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Three-Minute Fiction Round Three: The Winner Is ...

It's the moment we've all been waiting for. Time to announce the winner of Round 3 of our Three-Minute Fiction contest!

Stories poured in from all over the country — stories about cafes and trains from London to Maine. There were lost loves and lost newspapers, detectives on stakeout, and racetrack bums looking to make one last big score.

More than 3,000 stories came in for this round, and we couldn't have gotten through them all without the invaluable assistance of our friends at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

But our judge for this round, writer and All Things Considered book critic Alan Cheuse, could only pick one, and his choice was "Please Read" by Rhonda Strickland, from Raleigh, N.C. It's a poignant tale of homeless teenage train-hoppers, outsiders looking in at a newspaper that could be just as useful for warmth and shelter as for information.

Runners-up were "Mint Julep" by Garvin Gaston of Houston, and "Surfaces" by Peggy Hansen of Boulder Creek, Calif.

Cheuse tells NPR's Guy Raz that several things stood out for him about Strickland's winning story. "It's in a man's voice," he says, "so she's daring herself to do that." And while many of our Three-Minute authors used the photo as a jumping-off point, starting their stories at the table with the newspaper, Strickland's characters were traveling toward it — which Cheuse says he found interesting.

Most importantly, Cheuse says, the story met the goal he laid out at the start of the contest: It "predicates" a life, giving the fullest idea of the character in the shortest length of time. "You can just feel the life boiling up out of these lines."

Strickland is an artist and writer, retired now after 10 years of teaching English to college students. In an interesting coincidence, she herself once took a class from Alan Cheuse, more than 20 years ago, though Cheuse says he remembers only her name and her red hair.

Strickland says she found photographer Robb Hill's image of a lonely newspaper seen through a plate-glass window to be particularly inspiring. "I don't think I would have written the story if it hadn't been that particular photo," she says.

"It immediately made me feel like an outsider, and I just had no impulse to put myself inside the shop, like reading the paper or the person who left the paper." Strickland says she often visits her brother in Tucson, Ariz., and during one visit she discovered a subculture of teenagers who rode the rails. She combined that knowledge with the inspiration from our photo for her winning story.

Strickland wins a signed copy of Alan Cheuse's novel To Catch the Lightning: A Novel of American Dreaming, and a signed printout of his story "A Little Death."

And while this round of Three-Minute Fiction is over, the next round is just about ready to begin, with new guest judge Ann Patchett and a brand new challenge. Stay tuned!

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