Sunday, May 22, 2005

what i follow

These are the personal guidelines I subscribe to as a playwright and fictionist. They’ve helped me grow from someone who dreamed of being a writer to someone who actually writes (but success, of course, is relative and there are many other better writers). These worked for me (and continue to do so), but may not for you, so keep in mind my usual caveat. I talk about these when I'm asked to speak on general principles about writing.

Know your grammar

It’s sad, but something as basic as this has to be said. If you plan to be a writer of a decent sort, you are assumed to have mastered Filipino or English or whatever language you choose to write in. Subject-verb agreement, tenses, objects of prepositions, all the small stuff. Believe me, nothing irritates an intelligent reader more than crude writing.

Some would argue “But it’s my ideas that are important, so who cares about the grammar?” Well, your reader cares. And it is your responsibility as a worker of words to be precise, to utilize the structure of the written language to get your ideas across. It is bad enough that there is already an immediate dissonance between the idea in your mind and the idea’s articulation; do not compound it further by being lazy – this results in a garbled idea, and you do want to communicate your wonderful notion, right? Part of the cost and consequence of taking on a writer’s mantle is a deep respect and devotion to language, its structures and the very words themselves.

Know the rules before you break them

Forget about free verse until you understand the sestina and the villanelle. Put off the play until you can write a scene very well. Hold off the novel until you know the ins and outs of narrative. It is better to understand why such rules or modes exist in the first place before you can intelligently question, undermine, subvert or rewrite them.

Be prolific

Write as often as you can. Your “talent” will only take you so far. You need to practice your craft whenever you can. Enforce discipline by starting a journal or use your blog as a workbook. Jot things down. Expand on the wicked ideas that come when they come.

Do not stop at writing vignettes. Write complete stories or plays. Get the entire text out of your system and down on paper. Not everything you write is of publishable quality, but you learn by trying.

Write, write, and keep writing.

Do not fall in love with your text

If you know it doesn’t work, that it cannot work, then discard it. Or change it. Focus is one thing, but being obsessive is another. Very often, authors fall into this mode – they are mesmerized by a turn of phrase, a character or an ending, and are unable to let go. Let go, even if it took you six months to write that bit of beautiful, but useless, prose. Know when to edit.


But be very selective in what you allow to enter your system. As writers, we are sensitive to the flow of notions and words, so be careful of what you allow to influence you - keep in mind the GIGO principle (garbage in, garbage out). But do read volumes in a variety of modes – fiction and non-fiction; as well as genres, styles and nationalities.

Be your worst critic

Never be satisfied until your inner critic lowers his eyebrow. You know when you’re just getting by with technique and when you’ve nailed it. Develop your critical faculty. Bleed for your words.

However, you need to balance personal cruelty with the fact that, on occasion, you may produce good work.

Don’t believe the hype

Do not rest on your laurels. You are only as good as your last award or your last good poem. I have 7 Carlos Palanca Awards and a sprinkling of published work, but so what? What do these things mean? What do previous awards matter? They are comfort during the times you have nothing, true - they fill up a resume nicely. But on a day-to-day writerly basis, they are worthless in and of themselves. The moment you believe yourself to have “arrived”, you’ve lost.

Awards and accolades are irrelevant to the current piece you’re working on (but they're useful in another way, see below). Stop listening for the ovations. Applause dies down. Let it.

Expand your horizons

You write good fiction? Great, now try poetry. Already a poet? Try an essay. Comic book writer? Write a play. Writing for TV? Go for a short story. Remember that mostly the barrier to entry is the form and format. Learn them, try them. Have no fear.

Be inventive

Yes, it may be the case that every story in the world has been told and told better than you, but you have the opportunity to prove that adage wrong. Tell the story better, on your own terms. And if reinventing something someone else has done rankles your creative soul, then go for broke and attempt something the world has never seen. Just try.

Join competitions, workshops and seminars

There are many good reasons for participating in these. Contests force you to be lean and fit – that is the way to win a struggle against others – and yourself (this is the good side of the awards). Workshops teach you critique and expose you to other ways of approaching your craft. Seminars and lectures give you glimpses into technique. Learn from all these.

Encourage others who are just beginning

Sometime later, even the little that you know may be of value to someone who has just started on the hard road we walk. This is not to say to that you are always right (I am most certainly not), but a critical student will be able to walk away with something useful.

This is a fundamental part of my philosophy as a writer because as a maverick writer in my youth, I had very little in terms of encouragement from the so-called “established writers”.

A kind, but truthful, word goes a long way.


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