Read Part One here.
Read Part Two here.
Read Part Three here.
Read Part Four here.
Airship Ambassador: As a reader, what has made you stop reading something before finishing it? How do you try to avoid that issue in your own writing, and help authors avoid it, too?
Jaymee Goh: Generally I tend to be careful about what I start so I don’t have to put it down until I’m done. I figure that even if it’s not my thing, it might be someone else’s. But things that will keep me away from a book? Bad writing—clunky sentences, poor editing, uncompelling descriptions.
Bad writing also—unexamined racism, hipster racism, casual sexism and homophobia, undercurrents of transphobia and hatred of disability. Gross divisions of classes with bad justifications for them. A narrow-minded perspective. But these are things that I could keep reading through because I like a good train wreck. In fact, I did read through a couple of novels recently, for my dissertation, that were train wrecks. And again, just because I hate racist novels, doesn’t mean someone else won’t love ‘em.
Most often, though, the thing that will make me stop reading before finishing is simply… a lack of attention. This could be mental, like, I’m too tired and the story is too heavy for me to tolerate (a symptom of grad school). It could be physical, like, I’m just physically too tired to keep my eyes open, or too uncomfortable to keep my mind on the book (another symptom of grad school).
AA: What do you consider your first real writing or editing experience?
JG: Hrm. What does “real” writing mean, though? The first time I committed to a long narrative or the first time I committed an act of poetry? All my life. I wrote little stories when I was a little child. When I was 9, I began buying exercise books specifically to write long narratives, complete with chapters and all. I typed up my first novel of sorts when I was 11, and even (gasp!) finished it. I drew my own comics. When I hit secondary school, I designated one exercise book to be “The Book of Crap” and filled it with scribbles, excerpts of stories, or doodles of characters (at the back I did math equations). When that book was full, I simply started a new one. I had schoolmates who would read these snippets—they were characters in my stories, so I had a ready audience—and we would exchange our writings. I published a couple of stories in the yearbooks as I neared graduation.
In school for English exams, we usually had a section at the end, which was usually an essay of some sort, with a choice of an argumentative essay, a formal letter, an informal letter, or what we called “continuous writing,” usually a creative prompt. I almost always picked that option. When I got to university, I had a poem published in the English Society’s poetry chapbook. I also moderated a writing forum, at which I posted a lot of poetry and critiqued everyone (and won Writer of the Year maybe twice in a row).
But “real” writing? Maybe we can use the standard of, “got paid for it”—that would be “Between Islands” in 2010. My first experience editing—reading submissions, rejecting them, giving feedback and putting together the table of contents, and final copy-editing—would have been Doctor Bill Shakes and the Magnificent Ionic Pentatetrameter: A Steampunk’s Shakespeare Anthology.
AA: I think I’ll go with your answer of ‘9’ 🙂 How have you and your work grown and changed over time?
JG: Hopefully it is less puerile now than it was back then. I was very fond of the exceptional child narrative, abandoned children who survived through their special abilities and readiness to fight and kill. Part of it was just my natural arrogance, which is not a good look to have at any age, but probably even more insufferable when one is a child.
When I finally began publishing, I moved away from the exceptional, self-contained person (who is, ultimately, not realistic) into casts of characters that interact with each other, creating tensions through their own individual characteristics. Not necessarily out of malice, not out of refusal to cooperate, but simply difference. I am more interested in ideas and I pay more attention to the world inside the story. The plots are a little thin these days, which I lament, but the voice is stronger, and the concepts are less derivative. I hope.
AA: In your experience as an editor, what have been the hardest and most useful skills to learn?
JG: How to arrange a story’s plot into something more compelling! I really had to approach these stories as a reader, rather than a writer—it’s something on the other side of the screen. I’ve brought that into my own writing.
But as an editor, turning back to my writerly side, learning how to use feedback to improve the text has also been an important lesson. My writers were so, so, so good at it—even after I basically had them move whole chunks of text here and there, and re-arranged the structure of the story (without changing the story), they were so game to do the changes I requested, had so much grace about it. At times I felt like a complete asshole about the whole editing process, even though I knew it would make the story stronger! So that was valuable to learn, too.
AA: What are some of your methods to stay motivated and creative?
JG: Writing shouldn’t be a struggle, although too often it is. That’s why I have several projects on the go—if one becomes horrific and demoralizing to work on, I just shift to another. I do other things—I take walks, I hang with friends, I do something pleasurable. There’s no point staring at an empty screen feeling guilty that it’s blank for two hours when I could go walk for an hour and come back feeling refreshed. I would have wasted that time staring at the screen anyway!
My attitude towards writing changes as my needs do. Sometimes, if it comes, it comes, and when it doesn’t, it just doesn’t, and I won’t feel guilty about it. That said, other times, it very much is a matter of discipline. Octavia Butler pointed out that no one starts writing the good stuff immediately. It just comes out later, and persistence is the key. And persistence requires a certain discipline and dedication. When inspiration fails me, discipline carries me.
There will be times when even discipline will fail me. I can’t be disciplined through a bad brain patch. I can’t use dedication to get depressive, intrusive thoughts out of my head. And those are my worst times, my least creative times. Some people say they write their depression out, it’s a source of creativity for them, and I just can’t do that. For me, creativity comes when I am interacting with the world, experiencing it, and learning new things about it. So to keep creative, I open myself to experiences, to new knowledge.
We’ll pause here in our chat with Jaymee. Join us for the conclusion when she talks about interests and influences.
You can support Jaymee and our community by getting your copy of The Sea Is Ours here.
Also, check out her exhibit page at The Steampunk Museum.