Six Sentence Seduction

This is an essay by Noelle Sterne.

At first surf, it seemed like another time-wasting blog, fiendishly mounted to lure writers away from precious writing time. But I bit on the link in a writers’ newsletter, wanting to prove the ad wrong: “Be careful. Read Six Sentences and you may become addicted.”

Addiction, I saw, is easy. Six Sentences delivers. Every contribution on any subject is only six sentences long.

True to Six Sentences’ (6S) credo, the writer’s guidelines announce its requirements in exactly six sentences: “It’s simple. Just write six sentences. Say anything you like. Send your work (including its title) along with your name (or pseudonym), your bio, and any links you’d like to include to sixsentences@yahoo.com. All submissions will receive a response within six days. Please see Formatting for further details.” And formatting? You guessed it—another six sentences, with details on punctuation and title characters, and reiteration that any topic is acceptable.

Neither word count nor sentence length is specified, but the entries I read varied from 60 to 250 words and had five to twelve lines for each sentence. With no limit on semicolons, parentheses, and dashes, I did count one Henry Jamesian sentence of twenty-five lines.

The subjects range widely, from rejected love to werewolf fantasies to a grown daughter’s “blankie” to daily ennui. Some meander or rant self-indulgently, but most I read, until I forced myself to stop, like pushing away the sixth brownie, were competent to brilliant. The bios mirror the variety of contributors, from the arch (“He’s a fourth-generation warlock and sometimes channels Ellery Queen.”) to the writerly (“She won the Dirty Dozen Award for Fiction, and her first novel, Flowering Octopuses, was published last year by Bittersweet Earth Press.”).

The creator, editor, sustainer, and blogmaster, Rob McEvily, a virtuoso 6S-er himself, not only publishes little- and somewhat-knowns but includes excerpts from very well-knowns—from Anne Lamott to Sting to Norman Vincent Peale(!) All authors’ names are indexed, but be warned. These minis mesmerize, and you’ll be tempted to open the next entry, and the next and the next.

Some may dismiss Six Sentences as merely flash fiction—Lord knows, I’ve had a long, snobbish prejudice against it. (Anything worth writing is worth writing at [great] length.) But I’ve reconsidered and reevaluated. As I kept clicking, and my writing timer counted depressingly down, I recognized the immense value of Six Sentences—in at least six (pardon) ways:

1. Reading the posts with your morning coffee, as one writer confessed, can rev up your motivation for the writing session you’re avoiding. Admit it; when you finish a 6S, you blurt out to your cup, “I can write better than that.”

2. The entries spark experiences/thoughts/events of your own—a mangy dog you picked up, or a mangy guy. I’ve scribbled a few out on the nearest used napkin.

3. You can use six sentences to polish a passage from your work-in-progress. A friend chronicling her pre-divorce life described her husband’s habit of taking his jogging shoes to bed and sleeping with them cradled in his arms. She plaintively asked        whether they smelled better than her.

4. You can dare yourself to do the briefest of sentences and still get your story across: No time. No home. No funds. No friends. There was only one obvious choice. I jogged to the airport and stowed away on a biplane to Greenland.

5. Your 6S may be the germ of your next novel:Randy stared out the window at the dirt road across his front yard full of high weeds and broken furniture. The loose gutter banged against the house, and he sighed. Damn place needs so many repairs. Where would he ever get the money? From the road, dust blew up, signaling a car approaching. Into his driveway, almost hitting the rusty lawnmower that had died there, pulled a shiny wine-colored Bentley.

6. The 6S is great practice for your next query, synopsis, or pitch: This romantic paranormal mystery revolves around the lives of three half-sisters, a brunette, a redhead, and a blonde. They each have a different father, and their mother has lied about all three, saying they were dead. Each sister begins a quest to find her birth father, enlisting the aid of her two half-siblings. But the brunette sister is mysteriously resistant. In her presence, the others experience strange flashbacks that they cannot identify but seem very real. When a tall handsome man with graying temples appears apparently out of nowhere, the other two sisters insist on some answers.

See how much six sentences can do? See what you can get into them? See how you’re not constrained by word counts?

Reading others’ 6S and creating my own, I learned more about technique, pacing, diction, drama from each entry. My editorial self assessed how each the subject was handled, the conventions used, the economy or flagrance of expression, the buildup of words to the last line that smacked you in the psyche. And I discovered, to my arrogant shock, that writing the six can be especially challenging. When I tried an entry, my drafts kept exceeding six, with hours I don’t want to tally, and I still couldn’t get the last sentence right.

Remuneration is in publicity and links to your work, and the Six Sentence concept promotes and celebrates the fine discipline of writing a very few sentences on a subject and making them count. In addition to the practical six above, it boasts even broader benefits:

We set a short-term goal that deeply satisfies on completion (McEvily maintains it’s better than great sex).

We reinvigorate or reconfirm our power as writers.

We gain always-needed practice in editing, refining, purifying, polishing.

And we find fresh ways to pique interest, create wonderful word combinations, evoke meaning, and provoke drama. After all, aren’t these what we constantly aspire to as writers?

So now, with this six sentence conclusion, please excuse me. I must go and open a new file. Don’t yet know the 36-character (6 X 6) title, or even the subject. But I’ll engage my best writing skills and hope to move you. Maybe even make you envious. Watch for my post on Six Sentences.

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Author, editor, ghostwriter, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne publishes fiction and nonfiction in print and online venues. Her new column in Coffeehouse for Writers is titled “Bloom Where You’re Writing.” With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, for over 28 years Noelle has assisted doctoral candidates to complete their dissertations. Her book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books) uses examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers let go of regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. Noelle’s current practical-psychological-spiritual handbooksupports doctoral candidates specifically: Grad U: Complete Your Dissertation—Finally—and Ease the Trip for Yourself and Everyone Who Has to Live With You. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com

Photo: Some rights reserved by gcfairch.

2 Replies to “Six Sentence Seduction”

  1. I loved this post, Noelle, and I didn’t expect to from the title. Very interesting, and it’s true, you know, I’ve learned it time and time again in my copywriting work, being succinct is quite a challenge. Thanks for some great ideas. I’m excited about checking out the site.

    1. Thank you so much, Chris. I was surprised too at how much I learned when I put aside my flash-fiction-snobbishness and took the 6S challenge. We can never get enough practice in spotting and cutting the writing “flabbiness.” I’m sure that you’ve seen your own succinctness improve. I have. With this sixth sentence, I thank you again.

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