New Jersey Press Association Award

Once upon a time, I was a journalist. image copyright Corrina Lawson

Back in 2003, I was a stay-at-home mom, a former journalist with no illusions that I’d ever be able to afford going back to that career, not with four kids who would need daycare. Not possible on a newspaper reporter’s salary. so I began to write fiction.

At first, it was simply a creative outlet, a way to relax. But then I finished a manuscript. It was far from good. In fact, it was awful. But it was finished and I’d loved the entire process of writing it. I began to think that perhaps I could learn, produce better work, and make fiction writing a career.

Though a series of extremely fortunate events, I found myself on Jennifer Crusie’s yahoo loop about this time. Her first advice to aspiring writers was to join the Romance Writers of America. (She then proceeded to give all of us on that writing loop a masterclass in fiction writing. The first person that ever critiqued a scene for me was Jennifer Crusie. This still gobsmacks me to this day. As I said, it was a series of fortunate events.)

Why the Golden Heart Matters To Me

Once I joined RWA, I discovered the Golden Heart contest. That’s the RWA contest for unpublished writers. At that time, you mailed five copies of the first fifty pages of your manuscript, plus a synopsis, to RWA headquarters in Dallas. It had a deadline, so you had to make damn sure it would arrive on time. In late November 2003, I ended up at the UPS store one night with the manuscript pages printed and paid to send them via two-day air. It cost me $75. This was not money I could afford at the time but, hey, this was a chance for others to read my writing. Maybe I’d find out if it was any good or not.

I finaled with a manuscript then called Dancing in the Dark. I remember marking down the morning the calls to finalists would be made and waiting, waiting for that call at home. (Remember, no cell phones in 2003.) The morning passed, I had to get the kids, and I was disappointed I didn’t final.

Then I got the call.

Golden Heart award

Yes, damn right I had it framed. Image copyright Corrina Lawson

Yes, readers, I cried. Not at first but when I was driving to pick up my twins from pre-school, I bawled in the car. I cried again when I received the finaling¬†certificate in the mail. And there was another cry when I couldn’t afford to go to RWA National in Dallas and Jennifer Crusie paid my conference fee. The great Patricia Gaffney once said that her best writing moment was when she’d found out she finaled in a chapter RWA contest. She called that moment the one where what seemed impossible became possible.

I know exactly what she meant.

Jenny was the master of ceremonies at the Rita/Golden Heart Awards in 2004 and she mentioned my manuscript in her opening monologue. I got chills and, frankly, the rest of the night is hazy because, first, I was running a literal fever from a nasty sinus infection, and second, because I was that nervous. So nervous that when I didn’t win my category, I was relieved not to have to go up and make a speech.

In the five years after that final, when I didn’t sell, I often looked up at my GH certificate, assured myself that five complete strangers thought I didn’t suck, and went back to work.

Now the future of the Golden Heart contest for unpublished writers is in doubt. Given what it means to me, my response was an immediate and emphatic NO!!!!!!!!

Emotional reaction aside, RWA’s board and director are right about several things. The business of publishing has changed so much since 2004 that the Golden Heart must be reworked to stay relevant. Entries are dropping. (Full figures can be found in the RWA post.) And, more, many people may decide it’s much better to simply indie publish a finished manuscript rather than entering a contest. Heck, I probably would have published the manuscripts that didn’t win back then if I could have. (For me, this would have been a mistake because the craft wasn’t there yet. This is not true of all writers.)

I have some ideas on how to save it. But, first, I wanted to tackle some of the reasons RWA says the GH should be eliminated

The Golden Heart Contest Does Not Pay For Itself

Well, so what? RWA is not a for-profit organization. It’s an organization to help business focused romance writers. It does not need to make a profit on everything. I’m not thrilled it doesn’t pay for itself but costing money is not, in and of itself, a good reason to end the contest.

The real question is, if the GH is eliminated, where should this money be spent? How can it be used to benefit the same type of writers as the Golden Heart?

Only Approximately 40 Golden Heart Finalists Benefit From the Contest

I object to this on factual grounds. What this assertion misses is that, in the past, entering the Golden Heart and possibly finaling was a terrific incentive for a writer to finish that manuscript. The reason I had to airmail my entries in that year was that I was rushing to finish. If I had no deadline, would I have finished that book? Maybe. Maybe not. I’ll never know.

The GH contest benefitted everyone who finished their work in order to meet the entry deadline. Even last year, that’s over 400 people and in years past, it was at least double that number. This calculation also isn’t taking into account those who didn’t final but were heartened by the scores they received. One year that I didn’t final, I received a 9, three 7s, and a 3. What did that tell me? Basically, I didn’t suck. A 9, the top score, wasn’t handed out to people who suck.

Then there are the effects that are impossible to measure. A major writing organization with an award for unpublished writers that you could enter? WHAT? Just the very act of that openness made me more likely to be involved in my local chapters, to help other writers, to do what I could to pay it forward.

Possible Solutions To the Golden Heart Problems

RWA also points out that the contest entries are dropping precipitously. They’re right, of course. They also point out that even though they made some changes to the contest, such as separating it from the Rita Awards, handing out the awards earlier at RWA National, and creating a special Dropbox for agents and editors to look over the work of the finalists.

I submit that some of these changes, particularly separating the GH and the Rita Awards, maybe be part of the problem. The thrill of the GH is that you were right there, with the big names, and got a little taste of that successful novelist dream. Separating them made the GH feel much more like Triple AAA, rather than the Major Leagues.

But, I suppose reasonable people can disagree on that. That’s okay because I believe the biggest problem with the GH is that people are bypassing it to focus indie publishing. Why wait seven months on a contest when you could be paying editors and buying covers and learning marketing?

What we need are changes to make the GH relevant to today’s authors.

I have some suggestions.

They could be implemented together. Or not. Maybe you’ll love them. Or hate them. That’s okay. Because I am sure that together, we can come up with a solution that supports RWA’s beginning authors and preserves the GH’s sense of “okay, I can do this!” that’s so important to this stage and one that I and so many others have valued.

Point One: Open it up to unpublished manuscripts

Why do this? Because it’s hard to forestall the instinct to publish on your own once you have a story that you love. You may submit it, suffer rejections, etc., but if you believe in the work, you’ll probably publish. This works out great for many authors. And it works out terribly for many others. Perhaps the reason is that their craft isn’t there yet, perhaps it’s a marketing issue, but whatever it is, some beginning authors self-publish, it doesn’t go well, and they stop. Stop cold. What to do when you lived your dream and it didn’t work out?

Get better feedback. Enter the Golden Heart.

I envision these writers as the kind that will enter the Golden Heart if allowed. Those with a successful publishing career, indie or traditional, are far less likely to enter because of the time lag between entering, finaling, and the winners being announced.

Or, another scenario. Say you had a moderately successful publishing career at a small publisher. That publisher closes. (It happens a great deal.) Now you have no idea where to go with your career. Perhaps you want to restart with a whole new manuscript. How do you know if that’s any good? Enter the Golden Heart.

The third type of entrant I envision is the successful author who has a dream book that is totally outside their wheelhouse and they just want to know if people like what they did–without having their name attached to the project, so they can receive an objective result. (Golden Heart manuscripts don’t contain names, like Rita entrants.)

But, mainly, I’m concerned about that newer writer who is forever locked out of the Golden Heart because they jumped too soon, that wasn’t picked in the equivalent of the sports draft. Give them a mulligan and let them go back and try again.

Point Two: Let People Read the Entries That Finaled!

Why are we keeping the content of the GH winners a SECRET except to that special Dropbox for agents and editors attending RWA? Why not post those entries that have earned a final? Make them available for all RWA members or, heck, the public to read. LET US READ THEM!

If the purpose of RWA is to encourage business-focused romance writers, let’s give the finalists a chance for their work to be seen by everyone. Heck, you could even put a rating system on them, like Amazon does. The winner would be chosen the same way but all the finalistS would receive maximum exposure to agents, editors, and potential readers.¬†What if the entrants don’t want their work public, you ask? That’s fine. They can opt out.

But those that opt-in? Their work is up there, for all to see, in an honored place. It’s a terrific way not just to find an editor or agent but also to find readers, if the writer plans on indie publishing. Rita finaling books can be bought or sampled where they’re sold. Let’s give the GH finalists the same chance.

Point Three: Provide Feedback Beyond Simple Scores

RWA talks about this in their post. The problem is that they’re finding it increasingly hard to find volunteer judges and complicating the scoring system would increase their burden.

Solution: Find a quick, simple way to allow feedback. Jenny used to critique our work with five questions: Who’s the protagonist? Who’s the antagonist? What’s their goal? What works? What doesn’t work?

That’s probably too much for a judge with six to ten entries. But there are other solutions.

Sample questions that would provide needed feedback:

Page number where I stopped reading:

Is the romance clear? (Yes/No, elaborate if wanted.)

Does this entry overall meet basic grammar standards? (Yes/No.)

I’m sure we all could brainstorm more questions with short answers. Or maybe you could use a numerical system like we do now except break it down into parts.

Romance–rate from 1-10

Pacing–rate from 1-10-

Dialogue–rate from 1-10.

Setting–rate from 1-10

Story concept–rate from 1-10.

There are other ways to provide feedback that wouldn’t be onerous to judges or RWA staff.

I Believe in the Golden Heart

As I said above, when I first discovered that a major professional writing organization had a contest that honored unpublished/beginning writers, I was shocked. I was nothing and nobody. And yet here RWA offered a chance for my work to be read anyway. I didn’t earn that. I didn’t deserve that.

But maybe it’s not about deserve.

Maybe it’s about love of stories, of the written word, of fellow authors, of the community that knows that together, we are stronger than apart and that the newer writers may someday be the people that help us, as we were helped.

Maybe it’s about love.

And I believe in love.

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