By May S. Ruiz
The adage ‘If at first you don’t succeed try, try again,’ would never be a more appropriate descriptor for anyone than Preston Dennett. A life-long science fiction enthusiast – as a reader and as a writer of the genre – Dennett submitted his work to the ‘Writers of the Future Competition’ 47 times before getting a 2nd place prize. This Friday, along with 11 other writers and 12 illustrators, he will be honored during the L. Ron Hubbard ‘Writers and Illustrators of the Future’ gala, which is being held at Taglyan Complex in Hollywood from 6:30 to 9:00 pm. He is also vying for the grand prize of ‘Golden Pen Award.’
Just like most young readers, Dennett read Tolkien’s and C. S. Lewis’s works. But it wasn’t until he was introduced to another author that his interest in writing science fiction took hold. He recalls, “My family has always been big readers and I still remember vividly when one day my Mom brought home a book for me by Clifford Simak called ‘Project Mastodon.’ Of course, I had read ‘Lord of the Rings’ and the ‘Narnia’ books and I thought they were unique stories but I didn’t realize there was a whole genre of sci-fi literature. Once I read ‘Mastodon’ I decided I had to read all his books and I was hooked – I must have bought 200 sci-fi books within two years, I filled up my entire room with them. I don’t think my mom realized what she was creating when she bought me that first one because it was what made me want to be a science fiction writer. My Dad was astounded at the sheer number of books I had in my room but supported my aspiration as well once he realized what it meant to me.”
Dennett started writing at the age of 14 and he heard about the ‘Writers of the Future’ (WotF) competition. He says, “I started entering the WotF contest in1988 and submitted 12 times and got rejected every single time. I had been submitting to other magazines as well but also got rejected. At that point I felt it was just too hard and I couldn’t do it anymore; I really thought I was going to win that contest somehow. I sold all the science fiction books I’d accumulated except for the ‘Writers of the Future’ books which I just couldn’t part with because I loved those stories.
“I decided to write non-fiction and it just happened that this was when there was a wave of UFO sightings over my home town in Topanga Canyon. I found out that my brother, my sister-in-law, and their friends had also seen UFOs. When I brought the subject up at work, they said they, too, had seen UFOs. While I knew they weren’t lying, I was also very skeptical and I was determined to prove them wrong. I went to the library and learned that there was an impressive amount of evidence about the subject to support their existence. To determine if these discoveries were true, I launched an investigation into it. I became a field investigator for the Mutual UFO Network which is the world’s largest citizen UFO study group and realized that people have been studying this subject for a long time.
“Suffice it to say, that I was dragged into this kicking and screaming. It took a couple of years before I started to take the subject seriously. I wrote an article for the local newspaper and I got the front page. Then I submitted it to a magazine and it got the front cover. So that got me thinking ‘Wow, maybe I’ll write about real aliens instead of science fiction aliens.’ I started writing non-fiction – UFOs and the paranormal genre – thinking it isn’t science fiction but it’s about aliens so that comes close.”
“My research does bleed into UFOs a bit, for sure,” continues Dennett. “There are certain things I learned in the field which, to an extent, is definitely science fiction and is not true, and I maintain UFOs are non-fiction and real. I had written so many books that by 2008 I thought my dreams of becoming a sci-fi writer is slowly fading. Until one day, my boss walked in the office and asked me if I liked sci-fi. When I said I used to, he lent me a book, the ‘Lensman Series’ by a popular writer E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith. Well, since he was my boss, I read it and fell back in love with science fiction. I remembered the contest and wondered if it was still around and, sure enough, it was. So I bought all the books up to that time, re-read all of them, and started entering the contest again. I got rejected the first four times and when I got my first honorable mention, it got me the inspiration to keep on going. I entered every single quarter since 2009 and won a dozen honorable mentions, but couldn’t get past that.
“Then I started to lose inspiration again. WotF has a forum where people entering could correspond with each other – from there I learned a lot, more than from school or any writers’ groups – and one day I was browsing it and there was a thread about not giving up. Then one guy had said, ‘Oh I won’t give up; I remember the Topanga Canyon story.’ Well, I grew up and lived in Topanga Canyon in the 80s and 90s when I was submitting to the contest. When I read that, I got a cold chill and wondered what that story was. Someone on the thread said ‘All the editors were talking about him saying he was doing really well and were speculating on who was going to be the first to publish his story.’ I knew deep down in my bone that that was me.
“I contacted Dean Wesley Smith, who has been involved in the ‘Writers of the Future’ competition, and asked outright if I was Topanga Canyon, and he confirmed that it was indeed me. I felt both elated and devastated to find out that I had gotten so far for the editors to talk about me. I had no idea that I was right at the end of the road, that I was that close, when I gave up. It was the impetus that pushed me to keep entering and it wasn’t too long after that when I got a call letting me know I made second place. They called me here at the office and I screamed. My boss came running, asking me what was wrong and I said, ‘Nothing’s wrong, but I’m going to need a week off.’”
Office, for Dennett, is Fidelity Credit Services in Burbank, where he has worked for 35 years, first in data entry and now in Accounting and Human Resources. While he toiled at his desk during the day, he also wrote and published 37 speculative fiction stories. He still investigates UFOs and the paranormal and has written more than 23 books and 100 articles on the subject to date. He has appeared on radio shows, like ‘Coast to Coast,’ ‘Exploring Unexplained Phenomena,’ ‘X-Zone,’ and more, including many podcasts. And when he isn’t working an office job, chasing UFOs, or broadcasting on the radio, he plays the guitar, hikes, gardens, and reads. He also loves to cook and is getting into illustration and drawing.
Dennett’s entry that won the 2nd place in the 1st quarter of 2018 is called ‘A Certain Slant of Light.’ He explains, “The idea came to me after speculating on the ramifications of the continuing destruction of the earth’s environment. I was also inspired by mainstream science’s failure to fully grasp and explain the mystery of time. And, like many of my stories, I continue to explore the theme of love and how it plays such a powerful role in our lives.”
“I’m very excited to see the illustrations the artist will put together for this story,” enthuses Dennett. “I’m eager to see if what I had in mind reflects reality. I can imagine what I think the illustration might look like but I’m sure it’s going to be amazing either way. I hope they have a box of Kleenex ready because it’s going to be a very emotional moment for me. I’ve attended the gala event eight to ten times before when I was in the audience as a loser. This is the first time when I’m going to be on the stage and it’s just so unbelievable!”
Asked what this means to him, Dennett responds, “It’s nice to be receiving a prize money and getting my story published in the anthology – it’s a dream come true. And the workshop, getting to meet all these famous writers that I have looked up to for years and years is awesome. But, really, to me the best prize of all is the confidence. The honorable mentions were nice, but winning second place really let me know for sure that I could write a good story. So now I have the confidence to move forward and if I get rejected I wouldn’t take it as personally. It’s ironic, though, that the story that finally won was one of the shortest stories that I’ve ever submitted to this contest – it was 11 pages, when I had submitted upwards of 50 to 60 pages before. But I knew I had a great idea – it was a post-apocalyptic romance with a time travel element woven in there; I did draw from my research on UFOs.
“I know there’s a stiff competition for the 1st place winner of writing competition and I certainly won’t be disappointed if I don’t win it. Honestly, just being a finalist was an achievement because it took a while for me to get past that honorable mention barrier and 2nd place is more than I ever could’ve expected. The ‘Golden Pen Award,’ the best story of the year, boy, if I won that, I would be out of my mind with happiness I might faint. But I’ll be happy for whoever wins. This is, for me, is the realization of a dream!”
Dennett’s excitement is so palpable you couldn’t help but feel thrilled for him. His appreciation and gratitude for finally being recognized for his writing is sincere and honest. In its 35 years, this could very well be the first time that a ‘Writers of the Future’ competition entrant persisted that long to reach that goal. And it’s most certainly a triumph worth celebrating.