Note: Some of the surnames were removed to protect the privacy of certain sources, since the original article was meant for academic purposes only.
She stands skittishly on the left side of this luxurious ballroom, where glamor is spelled by glass and silk. Sophistication fills the atmosphere, thanks to people prancing in it. Like an honor student on her graduation day, she counts down to the time her name resounds in every stranger’s consciousness. And when it does, she inhales deeply, sighs shortly, and walks promptly to the stage. Extending her right hand, she shakes those of the somebodies carrying the surname that defined all this grandness.
And just like that, she gets hold of her Palanca grand prize for a nobela. And, yes, this 20-year-old Wattpad writer crammed her way to seizing the prestigious award.
The almost-magical scene still lives in Charmaine Lasar’s mind like it was a dream she had last night. More distant and probably strangely reminiscent was a memory from months back where she encountered well-known Filipino writer Eros Atalia in what seemed like just another forum held at their high school in Batangas.
“Sir, paano po ba manalo sa Palanca?” the wide-eyed writer asked Atalia during a question-and-answer segment. Atalia answered, “Read a lot.” And the girl did.
“‘Di ko alam kung naging kasalanan ko o ano,” Atalia says jokingly, still in awe of the news that a Wattpad writer actually won a Palanca—like he did several years before. “At ang ganda-ganda (noong nangyari), kasi pwede palang manalo sa Palanca ang isang Wattpad writer, na kinabog niya ang established novelist,” adds the author of Ligo na U, Lapit na Me.
The news was initially a big question mark for the fourth year Accountancy student when she got a text in the morning of August 17 from a certain “Ms. Leslie” telling her she just won the grand prize for the 65th Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards. Charmaine or “Maine” to her friends, was told she should call right away after receiving the message. But her mind suggested a more natural reaction: jump and scream like a kid.
Sabi ko, “Kurt, magpa-load ka!” Tapos umiyak siya (8-year-old brother) kasi akala niya may nangyari.
“Bilis, nanalo ako!”
The minute she brought down her phone, she went straight to her computer and reread her novel Toto O, which is about 13-year-old Toto who left his home in the province to go to an industrialized city but eventually found out that life there isn’t much better after all. “Ano ‘yung dahilan kung ba’t ako nanalo?” she told herself as she revisited what she thought were the best parts of her story.
“Tapos dun palang ako naiyak! Ewan ko kung naiyak ako sa story or naiyak ako dahil nanalo ako,” she says to me humbly. She then folds her arms and subtly rubs her almost-watery eyes. From where we were sitting, the afternoon sky looked sorry with its shade of gloomy blue. And as if wanting to join her in her personal rain, the sky shed tears, too.
Her thin frame hid under a gray shirt and a black jacket that kept her warm but also gave the impression of toughness. The image, though, was easily wiped out the minute she gave me a weak, awkward handshake when we said our first hellos, that I imagined if I squeezed her childlike fingers they would break.
But I thought to myself these were the same hands that typed 33,000 words in a genre she never had the chance to practice for and had to finish within only 30 days.
Maybe she could attribute a huge part of her success to deactivating her Facebook account for a week to focus writing her novel, like a real responsible millennial. Or probably it’s the more obvious answer: writing more than 30 short stories of different genres on Wattpad—horror, romance, and usually inspirational—taught her to do just that.
After all, because of her experience in joining contests within the Wattpad community, she already earned the title “Queen of Wattpad Writing Contests,” she says in jest.
“Wala akong background sa pagsusulat ng novel. Wattpad lang,” she adds, sharing that because of her frequent victory in the competitions, some fans would even ask her to stay away and, as she would say in her rough accent, “give chance to others.” “‘Di ko alam [kung] anong kaswertihan [ang] meron ako.”
Wattpad is often dubbed by critics as an online writing platform that produces only “low quality works”—in the harshest terms, even “garbage.” While some are aware of its positives like the “democratization of space for literature,” some people in the formal writing community still can’t help but comment on the nature of stories posted on the site.
“Maayos at sincere ‘yung attempt ng mga writers ng Wattpad na magsulat ng literature. Mas honest pa nga sila, feeling ko, sa mga ‘writers’ na kailangan mag-churn out ng libro sa loob ng time frame,” says Alvin, a literary editor in his college publication during his senior year. “Pero since available sa everyman, dahil nga online at libre…‘yung quality [ang] nagsu-suffer.”
The fact that young people are now more into reading is a good thing, says Jasper, also a literary writer who joins creative writing contests in his university. However, he says there might be a need to elevate the discussion and topics in Wattpad stories once writers become more mature. “Nakikita naman natin sa komersyo ‘yung mga aklat na ‘I’m dating a gangster’ o ‘I’m dating my teacher’…Sana [lang talaga], magbago ‘yung panlasa nila na hindi lang sa mga ganoong sulatin nakukulob ang mundo nila,” he says.
The writers themselves are admittedly aware of this perception, and some of the most cruel comments tend to make or badly break an aspiring writer. The most painful comment that almost stopped Lasar from writing? “May boyfriend ka ba? Halata kasing wala, kasi ‘yung sinulat mong romance, walang walang romance,” she recalls.
“Iniyakan ko ‘yun. Feeling ko, kung di ako inalalayan ng friends ko, tumigil na ako sa pagsusulat kasi nakaka-discourage,” she says, openly telling the tendency of fans and haters to either hinder or help their favorite and most hated writers. “Kapag sikat ka, ‘yung mga fans mo, sobrang supportive na…bulag na sila sa lahat ng pwedeng ipuna sa story mo. [Pero] sa contest, maraming pupuna.” She says these are usually corrections like “ng” to “nang” or “din” to “rin” and correct use of punctuation marks.
But one comment by a Wattpad writer and friend of hers triggered her move to change this negative perception. It was her wanting to prove critics wrong that pushed Lasar to elevate her work to the national stage.
Atalia, known for his inclination to popular literature or coined by some as “literature for the masses,” says it’s important to understand who Wattpad writers write for. “Malinaw ‘yung target audience ng mga bata—‘yung community nila. Hindi nila tina-target ‘yung mga nasa literature department na kumuha ng creative writing. Hindi naman nila ginawa ang Wattpad para sa atin eh, para sa sarili nila…Tapos papakialaman natin, hindi nga nila tayo pinapakialaman?”
Atalia’s statements are peppered with jokingly uttered curses as he reiterated there’s no need for “academic intervention” on Wattpad writers—at least, in the context that no person can dictate what is good literature and what is not.
But would it help if Wattpad writers tried to take up formal writing courses? Yes, says Ella, an AB Literature student in the same university.
Already an established Wattpad writer with a huge following before she even enrolled in the University, the 19-year-old said in an interview with The Flame, a local publication in UST, that it was her father who suggested she might want to take up AB Literature.“Gusto ko maging doctor, kaya lang nung high school ako, sobrang baba ng grades ko sa Science…so my English was better daw. Tapos ‘yung dad ko sabi niya sa akin why not try to improve your writing?”
Famous as being “modernongmariaclara” in the Wattpad community, Ella discovered that she could still improve her skills further through formal training. “Kung sa Wattpad, madami ka nang matututunan, dito pa kaya na you are surrounded with writers na rinirespeto mo?”
Her blockmates did not treat her any differently upon discovering she came from the infamous writing site. Some of them even bought her books, shares her favorite Literature professor Rina Garcia Chua.
“From the very first moment I read her Who Am I? essay for young adult literature, I knew that she’s not an ordinary Literature student. She wrote so fluidly, succinctly; I understood that I was reading not a student’s work but a writer’s—someone who has the discipline to sit down and write…She’ll be big in the future.”
And so with Wattpad writers, Literature professors, Palanca winners, and students of creative writing now mingling in the same sphere, nearly cultivated is a bit more understanding and appreciation for this debatable game changer.
Harvey, who personally knows Ella and was himself a Palanca winner, believes that Wattpad is a “noble platform” and is happy about Wattpad writers excelling in their own ways. “There is always a sense of second-degree satisfaction, knowing that someone like my own, a literature major new to the field, has been doing some serious writing—and in writing, is being read.”
He adds, “What we learn in the academe only are the theories, criticisms, different trends, and styles. What we learn in real life, however, is the verisimilitude of human experience.”
But making everyone say the same thing will never be easy, for the issue of academe versus practice has always been present since the rise of these institutions.
Maria, who is taking up a Creative Writing course to improve her craft, said she would always prefer the traditional way in learning how to write creatively. “While ine-embrace ko as a student of creative writing ang Wattpad bilang bagong platform na mahusay at malikhain ang pagkagawa sa sarili nitong paraan, naniniwala pa rin ako sa tradisyunal at mas tangible na uri ng pagsusulat. ‘Yung published. Mas credible pa rin sa akin ang mga ganon.”
Even so, Lasar keeps this motivation to change people’s perception of them as her fuel to keep the pen ablaze and write a better future for her beloved writing community.
“Nale-legitimize na ba ngayon ng Palanca ang Wattpad writers? Pwedeng tanungin. Kung ako ang taga-legitimize, tatanggapin pa ba ng institusyon, ng literary circle? I doubt it,” says Atalia, again passionately. “Bakit? Eh ganun katigas ang ulo ng mga nasa akademya eh. Baka hindi pa tanggapin sa ngayon.”