OK, so I'm rarely in jeopardy, but I write woman-in-jeopardy novels—otherwise called "Modern Gothics"—and this is my blog. It will probably have lots of time between posts, but I'll try not to bore you. Welcome.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Romance With Other Elements

Below is the letter I'll be sending in a couple of months to the Board of the Romance Writers of America.

Please note: I'm a proud member of the RWA, and this letter should not be read as a criticism of their decision in 2012 to eliminate the NSRE category. They stated then that "It is not within RWA's mission to grant awards to books outside the romance genre", and the organization is entitled to its decisions.

But many of us write books that are WITHIN the romance genre, and I just think there's a better solution.

If you're an RWA memberor a member who left the RWA because of the elimination of the NSREand you'd like to add your name to mine on this proposal, please feel free to "sign" in the comments below, with "Member" or "Past Member" written after your name, and I'll be sure to include your "signature" when I send this letter. (If you write under a pen name, just "sign" with that. I'm keeping this informal and friendly).


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Dear RWA Board Members:

RE: RITA® Awards Category Changes – A Proposal

Four years ago in Anaheim, when it was announced  that the Novel with Strong Romantic Elements category was being eliminated from the RITA® and Golden Heart® Awards, I felt sad and disappointed—not only for myself but for the younger authors starting out whose stories, like my own, were never going to fit neatly into any other category.

The following year, I wrote to the Board proposing a possible compromise position, which they discussed and declined.

But because I’m stubborn, and because I still feel it’s important for our organization to include and embrace a diversity of voices, I’d like to present the same proposal to you now:

That the lost Novel with Strong Romantic Elements category be replaced by the category of Romance with Other Elements.

By our organization's own definition, every romance novel contains two basic elements: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending. We further divide our genre into subgenres: currently Contemporary Long, Contemporary Mid-Length, Contemporary Short, Erotic, Historical Long, Historical Short, Inspirational, Paranormal, Novella, Romantic Suspense, and Young Adult, with a RITA® Award category for each subgenre.

This arrangement works well for stories that keep within one single subgenre, but it leaves no easy place for books that cross subgenres or multiple subgenres, like Lauren Willig’s (contemporary/historical), Lynn Kurland’s (contemporary/historical/paranormal) and my own (contemporary/historical/paranormal/ romantic suspense). 

Those of us who write cross-subgenre romance are currently told to choose one of the subgenres we’ve crossed and enter our books in that category. And fair enough, in 2014, when I let my readers select which of the four possible subgenres my novel The Firebird should be entered in, it did win the RITA® for Paranormal Romance. But that was a one-off—even my readers were hotly divided on which category it belonged in, and in most cross-subgenre books, my own included, the balance between the subgenres doesn’t allow it to tip into any one category.

Imagine you’ve written a novel in which fifteen chapters out of thirty are set in the historical period, while the remaining fifteen are in the present day. Both threads of the story are equally weighted and equally strong, so you flip a coin (or poll your readers) to decide whether to enter it in the Historical or Contemporary Romance categories.

Historical Romance is currently for “novels that are set prior to 1950”. Contemporary Romance is for “novels that are set after 1950”. 

Your coin flip or reader poll comes up “Historical Romance”. 

Your novel begins in the present day, and stays there for a couple of chapters before switching to the past, then back again, and so on. 

Assuming the RITA® judges don’t dismiss you out of the gate as being in the wrong category because your book starts “after 1950”, entering your novel this way is a lot like entering my cockapoo in the Best Poodle category of a dog show. He’s fully half poodle, and has a lot of the same physical features as a poodle, but no reasonable, rule-abiding judge could ever declare him the best example of a poodle in that dog show. Nor should they. He’s not the Best Poodle. In dog shows, he’d only be judged against others like him—other crossbreeds.

The original wording of the Best Novel with Strong Romantic Elements category description (see below) actually stated, in fact, that it was for novels “not belonging in another category”, and I feel this is an important catch-basin for us to preserve.

By creating the category of Romance with Other Elements, we’d be keeping the place for these cross-subgenre books, as well as for longer, epic books that might contain two or more romances, and books that, although they contain the requisite central love story and the emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending, may not be shelved in the Romance section of a bookstore or have “Romance” written on their spine (something we all know is rarely within the author’s power to decide). 

The difference would be that, just as the word “Romance” would come first in the name of this new category, all the books entered in it would have to comply with our mission statement, and be judged first as romances. That means they would be scored and rated just like all the other books within the RITA competition.  And a book that did not contain the central love story and an HEA or HFN would be marked just the same as any other entry would, as “Not a Romance”, and disqualified.

I’m optimistic that, if this difference were to be explained and made clear to our authors and their publishers, we wouldn’t have the problem that I’m told we’ve had in past years, with books that don’t have a real love story within them being entered for the RITA®, wasting everybody’s resources and time.

Here, then, is how I would propose re-working the former category description and judging guidelines for Novel with Strong Romantic Elements into a new category of Romance with Other Elements.

The former description and guidelines were as follows:

Novel with Strong Romantic Elements
A work 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.

Judging guidelines: Novels of any tone or style, set in any place or time are eligible for this category. A romance must be an integral part of the plot or subplot, and the resolution of the romance is emotionally satisfying and optimistic.

This is how I’d personally alter that wording, to create the new category. The text in red shows altered/inserted words or phrases, with footnotes below to explain each change:

Since the awards categories now all share this common header: “All entries must contain a central love story and the resolution of the romance must be emotionally satisfying and optimistic”, there’s no need to include that in the individual guidelines anymore.

Romance with Other Elements
Novels1 A work of fiction not belonging in another category2 in which a romance plays a significant part in the story, but other themes or elements may take the plot beyond the traditional romance boundaries. also be significantly developed. 3

1 Novels: Changed to conform to the current wording of other category descriptions.
2 Not belonging in another category: This was in the original description of the former category, and I believe it is also an important filter.
3 In which other themes or stories may also be significantly developed: Again, this is a return to the original wording  of the category description.

So then, assuming all those changes are made, the new category description and judging guidelines would read as follows:

Romance with Other Elements
Novels not belonging in another category in which other themes or elements may also be significantly developed.

By putting the romance first, both in name and in eligibility requirements, I feel these changes would allow us to restore an important and much-loved category by bringing it firmly in line with our mission.

I’d like to respectfully submit this for your consideration and, hopefully, discussion at your upcoming Board of Directors meeting in San Diego.

Thank you for your time, and for your work on behalf of myself and all RWA members.


Susanna Kearsley

(The original wording of the Novel with Strong Romantic Elements category introduced in 2004 was: "A work of fiction not belonging in another category that contains a strong romantic element, such that one or more romances contained in the story form an integral part of the story's structure, but in which other themes or stories may also be significantly developed.")