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Alumnus Andrew Dykstal was named one of 12 winners in an inter­na­tional writing contest. Galaxy Press | Courtesy

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.”