Sunday, January 1, 2012


In the summer of 1987, Susan and I were honeymooning in San Luis Obispo, California, when we came across a copy of the New Times, the free weekly paper of that town, in which was announced a brand new annual contest called “55 Fiction.” There were a lot of complicated rules, but they boiled down to this: each entry had to be a complete short story, with plot, setting, and character, within 55 words. 

Great gimmick, I thought, and thought no more about it.

A few weeks later, back home in Santa Barbara, I found myself unable to sleep one hot full-moon Santa Ana night, so I got out of bed, dressed, and took a walk around the neighborhood. As I walked, I mulled over a story plot I had made up as a teenager some thirty years earlier and had never done anything with. There and then I decided to write the story, and since it was to be only 55 words, I figured I could make it up as I walked, before I returned to my bed and went to sleep. Which I did. It took me about fifteen minutes.

In the morning I carried my story, in my head, to the office and keyed it into MacWrite. That took me about five minutes. I counted the words and saw that I had written 237. It took me over two hours to pare down the story into 55 words. I sent the story off to the New Times and thought no more about it until a friend in San Luis Obispo called me to congratulate me because I had won first prize.

You can imagine how thrilled I was. There was no money involved, but I won a tee shirt and a certificate, and my words in print, and the accomplishment—not of having won a prize, but having finally gotten that thirty-year-old story into words.

Here’s the story in its entirety:


         He’ll never hold me as he holds that guitar. Hasn’t touched me that way in years.
            I’ll get inside the guitar, to be in his arms again.
            She spent all day, sacrificing shape, voice, everything but desire to be held. Finally inside, mute, invisible, she waited.
            “Honey, I’m home! I bought a new guitar! Honey…?”

Since that time, I have recycled the story, “Guitar,” several times. I managed to get it reprinted in Publishers Weekly, I included it in my first published volume of short stories, The Woman by the Bridge (Dolphin Moon Press, 1991), and my son Morgan in Mendocino used it briefly as his answering machine message. I used to say more people knew my writing from those fifty-five words than from any other words I’d ever written under my own name.

But that was only the beginning.

In the spring of 1994, Steve Moss, editor of the New Times, came to Santa Barbara to meet with Susan and me to get some advice on how to go about publishing a collection of the best 55-word stories published in the newspaper over the past eight years. We found Steve to be a delightful person, and the book project he showed us was really exciting. We gave him all kinds of valuable advice and sent him on his way, envying him for having such a clever idea and such an entertainment-packed book to publish.

We began plotting. Acquiring.

A few phone calls later, and we were on board. We ended up publishing The World’s Shortest Stories in conjunction with New Times Press. They did all the design and production, and our job was marketing, promotion, sales, distribution, and a bunch of busywork details connected with book publishing.

The book became one of our biggest hits. We started with five thousand copies and then went back to press twice. Within a couple of years, we sold reprint rights for the book to Running Press. It’s still in print. Not only that, but the book has been translated and published in Japanese, Chinese, and Hebrew. Not only that, but Running Press published a sequel, The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death, edited by Steve Moss and myself. This was followed a couple of years later by The World’s Shortest Stories of All Time, published by Quality Paperback Book Club. Running Press even published a set of cocktail coasters, with selected 55-worders on them.

In addition to “Guitar,” I have written another few dozen 55-word stories. Some of them have been published under my own name in the books I’ve named above. Others were published under pseudonyms. Others were out-takes or written since and are still waiting to be published. My New Year’s resolution for 2012 is to include one 55 Fiction story with each blog I post during the year, as an extra feature, a verbal cartoon, so-to-speak.

Meanwhile, I invite you to try out the art form. Try writing a complete short story in 55 words. Once you get started, you’re likely to get hooked!


  1. John,

    Sounds like you're ready to publish a new anthology? If you build it, I will send a story.

    William Doonan

  2. That's quite a challenge, John, but it sounds like fun. I'll have to try it.

  3. That is so cool. It reminds me of some of the poetry I write.

  4. Ditto to cool. As challenging as writing a haiku and--I'm sure--harder than it might seem.

  5. Thanks for commenting, folks. I hope you enjoy writing these short, short, short stories. They're fun when you get the hang of it.

  6. John, I will enjoy reading your 55 word stories along with your blog posts.

  7. Loved your Guitar story. Maybe you can lead us in some 55 wpp (words per page) exercises. T'would be a nice addition to your blog.


  8. Very impressive, John. I'm sure you heard this one, but perhaps some of your readers haven't. A teacher gave the class an assignment: write a very short story that touches on mystery, religion, and sex. The winner was ==
    Oh my God, I'm pregnant. I wonder who did it.

  9. Thank you all. Jim, that short story you quote is a gem. My favorite shortest story is Hemingway's:
    For sale, baby shoes, never worn.

  10. The newspaper where I work has run a 99-word short story contest in any genre. We had a great response for both divisions, children and adults. Some of the results were quite good. As they say, sometimes "less is more."
    Sally Carpenter