A Mind for Self-Improvement
An Interview with Ai Jiangconducted by Jack Windeyer
Re your prodigious output (1500+ submissions in 3 years): Did you make a premeditated plan to write and submit so much or is this your natural cadence? What habits help make this possible?
I never originally intended to write or submit as much as I did, but I have quite an obsessive and impulsive personality, in that once I put my mind to something, it’s difficult for me to do it in moderation. Though I suppose this was something good to have when it comes to writing, it also creates bad habits like non-stop binge watching tv shows and movies, playing videos games hours upon hours, or obsessively training in badminton to the point where I’ve likely spent more time on it than I have on schoolwork. So, I suppose you could say that it was due to bad habits I’ve built throughout my childhood that has allowed me to achieve relatively good habits when it comes to writing, or at least allowed me to be able to increase my story output and submission rate.
How do you keep the writing process fresh and interesting? How do you approach experimentation?
I am someone who has a very short attention span that’s carried into adulthood from when I was a child. I always have to switch between different mediums—art, animation, live action, text-based media, no media at all—and have always been quite fidgety (still am), so I find that I like to bend genres in my writing or skip between various genres from realist fiction to sci-fi/fantasy to horror to a blending of a few or all of them or explore their different subgenres. I find that writing stories linearly or only through a certain perspective might become stale for me overtime, so I like to experiment with different perspectives, formats, ideas when I can, regardless of whether or not they’re success. I enjoy doing so because it challenges me as an artist and always pushes me to improve my craft in different directions. And because the form or genre is different every time, it keeps my mind from slipping into routine.
Have your habits, processes, or tools changed in any significant way during the past three years? What caused the change? What effect has the change had (whether positive or negative)?
I think specifically after attending Odyssey Workshop, the wealth of my tools in writing has become a lot more advanced and numerous in number, though I’m still trying learn how to effectively and efficiently employ everything I’ve learned in my drafting and revising process while retaining the writing voice and style I’ve developed (and I think have settled) over the past three years. I’ve also found the way I’ve approached drafting has changed this year specifically in that I’m shifting to long form and find it difficult to write the way I have with short stories—sentence by sentence, without moving on until each line is crafted to satisfaction. With novels, this style of drafting is hard to sustain, so I’ve been trying to tackle one aspect at a time with each novel draft, so I find myself falling back to old habits that make for cleaner first drafts in the end even if it does take longer initially. I do think that my process on developing plot and character arcs have changed since diving into long form in the past year and a half, in that I’m able to better see how events and causal chains as well as character development might track over a longer period of time rather than the condensed and zoomed in format of short stories where characters may not necessarily undergo significant or have numerous trials in which they have to undergo.
If a friend or family member came to you for advice about becoming a writer, what is the first thing you would tell them? What makes that particular piece of advice so important? When and how did you learn it?
I would tell that (in the case of making writing a full-time career) if they are not ready for endless rejection, persistence, a mind for self-improvement, a hunger for success, but also the capacity to extend kindness even given these challenges, it will be difficult to “succeed”, at least if they have the aim to publish. But I think it greatly differs as well in what the friend or family’s goals are as a writer, whether it is for themselves or are they writing for an audience, if their goal is to self-publish or go trad or to write without showing anyone their writing. I think there are many young writers (not all of course) who might glorify writing and writers because of the success stories without considering the pitfalls that will occur far more than the triumphs.
I think one piece of advice that I found most useful, though I can’t recall where I heard it now, is that the biggest mistake someone can make in their life is to believe they are special, but it is also a mistake to believe that they are not. I’ve always been a big advocate of hard work, although when I was younger, that was what I was afraid of most—to put in endless hours and have nothing to show for it. But writing has taught me to look past that, though sometimes I still have the fear, and to work hard for my passion and continue to work hard even if the labour does not pay off.
I think for me, I’ve always known it would be hard, and I’d left behind the idea that I would be that one special person who is lucky enough to land an agent quickly or big deals and more so focused on the things within my control like working to hone my craft and trying to get my work in front of more eyes by writing and submitting more.
Tell me about a writing technique that you're currently excited about. What interests you about it? Where does it fit in with your existing understanding of craft?
I think one perspective I’m keen to introduce more into my long form work and into the literary conversation in general is First Person Plural (We/Us). There is something alluring about the collective mindset but also the way that individual experiences can also be drawn out through it. Particularly because I come from a family and background that places the collective value about the individual, it’s one I’m curious to explore how as individuals we might sacrifice personal agency for the good of the whole or break away from the collective in favour of individualism and how that might impact culture and personal livelihood.
I’m always interested in more experimental formats such as epistolary storytelling, non-linear timelines, structures outside of the standard three-act, and multi-pov in long form as well as including things such as illustrations, maps, play on language and its construction as an active part of the storytelling. I like to tackle each story as differently as I can from the last if the premise and story fits with the experimental intent.
I think one of the things that I’ve always kept close to heart is the idea that rules of craft only exist for you to first understand them so you can later break them. There isn’t one specific way to write a story or what makes a story good, I think, and craft knowledge is there for you to wield to expand and extend on the possibilities of storytelling rather than confine you within the bounds of what is seemingly tried and true.
What does success as a writer mean to you? What would constitute failure?
I think this might be something everchanging for me. In the beginning, success meant simply writing a good story, then it became publishing, then it became awards, then it became exposure and landing large book deals, but now, I think it’s all of the above, but I am trying not to lose sight of why I came into writing, which I realized was to better understand myself, the world around me, and to write—and write well—about the things that matter to me most. As for failure, I try not to think about anything about failure anymore but simply a setback or stumble on a path, a new challenge to overcome before continuing on my journey. As long as I am still trying, I think that’s all that matters.
Practice figures prominently in the process of many artistic disciplines. A painter may make a few studies of objects before they begin on the real painting. Do you make time for practice in your writing routine? What does it look like?
So rather than specifically doing exercises in writing, I treat each piece I write and publish as a writing exercise which one I will improve a lacking aspect in my next piece. I’m not the type to revisit things I have written and dramatically revise them but more so implement what I have learned into something new. I come from a background of English Literature—it’s what I’d specialized in during my undergraduate studies. I find that through doing literary analysis, I also have internalized the various writers’ and works’ styles and modes of storytelling—the way the language is crafted, the progression of different story structures and voices and styles, what I enjoy about each and what I didn’t. Though, for the most part, I enjoyed almost everything I read during my studies. Now, I tend to do something similar, in that I analyze for writers in various genres do well, what they do in common, what sets them apart, and how my writing might fit or be set apart from what already exists.
What well-springs of inspiration do you return to when you need to get the creative juices flowing? Do you find inspiration in works of art from other mediums?
I usually watch a lot of tv or movies in various genres, from different countries and languages, or watch documentaries of phenomenon that interest me, or read historical/scholarly articles on events, mythologies, cultural interests. I listen to music, marvel artwork, watch different forms of art like dance and opera, along with sports. I think inspiration can be drawn from everywhere, especially in places where you least expect it.
If you know another artist well who works within a different medium (musician, painter, et al.), what similarities do you see between your process and theirs? What differences? Do you think there is a common core experience for all artists? Why or why not?
My mother is a visual artist and a friend of mine is a musician. We all seem to take on more than what we can handle on our plate—both art-wise and things unrelated or somewhat related to our art in order to better support our art. For example, my mother teaches art and does her own passion projects in her free time. Similarly, my musician friend edits for others and performs at events with prewritten music and writes songs and produces them in his free time. I do think we all often give ourselves excuses to not do our own art even though that is what we desire most to do.
In terms of work process similarities, I think we all draw from our life and experiences in creating our art. My mother likes to paint existing landscapes, collage objects, paint portraits of family and friends. My musician friend often likes to write music about life’s challenges and struggles, heartache and hardship. For me, I also like to explore my own experiences and my surroundings and explore them in depth through my work. I think the difference between my mother, my musician friend, and me is that I find my work most politically and culturally driven compared to my mother and musician friend’s work which is more personally and emotionally driven.
When you encounter difficulty in the creative process, how do you respond? What techniques have you found to "get unstuck?”
I spend long hours brewing on potential solutions or I defer to other media for inspiration, such as to see the way others might tackle specific challenges a character faces in plot—whether similar or dissimilar to my own characters, I think there’s an opportunity to discover approaches that I might not have initially thought of.