by William Ledbetter
A friend of mine recently pointed out that since I'd won the Writers of the Future contest and that I run the Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest, I was now in the unique position of being able to compare two major science fiction contests from both sides of the win. I wasn't sure if our JBMW contest would classify as "major" -- especially compared to Writers of the Future -- but as I thought about it, I realized they do have a great deal in common. Maybe like how Great Danes are almost genetically identical to a Jack Russell terrier?
Still, there really are some big connections and similarities. Mike Resnick and Eric Flint have been judges in both contests and Eric is even a previous Writers of the Future winner. Baen writer K.D. Wentworth, a WotF winner and their Coordinating Judge from 2005 until she died this April, also gave me some excellent advice on contests. She said the three most important elements that make up a successful contest are that it's fair, that it promises something people want and that it delivers on those promises. Of course Writers of the Future has those three elements. So does the Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest, and that's no accident.
Back in 2006, when my local National Space Society chapter won our bid to host the 2007 International Space Development Conference in Dallas, we were discussing things to make our ISDC the best ever and I suggested a science fiction short story contest, with the focus being humanity's future in space. The idea was well received by my chapter and the NSS national HQ. Of course since it was my idea, it was also my project. At that point the contest was supposed to have been a one-time effort, but even for that single event I wanted the best entries I could get. So what was the most effective bait to attract quality writers? A huge cash prize would have been great, but since NSS is a non-profit organization, money is always tight. The next best thing was professional publication, in a respected magazine. It couldn't hurt to ask, right?
I was prepared to go begging at all of the pro magazines, but considering Baen's reputation for hard science fiction, and the fact that I'd recently sold a story to them, Jim Baen's Universe was my logical first choice. I hoped they at least would remember who I was. The idea was liked at JBU too, with approval and permission coming from Jim Baen himself. I was thrilled and decided that with two such awesome sponsors, the contest needed to be a good one. Of course it also meant I had to get organized. That is where the WotF model came into the picture.
I'd been entering the Writers of the Future contest since 2000 and had always liked the fairness of their "blind" judging system. It takes a little more set up time on the front end for the contest entrants and a little more organizing for me to keep the stories separate from the author's contact information, but it's worth the extra effort knowing that the judges are truly able to select the best story based solely on merit. Also like WotF, we were able to land some awesome judges. We've been lucky to have editors Hank Davis and Jim Minz pretty much full time, and just recently added Tony Daniel. There have also been some awesome guest judges including Toni Weisskopf, David Weber and the earlier mentioned Mike and Eric.
Professional publication and blind judging by a panel of industry superstars are great similarities between the two contests, but there are some big differences too. Writers of the Future was designed to encourage, nurture and reward amateur writers and does an excellent job at it. When a speculative fiction writer sends an entry to WotF, they're competing only against other amateurs and if they don't win, they get feedback in the form of their placement. Unlike most of the industry, where a form rejection from a publisher can mean anything from "this is bad" to "I just published a giant butterfly on the Moon story last month," a form rejection from WotF means one of two things: the entrant didn't follow the guidelines or the story wasn't good enough to beat out the others sent in. But if the writer keeps writing, keeps honing their craft and entering, then eventually they start getting Honorable Mentions, Silver Honorable Mentions, Semi-finalist and eventually Finalist. Those degrees of rejection let the writer know if they are getting close. And since the contest is quarterly, there is also the incentive to write and polish at least one new story every three months. Learning to write regularly and to a deadline are necessary skills for any writer. The system works too. The list of previous WotF winners who went on to have successful careers in the speculative fiction industry is much too long to run here, but it's like a miniature Who's Who of science fiction and fantasy writers.
The Jim Baen Memorial Writing contest has a different goal. It's open to any writer and was designed to showcase and reward science fiction authors who can create exciting and moving stories about humanity living and working in space. Even though pro writers do enter this contest, up-and-coming writers shouldn't be scared away by that. We're looking for the best story. That isn't permission to send us nonprofessional work, but in this contest an exciting, well-crafted tale that makes us feel good about mankind's future in space stands a good chance of winning, regardless of who wrote it. And due to our narrowly focused topic, the number of entries is lower than contests like WotF. Our first runner up for this year, Martin Shoemaker, is a perfect example. He is still trying to win Writers of the Future (and at the time of this writing is a Finalist for this year's first quarter) but his excellent story about a rescue team on the moon, edged out every entry except our winning story by R.P.L. Johnson. (Who is also a former Writers of the Future Grand Prize winner.)
Some might argue that no matter how many elements we borrow from WotF, they are still the top dog. I'll be first to admit that after having won Writer of the Future and attended their workshop and award ceremony, there is little short of winning a Hugo or Nebula that can make a speculative fiction writer feel more like they have "made it." And there are some surreal fan-boy moments I'll never forget; like Jerry Pournelle telling me he really enjoyed my winning story, but I should grow it into a novel, then asking me for an autograph! But since this isn't a contest between contests, and awesome writers like Michael Wood and R.P.L. Johnson have won both, does it really matter which dog is bigger? Maybe not, but if finding great winning writers and publishing their stories is like a big juicy bone, then our scrappy little Jim Baen's Memorial Writing contest gets its share, no matter how big the other dog. And the winner does get a nifty trophy, too, as well as publication at www.baen.com, on the most-travelled science fiction web site around. I think we can definitely say that the Jim Baen Memorial Contest has come into its own these days and fills a major niche in the world of science fiction.
For more details on entering the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Contest check here.