What Do Romance Novel Awards Look For?
While I don't have the background of being an awards judge, I did compete with a Romantic Suspense novel and did very well. Floating on Secrets won Silver Medal for the entire Romance category from eLit Book Awards. It also won Honorable Mention from Readers Favorite Awards for New Adult Romance. I can't truly generalize from that, but I can deduce that at least some awards can go to authors who write in the time-honored tradition of composing a profound, complex, multilayered love story.
Floating on Secrets is an example of a book that isn't primarily meant to just be steamy or appeal because it's about one of the fetish tropes (friends to lovers, reverse harem). The cover has a sexy couple passionately engaged, but it's also different from the most popular Romance covers because the art implies the flotation tank waters around them. It's a book meant for men as well as women and for Psychological Suspense and Thriller readers too. It's New Adult, which is a subgenre that features some serious writers like Colleen Hoover but which has changed recently on Amazon with many indie-authors hiring ghostwriters to put out a book a week that is basically Romance but just happens to be about 18-26 year old protagonists. New Adult is originally meant to realistically address concerns with jobs and careers, education, family, moving to new locations, friends, peer pressure, addictions and volunteer work -- anything that would be part of a complete life at that age rather than being pure escapism laser-focused on a sexy relationship. New Adult has gotten a lot of attention in recent years as a growing and respected category, and award judges may appreciate a writer tending to the subjects at hand.
For my my novel, I researched those things in depth, looking into statistics of Indiana young people such as how often they had sex in college and whether that was related to religious beliefs or something else, what music they like, what morals the readers have and so on. I also researched land surveying internship, helicopter surveying and piloting, the rules about constructing buildings regarding zoning, legal rules in Indiana small town bars, etc. I floated in a sensory deprivation tank for research too! I didn't quickly write the story based on what was selling best but what would be most entertaining for this particular book that took a chance of being a little different. I wrote it in the 4 Act with Scene Sequel model and employed the extremely helpful book Romancing the Beat to make sure it had every element it needed for a satisfying plot. It begins with Flair meeting the man she at once fears and is desperately fascinated by: this is a contemporary Gothic Romance. Going by all the rules was balanced by some risks. It took a chance of being edgy, which made me nervous, but it worked out OK, maybe partly because the apparent creepiness of his behavior is eventually explained and is judged by some characters for its faults. It's also somewhat Lynchian, which also made me wonder if it would be embraced by awards, but that weirdness (with the mysterious Narrow Men) was OK too. Whew.
I watched videos by reviewers of New Adult to see what pleased them. I took polishing it seriously. I used ProWriting Aid and sent it to a few beta readers, a few editors and a few proofreaders. When I was revising it, I got out every one of my favorite craft books on writing novels and screenplays and reviewed them to see if I did everything write. Yes, I learn as much from screenwriting classes and books and from watching movies as I do from craft books on fiction. I don't spend the money to enter many contests, but when I do, I nearly always place.