Friday, December 2, 2016


Me with some of the 2012 class of Golden Heart Finalists--the Firebirds

 The membership of the Romance Writers of America® was thrown into an uproar last week by the announcement of changes in the schedule for its annual conference in July. Several major revisions in the time-honored sequence of events were made by the elected Board of Directors, including moving the popular Literacy Signing (a charity event featuring dozens of writers, from big-names to debut authors) from Wednesday night to Saturday afternoon, a timing more like the RT Booklovers convention. The new schedule also places the big RITA® awards gala (for published authors) on Thursday night rather than at the end of the conference.

But the change that has drawn the most controversy was the decision to split the Golden Heart® awards ceremony (for unpublished authors) off from the RITA® event and schedule it at a luncheon on Thursday. I was not the only past Golden Heart® Finalist who considered this to be a clear demotion of Golden Heart®. Facebook and GH alumni loops were alight with animated discussion of the move, and most past GH honorees refused to buy the official RWA line that the separation of the ceremonies was an attempt to give Golden Heart® Finalists their own special spotlight.

How? By shoehorning the Finalists into a dark corner of the schedule in the middle of the day in the middle of the week, when many conference attendees would be busy with agent or publisher meetings? By depriving the new crop of Finalists of the experience we all had of dressing in our fancy ball gowns and attending the ceremony with The Nora and all the rest—and having them hear our names called out? And, most importantly, by announcing the winners of the Golden Heart® contest before the pitch sessions with agents and publishers that take place on Thursday afternoon and Friday?

As Board members were called upon to defend the decision, it soon became clear that the premier contest for unpublished romance writers in the world had slipped in importance within the organization. Entries were down for Golden Heart® in this era of indie publishing, Board members said, just like entries are down for chapter contests, so . . .

So instead of doing something to encourage entries in the contest—like requiring judges to provide feedback, or rethinking categories (why not split up the huge paranormal category to allow a separate SFR category, for instance)—the Board decided that GH® could no longer justify its position of importance in the organization. Other things, most notably the professional RITA® awards, took precedence, so the Board re-ordered the schedule to give GH® less time and significance.

The problem here is much larger than a seemingly small change in the conference schedule. It has to do with the definition and direction of RWA itself, which the organization has been struggling with for the last few years. What is, and what should be, RWA’s core membership? And how does RWA best serve that core membership? Are we an organization of romance writers? Or only of professional (ie. income-earning) romance writers?

Since its inception, the organization has sponsored continuing education and professional support for established authors (PAN). But it has also encouraged new and aspiring writers with networking, educational programs, mentoring, and paths to publishing (PRO). For years, members could say with pride that RWA was the only professional writers’ organization in the world that admitted unpublished authors, and provided a means for those authors to improve their craft

The Golden Heart® contest, as the pinnacle of the regional or chapter contest circuit for unpublished authors, was a major part of this improvement effort. In sending manuscripts out to contests, writers got specific feedback and encouragement they could get in no other way. By finaling in the Golden Heart® contest, they got recognition that they were “the best of the best.” And the publishing establishment saw it, too.

I had unsuccessfully queried nearly every legitimate agent in the U.S. who had not specifically ruled out science fiction or romance with my first book, Unchained Memory, before the manuscript finaled in the Golden Heart® contest in 2012. After I became a Finalist, I re-queried several of the same agents. All of a sudden, those agents wanted to see the full manuscript. And one, the wonderful Michelle Johnson, finally called with an offer. Many of my fellow Firebirds (the cadre of Finalists from that year) had the same experience. Even those who didn’t win the actual award saw a real boost in their careers from finaling.

But, the RWA Board is arguing, indie writers just aren’t interested in competing in contests. Why should they when they can self-publish without the help of an agent or traditional publisher? I would counter that getting the attention of agents and publishers is only one reason to compete. In fact, it’s the last reason. 

By the time Unchained Memory reached Golden Heart®, the manuscript had been through at least ten chapter/regional contests and had been polished according to the feedback I’d received. Sometimes I wish even now I could send my manuscripts through that crucible again. No critique partner will ever be as brutally honest as some of those chapter judges! And no editor will tell you to go back and start over on a project because it’s fundamentally flawed; he or she will only take what you give them and do their best to work with it. Self-published authors are at a distinct disadvantage because they have no one to tell them if they have gone horribly wrong—no agent, no publisher, no filter.

And if you don’t believe that is a problem, just glance through the hundreds of terrible titles your good book is competing with out there.

As a long-term member of RWA, I strongly believe it is the organization’s role to stand up for quality in the romance industry, and to help its newest members attain the highest level of that quality. Now is not the time to give up that role, or to diminish the importance of its biggest symbol, the Golden Heart®.



  1. What I find most interesting in all of this is that most of the people complaining are ones who haven't been to the conference in years. They don't see the attendance at the gala dropping like a boulder in a lake. This year, the ballroom was barely half full. I only went because my roomie was a RITA finalist. Otherwise we would've spent the evening on Coronado Island.

    The year before, 2015, I didn't go to it at all. My roomie and I spent the evening wandering around Manhattan because we were sick of sitting and being inside. My ankles were so swollen they actually hurt. We weren't the only attendees doing it either. There were more of us out and about than at the gala.

    Moving it to a lunch, where more people will be there to see it, doesn't seem like such a bad thing to me. The lunch is included in our registration, and most people do NOT skip it unless they have an appointment.

    Making it mandatory for judges to leave feedback will NOT make the contest better overall. It might encourage entries, but it'll make getting enough judges almost impossible. The FF&P unpubbed contest operated without enough judges this last year, and it'll probably be the same story for 2017. Other chapters have the same problem.

    I judged in two chapter contests this spring. In both, feedback was mandatory. It takes an average of two hours per entry for 20 pages. The GH is over twice that. It's a HUGE commitment on the judge's part and takes away from our own writing time. My word output while judging was pitiful. I'm only judging in one contest this year, if I judge at all. Depends on my editing schedule.

    If the membership at large is unhappy with the way things are going, then more of them need to vote and get involved. Heck, more of them need to make a point of attending the AGM and actually caring about what happens.

    1. I agree, Rachel, that judging contests can be a time-consuming pain, and it is invariably a thankless task. I was a judge for the Virginia RWA chapter every year I was there and, yes, it took time. But I saw it as part of my responsibility to give back to writers at a different stage in their careers than mine. In every organization the bulk of its members rely on a hardy few to do the grunt work of running the thing--it's just the nature of the beast.

  2. "But, the RWA Board is arguing, indie writers just aren’t interested in competing in contests."
    >>Yeah, not sure this is true. I know several indie authors who enter contests including myself, because it can give a boost to sales. Can't afford to do so many now but to me as a romance author, a RWA contest meant something legitimate.
    "Self-published authors are at a distinct disadvantage because they have no one to tell them if they have gone horribly wrong—no agent, no publisher, no filter."
    >>Disagree. May be true of some, but most indie authors I know take a lot of pride in their work and will put it through beta readers, critique partners, and editors. My editors have pushed me hardest of all. Again, not true of everyone but I don't like the generalization that it's *all* self pubbed authors.
    "And if you don’t believe that is a problem, just glance through the hundreds of terrible titles your good book is competing with out there."
    >>That may be, but there are also a lot of damn good books out there that haven't won a GH, or any awards at all. I don't have a GH - does that mean my titles are terrible? I don't check what awards a book does or doesn't have when I'm picking something to read and not sure what percentage of readers do. It seems these awards do matter more to agents/publishers than to readers, and possibly *only* to those. Wasn't there huge uproar recently about a Nazi romance winning a RITA or some other big RWA title? Was *that* a good book? The judges apparently thought so despite public outcry about the theme. It's all very subjective about what constitutes a 'good' book. Some readers will accept terrible grammar/typos/style if they like the story. Others won't (me included, but that's me). I am a little tired of the saying 'the market will decide' but it's true - if readers are happy buying those titles that's their choice. If they aren't the titles won't sell. I don't think the GH contest has had that much influence over general book sales and doubt that will change.
    But then, what would I know?

  3. In addition, I don't think publishers are particularly interested in 'good' books so much as what is marketable. Fifty Shades is a perfect example. Universally acclaimed as poorly written and loosely adapted fan fiction that glamorized an abusive relationship and yet a massive success. A good book? Apparently not. Still hugely popular, made tons of money and got turned into a film. No GH winner. While agents might still be picking quality, they have to look at saleability, and right now all publishers want is blockbuster certainties. This is partly why there is so much movement to self publishing, agents retiring from business or adapting to new definitions of their roles (such as also becoming publishers like yours and Laurie's), while the publishing industry does the same as Hollywood - attempts to cash in on sure things. Perhaps the GH assures agents/publishers that the book might stand a chance but there does seem to be more of a move to publishers snapping up self pubbed titles that were already doing well like Howey's Wool and The Martian.

  4. Rachel,I think there may be any number of reasons attendance at the awards ceremony was down at recent conferences, including cost in this day of economic struggle. I don't think it will help to split off the GH ceremony to a luncheon, necessarily, to move the awards to earlier in the week.
    I agree, Pippa, that indie writers DO compete in contests as published authors-- I believe you have won a few of them yourself! My comments had to do with unpubbed and thus aspiring writers, for whom I think RWA has a particular educational responsibility as part of its charter. It's true, of course, that many writers do quite well without any such guidance. Good on them.

    It's also true that Amazon adds some 6000 new titles EVERY DAY (I don't know how many titles drop off). How many of those books had any sort of feedback going in? How, as a newbie, do you get good feedback? The ms. contest circuit is one of the best ways I know to do that and to improve your skills. As the pinnacle of the circuit for unpubbed writers, GH provides a goal to shoot for.

    Is GH the be all and end all? No. Are there other ways to reach the same goals? Certainly. I would just argue that we not be too quick to jettison the GH simply because some folks have found another path.

    1. New York and San Diego were two of the biggest conferences, attendance wise, in RWA history. They made a point of announcing it both times. Both conferences had pitiful attendance at the gala. Both also had pitiful attendance at the AGM. I don't think economic factors had much to do with it. New York had over 2,000 registered attendees. San Diego was over 1500.

      Unpubbed contest entries are down in all chapters. The FF&P contest had a category dropped because it didn't make, and entries were way down over the previous year. We're expecting the same scenario this year. It's playing out in every chapter.

      More and more unpubbed writers *are* skipping contests and going straight to self-pubbing. Without bothering to get an editor. Those of us who spend time and money on editing are in the minority, unfortunately. That lack of editing is a HUGE problem for me in exploring my romance sub-genres. I'll grab a book that sounds great, and encounter something that hasn't been edited. I'm up to about one good book for every 15 I try. The vast majority of them are self-pubbed, and desperately need a good editor.

      Then there are writers like me who don't do well on the contest circuit because we're just far enough outside the box nobody's quite sure what to do with us. It's disheartening to enter contests, know you're good enough, and be told you're too different or romance readers don't care about his POV. I quit entering unpubbed contests long before I started on the indie road.

    2. TBH, I didn't enter contests BEFORE I was published because 1. Until my book had been through the editing and publishing process, I didn't consider it fit for contest as a newbie writer who had no network for support, advice etc when I set out (but at least I *did* wait until I had a professionally edited book). Having found so much online support to hone my craft (though I've done creative writing courses and workshops as well) I can see why some new authors, faced with the costs of a contest and all the necessary editing etc if they go indie, would turn to cheaper/free alternatives such as crit partners and the like. But you can also find editors who will do MS critiques, and very good ones. And yes, there are a ton of new books on Amazon every day where even if I can get past the awful cover, terrible blurb and unedited sample, I don't buy them. I have to say I mostly stick to authors where I've already read one book and loved it or where I've read samples of their work through something like the Brigade Showcase so I have a feel for their style and quality. Trying to search for something worth reading on Amazon (not helped by their crappy search function and their apparent inability to enforce the 'not cramming keywords into a book title/subtitle' rule) is guaranteed to lead to frustration.

  5. I have to say I'm with Pippa in this discussion. I don't enter award competitions. And I'm going to let my membership of the RWA (Australia) lapse because I gte nothing from it. But my books go through quality control before they're published. When I was an aspiring writer, I did writing courses, for a start. Several of them. Courses where tutors responded to work, giving that necessary feedback. And let me tell you, I needed it. I still take courses. There is no suitable writers' group where I live, but there are online groups. When I thought I'd learned enough, I poste my book on Authonomy, where I learned to develop a thick skin, that not every critic deserved my time, and that you needed a lot of luck to catch a publisher's eye.

    Authonomy is gone, but there are still plenty of online writing groups that offer support and help. Savvy Authors is one and I've forgotten the names of at least two others. Then there's groups like SFR Brigade where we can ask for beta readers and the like.

    Sounds to me like there is a waning interest in the GH, so it's no longer a pinnacle to shoot for. Part of that is BECAUSE of self-publishing. However, if the circuit still exists, and the support is offered, the time of day of the award ceremony isn't that important.

    1. I agree with you, Greta, that online courses (or writing courses of any kind) are invaluable to a newbie writer. I took some great ones, sponsored, in fact, by RWA. Online critque groups like the ones you mention are another great way to get that feedback I was talking about.

    2. is a large online critique site that really gave me a boost when I started getting serious about publishing. It's a great way to get a variety of feedback on your work fairly quickly. Plus it's also a way to build a peer group.

  6. IMHO, having the GH ceremony held at a luncheon takes so much away from the mystique of the award as does being deprived of the chance to rub elbows with the RITA finalists at a gala event. That's huge and there's no other award out there that offered (past tense) such an opportunity to unpublished authors.

    I think there may have been other ways to ramp up interest in the GH than to segregate it from the RITA and demote it to an afternoon event. I'd love to see the GH returned to its heyday, but that would mean RWA having to add back the categories that were cut in 2013, and I just don't see the organization's leadership having much interest in doing that. More and more their interest seems to be fixed on courting the big romance publishers and authors who choose to go the trad route.

    I agree with Donna's thoughts, except I think the "beginning" of the end started in 2013 and this is more "the end" of the end. I doubt the GH is going to survive many more years if RWA doesn't take the huge outcry from the members to heart and fix what they broke, but the feelings of the membership don't seem to be much of a concern for them anymore, judging from their actions in recent years.

    1. I hate to say it, but I think you're right about it being the actual, though unrecognized, end, Laurie. I'm not sure that RWA is courting the trad publishing so much as the big-name pro authors. They apparently want to look like every other pro writing organization--SFWA comes to mind--in which "professionalism" narrowly defined is pursued at the cost of mentoring and networking. Too bad, I say.

    2. I think it's very sad, Donna, that so many aspiring writers who came after us will not have the same opportunity for major recognition while a "pre-published" author. RWA is basically saying: "Let's try it this year and see how it goes." But from past experience I interpret that as: "This is how it's going to be. Get used to it."

    3. As someone who's been in multiple writing organizations, I see in RWA a group of people who are not only embracing the indie writer, but actively courting us. RWA has the most accessible definition of a professional writer in the entire industry. I've never gotten the sense that I'm looked down on or considered unimportant because I'm an indie.

      A lot of the featured authors last year were indies. NOT trad. Roxanne St. Clair, the emcee for the gala last year, is an indie. About half of the workshops were hosted by indies.

      Again, the people I see complaining the most about things happening at the conference or in the membership, are people who haven't been in years or aren't active in anything other than their local chapter. I don't have a local chapter, so online is all I've got and I'm active in it.

      I see a vibrant organization that's trying to adapt to the changing times, and from where I sit they're doing a pretty good job of it.


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Hosted by 5 Science Fiction Romance authors with 8 RWA Golden Heart finals and a RITA final between them. We aim to entertain with spirited commentary on the past, present, and future of SFR, hot topics, and our take on Science Fiction and SFR books, television, movies and culture.