HOW I LOST MY NOVEL (the Real Story)
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.)
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.
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!
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