Michael Botur, a New Zealand author, guest blogs on the state of short stories and his journey launching his campaign to publish 100 stories in 100 days.
Aotearoa, New Zealand has only five commercial literary fiction publishers, making up almost all of the Kiwi fiction publishing industry. None of the big five publish short stories.
We have a couple of niche publishers putting out short story collections which presumably sell fewer than 1000 copies and probably don't return much profit, such as Huia and Steele Roberts. Victoria University Publishing emits a dribble of the short stuff, but their publications aren't always hip (VUP has just released "The Stories of Eileen Duggan,' an author who was born in the 1800s and died 50 years ago. There probably won't be a book tour).
I won't waste time speculating on the reasons NZ publishers aren't supporting short stories. What I will do is present to you a Buzzfeed-style listicle on what people are doing about it.
8 examples of cool resistance to the marginalisation of the short story in New Zealand as we approach 2020
- In 2012, a group of writers launched the first National Flash Fiction Day then swiftly went on to create Flash Frontier, one of the few websites to present NZ short fiction writers' work in colour, digitally-shareable and search engine optimised.
- The country's richest short story prize was launched this year by the University of Waikato. It's called the Sargeson Prize and it's named for one of two dead Kiwi writers (Frank Sargeson and Katherine Mansfield) whose corpses get regularly dug up and serenaded as being supposedly the greatest NZ writers ever. Gross. Anyway, the prize pays 5000 smackeroos. Pretty impressive.
- A literary magazine called Starling aimed at young under-25s was launched in 2015 and continues to maximise exposure for contributors' work by using Facebook, Insta and Twitter, as every publisher should. Plus no paywall. Nice.
- The public library in the tiny South Island city of Timaru has installed New Zealand's first short story dispenser, which prints one of 80,000 short stories for free at the push of a button on little tickets.
- A few of the busiest Kiwi flash fiction writers been publishing entire novels in flash. See The Crazed Wind by Nod Ghosh, the everrumble by Michelle Elvy and My Mother and the Hungarians, And Other Small Fictions by Frankie McMillan.
- takahē magazine - which began in the same year as the World Wide Web, 1989 - has finally begun putting all stories online. It's about time.
- Innovator Lucy-Jayne Walsh created the speculative fiction magazine Sponge.nz in 2017. Each edition of web fiction lives online, can be downloaded or shared via hyperlink, and it's accessible for visually impaired people, as all writers upload an audio recording of their work. No paywall, easily shareable and plugged into social. Damn straight.
- The tiny Northland town of Russell has just held the inaugural Tall Tales Festival, in which participants tell an unbelievable story to an audience in front of a roaring fire on a winter night. It's the total opposite of getting your stories from 200-page bricks of paper in literary journals. We need to bring back the art of oratory.
...aaaand that's more or less it. We have a few story writers chucking words up on Wattpad and Medium.com, and a literary mag called Headland has tinkered with selling each edition over Kindle. We have one web serial fiction podcast, Better Off Read, and the speculative fiction writers at SpecFicNZ do cool things digitally-adventure stories, fantasy stories, horror stories, science fiction stories, supernatural stories, you name it-though they don't seem to be involved with literary stories at all. So, I also got to work.
What happened when I got sick of an unresponsive literary industry
At the end of April I submitted one short story to an online news publication which was paying - PAYING! - short story authors for digital publication, which is pretty damn rare in New Zealand's tiny economy.
The gatekeeper rejected two stories within ten minutes. It was obvious this guy hadn't read what I'd sent him. I almost concluded that the stories I'd sent in must be rubbish... until I took a deep breath and realised I was giving a 60-year-old man who'd never published any fiction far too much power.
The challenge to overcome the rejection lit a fire under me. I decided I wouldn't be scared away from entertaining readers because of one cynic. While I couldn't control the website that didn't want my marvellous stories, I had the power to publish on the platforms I personally controlled: Facebook, Twitter, Medium and www.NZShortstories.com.
You have that power too.
I announced the #100nzstories100days campaign immediately. The pledge: to re-publish lots of my previously-published short stories and gain new readers. In the mix I would add some brand-new stories.
I wanted to start on the nice square date of May 1 but that seemed like procrastination. I dove into it on April 30... then the pool got real deep, real fast. 20 days into a campaign that was supposed to last over three months, having published all my best and most popular prize winners, I found myself at the bottom of a steep-ass hill, dedicated to a mission that wasn't exactly curing cancer or anything. Just randomising the order of the stories on a spreadsheet so they weren't too same-y started cutting into my day job. And my night time. And dinner time with my family.
I'd thought publishing five collections of 10-15 stories would give me enough material to publish, but nope - I was facing a campaign with only around 70 short stories and 12 flash fictions to share.
It would have been easy to get the campaign done in a day by chucking up sloppy drafts, but sharing sub-par work was not acceptable. I permitted myself to only publish strong, polished stories that wouldn't embarrass me.
I got stuck, depressed, scared and anxious in the middle of it. Posting stories #30-#70 was like wading through the Bog of Eternal Stench from The Neverending Story. Then I went back and looked at the purpose of the whole thing and got my arse back to work. I found sufficient stories of sufficient quality, stopped doubting myself, and got the damn thing done.
Ten things that helped this writer break new ground in web fiction.
- Look to the writers who have inspired you. They didn't suppress their writing because it was time-consuming to publish. Nor should you.
- Don't be apologetic for putting your work in front of people. Your writing is far more meaningful in their day than reading Kimye's tweets.
- Think "Production over Perfection." Don't wait for the "right conditions." Just get the art done now.
- Waiting half a year for the approval of some stranger at McSweeney's or The Paris Review won't make you a better writer.
- There are readers in cyberspace who will be delighted to stumble across your work. Give them something.
- Don't let people who haven't written as much as you dictate what you can achieve. If your naysayer is famous for publishing one novel, go out and publish two. If your naysayer has editorial power over one snobby magazine, publish 50 stories on 50 blogs. You'll probably reach a bigger audience that way.
- Every hour of every day, you should be making your life better by extending yourself.
- Don't waste time writing opinion pieces with a shelf life of one week. Climbing to the top of a mountain of achievement is wayyy more satisfying than sharing somebody's post, or writing a criticism of someone, or getting into a Tweet war with some stranger.
- You probably don't realise you are inspiring people, but you are.
- If you wait around for the approval of self-appointed authorities, you will lose opportunities in which you could have created amazing literature. Life is short. Achieve as much as you can before you die.
Anyway: I limped to the finish line, publishing story #100 on August 15. I didn't skimp on what I'd promised: it was 100 literary fiction short stories over at least 100 days. I didn't care if just one person in Siberia was paying attention: I'd promised to keep the standard high.
I urge anyone inspired by this to publish #10stories10days or #20poems20days or #30essays30days.
What are you waiting for? If you're good at your art, give it to your fans today.
Michael Botur is author of four acclaimed short story collections and one which nobody read. He has won numerous short story awards and dabbles in improv theatre, sports, and performance poetry. He is of Polish and Pakeha ancestry and lives in Whangarei. Read more at www.NZshortstories.com.
This is installment 1.5 of Prolitfic's Web Serial Fiction Writing Workshop! In these installments, we'll be addressing frequently asked questions (or in this case, publishing guest blogs!) regarding fiction writing, web serial fiction, and more. Let us know if you want a topic covered, and we'll get right to it