When You Don’t Know Which Expert to Believe

I finally heard back about the results of the big writing contest I’d entered back in the Spring. Spoiler alert: I did not win. My novel finaled, meaning it made it into the top three for my category, and that felt pretty wonderful. But, again, I didn’t win.

I was surprisingly okay with it. Two hundred fifty-seven novelists had entered the competition. Coming in where I did was good, it all came down to a numerical score, blah, blah.

But then I got the judges’ comments back. These weren’t average readers, mind you. They were current agents and/or editors, so I cared what they had to say. If I was hoping for some helpful feedback (and I was), I was in for something else.

[Some background: My novel involves a school shooting. It’s gritty in places because real life is. I was inspired by an actual event when I wrote it. There’s tragedy but also forgiveness.]

Here’s what one judge had to say:

“I am absolutely shattered by this piece. Please do not stop, please do not give up. It needs to be published. Thank you for daring to write about the difficulties and His ability to heal. So ready, so right. So necessary.”

This judge gave my novel a score of 100. Wow. Encouraging.

But then there was this from the second judge:

Oh man. The writing is powerful enough, but the subject matter is pretty dark and you might have a hard time getting any publishers to bite on this…It just feels like so much…”

(I left out a couple of sentences because they’re plot spoilers, but they don’t change the substance of the comment.)

This judge gave me a 65 (!). I don’t think I’ve gotten a 65 on anything since Algebra 2. Ouch.

The third judge gave me a better score but didn’t engage with the story at all. They talked about police procedure. I’m not kidding. Well, that, and they mentioned not using “neither/nor” in present tense writing.

O…kay…

Why am I sharing this? Because it was so weird to read such wildly divergent opinions and because maybe it’s also instructive. People’s opinions–even industry professionals’ opinions–are neither monolithic nor are they oracles from God. Sometimes they outright contradict each other.

One judge found the novel compelling and could sense the message of hope woven into difficult circumstances. The other found it to be “too much.” I won’t even talk about the third judge’s comments because it was kind of insulting to have their focus be on which rank of police officer would actually be talking to the press after a shooting.

There’s no smooth way to end this post. I guess everyone feels at loose ends when they receive opposing advice from people they respect. The thing is, I want to be teachable, but I don’t want to ignore my own gut, either. What’s a writer to do?

To be continued…