SFR Brigade Showcase for March

SFR Brigade showcase

 Some Thoughts Inspired by Judging a Contest

Mr. Valentine (aka me, Edward Hoornaert) recently finished a big pile of books in order to judge them for the Rita contest sponsored by the Romance Writers of America. While ethics (and contest rules) keeps me from naming any book or author, the experience inspired a few thoughts I’d like to share.

Please keep in mind that these are my opinions only. Furthermore, they’re based on a tiny sample size–8 books out of 2000 contest entries–so my experience is almost certainly atypical.

Mr. Valentine cover

The book that gave Mr. V his nickname was a Rita Award Finalist.

Thought 1 : Writers aren’t good judges of their own work

It costs good money to enter this contest–$170 for non-members of RWA–so why would anyone waste money submitting a book that doesn’t stand a chance?  Yet nearly half the books given to me were merely okay, nothing more…which leads me to suspect writers are lousy judges of their own work.

And I must, regretfully, include myself as the owner of reality-proof blinkers when it comes to my own work. Sigh.

Thought 2: Love story as the main focus

RWA has instituted a new rule that the love story must be the main focus of the book. Judges aren’t allowed to enter any comments; we enter only a number grade; but we are required to affirm that the love story is paramount. Does this mean more than 50% of the story? What about if the love story is only 45%? I found this standard surprisingly hard to judge. For contemporary category romances, it would work just fine, but I didn’t get any of those.

It seems to me–and my tiny sample size confirms this–that the more ambitious a story is, the less likely romance dominates. For example, historical details and events require a lot of black ink. Ditto for my own genre, science fiction, in which creating a world is by definition a major focus. Romantic suspense is suspense only if the mystery elements gobble up a lot of the story, often at the expense of the romance.

I ended up applying a very liberal interpretation of main focus.

Thought 3: The quality gap may be narrowing

Rita Award

Rita Award linedrawing

Half the book assigned to me were either self-published or published by small presses, with the other half coming from major traditional publishers. With one exception, the quality of the two groups were pretty similar. (The exception: the best book, by a huge margin, was from a major publisher.)

I suppose it’s probably just the small sample size, but the indie books were all pretty well edited, with a forgivable number of typos. It was particularly noticeable that the small press books seemed to have received as much TLC as the books from the major houses.

As someone who has published with big houses, small houses, and on my own, I found this gratifying. When people are producing their own books, the temptation to skimp on some of the expensive extras, such as editing and cover work, is great. The authors of the indie books assigned to me are to be congratulated on going the extra mile.

Rita finalists will be posted on the RWA website March 26.

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Be sure to check out the other authors from the SFR Brigade taking part in this Showcase!



  1. Diane Burton · · Reply

    You bring up some very good points. I, too, have gotten mediocre books when I judge. I got my comeuppance the first time I entered the Rita. LOL Don’t we all wear blinders when it comes to our own work? Great post.

    1. Yep, Diane, we’re absolutely blind about our dear babies.

      Mark Twain thought his best book was Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. I tried reading it a couple years ago–impenetrable, unreadable, unfinishable. Sergei Prokofiev thought his Divertimento (which is never played) better than his wildly popular Classical Symphony. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I’m sure the list could go on and on.

  2. Nice look inside the process.

    1. When are you going to enter the Rita’s Paula?

  3. It is interesting to judge a contest and see the wide variety of work out there, especially in categories I might not read that regularly otherwise.

  4. S. J. Pajonas (spajonas) · · Reply

    I’ve never had the chance to judge for a contest but your observations don’t seem off-the-mark to me based on what I read normally. It is definitely nice to see more self-published authors take the time to produce quality work. It means good things for the whole lot of us 🙂

  5. KM Fawcett · · Reply

    Interesting thoughts, Ed. Either we’re all blinded by our own works, or we all have an abundance of hope. 🙂 The other interesting thing is that tastes are subjective. After entering my final scores, I decided to see what others thought an awesome book I judged. It had many great reviews as I expected but also a few 1 stars. I was like…really? What book did you people read, because I thought it was fabulous!

    1. I had the reverse experience. I looked up one of the books on Amazon and saw a bunch of 5-star reviews (averaging out to ~3.75, though), and I wondered if the author had a huge extended family.

  6. Good points! Yes, tastes differ, just like love stories.

  7. Ed, thanks so much for sharing your experience as a judge. I must admit I’ve shoed away from this contest because of the emphasis on the romance percentage for the same reason – SFR world building requires significant detail and I won’t sacrifice it to give the romance a dominant slice of the story. As for being blind to my own flaws – this is why I have beta readers and such, and a freelance editor. She definitely *won’t* let me get away with sloppy work!

    1. Yes, beta readers and editors help tremendously. I’m on my twelfth novel (published, that is; others were stillborn) and I’m only marginally better at judging my own work. I go through predictable stages. Right after I write a scene, I’m usually sort of pleased. After rewriting, I usually think it’s good. After I finish a draft, I think it’s fantastic. A couple months later, I think it’s only fit for a toilet.

  8. I was wondering how the “romance must dominate” factor would play out in judging SFR and paranormal, as I write both genres and of course read them constantly. The best have a lot of world-building and fairly complex external plots as well as a great love story. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    Also kind of amusing and heartening to read that along with the really good books, you received a lot of entries that were just okay. I’ve never entered the RITAs because given the number of entries, it seemed like betting against myself with the odds against me, and I’m not much of a gambler. It seems many people are less conservative in their betting habits.

    1. This was my first time entering the Ritas, Teresa. It was the first time I thought I had a book…novella, actually…I thought might be good enough. As you can see from my white hair, I don’t have as much as time as most of you, so conservative bets be damned.

  9. Thanks for this.

    I wondered about the “romance as main focus” category as well for the same reasons. I didn’t get any that were hard to agree but I mostly received contemporaries. I know I worried for my own entry, which I believe is a romance as it hits all the arc of a romance and my publisher felt was romance but…well…there’s a lot other stuff going on as well. I guess I’ll find out when I get my scores back.

    The main problem in the entries I received, both small press and major publishers, was lack of conflict in the story. In the majority, the writers clearly could write, the characters were initially interesting but the story itself had no conflict save the manufactured “misunderstanding.” People were just too nice to their characters and didn’t dig deeper.

    It was a lesson I applied when working on my WIP, which isn’t romance. I’d been debating whether a certain character should die and the only reason I didn’t want to do it was because I like the character. After reading the RITA entries, I decided that I was pulling my punches.

    1. Maybe I should add a fourth ‘lesson learned’–make like George RR Martin and kill off your characters!

      1. Ah, only if appropriate. I’m a huge softie and I love everyone having happy endings but if the story goes in the GRRM direction for a character ….it goes in that direction. I did hear that JKR pulled her punch once in the Harry Potter series–she let Mr. Weasley live because she realized she’d been killing off all the dads.

      2. Hmm. Rowling has issues with her dad, apparently. I never knew that. 🙂

  10. I’d thought about entering A’yen, but I couldn’t get my act together in time to enter a paper copy I was proud of.

    For me, whether or not the love story is the main focus would boil down to this: If you remove the romance, does the plot resolution still work. If the answer is yes, the romance is not an important part of the story.

    As proud as I am of A’yen, I don’t think he would have stood a decent chance in the RITA because even though the romance is the main point of the book, it’s presented in an unconventional way. I’m finishing my other SFR series opener right now and I want to get it out by the end of the year. I think it might do good in the paranormal category and be different enough to stand out.

    I too suffer sometimes from being blind to my own faults. That’s why I have the best crit partner ever, a couple of fantastic beta readers, and an editor I can’t imagine putting a book out unless she’s been over it.

    1. Yep, ditto on the beta readers and editors. Indispensable.

  11. Good post–I was right there with you on most of your points. Sigh.

  12. Hi Ed. I was impressed with the quality of the entries this year. The books I received were a mix of traditional (2), small press (3), and self-published (2) and they were all well-presented with good editing and strong story lines. And, like you, I applied my own liberal interpretation to the romance percentage question. 🙂

  13. No author should be blinded by his/her own work. That’s the reason for an editor.

    1. Absolutely, Vicky. Without an editor, we’re toast.

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