Two Madison writers discuss winning the Writers Of The Future contest.
This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.
L. Ron Hubbard founded the Writers Of The Future competition in the mid-1980s, shortly before his death. What relationship it has to the famously controlling and litigious Church of Scientology is a bit of a convoluted tangle, as are most things to do with Hubbard or Scientology. Suffice it to say that the competition, for science-fiction and fantasy writers new to having their work published professionally, has recognized writers who aren’t Scientologists or aren’t particularly religious, including the astonishing Nnedi Okorafor and Wisconsin’s own Patrick Rothfuss. A few years in, Writers Of The Future expanded its scope to include contests for sci-fi and fantasy illustrators.
In the 2020 compendium of WOTF winners, you’ll find stories from two Madison authors: Andy Dibble’s “A Word That Means Everything” and FJ Bergmann’s “A Prize In Every Box.” Dibble and Bergmann met through the contest, though they’re now in the same writing group here in town. Dibble has only been putting his work out there for a few years; Bergmann has spent decades in the publishing world, but most of her published work has been poetry (“In the infinitesimal puddle that is speculative poetry, I am a rockstar,” Bergmann says).
In “A Word That Means Everything,” interstellar Christian missionaries struggle with the finer points of translating the Bible for a planet of tentacled sentient beings. “A Prize In Every Box” concerns a group of siblings who open a cereal box one day to find a mysterious remote control that grants them unpredictable powers. One brings a volatile twist to everyday childhood struggles, the other burrows down into one single word that could make or break the meaning of a scriptural passage.
Both writers visited LA last fall to attend a combined awards ceremony for the contest’s 2020 and 2021 winners. The awards also come with access to workshops and networking opportunities, a cash prize, and some truly imposing hardware. During our video call, Dibble held up his WOTF trophy and accurately described it as a “10-pound glass pyramid.”
As different as Bergmann and Dibble’s stories are in style and setting, they both put a compassionate focus on characters who have to make agonizing choices, and neither story is particularly interested in clear heroes or villains. To me it just demonstrates that whether or not you’re interested in the surface subject the author chooses—spaceships, aliens, scripture, dangerous buttons of unknown origin—speculative fiction offers a powerful arena for confronting the messiness of being human and tackling big, unwieldy moral questions.
“It’s really hard to write a good story if you’re not making a character that’s sympathetic and has a psychology that makes sense,” Dibble says. “You kind of initiate your reader into a way of thinking—essentially in science fiction and fantasy, a different world that has its own logic.”
Dibble holds a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School, and sci-fi writers have been exploring religion for a long time in many ways. That’s still the case in today’s vast and ever more diverse speculative fiction world. Dibble recently edited his first sci-fi anthology, Strange Religion: Speculative Fiction of Spirituality, Belief, & Practicepublished in April.
“A Word That Means Everything” arguably fits into something of a subgenre we could call “Jesuits in spaaaace!” The protagonist, Pius, gets stuck on translating the first phrase in the Gospel of John, commonly rendered as “In the beginning was the Word.” In the original Greek, “the Word” is rendered as “logos,” which can be translated as “word,” but also carries a lot of other potential meanings, especially in religious contexts. Pius has to steer around questions of linguistics and doctrine to try and make this complex term work for creatures who communicate through tentacle gestures.
“I learned that the word ‘logos’ has like 30 meanings too,” Dibble says, recalling his time in divinity school. “And I just thought, well, if it can have 30 meanings in reality, why can’t we have a theology where it’s stretched further and further to keep meaning more and more things?”
David, the young protagonist of “A Prize In Every Box,” has no real frame of reference at all for the remote control that comes into his life, or its ability to seemingly create change at the push of a button—not to give away any specifics, but sometimes it’s change of the careful-what-you-wish-for variety. Bergmann pointedly sets this against a backdrop of mundane domestic life.
“There are all different kinds of children, but I think a lot of children enjoy stories where the children are the responsible ones in the household, or at least one of the children is,” Bergmann says. “It’s not really stated, but the protagonist has no intention of using the power irresponsibly. He’s really worried about the potential problems that could come with this device.”
And because this is a short story, it derives a great deal of tension by virtue of what it leaves out. “You can’t tie up too many ends or it becomes dull,” Bergmann explains. Since winning the WOTF award, Bergmann has continued to publish poetry, and to serve as the poetry editor of Mobius: The Journal Of Social Change.
Oddly enough, both had submitted these same stories to the contest beforehand, gotten rejections, and revised further before submitting them again and winning.
“One important lesson there is that beginnings are important,” Dibble says. “Another important lesson is that it’s also important to let yourself just write without being too restrained by your worries, and then when you go back and edit later on, that’s when you want to take a more cold and calculated approach.”