I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Owen for just over three years now and he is one fascinating guy. He has a ton of valuable experience and advice for both aspiring and seasoned writers. I was happy to ask him a bunch of writerly question and he was gracious enough to answer 🙂
You write for both adults and teens. When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you start?
I first knew I wanted to be a writer in my teens. I’d never considered myself a very creative person, but I’d always read voraciously, and writing sprang up naturally from that. I remember admiring certain writers for the feelings and imagery they were able to evoke with their words, and wanting to emulate that. And I tended to do pretty well on writing assignments in school, so I figured out that it was both something I enjoyed and something I was good at, so I started to dream about making a career out of it.
I started with creative writing assignments and high school short story contests, and I was lucky enough to have teachers and mentors who recognized that I was passionate about writing, and who encouraged me to keep dreaming, enough that I didn’t think it was unreasonable to consider writing a full-time potential occupation. When I was eighteen or nineteen I started writing novels, and by the time I hit my third year of university I’d pretty much abandoned any pretence of finding a fallback job (I was studying to become a veterinarian), and transferred into a creative writing program instead.
From there, it took a few years of perseverance before I got my first book deal, but that was when I knew that writing was what I wanted to do with my life, and I wasn’t going to deviate from that goal until I knew for sure that it was impossible. And it turns out that it wasn’t impossible, so here I am.
What genre(s) do you write in? What is it that you love about them?
I write mainly crime fiction. My day job is writing a series of thrillers about an FBI agent and a state policeman who team up to solve these big, sensational cases, and I really enjoy it.
When I studied creative writing, I worked under the assumption that I would graduate and go on to write Big Important Literature, like, say, Phillip Roth or Richard Ford. But when I looked at making a career of this, I realized pretty quickly that the market for novels by and about overprivileged twentysomething white men is quite small (and justifiably so).
I knew crime fiction was a genre that could offer me a future, and just as important, I knew I could still say what I wanted to say about the state of the world while couching it in the kinds of fun, action-y cops-and-robbers sagas that I liked to read and watch at the movies.
I like crime fiction because it’s fun to write about criminals and cops and big, crazy shootouts, but also because I can weasel in some social commentary behind all the cinematic stuff, and hopefully combine good entertainment with a deeper point about the world. Crime fiction has always been good at holding up a mirror to society, and I really value that.
I also write young adult fiction, which is also pretty crime-based. What I like about YA is that I can be a little more expressive with my writing; with my thrillers, I’m writing for the man or woman who wants to read a good cops-and-robbers story on the flight from LA to New York, so I try to keep my style simple and no frills.
With YA, though, I think younger readers enjoy a little more inventiveness and audacity, and I get a lot of fun out of trying to push the boundaries of what’s stylistically acceptable, and with playing with tropes and clichés and breaking down the fourth wall. I really enjoy just getting to let loose and be obnoxious and scatter words all over the page, where with my thrillers I’m a lot more buttoned up.
Also, YA is good for reliving high school the way you wish you could have lived it, instead of fumbling through awkwardly the way most of us actually did.
Who are some of your favorite authors? Why?
I really like Don Winslow. I admire his versatility; Power of the Dog is a sprawling, incredibly well-researched epic about the Mexican drug war that might as well be a factual account, while something like Savages is experimental and audacious and fun—and actually inspired me to play around with my own style in my first YA novel, which owes a lot to Savages.
I like James Ellroy, too, particularly his American Tabloid trilogy. I love his inventiveness and creativity with language; to me, that’s something that really appeals about writing, and that I really enjoy. Ellroy’s novels have a rhythm and a syntax that would drive your English teacher crazy, but they convey the feeling of his world so incredibly well. I like writers who take chances and break rules, and Ellroy and Winslow both fit that mold. They’re also amazing storytellers.
I also like Thomas King and Sherman Alexie, who are First Nation writers who do biting social satire with a mischievous bent, and who tend to fill their work with symbolism, winks and nudges and Easter eggs for the reader. And I’m a big fan of Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy, too.
What inspires your ideas? How do you come up with them?
My ideas come from all over. I’m the kind of guy who looks up at the security cameras while I’m waiting in line at the bank, and wonders how a person would hypothetically rob the joint. So you could say my books keep me out of prison—at least until I decide to write a novel set in a jail.
I read a lot, too, and keep up with the news, and most of my books are inspired in part by the social backdrop of the times. My first two books, The Professionals and Criminal Enterprise were written during the big economic meltdown in the late 2000s, and are about people who turn to crime because they don’t see any other answers in a failing job market.
My third novel, Kill Fee, is concerned in part about the masses of soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and how poorly-equipped our healthcare providers are to deal with the large number of veterans who suffer from PTSD and depression.
What are you working on now?
I’m polishing up my second YA book, The Suicide Pack, which is about a group of beautiful rich kids who start building bombs. And I’m working on my sixth Stevens and Windermere thriller, which should be out in 2017. It’s inspired in part by the Highway of Tears in northern British Columbia, a stretch of road where tens of Native Canadian women have disappeared or been murdered over the last twenty or so years, with no big inquiry or effort to find the killers.
What does a typical writing look like for you/what is your process?
I write five days a week, Monday through Friday, and I write five thousand words every day that I’m working. My goal is to get a first draft out as quickly as possible, even if it really sucks. I feel like many aspiring authors put too much stock in polishing the first few chapters of their work, and so don’t ever actually finish the story. If you can get a first draft finished, no matter how bad it is, your miles ahead of the game.
So I get a first draft written as quickly as I can, and then I sit on it for a month or so. Then I print it out and slash it to pieces with my editing pen, and when that’s done, I make an outline out of what’s left and rewrite it all. And I repeat this process until I have something that works.
I can usually get a first draft done in a month or two, and a book more or less finished in six months. I developed this process because when I started out trying to seriously make a career out of writing crime fiction, I had just quit my job and was living off of my savings. So I wanted to write as much as I could before the money ran out, and hope that I hit a book deal before I had to go back and find a real job. I wouldn’t advise an aspiring writer to follow my lead, but I really do espouse the benefits of writing an awful first draft and making it better, rather than working on the world’s best first chapter for three or four years.
If one of your novels was made into a movie, which would you choose and what actors would you cast to play the three main roles?
Yikes. This is a question that I’ve been asked more than a few times, and I still don’t have any really good answers. My thriller series is about a young, black FBI agent and her state police counterpart, who is a middle-aged white guy, and there has been talk about making the first of the series, The Professionals into a movie, but I honestly don’t have the faintest idea who I would cast.
I would like to see my first YA novel, How to Win at High School made into a movie. I don’t know enough teen actors to cast the thing in my mind, but I think it would be a fun flick; it’s pretty off the wall and kind of, you know, meta, and I’d love to see what a director would do to maintain the tone and style of the book.
What have been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned on your writing journey so far?
One of the best things I’ve learned as a writer is how welcoming and supportive the writing community is, in particular the crime fiction community. This is not a world of jealous, backstabbing jerks; people care about each other, and celebrate each others’ works and successes to an incredible degree.
I’m often asked what I think is the best strategy for publicizing your books, and I think joining the writing community and making friends absolutely does wonders. If people like you, they’ll retweet your preorder link, or they’ll interview you for their website, or they’ll agree to blurb your book. Being nice is a hell of a lot more effective than spamming Facebook with a bunch of automatically generated messages.
I’ve also learned that copyeditors are unsung heroes, and also that, even as a traditionally published writer, there’s only so much that the editing process can or will undertake to fix. The onus is really on you as a writer to write an amazing book before you send it to your publisher; I have amazing editors who help me fix plot holes and tighten up drafts, but the era of editors working with an author to shape a pile of rough notes into an award-winning novel are long gone. It’s on you to be proactive.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Write the first draft (see above). Don’t be afraid to suck. Work out a routine for yourself and set a word count goal (a thousand words is a good, reachable goal), and endeavour to meet it every day.
Stick with your idea through the honeymoon phase. Like a relationship, you’ll have a few weeks where you’re head over heels in love with your book idea, and then you’ll get a few chapters in and it’ll start to seem like work. Relationships take work, and so does writing a book. Sometimes you have to slog through the unsexy bits if you want to succeed.
And finally – learn to edit your own work as ruthlessly as if your worst enemy wrote it. Be absolutely merciless when it comes to cutting and pruning. Keep a word file on your computer full of the beautiful passages that didn’t fit the novel, but get them out of the novel and keep them out. If you can look at your own work critically, and train yourself to cut out the sucky bits, no matter how much you like them, you’re in great shape. Everything should be in service to the novel, not to your ego.
And finally Owen, anything else you would like to add or talk about?
When I quit my job to pursue a writing career, I had one crazy thought in the back of my mind: sooner or later, James Patterson is going to have to stop writing books. Someone’s going to have to take his place. Why not you?
I’ve had eight books published or under contract through a Big 5 publisher since I quit my job in 2009. Writing has paid my rent for the last five years. I wouldn’t advise quitting your job in pursuit of a book deal, but I would advise dreaming big and reaching for your goals, no matter how unattainable they seem.
I don’t think I’m the most talented writer in the world, but I am pretty darn disciplined, and I can edit my own work pretty well, besides. To me, those are the most important qualities a writer can have. You have to get lucky in this business, for sure, but you also have to work hard, and you have to have the will to persevere when everyone else tells you you’re stupid for chasing the dream. The people who get book deals aren’t always the most talented writers; they’re the ones who kept trying until they broke through.
Thank you so much! That was such an enlightening and inspiring interview with some very great advice. Where can people find out more about you and your books?
Website: www.owenlaukkanen.com , www.theowenmatthews.com
Online at: @owenlaukkanen (Twitter and Instagram), @owenmatthewsYA (Twitter), facebook.com/TheOwenLaukkanen