To contribute to the writing of better fiction in the University of Santo Tomas, the Varsitarian Fiction Workshop was established. Now on its third year, the workshop was held at the St. Raymund’s Building last September 9 and 16. Vicente Groyon and Jose Dalisay, Jr. were the panelists for fiction in English while Eros Atalia, Abdon Balde, Jr., and Jun Cruz Reyes were the panelists for fiction in Filipino.

The fellows for English were Kimberly Aidyl Lao, Marc Richmond Camero, Cristian Carlo Suller, Marie Christine Joy Camarillo, and Kathleen Manarang. For Filipino, Camille Ross Parpan, Claire Abanador, Andres Bonifacio, Jr., Marielle Jo Medina, Melanie Magpantay, and Ana Grace Garcia filled-in the slots. Despite the days that divided the workshop into English and Filipino, the literary vanguards were nonetheless united in the essential requirements of a writer and his work.

Keeping the faith

One of the things that stood out in the panelists’ lectures was the need for a writer to thoroughly know the language he wishes to use in writing. According to Groyon, a writer’s mastery of the language is his “first line of defense.” For him, a good story has the feel of walking in a dream and that nothing should jar him from that trance, and in this aspect, skill with the language plays a huge role.

For Dalisay, though English “is not our language . . . It’s not an excuse for mediocrity.” He added, “It’s your responsibility to achieve competence.”

Dalisay explained grammar is one of “those inescapable necessities for writing.” “It’s like playing the piano—if you don’t have the notes, then we have a problem,” he explained.

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But what about “big words”? What about the common notion of literary language as an explosion of words that compels the reader to thumb through a thesaurus?

Reyes told the fellows, “Do not impress.”

According to Dalisay, in his 30 years of writing, his sentences have been moving toward simplicity. He advised the fellows to “get by the simplest words, and get a lot of mileage from them.”

And the plot thickens

From the matter of form, the panelists moved on to matters of substance. And one of the things that drew heavy flak from the established writers was the use of accidents and lucky twists-of-fate in fiction, especially in the ending of stories.

Balde dubbed “deus ex machina,” the literary contrivance of unexpected or improbable solutions to a plot or conflict, as an “old and worn-out” device. For Dalisay it “feels like cheating,” and to Groyon, although coincidences occur frequently in reality, they do not work well in fiction.

Also pointed out by the panelists was the significant task of fleshing out characters. “Characters need not be human as long as they are consistent with their way of thinking or acting, even if they only play stereotypical roles,” said Atalia, and then further gave emphasis to consistency in characters by adding, “Let angels be angels, and let demons be demons.”

In Reyes’ view, “Language is character.” For him, the consistency of language in a character coupled with a rich environment largely contributes to a good story.

Read my lips

As expected, each fellow got their share of stinging jokes and light-hearted criticisms for their works. But still, as Atalia amply put it, “The opposite of love is not hatred, but apathy. So if no one criticizes you, what a poor thing you are.”

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The most invaluable instructions that the panelists left were to read more and to write more.

Dalisay explained that the path to good writing begins with good reading. Reyes struck the nail home by saying, “Read, read, read,” not only for the purpose of learning new styles, but also to know what is cliché and what is new. For Groyon, “The quality of a writer reflects that writer’s reading.” Balde tried to improve on this by encouraging young writers to “read not only books, but also your surroundings.” Roman Carlo R. Loveria

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