Remember when the day ended with a bedtime story?
I remember my mother reading a picture book I already knew by heart. When he was home from sea duty, my father would spin stories of his childhood in the South. Sometimes he'd recite scenes from “Gone With the Wind,” changing his voice to fit each character. Okay, that may have been a little over the top. Does an eight-year-old really need to go to sleep with Scarlett's “As God is my witness” speech ringing in her dreams?
As I grew older, there was the flashlight under the covers to read Nancy Drew after lights out. My eyesight was already bad, so warnings that I'd ruin my eyesight did no good. Most of the good TV programs for kids ended by nine. Reading a few chapters was a perfect way to wrap up the day.
What happened to the pleasure of reading in bed until eyelids droop and words start to blur?
I hear a lot of adults say they don't have time to read. Life is too full of commitments, everything happens at warp speed, TV and the Internet eat up free time. How can simple words on a page compete for our attention?
I have the solution: short stories.
Often overlooked or underestimated, the short story is considered one of the hardest forms of fiction writing to conquer. Novelists who have no problem writing a 400-page book cringe at the idea of writing a 2,000 word story. The writer has to reign in all those lovely descriptions, start the story at the action, keep the character count down, and conclude the story in a way that satisfies readers. It's a lot to ask for in ten typed pages.
Edgar Allen Poe is said to be the Father of the American Short Story. Now, there's a writer who could give readers nightmares! I wouldn't advise anyone to read The Tell-Tale Heart or The Raven before falling asleep.
Mark Twain once wrote to a friend, “If I'd had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” Twain spoke for all of us who write short fiction. The hardest stories to write are termed “flash fiction.” These are stories around 500 words in length, shorter than this column. With such a tight word count, every word has to count. There can't be a spare adjective, no qualifiers like “So,” “But,” and “Therefore” are allowed. I write mystery stories that include a detective, clues, a dead body or two, and a solution. Readers say the stories always seems much longer.
Writing short pieces requires discipline. There's no room to ramble and every sentence has to be trimmed to the bone. I like to take sentences I've written and see how many words I can remove and still make sense. Mysteries work well with short, staccato sentences. I've even been known to write one word paragraphs.
Anthologies and short story collections are the answer for people who say they have no time to read. A story can be read in one sitting and are perfect to have on hand while waiting in a doctor's office. The reader gets a sense of instant gratification without the commitment a novel demands. It's also a great way to sample the words of a wide variety of authors. I have stories in four anthologies, and many readers have liked my short pieces enough to buy my novel.
Instead of watching the 11 o'clock news, take a book to bed. Rediscover the joy of reading. And remember—you're never too old for a bedtime story.