventually flew out for a leg-squashing ten hour flight (economy class is no fun at 6’4″). I was in LAX by sunset, 19 hours after I’d left home, being collected by my driver Mitch.
Joni Labaqui (the contest director) was waiting to meet me in the hotel lobby–thankfully without the photographer, as I was exhausted and scruffy after all that travel–and she got me checked in and ran me through the week’s program.
I didn’t want to go to bed too early, as I needed to get on timezone fast, so I went for a swim in the hotel pool. Outside on the 5th floor and in sight of the famous Hollywood sign, floating in the pool as darkness fell over the warm LA evening and helicopters buzzed overhead, ready for a week I’d been dreaming about since I started writing… it was, to that point, the most surreal moment of my life.
It was going to be topped. Repeatedly.
Day 0: Arrivals & Introductions
One of the other winners, Rachael K. Jones, was in town with her husband to visit friends, so they swung by at half past ten the next morning and we undertook a pilgrimage to the La Brea tar pits nearby. If you’re ever about, it’s well worth going, for two reasons above all: firstly, the gut-level, instinctive fear you get standing between a mammoth’s tusks, looking up at its enormous skeleton; secondly, the wall of four hundred dire wolf skulls. Everyone’s got to have a hobby, right?
Everyone else trickled in through the day, and with nothing else to do I hung around the lobby with Joni to meet everyone as they arrived. Jimmy the photographer had me re-stage my arrival with an empty suitcase, resulting in the ridiculous photo here.
That evening, we all gathered in the hotel suite to be formally introduced to the instructors, Dave Farland & Tim Powers, and given our workshop materials for the week. We were given our first homework of the week, three short articles to read for the morning.
It turns out that no matter how short the article–and we’re only talking four pages here–you really can’t get your homework done at the bar. This was a lesson I refused to learn throughout the week.
Day 1: The Workshop
The schedule for the first day was pretty straightforward: 9 hours of Dave Farland and Tim Powers unloading wisdom unto our eager ears.
I made copious notes, but even so I spent a good half of the time just listening in awe.
They’re both very entertaining, very knowledgeable, and very personable. The atmosphere in the workshop is relaxed, but even so, I was exhausted at the end of it–there was just so much to take in.
During the day, Tim gave us our story prompt object for the 24 hour story we’d have to write. Speaking of which…
Day 2: The 24 hour challenge
The 24 hour story is the most infamous part of the week. The very idea of it–a whole story in only 24 hours!–instills fear in all who aspire to WotF.
Honestly: it’s not that bad.
We were given our object during day 1.
That gave us a whole extra day to think about story ideas and plots, especially having had so much instruction on plot structures and try/fail cycles and how to generate story ideas.
On day 2, after some further morning instruction, we were taken to a small public library nearby to do some research, by which point most of us had an idea what we were going to write and what we wanted to research (I went to look up ancient Persia, for example, for setting details). On the way back to Author Services we had to interview a stranger–just a natural conversation, not steered towards any topic–to see if we could get anything we could use.
Our task this year was made much easier by American Idol being in town; they’d set up an area near our hotel for interviewing past contestants, which drew a crowd and gave us a captive audience to talk to instead of having to stop strangers on the Boulevard (as every hawker was already trying to do). I went with the tactic of “befuddled Brit” and pretended to know nothing about American Idol, as a way of striking up a conversation with a couple in their 50s. I didn’t get anything useful for my secondary world fantasy, but I did learn something surprisingly personal and heart-breaking that I know will find its way into my work at some point.
At 4pm, we were set free and told to be back this time tomorrow with our stories written. One whole story in 24 hours.
Terrifying, right? But I normally only get a couple of hours an evening to write, once the children are in bed, so even allowing for 8 hours sleep, I had 16 hours–over a week’s worth of writing time. I’d already had 24 hours to plan my story. It was fine.
I can’t pretend it all went smoothly, mind you. I went to bed that night crushed by doubt and with only 1600 words I didn’t believe in. But when I woke up the next morning, I realized how to fix my magic system and how to lend a sense of urgency to proceedings, and headed up to the hotel mezzanine to work with my comrades in arms. Getting to write with other writers was a rare and wonderful treat, and one of my favourite parts of the week.
– Matt Dovey
Continued . . . . in Part II
[Part II of Living the Dream: Writers of the Future will be published on Friday May 20th]
Matt Dovey, a writer of science-fiction and fantasy, is very tall and very English, and is most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife & three children. Matt is the Golden Pen winner for WotF32 and has also been shortlisted for the James White Award 2016.
For more information on the contest, and how to enter for free, please visit http://www.writersofthefuture.com/