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Friday, February 12, 2010

What makes a novel a romance?

For the last week or so, I’ve spent most of my “spare time” (ha ha!) judging entries for the Romance Writers of America (RWA) Golden Heart® contest for unpublished writers. The Golden Heart® is my favorite contest to judge because, comparatively speaking, it’s an easy job. Sure, the entries are long (55 pages, usually in Times New Roman 12, which can be murder eyes that aren’t getting any younger). However, all you have to do is read the entire entry (granted, a couple of times getting all the way through an entry has been torture!) and rate it on a scale of 1 to 9, with 5 “specified as average for an unpublished manuscript.” Unlike most RWA chapter contests, there are no specific areas, such as plot, characters and mechanics, that must be rated separately. Furthermore, comments aren’t required or even allowed. In other words, there’s no heavy lifting.

The subjectivity and lack of feedback is one aspect of the Golden Heart® that some writers don’t like, but I don't mind, because to me, this reasonably approximates what happens when our babies land on the desk of an editor. Either she’s excited by our story or she isn’t. She doesn’t have to say why, and she certainly doesn’t have to offer us a contract just because our manuscript scores high on preselected technical criteria.

This year I’m judging the Novel with Strong Romantic Elements category. The Golden Heart® rules define this category as including “works of fiction in which a romance plays a significant part in the story, but other themes or elements take the plot beyond the traditional romance boundaries... A romance must be an integral part of the plot or subplot, and the resolution of the romance is emotionally satisfying and optimistic.” In contrast, the Contemporary Single Title Romance category includes “romance novels which focus primarily on the romantic relationship... The love story is the main focus of the novel, and the end of the book is emotionally satisfying and optimistic.”

What has struck me most this year is that at least four of my entries, in my opinion, are not novels with strong romantic elements – they are romance novels, damn it! The love story is the main focus of the manuscript, and there’s a “happily ever after” ending. Under the official definition, those are the only two criteria for a romance. (And by the way, all of these entries involve a man and a woman, so I don’t even need to wander into the minefield that is the subject of gay romances, and RWA’s reaction to same).

So, I can’t help wondering – why do these authors want deny that what they’ve written is a romance? My first thought was that they wanted to avoid the steep competition in the Single Title category, but a look at the statistics on 2009 Golden Heart® entries ruled that out as a valid conclusion. While both categories had the maximum of 8 finalists, Single Title only had 111 entries, while Romantic Elements had 152 – over a third more. In fact, Romantic Elements was the most competitive of all the Golden Heart® categories.

Another possibility is that these authors don’t want their stories stigmatized by being called a “romance” – but I’d certainly hope and expect that anyone savvy enough to understand the career value of winning or even finalling in the Golden Heart® wouldn’t think that way.

My best guess is that these writers believe their works would be perceived to “fall outside the traditional romance boundaries,” and penalized by judges in the Single Title category, even though the love relationship is the heart of the story (pun intended). This old school thinking would say, a romance heroine can’t be snarky; a romance hero can’t be battling addiction; romance authors can’t color outside the lines of the traditional.

Since I’m entered in the Single Title category, I suppose I should be glad that a number of potential competitors have gone elsewhere. But I can’t help thinking it would be better for the health of the genre if romance was seen as a “big tent” that could include many kinds of heroes, heroines and stories.


SarannaDeWylde said...

I will take that "stigma" all day long. Anyone who isn't proud of what they write should write something else. Even with all of the crap I've gotten from various places. Again, the tool that was talking about the RT convention.

Romance is big enough to cover anything we throw at it, I think. The audience is too.

And good luck, dollface!

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