Regular readers will be aware how much I enjoy the annual NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge.

Saunter through my previous posts to read my short stories that became finalists in 2017, 2021 and 2022.

Here’s the lowdown: the competition consists of four rounds. Each round you are allocated to a group, consisting of fellow competitors who are all given the same genre, subject and character assignment. You have one week to write a story in the first round, and that gets shorter each round. The top 5 short stories from each round move on to the next. Cash prizes and glory await in that fourth and final round.

I just found out I won my first round this year with my story The Leech Merchant.

Here were the criteria:

Genre: Historical Fiction

Subject: Furnished

Character: Quitting


You get feedback from the judges after the round results have been announced, which, as always, I’ll include here.

The praise was heart-warming. That in itself was magic for me: this positivity has actual value. Thank you, judges.

And the areas I could work on were valuable, too. The comment about overuse of dialogue resonated. The judges enjoyed the narrator and wished some of the dialogue was in the narrator’s voice.

I think they are right and it suits the historical fiction genre. I recently read ‘Booth’ by Karen Joy Fowler (an excellent read) and dialogue was rare. I am used to writing crime where dialogue drives action and its absence is mainly used to ramp up the tension.

Sometimes I worry narration is too expository. Somehow I ahve swung the other way and my dialogue ahs become so.

Definitely something to consider in my future works.

But without further ado, here is the feedback in full (in the ugly format they email it to each participant):

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY – {1592}  This a really good story with huge potential. The beginning is terrific. The reader is immediately engaged and interested in Jacka’s narrative journey. His voice is strong. The pacing is excellent. The leeches are a brilliant, attention-catching detail. Throughout the story, rhythm is artfully used to dramatic effect. Lines such as “Winton left with an earthenware pot. She already had so many Jacka couldn’t imagine she needed it” or “Winton bent and picked up a shard of white and blue porcelain. ‘This would have been nice in my house, I expect,’ he said. ‘But it’s no longer to my wife’s taste.’” deftly convey worlds about the people who speak them and the people whom they are being spoken about. Jacka’s environment from the river and its leeches to his crowded hut are also ably described and vivid to the reader.   {1865}  This felt gritty, and some lines put me in with grime of the land. “Jacka filled his nostrils with the smell of mud and river…” great line here, as are others. Jacka and Leggamy are great characters. The first two and a half pages almost seem visionary. Winton, a bit later, is also a great character.  {437}  I like the surprising turn the story takes at the end, both with Jacka’s death and him being the baby’s father – it’s written in a way that it never feels obvious (also nice detail that the baby has the name Jacqueline) I think you do a nice job contrasting Jacka and Winton – Jacka being the scruffy one who’s actually kind to Sarah, and Winton being the rich jerk. The leeches were described in good detail, and I had no idea they were ever used to treat infertility that way!

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK – {1592}  Knowing from the beginning that Jacka is aboriginal seems vital to understanding the enormity of the risk Winton is making in visiting him from the very first meeting. But that he is aboriginal is not clear to the reader until the very end. His interaction with Winton reads somewhat less naturally than the rest of the story, as though possibly Winton’s voice is not yet as clear to the author as Jacka’s. Some lines (for example, “only partially relinquishing the gruffness that had been roused by the belief it was Leggamy” or “(and now only)” or “Winton’s expression disclosed genuine compassion.’” or “Jacka felt something rise in his skin at the unbidden comment”) feel redundant. The passage where they discuss their backgrounds feels unexpectedly expository. Meanwhile, showing instead of telling some of this: “Winton’s attendance at Jacka’s cottage became more frequent, visiting even when no appointment was scheduled. Jacka had the impression she was treated as an ornament in her world and valued their frank discussions. She showed great interest in Jacka’s knowledge of the Australian bush and he enjoyed her views on class and education,” might be welcome. To note, these are only small tweaks. The essential is all there! A couple of questions: What is Winton referring to when she says, “As I’ve mentioned, it is my husband’s house I’ve been furnishing with the vessels I’ve purchased from you.’” Does Jacka sell pots in addition to leeches? Also, does Jacka die in the end or disappear himself?   {1865}  Truly a great story. I love the world the writer built here, and Jacka especially…At around page 3, the story does begin to feel a bit over-reliant on dialogue, and I immediately missed the narrator’s command of the story. While the dialogue was well-written, and Winton a complex character, I feel it’s worth a try if the writer reworked those scenes with the two and see if more can be shown via the incredibly detailed world. Still, I really enjoyed this, and the writer did an excellent job with both the world and with Jacka.  {437}  I did think the time period could be more clear in the story – it does feel vaguely 19th century but that covers a wide period of time. (You could easily pin some of the references to a particular year, such as when the railroad was built or when Jacka’s father died) Also, I don’t think we ever get confirmation if Leggamy stole his pants (it feels like a mystery that’s set up but never solved)

What’s next?

I’ve already submitted my entry to the next round, which is in the science fiction genre…

I’ll post it here regardless of the outcome.


(Cover image is of the Murray River, courtesy of

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