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Will inspiration for short fiction strike?

February 15, 2010 |  1:36 pm


In recent years, general interest magazines such as the Atlantic have been curtailing their fiction offerings. But National Public Radio has stepped in to fill the void. They're running a Three Minute Fiction contest, asking readers to submit short fiction pieces; the winner will be read on the air.

Launched during the summer of 2009, the first Three Minute Fiction contest had more than 5,000 entries. The only restriction was that the stories had to fit; in order to be read in three minutes, they'd have to max out at close to 500 words. Which is, actually, quite short for a short story; some might call it a short short story. The first winner managed to squeeze in a broken heart and stolen ducks into the brief word count.

For the second round, the challenge escalated: the stories had to be built around a common first line: "The nurse left work at 5 o'clock."

James Wood, literary critic for the New Yorker, judged both rounds. "The standard [second-round] story, which I hadn't expected at all," he told NPR, "seemed to involve a nurse walking home, immediately lighting up a cigarette and then, as soon as she gets home, dissolving into alcoholism." Wood chose an entirely different story as the winner.

This time, they're using a photograph for inspiration (not the one above, but one of a vacant cafe table, a newspaper and a window's reflection, seen here). NPR book critic Alan Cheuse, who wrote a short story of his own inspired by an Ansel Adams photograph, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941, will be the judge for this round of entries.

It's impossible to tell where inspiration will strike, but if that cafe table gets your creative electricity flowing, you've got until Feb. 28 to send NPR your (short) short story.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Lightning strikes over Los Angeles City Hall in 2003. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times