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Is the Golden Heart the Surest Way to a Book Contract?

21 West Houston GH finalists explain


By Cheryl Bolen

There is no more prestigious contest for aspiring romance authors than Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart. Period.

It is also a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a GH final is ripe for a publishing contract.

What better place to put that universal truth to the test than querying the staggering number of former Golden Heart finalists in the West Houston chapter?

A lofty one in six chapter members has the distinction of having been a Golden Heart finalist. Of those, better than three out of four have gone on to become published authors.

But did these authors actually sell that stunning book that placed them in the elite GH alumni? The answer is a murky yes. A little over half of our finalists sold the book that garnered the GH nomination, but only about half of those made the sale as a direct result of the contest.

Selling to the GH Editor/Judge

“To be perfectly honest,” said 2005 long contemporary finalist Dawn Temple, “she (the editor judging the GH) had already requested the manuscript three times from other contest wins, so in my case, it wasn't the GH final that finally got me sold but the fact that I finally finished the darn thing and submitted it as requested.” (Dawn’s debut book, retitled To Have and To Hold, is an October Silhouette Special Edition.)

So, the Golden Heart is kind of a chicken-before-the-egg or egg-before-the chicken situation. By the time an author has honed her craft well enough to join the GH elite, that author is professional enough to sell.

Heather MacAllister holds the chapter’s record for most GH finals, with five. She finaled in the traditional category in 1984, 1985, and 1989, and she won the young adult category in 1989, after also finaliing in that category in 1986.

Her third traditional final was the first and only of her GH finals to sell. But it was no speedy process. The final judge, Paula Eykelhof, had rejected the manuscript nearly two years earlier, suggesting revisions and suggesting it be resubmitted to Silhouette, instead of Harlequin, where she worked. The revised manuscript caught her attention when she judged the GH finals, and she wanted to see the whole manuscript. In the meantime Heather had sent the manuscript to a Silhouette editor. Eykelhof got it back from that editor and subsequently met with Heather at the national RWA conference. She and another editor suggested more revisions, which Heather made. In November Eykelhof asked Heather to cut 40 pages, which Heather promptly did. On Dec. 6, 1989 (the same year Heather’s Deck the Halls had been named a GH finalist), Eykelhof called Heather and said, "Congratulations, you've sold us a book!"

The year before Heather sold, Thelma Zirkelbach (who writes as Lorna Michaels) was a double finalist in short and long contemporary. She never sold the short one, but the editor who judged the long contemporary category bought the book. While reading it, she called to tell Thelma she liked it and realized the complete manuscript had already been submitted. She told Thelma she would get back with her. Ten months later she called and offered Thelma a contract.

Pat Kay had a similar experience. Two of the GH judges requested the complete on her manuscript, but since Leslie Wainger was the first one to request it, Pat sent it to her. “She told me it needed some revisions and gave me some ideas,” Pat said. “I did the revisions according to her suggestions, which were terrific, and then she passed the book to Mary Clare Kersten because she (Leslie) was so busy she said it would take her awhile to get to it. And Mary Clare bought it. Nothing since has ever been so thrilling. Except maybe my one and only RITA nomination.”

Shane Bolks’ The Rake finaled in historical in 2004 and was published by Avon the following year as When Dashing Met Danger. “Being a finalist definitely helped me sell because the editor who bought the book was a GH judge,” Shane said. “She bought it after judging it (though she might have bought it after my agent sent it, but being a GH finalist got it read faster because of the time of year we were submitting). She also bought the winner's ms (I didn't win).”

Selling Before the Final GH Judging

Both Anna Phegley and Robin T. Popp had actually sold their books (Anna’s To Please a Lady to Intimate Moments and Robin’s Too Close to the Sun to Leisure) before they were announced as a Golden Heart finalists. Nina Bangs sold her GH paranormal nominee, An Original Sin, before she ever arrived at the national convention. “I was wearing ribbons for First Sale as well as Golden Heart that year,” Nina said.

Nina is one of the chapter’s seven multiple GH nominees, hers in back-to-back years, 1997 and 1998. The year before she sold she was a GH finalist in short contemporary. That book never sold.

Barbara Dawson Smith is the chapter’s only multi nominated author to sell both her finalists, her contemporary, which won in 1984 and was published by Silhouette, and her short historical.

Selling After Making GH Finals

Three of the finalists eventually sold their GH manuscripts, but the sales were not directly related to the Golden Heart. Christie Craig sold her traditional GH finalist, Two Hearts Too Late, nearly six years after it finaled in 1988. “I think the editor and senior editor paid attention to the fact that it had been a GH finalist,” Christie said.

Neither Gerry Bartlett nor Jane Perrine — who sold their Golden Heart books — feel the GH final actually sold their book.

Gerry finaled in short historical in 1998, the same year she sold two contemporaries to Kensington’s short-lived Precious Gems line. She subsequently submitted her historical to several houses. Two years later, Dorchester offered a contract for it. And two years later — four years after reaching the GH finals — it was published as Sweet Deceit.

“One of the most valuable aspects of the contest is that you have to enter a completed manuscript,” Gerry said. “It forces you to finish the blankety blank book instead of continuing to tinker with the first few chapters that you might enter into other contests.”

The biggest plus, for her, was getting to wear the ribbon at the national conference.

Jane finaled in the regency category in 1999, and though it was published three years later as The Mad Herringtons, she said the sale was in no way connected with the Golden Heart.

Sharon Mignerey doesn’t think winning the GH actually helped her make that first sale. After seriously writing for 14 years she became an “overnight” success in 1995 when she both won the Golden Heart (contemporary single title) and was offered a two-book contract in a matter of three weeks.

But disappointments were in store for her. She had to wait two years for publication of that first book (published under the title A Sacred Trust, which subsequently won the National Readers Choice for Best Romantic Suspense), and when the line for which she wrote folded, Kensington did not publish the second contracted book (but she got to keep the advance). All was not lost. She extensively rewrote the book and sold it to Intimate Moments.

Selling a Book — But Not the GH Final

Though many of these sales do not come as a direct result of the Golden Heart, the contest is so prestigious that it is impossible to deny that editors are favorably impressed with authors who have leaped over so enormous a talent pool in order to make the finals.

After capturing the coveted nominations for the Golden Heart, three of our chapter members never sold those books but in a relatively short time lapse sold completely different books.

Tera Lynn Childs and T.J. Bennett are currently awaiting publication of their debut books. Tera finaled in the short historical category in 2004. Less than two years later she made her first sale — in young adult! Her Oh. My. Gods. will be published by Dutton in May.

Will she ever publish that historical? Probably not. “Though the writing was stylistically strong and the partial ended with a good hook, I think there are some definite holes in the overall story,” Tera said. “It was my first complete manuscript and it would take a significant rewrite to turn it into a truly marketable book--something I don't think I truly understood when I wrote it.”

The GH final may have led to Tera snagging one of the industry’s hottest agents. Tera and her agent have agreed that her historical voice is not nearly as strong as her young adult and contemporary voice.

“Of course, I would never write off historicals altogether,” Tera said. “They are my first love and, if I hadn't caught that lucky star and finaled in the Golden Heart, I might have given up on writing before I found my niche.

T.J. Bennett has not sold the paranormal manuscript which earned her Golden Heart pin in 2005, but she sold a historical to Medallion that will be published in April as The Legacy, and she has recently contracted for its sequel.

She does not believe the GH helped her sell Legacy nor did it help get her agent.

Kristi Goldberg (writing as Kristi Gold) has never sold the two manuscripts that netted her double GH finalist status in 1996. Those books were long contemporary and single title. Nearly four years later she struck gold (no pun intended) when she made her first short contemporary sale. Writing short has been her bread and butter ever since — and has brought her two prestigious RITA nominations.

GH Finalists Still Awaiting the Call

M.J. Selle, who used to bill herself as the Susan Lucci of romance writing, racked up an impressive four Golden Heart finalists for four different books but has never sold. In 1992, 1994 and 1996 she finaled in traditional and in 2000 in short historical.

“Mr. Perfect - 1994 finalist, probably was my best shot,” she said. “Two different editors came up to me and gave me the thumbs up just before the ceremony, so it was pretty crushing to me when I didn't win. Later, the Silhouette editor I was working with at the time said the internal conflict wasn't strong enough.”

M.J. had the opportunity to revise the 1996 GH manuscript but said, “Life got in the way.”

She probably won’t do the extensive rewrite on her historical, either, to bring it up to current market demands.

“There are many ways to publication and finaling in the GH is not a guaranteed ticket to publication,” MJ said.

Another multiple Golden Heart finalist, Pat Rosen, still hasn’t sold despite making the finals in three different categories. In 1998 she made the finals in traditional, in 1999 in short contemporary, and in 2001 in romantic suspense.

“I think my manuscripts didn’t sell because they weren’t as good as they could have, should have been,” Pat says with modesty.

Vicky Dreiling’s first novel, Duke by Default, became a GH finalist in 1996, and she still hasn’t sold. Even though it was a first book, it finaled in five out of six contests and won first place in four, including the Maggie and the Orange Rose. Six agents and five editors requested either a partial or full manuscript.

“I got the sort-of call,” Vicky said. “Have you ever heard of an editor calling an author to ask for revisions without promise of publication? Neither have I, but that's exactly what happened with The Duke by Default. By the time I got off the phone with the editor (an hour later), I was scared and excited all at the same time.”

Several agents had passed on the full manuscript, so Vicky said she knew there were problems with the story. It took seven months to rewrite that book. Ultimately, it didn't sell, primarily because the hero's internal conflict was underdeveloped.

“I put the book and my writing aside because I was faced with a messy divorce,” Vicky said. Dovetailing with the divorce was a trip back to university to get her degree and several years to establish a career as a market research analyst.

Since more than a decade has passed, Vicky admits she has lost any momentum the Golden Heart final had given her. But she has recently finished a new historical romance, and an agent requested the full at the 2007 RWA conference.

Two more West Houston members who were historical finalists in 2003 have still not sold to New York publishers. Robyn McKenna’s award-winning Western-set historical came along at a time when New York publishers were going in a different direction, and Mary O’Connor has also been unsuccessful in placing her book with a New York publisher. She recently opted to contract a short medieval fantasy novella, The Seduction of Prince Frog, with an e-publisher, which has also offered a contact for a contemporary book from Mary.

M.J. may be right that the Golden Heart final does not guarantee publication, but it can certainly give an author a leg up.

—by Cheryl Bolen, who placed in almost every writing contest she entered before she sold her first historical in 1997, but she never finaled in the Golden Heart

 This article was first published in Happily Ever After in November 2007.


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