Three-Minute Fiction Round 7: Arriving And Leaving

Sep 10, 2011

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 we've 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 under 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. Evans is no stranger to short stories. She is a professor or literature and creative writing at American University here in Washington, D.C., and she's the author of the critically acclaimed short-story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self.

The book 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 shortened fiction, Evans tells weekends on All Things Considered 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.

The majority of the people who send in entries to Three-Minute Fiction not published writers, and some who 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 judge comes up with a specific challenge for their round. For Round 7, Evans looked to a debate over plots.

"There are all of 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," she says. "The smallest number of plots I've ever heard is there's this saying there are only two plots in the world: somebody comes to town and somebody leaves town."

The rule for Round 7 is a character must leave town and a character must arrive in town. A "town" could be anywhere – a city, a village or 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.

"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 a compelling character situation feeds into that. Evans is also looking for writing that changes the reader.

"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.

Each and 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 we'll post some of our favorites on our website and read a few on the air each week as we begin to narrow it down.

When it is finally over, the winning story will be read on the air in its entirety, and the winner will receive a signed copy of Evans' book.

Evans has another prize for the winner: an hour-long critique session, not necessarily of the submission, but of some piece of writing that the winner would like her to look at.

Her final advice for contestants is to "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."

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