The writer’s role » Manila Bulletin Lifestyle

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Bestselling authors AA Patawaran, Mina Esguerra, and Samantha Sotto share their thoughts about the changing role of the present-day writer

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By Terence Repelente
Images by Noel Pabalate
Video by David Clarence Rivera

National Book Store and Raffles Makati, once again, celebrate literature at the 2017 Philippine Readers and Writers Festival. With a broad spectrum of talks ranging from film to dining, this year’s festival is, no doubt, packed with works and authors at a superb level and an international caliber. Witnessed inside Ballroom 1 of Raffles Makati, however, is one of the most interesting topics discussed in the entire festival—the changing role of today’s writer.

Sharing their thoughts about the topic are three of the country’s bestselling authors, AA Patawaran, Mina Esguerra, and Samantha Sotto. Each coming from a different background and possessing a different style and philosophy, the authors spoke of their writing pursuits and opened their brains for the audience to do their picking and learning.

WRITERS ON DUTY From left: Mina Esquerra, AA Patawaran, and Samantha Sotto at the panel discussion on the changing duties of a writer at the National Book Store-organized Philippine Readers and Writers Festival at the Raffles Makati

A HERMIT AND A CHAMPION

Samantha Sotto always saw herself as some kind of a hermit. Before publishing her two bestselling books (Before Ever After, Love and Gravity: A Novel), she never had the desire to own a cellular phone or even a personal social media account. She shared about her solitary nature and about writing as a solitary activity. And even now that she’s an author in the bestseller category, she feels some sense of anxiousness. “Anyone who knows me will probably tell you that I am the last person to be in a panel talking about my books and promoting them. And the reason I shied away from this panel is the very reason this topic should be discussed. It dawned to me that a lot of writers are probably like me,” she said.

“It’s not a coincidence that writers are introverts. We’re comfortable being ourselves. It’s like a job requirement, writing is a solitary activity. Our writing cave—whether that’s a corner of our bed or a table at Starbucks—is our safe zone, that’s our happy place, that’s where we can let our thoughts roam free and not be afraid of judgment or criticism.”

But everything changed the moment she ended her first book.

“My first taste of venturing outside the safety of my little cocoon was when I decided that I wanted to have the book published,” she said. “That’s when I realized that my role shifted from being the writer of this book to being the book’s champion. There was no one else by my side and there was no one else to champion my book but me.”

When Sotto was struggling to publish and market her first book, Before Ever After, she used almost all kinds of tools available, even those that were once alien to her—social media, technology, socializing.

 “I realized that my book was not going to sell itself. My last name wasn’t Rowling, Meyer, or Brown. I was not a big fish. I was a dilis in a very big pond,” she said.

“This is essentially how a hermit like me has come to make peace with the enemy that was social media. I know that I will never be the type of person to post every minute of my life. You would die of boredom if I did that. But I had to switch my way of thinking from social media as a selling tool to something that matches my sensibilities and my values.”

From being a hermit to a person who now posts pictures of coffees and plants, Sotto views social media in an entirely different way than she used to. “I’ve discovered that more than the act of posting updates about what I had for lunch or breakfast, what I like best about social media is that it gives me the opportunity to interact with people I would otherwise never meet in my daily life,” she said.

For her, social media doesn’t have to be artificial. “If you share authentic things, you get authentic responses, and create authentic relationships,” she said. “Suddenly, you are no longer alone. You are no longer the sole champion of your book. You have readers who become real friends, who campaign for your book as passionately as you do, even more passionately than any PR or marketing team could. You have a support system that cheers you on when things are going well and sends you virtual hugs and smiley faces when things aren’t going so well. And believe me, the rollercoaster ride that writing and publishing are, you will need all the hugs, virtual or not, that you will get.”

BE A PART OF A COMMUNITY

With over 20 published works, Mina Esguerra is a master of contemporary romance. Some of her most loved books are The Harder We Fall, Iris After the Incident, Love Your Frenemies, Welcome to Envy Park, and Interim Goddess of Love.

“I write romance—it’s kilig, it’s love, and it’s fun,” she said.

Writing is just the beginning. The real challenge, according to her, lies in getting your book published. “Publishing really just forces you to do things that you didn’t want to do or didn’t realize you could do,” she said. “The more I did marketing for my books the less I wanted to talk about them. So, I stopped doing it. I got tired. Rather than sell or market, I decided to be part of something bigger.”

She presented an alternative of what a writer could do if he or she doesn’t want to just straight up sell their book. “Be a part of a community of authors,” she said.

Currently, Mina is part of three big writing communities: #RomanceClass, Wattpad, and WOC in Romance. And, in each of the communities, she plays different roles.  “For #RomanceClass, I am an author but I am also a reader. I read the books that the authors in that community write. I am also a mentor since I founded the community,” she said, who also calls herself  cheerleader. “The success of someone in the community, we cheer on—I cheer on.”

For the Wattpad community, however, she is a member for an entirely different purpose. Unlike other Wattpad authors, she had published works before she joined the community. “If you go to my account, you will see my books and you will see my advice columns. My publishing advice has 362,000 reads but any of my books only has several thousands,” she said. “They only need my advice, not so much my books. And then I realized that I’m not going to force it—this is what they need me for, this is what I should do.”

WOC in Romance, which stands for women of color in romance, is an avenue for Mina to meet international writers of her same writing interest.“I’m on twitter, I’m on social media, and I interact with authors not just from this country but also from other countries.. WOC in Romance is a site that promotes romance books by women of color, including transsexual women, all over the world. There are thousands of books and a lot of authors to support.”

As an author, Mina sees being inside a community essential in developing a writer’s skills. “I should always be helpful. If you’re going to be part of a community you need to contribute something. You have to be a positive force. You should know your place in that community. I always tell myself that you don’t have to be there all the time but if you are, make it count.”

STORY IS KING

Currently the lifestyle editor of the Manila Bulletin and the editor of the Philippine Panorama, AA Patawaran first shared a bit of his career in the advertising industry and how it contributed to his career as an author.

“Fortunately or unfortunately my background has been such that writing became just a small part of the entire process. Most of my writing is drawn from a whole lot of other things,” he said. “I started in advertising. And in advertising, the writing is almost incidental. It’s always the big idea that counts. The shorter the words, the snappier the statement, the better it is. You’re always told to not write too much. Don’t overwrite and don’t over think. That’s what I learned.”

According to AA, writers of today are just doing the very same thing writers did in the past. He also has the same views on how we consume books. “There was a time when books became such an elevated product that a lot of people did not want to commodify it. Books should be looked for and found,” he said. “That’s why we can talk about Louis Vuitton or I can be a salesperson of Hermes, and I can talk to you about all the beautiful products and you won’t cringe. But if I am a book author and I talk to you about my books it will feel like too much self-promotion.”

During the talk, AA also expressed his love of social media and how he would use it as a writing tool. According to him, now that there’s social media and self-publishing is possible, there are multitudes of things that an author is believed to have to do now that they didn’t use to do before. “Social media is a big part of Hainaku. I never, in my life, thought that I could write poetry. I wrote poetry when I was a kid but only for play. But I never imagined myself being a poet. I am not even comfortable being called a poet now,” he said. “When Instagram was just starting, the rule was a one-word caption. I couldn’t do it because I’m a “Proustian” writer—I love long sentences. That’s when I started to experiment with poetry.”

For AA, writing involves a lot of things that aren’t related to the physical act of writing. For him, writing is thinking, experiencing melancholy, seeing people, travelling, and ultimately, as a moral obligation, expanding your universe.

“In Write Here Write Now, I’ve been emphasizing that you have to live a life in order to be a writer. I think that in social media we should also practice that, so that it isn’t just a place for curated bits of your life but also a place where you can have a glimpse of the state of humanity,” he said.

Most important, for AA, a writer should treat his story as king, much like the novelist J.D. Salinger, who didn’t want the attention of the readers centered on him, the writer, but on the stories that he wrote. “I’m a writer,” Salinger told a teacher who stalked him. “That’s what I do, and everything I have to say is in my stories.” AA pointed out that, instead of pushing the books on the reader, the books should pull the reader. To him, being a bestseller is a lot like an accident—it has to be the right time and the right book. “When you write, you should really write from your heart. Do it for purposes other than selling it,” he said.

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