Heroes in the Shadows

I write in a daunting genre of speculative fiction—very few people I know IRL have read my work, out of more than 200 short stories, two blogs, and six books—but within that, I’ve been hosting a quarterly writing contest for two years. I propose a theme (sometimes the result of a vote), people sign up and write one completely new and original 2,000-word story within the span of a month, and other people review the anonymous entries based on various categories.

It started on Twitter, but I’ve expanded my reach to DeviantArt, Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, and some online forums in the genre. Our October contest saw the highest number of signups, and even though half of them couldn’t make it to the finish line, it also broke a record in submitted entries. New people sign up for each contest, and the evaluations come from everywhere, all over the world. I had to build a newsletter to remind writers and readers of upcoming events and stages in each contest, but I always try to keep things as anonymous as possible. Identity is safe with me.

Right now I’m reviewing the stories, and I go through this in every contest: I’m just astonished by the brilliance and innovation of these random writers. Some of them are famous names within the scene, others are newcomers who want to learn, still others just need some motivation and company to write. Without fail, they take the theme and reinterpret it in highly creative ways, making even tired topics fresh and exciting. When you look at the list of submitted titles, you never know what you’re going to get. It’s a real thrill: the writers get reviews and feedback, and the readers get a squadron of talent creating a couple dozen new works in their area of interest.

There are no prizes, only bragging rights. For a while, a CGI artist offered a custom commission for the winner, which was a nice addition. Once, some unusual fellow from Singapore wanted to post a cash prize for the winner, but I felt that would corrupt the point of these contests. I wanted new writers to develop their chops, and I challenged experienced writers to create outside of their comfort zone, and they do, eagerly. They take chances, they try something new, they break bad habits. I never wanted people to rely upon their strengths and trust in the familiar, putting their best efforts out there not for personal betterment but a sum of money. That’s not the point of this at all.

Some people take it hard when they don’t win, of course. The two most difficult obstacles for new writers to get over are giving yourself permission to just write crap and to receive criticism. I’ve urged beginning writers to seek out the better known writers or the winners and pick their brains for help. I’ve written a style guide for writers in this genre to clear up some misconceptions, correct common mistakes, and I’ve built a list of writer’s resources for self-editing, research, and inspiration. For the writers from other countries I’ve offered my services for a light edit, just to clean up a choppy page and gently shift things into order.

There’s no fee to enter, and I do as much as I can for free: the quarterly websites are built on Google Sites, copied and upgraded from the previous contests (I learn something every time: for this contest I instituted tags and trigger warnings, at a reader’s plea), and I just need a few evenings to build the social media promotion, reminders for deadlines, links to the rules and the evaluation pages, &c. My wife has been wholly supportive of this effort, carefully making space for me to fulfill these self-imposed requirements for a few dozen people I’ve never met.

Like I said, I’m in the middle of reviewing them right now, and I’m overwhelmed with gratitude at how it’s taken off, the amazing things these writers are accomplishing and sharing. I’ve met a few of them at a convention in New York; I will never know who some of them are, their shame of their passions is too great. They can’t confess their interests to their closest friends, and some of them have lost relationships due to their kink. I’m lucky, I know, that my wife is so supportive, and I called upon some generous friends to compose and perform an amazing song in this genre. It’s my hope that these contests and the support we all offer in this community give them the strength to be honest unto themselves and fly their freak flag high.

I mean, we’re all almost dead, things are wrapping up very quickly. There’s no time to be ashamed of what gives you the spark of joy.

Image: Charles Dana Gibson, “The Weaker Sex,” for Collier’s Weekly v.31, July 4, 1903

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