Friday, August 10, 2012


Science fiction romance has always had a bit of an identity crisis. As a community, we agonize over whether we “belong” in the tech-oriented, science-driven world of SF, or in the emotional, relation-and character-driven world of romance. Individually, as authors making decisions over our unique stories, we fall closer to one line or another, more SF or more R, more head than heart, more heart than head, as we choose. But this balance is never far from our minds as we write, no matter how we have calculated the outcome.

So the uproar caused by the latest rule changes announced by the Romance Writers of America should be no surprise to those of us that write SFR. It is really no more than an attempt by RWA to be clear about what it is that they mean when, as an organization, they say “romance”. The organization has eliminated certain categories of competition in the Golden Heart® and RITA® contests, changed the contest judging rules to give the romance in the story more weight and sent the word out to chapters to ensure that members are actively engaged somehow in writing romance. All of this is in an effort to reaffirm RWA’s primary focus on romance, which is, after all, the organization’s mission.

In this era of “branding”, I can’t fault RWA for wanting to reassert its brand (though I might fault the method it has chosen to do so). The Romance Writers of America is not the Women’s Fiction Writers of America or the Young Adult Writers of America or even, though we may have thought so over the last fifteen years, the Paranormal Writers of America. If the story you are writing does not have a central love story (defined as having hero, heroine, relationship arc and HEA), it is not a romance. It may be a great story. It may be the Great American Novel. But it is not a romance and should not be recognized officially by RWA, officially being the key word.

Yes, that leaves a lot of great stories outside the purview of RWA—young adult stories without romances, urban fantasy, the entire category of Novels with Strong Romantic Elements, women’s fiction, much of our own science fiction with romantic elements. But of course it also leaves out much of the rest of fiction—and rightly so. Just because these stories have a strong female lead, they don’t necessarily belong in RWA. We have confused those strong heroines with the heroines of romance. Understandable, but they are not the same thing.

One of the reasons this is such a wrenching separation is that RWA is the only professional writers’ organization that allows the membership of unpublished writers. The Science Fiction Writers of America doesn’t; the Mystery Writers of America doesn’t; journalists must be sponsored by a news organization to be credentialed. No one else does so much for writers learning their craft. Apparently at the chapter level, writers of all types recognize this and take advantage, to the point where large numbers of non-romance writers are members. This is what led to the rule change offering “associate” membership for writers “not actively engaged in writing romance”. As a member who is actively seeking publication in romance, I would prefer not to have those “non-romantics” voting on issues of concern to me in an organization dedicated to romance.

Now, there are a few flaws in all this logic. The first problem comes when we attempt to define “romance”. It seems simple enough at first: hero, heroine, romantic arc, happily ever after. But then people will complicate things. I recently got contest feedback from a multi-published romance writer who was generally very complementary, but worried that I strayed into SF thriller territory, rather than romance because the romance was not more than 50 percent of the story and wasn’t resolved last. Huh? Where did those rules come from? (Granted, she was judging from the synopsis, but still.)

I assume judges for the Golden Heart® and RITA® will be given some direction for the new rules. Otherwise determining 20 points for “romance” will be subjective at best and erratic at worst. The best solution would be to insist on mandatory training for these judges, to be done at National or at local chapters. These contests are too important to leave to just anybody. We’ve all experienced the infamous indecipherable “East German” judge. (Not really from East Germany, a country that no longer exists, but from “Hunger”, as my mom used to say, a fictional place of unimaginable cultural depravity.) Training would help eliminate that possibility.

The second problem is where that leaves all the writers who have found such a comfortable home in RWA, particularly the non-romance YA, women’s fiction/NSRE and urban fantasy writers. I have no solution for them. I truly don’t believe RWA is the place for them if they don’t write romance, but there seem to be few places to go. Perhaps this will be an incentive for them to form smaller groups that better meet their unique needs. After all, RWA itself had a beginning thirty years ago because romance had nowhere else to go.

As for those of us who write SFR, we have decisions to make every time we sit down at the computer—whether to set the story in outer space, on another planet, in a laboratory here on Earth, in another dimension, in the future or wherever. Deciding whether to include a romance—and how much time to devote to it—is up to us as storytellers. As long as we devote an equal amount of time to the romance—hero, heroine, romantic arc—and give our lovers a happy ending, then we will always have a home in RWA, an organization that is all about the romance.

Cheers, Donna


  1. I don't enter any of the contest anymore because, while I think I write romance, I've been told that I don't follow the tropes. Blink, blink. Not sure what that means, except my books don't have sex scenes. LOL! Whatever, I rejoined RWA just recently to get access to chapter support again.

  2. Well, if writing sex scenes is a primary component in writing a romance, then I guess Barbara Cartland, the Queen Mum of Romance doesn't write romance either.

  3. Pauline, I've run into the same frustrations with my SFR novels, which are definitely romance, but apparently not romance enough for some judges who write in other romances categories that are ALL romance.

    In SFR the romance and the science/technology/ other worldly factors should carry equal weight. The romance can't exist without the futuristic elements, and the futuristic elements can't stand alone without the romance. To be pinged because the story isn't primarily romance goes against the definition of the subgenre. So, is all SFR now on the outside looking in?

    And JC, I think this would go for Lois McMaster Bujold, Anne McCaffrey, Anne Aguirre and many other popular SF/R authors, too. Won't this result in a severe identity crisis?

    My concern is that RWA is choosing to take the path of becoming exclusive rather than INCLUSIVE. If a novel meets the main criteria of a romance that Donna outlined, why is it a problem if it also has other elements, as long as the romance is present and meets the HEA criteria?

    While I can see a case for not including Women's Fiction (which is often more literary, yes?) I simply can't agree that YA, Paranormal, Urban Fantasy, SFR, Suspense Romance and the like should get the boot because these novels aren't all about the romance.

    How is narrowing the focus going to help RWA as an organization? It could result in the mass exodus of hundreds--if not thousands--of members. Clearly some of the most popular novels, as evidenced by recent RITA and Golden Heart wins, would no longer fit the mold. IMHO, RWA isn't clarifying its focus, it's narrowing that focus to a very small percentage of the popular romance fiction element.

    How can this serve the general membership? How can the exclusion of books by authors like Darynda Jones, Nalini Singh and Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb be a good thing for RWA? What will the editors and agents do if RWA no longer represents the books that their houses are looking to buy and that are becoming best-sellers?

    Clearly they've upset a lot of their membership and fueled a storm of controversy. i'd hate to see RWA fade away to a shadow of its former self, but I fear that's exactly the course the organization has set for themselves if they don't stop to re-examine the needs of their considerable membership.

  4. Well put, Donna. We discussed this at a chapter meeting this morning, with some heat from a member of the Elements chapter. I do think it is important to remember that the contests are about manuscripts, not about writers. Belonging to (and in) RWA does not automatically mean that all one's manuscripts belong in the GH or Rita contests. There's still room for a wide range of writers in RWA, whether or not everything they write is more than 50% romance. As for judging changes, that may take a while to shake out, but judging an entry on a scale of 1 to 9 is also very subjective.

  5. Actually, Laurie, I don't think the new RWA rules are saying that it IS a problem if a novel has other elements AS LONG AS IT MEETS THE CRITERIA of hero-heroine-romantic arc and HEA. ALL romances have those other elements, even contemporaries. Something has to be happening beyond the romantic arc or you wouldn't have a story. Thus you have westerns or historicals or paranormals or even category novels.

    The problems is that you have a LOT of stories that legitimately DON'T have the romantic arc--non-romantic YA, urban fantasy in which the hero or the heroine is paramount, women's fiction and, yes, novels with romantic elements, strong or otherwise. They may or may not have sex. They are often SF, but not so much R.

    Like Kay says, the writers of those stories may still belong in RWA if they still write romances, but those particular manuscripts or books would NOT belong in the contests. I think that makes sense.

  6. What a fascinating discussion. It is a problem, though, isn't it? We tend to fall between 2 chairs; too much science for the romantics and too much romance for the SF fans. And yet some great literature has element of romance (large ones) - War and Peace, Doctor Zhivago and (dare I say it) Avatar. Without the romance there would have been no story. It would be interesting to know how RWA judged that one.


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