NYC Midnight Results, Story, and feedback

So yesterday I finally found out the results of my entry into the NYC Midnights 2020 Short Story Competition. Sadly, though not necessarily unexpectedly, I didn’t progress to the next round.

I’m okay with this, I re-read my story on Monday, and was cringing at the mistakes which I somehow had missed on read throughs prior to submission, and even at the time of submission I knew it was fairly high level summary like, and sparse on details. It was probably the wrong plot, of the wrong implementation of the plot for a 2,500 word challenge.

If I were to have another go at this, I’d probably quadruple the word count, but that wasn’t the challenge. Hopefully next year I don’t end up with genre: historical fiction, subject: a water shortage and key character: a lumberjack. For some reason I just found that really tough, and most combinations of two of those three elements I could have worked with much easier. Still, I’m proud I came up with something.

So, without much a do, here’s the story, and afterwards the feedback I got from the judges:

A Dam Named Revenge

By Jonathan L Lawrence, January 2020

Dear cousin, I suppose I should start my confession at the beginning, for I have a lot to confess to.

I was born in the eighteen twenties, in a small town in central Kansas, Blakeman, nestled in a valley with a river running through it. My mother Kate Blackman was a daughter of a prestigious family, her grandfather settled the town, and named it after himself. My Father, Jackson Pearl, meanwhile was a lumberjack, he’d drifted into town as a teen one winter, immediately set to work to partnering with another logger providing wood to the town. In winters it was wood for fires, in spring, summer and autumn it was wood for building.

When my mother and Father met, it was love at first sight, or that’s how my mother would describe it. They got married really quick, and life seemed good. My father built them a house just outside of town. I’ve got vague memories of it from when I was younger, it was a fairly basic place, an all-wood single floor building, with a triangle roof.

As time went out, my father set about creating a lumber yard, to better keep up with supplying the ever-growing town. He’d borrowed money from his father in law to get setup. His business proliferated, as did his fortunes that he was able to pay my grandfather back within a year.

Whereas once my mothers family looked down on my father, suddenly he was the toast of the town. Within five years, a full quarter of the town’s men were working for him. He was supplying wood for building, wood for the copper mine, and wood for some other small towns further down the valley.

Everything was great. I came along in eighteen-twenty-three. My mother and father were delighted, and everything was great.

Everything sounded ideal. However, years later, when my mum tells the story, she now acknowledges what she couldn’t see at the time. Behind the good wishes, and the joy was a hidden vein of jealousy. Especially in her family. See, they had been the most prosperous family in town, had been for two generations. Their fortunes had waned over the years, however, some bad deals, and they had lost control of the copper mine during an attempt at financing it. While they still had a fair amount of property and a decent sized house, but in the growing town, the property got less and less valuable. My father’s rise in fortune this rubbed my grandmother and aunt the wrong way.

This vein of jealousy raised its head when I was about seven years old. See, my father, while still working the lumberyards, was keen to reinvest his money into the town. He had helped fund the development of a bank, which was going to help grow the town further. There were several investors, some from other prosperous figures in the town, and rich folk in Topeka looking for rapid returns from a town that could yet grow into a city.

Three days after opening, the bank was robbed. The safe itself was dragged away by a team of horses. It sounded like right out of the cowboy stories I read of in the newspaper as a child. The robbers pulled it out of town and off into the hills. The sheriff and his men were conveniently out of town, guarding a caravan as it travelled down the valley.

It was a significant blow to the fledgeling bank.

My father’s misfortunes didn’t end there. Next day the sheriff turned up at his lumberyard, and the safe, now empty was discovered in the back of the warehouse. Suddenly, my father found himself of being accused of being involved. My father had put most of his money into that bank, which is what had attracted others both from the town and from Topeka to do the same. The Blakeman family seized on this and accused him of being both a conman and a robber.

My father was arrested by the sheriff and taken away. I don’t have a lot of memories of when I was young, but I do remember that.

Before lawmen from Topeka could turn up, requested by the investors from there, my father was found hanging in his cell by my mother who had gone to visit him.

Suddenly, life changed. The lumber yard fell to the creditors, my mother was treat like a pariah. Her own family turned their backs on her, and me. Schooling was hard, I was the son of the man that had come close to ruining the town.

My grandfather elected himself Mayor of Blakeman, to bring back stability or so he said. The Blakeman’s rose in power and influence once again, with new bankrolling behind him. They in just a few short months took a controlling interest in the copper mine once more and even bought up the abandoned lumberyard and lumber business.

My mother, through heavy grief and being unable to deal with her new status, chose to pack up and leave town. We travelled by coach to Topeka, and with was left with the family saving set ourselves up there.

Mr Wellington, one of the investors in the bank, and someone who had stayed at our home in Blakeman and become fast friends of my father, he took us in and gave us a place to live. He never believed Jackson Pearl had anything to do with the robbery, but it couldn’t be proven.

Now, I didn’t really understand what was going on at the time; however, my mother always worked to make sure I would never forget. She never told me to seek revenge, but she never told me not to, but I do think she mostly wanted to remember my father and to know the truth of him, no matter what anyone said.

Good Mr Wellington was a widower, and over time he grew close with my mother. They married when I was fifteen, in eighteen-thirty-eight. My stepfather saw to it that I got the best education. He had no children of his own, his wife and daughter having been struck down by illness when he was a young man, and he saw me as his heir. The loss in Blakeman had hurt him, but not severely, he still had plenty of money and went on to grow his wealth through investments.

As I grew up, he took it upon himself to introduce me to the world of investing. At age twenty, I had a small portfolio of my own, started with some seed money from Mr Wellington, and I had grown it moderately from there.

When my mother passed in eighteen-fifty, I added her small savings to my portfolio. I was independently wealthy now, having amassed several thousand in savings and holdings. Mr Wellington was proud of me and happily introduced me to his fellow investors, and potential clients and prospects as his son.

When Mr Wellington passed on at the ripe age of seventy-one, I inherited his fortune too. It was now eighteen-fifty-five. Blakeman was but a distant memory, and yet the loss of my father still drove me. While meeting with other lenders at the Topeka commerce centre, I became aware of a business opportunity on the same river as Blakeman. It was up in the hills beyond the valley, importantly Blakeman was twenty miles downstream. The business venture was for a new factory out there, with supporting industries. It was to utilise the river itself to power the factory.

This was an opportunity that fell in my lap. I didn’t hesitate, I chartered a coach out to the site of the new factory.

It was my suggestion that a dam would allow greater control over water levels, and would even enhance the farming in the area to boot, providing the vital resources the factories and workers would need.

Construction on the factory had already commenced, I toured the fledging factory and the town that was springing up around the development.

I returned to Topeka to attract investment in the dam, and the new town springing up there. I worked with legislators to champion the dam. It took five years of work, but I did it. I get the dam and reservoir through and passed into law.

However, it’s about this time that my grandfather, still Mayor of Blakeman, become aware of the plans. I had worked hard to make sure the town of Blakeman didn’t get to hear what was happening just twenty miles away.

The Mayor and a collection of noteworthies from the town came to see me, and the corporation I had built to pioneer the dam.

By this time, I was going by the name of Charles Wellington, having taken my stepfathers name when he married my mother. Mayor Blakeman had never bothered to keep track of what happened to his own daughter and grandson when they had left town. I don’t know if he was involved in in the robbery, but I do know he had done nothing to help my father when the troubles began and had instead profited from it.

The small party walked into my office, I was already hosting the CEO of the corporation, the Mayor of Topeka (and an investor in my project), along with several other investors.

“This dam must not be built,” he demanded.

“The acts for its creation have already passed into law, and the work has begun,” I told him, not bothering to introduce myself.

“My town relies on the river, it feeds our farm and our industries.

I informed him his town was over twenty miles away, and with several other streams between the development and the town feeding into the river, his village would be unaffected.

He argued that it was a bad idea. We ignored him. He tried to sue us on behalf of the town, but there was nothing that could stop the near gold fever about the creation of the reservoir, enriched farming, new industries, the prospects for a new modern town, there was even talk of a second town on the far side of the reservoir. Also, even had I wanted to, there was no stopping this project now.

Work began in eighteen-sixty. A temporary dam was erected, it officially called Revenge Dam.

Rapidly, the downstream was quickly affected, the runoff from the temporary dam was routed into a river that happened to come close to this river, before going off elsewhere. So that’s where it was rerouted to.

Again in came lawsuits, trying to stop the development, and restore the river. Unfortunately, several farmers had damned up several streams, as they developed their land. The remains of the river were now dirty runoff, rather than the beautiful mountain water that had once gone through and fed the town of Blakeman.

The Mayor came to visit me at the site of the construction.

“You assured me, the town would be fine,” he said to me, “We’re dying. The farmers struggle to keep their crops fed. We have to water delivered by horse and cart just to maintain drinking water.”

I told him, promised even, the situation was temporary, the little dam rerouting the water was necessary only long enough to establish the masonry dam, and when we were done the river would begin to flow again in just a few years.

Of course, constructing a dam this size took a long time. In no time we were halfway through the eighteen-sixties, and work was still ongoing.

Yet another lawsuit had been filed.

I agreed to arbitration. In that spirit, I invited the old Mayor, and his wife to my home at Pearl Reservoir, which was now beginning to fill up.

The Mayor and his wife came as invited, and we enjoyed excellent food and discussed the fate of the dam.

“At this stage, there’s nothing that can be done,” I told him, “We’re just a few years from finished.

“It might be too late,” the Mayor said, “The town is dying. Many people had moved to Pearl Reservoir in search of homes and jobs. Blakeman was beginning to shrink.”

“I understand,” I told him, “It was always a risk.”

He asked me why we couldn’t bring our industrialisation down to Blakeman, why go to all this effort twenty miles away.

I smiled, I suppose it was a bittersweet smile.

I then took the opportunity to re-introduce myself, “I owe you an apology, it occurs to me you don’t recognise me. Before my mother remarried, and I took my stepfather’s name, I was known as Jacob Pearl.”

I was worried this moment would be lost on them, it had been many many years since I had left Blakeman, maybe they had erased from their minds the shame that had befallen my father.

“You’re my grandson?” the Mayor asked.

“No,” I told him, “Like my mother before me, I disavowed my family in Blakeman.”

They tried to argue they had been searching for my mother for a long time, after the unfortunate events that had befallen my father. They still maintained his guilt.

“Be as it may,” I told them, “That town turned its back on my father. Now I erase that town from the face of Kansas.”

“You can’t do that,” protested my grandmother. She had aged horribly in the intervening years. I remember her being a small, skinny shrew-like woman, but in the intervening time she had ballooned in size, yet her face was etched in deep lines.

The Mayor and his wife left in a huff. I was glad they knew the truth. There was nothing at all they could do now, but see the family legacy vanish into history.

As promised, two years later the dam and reservoir were complete. The factory grew and grew, along with the towns and farms feeding it.

My revenge turned out to be profitable, I had had to invest down to my last few nickels along the way, but the development paid dividends over and over. At fifty, I retired to my mansion in Jacobstown by Pearl Reservoir. I had lost the legacy of a former family, but I created a new legacy, even going so far as to name the main street in the town Wellington street.

I raised my own family there, with a woman I had met and fallen in love with when I had already retired. I had two daughters, with no son to pass on my name and my legacy, I worked hard to teach both my daughters to appreciate the business they would oversee.

Father Cousin, I sit upon my deathbed taking an unusual step of giving my confession in a letter, as I feel I owe it to you and our kin to know fully what happened to the town of Blakeman. I bequeath to the remaining Blakeman’s a portion of my estate, my apology to the innocents, and this confession so you might understand, and maybe forgive my hubris.


NYC Midnight’s judge’s feedback:

“A Dam Named Revenge” by Jonathan Lawrence –

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –

  • {1742} You have a very intriguing main character. His backstory gives you an excellent opportunity to create an exciting plot.
  • {1865} The narrative voice of ‘Charles Wellington’ felt strong, direct and determined. I enjoyed hearing his confession, and forgive his hubris…
  • {1854} I thought there was a strong character arc here and the story held my interest from beginning to end.

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK –

  • {1742} I’d like to know more about Jacob’s motivations. For example, why is he so eager to get revenge, even when it means ruining the lives of the people in this town? I suggest you show your readers more about the feelings that drive him so that we can relate better to his actions.
  • {1865} This is not too big of a problem, but there are quite a few ‘Everything was great’ and ‘life was good’ sentences. To me, these can be considered lost opportunities toward building a more vivid sense of place and time. I’d also hoped a few more historical details about Blakeman could have been added to an already very interesting narrative.
  • {1854} There was some cliche language here. I’d recommend the author work to try to bring more specificity to their work. Additionally, I’d recommend that they try to spend more time in scenes. Much of this story felt told instead of shown.

My own personal criticism of my own work is that I’m not sure the second paragraph makes sense if it’s being written to the cousin, and it really needed more dialogue. I don’t disagree with anything the judges have said in their positive or negative criticisms.

I will say, in my head its quite fun, with the heist, and with the revenge, though I think I could have been more explicit about helping the citizens of Blakeman find lives in Jacobstown, to mitigate the harm he was doing – and hubris is definitely the right word, for the sake of revenge he did play God not just with people, but nature itself.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed – if you’ve read this, feel free to leave your own criticisms I’m thick skinned I can take it.

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