PGS 2023 Q&A: Cesar Miguel Escaño

Cesar Miguel “Miggy” Escaño is a father who loves telling bedtime stories to his three sons in their home in Tacloban City, Leyte. Before moving to Tacloban, he was a reporter for BusinessWorld and a teacher at the Ateneo de Manila.

Miggy was a fellow for fiction at the 56th Silliman University National Writers Workshop in 2017 and by the next year, his story, “Little Star,” was recognized with an Honorable Mention at the 2018 Nick Joaquin Literary Awards by Philippines Graphic Magazine. His story, “Amira,” was also named Honorable Mention at the 2019 Nick Joaquin Literary Awards by Philippines Graphic Magazine.

Miggy first appeared in The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories Issue I Volume 3 in 2007 with his story “Tuko” that tackled bangungot or dying from a nightmare, which afflicts mostly Asians, especially Filipinos. The tuko or gecko in the story would cry out to alert humans about the unseen and malignant entity that causes bangungot, yet the warnings were ignored. Miggy now returns to Philippine Genre Stories 2023 with the story Sayf Al’Iiman.

Where did the story idea for  Sayf Al’Iiman come from?

In 2016, I wanted to join an online short fiction contest for Islamic Science Fiction. I originally wanted to write a story in the mold of The Thousand and One Arabian Nights, which I loved to read growing up. However, I decided to use a local setting, meaning Muslim Philippines, to differentiate my entry from the others. When I decided to use this setting, a similar setting to “The Blue House of the Big Astana” by Ibrahim Jubaira, another story I love to read, everything naturally fell into place.

I wanted to create a swashbuckling space opera about a young Moro warrior out to prove himself and find his place among the stars. I also wanted to incorporate a love story about a Moro princess, lonely and eager to find love even beyond her royal class. I also wanted to mix in shapeshifting aliens molded after the Djinn of Muslim-Arabic folklore. In writing the story, I sprinkled in my love for describing exciting combat scenes and intricate swordplay similar to what R.A. Salvatore did for the dark elf Drizzt Do’Urden in the Dark Elf book series.

I wrote the story and submitted it to the contest. After submitting, I realized I wouldn’t win because the story I wrote belonged to a different genre. It was not Muslim Science Fiction but rather Muslim Science Fantasy, specifically Moro Science Fantasy.

I didn’t win the contest but I’m glad I wrote the story that would eventually come to be, after many years and many different versions, “Sayf Al’Iiman.”

What came easy to you when it came to writing this story?

Two things, the length and the combat scenes.

The first draft of this story was over 30 pages, the length of a short novella. When I’m excited about and very emotionally invested in a writing project, the story just seems to write itself.

Of course, first drafts tend to be way longer than later versions so it took me some time and much emotional distancing from my work to pare down the text into a more manageable length which I was happy with and would be fit for others to read.

I’m a fan of the samurai genre in anime and Japanese live-action films so I wanted to translate the kinetic and dynamic swordplay captured on screen to the written page. I also drew from my interest in watching mixed martial arts (MMA). I wanted the action to be thrilling but also easy to follow and visualize.

Some readers praised the story’s action scenes. A reader found the detailed fighting descriptions to be too gratuitous and glorified violence. This was never my intention as I dislike unnecessary gore and needless violence in the films I watch and the books I read.

I just wanted to write something thrilling and to engage readers when I described the combat in detail. I hope I did that. I hope that nobody gets turned off by the level of violence in the action sequences or loses their lunch when reading the fight scenes.

What was the most challenging thing you had to overcome to complete this story, and how did you deal with that?

While writing the first draft of this story was easy, revising it took years. The first draft was too long to submit anywhere so I needed to trim it down to a reasonable length. In order to do so, I had to remove a portion of the text and make it its own short story. This standalone short story was “Amira,” which was published in Philippines Graphic Magazine in 2019.

By removing “Amira” from the original text and making it its own story, I was stuck with what to do with the rest of the original story. I made several attempts to revise it over the years without much success until I tweaked the ending and submitted the story to the PGS Online call for submissions for 2023 with Mia Tijam as the editor. Under her focused eye and rigorous editorial hand, this story transformed into the version of “Sayf Al’Iiman,” hopefully the final one,  published in PGS.   

What are the top three writing tips you would like to share with all aspiring storytellers out there?

  1. First, don’t just read to enjoy. Read to understand. Read to learn.

Learning new things is enjoyable because you are discovering more things about this crazy, wonderful world and you are widening your horizons. Many of the things that found themselves in my writing were gathered from knowledge accumulated over the years, not just functional or useful knowledge, even random trivia, pieces of history, factoids from science, and profound insights about the world and the human condition.

Collect everything. Absorb everything. Plant the knowledge inside your head and maybe someday it will grow or become part of something beautiful. 

  • Second, make the most of your time to write.

When I was younger, I took the time I had for granted because I had so much of it. Well, now I’m over 40 and my body doesn’t feel as physically capable as before.

I also don’t have as much time to write as before since I have a family and I need to put my family first before my writing.

Schedule your writing sessions beforehand. Spread them out if you’re going to write a long piece. Assess the difficulty level of a writing project and estimate the amount of time, mental effort and emotional investment you need to write it, and plan accordingly.

I would like to write a novel someday but I realistically don’t have the time for it right now so I focus on smaller works like flash fiction, occasional poetry, quick essays, short stories, and completing what will hopefully be my first collection of short fiction.

  • Third, be patient with yourself. Be patient with your writing.

You don’t have all the time in the world to write. Don’t beat up yourself in your progress as a writer, especially when  your writing peers are very prolific and winning literary contests. Focus on yourself and improving your writing.

Write one story at a time. Revise one story at a time. Learn to be emotionally invested in a story and learn to emotionally detach yourself from it when revising.

When you’re stuck revising a story like I did with “Sayf Al’Iiman,” let it go and do something else. You’ll be ready to come back to your writing in due time, after days, months and even years in this story’s case.

In the meantime, make yourself active. Read. Learn new things. Live. When you return to an unfinished work, you’ll be a different person, more knowledgeable, wiser, and ready to finish what you started.

What’s the one thing not mentioned in your profile that you would like people to know about you?

I buy books faster than I can read them. You could call me a book collector but I don’t collect books for the sake of collecting them.

I buy books for the sake of reading them someday. Realistically, that’s not possible, considering the number of books stacked in my house, but I’ve always considered books to be an investment and a heritage to be passed on.

If I won’t be able to read all the books I’ve bought over the years, I entrust them to my sons who will hopefully read them one day and enjoy the books I’ve read and the books I never got to read.

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