Thursday, February 21, 2013

What I learned by judging the Golden Heart contest 2013

If you’re not familiar with the Golden Heart contest, it is Romance Writers of America’s biggest and most prestigious annual contest, with about 1200 entries in seven categories (Short Contemporary; Long Contemporary; Short Historical; Long Historical; Paranormal; Inspirational; Young Adult). Besides being a RWA member, the one requirement is that you’re unpublished in narrative prose of 20,000 words or more (by the contest entry deadline).

By entering the contest, you also agree to judge entries from a different category than the one you entered. My entry was in Young Adult, and I elected to judge historical romance. I accepted two judging packets, meaning I judged 10 entries instead of five. One packet was Short Historical and the other was Long Historical.

After the preliminary round of judging, which is done by contest entrants, the field is narrowed to approximately 100 finalists, which will be judged by acquiring editors from romance publishers. Many finalists go on to sell their manuscripts because of this exposure. Obviously, it’s a BIG DEAL to be a finalist. In addition to having your entry read (and maybe bought) by an acquiring editor, there is a huge Awards Ceremony at the RWA national convention in August.

For many reasons, simply entering the contest was a great experience for me, which I'll write about sometime in another post. In this post, I’ll focus on only one reason: THE OPPORTUNITY TO JUDGE.

I got the chance to pretend I’m an agent or editor. And if I were an agent or editor, I would want to look at the full manuscript of three of the proposals I read. Each was very strong in all of the judging categories: the writing; the story/plot; the romance, and the characters.

I’m not at liberty to be specific about the proposals I judged, but I think I can say some general things I learned about Golden Heart entries. 

Of the three I’d like to read the complete manuscript, the writing in one was unusually nimble—literary with sparkling and totally apt figurative language—a delight to read. The characters were also unusual—if made into a movie, I could see Helena Bonham Carter playing the "wicked" mother in the story whose tone overall was droll and delightful.The hero and heroine are delightful and what keeps them apart (the plot) is believable, as well as the development of the romance. I could say far more about this entry, but it has a traceable history on the internet, and so I need to stop here. In one word: UNIQUE! Unique story; unique writing style. Will UNIQUE be a finalist, or go on to win, this year? We'll see. I am so happy to have been given the opportunity to read and judge this one.   

Of the other two that I would like to read the full manuscript, one was totally perfect in every Romance marker way—great romantic development, plot, characters, writing and synopsis. I’m sure it will final, and I can’t wait to see it among the finalists.

The last of the three, although exceptionally well written, with interesting characters and an interesting plot, cannot be classified as a romance, but as a story with a strong romance element. I suspect that will take it out of the running. We might see it on general fiction shelves someday, but it will not be published with Romance on the spine. It’s sad, because last year, there was a category for stories such as this. But the powers that be have decided that RWA is about writers of romance. It does not include the broader umbrella of novels with a strong romance element. Romance as a genre has a certain shape to it, and certain reader expectations. The romance is always the “A” story, and everything else, if there is anything else, is the “B” story.

Of the ten entries, one other wasn’t by definition a romance, although it also had a strong romance thread. It suffered from other problems as well: the characters weren’t unique; the writing was way over the top. Historical romance is lush by definition, but this writer seemed to think that if two adjectives are good, three are better. Also, the emotional reactions were so overblown that I’d hate to think how the characters would react if they found themselves in a situation where truly strong emotion were required. When emotion has already been amped to the max, there’s no place to go with it.

Of the remaining six, two were relatively strong in three of the four categories they were being judged on, but suffered in one area. In one, I couldn’t figure out why the hero and heroine didn’t get together soon after meeting—there was little of any true significance holding them apart. What happens is that you end up with a plot that keeps hitting the same note.

The hero and heroine can’t get together because of [this one thing], rather than because of [this, and then this, and then this]. It’s true that the internal reason stays constant throughout a romance, but in this case, there was no compelling internal reason or any truly significant external reasons. I felt like I was reading the same conversation in every scene, page after page after page, although I loved the setting and the characters and the writing.

The second of the two that I rated in the middle range was very well written but it seemed, unfortunately, like a story that’s been done a thousand times over the years, and probably has been. I couldn’t discern any new twists, and while the hero and heroine each had a seemingly compelling internal reason to keep them apart, any reasonable person (such as these two appeared to be) should be understanding about it from the get-go. 

As a rule of thumb, if a hero and heroine were to sit down and have a simple conversation that would clear up the issue between them, then the issue isn’t big enough to carry a book. In this novel, there were also some external things that kept them apart, but it was another person—several other persons—over the course of the story. I’d call this another version of hitting the same note. And for some reason, the author ignored the most obvious and fruitful external reason to keep the characters apart. (Maybe that's where she thought she was being different?) 

Also, except for lust, I wasn’t given reasons why they should fall in love. Some romances are extremely sensual, as this one promises to be, but in the end, lust can’t be the only thing that attracts them. Even in a steamy romance.

Of the remaining four, one was so dreadful that I could hardly stomach reading it. The final three suffered from a variety of ailments, the most glaring being character reactions, thus plots, that were improbable, making no sense at all.

It’s sad, because the authors were all fairly adroit on the sentence level, in terms of grammar and description—but they pushed their cardboard characters around on the page. They were also guilty of weak dialogue, and of half-page insertions (of exposition or expository dialogue) that appeared to have nothing whatsoever to do with the theme or plot. In other words, the stories lacked focus; they were not honed and shaped to the point that every word held its weight.

These were things I noticed while judging 550 pages' worth of contest entries. But the biggest eye-opener for me came in the reading of the synopses.

Being that I read a maximum of about 50 pages of each manuscript, with a five-page synopsis (in most cases), I was able to discern the huge burden a synopsis carries as the vehicle for telling the rest of the story to a contest judge, prospective agent, or editor.

Nobody looks for fabulous storytelling in a synopsis, but the synopsis does need to convey some extremely important things. In the romance genre, these important things answer the question of what is keeping the lovers apart. It should also give hints as to what brings them together.

In almost all cases, these were the weakest elements in the synopses. Most clearly spelled out the plot, but sorely neglected these more important issues (when it comes to the romance genre). One would assume that if the information is lacking in the synopsis, it’s also lacking in the story.

Seeing this with my own eyes was truly educational for me. I’m in a critique group, and I dearly love my writing friends, but I’m the only one who writes romance, and we’re not all at the same stage in the writing journey. Few of us have completed several manuscripts, and are at the stage of writing proposals and seeking an agent or editor.

Thus, I haven’t had much experience with writing or reading short synopses, but I now understand at a new level what makes them work, as well as what makes them—and the stories they summarize—fail. 

I can clearly see how agents are able to judge an entire book after having read merely a 5-10 page writing sample, and a short synopsis. What an opportunity. 

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