12:13am

Sat May 4, 2013
Three-Minute Fiction

Three-Minute Fiction Round 11: Finders Keepers

Originally published on Sat May 18, 2013 6:30 am

Round 11 of our Three-Minute Fiction contest begins now!

Here's how it works: We ask you to write an original short story that can be read in about three minutes, so no more than 600 words. Each round, we invite an author to throw out a challenge and help us judge the contest.

Our new judge is Karen Russell, the author of the acclaimed novel Swamplandia! Even though she's known as a novelist, she says she's really a short story writer at heart.

Russell released a new collection of short stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, in February. Her first collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, was published in 2006.

"The challenges and pleasures are different" with a novel, Russell tells NPR's Guy Raz, the contest's host and curator.

"With a story, I think it can work almost the way a poem does because it's bounded, you know, so people can read it in one sitting," she says. "And you can really let it unfold, sort of like a seamless dream. You can have a really powerful emotional impact."

Now it's your turn. Here's Russell's challenge for this round:

Write a story in which a character finds an object that he or she has no intention of returning.

Russell says this prompt could inspire everything from horror stories to comedies to love stories. She says there's a lot of dramatic potential, particularly in the moment the object is found.

"Instead of using the found thing as an opportunity to prove that you're virtuous, you're a good person, you're gonna turn it in to the Amtrak lady," Russell says, "maybe you find something and the initial surprise is just, 'Wow, I've discovered ... a desire, a greediness.' "

So what is Russell looking for in the contest submissions? She turns to a saying from her very first professor: "Good fiction should be both surprising and true."

Russell says it's a good sign when writers surprise themselves, "because you're discovering something new about your character, about our natures, about ... what it feels like to be alive on this weird, spinning rock."

The truth aspect comes from what we know about people, she says: "You can have a really wild, gimmicky story that falls flat because readers have nothing to connect to."

Each and every story will be read by our staff with help from creative writing students at schools including New York University, Cornell, Johns Hopkins and Georgia State.

Throughout the next few weeks, we'll post some of our favorite stories on the Three-Minute Fiction home page and read excerpts on weekends on All Things Considered. Russell will be the final judge and select the winning story.

The winner will receive signed copies of all three of Russell's novels, and his or her story will be published in the fall issue of The Paris Review.

Before you get started, Russell has one request:

"Please have fun with it. I really tried to come up with a prompt that would just be fun and one that could be approached from any number of tonal directions. ... So go dark, go weird, go comic. I'm really excited to see what people come up with."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Kelly McEvers.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOCK TICKING)

MCEVERS: Three-Minute Fiction is back. And here now is the contest's host and curator, Guy Raz of the TED Radio Hour. Guy?

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Thanks, Kelly. All right. We are launching Round 11 of Three-Minute Fiction right now. Now, most of you know the rules, but if not, it's pretty simple. We ask you to write an original short story that can be read in about three minutes, so no more than 600 words.

In each round, we bring on a novelist to help us judge the contest, and most importantly, to throw out a challenge. So for example, last round, the story had to be written in the form of a voice mail message. And this round? Well, let's find out. Our new judge is Karen Russell. She's the author of the acclaimed novel "Swamplandia." Karen, welcome to Three-Minute Fiction.

KAREN RUSSELL: Hi, Guy. Thanks for having me.

RAZ: It's great to have you. And, you know, even though you're probably better known as a novelist now, you really are a short story writer at heart.

RUSSELL: I do think I'm a short story writer at heart. I love the form, and I really love the idea of, you know, having a prompt that's going to magnetize some crazy story out of people. So this is a cool contest.

RAZ: I know that you just released a collection of short stories a couple of months ago. How do you approach a short story versus a novel?

RUSSELL: Oh, I think that with a novel, what I learned was that you just lose sight of the land for a long time. It's very difficult to sustain that world over hundreds of pages. And the challenges and the pleasures are different. With a story, I think it can work almost the way a poem does because it's bounded, you know? So you can read it in one sitting, and you can really let it unfold, sort of like a seamless dream, you know? You can have a really powerful, emotional impact. Part of the reason why is because it's so compact.

RAZ: Yeah. So, Karen, as you know, a lot of our listeners have been asking us when is Three-Minute Fiction coming back. It's back, and we're about to open up Round 11. Tell us what the challenge will be this time.

RUSSELL: OK. So for lucky number 11, the challenge is called finders keepers. And the idea is to write a story about a character who finds an object and discovers that they have no intention of returning it.

RAZ: Ooh. That's cool. I'm thinking there's going to be a lot of secrecy this round, like some revenge or...

RUSSELL: It could be a horror story. It could be a mystery. It could be a comedy. It could be a love story. Maybe you find somebody else's love letter. There's just infinite objects that sort of might interrupt the flow of your character's day. And there's just a lot of dramatic potential there. You know, one of my favorite quotes that I'm always pawning off on my students is from Flannery O'Connor, and she says all stories are about the mystery of personality, what one person would do in this circumstance.

RAZ: Have you ever found something that you didn't give back?

RUSSELL: I was just thinking about that. You know, the stuff that I find tends not to be really lucrative. It'll be like...

RAZ: Yeah, I got the same problem.

RUSSELL: ...you know, half a Bonne Bell lip gloss or, like, one dollar. So I haven't really...

RAZ: Melted ice cream.

RUSSELL: Right. Exactly. I haven't really been confronted with, like, the moral challenge. But I do sort of love the idea of just that moment of discovery where it turns out instead of using the found thing as an opportunity to prove that you're virtuous, you're a good person, you know, I'll find a cell phone or something and turn it in and feel like a living saint, you know, like someone should canonize me or something.

But instead of that happening, maybe you find something and the initial surprise is just, wow, I've discovered, you know, a desire, a greediness, something about myself that was invisible to me until I tripped over this particular object.

RAZ: I should mention, Karen, that you do a lot of teaching. What do you look for in a good short story? Give us some tips.

RUSSELL: I got - from my very first professor, this wonderful man, Stephen O'Connor, said good fiction should be both surprising and true, which is, I think, still a pretty distilled excellent definition of good fiction. So surprising - I think if you're surprising yourself as the writer, that's often a good sign because you're discovering something new about your character, about our natures, about, you know, what it feels like to be alive on this weird, spinning rock.

And true - so true to what we know about people. You know, you can have a really wild, gimmicky story that falls flat because readers have nothing to connect to. They don't have some kind of genuine emotional core.

RAZ: All right. So surprising and true. That's great advice. Round 11 of Three-Minute Fiction is now open. We're going to be accepting submissions until 11:59 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday, May 12. We have to be able to read your story aloud in about three minutes, so it can't be longer than 600 words - 601, you're disqualified. Sorry about that. Karen, remind us what the challenge is again this round.

RUSSELL: All right. Your character finds an object that they have no intention of returning.

RAZ: All right. Remember, just one entry per person. To send in your story, head to our website. That's npr.org/threeminutefiction. Three-Minute Fiction is all spelled out, no spaces. Each and every story will be read by our staff with help from creative writing students at schools, including NYU, Cornell, Johns Hopkins and Georgia State.

And throughout the next few weeks, we're going to be posting some of our favorite stories at our website. We're also going to air excerpts from those stories on the show. Novelist Karen Russell will be the final judge. Karen, thank you so much for doing this. Any last tips for our listeners before you go?

RUSSELL: I think please have fun with it. You know, I really tried to come up with a prompt that would just be fun and one that could be approached from any number of kind of tonal directions, you know? So go dark, go weird, go comic. I'm really excited to see what people come up with.

RAZ: And the winning story will be read on the air in its entirety on this program. The winner will receive signed copies of all three of Karen's novels, and, just like last round, the winning story will be published in the fall issue of the Paris Review. We're talking about one of the most acclaimed literary magazines in the world. So, Karen, we're going to check back with you soon.

RUSSELL: Terrific. Thank you, Guy. Thanks to you, guys.

RAZ: That's the author Karen Russell. She's the judge of Round 11 of our Three-Minute Fiction contest. I'm Guy Raz, host of the TED Radio Hour and curator of Three-Minute Fiction. I'll be back in a few weeks with Karen to announce the winner of this round, Round 11 of Three-Minute Fiction. To submit your story, visit our website right now, npr.org/threeminutefiction, all spelled out, no spaces. Good luck.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOCK TICKING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.