Lessons From a Golden Heart

This week’s #TheYearToBe___ word is helpful. It’s a good thing to be, no? Only, when I randomly picked this word on New Year’s Eve and assigned it to this week, I thought it was going to mean I was going to focus on helping others. Instead, I have had nothing but help this week.

Oh, universe, you really are something. (Thank you!)

Last fall I signed up to judge the first round of the Golden Heart Award entries. (In case you don’t know, the Golden Heart Award recognizes excellence in unpublished romance fiction. And it’s a very big deal.) When I signed up, I’m sure helpful wasn’t the first word to cross my mind. I’m sure it was more like nosy—ooooh, wonder what other people are working on. Or guilt—I probably should sign up to judge if I want someone to judge me some day.

I received my pile of partial manuscripts and synopses (about 50-55 pages for each entry) at the end of January with the instruction to read and evaluate them before the March 1st deadline. No problem; plenty of time. However, this was about the time I received some very excellent editorial feedback that suggested I rewrite my short story. Guess which I did first?

Yep.

So after I came out of the crazy rewrite and revision cave and hit send, I remembered—somewhat frantically—I had these billion some-odd pages to read and think critically about. Suddenly, thoughts of being nosy and feeling guilty weren’t flitting through my head; predictably, the words that flitted through were imprecise grumbles and the occasional four-letter word. Oh why hadn’t I been working on these all along?

I’m a fast reader, but when you’re faced with a giant stack and a ticking clock instead of something reasonable like one per evening…

Nevertheless. Today I have emerged from the Golden Heart cave totally transformed. Positively evangelical. If you are a member in good standing of Romance Writers of America, especially if you are an unpublished member, you absolutely must sign up to judge next year.

Why?

As I mentioned to a few friendlies on Twitter, there’s a reason we use peer evaluation to teach writing in classrooms from secondary school on up to the graduate level. Quite frankly, it works

It works really well.  

By the second or third synopsis and partial I read, I could point out precisely what worked and what didn’t. By the end of my entry pile, I could articulate why it did/not work. (Often, it was in the first few pages.)

And when it worked, man did it work! There are some amazingly talented folks out there. I’m a little desperate for the HEAs of a few partials I read, in fact.

But back to the “within the first few pages” thing. I know. If you’re like me, you’ve sat through many agent/editor workshops at conferences, and you’ve heard that over and over. And, if you’re like me, you’re somewhat skeptical. Because art! Subjective! There’s no way to know that quickly the MS is going to tank or shine.

Um, well, yeah. You kind of do.

It’s not to say that those entries that didn’t work, for a variety of reasons (PS I don’t read and tell), couldn’t, with the help of a talented editor, turn into smash hits. I hope they do. Also, those that I evaluated to be at the absolute top (in terms of romance, plot, writing, and characters) might not make it to the finals. (See above: because art! Subjective!) Or they might tank after the first fifty pages.

So I’ll take the lessons I learned this week and try to apply them to new words and new projects. (I’ll also try really really reallyreallyreally hard to not go back and re-read some of the things I’ve sent out and cringe.) And I’ll encourage you once more to volunteer to judge next year. Because it’s enormously helpful to read the work of your peers. And no, I don’t mean your writers group (though, Smacaroon ladies, I love ya!) or the work of authors you admire.

There’s something about reading the work of those in your cohort, that select group of people aiming for the same prize you are, that really gives you some awesome clarity. I might not win (heck, I probably won’t even final) but I will take the lessons I learned in stride and be able to discern my place in it all. 

And if that's not pretty darn helpful, I don't know what is.