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.