“Star Trek stories by the fans, for the fans.”
That was the motto of the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds anthologies published by Pocket Books for ten consecutive years between 1998 and 2007. The publisher held an annual writing contest, inviting any fan with less than three professionally-published writing credits to send in Trek stories, and launched several careers in the process. Now, two years after the range’s demise, Unreality SF has gathered several people who were involved with SNW over the years, to take a look back…
Dean Wesley Smith was the editor for the entire run of the SNW anthologies. “John Ordover kept trying to figure out ways to get new writers into writing Star Trek,” he recalls. “He and I were talking on the phone one day and he mentioned that he was trying to push this contest through the lawyers, and since I had written in every Star Trek universe at the time, would I be interested in editing it. I had also been a major short fiction editor before, by being a first reader for F&SF Magazine, editing Pulphouse Magazine, and just finishing a two year run as the fiction editor of VB Tech. I said sure. It was a good year later before the lawyers finally signed off on the idea.”
Once the idea had been approved, the first contest was opened, and amongst the successful entrants was Dayton Ward. Now a well known name in the Trek literature community, he started his career with SNW, and was the first to make himself ineligible to enter the contest by having a story published in each of the first three anthologies. (In his honour, every author who did the same was awarded a “Wardie”.) But if it hadn’t been for a friend’s encouragement, he mightn’t even have entered. “At the time, I was writing Star Trek ‘fan fiction’,” he remembers, “and had enjoyed seeing some of my stories appear in various print fanzines. When John Ordover, at the time one of the Star Trek editors at Pocket Books, announced the first contest, a friend of mine convinced me to submit a story. Prior to that, I had not considered the possibility of one day writing ‘real’ Star Trek fiction, even though I’d been reading the books for years. So, John, if you’re reading: all of this is your fault!”
Another successful name who started out in SNW is that of William Leisner, who’s continued to make an impact long after earning his Wardie. “I had written a DS9 spec script which earned me an invitation to pitch story ideas to that show and to Voyager,” he reveals, explaining his motivations for entering, “but unfortunately not much had come from those efforts. With Hollywood seemingly out of reach, I started writing fan-fiction for ‘zines – this being right at the time before online publishing became a popular alternative to paper ‘zines – and started to get some good feedback. This brings us up to 1997, when the first Strange New Worlds contest was opened, and I naturally jumped at the opportunity to have one of my stories published professionally.”
However, not everyone who entered and has since become a familiar name was successful in the contest. Allyn Gibson, now the author of critically-acclaimed stories in both the Star Trek and Doctor Who franchises, entered the contest but his stories were never chosen for any of the anthologies. “In 1996, I picked up a copy of Star Trek Communicator at the local Waldenbooks, and they mentioned that there was going to be a writing contest where Star Trek fans could write real, honest-to-goodness Star Trek stories and have the chance of selling them,” he explains. “I found that idea intriguing, and I wanted to participate. I wanted to write, I’d submitted two spec scripts to the shows – one to Deep Space Nine, one to Voyager – and they’d obviously gone nowhere. Of course, they weren’t any good, either, but I was young and thought I could write no wrong. I wrote four stories for that first contest. I thought they were brilliant, and I thought I would sell all four. The ideas were good. The writing wasn’t good. Being full of piss and vinegar, I was sure that John Ordover had made a mistake by not buying anything I sent, so I was determined to keep writing until I sold a story to Strange New Worlds. I never did.”
Terri Osborne has a similar story. Now the author of several short stories and novellas, primarily in the Star Trek universe, she’s currently working on a Stargate Atlantis novel. Like Allyn, she made her career despite having all her entries to the SNW contest rejected. “Like everyone else, I had Trek stories I wanted to tell,” she explains. “After spending most of my life trying to be a novelist, I also wanted to learn to write short fiction to expand my horizons as a writer.”
Over the course of the ten year run of Strange New Worlds, 209 stories were selected for the anthologies out of thousands upon thousands of entries. The brunt of the work during the selection process was done by Dean Wesley Smith. “I would open everything and give every manuscript the same shot at reading,” he explains. “If the manuscript caught me and I read it, I would put it in a second read pile. When I was finished with the first read, I started through the second read pile, cutting and weeding out anything that didn’t work. I could have up to 300 manuscripts in my second read pile. When I was done with a second and sometimes third read, I would have between 40 or 50 stories that I couldn’t reject and were good enough to be in the book. Out of those I picked the 23 I wanted in the book, balancing content and types of stories and such, and the remaining stories were on the alternate list.”
Only then did Pocket Books’ own editors – John Ordover for the first seven instalments, and Elisa J. Kassin for volumes 7 through 9 – and the licensors’ representative Paula M. Block come into play. “Then I sent the [chosen stories] to Pocket Books where the editor there read them and agreed or called me and we switched out a story from the front page to the alternate group. Then it was all sent on to Paula Block at Paramount who did the final okay. Then the three of us picked the top three, usually one each. So for a writer to get into the book, they had to have written a great story and also make it through a lot of steps.”
Besides the actual contest winners, over the years three stories were included in the anthologies that weren’t part of the contest. One story each by John J. Ordover and Paula M. Block were included in the very first instalment, and a story written wholly in Klingon by Dr. Lawrence M. Schoen, the founder of the Klingon Language Institute, appeard in the third volume.
As Dean mentioned, one of the main goals of the contest was to bring new authors to Trek literature, so how this has turned out? Terri certainly thinks it was successful. “The new voices it has given to the Trek universe are just too many to name. If that’s all it gave us, it gave us a gift that will keep on giving for as long as the editors choose.”
Dayton’s opinion is twofold on SNW’s importance in recruiting new writers. “I don’t know that it was ‘important’ in the sense that the writers working for Pocket at the time needed any kind of help,” he says. “I don’t believe that was the case. Some of my favourite Trek novels and writers come from that period. It’s important to remember that the writers at that time were working under a much more stringent set of guidelines than we do today; you have to wonder just how much those restrictions worked toward stifling the individual writers’ creativity. The list of things you couldn’t do was much longer than the list of things you could do. We still have such rules now, only the two lists are far more balanced, I think.”
On the other hand, he thinks that it had a positive impact on the industry even beyond the confines of the Trek line. “Even though the ‘stable’ of writers working on the Trek novels at that time were (and remain) a very capable bunch of people, I do think the infusion of new voices to the mix has been beneficial, and not just for Trek fiction. The contest offered a conduit for new writers to have their stories read by an editor at one of the ‘big houses’ without needing a special invitation or an agent. Other than the Writers of the Future contest, such opportunities are very rare. I’ve lost track of how many people made the jump to writing other material, but off the top of my head you’ve got Julie Hyzy, Kevin Killiany, Phaedra Weldon, and Ilsa Bick all tearing it up out there. For that alone, the SNW contests should be applauded. And even though they never actually sold a story to any of the SNW volumes, the contest introduced editors to talented folks like Terri Osborne as well as Allyn Gibson, who wrote one of the best Star Trek stories I’ve ever read – Make-Believe, for the Star Trek: Constellations anthology.”
Willam agrees that the contest was beneficial. “Obviously, SNW has brought a lot of new blood to the rest of the Trek line,” he concurs, but also points out: “At the same time, it should be acknowledged that there have been a lot of authors who have joined the Trek writing stable since 1997 who never got into SNW. The contest was just one avenue John, and later Marco Palmieri, used to identify fresh talent.”
While Dean follows the careers of many of the authors he brought into the world of publishing by selecting their stories for the anthologies, he refuses to accept any praise for that. “I had nothing to do with all the hard work and writing these writers are doing. All I did was have the privilege of reading and buying a story from them. I had nothing to do with their working hard and writing great stories. I do run some professional level workshops and have often looked around the room and seen four or five Strange New Worlds alums in the classes. But the quality of the work they sent me at the anthology was because they had put in all the time to learn the craft and practice by writing a lot of stories. If they had that work ethic before they sent me stories, they would, of course, go on to become fully professional writers, as many of them have done. I consider many of them now my friends, as we have met after they sold me stories, and I do follow them and cheer for them.”
Modesty aside, SNW was undoubtedly a turning point in the careers of many successful entrants, many of whom doubt they would be where they are today without the contest. “Absolutely not,” believes William. “It wasn’t until I started submitting to SNW that it even occurred to me to also try submitting to other markets, and if I had had the idea of starting a novel, I’m pretty darn sure I never would have finished it.”
“I don’t consider it unreasonable to believe that I wouldn’t have been anywhere with a ‘writing career’ if not for SNW,” Dayton agrees. “Would I have even attempted to submit a short story or two here or there at some point? It’s hard to say, as it wasn’t something I was considering before the first contest was announced. Even if I did, would I make it to the point where I’m being called by editors, and asked to write a book for them, and we work out the details over the phone before I type the first word? That’s the kind of thing only ‘real writers’ get to do, right?
“I can argue that everything I’ve written and for which I’ve been paid, to say nothing of the personal and professional relationships I’ve cultivated in the writing and publishing community over the years, can be traced back to that first SNW contest.”
Even Allyn, who didn’t get the chance to have one of his stories published in any of the anthologies, sees positives in having entered the contest anyway. “I think that the experience of submitting – and failing – with Strange New Worlds has had benefits. I was writing because I wanted to sell a story to this market, and I was becoming a better writer in the process. I had to learn, not just how to be a better writer, but how to write. Not every idea a writer has is necessarily a good idea, and I had a difficult time determining which was which. I knew how to tell a story, but I didn’t know how to put the pieces together. At its worst, writing to Strange New Worlds was practice, and every writer needs practice. David Gerrold wrote in his book on writing, Worlds of Wonder (which I recommend to everyone who wants to write), that writers will throw away a million words before they publish anything. Strange New Worlds put me closer to that million-word mark.”
Terri, too, learned some lessons from entering. “It taught me how to do two things,” she admits. “[To] deal with having work rejected, [and to] improve my short fiction writing. I had to learn to write short stories late in life. That isn’t easy to do. Looking back, all of my stories for SNW were really novel-length fiction plots brutally beaten down to 7,500 words. That is just not going to work. I needed to learn to change the way I thought about the story from the ground up. SNW helped teach me that.”
In the end, Allyn is almost glad that none of his stories were chosen for the contest. “I think my writing career would be in a very different place today had I sold a story to Strange New Worlds, and not necessarily in a good way. I genuinely doubt that I would have sold Make-Believe if I had had a different Star Trek writing resume, because I doubt that I would have even thought of that story. I might have been invited to pitch for Constellations off the bat, rather than crashing the party as I did, and I might have been more inclined to write something ‘normal’ rather than what I did. A Strange New Worlds author said to me one day that he thought that Make-Believe was the ultimate Strange New Worlds story, which I thought was both flattering and dismaying; I was inspired by some of the things that Strange New Worlds had done, particularly Robert Jeschonek’s Our Million-Year Mission, but while I saw Strange New Worlds as a market that had become the breeding ground of niche and weird Star Trek fiction, I didn’t see anything about the story that fit with the Strange New Worlds ethos. While I would have liked to sell a story to Strange New Worlds, if doing so would have meant that I wouldn’t have written Make-Believe, I can live happily without the SNW credit.”
Terri discovered one other thing through the contest. “As a writer, there is always going to be one editor, one editor that you can never seem to sell a story to,” she explains. “That’s just the way of things. I’ve seen multiple award-nominated writers who just can’t sell to certain editors. Does that make them any better or worse as a writer? No, it just means what they write doesn’t appeal to that particular editor. What I write didn’t appeal to Dean Wesley Smith as an editor. That’s a reality that many people don’t quite accept, and they should.”
Like Allyn, Terri is happier with her career as it currently stands than she is with the idea of having been successful in the contest. “The approach Dean Wesley Smith was fostering during the run of the anthology could easily be boiled down to ‘write, submit, repeat’. I’m constitutionally incapable of doing that. However, that approach is one that’s far better suited to writers who aren’t used to finishing projects, let alone submitting them somewhere. It’s a great approach for those who have that fear of sending one of your literary babies out into the world.
“I think if I’d adopted Dean’s approach,” she continues, “I’d have a lot more stories out there making the rounds, but I don’t think they’d be the stories I wanted out there or stories I’d be nearly as proud of as the ones that are out there. I’ve always been a perfectionist in my work, and that’s my own failing. If it’s not up to my standards – which, as many friends and editors have told me, are completely unhealthy – then it doesn’t go anywhere. This is not meant in any way to say that my way is the right one to follow. No. My way is the right way for me, and me only. Every single writer out there who wants to find their place on the bookshelf needs to find what works for them, because it’s going to be uniquely you. Assimilate other methods, but don’t try to copy someone else’s path. Blaze your own.”
The lasting impact of Strange New Worlds beyond the influx of new writers and personal lessons is slightly more debatable, though. “It is interesting to note that, before SNW, there was almost no professionally published Trek short fiction,” William points out. “There had been the two New Voyages books in the seventies, and two Young Adult collections in the early eighties, but beyond those, it was a market the fans had to fill all by themselves. I think SNW helped to demonstrate that there could be an interest in other short story collections like Enterprise Logs, The Lives of Dax, and No Limits. And in my opinion, there have been a lot of great Trek stories, in SNW and other anthologies, that simply wouldn’t have worked as novels, so I definitely believe there’s been a positive impact on Trek lit, and I hope a lasting one.”
“The SNW contests, along with other efforts like New Frontier, really opened the door to expanding the Trek literature landscape,” chips in Dayton, “and their impact was made even greater thanks to the support Pocket received from the licensing office at Paramount.”
Allyn, on the other hand, doubts the contest had any far reaching impact. “Strange New Worlds brought a number of new voices into the Star Trek literary universe,” he acknowledges, “[but] beyond that? I don’t see a lasting contribution by these anthologies.”
Whichever opinion one holds, the contest seems to have been a positive part of the Trek landscape, so why was it stopped? “Anthologies never make enough money in publishing.” Dean explains. “Nature of the beast, but Pocket Books and Paramount wanted to fund this to get the new writers in, to keep the fans writing Trek, and it worked for ten wonderful years. But even deep pockets like Pocket Books and Paramount couldn’t continue to lose as much money as this was costing them, so ten years seemed to be like a good place to stop. I didn’t expect it to go past year one, to be honest.”
“You have a book full of stories by unknown authors,” adds Allyn, “and they’re being paid very well. Three cents a word is considered a professional pay rate, and SNW paid ten cents a word, plus the bonuses to the top stories. In addition, the books were completely scattershot in terms of their contents; the anthologies didn’t cohere. There was also a certain disposability to the stories; these stories were just there, and in an era when readers were expecting more inter-story continuity, Strange New Worlds marked itself out as something different that could be safely ignored. Add these together, and you have a book that is going to have low sales – no marketable authors, strange story choices – combined with a high cost to bring to market. End result is a book that was going to be on life-support until the money ran out.”
William suggests that the range’s branding might’ve played a part in its downfall. “My own suspicion is that the ‘by the fans, for the fans’ tagline led some would-be buyers to believe that the SNW collections were not professional works, and caused them to pass them by.”
For the foreseeable future, Strange New Worlds is unlikely to make a comeback. How big are the chances of something similar being introduced further down the line? “I’d love to see something like it happen again, but economics will of course be the driving factor,” Dayton ponders. “Despite the logistics involved in putting the book together, I know that the people at the licensing office were fans of the contest and even looked forward to seeing the new batch of stories every year. Maybe at some point, Pocket and CBS will decide the time’s right to try something like it again.”
Terri speculates that the new Star Trek movie might be the spark a contest like SNW would need to reignite. “I think the new movie has opened up an enormous field of expansion for the universe, but it’s one that may or may not be free to roam in right now. I know I’ve already had one movie novel pitch shot down. There’s a specific direction in mind at the moment. Perhaps, down the line, when we reach a state of the franchise like the one we found ourselves in when SNW began, we’ll see a new contest devoted to the J.J. Abrams-era Trek. Personally, I’d love to see it. I think the audience is expanding even more than anyone hoped. Fan-fic surrounding the new film is exploding online at a rate I don’t recall seeing in my internet lifetime.”
That said, Terri is very much aware of the transience of any movie’s success, and isn’t sure whether now is the right time to take such a risk. She also foresees changes in anthologies in general, going forward. “I suspect the future of anthologies lies in smaller publishers. [For example], we’re hoping to find a receptive audience with the upcoming New Blood anthology from Marietta Publishing next year (which has one of my original short stories in it, I should note). They can handle lower sales figures, but it’s a double-edged sword in that they can’t always pay the money for big names. Sure, you can get a larger publisher like Baen into the mix on occasion, but they’re still taking a major financial risk, especially in this economy.”
If Pocket Books did decide to relaunch SNW, when would it happen, and what factors would influence the decision? “I think it’ll take time to play out,” Terri says. “I hardly speak for Pocket on this, but if it were me making the decision, I would want to see how the numbers go for the existing novels first. If the multitudes of new fans exhibit a prolonged interest in the literature, then perhaps it’ll prove to the powers that be that the audience has truly bounced back, possibly even expanded.”
Dean thinks another SNW like project would need the involvement of special people. “It will take a person with the strength of John Ordover to make it happen,” he says, “and those kinds of editors are few and far between.” Dean also suggests that he might not be involved, should SNW be revived. “I was retiring after ten years even if the contest went on. I’ve been writing mostly thrillers lately under other names so my days with Trek were done. Maybe in the future, if they want me to write another book or edit another book, I’ll consider it. I’m a hardcore Trek fan, I love the new movie and the reset, so if asked I might go back for a book or so.”
Finding a new showrunner for the books to take on Dean’s immense workload might be easier than you’d think, though, since one SNW alumnus has already volunteered to try to fill his shoes. “When it was learned that Dean Wesley Smith would be stepping down as editor of the SNW anthologies, but before we heard that 10 would be the last one, I approached Pocket about taking over that role,” reveals Dayton. “In hindsight and at that time, I probably wouldn’t have been the best choice for the job, but maybe by the time something like this is attempted again, I’ll have more editing experience under my belt and might be able to contribute.”
Before we let our assembled bunch of SNWers escape, there’s time to reflect on their favourite memories of their involvement with the contest.
“I’ve got two,” offers William. “The first was after the winners of the first contest were announced, and to my shock, my story had not made the cut. I then, not very wisely, posted a long, frustrated rant on the AOL Trek boards, which both John Ordover and Dean Wesley Smith regularly posted to as well. I forget which of the two responded first, but what they said was, it’s okay to vent, but rejection is part of the process. Get it out of your system, then forget it, and focus on the next story. That was a valuable piece of advice, and is part of the reason I did manage to sell a story the following year.
“The second is in regard to that story from SNW II. Dayton Ward and I had become friends through the AOL Trek boards and through our fan-fic writing, and after the submission period for SNW II had ended, we talked about the stories we had submitted. Dayton told me that he had sent in a story involving Dulmer and Lucsly from Trials and Tribble-ations, as I also had done. We were both utterly convinced that only one of the two stories would be bought, and equally convinced that the other had the better chance. And, as it turned out, we both got our stories in that year’s collection!”
“I have a few favourites, actually,” Dayton smiles. “The night the first year’s winners were announced. It was done in a live event in an America Online chat room, with Dean Wesley Smith and John Ordover milking the ‘drama’ for all it was worth. I was blown away when I saw my name pop up… Walking into a bookstore and seeing the first anthology on the shelf, and seeing my name on the back cover and my story in the table of contents… John calling me two years later, telling me he was buying my story for the third contest, I was no longer eligible to enter the contest, and asking if I wanted to write a Star Trek novel… Of course, since then, it’s been a heck of a ride.”
Dean has fond recollections about virtually every step of the process. “Reading Julie Hyzy’s first story she sent to me,” he suggests. “We couldn’t publish it but it was the best story we ever got. Julie has gone on to be a pretty famous mystery writer, and she sold me a couple of other stories we could publish. That first story just flat knocked me for a loop and I will always remember that feeling that first year. I also remember reading Robert Jeschonek’s Our Million-Year Mission and being stunned and amazed he made it work, and then wondering why no one else had gone there before.
“I [also] have very fond memories of long conversations with John Ordover about the stories, about the contest, about a ton of other things. I loved working with John and would work with him in a heartbeat if he’d come back to editing.
“And, to be honest, I have great memories of the responses the writers had when we bought their stories. It was always a pleasure and an honour to find a great new writer, a great new story, and have the ability to buy the story and publish it. I remember, even after ninety novels and a hundred short stories what it felt like when I sold my first story, and it always felt good to me to be able to give that wonderful feeling to other writers.”
The ten Strange New Worlds collections were released by Pocket Books between July 1998 and August 2007.