Balancing Books and Day Jobs: An Interview with Author Sybil Baker

Jessica York

Anyone who has tried to write a book understands that the process is a marathon, not a sprint. So how do you manage such a long race alongside your day job?

Only a small percentage of published authors can live off of the money they produce from their creative work, and so they must become adept at balancing work-life and book-life.

How do you start that novel that’s been trapped inside your head for years? What does it mean to be a writer in Chattanooga, and what literary resources do you have access to?

Sybil Baker, a Creative Writing professor at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, is the author of the university’s current Read2Achieve book, “Immigration Essays,” for the Freshman First Year Reading Experience and is a faculty member of the Yale Writers’ Workshop.

With her newest novel, “While You Were Gone,” set to debut this June, we sat down with Baker to discuss how a new author should tackle their first book.

Trend: How do you find time to write in your own daily life?

Baker: I’ll go back to when I was a technical writer, way back when, because I know a lot of people have a 9 to 5 job. I had one then, and I was married but I didn’t have any kids. I found that, for a while, I would just go on my lunch break and write, and it was amazing what 30 minutes a day would build up.

Now when I write, it’s a different schedule because I teach at a university, so my schedule varies every semester. I think I feel more comfortable now knowing that if I have a project, I’ll eventually finish it, whereas when you’re writing your first book, you’re like, ‘Am I going to finish it? I don’t know.’

I tend to do a lot of writing during school breaks.

T: What kind of schedule would you recommend for other writers?

B: Have a daily word count limit, even if it’s just 500 words a day. That will accumulate over time.

I get up early and write for an hour before I go to work. I find, personally, that writing at night doesn’t work. But I think that depends on whether you’re a night owl or not.

Also have goals that are more long term, like: have a draft of the novel done by the end of the summer, and have revisions done by the end of December.


T: Do you do any research before writing your novels?

B: I generally recommend—unless the book is non-fiction or historical fiction—trying to see how much you can write without the research, and then filling in those gaps later. I often tell my students that research is fun, but it’s easy to use as an excuse to not write the book.


T: How long should I expect the editing process of my book to take?

B: It depends on the type of writer you are, the shape your manuscript is in and if you have an agent or big publishers behind you.

An agent will want to work with your book for maybe three months or six months, and then they shop the book with publishers and then those publishers want to make their own edits to the book.

If you’re self-publishing, and you hire an editor, the editing timeline will depend on the contract you work out with your editor. These edits you do together could range from simple copyediting to big picture things.

Something that helps me with my own editing process is my novel writing group. We meet once a month and take turns reading parts of our novels. So before you spend money on hiring an editor or sending your novel to potential agents, find a writing group to share your work with and get feedback.


T: How do I know if there’s an audience for my book?

B: In a sense, there’s no way you can know. Many times publishers will spend a lot of money on a book that they think is going to do well, and then it doesn’t. And then other books that they don’t think will do well do.

You should write the book that you would like to read. Then you’ll at least have an audience of one. If you worry too much about what’s trendy or not trendy you’ll hurt your book.

Another thing you can do is ask yourself where your book would fit in a bookstore. Find that section and see what’s on the shelf to make sure that you’re not writing a book that’s already there. See how your book might fit in with other books that are coming out.


T: What are some basic ways I can improve myself as a writer?

B: Going to readings, or doing things in the community that are writing related, like visiting a school and helping with the literacy program. These things help you meet people and show that you’re not always thinking about just your book.

People don’t like to associate networking with artists and writers, but it’s a component, just like in any profession. Networking for writers is also known as literary citizenship, which is this idea that if you’re going to be a good writer—and this isn’t just for literary writers, it’s for all writers—there’s three parts to the experience.

There’s your own writing, but also reading, buying and writing about other books so you’re sharing what you’ve read. This is how you meet other writers. If you’re just going to write books but you never buy any yourself, that’s just not how it works.


T: So where can I find readings and other writing related events in Chattanooga?

B: Star Line Books is our independent bookstore and they have writers there almost every week doing readings. They also have a book club that meets monthly.

There’s also the Southern Literature Alliance. You can join the Chattanooga Writers’ Guild. And there are also open mic readings around town where you can read your own work.

About Sybil Baker:

Sybil Baker is the author of four books of fiction and one book of nonfiction. Called “an amazing and essential odyssey for our times,” “Immigration Essays” is the 2018-19 Read2Achieve selection for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Sybil is also the author of “The Life Plan,” “Talismans,” and “Into This World” (Foreword Book of the Year finalist, and Eric Hoffer Award Honorable Mention). She was awarded two MakeWork Artist Grants and a 2017 Individual Artist's Fellowship from the Tennessee Arts Commission. She lives and teaches in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and is on faculty at the Yale Writers’ Workshop. Her latest novel “While You Were Gone,” will be published in June by C&R Press.

Visit Baker’s site here.

Stay tuned for a second installment of this piece on how to publish something you've already written. 

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