Today and next Friday, November 15, I'm going to post some pointers for those of you who are planning to enter the Romance Writers of America's Golden Heart Contest, which opens to entries on November 12. (For more information, go to rwa.org and look under "Awards" and then "Golden Heart." Here's the link: http://www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=536)
What does it take to final in the Golden Heart? This year, on my sixth try, I finaled in two categories and won the Contemporary Series category. (What follows is based on my own experience, so please take what helps and ignore what doesn't.)
First off, finaling takes getting through five preliminary round judges who judge your partial manuscript ("the partial"--approximately the first 50 pages) on a fifty point scale: Plot/Story 10 Points, Romance 20 Points, Characters 10 Points, and Writing 10 Points. Entrants who final need to get 90% of the total possible score or above. (I did not find this on the RWA website, but on my score sheets, it said that final scores are calculated by dropping the high and low total scores and averaging the remaining three total scores. This helps to protect from very lenient or very harsh judging. )
Here are the three things I think you need to final:
--A Good Story that meets or exceeds the expectations of your genre and offers the reader an emotional experience that captures their hearts.
--Writing that shines and is free of amateurish mistakes.
--Luck! In a perfect universe, all judges would be impartial and fair. Well, welcome to real life, where some judges are tough, some are easy, and some will either really love or really hate your story. Luck of the draw which ones you get! Stories that are entered one year may not final while the next they do…so who knows? This is one aspect you have no control of.
So let's talk about the first point--The Good Story. It's not enough to write a story about nice people doing nice things. (Trust me, I know, my first four manuscripts were like this, unremarkable, low-tension stories.) It's a feat to come up with a story idea, let alone write and polish 50 pages and submit a synopsis. Yet you must write a story that keeps tension, conflict and angst high so your reader wants more--so she/he is really sad when those fifty pages end. Not being boring for that many pages requires a lot of skill.
Good stories start off with a bang (in the middle of action, something going on) and grab the reader with emotion. But even the biggest action sequence will fail to impress if no one cares about your characters. So the action does not have to be big, Hollywood action--but it does have to be some situation where the characters are doing something besides walking through lush scenery thinking of the hot guy they just met. (Starting with description--probably not the best idea.)
End your partial with a big hook. Again, leaving your heroine dangling off the old London Bridge (as I did in one ms) is great but don't throw in action for action's sake. The big hook at the end can be as simple as a long awaited/forbidden/unintended kiss. It should be emotionally big, not necessarily action-packed-big. One of my finaling entries ended with a kiss that someone had second thoughts about--pretty simple. The other ended with a revelation that the long-lost love the heroine thought was dead was alive. Again, go for emotional impact not big Hollywood set piece.
If your 50 pages as it currently stands does not end on a hook, what should you do? My answer: manipulate your pages so that for the GH it does.
Is Your Story Big Enough to Sustain 200-300 pages of conflict? If you're writing Category Romance, study Romance Tropes. These are plot devices like enemies to lovers, mistaken identity, fake engagement, revenge, redemption, boss-employee, reunited lovers, etc. Typically for category, you need three tropes per story. Reading extensively in the genre you are targeting will give you a feel for this.
If you're writing Single Title, you need a High Concept idea. This is the kind of idea that makes you exclaim Wow! Why didn't I think of that?! or I've got to read this! when you read a back-cover blurb. It's original, emotional, compelling, and clever. If you don't know what this is, check out Lori Wilde's Got High Concept? workbook available from her website. High Concept is the idea that makes your story stand out from the rest.
The point is, if you are writing romance, you must know the kind of book you are writing. You must target your market by doing research. It's not enough to simply write the book of your heart. If your book does not have the tension to sustain an entire book, no one is going to judge it well in contests no matter how great your writing is and no one is going to publish it. The idea and the characters must hook your reader from the beginning--from Paragraph 1.
Remember the Essence of a Romance. Your main goal in writing a romance is to tell an emotionally powerful story about people whose flaws get in the way of their leading the fullest life they could and how love for another person gives them the impetus to overcome these flaws by making choices under pressure so they can become the people they were always meant to be. Characters must be pushed to grow and change so they are not the same people at the end as they were at the beginning.
Check your story: does it have external conflict keeping the hero and heroine apart? Does it have internal conflict keeping them apart? Is there a romance? I've judged contest entries where the entry is all romance and no external situation at all. And others where the hero doesn't show up until page 40.
Force yourself to share your work. My recommendation is that at least three people besides yourself should read your pages before you submit. I think this is truly hard for some of us, especially when we are just starting out. It's scary to share something so close to your heart!
Why, you say, is finding reading friends/critique partners so important? Because we burn out. We become overfamiliar with our story and our words. We cannot be objective about our own work. If you have time, putting your entry away for a week or two and looking at it again helps a lot, but having somebody else's eyeballs besides your own is crucial. But remember the bottom line: trust your own judgment. Your best friend may unintentionally crucify your voice. A good rule is, if more than one person points something out in your manuscript as not quite right, look hard at those things. It's tricky--knowing when to trust your gut and when to believe what a reader tells you.
So there you have it, my take on Story. Hope this helped. Next week, I'm going to talk about writing tips and a first page checklist to help polish your entry. Any questions…ask away! And keep polishing!