Monday, August 20, 2012

Rita/Golden Heart changes - the judging

For as long as I've been judging Romance Writers of America's Golden Heart and Rita contests, they've had a beautifully simple scoring system: rate the entry on a scale from 1 to 9, with tenths allowed. Compared to the usual multi-page chapter contest scoresheet, I loved judging the GH/Rita. At the end of each entry, I asked myself, "Does this work?" If the answer was yes, I gave a high score, in the 8.5-9 range, and hoped to see the entry among the finalists.  If no, I made a quick list of flaws, weighed their importance and severity, and gave what felt like an appropriate score. An entry might get a low score because of half a dozen issues--say, the hero's motivation confused me, the heroine's character was flat and stereotypical, I caught a major historical error that rendered the plot implausible, the author did a poor job managing point-of-view, the pacing was too slow, and the prose ran to purple. Another might get the same low score for one BIG problem--say, a Golden Heart entry with multiple glaring grammatical errors on every page that made it a slog to read. (One hopes such an issue wouldn't arise with a Rita entry, since those are professionally edited!)

But next year all that will change. A perfect score will be 50 instead of 9, and the points will be allocated as follows:

  • Romance - 1-20 points
  • Plot/Story - 1-10 points
  • Characters - 1-10 points
  • Writing - 1-10 points

I don't like these changes because they're not how I read, and I don't think they're how editors and agents read when they're evaluating a manuscript. A great book can be more than the sum of its parts. E.g. I've read many a wonderful story where the plot is derivative or predictable, but I don't care because the characters are so charming and the writing just sparkles. Under the old system, I could've given such a book a perfect 9.  Under the new one, if I'm being honest and following the rules, I'd probably have to give it a 44 or 45.

And at the other end, sometimes one flaw is enough to ruin an entry for me. If the grammar is so terrible it's an effort to force my way through the entry, or the plot makes no sense at all, that's enough, IMHO, to cancel out the entry's strengths.  Maybe not in a chapter contest where the goal is to help unpublished entrants recognize their strengths and weaknesses and thereby improve their craft. But the Rita and Golden Heart are about recognizing and celebrating excellence.

Also, can someone please explain to me how to separate scoring the romance from the characters? Of course you can have strong characterization without romance. I've got a shelf full of science fiction, fantasy, mystery, Age of Sail adventure, children's literature, and the like that qualify. But to me, a romance stands or falls with its characters--if they come alive for me as I read, and if I close the book believing the hero and heroine will live happily ever after, that's a great romance novel. And if the hero and heroine are flat or stereotypical or feel like puppets being pushed through their paces rather than living beings, how can their romance be anything other than wooden and unsatisfying?

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