Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

Musing on Monday: Judging the Golden Heart

First of all, I have some unfinished business to transact: The winner of Erica Ridley’s Too Wicked to Kiss, selected at random, is Jane, the thread’s first poster. Jane, please email your address to me at jackie at jackiebarbosa.com and I’ll get the book into the mail to you ASAP. Congratulations :). And thanks to everyone who commented and shared favorite openings.

With that out of the way, I finished reading the last of the Golden Heart entries I received to judge this year, and I have a few thoughts on how I scored them and why that I thought you might be interested in (especially if you entered this year or might enter in the future).

For those who don’t know much about the Golden Heart, I should probably explain that it’s RWA’s premier contest for unpublished manuscripts. Each entry consists of a synopsis and partial manuscript. The two items together cannot exceed 55 pages. Entrants must also provide proof to RWA that the manuscript is completed, usually in the form of the entire file provided on a CD or other medium. No one reads this full manuscript in the judging round, but the goal is to ensure that entrants actually have a full manuscript to submit to editors or agents should their entry reach the final round.

Each entry is scored on a scale of 1 to 9, with 9 representing a perfect score. Tenths of a point are allowed. From what I’ve seen in past contests, to final, an entry must basically run the table in terms of perfect scores (although a slate of multiple 8.8s to 8.9s can be good enough to reach the final depending on the number of entries in the category). Judges cannot provide comments or feedback as they do in many RWA chapter contests, which is both a positive and a negative for authors. On the one hand, it means authors don’t always know WHY they got the score they did. On the other, it means they can also write off low scores as just having gotten a judge who was incredibly mean and picky or just hated their voice or some other factor over which the author had no control.

Because I couldn’t give feedback on my entries, I’m giving feedback (broad and general–I’m not identifying the manuscripts I received for judging nor do I think any of my comments are likely to let on to those authors whose entries I did judge that I got theirs) here.

First of all, the lowest score I gave was a 5.6; the highest an 8.6. This is the first year I’ve judged where I didn’t have any entries that I felt deserved below an “average” grade. For that, I am grateful, because reading the ones that do score below a 5 is a real chore!

So, with that in mind, why did I score my entries as I did and where did they tend to fall down the most? Here, in no particular order, are the things that stuck out to me most:

  1. Story issues: I always judge first on the story. Are the pages engaging? Are the characters interesting? Is the setup believable? Does the story start in the right place. Does each scene have a clear purpose and end with a change in the story question?

    On each and every one of these questions, every one of the entries I received lost some points. Sometimes it was only a tenth of a point lost, sometimes it was whole integers. In the case of most of my entries that lost whole points, it came down to one of two things: either the story was simply not very interesting (the stakes weren’t high enough and/or the scenes didn’t convey any urgency) or I didn’t buy the setup. Particularly in historical romance, the setup is so important. If I can’t believe people in the time period in question would behave in the manner described in the story, I’m not going to believe anything else in the manuscript, either, no matter how well it’s executed. I had one very, very good entry that I scored very high, but that, when it came right down to it, I just couldn’t “buy” the plot.

  2. Weak mechanics: Yes, it’s true. I’m a frustrated high school English teacher, and mechanics matter to me. I will overlook minor issues with grammar and punctuation if they occur fairly infrequently or, oddly enough, if they occur consistently (in other words, you make the same mistake regularly).

    What I can’t overlook is overuse of commas in all the wrong places (it makes me stutter in my head), grammatical inconsistencies, and (this one hurt a manuscript that otherwise had a lot going for it) wrong word uses (e.g., discrete for discreet). Although I understand that wrong words can slip in from time to time, if it happens more than once in fifty pages of manuscript that you should have polished to DEATH before submitting, I’m going to take off points. Same goes for the commas and grammatical errors.

    Yes, editors will buy manuscripts that have errors easily corrected by a copy editor. Notwithstanding, this is a fifty page entry for the most important and prestigious contest RWA has for unpublished writers. Take the time to make it as close to perfect as humanly possible.

  3. Voice issues: Voice is a hard thing to describe, let alone score. However, I didn’t score anyone down for a voice I didn’t “like.” I scored down for voice only once, and that was on an entry I liked a lot. It was extremely well executed overall and I actually loved the voice. Why did I score down for voice, then? Because the voice didn’t fit the book’s time period. The book was set in the 19th century, yet the voice read like a contemporary, which pulled me out of the story.
  4. Poor synopsis: I have to say that in the stack of entries I received, there was not one GOOD synopsis. Not one. And, although the pages are the most important part of the entry, if the synopsis is a garbled mess that I can’t follow to save my life, I have to deduct points.

    One of the reasons writers are asked to provide a synopsis for the Golden Heart is that most of the time, when submitting to an agent or editor, you will probably at some point be asked to send a partial and (gasp!) a synopsis. The synopsis, while not as important in terms of voice and verve as the actual manuscript pages, is critical for an agent or editor to determine what your story is going to be about. The first fifty pages give a sense of your voice and how you execute a story, but it’s only fifty pages, perhaps 10-15% of the total book (slightly more if you write category length). It’s nearly impossible to tell from a mere fifty pages whether the total story is going to be worth reading without a decent synopsis to explain where you’re going “from there.”

    And most of the synopses I received were a nightmare. The primary problem most of them had was that they mentioned FAR TOO MANY characters by name. There were so many names in one synopsis, if I hadn’t read the pages, I wouldn’t have known who the hero and heroine were. In your synopsis, you must concentrate on the hero and heroine. You should only name secondary characters when absolutely necessary, and then, the character must have a significant role in the plot (e.g., he/she is the villain or plays a pivotal role in multiple scenes). I simply don’t need to know the heroine’s best friend’s name or the name of the girl who broke the hero’s heart or the name of the maid who appears in one scene and never again.

    There was also one synopsis (for an entry I otherwise scored very well) that was so sketchy, I had absolutely no idea what the plot was. I just knew the hero and heroine would fall in love and live HEA. Sorry, not enough. I needed more to judge the partial appropriately.

So, if I scored your manuscript in the Golden Heart this year, your entry got the score it did based on some combination of the four factors listed above. Of course, it’s entirely possible I didn’t score your manuscript, but who knows, maybe whoever did used similar criteria. Either way, I hope you find the information helpful :).


  • Jill Sorenson March 4, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    Great topic! I judge a lot of contests and agree with so much of what you said. The RITA has the same guidelines, 1-9, with no feedback. I felt really bad because I had to give one of the books a lower than average score. The writing was fine but I hated the heroine. She wanted to be unhappy and it was just, drudgery.

    I’m not used to finishing books I don’t love, so that was a challenge. Thankfully, many of the others were really great.

  • Ericka Scott March 19, 2010 at 7:24 pm

    I had a handful of paranormal entries to judge this year — My lowest score was a 5.1 and my highest was also an 8.6.

  • Evangeline March 24, 2010 at 9:33 am

    I signed up to be a judge for the GH and it was…an interesting experience. I really felt myself in the shoes of an agent or an editor, and the, well, pain, of reading completely unready manuscripts. I can honestly say that out of the six or seven partials I read, only one, with enough revisions, could be turned into a decent novel. It also made me scrutinize my own manuscripts with a gimlet eye.


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