(Soundbite of clock ticking)
GUY RAZ, host:
You asked for a new round, so we're back with Three-Minute Fiction. For those of you who were away earlier this summer, we asked you for original short stories, fiction that could be read in three minutes or less. That's about 500 words or so. And you sent us more than 5,000 submissions.
Two weeks ago, James Wood, The New Yorker's literary critic and the author of the book, "How Fiction Works," picked a winner, a story written by Molly Reid of Fort Collins, Colorado.
You can read her story and the runners up at npr.org/threeminutefiction and that's Three-Minute Fiction all spelled out as one word.
And James Wood is now back with us to introduce a new round.
James, welcome back.
Mr. JAMES WOOD (Literary critic, The New Yorker): Hello.
RAZ: So we were thinking a lot about what made the winning story stand out in the first round, and we noticed some very compelling first sentences. And I was wondering, have you ever asked, you know, sort of a famous writer about an opening line and whether they struggled with that sentence?
Mr. WOOD: I once asked Richard Ford about the first line of his great novel, "The Sportswriter," which begins: My name is Frank Bascom. I'm a sportswriter. And he told me that it actually came very easily to him and he always knew that was going to be the first line.
I think if we look at manuscripts of novelists or short story writers, say, Raymond Carver's manuscripts, you can see that a writer like him struggled enormously with first sentences.
Mr. WOOD: And sometimes that these were changed by his famous editor, Gordon Lish.
RAZ: How important are they? I mean, there are great novels out there with first lines that are not memorable.
Mr. WOOD: Yeah, there are I think probably many more novels whose first lines we don't remember. I think for a short form, like the one we're doing, it can be very useful to a writer as a sort of organized, almost like a title as an organizing principle. And of course, as the introduction of a voice, that's the crucial thing, a certain kind of naturalness.
RAZ: Well, you're foreshadowing our next round. But before we do that, I'm going to offer some inspiration, James, to our listeners. We asked a few colleagues here at NPR to read some classic opening lines from literature.
FRANK LANGFITT: (Reading) I was born twice: first as a baby girl on a remarkably smokeless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again as a teenage boy in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
ARI SHAPIRO: (Reading) Call me Ishmael.
SUSAN STAMBERG: (Reading) It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
COREY FLINTOFF: (Reading) Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
RAZ: That was NPR's Frank Langfitt, Ari Shapiro, Susan Stamberg, and Corey Flintoff reading the opening lines from "Middlesex," "Moby Dick," "Pride and Prejudice," and "Anna Karenina."
So James, inspired by these lines, for the next round of Three Minute Fiction, we have a new twist.
Mr. WOOD: We do. The idea is to begin a story with an arbitrary first line set by me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
I'm responding here to something that the French poet Paul Valery expressed as part of his hostility to fiction. He didn't like the fact-filled nature of realism. And he used to use as an example of complete arbitrariness, the Marquise went out at 5:00. That for him was everything that was pointless and arbitrary about fiction.
(Soundbite of laughter)
I wrote about this in "How Fiction Works" and sort of turned it on its head and showed that as soon as a second or third sentence follows - that's to say as soon we asked the question, where is the Marquise going; why was she leaving at five o'clock; what's next - it becomes less arbitrary in the way of fiction. So in that spirit, perhaps we might respond to Monsieur Valery...
RAZ: Oh, please.
Mr. WOOD: ...and we shall try to write a story that begins with the sentence: The nurse left work at five o'clock
RAZ: The nurse left work at five o'clock. Okay, got it.
Mr. WOOD: The struggle will be to make that admittedly arbitrary first sentence into something natural. So we shall see what happens.
RAZ: So let me throw out some rules for round two here. The story has to be 600 words or less, not a word over, and only one entry per person. And for this round, we have to receive the story by Tuesday, August 25th, by 11:59 P.M. Eastern Time. And of course, the story, James, has to begin with your sentence: The nurse left work at five o'clock.
You can submit your story by visiting npr.org/threeminutefiction, with Three Minute Fiction all spelled out, no spaces. James Wood will read the winner's story on the air and he'll send you a signed copy of his book, "How Fiction Works."
James, you haven't made it easy.
Mr. WOOD: We're definitely kicking it up a notch, yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RAZ: That's James Wood of The New Yorker and our judge this round in Three Minute Fiction.
James, great to talk to you. And we'll check back in a few weeks with you.
Mr. WOOD: Look forward to it.
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