Top tips for aspiring authors

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Stylist Team
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Stylist were recently joined for a live web chat with Jenny Downham, best-selling author of Before I Die (the film adaptation, Now Is Good, is out now). Jenny shared advice with our readers on everything from creating authentic characters to overcoming writer's block and how to get your manuscript read. Check out her top tips for aspiring authors, below...

Character building

I have just completed an MA in writing and am tackling my first Young Adult novel. As an adult writing a child's point of view is tough. Any tips/exercises you can recommend on geting the voice authentic?

Carry a notebook everywhere. Listen to teens wherever you encounter them and write down scraps of overheard conversations, random lines, subjects that keep recurring. Do NOT leave the house without paper and a pen!! Keep a diary for your main character. You will begin to see the world through their eyes. Do things they might do. Read all dialogue out loud - it’s amazing how much difference it can make to perception of rhythm and speech. Lastly, if you have any access to any young people (and/or their parents) ask them to read your manuscript. They will pick up on authenticity as you go along.

How do you go about the process of creating characters? Do you draw from people you know in real life?

The characters aren't wholly based on people I know. I write from the imagination and I use acting techniques - keeping diaries, journals, researching characters as if I might play them on stage. I also mix in things I do know about so Adam (one of the main characters in Downham's second novel In You Against Me) is based on a guy I used to know, his gardening is from my mum, the death of his dad is based on a story a friend told me.

The voice of your character Tessa is so authentic. How did you get into her mind and make her sound so believable?

I'm glad you found her believable. I tend to try and inhabit characters as an actor might, it was a great priviledge to imagine her world through her eyes. I kept a diary, I pretended to be her, even when I wasn't writing I kept imagining how she would feel and think about certain situations. Sometimes I still do it even though Before I Die was published some years ago.

Did you find that your acting experience helped you to create authentic characters in your book? Would you recommend aspiring writers to dabble in acting to help them with characters?

I spent many years telling stories on my feet to quite difficult audiences. It was a great apprenticeship for writing. I certainly use a lot of acting techniques in my writing. In terms of 'dabbling' I'd recommend any writer to read their dialogue aloud for authenticity and as I've said earlier to keep a diary as if you were that person.

I was very impressed by the way you got inside a teenage boy's mind for You Against Me. Do you have any tips on how a girl can go about doing this? I am writing a boy character myself at the moment.

I loved writing as a teenage boy. I am lucky that I live with some which helped considerably. I would choose some tropes and stick with them whilst you explore who your boy charcter is. For instance I wanted Mikey to be really good at something, so gave him cooking, I wanted him to have left school early and not be particularly eloquent but to have a deep intelligence and empathy which the reader could see. I stuck with these until I knew more about him and then he began to show me the way.

As for crossovers, no I didn't aim for that. I think good Young Adult novels should be beautifully written, shouldn't patronise and shouuldn't make assumptions that teens aren't interested in difficult or complex issues. There are some wonderful books out there that deal with very difficult subjects extremely sensitively. And if adults want to read them too, then good for them.

How did you feel about having your characters (from Before I Die) translated to the big screen (Now is Good)? Have the actors/actresses portrayed them as you imagined?

It was a very surreal experience because I had inhabited Tessa for so long when I was writing the book there was a danger that whoever was cast might have me hopping about in the background wanting to offer advice. Clearly that wasn't my place. But if you want the lowdown - Dakota (Fanning) has a maturity beyond her years and brings a vulnerable, almost luminous quality to Tessa, whilst somehow managing to keep her fire. I talk about this more on the blog post which is shortly go up at

Style and tone

I've just finished writing an autobiography about my transformation from a mum of autistic child to a burlesque stripper! I'm hoping to spread awareness about autism to the masses through this book, written in a warm, funny and accessible style. Any help much appreciated!

As you’ve already finished your book, your next step should be to get readers. Why not send the manuscript to one of the reputable reading services that provide developing writers with a detailed report from a skilled editor? Spread the Word are running a free read scheme with The Literary Consultancy at the moment. Check out their website for details. Once you are happy with the final script, you could get a copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook from the library and find out which publishers and agents welcome submissions.

Enclose a synopsis and the first three or four consecutive chapters on loose A4 paper, one side only, with double or 1.5 line spacing. Ensure pages are numbered. In the covering letter, tell them briefly about any previously published work and relevant details about yourself.

For an autobiography you should probably include why you are the best person to write the book, why the book is important and original, what research or experience you are basing it on, how it compares to any other books on the subject, and what you cover in it, etc. All of this can be in your covering letter, although be succinct!

I'm writing a love story for part of my Extended Project qualification at school, and was wondering if you had any tips about writing emotion? I don't think anything I write could have even an ounce of the feelings shown in your writing, but I want to try.

I guess my best advice would be to strip away to the ‘beast within’ to really see what is at the heart of your characters. Once you know them well, then writing about their feelings will be easy. There are lots of ways of doing this and you need to find what works for you.

I kept a diary for Tessa for months and every morning I started my day by writing the previous day’s entry. I began to see things through her eyes quite a lot because I knew I’d have to write her diary later. I spent hours and hours imagining how it might feel. I even walked round my house pretending to be her on more than one occasion.

Be unkind to your characters when you are exploring who they are. Challenge them, put them in difficult situations and see how they respond, present them with strong choices and show us their development. Interrogate them. Do they have any transgressions?

Once you see the world from your characters’ point of view, their emotional logic will be authentic. And hopefully, your readers will follow them anywhere!

Writing process

When you were getting started did you use any of the forums online that give writing advice? If so, are there any you could recommend?

When I was getting started I got myself a book of writing exercises, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Golberg is a good one. Or Josip Novakovich's Fiction Writer's Workshop. There are a lot of fine ones about. Work your way through. I also joined a writing group. A place of mutual support and a place to bring work and get constructive feedback. Sorry not to be able to recommend any forums, but I simply didn't use them.

How do you manage to motivate yourself to keep going while you write an entire novel?

I write every day, treating it like a 9-5 job. I have to be really disciplined because there's no one telling me to do it. I joined a writers' group which is a great place for mutual support. Writing can be a lonely process, so it's good to have some company. Sometimes I have to drag myself to the desk even though I don't want to be there.

I'm interested what's your technique of overcoming writer's block - if you ever experience it?

Yes! I often sit at my desk and feel completely stuck, especially when I am starting a new project. I actually watch myself go through all the cliched avoidance tactics. I think the trick is not to let it freak you out. Our minds are powerful things, if we start believing that something is true, ie 'I will never write a word of any value', then it's entirely possible that we can make it come true.

The best advice I have is to give yourself regular timed writing sessions, whatever you can manage - 10 minutes a day, half an hour, three times a week - something that you can sustain and that has rhythm to it. Don't worry about quality. If you keep to your rhythm you will find that after only a few sessions you will spark a new idea. You may even begin to look forward to the sessions and will almost certainly feel immense satisfaction afterwards.

I was wondering if you ever get emotional when writing key scenes/endings to your books?

don't get emotional, no. I think my job is to keep my distance and keep my hold on the reins so to speak. My brain has to stay in charge as opposed to my heart. The most emotional thing is often handing the work to the publisher as then I can no longer change things.

How long does it take you to write your books?

I am very slow, about two and a half years per book. They take as long as they take...

Did you always have belief that what you were writing was good?

I tried very hard to hold onto that belief.

How did you go about tackling such huge topics such as cancer and death in Before I Die? Were you worried about reaction to the way in which you depicted Tessa's battle - I thought it was brilliant and poignant, by the way - but it's such a contentious issue that it's bound to provoke quite extreme options/reactions... I just wondered basically how you summoned up the courage to write about what are still quite taboo topics...

I don't really think in terms of themes or topics when I begin a project, I'm more interested in characters and the stories they have to tell. I seem to have a tendency to be drawn to the extraordinary in the every day and vice versa. In Before I Die, the protagonist is dying, but the novel is actually what it means to be alive. In You Against Me, there has been an allegation of sexual assault, but at the book's heart is a love story.

I loved both books so far. This may be a silly question but where do you get your titles from?

They are the last thing to come. I go through about 200! I run them by all my friends and go for the one that resonates the most.

As you may know the film is called Now is Good. I found it tough to have the title changed from Before I Die primarily because I thought readers might not associate the two, but also becuase I was worried it would not reflect the energy and purpose with which Tessa confronts her last weeks. But I've got used to it now, and actually, the title change exemplifies the process of the book becoming a film - it's a different entity, not quite my story but belonging to itself.

I loved Before I Die; the ending was brilliant. The build-up in the last few pages was emotional and gripping. Then I read You Against Me; I really enjoyed the book, but the ending was a bit rushed, I think. What happened to Tom and his trial? Would you consider writing a sequel or second-part to You Against Me? I love both of your books and I hope you're in the process of writing another novel just like them!

I am so glad that you enjoyed both books. In You Against Me I wanted the reader to confront their own presumptions and to see how the truth can be a slippery thing. Sexual assault is one of the most difficult crimes to prosecute as there are often only 2 witnesses - the defendant and the complainant. I chose not to show the outcome of the trial because I hoped Tom's innocence or guilt was already apparent, and I wanted the reader to wonder what might happen in court given that rape trials can be influenced more by the attitudes, beliefs, biases which jurors bring with them than by the objective facts.

Yes I am in the middle of book three...

What other authors out there do you draw from? I sometimes think your writing style is quite similar to the likes of Maggie O'Farrell and Sadie Jones - also amazing authors!

I love those writers too. I tend not to read a lot of fiction when I am writing because in fact I don't to draw from other authors in that way. My favourite writers would include DH Lawrence, Toni Morrison, Donna Tartt, Barbara Kingsolver, Raymond Carver and a ton of others.

I am an aspiring writer and have been entering a few competitions but I have unable to receive feedback. Positive or negative! Is there anywhere I can send my stuff to get an expert opinion on my writing ability, if indeed I have one!

Spread the Word are running a 'free read' scheme at the moment. Check out their website for details.

I'm interested on how you transitioned careers - I'm in a creative role but at a bit of a crossroads - what made you take the plunge, so to speak?

Crossroads are always a bit daunting! I was forced to take the plunge because I could no longer continue to tour as an actor with two children, but I had always written, and had always told stories. So it felt like less of a transition than it might have done.

Picture credit: Rex Features