Ever since I attempted to write novels in seventh grade, I was driven to write stories about people that I rarely find in the shelves of many bookstores and libraries. In my case, it was always about an overweight Filipino girl (sound familiar?) beating the odds and falling in love in the process–not quite Sweet Valley High, but not tragic or confusing either. Yeah, there was that classmate who pointed out how stupid my ideas were, but that didn’t stop me from wanting more from the books that were available for me to read.
I never found out what happened to that girl, though, because I started experimenting with steamy romance in eighth grade. Blame this on all the Danielle Steel that my Dad had kept in his shelves around that time, but I found myself writing stories about sex that, in retrospect, gave away how little I actually knew about sex. All of this was written in private, of course, but when my family moved back to Manila and I went to my brother’s high school, I spent my years trying to impress people. The closest I got to writing a novel was a ten-page revenge fantasy where I detailed the humiliation and destruction of my “enemies” in high school. (I even called it “Blood Simple,” which also gave away how little I also knew about American cinema and crime fiction. Wah wah wah.)
Then there was college.
I’d already talked before about the Great Filipino Novel that I tried to write, which has been lost forever to changes in time and technology. There were two things that I didn’t want to admit at the time that I was writing it: one, I didn’t want to say it was a romance (a “love story,” maybe), and two, it was an extension of the revenge fantasies that I’d been writing in high school. The same people suffered. The same environment was parodied. Nothing much changed about who I was as a writer.
Cut to NaNoWriMo 2010, and the story that would become the basis of Save the Cake. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it was actually food-channel fan fiction (what did I see in Bob Blumer, really?), but as far as parodies as concerned it was an all-encompassing one. Not only was I making fun of traveling chefs and cooking shows, but I also got to make fun of the same high-society environment that defined my high school years. Sounds epic, but I was pantsing the whole thing and I really didn’t know what to do with the characters or the gimmicky format. And so, that theme of twisted rich people carried me through the next two NaNos.
My constant mocking of Philippine high society carried over to the first #romanceclass and the writing of Save the Cake, since I was drawing from so much hugot in my personal life about the people who had more opportunities that I had in our lifetime. But somewhere down the line–I think it must’ve been my second or third year in Diliman–I started paying attention to stories about Filipinos who didn’t have the advantages that I did: people who didn’t go to international schools or graduated from overseas colleges, who worked ungodly hours at work and wished for better lives. It wasn’t a political thing (though I will say that UP taught me how to be critically aware) but it was driven by curiosity about the audience who will read my books.
And so, I started doing my research.
For Crushingly Close I learned that TV news production in the Philippines was different from the newsrooms that I’d encountered in Honolulu, that producers and reporters can work strange hours and still make a decent daily wage. That also brought up some class issues that I hadn’t confronted when I was writing Save the Cake: Who could afford to drive in Manila? How much do people pay for rent? Those questions still lingered in my mind for the next few books that I was going to write.
Another idea that lodged into my mind during that time was the lives of call-center workers in the Philippines. I’d heard and read about the BPO lifestyle before, but I had to reach out from people who worked in the industry to get the whole story. I interviewed BPO workers about their daily lives, and from the notes I gathered in those interviews I started building on a story idea: What happens when call-center agents fall in love with people in their time zone? That story became LDR, which I drafted in 2015 but didn’t finish until a year later. Again, I confronted a few socio-economic truths about the place that BPO workers occupied in society, which challenged me to create a character that didn’t hate her job but still had so much potential left untapped. And again, there was personal hugot, because of the creative pursuit that the heroine had stashed away in the back of her mind in favor of more productive pursuits in society.
Then there was #NaNoWriMo2016, which was inspired by a girl that I had met at the dorm where I lived on campus in Diliman. She was the ultimate geek: imagine Sheldon from Big Bang Theory reincarnated as a female PhD candidate, except with better social skills and a vibrant personality. When I ran into her one day she was enthusiastic about her post-grad school life and the job opportunities that were waiting for her after graduation; later, a mutual friend mentioned that she was in a relationship. The wheels started turning in my head again: What would happen if a hard-core geek like her fell in love? But instead of concentrating on my friend as a character, I developed someone who looked like her and thought like her, but was crippled by deep-seated anxiety over her geeky past. There was some personal hugot over my own issues with anxiety and depression–and a couple of high school reunions—but I also delved into the kinds of bullying and harassment that would’ve brought down the kind of person who indulged in cosplay and fanfiction. The result was a story that served as catharsis for me to write. It’s still a romance in my mind, but I’m revising this because I’m trying to find pockets of sunshine through all the twists and turns.
And for #romanceclass 2017, I only worked with a simple premise to build up my story: Filipino PR executive in Honolulu, burned by “nice guy” ex-boyfriend, engages her reclusive next-door neighbor in a steamy no-strings affair. Sounded simple enough, until I started concentrating on the wounds that these characters have carried before they met–not just the breakups, but the general disappointments and regrets that have weighed down their lives for so long. And since I set this story in Hawaii, I worked on engaging the senses in creating a setting that was vibrant and full of life, just like my memories of my second home.
Throughout my WIPs, I’ve noticed a few themes running through each story: food, friendship, music, happy endings. Gwen Hayes once said that every romance has one common theme–love conquers all–which I’m still trying to balance with the truths that I’d come to confront in the last four years. In my mind, love doesn’t have to conquer all (it can’t cure illnesses, for one thing) but it is the light that breaks through the dark cynicism that people like me have bogged themselves down with throughout their lives. I believe in endings that are hard-won and well-deserved, and I think that even the sweetest kilig should result in a satisfying payoff in the end. It’s not the easiest thing to do–not even for a writer with my experience–but there’s nothing else that I want to write.
And as for the heroine of my seventh-grade novels…well, my Dad’s been wondering when I’ll write about her again. Someday I might have the time to sit down and draft her book. But that’s another story for another time.