Debut and Day Job – an interview with YA author Sarah Alexander

Cover: Connie Gabbert
Many writers dream of giving up the day job. But recent articles in the Guardian and the Irish Times have highlighted shrinking advances from publishers and very modest royalties. It seems that writing while holding down a day job is the reality for many authors. I talked to YA author and full-time Senior Commissioning Editor Sarah Alexander, whose novel The Art of Not Breathing was published by Usborne in 2016.

Sarah, huge congratulations on the publication of The Art of Not Breathing! How has getting published changed your life?

Hello, and thanks! The main change is that I’m a lot busier. Now that my first book is out in the world, I have the additional task of promoting it as well as writing my next book(s). Getting published has given me a bit of confidence. Although, I still have ‘doubt days’ I do now call myself a writer and this helps keep me motivated. I’ve also had opportunities to be part of some truly inspiring events. The children’s and YA book community, from readers and authors to publishers and agents, is something very special and I’m lucky to be part of it. My day-to-day life is still very much the same, though. I still work full-time and I don’t get recognised on the street. Actually, that did happen once. It was pretty cool.

Sarah and her editor, Becky Walker behind the Usborne stand at YALC 2016

Tell us about your book? Where did the idea come from?

The Art of Not Breathing is about a family coping with a loss. The story is set in Scotland and my main character, sixteen year-old Elsie, takes up freediving as a way of escaping her pain. I wanted to write about the long-term effects of a loss on family relationships so the tragedy that befalls the family was the starting point, and the rest evolved as I wrote it.

How difficult was writing your debut novel while working full-time?

I got myself into a routine where I wrote in short bursts several times a day and the words just piled up – the first few drafts were easy. It was the editing process that was hard. Between starting the novel and getting to the point where I was almost ready to send it out, my job had become a lot more demanding. The several hours a day I’d previously dedicated to writing were now taken up with work and the only way to meet my writing deadlines was to give up sleep. Not recommended. It was the dream of seeing my book on a shelf one day that kept me going.

Tell us a bit about your day job.

When I mention that I work in publishing, people get very excited. And then I have to explain that I don’t publish Harry Potter books or know JK Rowling personally. I work in educational publishing and create digital English language courses for universities around the world. My job essentially involves coming up with creative ideas to help students learn English. I spend a lot of time doing research to find out what schools and universities want, then I find authors to write the material. The people I work with are bookish and love a good debate about semicolons or noun-verbing which always helps the day fly by. As well as books, education and literacy are things I care deeply about so my job is the perfect combination of everything I love.

Did working in publishing help you get published?

No, but working in publishing did prepare me for publishing jargon and timelines. Although what I do is very different from fiction publishing, it was really useful to know the different stages a book goes through before it hits the shelf. I also understand how busy editors are and how many different projects they might be juggling at once.

Are there any lessons you have learned in your day job, that have helped you write and edit your own work?

This is where working in publishing has helped. When I’m developing manuscripts at work I have to think about how the whole course fits together, not just about the detailed use of language on each page, so I’m always zooming in and out (metaphorically, of course - I don’t have a huge telescope). At work I keep referring back to the overall aim of the course I’m working on and when I’m writing I do the same.

Would you like to be a full-time writer?

I suppose my ultimate goal is to earn more money from writing and be able to reduce my full-time hours. But I like the human contact and the relationships I’ve built through having a regular job. Many writers I know who don’t have day jobs supplement their income by doing school visits or teaching creative writing and this is something I’d like to be able to do more of.

Do you have any advice about time management for those of us with day jobs/busy lives?

My only tip is to find what works for you. I spent years thinking that I would never be able to write a novel because I couldn’t / didn’t want to write on my commute and thought that was the only way for someone working full-time. I now use my commute as thinking time, making lists of all the scenes I need to write so that when I find 15 or 30 minutes to write, I can get straight to it without having to think too much.

What can you tell us about your next book?

I’m actually working on two: both standalone YA novels. Like my first book, they both have strong family themes and some sad moments. I’m really excited and can’t wait to get them finished.

Is there anything different about the way you are writing your next book(s)?

I had planned to be more organised this time – plotting the whole thing before writing the first sentence – but I’m just not that kind of writer. Instead I’m doing exactly the same as last time, floundering slightly and hoping that I’ll find my flow eventually. I am doing a bit more character work up front this time, though, and keeping a detailed event timeline so I don’t get too tangled up.


Photo credit: Melissa Valente
Sarah Alexander grew up in London with dreams of exploring the world and writing stories. After spending several years wandering the globe and getting into all sorts of scrapes, she returned to London and started writing stories. She works in publishing and lives with her husband, two chickens and an imaginary cat. 
The Art of Not Breathing is her first novel.

Follow Sarah: Blog:

Louisa Glancy is a features editor for Words and Pictures. Louisa's day job is writing and editing for educational publishers. She is the organiser of the Canterbury Coffee and Chat SCBWI group and is currently writing a middle grade book.

Twitter: @LouisaGlancy

1 comment:

We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.