Saturday, August 16, 2003

talking the talk

In around 9 hours, I'll be at Ateneo, hopefully awake, where I've been asked to talk a bit about writing (along with Budj and Zach). I just hope I don't get lost (oh wouldn't that be too ironic?), El.

Anyhow, if I have extra time, I'd like to give some advice for starting writers (assuming there are starting writers there - but even if there aren't, I think these are still good things to keep in mind). Where do I get off giving advice to newbies? Well, when you're 34 and written a little, you tend to learn things.

One my advantages, I guess, is that I come to comics writing by way of another discipline, playwriting.

twelve things for a writer to remember

1. 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 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.

2. 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. Too many would-be writers jump in without understanding the rich and textured way in which writing (and literature) has evolved.

3. 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. Learn discipline by starting a journal or a blog. Jot things down. Expand on the wicked ideas that come when they come. This was the first bit of advice I was ever given, from the very first person who believed in me - my English teacher in high school.

4. 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. Know when to edit. Know when to trash.

5. Read. 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. But do read volumes in a variety of modes – fiction and non-fiction; as well as genres, styles and nationalities. You learn by excellent examples. Nothing beats reading good stuff, apart from the act of writing itself.

6. 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. And remember that your friends are the worst people to ask criticism from - they'll probably lie or don't know what they're talking about. Sad but true.

7. Take on the attitude of a student. That’s what you are. No number of awards, published material or critical praise merits you calling yourself an Author with a capital “A”. Be personally humble and let your work speak for itself.

8. Write for a reason. Whether it is for pure expression, to change the world, to promote an agenda, to try an experiment, for the sheer joy of it, or to articulate the significance of the human condition vis-a-vis our national patrimony, whatever. Have a reason. Don't let your efforts be senseless invisible thrashings in the void.

9. Expand your horizons. You write good fiction? Great, now try poetry. Already a poet? Try an essay. Comic book writer? Write a play. Remember that mostly the barrier to entry is the form and format. Learn them, master them.

10. 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. But rather than tiresomely reinventing something someone else has done, why not attempt something the world has never seen?

11. 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. 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.

12. And when you can, encourage others who are just beginning. Because even the little that you know may be a treasure trove for someone who has just started on the hard road we walk.


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