Q&A with Jenn Baker – Part 1 of 2 part series

In our latest series, YPG Writers is excited to interview publishing professionals whose passion for writing has led them to success.  Jenn Baker does a little bit of everything, but even with her many responsibilities, she still finds time for writing. Below is part 1 of our Q&A with her, in which she shares some of her gems of wisdom. –Stephanie

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Jennifer Baker received her MFA from The New School’s graduate program in Creative Writing and is an alum of The City College of New York’s baccalaureate program in English. She works as a production editor, is a contributing writer to Forbes.com, and is the social media director and a writing instructor for Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. Jennifer is a panel organizer for We Need Diverse Books, a non-profit organization that sprang to life from the #WeNeedDiverseBooks media campaign to increase minority representation (of all kinds) in literature, and is creator and host of the podcast Minorities in Publishing. Jennifer is presently working on a multi-generational linked story collection centered around race and family as well as a young adult novel with a diverse cast and essays centered around race, culture, and sexuality.

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How do you find the time to
write while also balancing so many other responsibilities? What are some strategies you use?

It’s tough. It was easier when I was in graduate school and had steady deadlines. For about a year after grad school I had a weekly schedule where I wrote 7 hours a week, spreading that out over 3-4 days. Now that I do even more it’s harder. But I did this project called #WriteLikeCrazy that Tayari Jones started 3 years ago that was sort of anti-NaNoWriMo in that the premise is: Do what is reasonable for you in 30 days. So I said: 1 hour a day minimum, every day. And I did it! I’ve aimed to keep to that schedule whether I’m tired or busy or not. What helps me with that 1 hour, even when I’m blocked or tired, is setting a timer. There’s something called the Pomodoro method where you set a timer, write (or do a task) for 25 minutes, take a 5-10 minute break then start again. And you do this say 4 times and take longer breaks after that if you choose to continue. The busier life gets the more helpful it’s been to do small stretches than long ones so I’m consistently in the work. I’d suggest people try it.

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How do you suggest a publishing professional who is also a writer use their position to help them achieve their writing goals?

Depending on what area you work on you can learn more about the process of editing: what do you like to read, what have you found interests others in terms of how someone tells a story, how to keep pacing and so on. As a production editor my position has helped me key in on being a better critic of others work as well as my own. I don’t see all the holes in my work but perhaps I’m more removed and in a position to focus on what makes sense, grammar, and coherence to make a work flow better from a developmental and technical standpoint. If you worked in editorial, for instance, you may be looking to see what makes you fall in love with a story. In marketing/publicity the same may happen or you may recognize what stands out to you. All that can help you as a writer hone your storytelling skills.

Additionally, you can learn more about the business from connections. Maybe for some people knowing the business may be a deterrent for the creative side, but it can help you a lot when starting to query or in terms of networking to not have to query and meet people who know you and your personality thereby becoming interested in what you may be writing as well. The more editors and agents I meet in my professional and activist life the more I know who I may want to reach out to (or not) once my work is polished and ready to go for submissions.

A lot of authors will say that finding a mentor is one of the key parts of success. How does one go about finding a mentor in a way that doesn’t feel forced?

At a reading a year or so ago Ashley Ford mentioned how she connected with her mentor, Roxane Gay. She and Roxane established a friendship that started on Twitter. They got along, and sometime later Ashley asked if Roxane would mentor her. But it was a no pressure situation. Ashley was super polite in approaching Roxane. And for Ashley she said if Roxane had said ‘no’ it wouldn’t have changed anything. So basically, if you do have a relationship with someone, ask (nicely) and see what happens. I wouldn’t go up to someone randomly. I love Zadie Smith, however, I wouldn’t expect her to be my mentor just because I’m a fan. Establish some kind of relationship where you respect them or if they don’t know you that closely, you can present your case and interest and determination to do what you need. Also have your questions and expectations ready for what you want in a mentor and what they have time for. (And respect their time.) Do you want someone to read your work monthly or get coffee with to talk monthly? Do you mainly want someone to help in terms of craft and advice on a one-on-one basis or would you prefer a group setting of your peers? Do you need contacts mainly? If so, then you don’t need a mentor, you need to network. Consider those questions.

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Additionally, if you’re a member of AWP they have a mentorship program where they pair aspiring writers with established ones for a few months every year; and they’re seeking more marginalized mentees. We Need Diverse Books also has a mentorship program and applications will open again next spring. I’d also check out Poets & Writers magazine to see if there are any contests where one of the prizes is one-on-one mentorship or personal critique of work. Also, if you worked with someone at your graduate/undergraduate program or in a workshop or otherwise ask them if you think they may be a fit for your work. I’d say similarly in finding a member in publishing too. If there’s someone at your office you respect and think may be able to help guide you in ways with advice, why not reach out and ask if they may have time to help you out every so often? I think the biggest hesitation is asking but if someone is polite I don’t think anyone will be mad at for you for the inquiry. I mean, they could be but that could be more about them then the person asking.

Check back next week for part 2 of our Q&A with Jenn!

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