Enough is Enough! Stop Writing!

It’s been a solid month since I began formally mentoring some of the writers in our office. Now, this isn’t the first time I had to assume this kind of role over people. I had a couple of batches of OJTs to look after back in the days when I was working for the advertising department of a (surprisingly) still operating daily.

Why This is Relevant

But, this is the first time wherein the advice I give has tangible consequences on the people who choose to take it. A little context on that sentence. When I was mentoring OJTs they were still students, I wasn’t their principal instructor. I was a secondary authority figure that only allows them to better transition into the culture and reality of a working environment they’ll soon be entering. The responsibility of guiding them down the “right path” at least academically still lay with their professors and teachers.

This time, the “scores” they get depend on how effectively I can communicate my ideas on writing so that they can apply it to their own styles. The scores being the quantitative summation of their performance, which then affects their chances of acquiring bonuses, promotions, or even achievements that they can take to future job prospects. Pressure.

During the first month of our training there have been ups and downs, not just for me, but for the other mentors as well. All of the writers in our department are brilliant in their own way – some of them even have more impressive resumes than my own. But, they all run into one problem or another that seriously hampers their progress, and I’ve been wracking my brain about what it could be.

There’s Too Much Noise

I stumbled on the answer a few weeks ago, and it’s a problem that’s endemic in Filipino writers in general – they never know when to shut up. This isn’t just a problem with young, up and coming writer either; this is a problem that even veterans and published authors can succumb to.

The first time I was ever made aware of this was at (if you can believe it) a breakfast meeting with renowned children’s story book writer Christopher Cheng. He’s a really cool dude who loves telling stories to children, and is a very big deal in ASEAN and Australian children’s literature. Anyone interested in writing for kids should check out his work – especially Python, Water, and Sounds Spooky.

The meeting was organised by the Society of Children’s Book Writers (SCBWI) Manila chapter. Now, for those who know me there are a lot of things that don’t make sense with my participation in that talk, but that’s for another blog.

Anyway, he lamented the habit a lot of Filipino writers have of trying too put way too much into their stories that they become a confusing mix of conflicting plot points, hammy conflicts, pretentious solutions, and rushed conclusions. He critically panned plenty of the books we brought to the meeting exactly for that reason – many of which were award-winning pieces from prestigious bodies.

Stop Talking You Book

We all saw his point, and I completely agree. Reading his work next to the ones we brought, the difference was obvious. For the purposes of this examination I’m going to use the critically acclaimed Ang Ikaklit sa Aming Hardin. For those who don’t know this book, it’s considered a groundbreaking work in children’s literature, as it deals with the subject matter of growing up in a same-sex family.

Everyone loved this book and is the Palanca awardee for Children’s Literature in 2006. It’s a good read and I recommend it to anyone, whether they’re interested in local literature or children’s books. There’s just one glaring problem with it – it never stops talking.

Every page is a wall of exposition, the writer details every single thing going on regardless if it moves the story forward or not. Buy the book, or just look at the scans on Google and you’ll see what I’m talking about – small spoilers ahead.

On one pivotal page, the main character reveals that she has two mothers – cool stuff. But, it took an entire paragraph of explaining that the seeds she has were from her mothers. That entire section was filler that didn’t really need to be there. Yes, I realise the seeds grow into flowers in the garden to tie into a beautiful metaphor, which is exactly the problem.

There are too many ideas competing for the limited space of the story and the attention of the reader.

Going Back to Simple Stories

I see the same thing happening to my writers. They get so caught up in creating a narrative that they lose focus in what they’re trying to say. The reason is because most of them grew up with books and adventures that span multiple books, involving large story arcs, several characters, and deep meaning. There’s really nothing wrong trying to emulate the books we all love, but they’re all missing the point – all these books have simple ideas.

Harry Potters is a literary franchise spanning seven books, eight movies, and maybe even some spinoffs. But, at its heart it’s all about a boy who discovers he’s a wizard. Every book, every scene, every twist centers around that idea of whimsical discovery.

The fact that it ties in so well as a coming of age story makes it relatable and timeless, as everyone can can go on that journey because it’s a world that nobody has been in before. Rowling may have added hundreds if not thousands of elements into the mix from history to creatures, but the core remained the same – Harry Potter is about a boy who discovers he’s a wizard.

The same can be said of other classic stories:

Star Wars is about band of rebels trying to topple an oppressive empire – in space.

LOTR is about a road trip to destroy the tool of ultimate power and evil.

The Hobbit is about killing a dragon.

Toy Story is about toys coming to life.

Yes, the end products of these ideas are lengthy, epic storylines but each one stays true to the central ideas that began with. This is what’s missing from my writers, and Filipino literature in general. Everyone is so caught up in trying to be relevant and intellectual that they never get to tell a simple story.

Enough with the morals, enough with the exposition, enough with the intellectual babble. If I wanted to read about lit theory I wouldn’t be reading about a man who can shrink to the size of an insect and talk to ants. The secret to storytelling is staying true to your inspiration.

Keep the idea simple, and don’t force it to become something it’s not.

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