Friday, April 4, 2014


Remember, feedback can be, um, subjective.

The romance world has its own form of March Madness, which blows in with the annual announcement of the RWA® Golden Heart® and RITA® awards for excellence in romance writing.  This year’s announcement of the finalists (and congratulations to all of you!) brought the usual windstorm of excitement.  But it also whipped up a gale of controversy over new rules for judging the contests for unpublished manuscripts (Golden Heart®) and published works (RITA®). Few members of RWA were happy with the results of the new process.

Starting with this contest year, scores for these contests gave a much heavier weight to the romantic component of the story.  Of a possible 50 points awarded an entry, 20 were given for the romance (how it was presented and developed); 10 for the plot/story; 10 for the characters; and 10 for the writing (mechanics, style, etc.).  In order to reach the final round (ie. to be named a “finalist”), an entry had to earn 90 percent of the possible points (or at least 45).  Let me tell you, that’s a high bar.

The controversy began when these rules were first announced a year ago.  Now that we’ve seen them in action, a few grumbles have become a roar of protest within the organization. In two categories of the RITA (Romantic Suspense and Inspirational), finalists were astonishingly few.  In others (Historical, Contemporary), they were unbelievably numerous. Even if you’re willing to give the rules the benefit of the doubt, the outcomes are enough to make you wonder.  Can there really be that much difference in quality between categories?*

Those who object the loudest see the contest rules as only one symptom of a growing tendency of the organization to narrow its focus unnecessarily, excluding everyone not engaged in a very strict form of romance writing.  Letters and emails are flying toward the RWA Board; the Board is answering, alas, not that they hear the concerns and will take them into consideration, but by digging in its heels.
**sigh** Can’t we all just get along?
The problem is not so much that the new rules for judging are causing problems, though they obviously are.  The problem is one that has carried over from the previous system and affects judging of contests not only at the RWA National level, but also at the local chapter level.  Who trains the judges?
I’ve been to five national conferences now and studied the workshop offerings thoroughly, and I’ve yet to see a workshop offered on How To Judge a Writing Contest, much less How To Judge the Golden Heart® or RITA®.  The first time I volunteered to judge my local chapter contest, I was given a three-page handout as a guide and told to have at it.  I was (and still am—until next year) an unpublished writer with no credentials.  I just happened to be an editor by past experience, but a lot of my fellow judges had nothing of the sort to offer.
To be a judge, even at the national level, even for something as important as GH, all you have to do is be an RWA member and volunteer.  To judge for RITA, you just have to be a member of PAN, and willing to do it.  

 Most newbie judges think they’re qualified to judge because they’re readers.  After all, if it’s good, it’s good, right?  If it’s bad, it’ll be obvious.  But recognizing why something works is not so easy, and analyzing why something is not working is even harder.  The subtleties of scoring can drive you out of your mind—is this plot hole worth a three-point deduction? Or just two?  Did the author ace the character development for a ten, or just miss it for a nine?  AAAGGHH!  (Just thinking about it stresses me out—Fool For Love, Virginia Romance Writers’ contest is coming up!)
And newbies are not the only problem.  The longer a judge has been at it, the more individual prejudices come into play.  This is the infamous “East German judge” problem—the judge who just doesn’t seem to get anything about the entry and scores it really low for no apparent reason.  Or doesn’t like independent females, so will score the entry low in the character section if it includes a spunky gal.  Or, and this seems to be a huge problem this year, has misinterpreted the rules not about what romance consists of, but about what a romance (novel) is.
You see, I don’t think the rule about giving the romance extra weight in the score is necessarily a bad thing.  Romance has its conventions, just as SF does.  Thus, readers expect for the hero and heroine to meet up within the first couple of chapters, to interact frequently, to show some chemistry, to follow a well-defined path through the romantic arc to the black moment, resolution and HEA/HFN.  Contest judges have a right to expect the entries for a romance writing contest to demonstrate these things, too, and to score them based on how well they do them.  If the entry is only part of the manuscript (like Golden Heart® is), then a lot of this has to be hinted at in the first 50 pages.  That’s just the reality of the GH.
The problem comes with judges who are too used to seeing this romantic arc within the context of stories in which the external arc (or plot) deals almost purely with relationships—contemporaries or historicals.  In those kinds of stories, the romance plays out within a very confined external “universe”—friends, family, the town—that revolves around the couple and involves them in almost every scene.  There may be a mystery to solve, or a family crisis or obstacle to overcome, but the external plot has less scope than in other subgenres (paranormal/SFR, romantic suspense, even inspirational).  The best writers in contemporary and historical spend just as much of their “time” on worldbuilding, but it’s such a “familiar” world to their readers, that work often goes unnoticed, particularly by untrained observers.
In paranormal and, of course, SFR, worldbuilding is fundamental to any understanding of the story.  The most heart-wrenching romance must be set within a believable, detailed world populated with creatures and ideas that may be completely new to the reader.  That takes a bit of introduction.  Any judge encountering this for the first time—with no training—might think the worldbuilding is taking precedence over the romance.  Not so (at least, not so if the writer is doing her job right).  If the romantic arc is still intact—from Boy Meets Girl to HEA/HFN—and the romance touches the heart as it should, then that romance should score well, regardless of where the romance is set.
So we go back to training the judges so they are using at least minimally objective criteria rather than just their instincts as readers/writers.  
Believe me, I’m aware there may be resistance to this idea.  I’m involved in a parallel effort right now to upgrade the training for tournament judges and referees in Isshinryu karate.  Imagine telling a sixth-degree black belt that his kata (form) judging could use some improvement!  Still, better that he get on board with some standardized criteria for judging than for everyone to continue to leave the tournaments complaining about the unfairness of the judging.
And better for the RWA national leadership to insist on training for its judges than to allow this controversy to fester in its ranks.

*The good news is that the RITA Paranormal category was neither too small nor too large, with several SFR finalists!
Cheers, Donna


  1. I had one book final in the GH centuries ago (grin), but quickly realized that neither I or my books fit neatly into slots. LOL That said, I think RWA keeps running into the law of unintended consequences. You see it all over. Someone tries to swat a fly with a hammer. Or with a ion cannon. (grin)

    I've often thought it was pointless to have have lists or rules for published books. Or even unpubbed. The question for the reader is: do I want to keep reading this book?

    If the answer is no, and you're a judge, you should then ask, is that a personal thing, or is there something wrong in the writing?

    The second is, of course, the harder to answer, and one reason I resist judging. Something can be well written and not engage me as a reader. Is the missing spark on my end or in the text?

    So I tend to judge easy, because I don't want to judge wrong. So I run from judging. LOL

    And then there is the problem of judging books in your own category. That seems made for trouble, too.

    So they have this huge judging problem. Not enough judges. Not enough judges with a clue (count me on the without a clue side).

    I don't know what the answer is, but making things more complex, adding layers? Seems/feels like wrong direction for me.

    Do I have answers? Sadly no, other than KISS. A very fair blog post, btw.

  2. Great summary, Donna. My skipping the GH for 2014 wasn't JUST about a lack of time. I'm really concerned how the new rules will affect my entries. In SFR the romance and the SF elements should be 50/50 and I'm not sure the new weighting structure will be in SFR's advantage. Yet it clearly worked out for some of the entries this year.

    As for the whole what-is-a-romance? controversy, I'm really torn. The Outer Planets got a "Not a Romance" check box from one of the judges in 2011. The scores were high enough that it still finaled, but if one or two other judges had also clicked that box, it would have been disqualified rather than a front runner that year.

    This really set me back on my heels because I felt The Outer Planets was flawed in being too much of a romance in a setting that should have played a bigger part (onboard a planetary research vessel).

    So I really puzzled over that outcome. I *think* it may have been deemed "not a Romance" in the judge's mind because the main characters marry before the end of the story. In many romance readers' minds, Romance ENDS at marriage. No ifs, ands or buts.

    But not in my story. The H&H had some huge obstacles to overcome before they could have their HEA. To end with the marriage would have eliminated the entire closing arc of the tale. Would I change anything because of the judge's decision? Not on your life!

    The question it raises is: "Where does this leave Romances with a H&H who start out already being married?" (Think about amnesia or lost history stories, where the H&H are already married even if one or both don't realize it.)

    My point is will stories in the GH be scored down or disqualified in the GH because they don't follow "The Norm?" Doesn't this kill the chances for submissions that take an inventive approach to romance, as SFR stories often do?

  3. I agree, Pauline, that it's really difficult to judge something as dependent on individual taste as fiction writing. But having been a judge on the local level, I do think it's possible to set some good criteria by which you can judge impartially, though I actually think it's better if you're judging a category you have some experience with as a reader or a writer. It's better to know the conventions of SFR or historical or contemporary or inspirational, if you're judging a story in that subgenre. It's the contest directors' job to set those criteria and to train the judges so everyone's on the same page.

    And, yes, Laurie, I, too, was deemed "not a romance" by several judges in the GH before I finaled with the same ms. But since we don't get any comments we can never know WHY they said that. Not enough chemistry between H/H? I killed off the kids in the prologue? Or they just didn't like it for some undefined reason. Again, with clearer criteria and better training for judges we wouldn't have that problem.

  4. A possibly interesting side note. I went to my first WorldCon last year. By signing up, I became eligible to judge the Hugos. Anyone who went to WorldCon could judge.

    The Hugo seems to be well respected by both authors and readers. I wonder if we are trying to do more than is actually possible?

    Training sounds good and I think EPIC tried to do that? But I'd barely have time to do the judging (assuming I entered), let alone do training.

    After thinking about this for several days, I wonder if we want it to do more than it ever can? (insert wry grin here)

  5. I've been thinking about joining the RWA for a while, but their requirements on the percentage of romance in a novel to qualify constantly makes me doubt my eligibility as a full member rather than an associate (considering the membership fee is the same regardless). But all this furore over the contest has made me doubt it even more. I try to balance the SF and the R, but the RWA emphasis on the romance side... *confused*

  6. My space opera series is not something I'd ever be comfortable submitting to something like the Golden Heart. I'd get marked down a LOT because the plot is split pretty evenly between the romance and the finding of the hero's lost home world.

    My other series, though, would fit nicely in a contest like GH. It's about the romance, and the world building is secondary since it takes place on our Earth in the near future.

    I'm hoping to join RWA sometime in the next couple months. It's something I've wanted to do for awhile, and finances are finally coming together where I can. I need to build general market connections now. My inspirational market ones are zero help for SFR.

  7. Rachel, I'd encourage you to join RWA and enter GH,too. The contacts you make in the organization are invaluable (I wouldn't be here without RWA, after all!), and there are just so many opportunities to learn and grow within RWA, no matter what kind of romance you write. Space opera is still a viable option for GH, I believe, as long as the romance is clear in the story and ends in HEA/HFN. But then, that's the controversy, isn't it.

  8. Ditto what Donna said, Rachel. The cost of membership is well worth it for what you get out of it in terms of networking, support and information.

    I didn't join for many years because of the cost and realized after I finally joined that had been a very unwise decision on my part.

  9. I'm actively submitting my space opera, and about to send it out again. I've gotten some great feedback on it through various places. It's my other thing that no one has seen. Not even my CP, except for the first chapter.

    Of course, I haven't touched it since January. I'm way too caught up in the second arc of my space opera!

    I'm also running into issue with my space opera because it's a continuancy. I have the same main characters through the first three books, and they get married at the end of the first one. It's hard to place, but I think it's worth the effort.


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