I’d Give It a Nine, but It’s Hard To Dance To: Ritas, Reviews, and Other Nightmares

I’m writing a book right now. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s funny, sexy, deeply moving, multi-layered, and metaphorical. I’m sure it’s going to get great reviews and win a Rita.

Of course, last night trying to figure out what the heroine wanted from life besides the hero and what the hero wanted besides sex, I thought it stunk on ice. Tonight, I’ll be suicidal when I realize I’m leaking plot all over the place and there’s no real conflict. And when the book comes out next year–assuming my editor doesn’t hate it and reject it and end my career–I’ll be catatonic with fear, the way I am right now about the book I have coming out soon, the one the Rita judges are going to sneer at and the reviewers are going to spit on and–

You know, it’s hard enough writing the damn books without adding this garbage to the mix. And there’s really no point to adding the garbage anyway: lovely as they are, contest nominations and good reviews are no guarantee of a book’s quality, and no nominations and bad reviews are no guarantee that a book is a wall-banger. In fact, they’re pretty irrelevant in general.

Take contests, for example.

Once upon a time, I entered the Rita Contest, full of hope and faith in the ability of my fellow RWA members to evaluate my work (I was young). I had two entries that year. One placed in the lower half of the scoring with twos and threes, and that year twos meant something like “does not have basic writing skills and is ugly, too.” The other book won the Rita. And that was when I learned my Great Contest Lesson:

It’s always a crap shoot.

Let us now consider how contests work.

RWA or a chapter thereof, recognizing the good that can come of getting one’s name bandied about, offers to its members the chance to win recognition, a chance any member with a manuscript and the entry fee should grab. In order to offer this, it rounds up judges who (a) have the time to judge or are willing to make time, (b) are qualified in some way (and if times are tight, “qualified” means “breathing”), and (c) are not afraid of being sued by some moron who assumes that anybody who gives her an honest opinion of her work is being mean and should be punished. At the national level, an entry goes to five judges which is a lot of judges for a contest, especially one as big as the Rita or the Golden Heart. But look again at that number.


Listen, some days there aren’t five people in the world I’m willing to have lunch with, let alone let five people in RWA I’m will to take as gospel on the quality of my writing. And even if I got to hand pick my judges, I wouldn’t necessarily be giving myself the best evaluations possible because judging is subjective. Having been a judge myself many times, I know that even with the best intentions, I can’t always evaluate fairly. For example, I don’t have a week to give to each book so that I can read it twice and study its structure and its impact. And I can’ t read all five or eight or ten in one day, so my environment changes–how often I get interrupted, what kind of background noise I’m dealing with, what kind of good or bad news I’ve gotten in my regularly scheduled life–between reading one book and another. I take my judging seriously, but I’d never call it objective, and I’d be upset if anybody evaluated her career on scores I gave her. I’m willing to bet that most good judges feel the same way.

And not all judges are good judges. Oh, the stories I’ve heard, like the one about the judge who lowered somebody’s scores because she used words like “hirsute” in her book and “romance readers don’t know those words.” Or the judge who marked a book way down because there were point of view violations (I’m a nut on POV but there’s a limit; this kind of judging always reminds me of a judge we had for a poetry contest who evaluated the poetry on whether or not it rhymed). Or the judge who wrote on the evaluation card, “I really liked your book, but a book set in W.W.II will never sell, so I had to give you the lowest score.” Yes, these judges can be yours, so let’s not get too invested in those scores, shall we?

And yet we consistently take our scores as an indication of how good we are–not how good that book is, how good WE are–even though it’s the result of five people saying variations of, “Eh, not bad but this book about the lesbian terrorist nun is a smasher, and if I give it a 9, this one should get a 5.”

So what do contest scores tell us about our writing?

Absolutely nothing.

Which is what reviews tell us, too.

My home town newspaper just invited me to write a monthly review column on romance, and after I said yes, it occurred to me that there are over 100 romance novels published each month. And it isn’t as if my TBR pile hasn’t reached critical mass already. So how am I going to choose?

I’ll tell you how; I’m going to choose the books that best fit MY purpose. I’m going to pick the ones I can write an interesting column about so I’ll look good and get to keep the column. Since I’m a huge proponent of growing the market, I’m only going to review the ones I like that also fit whatever theme I’m writing about that month, which means if your book doesn’t fit my theme, you’re out of luck. Plus I have very clear criteria for what constitutes a good romance, and they’re the same criteria for what constitutes a good book in general. Which means if a book is a much-loved romance that I don’t think is well-written, I’m not going to review it. Why waste my precious six hundred words a month reviewing something I don’t recommend? I have an agenda here and I’m going to fulfill it; sorry about your career, mine comes first.

Now imagine if I weren’t a romance fan and my agenda was to show my superiority by attacking a couple of turkeys in print. Imagine if I were a frustrated novelist who had to review work by people I knew weren’t as good as I was. Imagine if I were a born-again Christian appalled at the language the hero uses, or if I were a leftist atheist who thought inspirational romances were a threat to the separation of church and state and an affront to America in general. Or imagine…

Actually, you don’t have to imagine. You’ve probably read some of these reviews. So imagine a reviewer you respect has written about your book “this author is usually good, but you can miss this one” or even “not a keeper.” Okay, that one hurts. What do you do?

You count again. How many people is this?


One honest or dishonest, unbiased or biased opinion. One.

How much can this person hurt you?

Not much. Few authors lose sales from bad reviews because people tend to buy based on one of two things: previous experience with the author or (I hate this one) the cover. Bad reviews hurt us emotionally–nobody likes hearing her baby is ugly–but the best thing to do is shrug and forget about them. What else can we do, say “that’s not fair” and make sure our publishers never send books there again? Well, no, we might lose ink that would help us later. Write nasty letters to the reviewer’s paper arguing that readers love our books and we have the sales to prove it? A major author did that recently, citing all his bestseller lists, and pretty much earned the scorn of the industry since everyone knows sales and bestsellerdom are no indicator of quality. Become suicidally depressed and decide our careers are over? This is my response of choice, and it’s dumber than the other two put together because the truth we have to keep going back to is this:

One person’s opinion (or five persons’ opinions) has never made or broken a career and never will. The only people who can make or break our careers are us, the part of us that sits at our computers and tries to figure out what our heroines need besides our heroes and what our heroes want besides sex, the part of us that loves our characters and laughs and cries with them as they appear in those streaming ribbons of text on our screens. We’re the judges and reviewers that matter, the ONLY judges and reviewers that matter, and the good news is that we can work on our stories and rework them until we send them off as perfect tens, doing our victory dances as Fed Ex pulls away from our doors. And we’ll deserve those dances because we’ll have satisfied the critics who know our work best: ourselves.

I have to go work on my book now. It really is pretty good, but it’s not a ten yet, and I want to be able to dance to it when it’s done.

But only as long as I call the tune.

Written by Jennifer Crusie, this essay was originally published in Romance Writer’s Report. Vol. 18 Number 3, Mar. 1998: 43-44.