5 Things You Need to Know Before You Enter RWA’s Golden Heart® Contest

17 Oct

The Romance Writers of America 2012 Golden Heart® Contest for unpublished manuscripts is now open for entries. With 1200 entries each year, this is perhaps the biggest and most prestigious romance writing contest in the world. Contestants can compete in any of the romance subgenres. There are also categories for mainstream novels with strong romantic elements (NSRE) and Young Adult (YA) novels.

Each year we hear Cinderella stories of GH finalists who found agents and signed their first multi-book deals with major publishers. Finalists get priority on appointments with editors and agents at the RWA National Conference, and there are numerous receptions held in their honor, including a high profile award ceremony. But the greatest prize of all is the support of an enormous network of past and present Golden Heart® finalists. They even have their own RWA chapter, The Golden Network.

Here’s what you need to know before you plunk down your $50 and take a chance on the Golden Heart:

You won’t get any feedback: Golden Heart® entries are scored on a scale from one to nine. Entrants will receive their scores without any explanation of why they scored as they did. They will also receive information on how they finished in comparison to other entrants in their category. For example, they will be told if they finished in the top quarter, middle quarter, bottom quarter, etc. Yet, this information is no predictor of how their work will sell. There are plenty of best-selling writers who scored in the bottom quarter and went on to have amazing careers. Conversely, many writers who final repeatedly in the Golden Heart never sell.

Yes, you really do need a completed manuscript: Although only the partials are judged, you do need to send in the entire manuscript. You have the option of printing out your full or sending the file on a CD. I have heard stories of CD’s getting lost and the entrants being disqualified. So if you choose that option, be sure to label the CD clearly. If you final and one of the final editor judges requests the full, you should have an opportunity to send a revised version, but send a polished full anyway. You never know who might see it.

Enter Early: The deadlines for the Golden Heart® might be a little confusing for a new entrant. The first deadline, November 15, 2011, is for the entry form. Your actual entry: six copies of both the partial and the synopsis plus one copy of the full must be received at the RWA office in Houston by December 2, 2011. Yes, you do have to send it snail mail. Last year, I mailed mine ten days before the deadline and it arrived on the very last day possible. So plan ahead and allow twice as much time as you think you’ll need.

Enter Often:  One of the things you’ll hear over and over again when you’re talking to Golden Heart® finalists, is that they’re often stunned by which of their manuscripts finaled. They thought a manuscript that didn’t final was stronger than the one that did. But many factors go into the selection of finalists. The score required to final in one category might be higher than the score required in another. You can never tell which manuscript is going to appeal to the judges. So if you can afford to enter more than one manuscript, do.

There are no guarantees:  Your manuscript is flawless. You’ve gone through the checklist and met all the formatting requirements. You’ve paid your money and made all the deadlines. Perhaps you’ve even won some chapter contests. But even if you’re the greatest writer since Shakespeare, you might not final in the Golden Heart. The contest does have a system for eliminating scores outside the statistical norm. But judging is inherently subjective, and there’s no guarantee that the best entries will final.

I would love to hear your Golden Heart®advice. Is there anything I left out? Please share your questions or words of wisdom. Are you entering this year? Why or why not?


Posted by on October 17, 2011 in Idaho


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24 responses to “5 Things You Need to Know Before You Enter RWA’s Golden Heart® Contest

  1. Carley Ash

    October 17, 2011 at 6:24 AM

    Thanks for the tips, Clarissa. I’m making revisions now in hopes of entering.

  2. Janis McCurry

    October 17, 2011 at 7:02 AM

    Very good advice. Thanks, Clarissa.

  3. Liz Fredericks

    October 17, 2011 at 7:16 AM

    Thanks Clarissa! You always offer such a thorough and balanced summary of the pitfalls and opportunities in contests and the general environment surrounding writers. You’re a real ‘gem’ to those of us beginning to explore careers in this arena.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      October 17, 2011 at 10:32 AM

      Thank you for the kind words, Liz. Right back at you 🙂 I feel very privileged to belong to this group of talented writers.

  4. ramblingsfromtheleft

    October 17, 2011 at 7:54 AM

    Thanks so much, Clarissa. This is an inspiration even for those who may not want to participate. It goes deeper than winning, it goes to the “heart” of why we continue to follow our dreams 🙂

    • Clarissa Southwick

      October 17, 2011 at 10:32 AM

      It’s always good to see you here. I hope our readers are checking out your blog too. Thanks for the kind comments.

  5. Meredith Conner

    October 17, 2011 at 8:39 AM

    I’m still debating about the GH, but I will add that I sat next to a woman a few years ago at Nationals who made it into the finals in the GH. She told me this was an old manuscript that she had “dusted off” for the contest. She won.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      October 17, 2011 at 10:34 AM

      Meredith, With your talent, I think you should enter. I know we’ve talked before about how to decide which category to enter when the story doesn’t fit “the box.” But I’d like to believe that good story will win out over marketing details every time 🙂

  6. D'Ann

    October 17, 2011 at 9:52 AM

    Took a break from working on my sub to come check email. Good tips! Thanks!

    • Clarissa Southwick

      October 17, 2011 at 10:35 AM

      Hi D’Ann! I think this must be your year. You’ve done so well on the contest circuit. You didn’t say if you were entering, but good luck!

  7. Liz Selvig

    October 17, 2011 at 11:00 AM

    Hi Clarissa,
    I love this topic! Since we were Golden Heart sisters in 2010 we both know what an exhilarating experience being a finalist is. I didn’t final my first time around, but the second time–it did open doors since my agent found and approached me because of the GH. And, I’m honored that my GH book is being published by Avon Impulse early next year.

    Here’s my Golden Heart theory in a (large) nutshell: If you final, I believe you can be very proud and have confidence that your story is solid. You’ve gotten five judges to like it and that’s an accomplishment! On the other hand, there was an element of luck involved in getting those five judges — so it’s still subjective.

    If you don’t final it doesn’t necessarily mean your story isn’t good. (This isn’t the contest to help you decide that anyway :-)) What it does mean is that you got some judges who didn’t connect with your work. You can look at your scores objectively for trends and consensus–but you’re probably better off just ignoring them and trying again next year. Look at the GH as opportunity, not judging.

    I always encourage anyone who thinks she/he has a good story to enter the GH. It’s a great exercise in getting your book ready to submit. It’s excellent discipline for deadline-meeting. It has the potential to really boost your writing and confidence. You’re disappointed if you don’t final but, really, it means little if don’t. So anyone on the fence: I say, go for it!

    • Clarissa Southwick

      October 17, 2011 at 8:27 PM

      Great advice, Liz. I think my most lasting memory of the 2010 GH will be that I was lucky enough to be sitting next to you when you won. Thanks for commenting.

  8. tiffhelmer

    October 17, 2011 at 12:02 PM

    Hi Carissa and hi Liz! Liz, it’s great to see you here and read your comments too.

    Okay, I have been pondering entering this year, but (assuming I place), how helpful is the contest if you already have an awesome agent and can’t attend Nationals. Does the GH help in getting published faster? Since I signed with my agent, I haven’t entered any contests. I entered contests before to get the attention of agents and editors who were judging. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      October 17, 2011 at 8:30 PM

      I do think that a GH final will help you to get an editor’s attention. It’s one more credential to put in the submission packet. Even if you can’t attend Nationals this year, you might be able to attend in a future year. And GH finalists help each other all year long through the online chapter. It’s a very supportive group.

  9. Lynn Mapp

    October 17, 2011 at 8:13 PM

    Thanks Clarissa!

  10. Deb

    October 17, 2011 at 8:21 PM

    Hi Clarissa: I’m always go round and round on what is the proper category to enter.

    For example: I have what I call a romantic suspense that is light on the suspense and heavier on the romance, and I also have another romantic suspense that is partly an adventure and heavier on the romance, with a little lighter tone.
    Both are single title length.

    So which do you think would be the best fitting category, Single Title or Romantic Suspense?
    I guess part of my question is when a judge picks up a romantic-suspense does it have to be serious and a dark suspense and one might be knocked down on points for this?

    Thanks for you input,

    • Greta

      October 18, 2011 at 9:08 AM

      Hi, Deb. Here’s my two cents: does the ms start off with a strong suspense element? (ie dead body, killer’s pov, stalking, gaslighted heroine, missing person, etc.) If so, consider RS. If the ms doesn’t start off with a page one or first-chapter boom! suspense element, go with single title.

  11. Clarissa Southwick

    October 17, 2011 at 8:57 PM

    Hi Deb,

    You’re not the only one who struggles with category. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about it amongst ourselves here at GSW.

    I couldn’t tell you which category to enter without reading it, but I don’t think RS has to necessarily be all dark and scary. I’ve read several that mixed humor & suspense quite effectively.

    I’ve found the best way to decide is to read the category definitions side by side. Sometimes a novel could do well in either category and you have think about what else will be entered in that category.When a judge picks that category, what does she expect to get?

    I tend to believe that most judges want to get caught up in a good story and they won’t mark that “wrong” category box unless it’s very obvious that the entry has no business in the category it’s in.

    Good luck with your entry.

  12. Anne-Marie Carroll

    October 17, 2011 at 10:00 PM

    Clarissa, great tips. I’ve found that scores vary from year to year. 🙂 For everyone who doesn’t know, it’s writers who are readers that judge–entry level, intermediate and advanced writers. I wish I knew whether it’s the newbie or the pro who give the low scores and high scores. That being said, I think I’m going to take the plunge and enter my new MS.


  13. Abigail Sharpe

    October 18, 2011 at 6:33 AM

    Greetings, my Golden Heart sister! Sound advice! I would also add that when you get the phone call or email telilng you you’re a finalist, BELIEVE THE CALLER. *laugh*

  14. Peggy Staggs

    October 18, 2011 at 7:09 AM

    You always have the best advice. Probably why I always listen to you.

  15. Erin Spock

    March 23, 2013 at 4:32 PM

    Great points. Just reiterating that the judging is subjective. In the past I have received both 8.5/10 and 3/10 on the same manuscript. In a different RWA chapter contest, I got similarly disparate scores, one with comments that I had too much description, and one saying I didn’t have enough. It’s good to remember that different readers look for different things in a book and not to take it personally.
    Another thing to note is that being a Golden Heart finalist is not a shoe-in for a sale/contract. Last year I looked up finalists and winners from the year prior and found very few that were on the road to publication.
    Still, I’m crossing my fingers for the 26th. 🙂


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