Short-Short Sighted — Bruce Holland Rogers
Counting and Multiplying: The Birth and Evolution of the Three-Six-Nine
Magazines come and go, but sometimes they leave more in their wake than stacks of back issues scattered across the world’s attics. Collier’s magazine hasn’t published for half a century, but we continue to use the name they gave to their one-page “short-short stories.” More recently, the Toronto-based magazine NFG lasted only six issues, but it left in its wake the sixty-nine-word story, which evolved into a fixed form that is one of my favorites, the three-six-nine.
A three-six-nine is a very short work consisting of three stories of exactly sixty-nine words apiece. The stories are all written to a common theme, and each has its own title. The piece as a whole also has a title. Here’s one example.
The reasoning behind the rules of any fixed form is often mysterious. With the three-six-nine, I can recount the history of its development. The form started with NFG magazine’s idea to run a writing contest. The editors wanted to challenge their readers to write stories to some exact count of words. They settled upon a count of sixty-nine words. Sixty-nine is as close to naughty as a number can be, and thus supported the magazine’s effort to be daring and adventurous.
The rules were simple: a story of sixty-nine words exactly, as counted by your computer’s word processor. The stories had to have titles, but the words in the title did not count toward the total. However, overly long or awkward titles were not allowed, especially titles that were an obvious attempt to get around the word limit.
From the contest entries for each issue, the editors chose twenty or so of their favorites for publication. The writers were paid nothing for this initial use of their sixty-nine-word stories, but the magazine’s readers were invited to go online to vote for their favorite story. The winning story was then featured on the back cover of the next issue of NFG, and the writer was sent a check for sixty-nine dollars and was proclaimed “the world’s best sixty-niner.”
I couldn’t resist trying my hand, and I succeeded in placing one of my stories in the magazine.
I found that when I tried to come up with ideas suitable for sixty-nine words, I often found three or four ideas at a time, and those ideas would tend to cluster around the same theme. The idea about the guy who’s trying deception to win a girlfriend made me think of other kinds of romantic desperation, which led to another story.
I enjoyed writing these stories and submitting them to NFG, but they presented me with a problem. I was already running my subscription service, shortshortshort.com, and my description of the service promised that readers would get stories of at least 200 words three times a month. I liked these sixty-nine-word stories, but they were too short to send to my subscribers.
However, I had already discovered that one suitable idea often spawned related ideas, and I realized that if I put three of these sixty-niners together under one title and called the result a story, I could write these tiny narratives for NFG and send them to my subscribers.
As sometimes happens with the briefest of prose narratives, some editors choose to categorize them as poetry rather than fiction. My three-six-nines have been published as fiction, poetry, and even (not quite accurately) literary nonfiction. Despite this confusion of categories among editors, I certainly think that three-six-nines are short stories...or perhaps sets of three stories. There isn’t room for much plot, but each sixty-niner does usually feature a character with a problem, just as in a longer story. The resolutions of those problems are often only hinted at, or the endings may turn on something other than a solution.
My suggestion to anyone trying the sixty-niner or the three-six-nine is to consider the importance of last sentences. The final words can re-frame the reader’s understanding, reveal an irony or show the reader an unexpected truth. Even though you have only sixty-nine words to work with in each of the three narratives, you can aim to say a lot.
Here are two more stories to go with this month’s column.
“Three Soldiers” first appeared in Vestal Review. “What Are You Using for Bait” and “He Has Beautiful Eyes” first appeared in NFG. “War Gods” was first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction. “Mysterious Ways” was first published in Willow Springs. All stories copyright (c) Bruce Holland Rogers. Used here by permission of the author.
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About the Author
Bruce Holland Rogers
Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.
For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.
He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.
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Copyright © 2008, Bruce Holland Rogers. All Rights Reserved.