Last year, the Scholastic Asian Book Award (SABA), in partnership with the Philippine Board on Books for Young People (PBBY), launched “You Write to Me, I’ll Write to You,” a manuscript critique initiative that aspires to motivate Filipino writers while assisting them to get their manuscript in shape and recognizing excellence in Asian writings.
A total of 6 entries (the brief synopses and opening pages of 6 manuscripts) were shortlisted to receive a review and written feedback from Barry Cunningham, discoverer of J.K. Rowling, and managing director of Chicken House UK.
Joel Donato Jacob’s manuscript, “Wing of the Locust” was deemed the most outstanding of all the entries and got the amazing opportunity of a full review from Mr. Cunningham and a Skype chat with the publishing legend.
Below is a short interview with Joel on his YWTM experience:
How did you hear about the call for manuscripts and what made you decide to join?
I was a fellow for the Amelia La Peña-Bonifacio Writers’ Workshop last 2016 and I met lots of wonderful people there, all talented writers. One of the good things about joining writers’ workshops is the network you develop. So, I made all these wonderful friends who would share news on where we could opportunities and venues for our work to be read.
I am a huge young adult fiction fan. I read all of our school library’s Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and the Three Investigators books before I was in third grade. From there I graduated to adult books like Frank Herbert’s Dune and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and though it turned my tastes toward fantasy, but I never really saw the difference between young adult books and adult books. I have always felt this sort of wonder when I open a book; and, to this day I read as much young adult fiction as I do regular fiction. I decided to join because I want to give others that same sense of wonder that made my own youth, and adulthood too, magical.
What inspired your story?
My story was inspired by the vacuum in Philippine literature created by the Spanish colonization of the lowlands of Luzon. In the mountains and in many of the islands of the South, they were lucky enough to have retained their literatures in the forms of epics and poetry. We in the Tagalog region were not as lucky, and our own literatures were destroyed and lost when they were vilified by the Church. This is sad but it also presents an opportunity and challenge for us writers to do some intelligent guesswork as to how stories from that era could have been. In a way, it’s like seeing a broken piece of artifact from a forgotten time and putting it together with your imagination.
What was your writing process like? How long did you work on the manuscript? What kind of research was involved?
My writing process is both organized and chaotic. I usually begin by having a plot, roughly 200 words I write down somewhere so that I can let it percolate in my imagination. Writing it down is very important as so many ideas can be lost along the busy day. Facebook has proven very useful in this regard. Then I decide on the length, if it’s going to be a short or long piece. For this project, it became a long piece so I then decided the main arcs I wanted to discuss. I like reading Shakespeare and he likes them in threes so I tend to have three arcs as well. After, I decided how many chapters I wanted and roughly how many words I expect of each chapter, placing each arc along a sentence outline representing each chapter. Then for the gaps between these arcs, I fill in the details by putting more sentences in my sentence outline. Afterward, the actual writing starts: I write the second to the last chapter—this is the climax and I want to have that as the goal that I want to build up to. There are books that I feel were rushed and I want to avoid that reaction from my readers. Then I start from the beginning but occasionally I would hop back and forth along the chapters when I get inspired by an image or a scenario.
This story started, not as a novel, but as pitch for a television series for a major network in the Philippines; I even wrote in who I thought should star in it. I wrote my proposal in early 2012 and I waited. And I waited. And I waited. They never got back to me and for a very long time I thought my idea wasn’t interesting. Prolonged disappointment is a bit more painful than a sudden disappointment, I think. But instead of ditching it entirely, I kept my faith in my vision, but recognized that it needed work. So, I worked on it. And things changed, it went from a TV screenplay into a chapter book. Though the actual writing took about three months, the planning, research and development took around five years.
There are two things that I took the time to research on the most. One is pre-Hispanic Philippines. I like the casual tone, almost gossip-mongering, of the famed Filipino historian Ambeth Ocampo, and I hope I do not do him any disservice if anyone thinks that I sound like him at times because his body of work was a significant contribution to my research. Then there were the bugs, though books on insects were a plenty, I wanted to use terms Filipinos used before the Spanish were around so I dived deep into libraries and communities for everything creepy, crawly, flying, buzzing and carapace-covered.
Where were you when you found out your manuscript won? How do you feel that yours was selected out of all the entries?
I was at work. I received the email, I told my boss that I needed to use the toilet. I stood up, and sat on the toilet seat. I took out my phone and I immediately told my mom. I was crying. I was so happy. Sometimes, it feels like you put so much energy and time into a project and when it pays off like this, it more than makes up for the bleak moments and the doubt and the exhaustion and the loving worry in your family’s well-chosen words of support.
What feedback did Barry Cunningham give, and how do you plan to take his advice? What work do you still plan to do on the manuscript?
Barry said that I was not able to build up the tension leading to the end, particularly the relationship between the main characters that when the final conflict came, it both came too late into the narrative and too suddenly. He had lots of wonderful things to say and when he gives criticism, you don’t feel bad about what he said, instead, you feel, ‘wow, I should have thought of that.’ I am so thankful for his insight and I am on a second set of revisions for the complete story. Even now, while the story is resting, I still get these flashes of inspiration from what Barry had to say about my story.
What’s in store down the line for your manuscript?
I hope that a publisher will show interest in my story, like Chicken House or Scholastic Asia *wink* *wink.* There are a few competitions that I wish to join with the same manuscript so I could get an idea how ready it is to be read by a wide audience. I hope to get the book out on the book store shelves after that.
I was able to read a couple of pages of Joel’s winning work and thought it very interesting — “Wing of the Locust” is the story of Tuan, who is apprenticed to a mambabarang. I do hope a publisher picks up this manuscript because I want to read more!
P.S. I have an ongoing giveaway in my previous post. There’s still time to join if you haven’t already!