by Ayla Miller
With a raft of self-published short story collections, a teen dystopian novel and work published in New Zealand’s top magazines, newspapers and journals, Northland-based indie author, Michael Botur, knows what it takes to break into the literary world.
Now he is on a mission to share what he has learnt with other writers, in what can sometimes feel like an undervalued and over-crowded industry.
In the early days, Michael Botur was a leather jacket, boot-wearing angry young man, with dreams of being a rock star. It’s a far cry from the immaculately groomed professional he is today.
He also describes himself as “Quite defensive, and if I felt left out of some group of people, I would satirise the group or come up with ways to be resentful of it. I was obsessed with satire, comedy and literature – Bill Hicks, Matt Groening, Denis Leary, Joseph Heller, Chuck Palahniuk, Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs etc. I was an angsty cartoonist for a while there, then a holier-than-thou vegan, I had a mohawk, briefly… It took years to settle comfortably into myself. Just becoming a reasonably-good creative writer, and good at speaking on a stage, took several years.”
His metamorphosis from alternative rocker to author began when he started writing — in his words — ‘crappy lyrics and crappy poetry,’ while at Otago University. It was this shaky beginning that inspired the frequently explored theme of conflict and male codes of violence in his stories.
“I was a little hell-raiser when I was about 18,” he says. “I got into trouble with the law for breaking things, smashing things, doing bad things with my car and drink driving. So sometimes the conflict was me against myself.
“Eventually, trying to make art became the main purpose of my day. It took years until my main identity in this world was as a writer instead of a tough guy with something to prove.”
He soon realised that sitting around waiting for his work to be discovered was not an option. The recent release and promotion of TRUE? – sixteen short stories of strippers, celebs, trysts, travel, virgins, Viagra, jail, journos, A-listers and Class A’s, is evidence of this.
“At first it was a drag having to raise awareness of my work on my own, instead of people coming to me, but the reality is that we live in such a crowded world that if you sit around and wait for people to discover your work, they won’t. The chances of being ‘discovered’ are increasingly slim,” he says.
“If you get into the habit of being able to clearly describe and promote your work and stand up for it, then you have a skill set that can help in so many ways — not just in sales but in life.
“It also helps with keeping yourself going because if you don’t believe in yourself, then it’s agony when you’re typing away at your computer. There’s always that anxious voice saying, ‘Is it worth it? Is there any point to this? Will this be around in 100 years?’ “
To keep that voice at bay, Michael had to work up the courage to run another GiveALittle campaign to help fund TRUE? and watch Henry Rollins motivational videos. One of the most useful videos Michael stumbled upon discussed the importance of performance and staying performance fit. Michael also interviewed actor Rob Mokaraka for a journalism story and found his philosophy inspiring.
“Whenever possible I try to perform my words. Even if it’s just to a couple of people, which sometimes it is. You’ve got to stay fit when promoting and performing your writing because you never know when someone is going to ask you to perform something.”
Another thing Michael learnt along the way is how to balance what he wants to write with what people want to read.
“It’s like this. While 99 per cent of the publishing industry is not publishing dirty realism, which is a genre that’s a pretty good match for what I write, there’s one per cent of the industry that does. It has its own culture and code and fan base. You have to decide whether you want to be nobody in a big pool or somebody in a small pool.
“The major breakout for me was two years ago when I got sick and tired, one night, of going through the process of trying to get a literary journal to publish each of my stories before it had a veneer of approval. Takahe magazine and Bravado are two journals which really empowered me for ten years and published tonnes of my early writing, and I’m grateful to them, but writers should learn that becoming competent is about achieving one million words, or 10,000 hours of writing – it’s not about gaining the approval of some editor.
“Take this, for example: at the start of 2018 I got kicked out of a short story competition because an editor wrote me a snobby letter saying; ‘It has come to our attention that you have already published your story on your blog.’ How ridiculous is that? A writer gets their opportunity taken away because they dared to be proud of their own work? That night I said ‘no más,’ I wrote a cool angsty blog about it then resolved to never again beg for the approval of people who don’t care about my work.”
As for making realistic characters, he says composite characters — characters with a blend of characteristics taken from people encountered in real life — are the way to go.
“If you’re writing a character taken directly from real life it can be too obvious. Writers need to know characters are the number one most important thing in fiction writing. Don’t waste time setting the scene or even describing in great detail what the person looks like. The character isn’t what someone looks like; it’s how they act.”
Of course, publishing a book on a budget sometimes requires authors to step outside their comfort zone, into areas they have less experience with, to design their own covers. To get the cover of TRUE? just right, Michael graffiti-ed his garage wall and turned his backyard into a swamp when removing it later with a water blaster.
“Every author could use some basic training in design and photography. Colour contrast and font are important. The cover has to give you a flavour of what to expect inside. This time I asked more people for their opinions.”
Despite the challenges encountered when going down the self-publishing road, a combination of passion and sheer determination is what keeps Michael going.
“Writing is hard, but it’s a great art to choose from. It costs next to nothing, and you can do it anywhere. You don’t always need a paper, pen or computer to do it and it’s incredibly versatile. Writing can also be turned into other forms of art. It’s a really practical medium.”
Get your copy of TRUE? from Unity Books in Auckland, email firstname.lastname@example.org or use the order form at NZShortStories.com.