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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

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RAZ: We're just a few hours away from the deadline for round three of our Three Minute Fiction contest. If you still want to submit your story, you've got until 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time tonight to go to our Web site, that's npr.org/threeminutefiction, and that's where you'll find all the rules.

Now, close to 2,000 original short stories have already come in, and our judge this round, Alan Cheuse, has been poring over some of them, and he's in the studio with me.

Hi, Alan.

ALAN CHEUSE: Hi, Guy.

RAZ: Alan is also an author and the book reviewer for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and Alan, this round, we asked our listeners to go online, to npr.org/threeminutefiction, and look at the photograph we posted up there. It's taken by a talented photographer named Robb Hill. And Alan, how would you describe the photo?

CHEUSE: It's just sharp enough to give you an idea of something that may be already forming in your mind, and it's just ambiguous enough to allow you to take it over and incorporate it into a story of your own making.

RAZ: It's an open newspaper on a table, basically, and we're looking at it through glass.

CHEUSE: An open newspaper that you just can't quite read, and so you've got to supply the text.

RAZ: So this round, Alan, we have students from the famous Iowa Writers Workshop, and they're reading through all of the stories, and then they're passing on their favorites to you. So what do you think overall? I mean, are you finding any themes or similarities, or are the stories you're reading going in completely different directions?

CHEUSE: Well, they are as various as you might imagine several thousand people might invent, but, you know, at this stage, what I'm looking for are the opening lines that pull me in, just, you know, that hook me, to use that old cliche. And I've got some examples with me.

RAZ: Yeah, yeah, we want to hear some of those.

CHEUSE: This is the opening of a story called "Sugar Packets." It's called Tara Wright, who is from Menlo Park, California:

CHEUSE: (Reading) You are everywhere I look these days. Everyone looks just like you. I'm at the coffee shop you went to just before you died. You used to write your name and phone number on sugar packets in coffee shops in those last few months. I don't know why, you said. I can't help it.

RAZ: Wow.

CHEUSE: That really...

RAZ: That's so evocative, the idea of the sugar packets. You can just imagine her writing down something on those packets.

CHEUSE: You know, there's almost enough space on a sugar packet to write a three-minute short story.

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RAZ: Right. All right, what else do you have?

CHEUSE: This comes from Janet Sadler(ph) in Sunderland, Maine, and this is, again, specific to this scene.

CHEUSE: (Reading) I got to the coffee shop inside the depot at 6:45. Only one bus out of Waterville. This was it. By the time Leila(ph) figured out I'd gone, and she'd told mom, and mom told her old man, and the old man told the cops and revved up to come fetch me, I'd have roared out of there, pink dust and exhaust stench in a beautiful stream behind the wheels, the road open and me sitting high up above it, looking out over the land.

RAZ: And does it seem like a lot of people looked at this photograph and thought: This is a coffee shop?

CHEUSE: Yeah, that seems to be the case, and I found a couple of stories that really pulled me in that gave us some serious idea of what it is in that open newspaper.

RAZ: Yeah.

CHEUSE: Here's one called "Photo Finish" from Gus Acevedo(ph), who comes from Jackson, New Jersey:

CHEUSE: (Reading) It ain't me, it's the horse. Others bet it all on a sure winner and lose, a horse like no other, like no other.

So he's thinking of a racing form.

RAZ: A racing form, right, right.

CHEUSE: And I've got one more. This is a story called "Lost" by Jerry Warmeskeirken(ph) from Palm City, Florida:

CHEUSE: (Reading) Lost: border collie, last seen on the Lower West Side near Hudson Park. Answers to Rudy. Teddy(ph) leaned into his paper, eyes wide. How do you lose a dog in the city? His voice bouncing off the windows of the doughnut shop. Did he run off looking for a flock of sheep?

RAZ: So it's a doughnut shop, and of course, he's using the newspaper as kind of this vehicle to tell the story that could go in any direction.

CHEUSE: Right, that's the diving board. Dive from this newspaper.

RAZ: Now, Alan, when we kicked off this round of Three Minute Fiction two weeks ago, you said you were looking for stories that would give us the greatest sense of a life in the shortest period of time. Is that what you're finding?

CHEUSE: Yeah, I think the people who are steeped in short fiction and possibly even in short, short fiction, do feel that sense of not just immediacy that a story has to supply for you as a reader, but that sense of urgency. Just a few words, get in, give us the story, and get out.

RAZ: All right, Alan. Our listeners have just a few hours left to submit for this round of Three Minute Fiction. Do you have any last words of advice because, of course, over the next few weeks, you've got to pick a winner?

CHEUSE: Well, in the few hours that are left, you can probably write a 600-word story. So I would say sit down, start typing, you'll meet the deadline.

RAZ: And once Alan does pick the winner, we'll invite the winning writer to come on this program with him. That writer will also receive a signed copy of Alan's book, "To Catch The Lightning."

Now, a quick reminder of the rules. The story has to be original. It has to be something that can be read in under three minutes, that's roughly 550 words but not more than 600, and it has to be inspired in part by a photograph we've posted at our Web site, npr.org/threeminutefiction, and that's threeminutefiction all spelled out, no spaces.

And you can find all of the rules there, and you have to submit the story through the link at that site. In a few weeks, Alan Cheuse will pick the winner for round three.

Alan, thanks for the update.

CHEUSE: Six hundred words, and they'd better be the right ones.

RAZ: That's right, and thanks to everyone who has written in so far.

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