Saturday, January 7, 2012


In my last post I wrote about the pleasures I’ve had writing and publishing 55-word stories. I promised to include a 55-word story with every post for the foreseeable future, so here’s this week’s:

Leo and Mona
“What for?”
“It’s your job.”
“I don’t feel like smiling.”
“C’mon, Mona. You have it easy— a sit-down job, you don’t have to strip, you’re well paid, now smile.”
“Because I say so.”
You? Mr. Famous Painter, Mr. Hotshot Inventor, Mr. Big Cheese—”
“Big What?
“Say again?
“Hold that pose.”

For this post I’d like to move on to something bigger: 99-word stories. It’s remarkable how much 44 more words can do for a story. Mainly, it’s a lot easier to write them, and often it’s more fun to read them.

I adopted the 99-word story as a teaching device when I began teaching creative writing twenty years ago, and I’ve used it ever since. I challenge students to retell a plot we all know in the confines of 99 words. They may set the story in any era, tell it from any point of view, and highlight any aspect of the story. The only requirements are that the story be a real story (something has to happen to somebody, something involving conflict and change), and the story has to contain 99 words—no more, no fewer.

For many years running I published a yearly anthology of students’ 99-word stories. The theme was different each year. We did books based on fairy tales (Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling, Little Red Riding Hood), Bible stories (Cain and Able, The Garden of Eden, The Prodigal Son), Shakespeare (Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet), classic books and movies (The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland), and Greek myths (Pandora, Pygmalion). And more. The anthologies started out as small pamphlets, but when I opened the invitation to any writer anywhere, instead of just my students, the books got bigger and became small paperbacks.

In a sense that was a case of too much success. As the books got bigger (and better) they also got more expensive to produce. When my teaching income diminished, and when we downsized our publishing company, I decided the series had to be retired.

I also wrote a collection of my own 99-word stories.  Ninety-nine of them, to be exact. I never published them as a book, and that’s probably a good thing, but I placed a number of them in small litmags.

So I recommend the 99-word story exercise. If you end up with something you’re proud of, I encourage you to email it to me as an attachment. My email is I don’t plan to publish any print anthologies from now on, but I might devote future blog posts to showcasing good 99-word stories from friends in blog-land.


  1. John,
    As always, an interesting post. I've never written a 99 word story but I used to write a lot of short stories and short shorts. I got away from that when I started writing my first novel. Who knows? Maybe one of these days I'll give it a shot again or even try a 99 word story.

  2. Hey, John. I only tried a short-short-short story once, and I'm sending it to you in email. It was a mere 97 words when FLASHSHOT published it in 2006, but just for you, I added two more words.

    Best to ya.

  3. Patricia, I encourage you to give it a whirl. And Earl, I'm glad to know you'll be sending me something to read!

  4. As someone once said, less is more. Or was that more or less? Now I'm confused. Anyway, good story, John.
    I have trouble meeting the word limits on Twitter.

  5. How clever! Paint me amused and impressed.

  6. John,

    Why not start an anthology? You have the publishing background and the writer friends. This could come together really easily.

    Also, my dad is a big mystery reader. I gave him a copy of Behind the Redwood Door for Christmas and he thought it was excellent!

    William Doonan

  7. Thanks, Madeline, John, and Jackie. Glad I caught your attention. Bill, I don't plan to do a print anthology, but I do hope to get enough volunteered stories to make an occasional, recurrent blog showcase. And then, if that pays off...who knows?

  8. What a great idea, John! I'm going to be teaching a basic writing course to seniors and can cetainly adapt it to my course.

  9. Your students will enjoy the exercise, Jean. I guarantee it.

  10. I like this a lot, John. I'll give it a try and send you a 99-er (I'm part of the 99 percent, so why not?). And I may have fun with this idea in my writing classes.