Lydia Sharp's "The Awesome" contest

Jeroen Steenbeeke  
I think I've mentioned this on Twitter, but I haven't written about it here. A few weeks ago I entered in Lydia Sharp's contest that was nicknamed "The Awesome". The concept was simple: send in the first 500 words of your novel. Lydia would then read each entry and give a critique of the entry. One entry would be declared the winner, and then receive a full chapter critique by both Lydia and Joe Sharp, a query letter critique, an author spotlight, and (if living in the US), a free signed copy of Lydia Sharp's latest anthology.

Naturally, I entered :-)

The winner has, as of writing this post, not yet been declared. There were 83 entries in total, so my chances of winning (if all entries are considered equal of course) are around 1.2%. Naturally I'm assuming I'm not the winner. But despite this, I've already received the critique of my first 500 words, and I was pleasantly surprised.

There were only two specific comments, both of them instances where Lydia felt I was being overly descriptive (the sound the sand makes when my main character steps on it, and the mention of the color of her hair when she flips it backwards to gain the attention of her love interest), as well as a correction where she felt it was better to mention "She" rather than the name of my main character. The general comments follow along this line: due to the generally large amount of descriptive text at the start, Lydia felt that a lot of possibly important stuff got drowned by insignificant facts. Also, since the entry was only 500 words (less than 15% of my first chapter), she felt that the entry stopped before she got to the "meat of the scene", which was an accurate observation. Overall, my entry was clean and easy to read, which confirms what several of my proofreaders have said. Finally, Lydia suggested I try to accelerate the pacing a bit and emphasize the importance of my main character, and why I chose her as the story's focus. The entry did make the reader curious, as it mentions ailments the main character suffers from and might keep them reading.

I'm not entirely sure how I will use this critique. While I could do away with some of the details regarding the town of Rennick (see also the Map of Revenant Rising), most of the other things I mention at the start are significant. The sound of the sand under my main character's feet can easily be discarded, and describing the color of my main character's hair is something I could do as part of another scene, but it's not something I feel I can skip altogether. Also, the reason why this story is told from the perspective of my current main character is not something I can compress into the first 500 words of the novel in a convincing way.

I guess that more fantasy books suffer from this "problem". The Eye of the World, the first Wheel of Time book, starts with four chapters of character introductions, and the significance of some of the characters doesn't become clear until much later in the book. The obvious danger to such an approach is that the reader will go bored and stop reading, since "nothing significant" happens. I tried solving this problem in my book by adding tiny hints of things yet to come all through the story (the ailments of the main character are but the first, and they get mentioned right off the bat).

If anything, this contest has given me a lot to think about, and I definitely consider the comments useful, even if I'm not sure how and if I'll use them.

So, if Lydia ever organizes another one of these contests, and you have written a novel, I strongly suggest you enter. Your chances of winning are probably slim (due to the amount of entries), but at the very least you'll get some good ideas for possible improvements.