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Short-Short Sighted — Bruce Holland Rogers

December 2008

Counting and Multiplying: The Birth and Evolution of the Three-Six-Nine

  Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

Read Bruce’s previous column here, or visit his author page to see them all.

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.

Three Soldiers

1. The Hardest Question

My marines bring me questions. “When do we get to shower?” “Sergeant, how do you say ‘Good afternoon’ again?” “Sarge, where can I get more gun oil?”

I have answers. “Tomorrow, maybe.” “Maysuh alheer.” “Use mine.”

Answering their questions is my job. But when Anaya was shot and bleeding out, he grabbed my arm and said, “Sergeant? Sergeant?” I understood the question, but damn. I didn’t have an answer.

2. Foreign War

No U.S. soldier who could see that kid would have shot him. But that’s long-range ordnance for you. Calder stood next to me in the street, looking at the pieces. “We’ve come so far from home,” he said, “that we’ll never get back.”

“You dumbass,” I said. But a year later, I stood on the tarmac hugging my child, thinking of that kid in pieces, and I wasn’t home.

3. Decisions, Decisions

In morning twilight far away, my men are making up their minds:

What’s that guy carrying?

Friend or foe?

I should be there, helping them decide. My wife and my parents do their best to make Christmas dinner conversation around my silence. An hour ago, I was yelling at Angie for turning on the damn news. My father, carving, won’t meet my eyes. He says, “White meat, or dark?”

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.

What Are You Using For Bait?

He comes into the Manitowish bait shop every day, asking beginner’s questions and lingering at her counter. Friday he holds a fish he says he’s caught. She thinks, A salmon? In Wisconsin? She doesn’t let on. He’s going to grill it. Does she want to come? Her last boyfriend was a liar, too. But she likes salmon. She figures she can take the bait and spit out the hook.

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.

He Has Beautiful Eyes

Duncan teaches third grade in the classroom across from hers, jokes that the wheelchair lets him meet his students eye to eye. Annika buys an underwire bra, worries for the first time about panty lines, pours him coffee in the teacher’s lounge. She even wears perfume. He remains remote, as if protecting her from a paraplegic’s complications. She starts driving fast, running red lights, fantasizing of the perfect injury.

I enjoyed writing these stories and submitting them to NFG, but they presented me with a problem. I was already running my subscription service,, 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.

War Gods

1. Problem Child

At the first clatter of spears, Ares would race from Olympus to join in. He didn’t care who won, but killed warriors on either side, evening the odds to keep the game alive.

Wounded, he always came to his father. Zeus bound up the injuries of this perverted god, his child, the cursed fruit of his union with Hera. Is it any wonder that their marriage bed was cold?

2. The Case for War

To kneeling priests, the taloned god spelled out his terms:

A great sun temple.

Constant flower wars for captives.

One warrior sacrificed for every temple step.

War for planting. War for harvest. War everlasting, in Huitzilopochtli’s name. “Do this, and I will protect you.”

“Protect us from what, Great Lord?”

“From those gods who are even worse than I am.”

The priests trembled to think of it, and obeyed.

3. Theogeny

Skanda, god of war, slew the demon Taraka, the Invincible. There was peace at last.

“Ha! Did you see him wielding six weapons?” said Agni, god of fire. “That’s my boy!”

“I saw him fight brilliantly,” answered Shiva, “if you mean my son, Skanda.”

My son, Skanda,” said Agni.

“Skanda, my child,” insisted the Destroyer, picking up his trident.

Agni readied his fire dart. The other gods chose sides.

Mysterious Ways

1. Weighed in the Balance

Meena had children to feed and no man in her household. Charity would shame her, so Ismael always gave her a secret discount, nudging the scale up with his thumb. Once, she caught him.


Bystanders took notice. “And she is a war widow! For shame!”

“My dear lady, if I am cheating you, may God take my right eye!”

The next year, an infection blinded his left eye.

2. Knock and It Shall Be Opened

John’s wife got down on her knees beside his hospital bed and prayed for his healing. Holding his hand, she said the words, but John felt them in his heart. Later, the doctors were at a loss to explain his remission and, still later, his complete recovery. Neither could they explain the sudden appearance of his wife’s lymphoma, its aggressive spread, its uncanny resistance to all kinds of treatment.

3. Signs and Wonders

An image of the Bodhisattva Maitreya appeared in a tortilla served to Amado Cruz with his breakfast of fruit and beans. The image was absolutely clear to him, though he didn’t know who the Bodhisattva was. Just as clear was the visage of the Blessed Virgin on Chemsarpo Kinley’s steamy bathroom mirror, which the Bhutanese woman wiped dry just as Amado Cruz, far away, began to eat his miracle.

“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

The eyes of 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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