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Organised chaos

Sarah Alexander

How to write a book: the magic answer


Before I started writing The Art of Not Breathing, I spent many hours googling ‘How to write a novel’. The internet was full of helpful advice for people who weren’t me, like, ‘You must write every day’, and ‘So-and-so wrote ten books on their commute to work and won loads of prizes’. Back then, it seemed impossible to adopt this method of writing a novel – for one thing, my commute involved my face being squished under someone’s armpit and not having the space to breathe, let alone getting my arms into some kind of writing position. Eventually, I realised the internet wasn’t going to give me a magic answer. I had to find a way that worked for me, and that took a bit of time. This is how I did it:

1.       I spent a good few years (twenty-ish) writing the first few thousand words of many different novels. I noticed some similarities in the half-novels I’d written and decided those must be the things I really wanted to write about (probably). Those things were family, siblings, sad things and water.

2.       The Art of Not Breathing started with a scene. Elsie and her mum were running down a hill – talking, laughing, but not really saying anything. I knew they were in pain. I noted down everything about them – their looks, likes, dislikes, desires, strengths, the things they weren’t saying, the people they might love, the people they might despise, the secrets they would never divulge.

3.       I gave myself a timeline for the events – six months. I plotted the main action (diving) around the seasons and the weather. I drew a map of where the characters lived. I promptly forgot about my timeline and map.

4.       I started writing scenes, not in any particular order, just the ones that popped into my head. Then I tried to stick them together to make a plot.

5.       I rewrote the first ten thousand words eleventy million times because they were the most important. I did this for a year, writing mostly at weekends and never on my commute.

6.       After a year, I realised it was more important to write the other sixty thousand words. I did this by writing nearly every day, in 45-minute bursts before and after work and on my lunchbreaks. At weekends, I continued to stick my scenes together. Sometimes I wrote the words at weekends and did the sticking together in 45-minute bursts before and after work, etc.

7.       At the beginning of each week, I made a list of potential scenes and conversations to write so that I didn’t use my writing time for thinking. If I got stuck on one scene, I could move to the next. I made these lists on my phone … on my commute (shh, don’t tell anyone).

8.       When I was almost done with the first draft, I took a week off work to get the Damn Thing finished. I put so much pressure on myself to write that I gave myself insomnia and sleep-deprivation-induced migraines, and didn’t write anything. It took another three months to write the final few chapters. Then I took a break to plan my wedding.

9.       For the second draft, I took a pair of shears to the manuscript and hacked away almost half of it, then built the story back up again with a couple of new subplots. This all happened within a couple of months.

10.   For the third draft, I did the same again but not so drastically. This all happened within a couple of weeks.


12.   Worked on another two drafts with two different publishers. The edits included remodelling a character, changing the age of a character, more cuts and more additions.

13.   The day before the final manuscript was due I noticed there was a gaping hole in my timeline (see #3). I spent three days fixing it and no one will ever know.