Today is the day that entries open for the Romance Writers of America's annual Golden Heart competition for unpublished romance novels, and a day that many writers think to themselves..."Hmm. Should I bother?"
As someone who was on the fence about entering this contest last year, and who is now incredibly pleased that she did so, I thought I would spend a few minutes explaining why I think this contest is useful for anyone who might be weighing whether paying $50 to have strangers read your writing and rank it on a scale of 1-10 is a worthwhile investment.
I am going to suggest that you absolutely should. Here's why:
1. It is a fast-track ticket to attention from the gatekeepers of romance publishing.
There are mixed opinions in romancewriterland about whether the "clout" of the Golden-Heart® has declined in the age of self-publishing. I have only been around for a few years and cannot speak to this definitively, nor do I really think it matters, but I *can* tell you that as a way of expediting your manuscript's climb to the top of the slush piles guarding the entry to the world of traditional publishing, the GH is magic.
You see, the world of agents and editors specializing in romance and women's fiction is brilliant, hardworking and SMALL. Even if every one of them reads late into the night and long into the weekend, as many of them do, these intrepid souls can only read so many 400-page manuscripts in so many months, no matter how compelling your query letter is. This is one of the many reasons querying takes FOREVER.
When a manuscript finals in GH, it means two things: the author is serious enough to enter it in this contest, and the manuscript was ranked highly by a number of readers on no criteria except the fact that they liked it and thought it was good. This is a vetting process. It makes the jobs of the interns manning the slush piles easier, and lets agents and editors know at a glance that the query they are reading is for a book that is, at the very least, Intriguing.
Intriguing only gets you in the door, of course. Your book still needs to be good, marketable, and appeal to the personal taste of the agent or editor in question to move forward. But from personal experience I can vouch for the fact that the speed at which queries are responded to, manuscripts are requested, manuscripts are read and decisions are made increased dramatically once I could stamp all my emails with a helpful "2017 GOLDEN-HEART FINALIST" in the subject line. (Yep, it is exactly that vulgar and effective.)
2. You don't have to have a perfect manuscript. You only have to have a perfect 50 pages
This is something I did not understand AT ALL when I entered. Consequently I spent the month of December last year in a feverish sweat, trying to polish every last scene of my 90,000 word manuscript before the GH deadline.
Let me save you some time and stress: there is no need. Judges only see the first 50 pages.
Now, to be clear, you do need a 40,000 word manuscript to enter the contest -- and it definitely behooves you to have one in an advanced, polished state when you enter. But if your full book is quite gelled, don't let some plot problems in Act II stand between you and glory. After all, there are three months between when the contest closes and when the finalists are announced to get the rest of your book in working order. So if you are fortunate enough to final and/or get requests from judges, you have a few extra months to iron out the kinks.
3. Your scores will give you a clear answer to an important question: do readers LIKE your book
Even if you don't final, your partial manuscript will be read by FIVE readers who either write romance or love it enough to volunteer to judge this contest. Unlike regional chapter contests which are judged with long, specific rubrics scoring craft, plot, character development and even punctuation, the GH judging guidelines are blessedly simple:
Rank it on a scale of 1-10. That's it.
This may sound reductive, but IMHO it is immeasurably helpful to be given a bunch of readers' objective opinions on the sheer likability of your book. What are Amazon reviews, if not this?
And you can use this information. For example, if you receive mostly scores under 5, you know you need to do a lot more work. Either the craft isn't there or people hate the characters. If you are getting a mix of 1s and 9s, you know that your book is going to be divisive - which is ok. And if you are getting amazing scores across the board, you know you are probably ready for prime time if you want to self-publish, or to start querying agents and submitting to publishers if you are aiming for traditional.
4. Even if you plan to self-publish, a GH-final will set your work apart
Just like the gatekeepers of publishing, readers are always looking for an easy vetting system that separates the wheat from the chaff and keeps them from wasting their precious time. This is why reviews, awards, bestseller lists and word-of-mouth are all so important to authors.
In my other life as a PR person, a huge amount of our work for clients every year is in researching and applying for awards. Absurd awards. Awards you have never heard of and would laugh at should someone tell you about them.
The reason is very simple: when consumers see that a company has won an award - even if it is for something as niche as "best employee recycling scheme in a small-to-midsize business, home counties" - their brain fires off a little synapse that sounds something like "trustworthy."
Authors want to be associated with trust in the mind of their readers and potential readers. For a debut novelist, traditional or indie, aligning yourself with any signifiers of "quality" and trust is always going to be in your interest. If a book's blurb notes it has won or finalled in the GH, it is one more way of making this synapse fire.
Does every reader know what the GH is? No! Most of them don't. And this is irrelevant. For those that do, it might just be enough to get them to take a chance on you. And at the early stages of our careers every reader counts.
5. The past and present finalists are a sisterhood holding all the secrets of romance
Have you ever wanted to be in a coven? What about a coven whose members go back decades and know everything about tropes, publishing pratfalls, and GoodReads optimization?
Well I have great news for you. Every year the GH finalists form a "class" which operates kind of like a pledge class in a sorority. There is also an RWA-chapter exclusively for past GH-finalists, who are nice and look after the new initiates.
If you, like me, find the very idea of sororities inherently anxiety-inducing, don't worry. No one will make you go to football games or put ice cubes in your bra and participation in gift exchanges is optional. But for friendship, mentorship and support in this industry, access to the GH brain trust is an amazing resource.
Look people: life is lonely and we all need more friends.
Finalling in the Golden Heart this year genuinely helped me meet so many serious, talented writer friends than I had before I entered. Now, any time I am stuck, feeling discouraged, or just want to send sexy videos of Armie Hammer dancing, I know there is a Facebook Group and a Google Hangout and an email thread full of likeminded ladies who have encouraging words, industry advice, or just updates on their personal training regime at my disposal 24 hours a day. Before, I was getting most of this from my cat.
You know how they say find your tribe? If you write romance, this is a great place to look.
Have I convinced you?
The entry form is right here, folks. Good luck!