Quick! I need something to read, and it needs to be short

In an age when a Twitter size concentration span is becoming the norm, publishers are looking for ways to reach new readers by offering them shorter works to read. The British book market is buzzing with new short titles from the major publishers.

Penguin, for example, has just launched Penguin Shorts – a collection of  short e-books from major authors. They’re available across all the digital platforms, but here’s the kicker: they’re only available in Britain. You’d think that with technology being what it is, they could allow a person to buy an e-book in London and download it in the US. They would still get their money and so would the authors, presumably. (I know it’s more complicated than that, but still…)

The Penguin collection includes memoir, fiction and essays and they retail in the UK for about $3.00 per download. Most, but not all, of their titles have been commissioned specifically for this imprint (if that’s the right word), so there’s a new memoir from Colm Tóibín, and short works from Anita Brookner and Helen Dunmore, among others, as well as How To Set Up A Free School – by Toby Young and The Battle of Alamein by Colin Smith and John Bierman.  The idea behind the essays was that instead of waiting six months for a book about some current event, a Penguin Short could be produced from scratch in less than a month. I see some opportunity for new writers here.

Random House is doing the same thing, except that in their case, you can buy some of the stories in the US.  They’re hard to find on Amazon, however. I searched in the Kindle store for Storycuts and found 25 of them, all by Su Tong. I’m pretty sure there are others….They are releasing about 200 short stories, generally culled from their current collections rather than new work.  Ruth Rendell, Alice Munro and A.S. Byatt as well as the famous Su Tong, are among them.  These retail for around $2.00.

And there’s PanMacmillan, who publishes under the ShortReads label. Again, a limited selection of these are available here  in the US, but I daresay there will soon be more of them. Emma Donoghue, Bret Easton Ellis and Andrew Lane are among the authors here. If you want to check for any of these on Amazon (I haven’t checked the other sites) you’ll need to follow the links here, find the titles and then look for them by name. Cumbersome and not exactly quick. In fact, for those of us with a Twitter-type attention span, hunting down these books can be a pain in the neck.

On the brighter side, Tessa McGovern of eChook Digital Publishing has long since had an app available for all e-book platforms, that includes short story and memoir collections designed to be read in about 10 minutes. You can check them out on the eChook website, and maybe submit something for possible publication. Perhaps Penguin and the rest should have consulted her about how to go about this…

Ether Books, based in England, has published digital short stories for an iPhone application for between 50p and £2.39, depending on length, since last summer. The stories are only available on the iPhone, Android and Blackberry, so far as I know, but they should be available in the US. They take submissions, too!

Recreating a memory

I was hanging out at the Westport Arts Center’s ArtCafe last Friday and got to talking with my friend Helen Klisser During about something that happened to her recently. It made me think about memories – how they’re formed, how we re-create them, and how they differ from the original event in the recreation. The story Helen told me was about a friend with a memory which Helen helped her recreate. Now I’m writing about it, so recreating it again. It may be different from the actual event, but that’s what being creative is about. I’m not big on heart-warming stories, especially when they’re designed to tug at your heartstrings. But this one is true, or as true as I can make it. Are you writing your memories down as they happen?

Helen was walking along the beach in Westport the other day with a friend of hers, Susan. It was a blustery day, but the beach always makes for great photos and Helen is am professional photographer, among other things. Westport likes to pride itself on having repulsed 2000 redcoats British in 1777 (after they’d set fire to the town of Danbury), and to commemorate this event there are two cannons located at the beach, pointing out to sea, in case the British (my friends and I) ever decide to invade again. Too late, of course, we’re here already, but I’ll let that pass…

“When I was a little girl, said Susan wistfully, “I used to sit on those cannons.” Helen’s ears pricked up. What she heard was” I wish I could sit on that cannon again…” Susan was 87.

Helen decided she’d never forgive herself if she attempted to hoist Susan up onto a cannon and anything went wrong. But she really wanted to make this wish come true. Across the parking lot, she spied a couple of young men who had descended from their motor bikes to smoke a cigarette in the fresh sea air. Helen marched up them and asked if they’d be willing to help.

“Sure,” they said. They swaggered over to the cannon and, very gently, helped Helen’s friend to sit astride. Then they supported her, but out of sight, so that Helen could record the whole thing on film. Here are some of the pictures:

Easy does it!







“By the way,” Helen told me, “Susan’s family think I am a bit of a risk taker, because Susan mentioned at the end of last summer how she used to love to go  sailing with her sister  in the sound – something I do 3 or 4 times a week – racing with a crew at Pequot Yacht club and renting little Hobie cats for an hour after work, from Longshore sailing school-for an evening sail…”

Helen’s response to this was to find a day that was: “breezy, but not too breezy. I needed to keep the chances of capsizing to a minimum. Hobie cats aren’t really ‘senior friendly’. They don’t have any rails or a solid bottom. You just have to take your life jacket and go sailing.”  And here’s the result of that!

Ahoy there!

Here’s what Helen, with her usual modesty, concluded from these events: “If you have a little idea, make sure you’re with someone who listens.” And I’d add that she’s stacking up karma for when she needs a hand climbing cannons when she’s 87.

All photos are by Helen Klisser During and she holds the copyright. You can also check out her weekly ArtCafe blog for updates on the local and global art scene. Lots of great ideas there.

A guest post from Tessa Smith McGovern: plus a free, live, online Q&A

Tessa McGovern

This is a guest post from Tessa Smith McGovern, award-winning author, founder of eChook and teacher at Sarah Lawrence College. She founded eChook in 2010, and after creating an app of her own short stories for iPhone, iPad, and Android, Tessa realized that she had, in effect, become a publisher. eChook’s goal is to give readers around the globe unprecedented access to quality prose by providing them with transformative short stories that they can read on their phones. I have to admit an interest here: Tessa published one of my memoir stories as part of her first collection of other people’s writing: Memoir 1. You can find out more here: http://echook.com/products-page/

And if you’re interested in writing and publishing short memoirs, you might like to bookmark this free online chat: Wed, December 7th 2011 @ 3pm ET: How to Write and Publish Short Memoir, (Ed’s Note: if you aren’t able to attend on the day, don’t worry; the video of this chat will be posted in Story Studio. Sign up on top right of eChook’s home page.) She’ll answer your questions live at 3 p.m. ET at booktrib.com and discuss her three essential memoir-writing tips.

Whether you’re a seasoned writer, occasional journaler, or if you’ve never thought you could write something before, stop by, ask a question, and be entered to win lovely eChook prizes.

Where: booktrib.com
When: Wednesday, December 7 @ 3pm
RSVP: memoirchat@booktrib.com


And now, here’s here blog post:

A Prompt to Inspire Your Most Powerful Prose

If the end of the world was nigh and you only had one piece of paper, torn out of a blank-paged journal, and an almost-empty pen – what would you write about?

It might seem obvious, but there are so many things we can choose to write about, it’s easy to forget that readers want to read about what really matters. What is that, for you? What is the one experience that, if you were to scribble word after word on the page, without even realizing it, you’d find you’d stopped breathing?

If nothing from your own life seems to fit the bill, imagine a character. Decide her/his age, name, hometown, personality traits, and situation. What might be the single big event that really mattered to this character?

And then describe this event – or a moment during it – as the event unfolds. Don’t describe the character’s response or how he or she felt, just record in detail what happens. Imagine your eye is a camera, and simply report what can be seen.

Some of your most powerful material can be written this way.

Exploiting Harper Lee

Perils of divorced Pauline

My internet friend Pauline writes a terrific blog (perilsofdivorcedpauline.com/) about her life as a divorced mother. Here’s her own description: I am a survivor of a world-class gnarly divorce. My dastardly ex-husband is suing me for full custody of my son, and more time with my daughter. He’s super-rich and I’m super-not. You get the picture.

In May, she published this post taking aim at a woman writer who is taking advantage of Harper Lee. It’s interesting for a number of reasons, not least that Pauline has her own connection to the famous writer.

It’s a Sin to Exploit Harper Lee

Mockingbird mishigas is whirling through the publishing world. A former Chicago Tribune reporter named Marja Mills has penned a memoir which appears to be about her experience as the neighbor of Harper Lee, the endearingly private author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Mill’s memoir is titled Mockingbird Next Door: My Life with Harper Lee and is due to be released in the Fall of 2013 by Penguin Press.

Penguin insists that Mills wrote the book with the “cooperation” of Harper Lee and her nonagenarian sister Alice, who is also her attorney. The publisher even released a letter from Mills to the Lees, confirming that the memoirist moved next door to the Lee sisters with their “blessing” in order to learn about their lives. The confirmation letter is signed by Alice, who is now refuting Mills’ claim and apparently hung up on a reporter who called to investigate the controversy.

What, then, do we make of this she-said/she-said story? What would prompt the 85-year-old author, who is almost as reclusive as her famous creation Boo Radley, to bare her secretive soul to a stranger? Did the stroke that Lee suffered two years ago leave her loose-lipped? Did she agree to cooperate with Mills’ memoir without understanding what she was agreeing to? And could such rope-slackening really have taken place under big sister Alice’s nose?

Did Mills misrepresent her mission in Monroeville? Did Harper Lee, nearing the end of her life, decide it was finally time to open up? Or is Marja Mills just a consummate con artist?

Given the ethos of privacy and humility that permeates Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and is echoed by the way she has shrugged off her own fame, it is hard to fathom why she would choose to let a relatively unknown journalist write a book in which she is the centerpiece. Whatever transpired between the Lee sisters and Mills, the Mockingbird author now clearly regrets any association with the upcoming memoir that capitalizes on her mystique.

Like so many Mockingbird devotees, I feel profoundly attached to that American classic and I’m protective of its author. In this era of reality TV, sexting, confessional blogging, Facebooking, and letting-it-all-hang-outness, Lee’s desire to live her life quietly and modestly feels almost like a lost art. Both Lee and her book are national treasures that should be respected and not sullied.

When I was nine, my mother stuck To Kill a Mockingbird in my hand and said, “Here. It’s time for you to read this.” After laboring through the first three pages I told her I was bored and wanted to quit. “Keep going,” she said. “It gets better.”

And it did. By the time I finished, the book, which was a family favorite, had become mine as well. I don’t remember how much of the rape and trial storyline my 9-year-old mind comprehended. What I do recall is how much I loved the unfolding of the relationship between Scout, Jem and Boo. I knew was it was like to be the awkward little sister, and as the sole adopted member of my family, I knew how it was to feel like an outsider wondering how she fit in.

My family was a book family. You were expected to read voraciously and to speak about language, themes and characters intelligently. Now, when my parents and sister talked about Scout’s first day at school, or the scene in which Atticus shoots the mad dog, or the moment when Scout finally sees Boo in the light, I understood.  I could tell you why it was a sin to kill a mockingbird, and why it’s important to respect the rights of others, “different” or not.

Reading Mockingbird was a rite of passage, the first time I remember feeling truly connected to my parents and sister. I was an insider now that I had entered Harper Lee’s world. I was old enough to be exposed to hard truths: that prejudice can divide us, that good people can lose, that justice does not always win out–yet amid this darkness resides the power of the human spirit, the hope of redemption, and the possibility that connection can come to us in unexpected, circuitous ways.

Four years ago, my husband and I had our first date. As we unpacked our upbringings, similarities emerged, but none as important as his family’s involvement with Harper Lee and with To Kill a Mockingbird. If I revealed exactly how my husband–whose nom du blog is Atticus–was connected to Mockingbird, this blog would no longer be anonymous. But I will say that in the moment he revealed his unique link to this Great American Classic, I suspected we were destined to be together. I will also divulge that sitting atop our bookshelf is a framed written exchange from Truman Capote to Harper Lee–but how that document landed in our possession has to remain a secret.

Last summer, when it was the 50th Anniversary of the publication of Mockingbird, Atticus and I considered taking our kids on a field trip to Monroeville. Although my husband has never met Harper Lee himself, a member of his family is still in contact with her. We thought about asking this relative for an introduction to Lee. I imagined our children sitting on a porch swing, a swing very much like the Finch porch swing in the Mockingbird film, while Atticus and I sipped iced tea with Lee in her living room, trying not to ogle her like a national monument. I imagined my daughter’s first day of school in the fall, how her hand would shoot up when the teacher asked what everyone had done that summer.

But we couldn’t bring ourselves to ask for the introduction. It just didn’t seem right. Even if Lee did agree to meet with us, what, exactly, would we say to her? Why did you and Truman Capote stop speaking to each other? When was the last time you saw Gregory Peck? I sure do like the mint in this iced tea?

Maybe one day we’ll make the trek to Monroeville. We’ll visit the Monroe County Heritage Museum, take in the annual play production performed by the Mockingbird Players theater group. Maybe we’ll even stroll by Lee’s house, sneaking sideways glances.

Not yet an avid reader, my daughter has only seen the Mockingbird film. But when she’s older, and she’s ready, I’ll stick the book in her hand and say, “Here. It’s time for you to read this.”

Westport Writer launches new e-book app

I’m a believer in the age of the digital book. I was one of the first people in my circle to have a Kindle, and lately I find myself straying to the color Nook displays at our local Barnes and Noble in Westport (http://store-locator.barnesandnoble.com/store/2864). One of the things I like about these e-books is the way I can read one 10 minute story on the go – on my iPhone. It means that I’m never bored when waiting in the doctor’s office, in line at the supermarket, or when traveling.

Tessa Smith McGovern, Writer, Founder and Editor of eChook Digital Publishing. Photo: Katherine Hooper.

So when I heard about a new app designed specifically for I-phones, I was eager to get hold of it. The company who developed it is called eChook (http://echook.com/ ) and its founder, Tessa Smith McGovern, is a Westport resident and award-winning writer. Her first app publication was a collection of linked stories called London Road, and following the success of that, she decided to produce a series of apps, highlighting different forms of short stories.

Ina Chadwick

Rogue's gallery of authors at the launch Authors L – R: Ina Chadwick, Gabi Coatsworth, Tricia Tierney, Rebecca Dimyan, Leslie Chess Fuller, Helen Rafferty, Nina Sankovitch (author of “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair”), Christina Thompson (author of “Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All” and editor of Harvard Review). Photo: Katherine Hooper.

Last Tuesday night saw the official launch of the latest in the series: the first Memoir collection, featuring 11 stories. These are a terrific value at 99 cents per app and I’m not only saying that because one of the stories is mine… Since the London Road stories were launched, the App has been made available for a number of platforms, including the android-based e-reader tablet the Nook, Kindle, iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, and Android phones as well. Tricia Tierney of Norwalk, (triciatierneyblog.com/)the community events liaison at the store, is a writer too, and last Tuesday she was in the line-up of writers telling a little about their stories. Also present were a standing room only crowd of writers who came to meet the authors and doyens of the publishing world (see photos at right), some of whom had come from as far afield as Boston and New York City. These were generous with their time and advice at the networking session which followed the launch. eChook is planning a second volume of memoirs and also holiday stories. Writers among my readers can find the submission guidelines at eChook’s website.

As I said, I love the digital book, and the whole digital media publishing world. How about you?

This was first published in the Westport Patch online newspaper: http://westport.patch.com/blog_posts/westport-writer-launches-digital-memoir-collection