By Carson Gerber
Tribune staff writer
— Stephen Sottong said as a kid, he spent a lot of time at the library in Kokomo in the 1960s.
The first book he checked out? A science-fiction novel by Ben Bova called “Star Conquerors.”
He read it and was instantly hooked on the sci-fi genre. From there, he made his way through as much of the library’s collection as possible, reading the classic sci-fi novels of the ‘50s and ‘60s from authors like Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov.
Sottong said his time at the library and the books it offered ultimately inspired him to try his hand at writing science fiction at the age of 10. And for the last decade, the 61-year-old said he’s worked to sharpen the writing craft he took up as a kid.
It has paid off.
Sottong was recently named a winner in the Writers of the Future contest — one of the most internationally prestigious competitions for up-and-coming science-fiction writers.
Throughout the contest’s 29-year history, more than 650 writers and illustrators have been recognized as winners. Past winners of the contest have published more than 750 novels and 3,500 short stories.
“What’s amazing to me is that a good 60 to 70 percent of winners go on to successful careers,” said New York Times’ best-selling author Kevin Anderson in a press release. “You could call it the ‘American Idol’ for writers, long before there ever was such a show.”
The Writers of the Future contest was founded in 1983 by L. Ron Hubbard — an American pulp fiction author and the founder of the Church of Scientology — to provide a means for aspiring writers to get a much-needed break.
Sottong, who now lives in California, said he was honored to be named one of the three quarterly winners in the competition and said he’s hoping the award will give him a break.
“The contest draws thousands of entries each quarter from around the English-speaking world, so to be considered one of the top three is an achievement,” he said in an email interview. “Many of the winners have gone on to significant careers. I hope to continue writing and reach a larger audience.”
And Sottong’s writing will reach a larger audience. His story “Planetary Scouts” will be in the annual “L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers and Illustrators of the Future” book, which the contest publishes each year and contains winners’ works.
What’s his story about? The teaser blurb describes it like this: “The ads say, ‘Live the adventure! Meet strange new aliens!’ But beware what the ads don’t tell you.”
Sottong said he was born and raised in Kokomo in a working-class family. He said his dad was an assembly-line worker at Chrysler.
“We couldn’t afford the constant stream of sci-fi books I wanted to read, so the library fed my passion,” he said. “The biggest shaper of my writing would have to be the Kokomo Public Library. I wouldn’t be a writer without it.”
Sottong attended Ivy Tech Kokomo, joined the Navy for six years, and then went to Purdue University where he graduated with a degree in engineering. From there, he moved to California to work for an aerospace company.
In the early 1990s, he received a master’s degree in library science and worked in academic libraries until he retired at the age of 51.
With plenty of free time, Sottong began honing his writing skills. A few of his pieces landed in local publications in California and Oregon, but his story in the “Writers of the Future” book will be his first national publication.
Currently, Sottong said, he has a dozen or more short stories and a few novels sitting on his computer in various stages of completion.
So where do ideas for his stories come from?
“Ideas come from everywhere — news, science magazines, daily life,” he said. “It’s just a matter of taking the germ of an idea and stretching it to its logical, or sometimes illogical, conclusions and seeing how that affects people.”
Sottong will be honored this Sunday at the 29th-annual L. Ron Hubbard Achievement Awards inside the famed Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Hollywood, Calif.
The highlight of the ceremony will be the announcement of the year’s two grand prize winners, who will each receive $5,000. Quarterly winners also receive cash prizes from $500 to $1,000.
Carson Gerber is a Kokomo Tribune reporter. He may be reached at 765-854-6739, or by email at email@example.com.