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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Strong Romantic Elements category. Is it right for your book? -- Esri Rose

RWA introduced the Strong Romantic Elements (SRE) category in 2004. That first year, finaling titles (especially in the RITAs) suggested that the category was created for Women’s Fiction, where rugged yet understanding men were important subplots in women’s search to reunite with sisters, deal with life-threatening illnesses, or get their wayward daughters back on track. But subsequent years found the SRE awash in snarky Chick Lit and moody Paranormal, as well as moody Chick Lit and snarky Paranormal. The 2006 SRE RITA winner was a Silhouette Sensation, and the 2007 SRE RITA winner is a fictional account of young Anne Boleyn’s life. Confused? Welcome to publishing! Once again, the Golden Heart is great practice for the real-world book business.

First of all, you should be aware that RWA’s judging guidelines have changed for the SRE. Here’s the previous version:

Best Novel with Strong Romantic Elements (previous)
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. The word count for these novels is a minimum of 80,000 words.

Judging guidelines: Any kind of fiction, of any tone or style and set in any place or time, is eligible for this category. The romantic elements, while not the primary focus of the story, should be an integral and dynamic part of the plot or subplot.

Now the length of the SRE, along with all the other categories, is defined as over 40,000 words, and the definition is trickier.

Novel with Strong Romantic Elements (current)
Definition: 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 and 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.

So the question becomes, What are the “traditional romance boundaries”? The answer to that is in all the other GH categories. Your job is to figure it out by process of elimination, but here’s my take on it.

Within the traditional boundaries of romance, your heroine has one love interest throughout the book. If your gal can’t decide between the hot-blooded werewolf and the coolly sensual vampire until page 368, you’d better put it in SRE.

In a traditional romance, your heroine and hero live happily ever after. Commonly referred to as the HEA ending, your romance had better have it, but now it looks as though the SRE needs to have something very close. Take a look at this text: “…the resolution of the romance is emotionally satisfying and optimistic.” I added those italics, and I think they’re key. They may also be a direct response to the 2007 RITA winner, because we all know what happened to Anne Boleyn eventually.

Let’s say you’ve written the first book in a Regency mystery series where your pretty sleuth needs the help of a certain man to solve the crime. Your heroine and Mr. Tight Trousers bicker and waltz through the plot with the sexual heat turned to stew, but the question of whether they wind up together isn’t absolutely answered. Now, if the final scene reads like this…

“Eleanora…be my wife. Never have I found a woman who is so intellectually stimulating whilst at the same time so very responsive in a careening carriage.”

“Oh, Lord Musk, I would love to be your wife…someday. But let us first have two more adventures. The ongoing mystery of my father’s will (and the demands of my author’s contract) demand it.”

…I’m guessing that would have a chance in SRE. It’s romantically satisfying and optimistic, as far as the two principals are concerned. But look at this other possibility:

“Eleanora…be my wife. My carriage awaits to take you from your vile cousin’s house.”

“Lord Musk, while it is true that I have spent most of the book exploring my love for you, the last few pages have shown that my vile cousin is vile due to circumstances beyond his control, and also isn’t my cousin. Not only that -- the babe in my womb may not be yours, but his!”

I don't think you can call a cliff-hanger like that satisfying, and Lord Musk isn’t feeling optimistic. He’s in a world of hurt. The idea that there may not be a place for this kind of book in the Golden Heart may make your blood boil, but hey, they have to draw the line somewhere. It is the Romance Writers of America, after all.

Let’s look at one more piece of the definition puzzle: “The romantic elements, while not the primary focus of the story, should be an integral and dynamic part of the plot or subplot.”

A suspenseful SRE is not the same as a Romantic Suspense. In the latter, the spying, shooting and running are tools to bring the heroine and hero together. If the thieves were stopped but the couple didn't end up together, the story wouldn't work.

My 2006 SRE GH finalist, Telling Lies, was not the same as a contemporary romance. My heroine’s primary focus was finding out why she developed a split personality during her job as a Tarot-card reader. There were two love interests in the book, but if she had had to forgo both men to regain her sanity, the book would still have worked. The reason I could still enter it in SRE, however, was because the romance was integral to the main plot. Her choice of man was part of why she developed a split personality. And since she did get her HEA with one of the guys, it had a satisfying and optimistic ending.

The RWA definition also specifies that the romance, though secondary, is dynamic. Your heroine can’t start out engaged, have a lovely, trouble-free relationship where her man helps her kill the bad guys, and then marry him at the end. In that scenario, your main plot may be riveting, but the romantic subplot is not dynamic. Take it out of the book and it is bo-ring.

To sum up, the SRE is the place to enter a novel with a primary plot that is something other than a romance. Part of that primary plot (“or subplot”?!) had better feature a conflict-ridden romance with one or more hot guys, and your heroine had better end the book with a relationship that is both satisfying and optimistic. Now, as far as I know, whether she can be satisfied and optimistic with two guys at once and still final in the GH remains to be seen.

I'll be interested to hear what the other Noodlers think. The "satisfying and optimistic" romantic resolution is probably the trickiest bit for those writing a series with the same heroine throughout.

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At 9:36 AM, Blogger Manda said...

Wow! As if the GH weren't confusing enough! You do a great job of explaining, though, Esri:)

I've got a question, though. What's with the word length requirements going down this year? Are they trying to let people who aren't quite finished enter or is that just a sign that the market is more fluid when it comes to word count these days?

At 9:38 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

That's a darn good question, and I have no idea what the answer is. The GH answer gal is gone until next Monday. Maybe one of the Noodlers on the Board will have heard something.

At 10:12 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I know from working on the RITAGH committee, that verification of word count was a big problem. For example, how do you verify word count of a RITA book after it is printed? I think one of the best decisions the Board made about the contests was to take word count out of the equation. If you read carefully, even the 40,000 word minimum is a guideline, not a rule.

At 10:51 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

There you go! Thanks so much, Diane!

At 11:07 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Wow, talk about complicated! (And Esri, congrats on the sale!!!)

So--would Lisa Kleypas's Sugar Daddy, where she spends the first half of the book in love with boy #1, and the last half finding man #2 fit into this category, if she was unpublished and entering?

At 11:17 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Gillian: Sugar Daddy is still sitting in my to-be-read pile, but from what I know of the book, I would say yes -- both because she changes romantic horses, so to speak, and also because the book is more about her maturing into a person, and the romance is just a part of that.

At 11:17 AM, Blogger doglady said...

Okay, my head is still spinning. And Esri, I LOVE your examples! Lord Musk, indeed! Huge Congrats on the sale, by the way. I am really intrigued by this category. I mean it is definitely a "think outside of the box" thing, isn't it? Amanda Quick wrote a series very much like the one you are describing - a Regency or maybe Victorian set series about a lady sleuth and the guy she ends up working with and they do end up married at the end of the series. The hook was that you wanted to keep reading each subsequent book to find out IF they got married. Sounds like a built in marketing tool if your first book is intriguing enough.

At 11:18 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

And thanks, Gillian, for the congrats! I'm pretty excited, I have to say.

At 11:24 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Thanks, Doglady!

I love mysteries where the sleuth has an ongoing romance, but it's such a challenge to keep the sizzle with one guy and still have a reason to keep them apart. And then when they get together, a lot of the fun is gone. So it's understandable why now we see so many where the gal is sort of serially monogamous (a la James Bond). And of course, the GH judges don't know if your sleuth moves on to Mr. Also-Right in book 2. (Beginning of Book Two: "Eleanora wiped a tear from her eye with one black-gloved hand. Lord Musk had been so sweet to run across the street to find "something blue." If only he had seen the mail coach coming!")

At 11:51 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Great post, Esri. I didn't realize the SRE category was so complicated. You did a wonderful job analyzing RWA's definition, and your examples are both helpful and hilarious. :)

At 12:10 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

"If only he had seen the mail coach..." Stop Esri stop!

I'm trying to bolt my lunch between schools (I'm an itinerant teacher) and I about choked while laughing!

And I hope I didn't ruin the book for you--sorry!! FWIW, I think you'll really enjoy it.

At 12:15 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Alright, Esri, now you have to write Eleanora and Lord Musk's story! Too funny! My fellow Passion's Slave, Gillian, and I are both choking on our lunches after reading that line. I love it! I have to agree with what you said though. Any time you write a romance over a series of books you have to keep coming up with more things to keep them apart. I have to admit, a runaway mail coach is a unique choice! Poor Lord Musk!

At 12:47 PM, Blogger banksofmillbrook said...

Esri, thanks so much for the information and laughs. I've always wondered about the SRE category and you've cleared things up! The words "strong" and "elements" have always made me think of the phrase "it was a dark and stormy night..." :-)

What's your take on the following for a SRE scenario?

My heroine becomes a superhero. She falls in love with a comic book illustrator and his superhero creation (whom she meets as an equal when she's in superhero form). At the end of the story she has to choose between identities AND between the illustrator and superhero. She ends up "happy" as a regular ole' human with the artist guy, but it's different from a traditional romance in that she has a deep, sexual relationship with two characters throughout the book. There is some question as to whether the illustrator is, in fact, the human alter ego of his superhero, but I leave it a mystery (or have thus far).

Hrm. Hope that's not too complicated...


At 12:57 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

BanksofMillbrook: KILLER PREMISE!!

So killer that it shouldn't stay on a public blog for too long. Someone remind me to delete the premise comment after the contest is done. Everyone who has read this, keep your purty mouths shut.

You should definitely enter that in SRE! The only thing I worry about in your story is the loose end of the illustrator's identity. If this is a stand-alone, you need to clear that up so as not to frustrate the reader. If this is first in a series, you can make that obvious in the last line of the book (setting up the next plot or something), or mention it in the synopsis, or even change the manuscript to answer that question, just for the purposes of entering the GH.


At 1:09 PM, Blogger Manda said...

Ahhh, thanks Diane for the word count clarification! That makes perfect sense. And I never thought of what a pain it would be to determine word count on things that are already printed!

At 2:03 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

You know, I don't want to scare anyone away from this category. If you submit a great manuscript, that's going to count for more than picky contest rules. If you have a fab book but aren't sure people will consider it SRE, don't let that stop you from entering, unless that fifty bucks is your food budget.

At 2:18 PM, Blogger Prisakiss said...

Esri, it's a good thing I'm already finished with my lunch, and I'm not still sipping on my diet coke. Girl, your humor (read: cheekiness) is hilarious!!

Great job explaining what seems to be unexplainable.

And I agree with you about Banksofmillbrook's story idea. Very cool. Very different. And definitely to be deleted from any blog files. (just in case)

Banks- I hope we see your story, written by you, on the contest circuit or on the book shelves. Soon. Good luck with it!

At 2:43 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

And anyone who wants a funny Regency should go buy fellow-Noodler Janet Mullany's, "Rules of Gentility." I'm pretty sure hot tea came out of my nose at one point. I really ought to sue her for that.

At 4:29 PM, Blogger banksofmillbrook said...

Thanks for the encouraging words Esri and Pris. Yikes, and thanks also for the warning about blabbing my premise so publicly. I never even thought about the dangers, naive newbie that I am.

The ms is the first of a planned trilogy and the loose ends should get tied up in book three (with a few enticing clues in book two).

I've had success with the ms in a chapter contest and have a partial out to an editor and an agent right now. Hadn't considered it for a GH entry until I read Esri's fine explication of the SRE category...

At 4:30 PM, Blogger MaryF said...


At 4:56 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Banksofmillbrook: Occasionally someone will knowingly steal an idea. A greater risk is that in the time it takes you to first get published, some established author might come up with an idea very similar, not realizing that she actually got it from something she read a year ago (i.e. this post). So I'm covering both bases by deleting your post after this week is over and also giving all of us a subconscious "tag" that this idea is not up for grabs.

All that said, even the best ideas are often unique combinations of concepts that are lying around waiting to be rediscovered, and someone is lucky enough to put them together first. If you're lucky enough to find one of those, keep it close to your chest.

At 7:44 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Manda, glad to oblige on the word count issue.

Banks, if the ms has done well in a contest, that's even more reason to enter it in the Golden Heart.

Another Noodler author doing SRE is Colleen Gleason. With her Regency Vampire slaying heroine of The Rest Falls Away and Rises the Night, I'm still trying to figure out who Victoria will wind up with. I knew when I heard Colleen's premise that she had a winning idea!

At 8:48 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Banks: And if you think you're close to a sale, that's also a good reason to enter the GH. Just think about your name up on that big screen, and you getting up to accept your award and mentioning your upcoming title and release date! Great advertising!

Basically, there's no reason not to enter the GH.

At 8:53 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Banks: Not that I'm suggesting that your idea isn't completely unique. I'm actually thinking of one of my own ideas.

You know, I might have managed to obliquely insult everyone with that post.

Okay, none of us are thieves or copycats! We're all super-dooper!

At 11:15 PM, Blogger Trish Milburn aka Tricia Mills said...

Since I'm on the RWA board and was there for the lengthy contest changes discussions (oh, I'm tired just remembering it), we took out all word counts because word counts between publishers and lines were constantly changing, tending to be lowered each time. We figured that as long as the book was long enough to be considered a novel, the authors needed to choose which category they felt it best fit. And like Diane said, the 40,000 words is a guideline, not a rule. You won't get disqualified if your novel comes in at 39,999 even though that is pretty short. You get much before 40,000 and you're entering novella rather than novel territory.

Banks, like everyone else, I LOVE your premise. But--paranoia talking here--it's so unique that I do think you might keep it under wraps. There's nothing worse than having a fabulous idea then seeing it or something very near it get published by someone else and therefore making yours practically unsaleable. This hasn't happened to me, but I've seen other writers lament it.

At 2:14 PM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

Thanks for distinguishing between SRE and RS. Sometimes I read books and I'm not sure whether the romance was the central plot or the suspense. And even in books that are touted as romantic suspense, sometimes the romance is sorely lacking.

At first, this sounds like it would be a difficult category to pull off, but maybe it's simply incorporating some aspect of romance that isn't allowed. With the revised guidelines, would a book that's more women's fiction still fit?

At 4:21 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Patricia: Absolutely Women's Fic still fits SRE. Romance's inroads into mystery, fantasy and sci-fi are a fairly recent phenomenon, and I still think of Women's Fiction as the canonical SRE. If the economy gets worse, the market will probably demand more comforting, family-based stories, along with humor. People want to read happy, encouraging stuff when times are bad.


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