Learning to Love Writing: An Interview with Boon Lauw

Boon Lauw recently won in this year’s PBBY-Salanga Prize for his novel ‘Team Abangers at ang Estilong Trumpo.’ Lauw’s winning piece is about an orphan who plans to join the televised Laro ng Lahi contest to help her locate her parents. Lauw will be awarded at the 37th National Children’s Book Day celebration on July 21, 2020. 

Lauw is from General Santos City and currently based in Quezon City. He took up BS Chemical Engineering at UP Diliman. He is now teaching as a Special Science Teacher at Philippine Science High School Main Campus. He is one of the fellows in the 3rd Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio Writers’ Workshop (2018) organized by the UP Likhaan Institute of Creative Writing.

In this interview, he shares his writing process and experience, his winning piece, and gives advice to those who want to pursue writing. 

"I realized I loved writing after writing my very first chapter. You see, I began my writing career with a novel. I didn’t start with poems or short stories."

YADU KARU: When did you start to realize that you love writing? 

BOON LAUW: I realized I loved writing after writing my very first chapter. You see, I began my writing career with a novel. I didn’t start with poems or short stories (which I still don’t know how to write until now). It was a high fantasy novel called The Forgotten Lyrics which I had published online. After 42 chapters and halfway through the story, I discontinued the project and took it off the platform. 

I found that finishing a chapter was the most gratifying feeling in the world. It’s synonymous to that feeling you get after a long exam when you finally put down your pen and grin to yourself, knowing you did well. 

Writing is also my release and anchor to sanity. I had terrible insomnia since way before and I’m a persistent lucid dreamer. Before I began writing, there were even times I would go on for days without sleep. There was too much noise inside my head. Fortunately, I tried writing on a whim. One time, after three straight days without sleep and with my mind about to burst, there was nothing else I could do. So I got out of bed and went to a nearby fast-food chain at five in the morning. I ate breakfast, took out my laptop, and started writing the details of my dreams. By the time I was done, I had the best feeling in the world and I was ready to sleep. 

"When it comes to generating ideas, I usually let my subconscious do all the heavy lifting."

YK: Can you share to us your creative writing process? 

BL: When it comes to generating ideas, I usually let my subconscious do all the heavy lifting. The only thing I need is a question and there’s no way to keep my mind from thinking of an answer. I usually get my ideas after sleeping, or when my body is on autopilot (while taking a bath, cooking, driving through a familiar route, jogging). Sometimes, a nap is all it takes. 

In developing an idea into a story, I usually identify two points. In geometry, two points make a line. I’ve only written linear stories so far, so this method worked for me. I think of an event that may happen at the beginning of the story, and an event during the climax or ending. Then, as usual, I let my brain go wild and wait for the results. Once I find those two satisfactory points, I am then ready to play the whole story in my mind. I just need to fill the space between the two points, or even beyond—making a line. 

But perhaps the step I consider most important to my creative writing process is characterization. I believe that characters drive a story, not the other way around. The more you visualize and flesh out your characters, the easier it is to write. Putting them in an outrageous situation to drive a story is an easy task. But writing it down so that it becomes believable to you and the readers can be a tall order. Fleshing out your characters makes the process easier. It usually comes to a point wherein you already know what they’re going to say, how they would respond, or what they’re about to do—writing the words then becomes automatic. 

"When stuck, I usually go out for a run. Jogging inside UP at night clears my mind. The fresh air, the silence, and the repetitive action enable me to focus or manipulate my subconscious into thinking about one idea at a time."

YK: What are your writing inspirations? 

BL: Easiest/fastest way for me to replenish creativity is by consuming anime/manga. There’s always immediately a lot going on in every chapter or episode of an anime/manga. This content allows for a temporary escape from the box I tend to build around myself while writing. Also, I usually don’t touch any book while I’m writing (so that I keep and develop my own voice as much as possible). So Anime and manga are my only sources of entertainment while writing. Movies and series sometimes, but these usually require a lot of time to properly consume. 

When stuck, I usually go out for a run. Jogging inside UP at night clears my mind. The fresh air, the silence, and the repetitive action enable me to focus or manipulate my subconscious into thinking about one idea at a time. 

"Xi Zuq’s ‘Supremo’ series also gave me valuable insight on how to write in Filipino in a way that is easy to digest and unintimidating. His books became the base for my handle on the Filipino language."

YK: Who are your writing influences? 

BL: My writing influences include Brandon Sanderson, Leigh Bardugo, and Xi Zuq. I love Brandon Sanderson’s mind. As a writer, I can usually predict where the story would go while reading. When you see the foreshadowing and the level of importance given to a character, you will then know what’s going to happen to him or her. But I find it difficult to do that with Sanderson’s books. I also admire his worldbuilding abilities, making him my goal. 

Meanwhile, I admire Leigh Bardugo’s technique. She writes so impeccably to the point wherein I really see myself inside the world she creates. 

Xi Zuq is my friend and mentor. Most of my know-how and techniques were developed through his guidance and patience. He’s the nicest person I’ve met, and I bully him into reading my works. I have huge respect for his opinion and advice. Without his help, my writing would not have reached the level that it is now (whatever that is). The best thing he did as a mentor was that he refrained from influencing my style. Usually, it was I who did most of the influencing—defending whatever piece of crap I’ve written. He let me grow on my own as a writer. He would offer some opinions and advice, but he never forced me to write anything. 

Xi Zuq’s ‘Supremo’ series also gave me valuable insight on how to write in Filipino in a way that is easy to digest and unintimidating. His books became the base for my handle on the Filipino language. 

YK: How’s your experience joining in the 3rd Amelia Lapena Bonifacio Writers Workshop? 

BL: It was a good experience. I was already used to the revalida format from my previous work as a technical supervisor on a beer manufacturing plant, so that worked out for me. The workshop gave me the opportunity to practice and solidify everything I’ve learned from my mentor, as well as learn new things. 

YK: What’s your reaction when you first heard the news that you’ve won in PBBY Salanga Writers Prize 2020? 

BL: It would be a lie if I said I wasn’t happy. But when I read the email from PBBY, I was not able to fully express myself. The secretariat noted that I couldn’t disclose the information yet. I was at work, so the only people I could disclose the information to were accessible only through text message and chat. I couldn’t contain my smile though and kept on asking people for an “apir”. The prize confirmed that my stories have enough of those that were needed to become published. 

"The idea came from my experience at an orphanage a few years before."

YK: Can you share something about your entry? 

BL: ‘Team Abangers at ang Estilong Trumpo’ began as a project with my mentor. I was trying to learn how to write a child’s voice and Xi Zuq, for me, was the best at that. We brainstormed ideas and fleshed out the characters. I wrote the story and then gave it to him chapter by chapter. After which he would give me an edited version, which I would then read and dissect. By the end of the story’s first version, he had already taught me how to write in a child’s voice. The story was accepted for publication (we were supposed to be co-authors), but some problems were met on the marketing side and the opportunity was eventually lost. 

During one of the editing sessions, I rewrote the story to a different perspective (from the first person to the third person). Sometime after the cancellation, Xi Zuq told me to pitch the story into the contest. With his blessing, I submitted the version I wrote on my own. 

The idea came from my experience at an orphanage a few years before. A foster child who had been fostered at my girlfriend’s home was about to go to her adoptive family. While waiting for the long process of adoption, I accompanied my girlfriend and her foster sister inside the orphanage. They had this huge playground inside. As we were trying out the equipment, we reached the slide. A young kid arrived wearing his school uniform. When he saw us, he quickly stashed his bag into their dorm and came outside. He followed us around without speaking, trying out every equipment that was close to us (or within observable distance). I then realized that he was showing off his skills. My girlfriend spoke with him and asked him a few things. We learned that he was Grade 6 and had already been inside the orphanage since he was young. When we were supposed to leave and bid him farewell, I saw a hint of dismay pass by on his face for a moment. He stopped using the equipment and returned to their dorm. I really wished there was something I could do to help him. 

Meanwhile, the idea of incorporating Philippine Games into the story came naturally to me while I was recalling the memory from the playground. It also helped that I had an eventful childhood playing on the streets when I was in elementary. I also had the opportunity to take up a P.E. class on Philippine Games. Our teacher’s zeal and love for the game was highly infectious. Our semester with Miss Jo-ann Grecia surely became an unforgettable time for all her students. 

YK: Is there a conscious decision to write for children? Why novels for children? 

BL: Yes. The first novel I finished writing under Xi Zuq’s guidance was a Young Adult (YA) novel revolving around an alternative martial law setting. It had good feedback from several publishers but I was told they couldn’t publish it yet. I was told that they already had a lot of books on their shelves inspired by martial law stories. (It was actually accepted by a publisher but I had it pulled out because I wanted to tweak the story. I’m only halfway through the job though until now. I got distracted.) At the time, I had little knowledge of how the industry works. The only classifications of the genre I knew were fantasy, sci-fi, fiction, non-fiction, romance, YA, autobiography, and children’s books. As such, I had no issue about trying to write books for children. I learned that books for children were the most marketable in the Philippines, so I thought, why not? By the way, I started writing Team Abangers maybe 2 weeks after I finished my first novel. I was really addicted to writing (I wrote 1 chapter a day, every day). 

Since developing a love for reading, I had only ever read fantasy/adventure novels (usually trilogies and series). I have read a few poems and some academically-required short stories, but never in leisure. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that I am only able to write novels for now. I have great difficulty in writing short stories. I tried, but they were dreadful. I despised the limit on the word count. Most (actually all) of what I’ve written were intended to become a series. 

I have recently read some of Kristine Ong Muslim’s work though, and it got me thinking. The challenging style definitely fuels my creative curiosity. 

So, regardless of target readers, you can expect me to write more novels in the future. 

YK: What do you remember most about GenSan? 

BL: I remember our veranda where my grandparents used to sit and let the peaceful afternoon go by. Of course, it wasn’t completely peaceful. There was no shortage of things they could possibly bicker about. But that memory, in itself, reminds me of my first home. 

YK: Are you planning to write something about your place or something that connects to your roots? 

BL: I have already written a fantasy novel involving GenSan called ANITO. Actually, the first book (series again) is set on Mindanao. It has already been accepted by a publisher and they’re waiting for my edited version (which I haven’t touched yet because I’m still finishing another short novel for my students). 

I have also written and fleshed out the details of an English novel revolving around Pre-Spanish colonial history and Philippine mythology. I was stuck in chapter 2 though because I had problems with the characterization of one of the main characters. He was just too complex, and I don’t know any fictional/nonfictional character to draw him upon. 

YK: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received so far? 

BL: My mentor’s first advice, which was also the most memorable one. He said (non-verbatim, to be honest, I don’t remember the exact words (laugh). I’ll be making up words instead)…he said that the first three sentences of a novel must be able to hook the reader in immediately, like in fishing. Then you maintain the line with the first three paragraphs; the reader should feel that he/she can’t help but turn the first page. You reel him/her in with the first three chapters. So that after that, you have the reader’s mind and heart—hook, line, and sinker. 

He gave me this opening sentence from a submission he had given a review about at that time: Jars are easy to open. It was such a simple sentence, and yet so much WOW. It’s the kind of sentence in which you can’t help but take a pause to slowly digest it. And then, you can’t help but read what’s next. To this day, I hold that opening sentence in very high regard. It’s the basis for my taste in opening chapters. The closest one I could get to its level (for an unfinished novel) was: Paper beats rock. 

"And as general advice, make writing a habit. Write as often as you can. It makes writing easier. Write even if you’re not actually writing anything. The mind is a beautiful thing."

YK: What’s your advice to those who want to pursue writing? 

BL: First, write for yourself. You are your story’s first reader. It must look perfect for you. It’s your brainchild so it’s the best. It feels like it really is THE BEST. You’d kill anyone who would think otherwise. 

Second, this is the hardest. This, I believe, is what separates the more accomplished writers from the rest. You must find at least two people who are willing to read your work. Sounds easy though, right? It’s actually very difficult and mostly based on circumstance and luck. There are two kinds of people you must have for your journey. One who is willing to read your work, and honestly think what you write is as good as you think it is—even when it’s actually crap. He/she is your number one fan. And another one who is also willing to read your work and give you the criticism that you need. You must value this person’s opinion enough that you would actually listen and apply what’s been said. It would never work if even a tiny part in you thinks you’re better than his/her opinion. And above all, they shouldn’t take such a very long time to read your work and get back to you. If they ghost you or you’ve been seen-zoned, move on. They’re not the ones for you. 

Third, learn to accept criticism. You should realize that you don’t have to literally kill someone for finding faults in your work. In my experience (not necessarily in writing), the more shitty things someone says about your output or what you do, the better the intention to improve whatever it is that was criticized (as long as you respect their opinion). Of course, they could be saying crappy things about your work to make themselves feel good—that’s just human. But if you look beyond that, you’ll discover that they thought about it better and actually analyzed your work more than those who try to sugarcoat their words. 

Fourth, rewrite according to the suggestions of your editor, or whoever counts as a critic for your work. Allow him/her to dissect your initial drafts. He/she knows better. 

Fifth, write for your intended audience. By this point, you already have a version that is only satisfactory to you and your editor. But you don’t want to have a few readers. So you rewrite/edit your manuscript to a version you believe would be enjoyed by your editor and your intended audience. 

And as general advice, make writing a habit. Write as often as you can. It makes writing easier. Write even if you’re not actually writing anything. The mind is a beautiful thing.


*You can read Boon Lauw's Pikit Mata novel in this link

*[Photos are from Boon Lauw and Philippine Star for the 3rd Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio Writers’ Workshop photo]