Chatting with Ian Li
Ian details moving from the finance to writing industry, the creavity of game design vs. writing, using spreadsheets to help his submission process, and how dystopia is more realistic than ever in our world.
Ian Li left his career as an economist and consultant, and he now dabbles in writing sci-fi, developing games, and designing websites in his hometown of Toronto. Find more about him at https://ian-li.com.
Q: How do you feel your background in finance lends to the sci-fi content you write, such as the anti-capitalist themes that are present in “Distilling Emotion”?
Much of my writing is dark and dystopian. While my finance background never consciously plays into what I write, my perspectives are shaped by my experiences, and my interactions with the finance industry indirectly influenced some of those perspectives.
In the dystopias that writers dream up, one frightening aspect is often manipulated perceptions. During my undergrad at Columbia University, financial firms positioned themselves as high-paying, prestigious, and stable, even as the 2007–2008 financial crisis was fresh in our minds. When my peers all gunned for these roles, I was swept up in the fervor too. Even the career office and pre-professional organizations appeared to venerate the bankers that visited campus to recruit. In this microcosm, many students developed this warped idea that working for the top banks was the only measure of success. To be clear, this was not the result of conspiracy or bad actors, just the tendency of an echo chamber to devolve into a distorted sense of reality. This gave me a glimpse into how perceptions, especially those of malleable young minds, can be easily influenced. Take this a few steps further, and you have a dystopia.
Some dystopian stories also touch upon the power of corporations. As an economic consultant, I investigated many cases of alleged market manipulation by financial institutions, leading teams of analysts to crunch billions of rows of data. Many major financial institutions operate on a scale and level of complexity that is difficult to grasp, and some of their data architecture veers toward Kafkaesque, so it takes incredible resources to hold them accountable. It gives the feeling that banks and corporations might be growing beyond our control, which again treads in the direction of dystopia.
Part of the reason I write dystopian stories is because these experiences give me the sense that they’re more realistic and relevant than ever.
Q: What prompted you to move from a career in economics to more creative pursuits?
It’s unbelievable that I’m pursuing something creative now. Growing up, I was always “the math guy,” and no one encouraged me to be creative, nor did I have any idea that I even had the capacity to be creative. My subsequent education and career bounced between programming, economics, finance, and data analysis.
Stepping away from my economic consulting career was incredibly difficult, because I enjoyed many aspects of the work, the people I worked with, and the confidence of doing something I had proven I was good at. But the stress combined with long and unpredictable hours affected my physical and mental health. Others were able to manage it, but I obsessed over how to deliver better work for my clients and the partners I worked with, regularly laying awake at night thinking about it.
The pandemic was the catalyst. In addition to destroying the fun social aspects of my workplace, it reminded me that life is short. So I quit my career in New York, came home to Toronto where my family lives, and went soul-searching. Of course, becoming unemployed by choice was a tremendously privileged position to be in.
Some of my best friends worked in game development, and I dabbled in game-making during high school, so I joined them on a side project. At first, I was purely a programmer. As with any scrappy project, however, we each took on additional responsibilities, so I starting doing art, animations, and UI design. I was bad at it, so this didn’t spark my creative journey yet.
When I started developing a new game with one of those friends, we discussed how world-building and back-story played a pivotal role in our enjoyment of similar games. Since he was by far the better programmer, I took a stab at writing. The story was generic and barely coherent, but the process was fun, so that planted a seed in my head.
Almost a year later, I rediscovered my passion for reading and watching sci-fi, but still hadn’t figured out what I wanted to do with my life. After watching a particularly dismal sci-fi movie, I thought if they could get a travesty like that produced, maybe I should try writing sci-fi after all. It turns out that it’s harder than it seems, but it got me started at least.
Q: Your poem "Distilling Emotion" follows the speaker as the ruling class is about to take away their emotions. What is your personal relationship to emotions in the real world?
I’m neurodivergent, and I’ve always struggled with emotions—expressing them, suppressing them when socially appropriate, and recognizing them in others. In some ways, perhaps it makes me value emotions even more. If a story or movie can make me feel something, then it’s something truly wonderful. I want to be able to write like that.
“Distilling Emotion” is partly inspired by my complex relationship with emotions, as I often view them as a rational external observer, which opens up the idea that they could be manipulated or taken away. Since emotions drive us to do so many of the things we do, in a world where it’s possible to take them away, it’s easy to imagine a million ways that power might be used or abused.
Q: What inspired your poem, “Drinking Song”?
I was listening to some music that made me feel a certain way, almost like I was drunk. I started drawing parallels between music and drinking: mood-altering, potentially addictive, people have wildly varying tastes, you can be snobby about it and pick out subtle notes, or you can use it to drown your feelings.
I’ve been curious about synaesthesia, the phenomenon of sensory crossovers, and the concept of drinking and tasting music seemed poetic. It lent itself easily to the wordplay in the title, where “Drinking Song” is both a song you listen to while drinking and the idea of consuming a song like a drink.
I also often think about how dystopias could restrict various things we take for granted now, like human contact, music, emotions, free speech, or fresh air. Since I was using music as a stand-in for alcohol, the struggle of a music addict during prohibition naturally became the narrative.
Q: In what ways do music and song influence your life and writing?
I have super eclectic tastes in music, unlike my tastes in practically everything else—I almost exclusively watch sci-fi and comedies, for example. So music helps me branch out as a person, and probably sparked my initial interest in anything creative.
Although I play some piano and guitar (also clarinet, a long time ago), sadly I was never very creative or expressive in my playing. Luckily, I found writing as a creative outlet. One day I’d still love to write a song though. Music is just a wonderful artistic medium because there’s both melody and lyrics.
For now, sometimes I put on music that matches the tone of my writing to help me feel immersed. Could be punk rock when I write something dark and angsty, brooding classical music for dystopia, bright pop for humor, or anything with a strong beat for action scenes. Though when I really need to focus, I listen to an instrumental-only playlist because lyrics are distracting.
Q: When you develop games, do you draw on a sci-fi influence as you do in your writing?
I haven’t incorporated sci-fi in my games (unless you count a generic space-shooter game in which the setting is vaguely sci-fi), and that’s for a few reasons.
The audience for games is different. When developing games, I prioritize creating fun and engaging gameplay, and artistic goals take a backseat. Players accept a fun game with a bad or non-existent story, but rarely accept a boring game with a beautiful and thought-provoking story.
I’ve had fewer opportunities for my creative voice to evolve through games, because making a game takes an incredible amount of work—game design, programming, art, animations, sound, UI, UX, writing, balancing, monetization, server, database, testing, and marketing. In many ways, creating a game to modern standards is a huge undertaking akin to writing a novel.
The games I developed were also before I started writing sci-fi, so I hadn’t been thinking in this direction at the time. However, I’m likely to include sci-fi themes in future games, if I find the time to develop one. In fact, I would love to publish a sci-fi story and then design a game based on it.
Q: Do you find that writing sci-fi and developing games fall into the same creative process?
I’m early enough in my journey for both of these that the only honest answer I can give is: I’m not sure.
So far, I find the brainstorming parts of the creative process to be similar, which is trying to find an interesting idea that resonates with me, sometimes inspired by works I’ve enjoyed in the past, re-imagined with a twist.
Beyond that initial stage, it diverges greatly, because there are so many non-creative aspects of developing games to worry about.
Towards the end, I feel they converge again slightly. Whether polishing a game or story, I think hard about how to improve the audience’s experience, which could include tweaking the pacing, fleshing out details, or clarifying confusing sections.
Q: Have you found that keeping a spreadsheet to keep track of submissions is a big help for your writing career?
I never imagined any other possibility. As a data-oriented person, I love spreadsheets (and databases, but spreadsheets are easier for quick-and-dirty handling of data). I also have sheets for my works-in-progress, journals and markets to submit to, and feedback I’ve received.
The spreadsheet helps in a number of small ways. At a glance, I can assess whether a piece is getting rejected a lot and needs reworking, whether a journal likes my writing (e.g., a slow rejection is a good sign for some journals that send promising pieces to another reader or editor for further review), whether I should query, whether response times line up with what others report, and more.
But at the end of the day, my writing career will live or die on the quality of my writing, so the spreadsheet is an afterthought. If I spend any more time optimizing the organization of my submission data, I might end up developing a submission tracker of my own!
Q: What advice would you give to those interested in pursuing a career transition into writing?
I’m not sure I’m qualified to give advice, but here goes:
Make sure it’s right for you, because it’s not an easy career. One of these has to be true: (1) you’re incredibly passionate about writing, (2) you’re incredibly good at writing, or (3) you have ample time to figure out if either of the first two could apply to you.
If it’s a career transition, you probably don’t have any training, like me. In that case, you could probably benefit from reading a couple of guides, watching some videos, or taking a class on writing. When I started writing, I was too eager to put my idea on the page, so I skipped many key elements of a good story—hooks, story structure, character motivations, setting, I could go on and on. I eventually figured it out, but it would be more efficient to learn it upfront.
Start writing. You don’t know how much you enjoy writing or how good you are at it until you do a lot of it.
Read a lot, and read with a different lens that you use to read for leisure—pick out things that you think the author does well and you can learn from.
Find readers to give you feedback. It’s tough to find good readers when you’re transitioning to writing and don’t know anyone in the space, but there are Subreddits, Discord servers, and Facebook groups that might help. Shout-out to my readers: Tian, Jessica, Will, and Olivia.
Q: You consider yourself a new writer, but have had a slew of successes early on. Where do you hope to go from here?
That’s kind of you to say. I am very much a new writer, because when I started writing around June of this year, I punctuated dialogue incorrectly, I had to be convinced fleshing out characters was important, and I didn’t understand “show, don’t tell” (the jury is still out on whether I understand it now).
This means, in the short term, I’m focused on becoming a better writer and not worrying about publication, except to the extent it can serve as an indicator of my improvement.
In the long term, I’m aiming high. I’d like to get published in a journal paying pro rates by mid 2024, I’d like to write a novel by the end of 2024, and I’d like to win a Hugo, Nebula, or Locus award by 2030. I have no idea if the award part is realistic, because it’s clear my writing is several leagues below the quality of those nominated for those awards. But now that I’ve said it publicly, it forces me to strive to achieve it, and I’m optimistic hard work might get me there. After all, just a few months ago, my writing alternated between adverb overuse and reading like a time-skip summary, so I’ve already come a long way.