Thursday, April 19, 2012

In Memoriam: K. D. Wentworth

As an unpublished writer and later a writer of meager credentials, I often looked at the Writers of the Future contest as opening to get into the business of a storytelling professional. Unsurprisingly, I didn't win on my first attempt.

I didn't win on my second or third attempts either. They were all flat rejections letters, and at the time I had no idea there was such a thing as a coordinating judge or that there was just one dedicated soul reading through all the submissions. But I was stubborn and kept trying.

Eventually, on my sixth attempt, the unimaginable happened. I won. And by then I knew there was a name attached to the early judging.

It was K.D. Wentworth, but I didn't know much about her besides her name and the brief bio on the WotF site.

That would change.

At the workshop that all winners go to, I got to meet K.D., who as coordinating judge read all the submissions for any given quarter before passing on the top eight to the panel of judges who then pick out the first, second, and third place winners of the quarter.

I can only imagine how many boxes of manuscripts that used to be (the year after my win, they started allowing electronic submissions). Those of us at the workshop asked K.D.: How could she do it? How come she didn't ask for any help?

And she said she didn't want to spread out the reading because she wanted to make sure it was a consistent mind that was doing all the rejections. The contest entries were getting so much better and she wanted to cultivate that. She would answer questions on her newsgroup about the contest on her own time and encourage writers to keep submitting.

Sometimes a writer would thank her on her newsgroup for being a finalist or a semi-finalist, and since she judged all the stories blind, she would ask for the name of the story they wrote. And she would remember that story. Sometimes she might comment on a scene she liked, or a theme the writer ran with.

K.D. had faith in a lot of us, many of whom hadn't managed a single professional writing credit. She said that the contest was getting better and better entries every year and she didn't want it to lose that momentum.

We had a lot of instructors our workshop week, but K.D. was always there to quietly offer her advice. I remember sitting next to her at my first bookstore signing (which was part of the workshop then) and how she told me a story about a small prank she'd done to Tim Powers at a con. The story was tied into the greater lesson that every writer has a different opinion on how things should be done and each writer needs to decide for themselves what is the right thing to do, but the silliness of the story is what made it memorable.

One of my most significant memories about K.D. was the night of the award ceremony itself.

My family and I were having dinner at the banquet when K.D. came up to meet them. After the pleasantries were exchanged, she told me, "Remember, I loved your story first."

At the time I didn't understand what she'd meant. Of course she had liked my story before the other judges. She was the coordinating judge.

Then, perhaps two hours later, I won the Gold Award.

K.D. had plucked my story "Living Rooms" out of the thousands of stories she must have received that quarter and sent it on to be a finalist, where it eventually was awarded first place, and then later still the grand prize. It was a dream come true. I could hardly believe it as I walked down the aisle to the stage where K.D. was there to present me with my award.

She set me on my path, and the win has done so much for my motivation as a writer. Everyone wants validation that what they are doing means something to someone, and every year she gave validation to dozens of writers.

She was the sweetest person, and it meant to lot to her to pay it forward.

An author once told me that he could never pay back the people who'd helped him, because now that he was successful they were no longer around, so he does his best to pay it forward.

I can't pay back K.D., except by being the writer she knew I could be, and to in turn pay it forward for writers still to come.