I like to participate in the various organizations of which I'm a member. One of those is RWA, and one way I can help out is by helping to judge the first round of the Golden Hearts. The often-cited requirements for judges is that I have to be (1) a member of RWA, and (2) breathing. I fulfill both counts.
Before I'd joined RWA I'd never heard of the Golden Heart. A friend had won it and/or been a finalist several times and I'd smile and congratulate her without realizing the importance of the event. The Golden Heart is THE highest award given to a writer of romance who is still unpublished.
It costs $50 to enter. ($100 if you're not an RWA member. What, they let non-members enter?) One has to print out six copies of 55 pages of material (that includes a synopsis of no more than 15 pages) or supply a CD of same. It other words: the process ain't cheap.
In the old days when dinosaurs roamed Houston, judges could comment on the entries and give the authors helpful hints for improvement. Not any more; lawsuits were instituted by disgruntled entrants, and so RWA merely assigns numbers to the final entries: 1 is pretty darned awful, and 9 is sublime. Also, the entry form has the entrant sign a waiver, which includes among other wording: "I shall accept and abide by the decisions of any judges and/or Contest officials regarding finalists or winners for the Contest."
I'm no lawyer, but someone who signs that has just signed away their right to raise a ruckus if they didn't final, right? So no probs there. We should be able to make comments with no backlash, right?
But we judges are still stuck with the one number to assign to each manuscript. Early in the game it occurred to me that unless an entry got an 8 or 9, it wasn't going to final, so I could take it easy on those writers who passed in work that was... well... Let's say I arrived at this conclusion when I was quite literally banging my head on the table, moaning, "Lord, make it stop. Make it stop!" as I plodded my way through one entry. I finally realized it wasn't going to be a candidate for finalist, so I could put a low number on it and move along. (I did read the entire thing, though. Let me make that clear.) I didn't want to completely discourage the author (her enthusiasm was telling) but I wanted her to know that she really needed to learn more about her craft before assuming what she was writing was publishable. In other words: I don't give out 1s, 2s or 3s, but I do assign 4s.
Each year in my stack of about 6 entries I usually find one real dud (sorry), one or two terrific, engaging entries, one that's almost there, and the rest are meh. This year only the last manuscript was good, and so far (not finished yet! Let me savor it) it's terrific.
The others are duds. Awful. Oh-my-gods.
And yet the authors' enthusiasm still shines in them. It's such a shame to me that I can't make the occasional comment that might allow them to step back and think again about how they present their material. After all, the Golden Heart is to showcase material that an author thinks is publish-ready.
So since I cannot mark up the entries and return them for perusal, here are my suggestions to future Golden Heart entrants:
• Spell check is your friend. Don't guess at your spelling; double-check it.
• If you aren't confident in your use of proper English, get someone who is, to check your entry before sending it in. Be professional.
• Make sure your plot makes sense. Even if (I am not making this up!) you send in a 12-page, single-spaced synopsis to explain everything, double check to see that it does and doesn't just make things more confused. If the 50 pages you sent in only covers the first two paragraphs of that synopsis, something is wrong. If your synopsis handles the fates of fifteen male heroes who are all in lust with your comely heroine, your plot might need some simplifying. If it is not clear what your primary hero and heroine's goals are (internal, external, whatever) from the start, much less how they change over the course of the book and why, perhaps you need to re-examine your plot and how well it is focused.
• Your book should start on page 1, not page 33. No lie, I just read one that had all narrative backstory until page 33. Zzz!
• Usually, your backstory/flashbacks should be kept until chapter 3 or so, at which time you can start to dribble stuff in--IF IT IS NECESSARY FOR THE READER TO UNDERSTAND. Now, YOU have to understand your characters' backstories, but your plot will often not require it of the reader. If so, leave that part out.
• Compare your approach to that of published writers in your genre. Are you writing a futuristic? Do you keep referring to oddball futuristic accoutrements in every other sentence, drawing the reader's attention away from what's going on to "what the heck is she talking about"? Do authors in your sub-genre truly do that? Tone down the frou-frou and concentrate on the ATMOSPHERE.
• Writing, especially romance writing in all its sub-genres, involves a generous dose of EMOTION. Does every page (okay, every other one) of your manuscript have someone reacting emotionally to something? We're linking the reader in to your story, and one of the best ways to do that--especially in a romance--is by giving them some kind of emotion to latch onto.
One of the most eye-opening workshops I've ever taken was Margie Lawson's "Empowering Characters Emotions." It is given online and I believe she also has info packs that give the same info but without the feedback opportunities that one of her classes has. Say, she's about to give another class over at http://pasic.net/class_lawson_032010.html . You will come away with a HUGE stack of course lectures (I still haven't gotten all the way through mine). In it she teaches her EDITS system, which is worth the price of admission alone. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
The packets are available at her website: http://www.margielawson.com/index.php/lecture-packets . I don't want to sound like I'm her pitch-woman, but these things are great. Deep, hard-to-read sometimes, takes a lot of effort to wade through, but you can do like I did and pick and choose what you want to concentrate on, vowing that you'll be back to read the rest... later. (That reminds me: I'm not through her "procrastination" course yet.)
Let's get some real, stomach-churning, laugh-out-loud-ing, happy-ever-after emotion into your writing!
So my wish, future Golden Heart entrants, is that next year your entry will be lightyears better because your skill at your craft has been honed through whatever means you choose to advance yourself. Let's hope your entry really will be publisher ready, that you will be recognized by the GH, or at least (most?) a publisher or agent who will see in you the next New York Times bestseller!