Sure Is Quiet Around HereAlong about this time of year, it gets very quiet on the romance writers' Loops. It's a Saturday, and Saturdays are quiet almost all the time, but the day after the Golden Heart and RITA finalists are announced, things have gone from wild elation of yesterday to sudden stillness, as if the whole of the romance writers' world has gone to sleep beneath a dark gray pall. If you're a finalist, sometimes you feel as if the world around you, which only yesterday was a whirl of congratulations and excitement, has suddenly gone still. You might even wonder if those friends who have said nothing to you are angry. You might be right.
It's the time, sometimes, when the denigrating statements come out-- the sour grapes type. When non-finalists note the Golden Heart and RITA are really just crap shoots, and they don't mean anything. And if you're a finalist, that really hurts, because you just put everything you had plus $50 and shipping costs into this story that five judges think is great, and the people who won't have a chance to win are now saying it's not worth anything anyway. Maybe you ask yourself why, if they mean nothing, did two thousand people plunk down $50 plus shipping along with the books of their hearts? Not because it's worth nothing.
Most non-finalists are not so crass. They're well aware what the value of both awards is. They know, just like the entrants in a beauty pageant or dog show or most other competitions, the judges must make subjective decisions. They must judge. They must perform the extremely difficult task of quantifying their personal and objective feelings. So most non-finalists were quick to congratulate and support those who became the Queens for the Day yesterday.
But today is their day. (And men who write romance, please don't take offense if I refer to romance writers as female. Please just read "he" where you see "she".) Their disappointment shows. They've pulled inward and become quiet. They feel the pain deeply, and the self-incriminating questions begin to surface.
Only about 1 in 10 entrants becomes a finalist. When you look at it that way, that's not so incredible. Why couldn't they have been the 1, not the other 9? They've forgotten for the moment that although a thousand entries were accepted, many others did not even enter. For the unpublished Golden Heart entrants, that represents another seven thousand or so RWA members who didn't even try. This is especially hard those who were finalists in previus years, who feel a need to repeat their previous success. They tend to see their previous finalist status as tarnished by the new failure. They were flukes. They really don't have "it", and when in a previous year they thought they did, well-- maybe they were being embarrassingly foolish. They have lots of company, but for an author seeking recognition, lots of company doesn't feel good. It's likely their perception is wrong. Every year other previous winners demonstrate that there's much more to the subject than who the current year's finalists are. But that doesn't make the non-finalists feel any better.
So what is it that writers, particularly romance writers seek that is so important that they are willing to go through this yearly grueling competition, knowing their chance of failure is greater than their chance of success? What makes them keep on submitting to editors when in the best of circumstances their chances of getting bought are so slim? Why, when they know in this world of publishing, even a sure thing can be done in by a lazy Snail with red, white and blue stripes, do they keep on trying? Well, I have my own theory, and not everyone agrees with me.
Readers of romance fiction (that being the fiction I know) do not read romance to be enlightened or educated. They get that elsewhere. They want what they already know or believe they know, reaffirmed. They have ideas in their own minds about what makes a great relationship, how it ought to be, at any rate. They want this new story to take them on the same journey yet again, thus once again reaffirming their beliefs. This isn't bad. We couldn't function in this world if we didn't own personal concepts of what makes a relationship worthwhile for us. And it doesn't mean that we expect the romantic ideal in our own life. Most of us want something more practical for the real world, but we'd still like to have that ideal lurking back in the deeper corners of our minds.
When the romance author writes her story, she is writing what is in her heart, the way she sees romance unfolding, what makes it at its best. The romance editor buys stories she believes fit the romantic concepts most women feel in their hearts. And she probably got her concept from a combination of what readers buy and what she feels herself. So when we submit our stories to editors or contests, we are hoping that what is in our heart fits with what is in their hearts. Women, and men to a certain degree too, have a need to belong to a community of like-minded people, need a common sense and set of beliefs, including their romantic ideals. Yet at the same time, we're all different. We all have certain needs in common, but we all put our own unique spin on them.
So the author, having poured her heart into her story, seeks validation that what she believes deeply in her heart resonates with what others believe in their hearts. And if the story is rejected, the author sees it as her failure. Her story doesn't resonate with the hearts of others. All right, maybe it simply didn't resonate quite enough, but she doesn't feel it that way.
Validation, to a writer, doesn't mean just being one of the pack. It means standing above the pack. Being the one who leads, who knows, who can tell others all about this curious phenomenon called humanity. We want to be like the others, yet rise above. Validation tells us we are right. It tells us we are strong, smart, winners. It tells us we are part of that inner circle that "gets it", that knows what romance and life are all about.
We didn't just put a story on the line, we put our hearts there. And when our quest for validation fails us, it's our hearts that get trampled. We're told sometimes by those who buy stories not to take it personally. But they're just buying stories. We're selling our hearts. Nothing could be more personal.
For five years in a row, I was a Golden Heart finalist, seven times total, and I won an unprecedented three times. But I can count eighteen total entries over the years. That means eleven did not final. My last winner finalled in two years, 2002 and 2005, but did not final in the one intervening year in wich it was entered. Only one of my entries never finalled at all, but most of them were entered but didn't final, more than once. So I've been on both sides of the fence.
This year, I chose not to enter. And even though the decision was entirely mine, I've found I still feel that sense of loss that comes with the disappointment of not finalling. I've been softened around the edges by a lot of buffeting over the years, though, so I know it doesn't hurt so badly for me. But still, I know the feeling. And I wonder sometimes why authors keep on trying when so very few of them can actually reach up and touch their dream?
It's because, even with our tender and vulnerable souls, we must have a toughness to us, and we cannot write without it. We want so very much to be a part of the common dream, to achieve validation that we "get it". But at the same time, we know how different we are. We know, no matter how many times we reach for the stars that are far above us, the odds are against us. But we believe we will the be one who will succeed. And when we begin to doubt, somehow we find the strength within us to go on. We recover, and we reach out again.
No one ever gave us any guarantees, but we don't need them. Because we are writers. That is what we do.