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GUY RAZ, host:

Here it is, round four of our Three-Minute Fiction short story contest. Last round, more than 3,000 of you wrote original stories that can be read in under three minutes, all inspired by a photograph we posted at our Web site.

Well, this round, we have a new challenge and a new judge: writer Ann Patchett, the bestselling author of, among others, "Bel Canto" and "The Magician's Assistant," and she'll pick the winner.

Ann Patchett is in Nashville, Tennessee. So good to have you.

Ms. ANN PATCHETT (Author): Thank you.

RAZ: Now - and I understand we've torn you away from the closing pages of your forthcoming novel. And we're not going to say much about it except that you were just doing research by observing a Cesarean section. How did that go?

Ms. PATCHETT: It went really, really well up until about the last two minutes. And then I hit the floor and was unconscious for a very long time.

RAZ: Why?

Ms. PATCHETT: I passed out. There's only so much blood a novelist can take.

RAZ: Yeah, but you're a novelist married to a doctor. So presumably, you're used to some of that.

Ms. PATCHETT: He's an internist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Let's move on to the contest at hand and why we are both here. Each round, as you know, we've been setting up a device. So we have a photograph, we had a sentence - the nurse left work at five o'clock - in one of the rounds, and that was a jumping off point for the story. This time, Ann, you have a new idea for us. Tell us what it is.

Ms. PATCHETT: Well, I picked four words and they're dull little words, little everyday words that I want to see in all of the stories. The words are: plant, button, trick and fly. And people can use them as nouns, as adjectives or as verbs. They can use them in any tense if they use them as verbs.

But I think that it's really nice to have little markers to go by, something to sort of occupy one side of your brain while the other side of your brain is being very creative. So, I think of these four words as the splint that will hold the story together.

RAZ: Okay. So we have plant, button, trick and fly. These are very, very simple words.

Ms. PATCHETT: Right.

RAZ: You might even say plain words. Why did you pick those words?

Ms. PATCHETT: Well, because they were words that worked in a lot of different ways. You know, you can plant information. You can have a plant on your windowsill. I wasn't sure about these words being adjectives at first and then my husband pointed out that you could have a button nose. Someone else pointed out you could have a trick knee or a fly ball. So, they're very flexible, but it also means that everybody is going to be working from the same map. And, I don't know, I liked it.

RAZ: In this round, we're going to be assisted once again by the brilliant students from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. You are actually a graduate of the workshop and you trained as a short story writer. Why did you turn to novels?

Ms. PATCHETT: You know, the reason that I turned to a novel was there a point in my life I was a waitress, I was 25, 26 years old and my life was going nowhere and I was writing short stories and I was selling short stories. But I thought, man, I really need to write a novel or I'm going to be a waitress for the rest of my life.

That was the real reason I decided to try to write a novel, because at that time, I thought I was a dyed-in-the-wool short story writer. Once I wrote a novel, I never went back. That was my form, that was the place I felt really, really comfortable. And I loved writing novels.

RAZ: Presumably, this kind of exercise, writing these short stories, are helpful for even people who write longer form prose, I mean - novels for example?

Ms. PATCHETT: I think that's absolutely true. One thing that I find about short stories, because I was the series editor four years ago for Best American Short Stories, the stories were so good. The stories were so much better than the novels that I would read in the course of a given year. And I think that it's because people are willing to take more risks as a short story writer.

If you write a bad short story, you'll throw it away. If you get halfway through it and it's not working, you can dump it and try something else. I see a lot more creativity and excitement in the short story.

RAZ: Ann Patchett, you are going to be the judge this round. We are obviously so honored to have you. Tell all of us listening what you'll be looking for in these stories.

Ms. PATCHETT: Well, I have a real prejudice towards a plot, and a lot of people think that a plot is old-fashioned. And I know that you can't get much of a plot into 600 words, but I do like a story in which something happens.

And the thing that can happen can be extremely subtle. Having something happen doesn't mean that your main character gets run over by a bus, which is what I always used to tell my students, because they were always having their characters run over by buses never cars.

I think that a story really should capture the moment in which things turn, and, as we all know, sometimes, the most important things turn over a glance, a cup of coffee, walking the dog. It can be a very natural moment in your life, but the story focuses on the moment when things change.

So, that's what I like. I like creativity, I like a risk, and I like a little plot.

RAZ: Okay. Let's recap, Ann. Obviously, this is round four of our Three-Minute Fiction contest. It is now open. We're going to be accepting submissions until 11:59 p.m., Eastern Time on Sunday, April 11th. We have to be able to read your stories aloud on the air in three minutes or less. So, no more than 600 words.

And, Ann, can you remind us which words have to be included in that story?

Ms. PATCHETT: Want to see the words plant, button, trick and fly. And remember, you can use them as a noun, an adjective or a verb, and you can use them in any tense if you use them as a verb.

RAZ: So, I guess people are really limited to 596 words 'cause they have to use your four words.

Ms. PATCHETT: That's right.

RAZ: Okay. And there's only one entry per person. To send in your story, go to our Web site, that's npr.org/threeminutefiction - and three-minute fiction is all spelled out, no spaces. Students from the Iowa Writers' Workshop will read your stories first and they will send the best of the best to Ann.

Meanwhile, we'll post weekly favorites at our Web site. Ann Patchett will read the winner's story here on the program. And there's another prize, right, Ann?

Ms. PATCHETT: Yes, there is. They're getting some Ann Patchett books.

RAZ: Signed books, I hope.

Ms. PATCHETT: Absolutely. They're getting my two non-fiction books: a memoir I wrote called "Truth and Beauty: A Friendship," which is a lot about the Iowa Writers' Workshop and writing, and then a second little tiny book I wrote that was based on a graduation speech I gave called "What Now?" And it's about following your dreams and doing what you want to do with your life.

RAZ: That's author Ann Patchett. She's the judge of round four of our Three-Minute Fiction contest.

Ann Patchett, thank you so much.

Ms. PATCHETT: Thanks. I'm looking forward to this.

RAZ: And, once again, to submit your story, visit our Web site, npr.org/threeminutefiction - all spelled out, no spaces.

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