Friday, August 10, 2018

Going Clearwater: The Illusory "Firewall" of the Writers of the Future Contest

There's been a lot of talk on social media recently about the Writers of the Future contest, a long-standing, oft-touted competition for emerging science fiction and fantasy authors.  Specifically, there's been some discussion about problematic aspects of its . . . well, its everything. A bunch of people, including former winners, have been speaking out about these issues. Jim Hines posted a nice roundup with links to many of these comments on his blog, including some angry tweets by Yours Truly. But I have more to say about the contest. Much more than can be covered by 280 characters. Here goes.

In 2016, I won Writers of the Future. At the time, I counted it as one of my proudest moments. A story I'd written, The Sun Falls Apart, took first place in a contest judged by some of the biggest names in the genre. I'm still proud of that part. Unfortunately, that sense of accomplishment was undermined by a negative experience which forced me to confront the actual nature of the contest: Writers of the Future is a Church of Scientology endeavor. I now believe its primary purpose is not to help emerging writers, but to further the aims of the church, primarily by promoting the name of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. I make no judgments on any individual's religious beliefs, but since I won the contest, I have come to believe it exploits writers in pursuit of this goal.

When I first heard of Writers of the Future, I had no idea of its link with Scientology. I only knew it as the contest Patrick Rothfuss won that led to his big break. Then again, I didn't know much about Scientology in general back then. I'd heard it described as a "Hollywood glitz cult, starring Tom Cruise." I hadn't heard of the serious allegations former members of the church had made. I hadn't seen documentaries like Going Clear, My Scientology Movie, or Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath. When I searched for info about Writers of the Future, what I found were statements from judges and former winners firmly extoling the existence of a so-called "Firewall" between the Church of Scientology and the contest.

The Firewall, many claim, exists to prevent the contest from becoming a platform for the church and to ensure there's no proselytizing of winners--though one of the first things you learn when you go asking about the Firewall, is that it seems to mean different things to different people. It's the Firewall that keeps the contest's panel of judges onboard. The judges of this contest include big names in the genre--names like Brandon Sanderson, Orson Scott Card, Robert J. Sawyer, Larry Niven, and many more. Hence, it's the Firewall that ultimately lends the contest legitimacy. In my opinion, the Firewall does not exist. Or at the very least, it doesn't exist for everyone.

It didn't exist for me.

Sit down, friends. I have a story to tell.

Going Clearwater

It's May of 2016.

It's been about a month since I returned home from the Writers of the Future workshop and gala in Los Angeles. I'm still coming down from the overwhelming affair. Still processing the positives, which include meeting a band of wonderful people (including my future fiancée), and the negatives, which include the exhaustion of a week spent almost entirely outside my comfort zone. The come down is a difficult one, not just because of the intensity of the experience, but because in many ways, it hasn't ended yet. The anthology has just launched. Galaxy Press, the publisher, is making a big promotional push to boost sales and make the bestseller lists. For my fellow winners and I, that comes with a great deal of pressure. Pressure to promote, pressure to signal boost on social media, even pressure to fulfill media obligations. I had interviews with radio shows, local newspapers, and more. No other market for short fiction that I'm aware of expects or asks for anything like this.

I should mention, by the way, that winners don't get royalties for anthology sales, so there is no vested interest on our part to perform unpaid promotional services beyond that vaporous perquisite some call "exposure." But part of the experience as a winner includes being made to feel as though you owe Writers of the Future and the people who run it. You're also told this will all be in service of your career somehow (even though most of the "exposure" is aimed squarely at the contest and anthology). For these reasons, at the time, I generally agree when asked to assist in the churning of the Writers of the Future publicity machine.

And so, I'm not that surprised one afternoon when I receive a text message from Kate*, one of the employees of Author Services Inc., the (Church of Scientology-owned) organization that runs the contest. They ask if I'd be willing to take part in an event they describe as a "massive Barnes & Noble book signing" in Clearwater, FL in a few days. The last minute nature of this invitation seems odd, but not out of step with the general disorganization that winners grow used to when dealing with ASI. At first, I turn down this request. At the time, I live in the West Palm Beach area, and I'm not willing to drive across the state on such short notice. They respond by offering to fly me out and put me up in a hotel. At that point, I say, "Sure. Why not?" I mean, it's just Barnes & Noble, right? Book signings are fun.

*Note: Her name wasn't really Kate. I've changed the names of all Scientology/WotF associates in this story, because I don't want to bring the wrath of the CoS down on someone as a result of this blog post, even if that someone was partly responsible for misleading me.

Over the next few days, aside from my flight ticket, I never receive any solid information about the logistics of my travel. They don't tell me where I'm staying, which Barnes & Noble will host the signing, how I'll get from the airport to the hotel, etc. Once more, I chock this up to the general disarray these folks always seem to work under. What I don't know at the time is that Clearwater, FL is home to the Flag Service Organization, which the Church of Scientology refers to as its "spiritual headquarters."

Finally, I get a phone call while sitting in the airport waiting to board my plane. Kate tells me that once I land in Clearwater, "the butler" from the hotel will pick me up. This is the first real moment where alarms start ringing in my head. The hotel has a butler? Who picks people up from the airport?

An awkward pause arises, after which Kate asks, "By the way, have you heard of the Church of Scientology?"

Thus the alarms become klaxons unending. I mumble something like, "Um…yes. Of course. Yes."

"Well, the hotel you'll be staying at is actually part of the Church. Just so you know." 

Just so I know. Just so I know . . . fifteen minutes before I get on the plane.

When this phone call ends, I take a deep breath and ask myself if I'm ready for the rollercoaster ride that seems impending. Multiple red flags just shot up in that single conversation, and now is my last chance to hit the eject button. My plane leaves in a matter of minutes. I've got to make a decision. Quickly.

I do not make a smart one. As the flight attendants call for boarding, I decide to get on the plane. Despite resenting this last-minute revelation, I've already agreed to do the book signing, and part of being a professional means keeping your word. While the prospect of staying at a Church of Scientology hotel is alarming, I don't think it's anything I can't handle. At the very least, I have family in the Clearwater area. If things become too WTFy for me, I can probably call them.

And despite everything . . . at this point, I still somehow believe in the Firewall. The actual winner's workshop a month prior to this had not been universally positive. On the contrary, there were some experiences that left me feeling very uncomfortable: the exhausting schedule, the ever-present photographers and videographers, the aforementioned pressure to promote. And I heard other things from my fellow winners that ranged from just as bad to much worse: Autumn Evelyn (one of the illustrator winners, who is now my fiancée) was pressured into putting on makeup before the gala and interview, despite telling them she didn't want it. Another winner was warned not to get into an elevator with a certain judge known to get "handsy" with women. All these things and more--especially when looked upon with hindsight, set apart from the many positives of the experience (which for me included meeting Autumn)--are huge red flags that I have since warned potential contest entrants about. But one thing that didn't occur during the workshop week, at least to me, was any proselytizing from the Scientologists who run the contest. So yes, at the time, as I'm getting on that plane . . . I still believe in the Firewall.

After landing in Clearwater, "the Butler," a man we'll call Buddy, picks me up as promised. We share a long, awkwardly silent car ride to the Fort Harrison Hotel, where Kate greets me. Almost immediately, I am treated like a celebrity. People open doors for me, people know who I am, and everyone seems very excited to meet me. They also tell me I'll have a "personal attendant" who will shadow me and see to my needs the day of the signing.

At the front desk, they ask me to fill out a strange medical form. It asks for my complete medical history, and when I say complete, I mean complete. One of the questions even asks if I've had a headache. As in . . . ever. When I ask what this is for, they give me some line about not having a doctor at the hotel, so they need this information in case of an emergency. It's late. I'm very tired. And I'm getting a feeling reminiscent of my time at the workshop in L.A.: the sensation that I am strapped to a parachute caught in a whirlwind. I can kind of see where it's pulling me over my shoulder, but not enough to work the steering lines with much accuracy. I fumble through the odd questionnaire, not bothering to be very forthcoming, wondering if I'll be given proper medical treatment if an emergency does occur.

Kate tells me my "attendant" will meet me for lunch at noon tomorrow, then Buddy the Butler leads me to my room. Along the way, I'm told room service will be free of charge during my stay. He also gives me his phone number and tells me to call or text if I need anything. "Anything you want, we'll take care of it." I resist the urge to ask for a pony and a jar of brown M&Ms, for fear my request may be seriously considered.

We enter the room, which appears, at first glance, like what you'd expect from a normal luxury hotel. There's a large bed, a desk, a flat-screen television. It's quite comfy, really. Then Buddy points to the nightstand. Next to the TV remote control sits a small plastic cup filled with clear liquid.

"First thing," Buddy says. "That's not water."

". . ." I say.

"That's a drink people in the church take before bed. It calms the mind and relaxes the muscles. Just so you know."

This is the part where you should picture a close up of my eyes, looking at that cup, with the Kill Bill sirens playing. For this is the point when I realize what the next 24 hours is really going to be like. This little plastic cup is the first gaping wound in the Firewall I'm forced to stare directly at.

Buddy the Butler leaves. I dump the liquid down the drain in the bathroom sink. It smells like vinegar. Next, I open the drawer on the nightstand, knowing full well what I'll find.

Upon closing the drawer, I notice the channel listing for the TV.

I switch the television on. Sure enough, it's tuned to the Scientology Channel, which seems to be a 24-hour church infomercial. It features interviews with Scientologists with inspirational music in the background and cheesily-acted "reenactments" of church members using Scientology techniques to "help people." The same videos repeat over and over.

There is also a lovely basket with fruits and snacks. They are delicious. And wholesome.

The Firewall Asunder

The next day, just before noon, I get a text from Kate telling me the tour will be at two o' clock now. I should get some lunch, she suggests. I do so. Room service is delivered by a young girl, who returns moments later because she forgot to bring utensils. "I'm so sorry," she says. "I forgot your silverware. I'm sorry. I'm so stupid."

"You're not stupid," I say. "It's fine! I hadn't started eating yet. I didn't even notice. You're fine."

She seems relieved.

Two o' clock rolls around, and I get another text asking if I'd rather go to the beach.  I tell Kate the hotel tour is fine. I say this for two reasons. First, I was born and raised in Florida; the beach isn't particularly special for me and genuinely sounds less interesting. I'm not much of a beach-goer. Second, I'm getting the feeling they regret offering me that tour, but they're not willing to say so. And despite everything, I'm still the morbidly curious writer type. Now that I've had some sleep and some food, I feel a bit more mentally equipped to handle any weirdness that comes my way.

I meet Kate outside my room, and they introduce me to my attendant, Tori--who is now being described as my "tour guide." Presumably this is because they realized "personal attendant" makes it sound like I'm a western journalist touring North Korea. Tori, it turns out, is one of the directors at the Flag Service Organization. I am left in her hands.

The tour begins with a rundown of the history of the hotel, which originally opened in 1926. Tori focuses on the Church of Scientology's efforts at restoring and renovating the building after they purchased it in 1975. This part of the tour doesn't take long and remains fairly uneventful. When it concludes, there's still plenty of time left to kill. The book signing isn't scheduled until the evening, and it's early in the afternoon. So at this point, Tori the Tour Guide asks me if I'd be interested in seeing the Flag Building, which is attached to the hotel by a raised walkway on the second floor.

The gears in my mind begin spinning at once. Here I am, an outsider at the spiritual headquarters of the Church of Scientology--a writer no less--and I'm being asked to tour their equivalent of the Vatican by someone who describes themselves as tantamount to a clergy member. The significance of this moment does not escape me. Nor does the fact that whatever was left of the Firewall is now a smoldering pile of ash. Just like that initial moment in the airport, I'm facing an on-the-spot decision that could have real and uncomfortable consequences.

I could say no, of course. The option is there. But it's an easier option to weigh with hindsight, with time to think it through. In that moment, with only a split-second to answer her question, I'm operating more on feeling and instinct than rational thought. I'm alone in this place, I'm overwhelmed by the outright peculiarity of the situation I'm in, and one way or another I'm stuck here for dozens more hours. Tori has been kind to me so far. I can tell she's made an effort to be friendly and put me at ease. I don't want to be difficult. And truth be told, there is a part of me that is genuinely intrigued at the prospect of peeking behind the veil. I've already got one foot across, after all.

"Alright," I say. "Sure."  And so, we cross over.

As soon as we enter the Flag Building, the security person at the desk begins talking Scientology lingo at me, asking about my "training." Tori interrupts and tells them I'm just getting a tour. The guard throws her an odd look and says, "Those usually begin downstairs."

Tori fires an equally strange look back and says, "I understand."

Before we head down, Tori makes a point to show me an exhibit here on the second floor. Along the wall, glass cases display every book of "written teachings" L. Ron Hubbard ever published. There are hundreds. I'm told they total more than 500,000 pages and over 65 million words. Looking at them all lined up next to each other like that, I can't help but ponder how anyone could do the same without wondering whether Hubbard had just managed to cultivate a very dedicated book club, then cranked out as many as he could to keep the dollars rolling in. I do not consider this aloud.

We move downstairs. I sign in at the front desk, and my tour of the first floor begins. The whole place is essentially a Scientology museum. Blue stained-glass windows overlook the main lobby. Giant, bronze statues stand against the walls, wrapping around the chasmal room. Tori explains that the metal figures represent the "Eight Dynamics to the Session." The session refers to auditing, a core Scientology practice. 

Tori walks me through each "Dynamic," explaining them in detail. She's very enthusiastic about Scientology, and she attempts to frame the talk in ways that would make the subject sound appealing to a writer/creative (or so it seems to me). I'm getting the full pitch, basically. The sudden, full-force acceleration into the doctrine is a bit dizzying, but there's no time for hesitation or regret, as we continue moving from one shiny object to another.

After each idol in the lobby is thoroughly explained and examined, we move deeper into the first floor of this enormous building, which includes further exhibits devoted to Scientology doctrine. There's a sprawling hallway devoted to L. Ron Hubbard's life, with video presentations playing on several large monitors along the way. There's one about Hubbard's days as a young eagle scout, one about his days in the Navy, and so on. Tori encourages me to "enjoy" any or all of them, as I see fit. I sit on one of the cushioned benches that line the room and watch a video about Hubbard's days as a golden age science fiction writer, which genuinely interests me. It includes interview clips and narrated letter passages from some of Hubbard's friends and contemporaries, all flattering him and his work. I don't bother watching anything else.

At the other end of the hallway is a room devoted to L. Ron Hubbard's seamanship. There are glass displays filled with such relics as Hubbard's personal belt knife. This area also features replicas of the ships in Hubbard's Sea Org fleet, and even a scale-recreation of the Commodore's office he worked in. I'm told that every Flag Service building on the planet contains one of these office replicas. I stop myself from asking if they maintain them for Hubbard. You know, in case he comes back.

Next, I'm led to a room Tori calls, "the chapel." At first, I wonder if that's a nickname or metaphor or something, but no, it's a literal chapel. It looks very much like the inside of a Christian church, with long rows of pew seating, stained glass windows brandishing LRH quotes, and a raised dais at the front of the room. She walks me right up to the top of the dais and opens the big book of sermons on the podium, explaining some of them to me. She shows the pages that detail a Church of Scientology wedding ceremony. Then she shows me what she calls "group audits." Some of these pages are filled with phrases that repeat over and over, presumably that the group is meant to repeat after the person leading the sermon. I don't remember in detail, but it was something like:

Who am I?
Who am I?
Who am I?
Who am I?
Who am I?

Where am I?
Where am I?
Where am I?
Where am I?
Where am I? 


During this entire tour, Tori repeatedly asks me if I have any questions. I just keep mumbling vague, non-committal things like, "Oh, I'm just taking it all in," or, "It's all very interesting."

After the tour of the Flag building is over, Tori leads me outside and down the street to a row of buildings nearby. The Church of Scientology owns the whole block, it seems. She shows me the various headquarters of Scientology's "outreach and charity" programs. Things like their anti-drug program, their prison rehab program, their human rights program, etc. Some of these sound like potentially good programs with potentially good aims, albeit under the umbrella of the Church of Scientology. Some of them also clearly sound like Scientology recruitment and PR efforts. At every building, employees and directors of the various programs come out and greet me. Again, I'm getting the celebrity treatment. Some of them already know who I am, others light up when Tori says I'm a Writers of the Future winner. They shake my hand, they flatter me, they tell me it's an honor to meet me. The experience grows more surreal by the hour.

In the same row of buildings, Tori also shows me the "Scientology Information Center." It's a small facility open to the public, acting as a public face for the church. There are pamphlets, posters, and a television screen, which plays a Scientology vignette that I recognize from earlier. By now, however, I can't remember if I saw this particular video as part of a Flag Building exhibit or on the Scientology Channel back in my hotel room. As I mull this over, I think of the Firewall and almost laugh out loud.

Next, I visit a building devoted to a program that's all about furthering something called "the Way to Happiness," which is based on one of Hubbard's self-help books (seen above in the hotel nightstand). Then comes the grand finale: the CCHR building, which is essentially a museum dedicated to the evils of psychiatry. This is a smaller reproduction of the famous one in Los Angeles. We briefly tour the exhibits, which remind me of a cheesy haunted house you'd explore on Halloween. It's all very dark, with scary music, macabre displays, and creepy ambience straight out of a horror movie. I watch a short video about how psychiatry has roots in grisly medieval practices when the mentally ill were kept in cages and tortured, and how today's psychiatrists supposedly aren't that much different, really.

They hate psychiatry. Like . . . a lot.

I should mention, by the way, that throughout all of these tour stops, people keep handing me things. Everywhere we go, they thrust literature and materials into my hands. They give me books, pamphlets, DVDs. Check out my Scientology swag, you guys. This isn't even all of it:

The tour ends with dinner at one of the hotel restaurants. The food is good.  While dining, the chef comes out to greet me. He thanks me for visiting and says it's an honor to serve me.

After that, it's finally time for the book signing . . . which is not taking place at a Barnes & Noble. It turns out the "Barnes & Noble signing event" is actually taking place here at the Fort Harrison Hotel, during a Scientology ceremony called "Flag Graduation." Scientologists who underwent training at the Flag Building are having some kind of graduation ceremony. Part of the ceremonies will involve announcing my presence, then directing the congregation to my signing table for an autograph. After the day I've had, I am not shocked by this revelation. My belief in the Firewall has long since abandoned me. I am not happy about the bait and switch. But I'm not surprised, either.

I'm led into a huge conference room with a stage and hundreds of chairs. By the time we get there, it's already packed full of Scientologists finding their seats. Tori leads me straight to the front row. At this point, I become genuinely worried about the possible public repercussions of this little trip. Just like in L.A., there are photographers and videographers everywhere. The thought of photos and video of me at an actual Church of Scientology event floating around somewhere is (at the time) concerning. What happens next tempers this concern somewhat, if only because it grants me the conviction that this is not the first Scientology event I've been photographed at. Before their graduation ceremony, they play a video of the Writers of the Future gala. A Church of Scientology official talks it up beforehand, citing it as part of L. Ron Hubbard's legacy, with the underlying message that it's one of the many Good Things the CoS is doing in the world. In other words, Writers of the Future (and not just the name--the video of the gala, the anthology, the words and likenesses of the winners) is used as internal propaganda at an official Church of Scientology event. That's certainly how I interpreted it, anyway.

As the video plays, I honestly start to feel queasy. I remember the moments playing on that big screen, because I witnessed them. I took part in them. I lived them. When the gala was happening live, I remember feeling excited and happy for my new friends when I watched them step onto that stage and give their acceptance speeches. They were all amazing people, and I knew they felt the same for me when it was my turn. I remember the moment the judges announced that Matt Dovey's brilliant story Squalor & Sympathy had won the Golden Pen. One might be tempted to think, since my story had been competing with his, that I might feel competitive, disappointed, even jealous. But by then, Matt and I had become friends. He was my roommate at the hotel in Los Angeles. We went through that crazy ride together, along with everyone else. So when his name was called, I could feel nothing but happiness for him. I clapped and cheered with everyone else. These moments, as I remembered them, were happy ones. Watching those same moments again in that room, in that hotel, in that Scientology compound . . . they take on an entirely different meaning for me, one that will only become clearer as time passes. This video seems to serve the message that L. Ron Hubbard, and by extension the CoS, makes dreams come true. Every time someone on the video thanks Hubbard in their speech, certain people in the room cheer and whoop. Every winner's speech that doesn't include a thank you to LRH is cut out--including mine, and I'm the one doing the signing afterward. It feels like our proud, happy moments are being co-opted to steer Church of Scientology members further down a path of devotion. Regardless what you might think of Scientology, regardless what I think of Scientology . . . that's simply not what I signed up for when I entered the contest. It ain't what's written on the tin.

After the video is done, I am ushered out of the auditorium and propped up in the lobby with a big Writers of the Future backdrop behind me. After the ceremony, the Scientologists are herded my way to buy copies of the book and get them signed. Barnes & Noble employees are present ringing up the books, presumably in hopes the purchases will count on bookscan and push the anthology onto the bestseller lists. This, it seems, is Kate's justification for calling this a "Barnes & Noble" event despite the fact that it takes place on a Scientology compound. It also seems to be exactly the sort of thing that Jason Sanford's posts about Writers of the Future sales data indicate.

I should say, by the way, that everyone getting a book signed is very nice. Many of them seem genuinely enthusiastic about the book and about my being there to sign them. The signing itself has some genuinely fun moments. But I don't kid myself. I assumed the Church of Scientology pressured these people to buy the book, as I'd heard stories to that effect before. None the less, the people I encounter are mostly kind, and so I smile genuinely each time I hand one of them a signed book. According to a Publishers Weekly blurb released later that week (which also describes this as a "Barnes & Noble signing"), I do this more than 500 times.

Towards the end of the signing, when I think this experience cannot possibly grow any more surreal, a plate of cupcakes is suddenly dropped in front of me, and everyone starts singing Happy Birthday. I smile nervously and look around at this room full of strangers as they sing to me, trying to remember if I'd told anyone it's my birthday. At some point, after the song ends, they stand me up, drape me in steampunk props, and take my picture with some cosplay troupe that's been hanging out in the lobby looking even more out of place than me. Somewhere in the universe, those bizarre pictures must be floating around, too. I can't imagine I look very enthusiastic, standing there in my bowler hat and cheap oversized duster, holding up a copy of the anthology.

When the crowd thins out, I chat with Kate about my day. It's the first time I've seen her since she left me in Tori's hands. When I tell her I was given the "full tour," so to speak, her eyebrows shoot up, and she goes pale. "Oh," she says. "I thought she was just going to tour you around the hotel. I didn't know she'd show you...everything." 

I realize now that Kate is probably worried she's made a grave mistake. She works for Author Services, and is therefore intimately familiar with the concept of the Firewall and why it's (supposedly) maintained. She must now realize the potential consequences of leaving me in the hands of someone who clearly was not. A thousand things must be running through her head. I'd have preferred she come upon this realization before strapping me into this roller coaster, of course.

You know what? Strike that. I'd have preferred she be truthful from the get go about what this was really going to be. I'd have preferred she didn't bait and switch me with a "Barnes and Noble signing" that turned out to be bullshit. I'd have preferred to find out what I was actually getting into a lot sooner than as it was happening.

But despite all that, I am still an empathetic person, and I can see the discomfort she's in. So I try to put her at ease. I tell her it's fine. 

"It was all very interesting," I say. And oh, it was.

Eventually we run out of books, I say goodbye to Kate and Tori, and I head to bed. In the morning, I meet Buddy the Butler in the lobby for my ride back to the airport. As you can imagine, I'm relieved to be heading home. As we're pulling out of the compound, Buddy suddenly stops the car, looks up for a minute, then checks his watch. "Wait," he says. "We have to go back."

"We . . . do?" I say.

"Yes, I've forgotten something. It's very important."

"It . . . is?"

"Yes. I've forgotten your gift."

And so we head back. Waiting for me at the front desk is a token of appreciation from my new friend, Tori the Tour Guide. It's a beautiful, leatherbound edition of The Way to Happiness.

I've since read it cover to cover. On multiple occasions. Sometimes aloud.

Here's my favorite passage:

Closing Thoughts

I first started telling the story above in private circles within the SFF writing community. Over the past two years, I've told it to fellow WotF winners, to friends at conventions, and in private online discussion groups. Most recently, I posted about it on Codex after Nick Mamatas and Keffy R.M. Kehrli spurred the aforementioned conversation on social media about the questionable aspects of the contest back in April. I also posted a couple of twitter threads around that time, in which I voiced frustrations about the contest and rage-faced over the revelation that unattributed quotations from Dianetics were included in Writers of the Future workshop materials. Since the tweetstorm, I've also been in discussion with former winners and even a few contest judges who reached out to me about it.

Since all of that started happening, I've also had run-ins with supporters of the contest who have accused me (and others) of trying to destroy it. Let me make one thing clear: I'm not trying to destroy Writers of the Future. For one, I don't believe that is within my (or anyone's) power, so even if that were my goal, I wouldn't waste the effort. My goal is merely to inform emerging writers about the troublesome aspects of this contest, because I don't think they're talked about enough. That includes relating my own experience that bizarre weekend in Clearwater. If anyone sees that as an effort to delegitimize or destroy the contest, all I can say is this: if spreading the truth about something delegitimizes it, was it really legitimate in the first place?

One thing I didn't say in the account above that might bear stating now: at no point did I feel genuinely unsafe (though that medical form gives me the heebie jeebies). And as you read, I actually opted-in to some of the weirdest parts of the experience (though every time it was while being faced with an on-the-spot decision that came with some degree of social pressure). Judge of those things what you will. I still felt deceived, however, based on the initial "Barnes and Noble" pitch and what this thing actually turned out to be. If they'd told me what this event really was before I arrived, I would never have agreed to attend. I can say that without question. But I get the feeling they knew that. Why else would they leave it out until I was already on the way? 

It's taken me more than two years to work through my complicated feelings on all of this, which is why I never spoke publicly about it until now.  Since all this happened, I've not heard anything from anyone at ASI aside from the occasional promotional emails or the odd Facebook like (until I blocked them all some time ago). I don't expect to hear from them again, especially after this post goes up.

Writers of the Future is a strange machine. In a multitude of ways, it is unlike any other market for short fiction writers on the planet. Some of those differences are obvious: the money, the prestigious panel of judges that lend it legitimacy, the glitzy awards gala. You hear about those differences all the time. But there are others:

No other market I'm aware of expects the level of promotion WotF expects from writers, despite that it doesn't pay royalties on the sales you're helping to generate. They expect you to participate in all kinds of press, and if you say no, they pressure you to change your mind--or just give your contact info to the media without your permission.

No other market I'm aware of attempts to unethically game bestseller lists, an allegation that seems to be backed up by hard data, as Jason Sanford has pointed out in his market report. And backed by my own experience related above. I personally witnessed hundreds of Scientologists buying the anthology en masse, at an event in which Barnes and Noble employees were brought to an outside location to ring the purchases up. Those don't seem like "organic" sales to me.

No other market I'm aware of has so many supporters in the SFF community who display a willingness to downplay (or outright ignore) these allegations and more--allegations of unethical, dishonest, sexist, and bigoted practices by the organization that runs it. And . . . I really don't know why. I don't know why we, as a community, have decided to turn a blind eye to the troubling aspects of this contest. When I won, I was immediately contacted by former winners who congratulated me. And then warned me. They didn't warn me that anything like my Clearwater experience might happen, because even they couldn't see that coming (and were shocked when I related it to them). But they did warn me of a great many other negative things associated with the contest, as a means of preparing me for my trip to the workshop. There's an entire whisper network maintained by former winners that reaches out to each new crop of writers every year. Clearly that means we know something is wrong here, and we have for some time. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that whisper network exists. I just don't know why we're whispering.

And of course, no other market I'm aware of is owned, operated, and supports the Church of Scientology. As I said in the beginning of this post, I make no judgments on any individual's religious beliefs. But the entrants to this contest deserve to know the truth about the level of involvement the Church has before they enter, so that they can make their own minds up about what that means for them. This nonsense talk about a "Firewall" that is used to douse that conversation as soon as it begins needs to be put to rest. The Firewall does not exist. If it ever did (I have my doubts after reading Kyle Aisteach's account of attending a workshop in the 90s), it has since grown so porous that it may as well be non-existent.

When concerns are brought up in public or private discussion, invariably the defenders of Writers of the Future repeat a phrase that has become mantra in the community: the good outweighs the bad. Look, if anyone can say that, it's me. I met my fiancée because of Writers of the Future. If I had to do it all again, I would in a heartbeat for that reason alone. But I still have to ask myself . . .  at what point does, "the good outweighs the bad" become "I'm OK with the bad"?

After what happened to me, after the things I've heard that have happened to others, and after these last two years of ruminating on all of this, I've decided I don't want to whisper about these things anymore. Instead, I'm going to shout it from the hilltop:

I do not support the Writers of the Future contest, and I cannot recommend it to emerging writers.

Illustrations by Autumn Evelyn


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