HOW I LOST MY NOVEL (the Real Story)

Posted in, Writing

Back when I was still working in the editorial department of a magazine, I began writing a novel in my spare time. This went on for around two and a half years. After six months of turning it over in my mind (“Should I? Shouldn’t I?”) I made a big decision: I’d quit my job and devote my time to finishing my novel. I had enough savings to last me comfortably for about half a year.

(By the way: if you want to read the crazy comic strip version of this story, see it here. If you want to know what REALLY happened, read on.)

The lovely freelance artist and tattoo apprentice Wiji Lacsamana made this beautiful illustration of a scene from the novel–the words come from a much earlier draft of book, in which the an early chapter was written in first person. This latest draft is entirely in third person now, and the scenes have changed.

When I announced my plans, some people thought it was a joke. One of the company’s bigwigs called me into her office a couple of times to say: “You’re making a HUGE mistake.” Why chase after mirages like Don Quixote, she said, when I could stay and someday become an editor-in- chief? She painted a bleak picture of what my life would be if I quit my job (staring at the wall watching the paint peel, etc.) and enumerated all the exciting things I’d miss when I was gone–the photo shoots and fashion shows, the wonderful people, the steady paycheck. She made a good argument, actually, but at the time I was suffering from an acute case of tunnel vision. I couldn’t tell you why, but the more people tried to discourage me, the more dead set I became on finishing my book. I submitted a formal resignation.

Around three days before my last day at work, my manuscript was stolen.

That day I was feeling exhilarated, looking forward to the future. After I left the office, I decided to visit a beauty parlor owned by the make-up artist I’d regularly worked with for magazine shoots (I just wanted to drop by and thank him for all his help), and while I was inside, someone wrenched open one of my car windows and grabbed the tote bag sitting in the backseat of my car–which happened to have nothing in it but some sheets of paper and my manuscript (!). Side note: the sheepish driver who’d taken me to the beauty parlor was supposedly in the front seat the whole time–so he’d either been in a comatose-like sleep, or he’d wandered off for just enough time for someone to swipe my stuff.

I know it sounds stupid, but I didn’t have another copy of my book. I’d handwritten it in a series of green notebooks (at the time, I did all my non-work related writing by hand). Ironically, the last couple of days were the first time I’d brought the notebooks out of the house with me, because a friend had urged me to bring the notebooks to my office and type my novel into a computer (I didn’t own one myself, except for an old PC in the attic that kept dying or converting the files stored in it into an alien language). This friend of mine had scared me by saying ‘What if your house burns down? You need to make a backup!’

Anyhow, after the notebooks were stolen I was devastated (not to mention irrationally annoyed with my friend for some time). I put up posters in the area offering a reward to whoever found it. The notebooks did not turn up.

Some days later, alone at home and unemployed, I decided there was nothing else to do: I had to reconstruct what I’d worked on for the past two and a half years, and then finish it. Luckily I’d reread my sentences so many times a vague outline of what I’d lost remained in my head, and I’d also managed to type about ten pages of the book into a computer before my bag was stolen. I turned into a hermit, spending days alone in my room, writing (yes, I was using notebooks again, I was very stubborn at the time) and sometimes not sleeping. Occasionally I’d stop and ask myself ‘What the hell am I doing?’ before going on writing. Doubts began to creep in. I began to miss my magazine days–being surrounded by people, being insanely busy. One day I put my novel aside and wrote a lighthearted short story to get my mind off things (this story would eventually be adapted into a film, but I’ll tell you about that some other time).

I’d planned to take a few months to finish my book, but losing my manuscript delayed this plan by more than a year.

While I was trawling the internet (after a period of making do with the infernally slow PC in the attic, I finally did what I should have done ages ago: I splurged on a secondhand laptop, which had belonged to a law student who’d forgotten to erase his enormous collection of porn from the hard drive) I came across a website about the University of Manchester’s MA in Novel Writing, which I found interesting because it gave students the opportunity to meet not just established authors but literary agents and publishers. One of the requirements for application was “the first three chapters of your novel-in-progress.” Their website said that they only accepted around twenty people each year. Since people applied from all over the world, I didn’t think I had much of a chance. But I thought: Why not? Who knows? No harm in trying.

I mailed off an application. Months went by without any response, and I forgot about it.

This is Nice Buenaventura-Alvero’s lovely interpretation of a scene in the novel that mentions a state of limbo. Nice says the idea behind it is a “grassy purgatory”, inspired by the talahib (wild grass) surrounding her family’s rural home.

One day an envelope addressed to me arrived. It was an acceptance letter! I tried to do a joyous cartwheel in the hallway but ended up with my butt on the floor. But I was happy.

And then reality: it’s not easy for someone in the third world to scrounge up the money to pay for a year’s tuition and live in a first-world country–especially one like England (at the time, one pound was equivalent to a hundred pesos. Yeowch.). In fact, from the beginning I realized it was impossible: it was more than I’d ever earn in five years, even if I worked like mad. And my family (like many of the farming families in Central Luzon) was going through tough times due to a strike that had caused the local sugar mill to shut down (which, when your business has anything to do with sugarcane, is disastrous). But I went through the motions anyway, praying for a miracle. I took the required English-language proficiency exams, filled out applications, applied for a visa, enquired about living arrangements. It was an arduous process, and every step cost money. So I did a lot of freelance work, which left me time to keep working on my manuscript: I wrote and illustrated for various magazines, designed children’s clothes, wrote PR for pot noodles and real estate.

I also applied for grants, wrote to politicians asking for their help, appealed to various societies. No luck, which was completely understandable–whatever local funding was available went to support things like the art of indigenous tribes and artists from truly destitute backgrounds.

But the universe threw me a break: one of my freelance gigs–writing scripts for cartoon episodes–magically led to an invitation to submit my resume to the biggest ad agency in the country. Days later I was hired as a copywriter. It was the swankiest office I’d ever been in: it was on thirty-fourth floor and had sweeping views of Manila bay, which was stunning at sunset.

During my brief stint in advertising, I wrote copy for print, TV, and radio ads, and went to castings and commercial shoots for products like fast food, shampoo, and ice cream. My brain filled up with jingles. I also named toys that came in the fast food meals for kids, and prototypes for these toys were piled up on my desk. I worked like a madman to have time left over to write my manuscript on the sly. The head copywriter told me to take breaks so that my head wouldn’t explode.

Still, my hopes were sinking. I couldn’t afford to study in England, even if I sold my car and worked three jobs. My parents and I talked about it, and we knew that even if they offered me help it still wouldn’t be enough. I saw that they were worried about me; I was angry with myself for making them worry about helping me when they had enough to think about. Then something amazing happened: friends and family quietly came forward and offered to help. I declined but they persisted, telling me not to be a knucklehead and to grab the opportunity. I realized how many people cared and believed in me. Their kindness was extraordinary.

My family and I, upon retrospect, had only a sketchy idea of what it would be like to actually live in England (none of us had ever been to Europe) so we ended up packing all sorts of odds and ends that I ‘might need’. I look back on this hopeful time when my parents were doing the best they could for me with a great deal of gratefulness and affection.

There were a few scares before I left: a delay with my visa which almost kept me from flying, a mix-up with university accommodation which almost left me with no place to live—but it all somehow worked out in the end. After an exhausting month of packing and goodbyes, it was the night before my flight, and one of my good friends was sitting in my living room crying because I was leaving.

I’ve never been away from my country, or my family, and the goodbye at the airport was horrible. I knew we couldn’t afford to visit each other, and I wouldn’t be able to see them for more than a year. It was pride that kept me from bawling all the way to the plane. Once again I wondered why the hell I was doing this to myself and my family.

England was a massive adjustment. First of all, I knew it would be cold, but I didn’t think it would be that cold (I arrived in late August—while everyone was wearing summer clothes, I shivered in a turtleneck and a coat). Aside from the weather and homesickness, I was totally unprepared to live alone. I didn’t really know how to cook, do my own laundry, or even wash the dishes. But I taught myself with the help of the internet (and trial and error). Slipping on clothes I had washed and ironed myself, balancing my finances, doing the groceries and cooking a meal for me and my friends (and doing repairs and extensive cleaning of my ‘flat’, where I discovered that I was a neat freak waiting to happen), were transformed into magical experiences. I was taking care of myself! I was writing my book!

Hiking in the Peak District during my first month in England.

In the beginning, I was intimidated by the other people on my course. Everyone seemed so articulate, and they sure as hell wrote faster than I did (aside from two Americans, I was the only one from outside England, and it took me time to get used to the various British accents, or even speaking in just English all day—although I’m pretty proficient, I realized how dependent I’d been on seesawing between Filipino and English when expressing a difficult idea). It was clear I’d have to work my butt off to keep up.

I made many good friends during my stay in England: the people I lived with (amazing postgraduate students from different countries) and my fellow writers in the MA course (we sure spent some long, crazy hours in the pubs after class). When the year ended and we had to say goodbye to each other, it felt like the end of the world.

Towards the end of the year, some of my course mates submitted their work to the Mulcahy and Viney competition, which would award a cash prize (and the possibility of being signed to a literary agency in London) to the best novel-in-progress. I never seriously considered that I had a chance winning, but once again I thought: Who knows? Why not? No harm in trying.

I submitted my then novel-in-progress. A few weeks later, I flew home to the Philippines.

Back in Manila, I was thrilled when I received an email that informed me that I’d made the shortlist. About a month later, I was dumbfounded when I actually won the prize.

It was around four in the morning in Manila when I found out. I woke up to the phone ringing. A friend from the course was calling from a phone booth in England, yelling ‘You’ve won it! You’ve won it all!’ Another friend said that at the awarding ceremony, the audience–after learning I wasn’t present–turned towards what they guessed was the direction facing the Philippines, and clapped.

I ran down the hallway in my nightgown to wake my mother, and we did a little dance in the dark.

I flew back to England, bringing my mother with me (she’s never been to Europe). This made me very happy. After some weeks I received my prize and signed as an author to a literary agency. I was so happy that, after dinner that evening, I washed the dishes humming and wiggling my butt.

And finally, this January, I submitted the novel to my agent, Ivan.

It isn’t over yet; like Steinbeck said: “The book does not go from writer to reader. It goes first to the lions—editors, publishers, critics, copyreaders, sales department. It is kicked and slashed and gouged.” I honestly don’t mind, though. I’m jumping around and doing a victory dance over the fact that I actually made it to the part where I give my book to the lions to chew on and rip apart. Besides, working on this novel has allowed me to see places, meet people, and experience life in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise, and I’ll always be grateful, especially to my family and friends who gave me the opportunity. I hope to return the favor someday.

Anyway, I’ll keep you guys posted.

Now if you excuse me, I’ve got to start working on the next novel.

 “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back—concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe


  1. Apr 23, 2012

    You will get there… and KYDG will be out! Best of luck!

    • Apr 25, 2012

      Thank you :)

  2. Apr 23, 2012

    Wow, amazing story Charlene!So inspiring :) Can’t wait to read it!

    • Apr 25, 2012

      Thank you Viv! :)

  3. Apr 24, 2012

    I have a feeling the lions will make a positive decision. A great reward for all your hard work. I am excited for you and will be praying for it to happen. God Bless!

    • Apr 25, 2012

      I hope so..thank you:)

  4. Apr 25, 2012

    charlene! i had no idea all of this was going on, self-absorbed as i am… congratulations! you have a gift. this was such an engaging story that i can’t wait to finally read the debut novel. (and i love that picture of you hiking, by the way. looks like the opening spread of a travel story, “england: off the beaten track.” :-)

    • Apr 25, 2012

      Very touched, thank you Liza. It means a lot coming from you (the editor-in-chief of Style Weekend!)

  5. Apr 25, 2012

    Wow what a long but meaningful journey! You are very talented and hard working. You will go really far Ate Cha! I am a big fan of yours!

    • May 4, 2012

      Thank you! A long journey indeed haha

  6. Apr 28, 2012

    What if one day somebody knock your door and give you the lost manuscript? That would be cool… I haven’t seen anyone who is passionate about his or her work and failed. So I agree with your decision, follow your dreams and don’t think of giving up what you always loved doing.

    • May 4, 2012

      If someone knocked on my door with the original manuscript I would say, ‘WHAT TOOK YOU SO LONG?!’ Just kidding! Thanks for your support Narj!

  7. May 4, 2012

    you surely got it! congratulations! still waiting for Saving Sally..Hope I can grab a copy of your book. let me know once it’s out. =)

    • May 9, 2012

      Thank you Nelynne. We’ll see! I’ll keep you posted.

  8. May 9, 2012

    oh wow! Your passion is so inspiring. I hope to read your novel soon. And I hope i would be able to finish mine one day too! Keep inspiring! :)

    • May 9, 2012

      Thank you Hani–you will get there. Even if you just write a sentence or two a day, if you keep at it, it will be enough to finish a book. Good luck!

  9. May 11, 2012

    Hi Charlene! This post is truly engaging and inspiring! I always look up to people like you, passionate and self-driven! I hope someday I get to write my own novel, while taking up an MA abroad too! hehe. For now, it’s a wonderful dream that makes my eyes twinkle every time i imagine it. Best of luck!

    Were you at the Author at Once workshop in Eastwood? I was the one who took a picture with Pierra.. :)

    • May 11, 2012

      Hi Monica, thank you for the kind words. Writing a novel started as a twinkly thought in my head too, and if I managed to pull it off there’s no reason you can’t do it too (all you need is a willingness to suffer, haha). Yes, I was at the workshop (I think I took your picture with Pierra!) I wanted to support Mina Esguerra (who I met once, sometime ago) and learn a thing or two, and it was an excuse to spend time with Pierra again, who I used to work with :) I’m glad I went.

  10. May 28, 2012

    After reading your struggles as a budding journalist, I was totally blown away by your passion in writing. I am confident that you will make a big name for yourself as long as you keep all the faith…

    • May 31, 2012

      Thank you…I hope so!

  11. Jul 10, 2012

    You’re very inspiring Charlene! It’s telling everyone that reads your story not to give up, keep on trying and follow their dreams. Against all odds! Can’t wait to get my hands on your novel and read it. I seldom read (I’m more of a visual learner) but if it’s really interesting I have a hard time putting down a book 😉

    Good luck… best of health (rest and sleep, ok?) so you have more novels to write ^_^

  12. Aug 7, 2012

    And the author has a great style too! I am happy to have met and photographed you in the street of Makati. You have an inspiring story. I wish you more success. – Onin

    • Aug 10, 2012

      Aww, thank you Onin! It was nice bumping into you, and I’m honored to be on your blog (which looks intimidatingly successful–“selected by Vogue Paris”–Phew!)

      • Nov 16, 2012

        That’s so cool. Say congrats to him from me. Music is a lot like wrtiing in that regard: it takes patience and a real stick-to-it attitude to get anywhere. I love how life imitated art.

  13. Sep 2, 2012

    Your story is very inspirational for many reasons! I’m Afrikaans speaking and living in South Africa, which I might say is not a first-world country either as you probably know. I completed my novel and already started the editing process, but, unfortunately bad luck had stumbled upon my path. On Wednesday my laptop got stolen. :( The up-side is that I have a copy of the novel on a flashdrive, but the down-side(s) is that all my notes and research are now lost, nevermind the fact that it could already be floating around on the internet. It is a horrible feeling and since it happened only a few days ago, I feel demotivated, yet as if there might be a light at the end of the tunnel… I’m waiting to get my new laptop (hopefully soon), and then I will take it from there.

    Thank you for sharing your story and I wish you the best of luck! I know now that I’m not alone and that anything is possible if you set your mind to it!

    • Sep 3, 2012

      Oh my Gaahhd! I know the feeling only too well Bernadette (the total dejection and regret, the staring into space, etc.) But yes, it’s possible to rebuild, even though things can take much longer than we expect. And even though it’s a worn-to-the-thread cliche, I’d like to think the universe makes things happen–even though sometimes it’s in an infuriating, “WHY GOD!” way–for a reason (if I hadn’t lost my novel and finished it on time, maybe I wouldn’t have made it to England the year I was supposed to–I wouldn’t have met the wonderful people I had or won the contest, etc. And it probably wouldn’t have been the same kind of book, because I wasn’t old enough to write it properly). Anyway, I don’t know you personally but I just wanted to say: I’ve been there, and I know you can do it! And I promise that when your book hits the bookstore shelves I’ll be lining up to buy a copy. Keep writing, Bernadette!

      • Sep 10, 2012

        How can I not feel great about your message? Thank you! It is very kind of you. And yes, I agree. It did happen for a reason. :)

        Ps… I got my new laptop! Yippee!! And I’m already going on strong.

        Thanks again for your kind words. The world can always do with more people like you!

  14. Nov 8, 2012

    I kind-of remembered the story of losing your notebook but reading the full story (which I just read now!) made me proud of you more! You’re one tough cookie! :) I’m super proud of you Cha! :)

    • Feb 13, 2013

      Aww thanks Florian:)

  15. Jan 3, 2013

    Hi ate Cha, couldn’t admire you more. Well, I do admire you the first time I saw you, like a crush yahaha (Did I just blurt a secret? Oh Let the ground eat me please yahaha). I’ve been stalking your site for a while and admire you more and more, day by day. Let me just say that you are so inspiring, most especially that you still keep your feet on the ground. (Which makes me crushing you more a lot – f*ck my English Teachers will kill me yahaha). BTW, I’ve got a similar experience as yours, I also tried to write a novel when I was 16 or 17 – on a pad paper – and ended up trashed by my Oh-not-so-f*****ng-brother. Which made me plan an assassination plot against him. Yahaha. What was left to me is an unfinished chapter (1), I rewrite on a notebook. And so far, I have not add any words yet. I don’t think I have a plan to continue it until I remember the feeling, that burning passion to write when I was mad writing it. Yahaha. Well maybe you inspire me a lot and will try to write again, maybe? Yahaha. Congrats ate Cha Cha, will wait for your book and please do sign mine yahaha.

    • Feb 13, 2013

      Hi Ash! I just saw your comment now (thanks to the holidays and an insane schedule, I haven’t been on my blog in more than a month!). Thanks for the kind words and I’m happy my horror story has inspired you to think of writing again! Good luck with everything and don’t let any annoying people get in your way, haha.

  16. Jan 5, 2013

    Thank you for being such an inspiration! Just today, I came across a quotation by Abraham Lincoln, “Let no feeling of discouragement prey upon you, and in the end you are sure to succeed.” There is no doubt that you will definitely be there! Wishing for goodness in all areas of your life.

    • Feb 13, 2013

      Thanks for the kind words BK! (Abraham Lincoln sure knew what he was talking about). Keeping my fingers crossed!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *