NPR’s Three-Minute Fiction: Better Late Than Never

May 6, 2012 § 8 Comments

Okay … now for something a little different.

So, professionally, I’m a writer and editor. For a trade magazine. I write about new flowers and tricks about how to sell them to you, the unsuspecting consumer.

Non-fiction, all of it. Except for a few marketing spins I will occasionally put on some side projects, of course. There’s not much leeway in my writing life for creative expression, not much chance for letting words form that which has never existed before, or ever has much chance of existing.

Every once in a while I get an itch to go there.

Apparently I’ve been blind as to the forays into fiction that are open to me around this. For instance, NPR has this Three Minute Fiction contest. Who knew, really? Here’s the deal with it: They give you an opening sentence; you write a piece of fiction built around that first sentence that can be read in about three minutes (roughly 600 words); and may the best person win. Win what? I dunno. But it’s intriguing, isn’t it.

I missed the deadline for Round 8 of course. (Round 8?? Seriously, where have I been???) But I’m eagerly awaiting the sentence for Round 9, as the judges are still pouring through the submissions for the previous round.

Encouraged by a few supportive friends, I decided to exercise my fiction-writing skills. What’s below is my attempt at being creative—no mention of flowers, no marketing spin, no attempts at humor even … it was refreshing, actually.

*Ahem* Just a few notes before you get reading:

  • The mandatory opening sentence is “She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door.” I HAD to start with that.
  • When you read it, read it out loud, pretending like you are at an open-mic night at a spoken-word performance or something. You’ll get what I mean …
  • Contrary to what it says, this did not happen to me. But it happens.

Comments? Questions? Leave ’em below. And, thanks.

Okay, here you go …

She Closed the Book

By Ellen C. Wells

She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door.

The woman had been reading the slim novel—a smutty 1950s paperback she pulled from the cottage’s shelf—while eating a microwaved burrito over the kitchen sink. The book was a lark, a piece of mindless romance for an absent-minded vacation at the lake. The lake, the cottage, a week of worthless reading—she wanted her most immediate concern to be the turning of the next page.

She had turned the page. Read the words. Then felt the words, felt them as they fell onto her skin, pressed from behind her eyes. As the taste of beef and cheese melded with the memories, she stood there, stomach knotting.

The woman vomited neon orange.

This happened to me. This happened to me. The obligatory romanticized assault scene in dime-store novels happened to me.

Except the woman had been a girl. The room was strange and filthy, the boy she knew only a little. Her kicks and pushes and spit didn’t meet their target, only provoked it. She recalled the pink and green fleur de lis wallpaper, peeling; the child had calmed, breathed through it, took herself elsewhere.

And now.

The woman can still see the brown and black-spotted dog with its ratty collar, fraying leash, she had spotted later from the window. Can still hear its constant barks from its own dose of filth and bruises. She hadn’t known this place and wondered if it had been his. It had barked anger. The child could only simmer and forget.

Again, now.

The door shocked itself open with the woman’s will. Wooden steps ached with her footfalls. The late-afternoon air rushed forward as she made her way across the pine-patched forest floor toward the lake.

After years of not knowing, she remembered.

A few sailboats squirmed across the lake’s surface, pushed along by the same hesitant breeze that played with the woman’s hair. The woman didn’t notice. The woman didn’t notice she had walked ankle-deep into the cocktail-cold water, barefoot. Shards of rock slashed her feet. Pain outside matching pain inside. Zero sum.

A boulder, dropped like a tear from a glacier long ago, held her above the lake’s edge. Warmth from the day flowed from it into the woman. She removed herself from herself, as she had done that day, as she had done many times before, not knowing why it had come so easily. Rock, water, sky…this is all she had at this moment, all that would sustain her. Fixed gaze on pines. Breath.

Stars touched her hair, made it sparkle like light on water. It stirred her mind, gone missing for hours. Like life coming to Lazarus, her lungs filled, chest heaved. The woman had come home.

She stepped down from the ancient hold, noticing the cuts on her feet as she walked along the shore, through the woods. The owl, a dream last night, spoke to her now, soothed her soul as she felt her way.

Here, now.

The woman stood. She breathed in and understood. She understood and released herself into the open night air. Finally, she walked through the door, picked up the book, and continued to read.

Tagged: ,

§ 8 Responses to NPR’s Three-Minute Fiction: Better Late Than Never

  • Angela says:


  • Sarah (who the hell is Sarah?) says:

    A note from one of the pickiest, critical readers around. Jesus Christ, are you right on. Ummm, I could gather the beautiful images you write to just say I love them if I had time, but I am at work and… is it okay, Jennifer, if I write to Ellen while at work?
    “cocktail-cold water” “dropped like a tear from a glacier long ago”. Think you might want to squeeze some time in between the trade mag and keeping Boo company to write the book that’s in you-obviously screaming to come out.

  • Kathy says:

    Wow! I knew you could write, but you really can write! I am not much of a literary critic, but I’d read the book! Can’t wait to read your “round 9”!

  • Jody and Ken says:


    Very much enjoyed reading your story. Just the right amount of distance between narrative presence and the female character. If you’re a fan of flash fiction you might check out Boston writer Pamela Painter’s WOULDN’T YOU LIKE TO KNOW, a collection of 3-page stories that is by turns funny, poignant and chilling. It’s available in paper. She was also one of the original judges on NPR’s 3-minute fiction series. Ken

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading NPR’s Three-Minute Fiction: Better Late Than Never at The Dainty Dot.


%d bloggers like this: