What I Learned from Judging the RITAs®

For the first time ever, this year I was able to enter a book in the RITA® Awards. If you’re unfamiliar with the RITAs, it’s an award that:

“promote[s] excellence in the romance genre by recognizing outstanding published romance novels and novellas. The award itself is a golden statuette named after RWA’s first president, Rita Clay Estrada, and has become the symbol for excellence in published romance fiction.”

It’s been an…interesting experience, to say the least, one I felt compelled to write about. A caveat of being a judge, however, is that you’re not allowed to talk about the books you’re reading. It’s kind of like Fight Club, so I’ll have to speak about it in vague generalizations. Which is cool, because I totally don’t want to offend anyone. But the major thing I came away with after reading the six books that were delivered to my door was this: the system is flawed.

The RITAs are broken down into twelve categories: Contemporary (short, mid-length and long), erotic romance, historical (long and short), inspirational romance, paranormal romance, romance novella, romantic suspense, young adult romance and best first book. It’s also a peer-to-peer contest: if you enter your book, you have to judge. It should be a great system, right? As romance writers, we know our craft–we spend all our free time diligently working at it–and therefore should be the best judges of our peers’ work. The contest even gives you an out if you know the author or feel for any reason that you can’t judge a book fairly. That’s all well and good, but the problem I discovered when I read the back cover copy for the books I’d received was that they weren’t ones I personally wanted to read.

If you were playing Devil’s Advocate at that moment in time, you might have said to me, “Well hey, maybe you’ll pick up a book you never thought you would like and really enjoy it.” That’s totally spot on, and it was what I hoped when I sat down in front of the fire on a cold February evening and cracked open the first book. Keep an open mind, I told myself. Give it a shot. You might love it.

It wasn’t working.

In truth, I don’t think the writing was the whole cause of the problem, and for those times it was, I’m not going to spend any time discussing it, because I’m definitely not here to bash anyone’s work. The main issue was that the books were simply from romance sub-genres I simply don’t read, and this led me to hesitate every time I sat down to put in my scores. Was I really judging these books fairly? If I don’t enjoy Harlequin category books or romantic suspense, how could I give a score that truly reflected the time, energy and effort this author put in?

The entire process left a bad taste in my mouth. I felt guilty putting down my opinion on a book  I didn’t like simply because I don’t enjoy stories where the hero and heroine are constantly staring down the barrel of a gun, or ones where I’m getting bored because the sex scenes contain flowery words, or, in some other stories, were almost non-existent.

That was another thing I came away with–seeing the sparse amount of getting-busy scenes in some of these books made me wonder if we erotic romance writers really are the red headed step children of the industry.  Romance Writers of America defines erotic romance as “novels in which strong, often explicit, sexual interaction is an inherent part of the story, character growth, and relationship development and could not be removed without damaging the storyline.” As an erotic romance writer, stories with heavy sexual content are not only what I enjoy. Aside from paranormal romance, they’re the only sub-genre I read. It was another thing that left me wondering as I entered my scores if I was being fair. Was I giving a lower score because I personally was waiting for a sex scene that never came? (Pun intended. :-P)

Book after book, I started feeling entirely unequipped to be a part of this process. And, as I kept reading, my last beef really came to a head: it started becoming a chore.

I’m aware that many of my peers had more books delivered than I did. However, the sheer amount of pages I had to read–1700, to be exact–began to overwhelm me. I aimed for 50 pages a day at the least. I read while my lunch was cooking, while standing in line for classes at the gym, even (I’ll come out and say it) while I was in the bathroom. But when you’re desperately trying to get through the pages you’re required to read, knowing you have to get through them all by a certain due date, how can the process feel like anything other than homework?

When I finally finished the last book, I have to admit, I felt something like this:

I don’t think that’s what the authors who’d written the books I was assigned had hoped for. And I also don’t think it’s that far-fetched a concern to worry that my little book might have suffered the safe fate as theirs.

I haven’t thought of an alternative to the judging process. (Not that anyone’s sitting around waiting for my thoughts on the matter.) I will say that reading so many different books gave me the perspective I needed on why there’s such a broad range of reviews out there, not only only my book, but others. It really is so entirely personal. What I enjoy, someone else might hate, and vice versa. Potato, potahto. So for now I guess I’ll wish all my fellow entrants good luck when the scores come in, and go back to my regularly scheduled programming: reading the smutty stuff. 😉

Happy almost-Spring, everyone.

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