Professor of History David Stewart studied the paper, nodded, then crossed out the student’s entire first paragraph.
The student, Andrew Dykstal ’13, considered himself a good writer, especially after successfully competing in essay speech writing, but he realized this was a delusion upon entering Hillsdale. Nevertheless, with his professors’ guidance, he learned to clear out empty language, force himself to get to the point, and develop an analytical style that valued evidence and close analysis.
Six years later, Dykstal is internationally recognized for his writing talent: He was recently named one of twelve winners of L. Ron Hubbard’s 35th annual The Writers of the Future Contest. His short story will be released to the public after “L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Vol. 35, an annual anthology of the winning pieces, is published.
In its 35th year, the international competition rewards winners with a week-long professional workshop and awards ceremony on April 5 in Los Angeles, California. Distinguished authors, such as Tim Powers of “Stranger Tides” and Orson Scott Card of “Ender’s Game,” will teach this year’s workshop and show the basic mechanics of writing a story. The winner’s stories will be published in an anthology, the “L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Volume 35,” which has appeared on bestseller lists for the past four years.
“I’m looking forward to meeting these authors. I’ve read at least something from all of them,” Dykstal said. “Basically I’m going to sit in a room with 11 talented authors and geek out terribly, while wringing out as much information as I can.”
President and publisher of Galaxy Press, the publisher and distributor of L. Ron Hubbard’s works, John Goodwin said most workshop participants’ stories end up selling afterward.
“This competition has the highest success rate of introducing novelists and artists into the professional side of science fiction and fantasy,” Goodwin said.
Dykstal received a bachelor of arts in English and political science and credits Hillsdale’s English department for his appreciation of the subject. Since he planned on attending law school after graduation, Dykstal said majoring in political science seemed like good preparation for that endeavor. But his focus shifted more toward English as he realized he knew more happier academics than lawyers. After graduation, he earned a master’s in English at the University of Virginia, taught high school English for a year, and now works as a government contractor in Washington, D.C.
“The combination worked well, because both are concerned with narratives, human action, and the study of abstract ideas in concrete circumstances,” Dykstal said. “The English department as a whole helped me appreciate what writing can do— putting together these great experiments, letting them run, and seeing what happens.”
While studying at Hillsdale, Dykstal was the team manager on the speech team and debated at national tournaments. He received two national titles in debate and several speech awards. After he graduated, he helped coach for a while both the college’s speech and debate teams.
“It’s one of those things you can only do and sustain for several years if it’s something you love,” Dykstal said. “And where else can you trap people in a room and have them talk about abstract philosophy?”
Dykstal added that his liberal arts education at Hillsdale made him ponder the type of questions that are good for developing story conflicts.
“The story that won the contest is closely tied to questions that come up in basic political conversation,” Dykstal said. “How can a power set up to work good in the world be prevented from working ill? What happens at the moment of extremity when a society’s models and expectations have all seemingly come to ruin?”
A memorable course Dykstal took was a Utopian Fiction course taught by Nathan Schlueter, professor of philosophy and religion. In Dykstal’s words, utopian fiction — a close cousin of dystopian fiction — explores the consequences of ideas, whereas science fiction delves into “what if” scenarios, making the two genres very similar. Writing science fiction also allows him to “weird people out more,” which is something he enjoys doing once in a while.
“I tend to treat science fiction as a successor to the gothic. It plays a lot of with the ideas of transgression,” Dykstal said. “It deals with the world having been changed to a point where there has to be some renegotiation and how the characters reach an equilibrium situation again where they can live in.”
In addition to Dykstal, many other students who took Utopian Fiction said it was one of the most informative courses they’ve taken, Schlueter said.
“I’ve seen this course bear fruit for students in all kinds of different ways and I’m glad to see how this class bore fruit on Andrew’s development,” Schlueter said.
Dykstal wrote a few stories already and one of them, “Clockwork,” is already published and can be read on DailyScienceFiction.com. This flash fiction story, a short fiction story, is about a woman who inexplicably coughs up watch parts.
“It began with a mental image of suffering a coughing fit over a sink and finding a single, tiny gear,” Dykstal said. “It took about an hour to write and several more to polish.”
The Writers of the Future Contest has helped many aspiring writers advance further in their writing careers, and about half of them continue on professionally, Goodwin said.
When it comes to writing stories, Dykstal said his ideas come from everywhere. They start from building up a situation around a mental image or with a character experiencing personal or professional failure.
“That’s one of my favorites, and a fairly common trope: building a story around somebody whose life has fallen apart and whose present dire straits force commitment to some risky proposition,” Dykstal said.
For those interested in writing, reading is very important, Dykstal said. The more time spent reading, the more efficient writing itself will be.
“Read anything and everything you can find outside and inside of your preferred genres,” Dykstal said. “Life experience is valuable, and while both are necessary, they’re not sufficient. You also have to understand the mechanics of a story, what makes stories compelling and interesting to readers.”
Dykstal plans on continuing his writing career after the workshop and hopefully he’ll have a new novel within the next couple of years.
“I would love to make a living as a novelist, but it’s something that very few people do,” Dykstal said. “I will continue writing, but you have to be very good and very lucky; that’s the dream.”