How to be a published author
Jessica Zafra (The Philippine Star) - April 9, 2016 - 10:00am

My 19th and 20th books have just come out in paperback. That’s a lot of books. Am I old? Yes, though not as old as many of you, who may be younger chronologically but feel you have to act “mature.” Listen, the second you decide that you have to behave in a way that is counter to your natural inclinations, that’s the second you start aging. Silliness inoculates us against growing old and dying. In the words of Woody Allen, whom I have been ripping off since I saw Take The Money And Run on TV when I was 10, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying.”

While we’re on the subject of death, I still get stopped by random strangers who ask me if I’m okay. They are referring to my health scare of 2014, which I call That Time My Brain Nearly Exploded. My younger self would’ve foamed at the mouth and told them to mind their own business, but my current self appreciates the kindness. When people you’ve never met actually care whether you live or die, you can only be grateful. What is the point of speculating about their real motives? You’ll only drive yourself bonkers.

For the last time, this is what happened. I had the flu. I had no appetite, so I just drank a lot of water, coffee, and Mountain Dew. It turns out that if you drink a lot of fluids and you don’t eat, you end up venting your electrolytes. Electrolytes such as sodium and potassium power your brain, and if you run out of electrolytes your brain shuts down. You get “water intoxication” — the water swells your brain cells. This happens to marathon runners, which is the only time I’ll ever have something in common with marathon runners. It also happens to the sandworms and prophets in Frank Herbert’s Dune, whom I have more in common with than athletes.

My brain shut down, but I was lucky. I had an appointment that day, so while my brain was logging out I got dressed and went out of my apartment. I even remembered to lock the door. Then my brain shut down and I thought to myself, “The distance from the stairs to the floor is so vast, I can’t possibly cross it.” I sat on the steps, where the maintenance people found me. I was awake, but could not speak. They took me to the hospital, and next thing I know I’m getting a totally unnecessary spinal tap because someone decided that my problem was caused by a lethal virus. No, it was water intoxication. Don’t over-hydrate. Only drink when you’re thirsty. And if you ever have any problems with brain function, just shout, “Dr. Cuanang!” He’ll know what to do.

The good thing about being subjected to every medical test known to human (that 2D echo just about broke my ribs) is that the doctors confirmed that I am in perfect health. I don’t even have high blood pressure. I’m not on any maintenance meds. Thank you, mutant powers.

My diet being rich in cholesterol and my lifestyle largely sedentary, I can only attribute my good health to the fact that I do exactly what I want to do. Which is to write. Do you want to write? It’s quite simple.

Write something every day. I’ve known from the age of eight that I wanted to write. My certainty being absolute, I did not bother to learn any other negotiable skills. I cannot cook, drive, or swim, but I can write very fast. Fortunately, writing is something you can learn by yourself. The easiest, most natural way to learn writing is by reading widely.

In my 20s I read that Graham Greene, author of The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter, and many wonderful books, set himself a quota of 1,000 words a day. So I did that. It’s not that hard, it’s like a few blog posts, one column, or an argument via text. Later I found out that Greene wrote 500 words a day. This means I could actually goof off for a few years.

Show it around. I guess you could post your work in your social media accounts, but I recommend showing your writing to a few chosen readers whose opinions matter to you. They will be your first critics. I’ve never properly thanked my classmates in college who read the fat folder of short stories that became my first book, Manananggal Terrorizes Manila. Thank you, classmates; if you see me, remind me to buy you drinks.

Get published. I wanted to see my work in print, so I looked at the magazines on the stands and copied their editorial addresses. One day I turned up at a magazine office. Everyone was out to lunch except the editor-in-chief, Marita Nuque, who is as antisocial as I am. She read my writing sample — a movie review — and gave me an assignment. That is how I got a job. I actually paid my tuition at UP, about P660 a semester, by being a freelance writer. As a bonus, my parents had to hold back the sermons about how writing was not “a real job” because I wasn’t asking them for money.

Join the Palanca Awards. It’s recognition that you’re legit. The annual deadline is April 30. No one has to know you’re entering the contest until you win.

Publish a book. Never underestimate the role of luck in human affairs. You write enough words, you’ll get lucky. I won a Palanca for the short story, which got me an appointment with Karina Bolasco, the manager of Anvil Publishing. Anvil has been my publisher forever. Karina is responsible for bringing hundreds of books into existence. She is retiring at the end of the month. Paging the legion of Anvil authors: Send her your love letters.

Keep writing. Not long after my first book came out, I started writing a newspaper column. I’ve been with The Philippine STAR for 10 years. Publishing has been changed by technology, but writing is essentially the same. Sometimes random strangers ask me if “I’m still writing.” What else would I be doing?

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