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Three-Minute Fiction Round 11: Finders Keepers

Round 11 of our Three-Minute Fiction contest begins now!

Here's how it works: We ask you to write an original short story that can be read in about three minutes, so no more than 600 words. Each round, we invite an author to throw out a challenge and help us judge the contest.

Our new judge is Karen Russell, the author of the acclaimed novel Swamplandia! Even though she's known as a novelist, she says she's really a short story writer at heart.

Russell released a new collection of short stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, in February. Her first collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, was published in 2006.

"The challenges and pleasures are different" with a novel, Russell tells NPR's Guy Raz, the contest's host and curator.

"With a story, I think it can work almost the way a poem does because it's bounded, you know, so people can read it in one sitting," she says. "And you can really let it unfold, sort of like a seamless dream. You can have a really powerful emotional impact."

Now it's your turn. Here's Russell's challenge for this round:

Write a story in which a character finds an object that he or she has no intention of returning.

Russell says this prompt could inspire everything from horror stories to comedies to love stories. She says there's a lot of dramatic potential, particularly in the moment the object is found.

"Instead of using the found thing as an opportunity to prove that you're virtuous, you're a good person, you're gonna turn it in to the Amtrak lady," Russell says, "maybe you find something and the initial surprise is just, 'Wow, I've discovered ... a desire, a greediness.' "

So what is Russell looking for in the contest submissions? She turns to a saying from her very first professor: "Good fiction should be both surprising and true."

Russell says it's a good sign when writers surprise themselves, "because you're discovering something new about your character, about our natures, about ... what it feels like to be alive on this weird, spinning rock."

The truth aspect comes from what we know about people, she says: "You can have a really wild, gimmicky story that falls flat because readers have nothing to connect to."

Each and every story will be read by our staff with help from creative writing students at schools including New York University, Cornell, Johns Hopkins and Georgia State.

Throughout the next few weeks, we'll post some of our favorite stories on the Three-Minute Fiction home page and read excerpts on weekends on All Things Considered. Russell will be the final judge and select the winning story.

The winner will receive signed copies of all three of Russell's novels, and his or her story will be published in the fall issue of The Paris Review.

Before you get started, Russell has one request:

"Please have fun with it. I really tried to come up with a prompt that would just be fun and one that could be approached from any number of tonal directions. ... So go dark, go weird, go comic. I'm really excited to see what people come up with."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.