Weekends on All Things Considered has received hundreds of letters and posts on our Three-Minute Fiction Facebook page asking — actually demanding — the return of our fiction contest. So here it is: the beginning of Round 7 of Three-Minute Fiction.
Since Three-Minute Fiction launched two years ago, the show has received more than 35,000 original short stories submitted by our listeners. The premise of the contest is pretty simple. We're looking for original, short fiction that can be read in less than three minutes — so the story can't be longer than 600 words. Each round, we have a judge, usually a writer, who throws out a challenge.
This round, our judge is Danielle Evans. She's no stranger to short stories. An assistant professor at American University in Washington, D.C., she's the author of the critically acclaimed short-story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self.
It was named one of the best books of 2010 by Kirkus Reviews and O Magazine, and Evans recently won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for a first book.
Running On Tension
When approaching fiction, particularly short fiction, Evans tells host Guy Raz, "the story more or less comes down to a moment when something changes forever. It can be a little thing or it can be a big thing, but something that somehow reverberates through somebody's life in some ways."
She says short stories also "have to run on tension," something she picked up from growing up reading mystery legal thrillers.
"I think I'm still usually reading for the mystery. I'm still reading for the kind of breathless, what-happens-next," Evans says.
Most people who send in entries to Three Minute Fiction are not published writers, and some have no formal connection to the writing world at all. Evans herself studied anthropology at Columbia.
"I still think of writing as a project of translation, as a project of explaining somebody's life in such a way that somebody else can understand it. Anthropology was actually really useful in that regard," she says.
Although she did go on to get an MFA, Evans says "you certainly don't need credentials to be a writer."
The Judge's Challenge
Each round's judge comes up with a specific challenge. For Round 7, Evans laid down this one: A character must leave town and a character must arrive in town. A "town" could be anywhere — a city, a village or under the bright lights of New York City.
Evans moved around a lot growing up, and a lot of the stories in her collection are about moving and arriving.
"I think there's a way that when you move a lot, especially as a kid or an adolescent, you get to kind of reinvent yourself over and over again," she says.
When judging this round, Evans says she wants to be excited by a story.
"I think before you do anything else, as a writer you're always demanding the reader's time," she says. "I think in a short space it's even more important to have that kind of breathless hanging-on to the words of the story."
She says language as well as compelling characters feed into that.
"At the end, I think I'm looking for taking away that idea that I've been changed somehow by reading the story," she says. "The best stories stick with you... I think whatever wins this contest will be a story I'm still thinking about days after I've read it."
Selecting A Winner
We're accepting submissions until 11:59 p.m. ET on Sunday, Sept. 25.
Every story will be read. We are continuing our partnership with the graduate students at New York University and the Iowa Writer's Workshop — they will help us move the judging process along as first readers. We'll be checking in with Evans every few weeks as well to find out which stories have caught her eye.
As always, once the deadline has passed, we'll post some of our favorites on the website and read highlights from a few on the air each week as we begin to narrow it down.
Ultimately, the winning story will be read on the air, and the winner will receive a signed copy of Evans' book.
Evans has another prize for the winner: an hourlong critique session.
Her final advice for contestants: "Have fun with it."
"You're the first person who has to be excited about your story, so don't let it terrify you," she says. "You are the boss of it – it is not the boss of you."
GUY RAZ, host: Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
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RAZ: Ah, the ticking. We've heard you. We received hundreds of letters and posts on our Three-Minute Fiction Facebook page asking - actually, demanding the return of our fiction contest. So here it is. Without further ado, Round Seven of Three-Minute Fiction begins right now, right here on WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
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RAZ: Now, for the uninitiated, since we launched Three-Minute Fiction two years ago, we've received more than 35,000 original short stories submitted by you, our listeners. And the premise of the contest is pretty simple. Basically, we're looking for original short fiction that can be read in under three minutes, so the story can't be longer than 600 words. And each round, we have a judge, usually a writer, who throws out a challenge.
In this round, our judge is Danielle Evans. She's the author of the critically acclaimed short story collection "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self." Danielle is here with me in the studio. Welcome to the program. Welcome to Three-Minute Fiction.
DANIELLE EVANS: Thank you so much for having me. I'm very excited.
RAZ: And first of all, thank you so much for being the judge this round.
EVANS: Yeah. I know. I can't wait to read.
RAZ: I should mention, Danielle, by the way, I'm going to embarrass you, but your book just won the PEN American Robert Bingham prize for your first book, which is pretty awesome.
EVANS: There's actually been two winners this year, so myself and Susanna Daniel's novel.
RAZ: Oh, don't be humble. OK. You can mention that along.
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EVANS: But it's - no, it was tremendously exciting.
RAZ: You are a young writer, an up-and-coming writer. And you are on every list of 40 or 30, under 30 or 40, under 40 - I can't remember which ones. Obviously, you are no stranger to short stories. And I asked you to be the judge this round because we talked about your book about a year ago on NPR, which is a great collection of short stories, and I thought it would be perfect for you to be the judge of a short story contest.
So first of all, can you give me a sense of how you sort of approach fiction? I know that's a big question, but I mean, how do you sort of, in an abstract way or maybe even not, how do you think about it?
EVANS: Writing fiction in particular, what you're usually thinking about is does the story more or less comes down to a moment, a moment when something changes forever. It can be a little thing or it can be a big thing, but something that somehow reverberates to somebody's life in some way. So I think when I'm at the thinking stage of short story writing, I'm thinking like, where is the moment in the story, and is it credible, and how are all the other elements of the story kind of putting pressure on it?
RAZ: Now, you teach creative writing at American University in addition to being a writer, professional writer. You did not - and I think this will be heartening for a lot of our listeners to hear, you did not actually study writing or literature. You went to Columbia University. You were an anthropology major.
EVANS: Yeah. And, I mean, it wasn't that different. I mean, I still think of writing as a project of translation, kind of explaining somebody's life in such a way that somebody else can understand it. And anthropology is actually really useful in that regard. And so I did - I need to get an MFA after that, but you usually don't need credentials to be a writer. And I think even that idea of a professional writer, it's sort of a weird phrase in some way, because - I mean, the thing is, no matter how long you've been doing it, like, if every book doesn't terrify you, you're probably doing something wrong.
There are things that I've learned about editing myself and kind of thinking about what I want to do as a writer. I don't know that I would think there's such a thing as an immature writer.
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EVANS: Because I think we're all immatures, maybe. Or maybe there is such a thing as immature writer. That's just the only thing.
RAZ: Well, as we do, Danielle, with each judge, as you know, we ask you to come up with a challenge for Three-Minute Fiction. So for example, last round, the challenge was one character had to cry, one had to laugh. When Michael Cunningham was a judge, he asked readers to begin each story with some people swore the house was haunted and so on. You have come up with your own challenge.
EVANS: I have.
RAZ: And I know every one listening who's going to participate is waiting so they can start their stories. What is it?
EVANS: I should have some theme music or something. There are all these sort of sayings about how many plots there in fact are in the world, because we talk a lot about plot and whether we're telling the same story over and over again. And so someone has an argument there are seven plots in the world, there are 10. But the smallest number of plots I've ever heard is they're saying there are only two plots in the world: somebody comes to town and somebody leaves town. Those are really the only stories we ever tell.
So the role for this round of the contest is in the story, a character must leave town and a character must arrive in town.
RAZ: Oh, that's very cool. All right. So let me reiterate that. In under 600 words, you've got to write a story where somebody leaves town and somebody arrives to town. And when we say a town, that can mean anywhere, a city, a village, a small farm town, New York City, doesn't matter? It can be anywhere?
EVANS: It can be anywhere.
RAZ: And, Danielle, can it be the same character who leaves town and arrives, or do they have to be different characters?
EVANS: No. They can be the same character.
RAZ: Can be the same character.
EVANS: That would be fine.
RAZ: OK. So somebody has to leave town and somebody has to arrive. It can be two different people, it can be the same person, it can be something else.
RAZ: Very cool. This is going to be great. I'm looking forward to the story that come out of this. What are you looking for? What are you going to be looking for in these stories?
EVANS: My first demand is that I want to be excited. I think before you do anything else as a writer, you're always demanding the readers' time. I want to read with that, like, here's the world I'm interested in hanging out in. And with that, so we can kind of, even in the short space - I think in a short space, it's even more important to have that kind of breathless hanging on to the words of the story.
And I mean, I think at the end, I'm looking for taking away the idea that I've been changed somehow by reading the story. Even in a small - even in some small way, like, I understand something I didn't before or I - thinking about something in a way that I never looked at it before, I mean, the best stories kind of stick with you. I want - I think whatever wins this contest will be a story that I'm still thinking about in the days after I've read it.
RAZ: Have you seen those elements in previous stories?
EVANS: I have. Here's a dirty little secret. I'm actually - I kind of a long storywriter in my collection. And so I think the idea of 600 words would actually terrify me as a writer a little bit. But I'm so impressed by the people who were able to deal with it, that, you know, hearing (unintelligible) contest and like how much you could do in that compressed space, I'm really excited to see what comes in.
RAZ: All right. Let's recap. This is Round Seven of Three-Minute Fiction. It is now - the contest is now open. And we'll be accepting submissions until 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time on Sunday, September 25th. And we have to be able to read your story aloud in under three minutes or less, unless Susan Stamberg reads and we'll give her a little extra time. But essentially, it cannot be longer than 600 words. And, Danielle, remind us what is the challenge for this round.
EVANS: The challenge is that in the story, a character must leave town and a character must arrive in town.
RAZ: OK. And remember, you can only enter once per person. To send your story, go to our website. That's npr.org/threeminutefiction, and Three-Minute Fiction is all spelled out with no spaces. Each and every story, by the way, is read. And we are going to be continuing our partnership with the graduate students at New York University and at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and they basically help us move the judging process along as the first readers. And then we sort of pass along stacks to you, Danielle, every few weeks.
The other thing we do is every weekend, we read stories that catch our eye. We bring on Susan Stamberg and Bob Mondello, another great NPR voices, to read those stories aloud. In the end, when it's over, you're going to pick a winner. That winner is going to come on the air with you and me, and they'll get a copy of your book.
And then I hear, Danielle, you have another prize that you're going to be offering.
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EVANS: Yeah. Since I'm also a creative writing teacher - and so far that's possible - one of the things that would be interesting to do is to actually have a kind of hour-long critique session not necessarily of the story, because the story is obviously going to be good because it would have won, but of some piece of writing that the winner would like me to take a look at.
RAZ: That's very cool. So the winner of this round will have - will get a personal consultation with Danielle Evans in addition, which is great. Any final words of advice before we go?
EVANS: Have fun with it. You're the first person who has to be excited about your story, so don't let it terrify you. You were the boss of it; it is not the boss of you.
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RAZ: That's a good advice. That's author Danielle Evans. She is the judge of Round Seven of Three-Minute Fiction. It is now open. So please check out our webpage, npr.org/threeminutefiction. It's all spelled out. Danielle, thank you so much.
EVANS: Thank you so much for having me. I can't wait to read these.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLOCK TICKING AND BELL) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.