By Maria Geraci
Our theme this cycle is marketing tips for writers and we’ve had such great advice that I can’t think of anything more to add. Except to emphasize the one thing we’ve been hearing over and over. The most powerful marketing tool is writing the best book possible. And writing the best book possible involves continually growing and learning as a writer. For me, that means writing every day, reading every day, and expanding my knowledge in any way possible.
Recently, I was a judge in this year’s RITA contest. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the contest, it’s Romance Writers ofAmerica’s most prestigious award recognizing romance fiction. This year the contest underwent a bit of an overhaul. Traditionally, books were scored on a 1-9 ranking, 9 being the highest number a book could obtain. Under the new scoring system, books are now judged on four criteria, with 50 being the highest total score: 20 points for the romance, 10 points for the plot, 10 points for the characters and 10 points for the writing.
When I received my bundle of books in early January, I have to admit to being a bit perplexed. As far as genre, they were all over the place—historical romance, romantic suspense, novellas, contemporary series… you get the point. The only genres I didn’t receive were the ones I opted out on—mainstream with strong romantic elements (the category my own book is under) and Inspirational. But being the good sport I am, I tackled those books with all the seriousness of a Nobel Prize at stake. Because let’s face it, although a Rita certainly doesn’t guarantee you any modicum of “success” in this business, it is in the immortal words of Sally Field a pretty good indicator that your peers really really like you. And yes, a good part of the contest depends on luck of the draw, because it only takes one judge to really really not like your book to probably knock you out of contention. But I digress.
So, I began reading “my” books. I have to admit to feeling a bit protective of the books I’m called upon to judge. It’s a serious thing to read a book, take it apart and then give it a score in a contest that you know (as a contestant yourself) can either throw an author into total elation or drive you to the pits of despair. Okay, a bit dramatic, but bear with me. In other words, I take this stuff seriously. As my pal, and fellow author, Roxanne St. Claire says (roughly) she approaches the RITA using the Melanie approach from Gone With The Wind. She treats every RITA book she judges the way she’d like her own books to be read and judged. Which means reading every book cover to cover with an open mind and a positive attitude. In other words, every book starts out with a perfect score.
I know I’ve heard a few moans regarding the new scoring system, but I have to say that as someone who has judged under the old system and now the new, I definitely like the new better. Under the old system I hated giving a book a blandish 6 or 7 without being able to pinpoint to either the author or myself why their book wasn’t a 9. It was judging from a “gut” feeling. The new scoring, I think, is much more objective (in a subjective sort of way), and surprisingly a lesson learner. I had to really think of why a book might earn the full 20 points in the romance area, but maybe a 7 for plot or a 6 for characters. It made me dissect my books in a way that I hadn’t before. And what I learned from that was invaluable. Yes, viscerally I knew all this stuff, but after judging the RITAS this go around, it’s really crept into my subconscious in a way that I think has benefited my writing.
So, what exactly did I relearn?
You have to read books that you would never think of reading. We all fall into the old pattern of reading the stuff we know we’ll like. But it’s like going to the same restaurants time and time again. You get the same good food but you don’t ever get surprised. It’s the surprises in life that make us grow and learn. Both as people and as writers.
Give your readers what they expect. Now, I don’t mean to make your book predictable and boring. But every genre has it’s own expectations. Respect that. Or you’ll lose readers.
Write a main character your readers will like and root for. Honestly, yes. It’s really that simple.
The last twenty five percent of the book has to deliver. In a big way. We all spend months polishing that first half of the book and it’s easy to let the last bits slip away from us (mostly because we’re so sick of the book by then!). Don’t fall into this trap. I judged one book that I dearly wanted to give near perfect marks to until the book fell apart in the last fifty pages.
If you have any influence over your cover and title, use it! The last book I judged was the best by far, yet I kept putting if off to the end simply because I didn’t think I’d like it based on the cover.
So there you have it. My 2013 RITA experience. A workshop on writing couldn’t have taught me more. I wish all the books I judged the best of luck in the contest and please know I did my best. I’m honored to have read you!
Maria Geraci was born in Havana, Cuba, and raised on Florida’s Space Coast. Her love of books started with the classic, Little Women (a book she read so often growing up, she could probably quote). She writes contemporary romance and women’s fiction with a happy ending. Her fourth novel, A Girl Like You, was released last August by Berkley, Penguin, USA. You can connect with Maria by visiting her website, www.mariageraci.com