This is probably a question that is both difficult to answer and the most completely subjective one that will ever cross your path. Because a book I consider a great read and an awesome romance novel, my best friend might yawn and say “ho-hum.” That makes this time of year, when romance writers all over the world are judging their peers to determine which books will make the RITAs, Romance Writers of America’s highest honor, rather edgy. The RITA is the Academy Award, the Edgar, the Emmy for the best of the bunch, or rather bunches, since there are several categories for nominations and being nominated is an honor, winning a real notch in the belt.
So every year, around the end of January, early February, a package of books arrives on your doorstep and you are asked to read and judge the works of your peers. Never an easy task and a responsibility that can put a different sort of edge on the reading experience. Because these books are selected at random and you really do get pot luck.
Most often, these are authors you’ve never read, might not have even heard of, so there is that element of, What if this is my new favorite author? That can be the thrill of the RITAs, finding new authors. There is also the chance that you will get books in categories or settings or whatever, that aren’t your cup of tea. But like being a good guest, you read them and then you really have to set aside those personal likes and get down to the only question that matters:
What makes a romance novel great?
I find that I have some of the same answers each year, and since I finished up reading this weekend and submitted my scores, I thought I would share my random thoughts on the process. What do I think makes a great romance novel? Well,
1) I want to be pulled into the world the author has created. I want to be able to walk beside the characters and share their experience. I want to sense and feel the grand scope of their story–and I want that story to be big. I want to see their world, not just from their eyes, but from other characters. Because sometimes we learn more about our world, ourselves, from those who know us best, not just from our own biased inner self-definition.
2) When I am reading I want the story, the narrative, the dialogue to run smoothly. I am so not a POV hopper. But it is more than just POV, it is the very sentences, the dialogue, the emotions, all of these elements which need to run like silk through your fingers, and this, IMHO, speaks to the writer’s attention to her craft more than anything. It goes directly into how she chooses her words, sees the story opening up and revealing itself. How her characters grow and change. It really is simple: seduce me with your story-telling skills.
3) I want a romance. I want to believe that these two people belong together and it is the most obvious thing in the world to everyone but them. And I want the front row seat when they discover that truth. This isn’t just sexual tension or finding common ground, but the sense of the stars aligning and two lost souls finding each other. I want, to say it simply, magic.
Now despite all my theories, personal convictions, and likes and/or dislikes, there are also four other readers out there, reading the same book and making their own judgments. Writing down a number that relates to their answer: Is this romance novel great?
My top choices may not make it to the finals, while others will. It makes the end of March, when the finalists are announced, an exciting time. Some books you celebrate, other finalists make you question your judgment because it wasn’t your cup of tea yet enough people differed with you to move it forward. Of course, there is also the next step in all this: ordering all the finalists and reading them. I always do this, because again, it helps me to continually re-examine one very essential question.
What makes a good romance novel? Any thoughts?