If you’re an unpublished RWA member with a completed manuscript, you might want to consider entering the Golden Heart Contest.
The Golden Heart is an annual contest for unpublished authors run by the Romance Writers of America. You can find all the details and rules here. I was a Golden Heart finalist this year, and I definitely wasn’t aware of all the benefits before I entered. A few people have asked me about the experience, so I wanted to put everything in one place. If you’re looking for the chance to build community and get your work and your name known before you sign a deal, hopefully this post will help you decide if entering the Golden Heart is right for you.
But first, a few tips about entering.
Unlike many of the RWA chapter contests, the Golden Heart does not provide feedback. The idea is to enter a few chapter contests, make use of the judges’ critique, and then get your submission ready for the Golden Heart. You should have a completed manuscript, but only the first 50 or so pages and synopsis are judged. (In other words, if the rest of your manuscript is still a little rough by the January 11th deadline, you’re okay.) Take your time; you have until 5pm CT January 11th, and the chances of the contest filling up and very slim. (I submitted on January 10th at 11pm, which I considered “early.”)
The synopsis helps the judges determine if your story is a romance and has a satisfying happily-ever-after ending, so make sure you focus on the main characters and their romance arc. Similarly, your entry should at least include the Meet Cute—the scene where the characters meet for the first time, or, if they’ve met before, the scene that hints to the reader that they’ll be the ones falling in love. If your Meet Cute happens after the first fifty pages, consider trimming earlier scenes to move it up. Your goal is to create a package with your story opening and synopsis (no more than 55 pages total) that wins over the first round judges, even if that means making some revisions just for this contest. (And just FYI, highest and lowest scores are dropped, and the average is taken from the three remaining scores.)
I want to stress this point about making your first pages strong because you are not being judged on the full manuscript. Focus on making your submission the best it can possibly be. Yes, winning is awesome, but there is huge value in being a finalist, and for this first step, that’s your goal.
So, why enter a paid contest if you don’t get feedback? A few reasons.
Special RWA Experience
The Golden Heart is run by the national board of the RWA, and as a result, being a finalist is much like being an Oscar nominee—it’s an honor just to be nominated. At the national conference, much is done to make the finalists feel special, including a mixer with RITA finalists where board members bestow everyone with a certificate. And now that the Golden Heart and RITA ceremonies have been separated, the luncheon focuses solely on the Golden Heart finalists, and you get VIP seating and a ticket to have a guest at your table. (The luncheon was also more heavily attended than the RITA ceremony this year. I know some have voiced complaints about splitting the ceremonies, but I’m 100% in favor of it.)
Before you even get to the conference, finalists are immediately funneled into that year’s Golden Heart “class.” You’re grouped with a few dozen other writers who are at roughly the same point in their careers that you are. Even if you already have critique partners or a writing community, this group will cheer on your accomplishments, break down industry gossip, provide feedback, and commiserate. My 2017 class, the Rebelles, is made up of around 40 awesome women who have truly added so much to my daily writing life. We set goals, check in with each other, and remind each other to take breaks. The Rebelles have an email loop, Facebook group, and Google Hangout, but you can be involved with your class as much or as little as you want to be. The point is, they’re there, and they have your back.
Agents and Editors
I entered the Golden Heart for one reason, and one reason only: to increase my chances of getting an agent and publishing deal. (I ended up signing with my agent the week before receiving the finalist call, and the deal came very shortly after.) I didn’t know about all the other benefits before I entered, but being a Golden Heart finalist does help you get your name and your work in front of industry professionals. Before the conference, finalists have the option to create a pitch packages, which are uploaded to DropBox and made accessible to agents and editors. At the national conference this year, there was also an in-person agent and editor networking event with an open bar just for Golden Heart finalists. You also have early access to securing pitch sessions, and first choice of the agents or editors you want to pitch. [Edit: Check the RWA website, as some of these benefits have changed since this post was written.]
If you’re a new writer sending your first queries, there’s a good chance you’re wondering what the heck to put in your bio paragraph. I know I did. “Golden Heart finalist” is a very good thing to include. Romance editors and agents know of the award, and they know it means you’re serious about having a writing career and your work has already been vetted.
The Golden Network
Finally, being a Golden Heart finalist gives you the opportunity to join the The Golden Network. TGN is an online RWA chapter made up of previous Golden Heart finalists and winners. The Facebook group regularly posts questions and topics to increase engagement and conversation. If you have questions about the business of writing or marketing/publicity, chances are someone will be able to help you find the answers. At the RWA national conference, TGN holds a “retreat” with speakers and workshops. TGN membership is also a good way to get to know other romance authors from different genres and career levels, outside your local chapter.
Bonus Reason: “The Call”
Not gonna lie, getting the call that you’re a finalist is pretty freaking awesome! I don’t know how many times I said “omigod” to Alyssa Day, while BF was cheering in the background.
Even if you don’t final in the contest, you’ve gotten your work in front of five new readers, and practiced putting yourself out there, which is a good muscle to build. Also, one non-finalist from each category will win a critique from an RWA Honor Roll author! I hope this post helped you make a decision, but if you still have questions, feel free to drop a comment below or ask me on Twitter. And if you’re an Own Voices author, I especially urge you to enter. We need your voices in this industry, and being a Golden Heart finalist can give you a huge boost.
Ready to enter? Click here.