About 15 years ago I was judging for the Romance Writers of America’s most prestigious national contest for unpublished writers, the Golden Heart. The entries I got that year were pretty typical–some good, some not so much. One entry, however, was over the top in terms of quality. From the first sentence of the 50-page entry to the very last, the writing was simply stunning. The opening line was a powerful hook and the voice of the story only got better and better. I would have given it a 10 out of 10 except for two things: First, the synopsis of the entry wasn’t very well done. That would have dropped it to a 9.5 maybe. Second, the story wasn’t a romance.
This was a writing contest for best unpublished romance, not best unpublished novel.
The rules of the competition were very explicit and very clear: If the entry did not fall within the requirements of the romance genre, it had to receive a 0 out of 10…it was a mandatory fail. It was physically painful for me to give this wonderful, fabulously written story a 0, but I did it, kicking myself the whole way.
While it’s no longer true, at that time judges were allowed to write letters to the entrants telling them about what worked and what didn’t so they could improve their writing. I wrote the author of this entry a long letter, telling him or her (probably a her, since most members of RWA are women), that if this had been a general fiction contest, she’d have gotten a fabulous score, and her only mistake was in entering this story in this particular contest. I told her I was sure her story was publishable if the rest was as good as this entry. (Having a complete ms. is mandatory to enter this contest.) I even signed the letter, optional for judges, hoping that she would get in touch with me so I could encourage her more.
She never did get in touch with me. I heard nothing more from her.
About 2 or 3 years later, I was browsing my local bookstore and…there it was:
Bonita Faye, by Margaret Moseley
This was the exact same title as that incredible Golden Heart entry! I plucked the book off the shelf and read the opening line:
“It was only a little murder. He wasn’t even an important man.”
Yup. Same title. Same opening.
This was that incredible Golden Heart entry, now published! I bought it on the spot.
Since that time I’ve told tons of people about this incredible debut book–one that was published as a mystery (which it is) and not a romance (which it isn’t). It even got an Edgar nomination (the highest award from the Mystery Writers of America)!
So what’s my point? I have two:
- Make sure your writing meets the requirements. If your professor expects a paper on transcendental poetry, don’t turn in one on Shakespeare, no matter how well written it is. You’ll get an instant reject for that!
- Be persistent. If you believe in what you’re writing, don’t take a little rejection or criticism to heart. Learn from it, asMargaret Moseley clearly did. She moved her submissions out of romance and into mystery, and in the process, she hit one out of the park. Same story, same writer, different audience=big, big success!