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Thursday, August 18, 2011

So You Want to Enter the Golden Heart

Congratulations to the winner of the critique:
Christy! Christy, please contact me at erinknightley (at) yahoo (dot) com. Best of luck to all of you planning to enter the GH this year :)

It’s that time of year again, my friends. No, not back to school time (though it is), nor the dog days of summer (though it is that as well), no, I am referring to contest season. Very shortly, the Golden Heart® will open once more, and more than 1,200 entries will flood the offices of RWA with the hopes of becoming one of the chosen few.

Now—not two or three months from now—is when you must decide if you will enter this contest. Why? Because much like Daniel-son before the big tournament (wax on, wax off), now is the time to practice. Before the big, mean bullies (otherwise affectionately known as the dreaded east-German judge to the 2011 GH finalist) get their hands on you and decide your fate in the contest. I will pause here to say that, if you do not have aspirations of traditional publishing, entering the contest is probably not for you. But if you have your sights set on finding an agent and publishing with the major publishers, then you might want to take note.

If you have never heard of the Golden Heart® and what it can do for you, allow me to tell you a bit about it. The largest and arguably the most prestigious of all the contests for unpublished writers, the Golden Heart provides nothing so much as the opportunity to move your writing career along. Why? Because, in general, having the words “Golden Heart Finalist” attached to your name will rocket your query—and your manuscript—to the front of the slush pile.

Last year on March 25, even before all of the finalists had even been notified, agents had taken to twitter announcing their requests for finalists to contact them. Several of the finalists were contacted directly by agents, asking if they were represented and if they would send their ms for that agent’s consideration.

Yeah, I know. Crazy! It seemed like finalists were announcing left and right that they had signed with previously only dreamed about agents. And its not only agents; some GH final judges also request fulls from finalists. In my case, one of the publishers involved in the auction of my manuscript was actually a GH judge.

Now, again—all of this creates the opportunity for the author to be read. It most certainly did not guarantee success. But isn’t that what most unpublished authors with an eye toward traditional publishing want: a chance?

Even though today, almost six months after the fact, I am still in shock that I managed to be a finalist (and no, I don not want a recount, lol), I hope to offer up some tips that I believe helped me best prepare for the Golden Heart®.

1. Have a critique partner go over your entry. Yeah, kind of a no brainer, but never has your partner been more important. Ask them if anything seemed slow, or uninteresting, or too full of background info. Have them highlight passages that may work on a normal basis, but are just extra baggage when you only have fifty pages to knock the judges socks off. You may even find that in the end, your ms is better off without the extra weight anyway.

2. Enter smaller chapter contests that promise to have at least the preliminary results to you in time to tweak your entry for the GH. My personal favorite of ones I entered leading up to the GH is probably MARA’s Fiction From the Heartland contest. They promise at least one published judge and give feedback that I, personally, found to be useful. After all, in theory the judge is offering an unbiased opinion. Plus, if you final, it will put you in front of an agent and editor – bonus!

3. Edit, edit, and edit again. Try to catch every typo and missed word by putting the entry aside for several weeks, then tackling with fresh eyes. I think that fewer things can put off a judge faster than an entry full of mistakes.

4. Once you have feedback from your critique partner and contest judges, carefully review and see which of their suggestions resonate with you. If something doesn’t feel right to you, ignore it! It is only someone else’s opinion. In the end, YOU have to be satisfied with the product you are presenting.

5. Never, ever be discouraged by less than favorable feedback from a contest. Either take that feedback and try to make your writing better, or decide that that particular person’s opinion has no bearing on you. Many times, unfavorable feedback from a judge could just mean that you have a strong voice – and that is a great thing!

I hope you have found these tips to be helpful. Any contest, the Golden Heart® included, is merely a tool in a writer’s arsenal to snag the attention of professionals in the business. Many writers who never finaled in a contest a day in their lives went on to become published, and there are those who have finaled dozens of times and have yet to become published. Your journey to publication is very personal, and just be sure that whatever path you chose, you are comfortable with it.

Are you planning to enter the GH or any other contest this year? What are some of your tips?

To give you a head start on tip #1, I’m offering a contest entry critique to one lucky commenter. Simply leave a comment indicating your wish to be entered in the drawing before 11:59pm EST Friday, and I’ll chose the winner at random. Check back on Saturday morning for results!


  1. Marion J Browning-BakerAugust 18, 2011 at 9:50 AM

    Hi Erin,

    I'd like to enter the contest entry critique.


  2. Great post and great tips, Erin!

    One other suggestion is to invest a little time in the synopsis. First, make sure it shows the growth of the characters and the arc of the love story. Next, try to get your voice into it. Lastly, tighten it up till you can't tighten any more.

    Oh, and as far as the entry itself goes, end on a hook and leave the judge dying to know what happens next.

    Good luck to all this year's entrants and happy writing!

  3. Wonderful, Marion! Thanks so much for stopping by, and good luck!

    Anne - our very own GH winner in the Regency Category!! And a double finalist at that, you clever girl. Great tip about the synopsis - lord do I hate them, but they are VERY important! And

    I agree completely on the hook - my entry was actually 3 pages shy of the allotted amount so I could end on a clever note.
    Thanks so much for stopping by!!

  4. Great post, Erin.

    I was thinking of entering two of my current MS and my wip (it'll be done soon)this year for 2012's GH.

    Thanks for posting all those great tips!!!

  5. Erin, great blog post!

    My GH finalist entry is a manuscript that got slammed by a chapter contest judge. I entered it just to see what the scores might be. I still can't believe it finaled.

    My tips: Enter more than one manuscript. (Yes, I know it's expensive.) Double-check that your entries have been checked in by RWA before the deadline - they'll post the info online. As Erin already said, end your pages on an irresistible hook. Most of all, remember the judging can be subjective; what doesn't do well one year may astound you the next.

    Mostly, those who want to advance in their careers enter the Golden Heart.

    Good luck to everyone!

  6. This is an interesting post. Perhaps I will take all my characters and write a story. Please put me in the hat for possible consideration of your critique.

  7. Terrific post, Erin!

    I agree on the attention to the synopsis--and generally, shorter is better for that. I'd also suggest JUDGING another chapter's contest. It's amazing what you catch in others' entries, and then you can go back to yours and see what (if any!) improvements you should make.

    Good luck all of those who are entering!

  8. Oh, yeah, that would be two- one my completed MS and the other my WIP. *headesk*

    Good Grammar is my friend. Good Grammar isn't out to get me.

  9. Marquita - Definitely enter! With your voice and talent, I know you'll do great!

    Thanks so much for your thoughts and tips, Julie!! I love hearing from the former GH finalists - and I agree 100 percent with the multiple entries thing! I entered two last year as well, and the one that I thought would final wasn't the one that did!

  10. You're in the hat, Susan! Best of luck to you :)

    Great thoughts, Jenn! Another of our lovely 2011 GH finalists :) Yes, I am judging a contest for the very first time this month, and I am wishing I had done it before entering. Lots of food for thought when you are on the other side of the score sheet!

  11. Good post. Yep, I've got my trusty crit group and I recently entered a few chapter contests to see what comes back. Actually I've gotten a lot of feedback on my WIP, so I'm not expecting to be too surprised about what they say. The big thing with the GH is that it does not have my genre (erotica) but I was contemplating entering it as a Novel with Romantic Elements or a Single Title Contemporary. So I'll be interested to see how much they take off, if any, for not fitting into the genre exactly before I decide to enter the GH.

    The thing I didn't understand about the GH is - so you need to have a completed MS, and you want it to be polished in case people request fulls, I know. But the thing is, mine is not finished, and while I can finish it by then, it won't be all that polished. But is that actually judged, or is it just required to be finished?

  12. Great post w/ lots of fabulous tips! I'd love a shot at a critique. Thanks for doing this.

  13. Thanks Valerie, my awesome fellow Regency finalist :) That was another great benefit I failed to mention - all the lovely new friends you make!

    Amber, I have often wondered by erotica isn't one of the offered categories. Good luck entering one of the other categories - in my opinion, a good story is a good story, no matter the heat :)

    As for you other question, the MS simply has to be finished and burned onto a CD when you enter. It is NOT judged. A final judge cannot request the full UNTIL they submit their scores, so you then have months to polish it before a judge will ever see it. If one does request, you have 24 hours to provide RWA with an updated version of the ms. If you do not, they will simply provide the one you originally submitted.

  14. Thanks, Christy! You are duly added to the contest. Good luck!

  15. Wonderful post, Erin...and I can vouch that I landed my agent, the fabulous Louise Fury, because I was indeed blessed enough to be able to add 'Golden Heart finalist' at the end of my query.

    Good luck everyone!


    Cindy Nord
    Class of 2008

  16. I'm very excited to say I'm planning to enter my very first Golden Heart this year. Thank you for all the tips, this post was super helpful.

  17. What a great blog! I would love to win the critique. This will be my fifth (ouch!) time entering. First time with this WIP though, so I'm excited about that. I would second the tip that it's worth re-entering a manuscript--I entered the same YA MS three years running and got such wildly divergent scores. It's all a matter of who you land as a judge. I would add that if you are entering YA or another genre where the romance is slow to build that you want to do whatever you can to get your h/h interacting on those first 50 pages as much as possible and really play up the romance in the synopsis so that judges can see that it's coming. You want to avoid the "not a romance" dings and the judges who absolutely want the "meet cute" within the opening pages.

    The deadline has passed for the Golden Rose but they are my favorite warm-up contest. I also like the Great Expectations contest (deadline after the GH) for the quality of feedback.

  18. I want in, oh yes, I do! I have two MS that I am currently about 2/3 the way done with, and what the heck, I might enter them both. There is a historical and a contemporary, so they are pretty different. Thanks for the post, Erin- I'm so excited for this fall...so many good things coming! I also have my eye on several contests, but I don't know yet if I am going to enter. Are there any in particular you would recommend?

  19. Great post, Erin!

    I have been judging the Golden Heart for 6 years now, and have learned as much from judging as I have from entering and finaling. My first advice is to sign up to judge. If you can’t see in your own writing how that 5-page backstory info dump is killing your pacing, you will get it when you are forced to read someone else’s 5-page backstory info dump. ☺

    Better yet, highlight every paragraph that is straight backstory (not a line of backstory interspersed with on-scene action) and then consider deleting it. Or at least trim it. Two paragraphs in a row of pure backstory is pushing it, a full page is far too much. Backstory overload is the most glaring problem with most contest entries I judge.

    And lastly, listen to Anne Barton: don’t underestimate the power of the synopsis. Keep it short – 5 pages, maximum. Any longer and you will get too caught up in the details and it is confusing for the reader. Three pages is ideal. The emotional thread is what makes a synopsis readable, and you must include the ending.

    Good luck!

  20. Very cool, Cindy! Louise Fury is a great catch indeed:)

    Lorenda, best of luck to you this year! I'm glad you have found the tips to be helpful :)

  21. I keep flirting with the idea of entering the GH, but ultimately bow out due to timing, nerves etc. Maybe this is the year. Count me in for the contest!

  22. Second the advice about the contest feedback. By all means if something a judge says does not resonate with you, ignore it. My personal experience with contest is that judges either love me or hate me, and I have the all-over-the-place scores to prove it. Even my GH scores varied. I've come to realize this is indeed a sign of a strong voice. Don't try to please all the judges out there. You're going to end up killing your voice.

    Secondly, read your MS out loud. Yes, I know you might feel silly, but do it.

    Thirdly, make sure your synopsis shows character arc. It has to be more than a list of events. It has to show emotional change and growth. In fact, concentrate more on the emotions than the events, and you should get it.

  23. Some great tips here! Not much I can add, except pay attention to hooks. Of course, try to hook them with your opening. Deploy a hook (or mini-hook, at least) at the end of chapters - even the end of scenes. And end on a killer hook. Sometimes I've hacked my entry down mercilessly to get to that hook, and other times, I sent an entry that didn't use up the whole page allotment. You must get to the big hook/stop at the big hook. :)

  24. Thanks for a great post! I'd love to be entered for a critique. :)


  25. I have to say, Chanceofbooks, that there is a bit of a crap shoot in all contests - you never know when the bad mood judge is going to ruin things. Good for you for being so persistent - that kind of attitude is sure to pay off in this business! Thanks for your tips, and good luck in the drawing!

    So many good things coming indeed, Olivia! Go ahead and enter that second ms - nothing kicks you into gear to get a ms finished like a drop dead deadline :) As for the contests, I really loved the MARA one, and I also thought the Show Me the Spark contest was helpful. Both of these returned feedback in time for tweaking your ms prior to the GH deadline.
    Good luck in the drawing!

  26. Fantastic tips, Rachel!! It's so great of you and the other past GH finalists to stop by with such great tips. The whole backstory dump thing is a great point - why are these things always easier to see in other people's work?! And I have to say, I was amazed at how much I could cut of a scene and not actually miss any of it!

    Bluestocking - this is your year! Give it a go, I dare you ;) Good luck in the drawing!

  27. Ashlyn, I learned early on that for me, reading my work aloud allowed me to see things that never stood out by simply reading. I'm so glad that you added that tip - I forgot all about it! Excellent point on the synopsis needing the character arc, too. That is NOT something I understood, early on. Thanks so much for stopping by, my fellow regency finalist :)

    Norah, I agree whole-heartedly with the 'hook' tip. So important to leave your judge wanting more! It took me ages to realize that wrapping up each chapter with a neat little bow was NOT going to make someone want to turn the page to read 'one more chapter' before bed. Thanks for stopping by!!

  28. So glad you enjoyed the post, Jaime! You've been added to the pot - best of luck!

  29. I agree with all the advice others have posted. So ... what can I add?

    Consider giving your synopsis to a friend who hasn't read your ms. Ask her to mark EVERYTHING that doesn't immediately make sense. Then rework the synopsis until it's as clear as day.

    Our cps know our stories well and our friends are often eager to give us the benefit of the doubt. ("Well, I don't know why this is important but I'm sure it's clear if you read the book ...") But the synopsis really needs to be a model of clarity.

  30. I'm now a published author, a prior golden heart finalist, and I have judged the GH for years so I have a few insights.

    Be as prepared as possible. However, realize that you will not get feedback from the GH. Only a score that will tell you nothing. Don't let it get to you if you have all high scores and one that doesn't seem to fit. It's all subjective. The smaller contests rock for giving you great feedback. The GH is more for if you have the manuscript polished to a sheen and its really ready to be considered for publication.

    Also, if you do not final in the GH, this does not mean you won't get an agent or that you will not sell. It also does not mean that you will get an agent or that you will sell.

    This past year I got nice scores in the GH but I did not final. However, I did get an agent and I did sell a 3 book series to Avon and my first book is getting very nice reviews. So take those scores for what they are worth.

    If your scores are bad or mediocre, toss them, and move forward with your head held high. Have faith, confidence and determination and you will succeed!

  31. Great post, Erin! I agree with Jenn and Rachel, judging contests (including the Golden Heart) is a great way to get a feel for what judges, editors, agent and readers are wanting.

    There's nothing like getting a contest entry, opening it and saying, "Please be good. Please entertainment me." And then you start reading and you put down your "red pencil" and at the end you say, "Wow. That was amazing. That's the quality I need to aim for."

    Then it's back to your current MIP and buckling down to more hard work. But now you are inspired and you are going to push your work to the next level.

  32. Excellent advice, Greta, Candis, and Jacqui! You ladies had some wonderful points - thank you for taking the time to offer your tips :)

    Thanks again to everyone for coming by to add so much to the discussion. This is one of the reasons I am so proud to be a member of the romance writing community. Where else would you find so many lovely, supportive people who genuinely want to help each other succeed? Best of luck to all of you in whatever comes next in your careers :)