Ideas and Inspiration Questions

Q. What is your writing process?
A. I usually get up in the morning and write for four hours, and then I eat lunch, and then in the afternoon I do web and youtube and businessy stuff for five hours. My work day is eight AM to six PM with an hour for lunch. I don’t always stick to this schedule–I travel a lot and some days I have to do non-writing stuff all day. But I am pretty good about the schedule.

Q. How do you deal with writers’ block?
A. I just give myself permission to suck. I delete about 90% of my first drafts (the only exception to this rule so far has been Will Grayson, Will Grayson) so it doesn’t really matter much if on a particular day I write beautiful and brilliant prose that will stick in the minds of my readers forever, because there’s a 90% chance I’m just gonna delete whatever I write anyway. I find this hugely liberating.
I also like to remind myself of something my dad said to me once in re. writers’ block: “Coal miners don’t get coal miners’ block.”

Q. Where do you get your ideas for your books?
A. Well, my books don’t have capital-i Ideas, really. I don’t have ideas that hit like a ton of bricks out of nowhere, like BAM! Write a book about a wizard school! Or, Bam! Vampires in Suburbia! The ideas for my books come from lower case-i ideas. Looking for Alaska began, really, in thinking about whether there was meaning to suffering, and how one can reconcile one’s self to a world where suffering is so unjustly distributed. Paper Towns began with thinking about our fascination with manic pixie dream girls and our relentless misimagining of each other. Then little ideas will come along and link up to other little ideas and then in a few short years, I have a book. I would love to have a high-concept book idea fall out of the sky and hit me one day, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Q. How do you feel about your books after you’re done writing them?
A. It varies. I am usually pretty disappointed with the book when I finally turn in the last draft and hear that I can’t revise it any further. I worry a lot that no one will like it and that I’ve failed and that I haven’t lived up to the story. Then when it comes out there’s a weird adjustment and I find myself really protective of the book and increasingly proud of it. Then after a while it settles into ambivalence for me, to be totally honest. I still feel proud of the books I’ve written, but they also feel very *finished* to me. They belong to their readers now, which is a great thing–because the books are more powerful in the hands of my readers than they could ever be in my hands.

Q. Have you ever felt, midway through a book, that you didn’t have any more ideas and you wouldn’t be able to finish writing it?
A. Oh yeah all the time. And sometimes I don’t finish the book–or at least not for a long time. That’s always a bit depressing, but I don’t think it’s wasted time–even if you end up not finishing the story. You were learning something as a writer that you needed to learn. The difficult thing is figuring out when a story really SHOULD be abandoned, and when it’s just the mid-story blues–which I think happens to every book.

Q. When did you know you wanted to write?
A. I knew I liked writing from the time I was very young, so I don’t think I ever really decided to write. I just kinda kept writing, even when I didn’t show much potential. I never thought that I would be able to write for a living or anything, and I still don’t feel comfortable saying that, like, writing is my job. (And in many ways it isn’t. I have several jobs.)

Q.  How do you write young adult novels when you are not an adolescent yourself?

A. Well, it’s a lot easier than writing about, like, vampires, because I used to be an adolescent. But in truth all fiction is an attempt at empathy: When I write, I’m trying to imagine what it’s like to be someone else more than I’m trying to express what it’s like to be me. So in that sense, it’s very helpful for me to write from the perspectives of characters who are at least a little different from me. Of course, I’m a writer of limited talents, and I don’t feel that I can stray too far from myself.

Q. Are you currently working on a novel?
A. Yes, I am always working on a novel, although I guess it depends on how you define “working” and “on.” I’ve become very superstitious, however, about saying more than that, because while I was writing the book that became The Fault in Our Stars, I promised many different stories–a zombie apocalypse novel, a novel about kids stranded on a desert island–and then delivered a very different book. So you’ll have to trust me that I’m working.

Q.  Did you study writing in school?
A. To an extent. I don’t have an MFA or anything, but I did take creative writing classes in high school and I took a hugely helpful fiction writing class at Kenyon with P. F. Kluge. If it hadn’t been for that class, I don’t think I would’ve ever written a book.
I also received much training after I graduated from college from my mentor, Ilene Cooper, and from many other writers and editors at Booklist.

Q.  Do you ever wake up in the morning and dread writing?
A. No, not that I can remember. I often get mad at myself because I’m writing poorly, or worry that I’ll never write another book, or feel frustrated because I’m up against the limits of my talents, but I never dread writing. So I often feel that I’m not up to the task, but I never dread it.

Q.  Do you ever think about writing an “adult book”?
A.  Not really. I don’t find adults very interesting, to be honest with you.

Q. Do you research your ideas beforehand (such as cancer in TFIOS)?
A. Well, I spent about a decade writing the story that eventually became The Fault in Our Stars, and I definitely did a lot of research along the way. I talked to a lot of cancer survivors and their families, and I also read a lot about the disease itself and its treatments. I really enjoy research, atlhough in the case of TFiOS it was perhaps not great for my hypochondria.

Q.  How many drafts do you do?
A. That really depends on how you define “draft.” I believe that all writing is rewriting–even when you’re writing something down for the first time, it’s still an act of translation in a way because you’re trying to use text to bring life to this thing that exists in your mind. And I’m a big believer in revision: I almost always delete most of my first drafts (often as much as 90%). But there are many mini-drafts along the way, so it’s hard to talk about the process quantitatively. I do try to save the file with a different name each time I’ve made some dramatic changes I fear I might later regret, so that’s some measure, maybe, of how many drafts there are. The final copy of Katherines on my hard drive is called aok284; the final copy of TFiOS is called okay192.

Q. Do you talk about what you’re working on with your editor or wife?
A. Yes, both. I’ve been working with my editor and publishing, Julie Strauss-Gabel, for more than a decade now, and I often show her scraps and chapters and excerpts and all variety of unfinished things. But when I get on a roll, she usually doesn’t hear from me for a while, because I like to send her at least something of a finished manuscript once we agree that I’m on the right track.
I also read a lot to my wife, Sarah, who has informed and shaped all my books in uncountable ways. (Many of the most quoted lines in books are actually Sarah’s, and in general our conversations about art and meaning and everything else are hugely important to me.)

Q. What books would you recommend for a young adult?
A. There are so many. The Book Thief. How I Live Now. The First Part Last. Feed. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. 13 Little Blue Envelopes. Story of a Girl. White Cat (and sequels). Every Day.
I could go on for weeks. Let me steer you toward one book, though, that partly inspired An Imperial Affliction, the nonexistent novel I write about in The Fault in Our Stars. It’s called The Blood of the Lamb, and it’s by Peter de Vries, and although it is hardly read at all today, it is one of my favorite books ever.

More questions about ideas and inspiration and writing and whatnot? Leave them in comments.

{ 385 comments… read them below or add one }

build that February 13, 2015 at 2:01 am

Take the thing about you writing many drafts of your story and thinking of the titles and ideas along the way.

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Rachel February 13, 2015 at 7:59 am

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Cyanna February 13, 2015 at 1:42 pm

At the moment I feel like Hazel, trying to write to, and get a response from one of her favorite authors out there. I highly doubt you will ever respond to this comment but I have to do an IS(independent studies) Project for my English Class and I’m stuck. I obviously want to write a book because I love the feeling behind creating words into something that can inspire someone. My problem is, is that I can’t think of any intriguing ideas to base my story off of. The book isn’t necessarily going to be a full length novel, rather, a short story that is a maximum of about 20 chapters or so. I’ve tried website after website, I’ve asked my friends and family for advice, still, nothing. I’m in a predicament and I can’t get out. Please, I need help. It would be much appreciated.

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Drew Rose February 18, 2015 at 9:25 pm

Hello John Green,

Whether you reply or not, I’d like to go into the world of your character development. Your ideas for your books are brilliant. TFIOS is a flawless book that has made its way on my top five favorite books. Inside the book, diving into Hazel’s mind, we see so much characterization of her and of Augustus. Even her mother and father have so much characterization. What I’d like to know is—Could you describe to us how you decide what each character is like? Do you examine real life people to create the characters? And do they develope more through every draft, or are they pretty set in stone characters in the first draft?

Thanks for your time,
D/R

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It doesn't matter February 25, 2015 at 7:37 am

John G.

I’m not going to rave about how fantastic your books are. I’m not going to gush over how flawless your work is. And I’m certainly not going to say they are perfection.
Your books are inspiring. But even more inspiring is the author who wrote them.
Thank you for being honest. Your books don’t matter John. At least, not the most. It what comes after the books that matters.

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Lauren E. March 1, 2015 at 12:32 pm

How do you cope with the unknowingness of writing, the complete absence of reliability? Especially when you know you have to support your family?

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Katie March 8, 2015 at 4:42 am

Hello:)
I am a huge fan of your work, you are undoubtedly one of my favorite authors. With you being such a successful writer, I was wondering if you had any advice into organizing fragments of dialogue, miscellaneous characters, and various plot points into a whole story? To quote you, ” My thoughts are stars I cannot fathom into constellations.”
Any advice on fathoming a constellation from a ton of stars would be extremely helpful.
Thank-you!!

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Debbie Caudle March 11, 2015 at 1:03 pm

I have lived in this state since 1988 and I. Know for a fact that if I had help writing my stories just the 500 or more people I know would buy it. Nobody would believe what I could write about. If you want to give me or advice pls call me . Thank you Debbie Caudle 907 414 -7268

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Gabriela Pacheco March 14, 2015 at 11:16 pm

I am writing a book but I don’t know what to write now what do i do

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Aly April 27, 2015 at 10:26 am

Since you are a writer you have the freedom to speech. When you think of freedom of speech wat is the first word tat comes to your mind? Why?

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tina April 29, 2015 at 11:32 am

I’m going an author’s study project about you and 3 of you’re books, I’ve looked everywhere for the answer of one question I have but I can’t find it. Do you have any actual like people inspirations and if yes, who?

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elena April 29, 2015 at 11:56 am

i love your books and you are so insperational

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azay May 1, 2015 at 4:16 am

You writings are brilliant:)….write,inspire and entertain more….

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promise May 4, 2015 at 7:49 pm

what inspired you to write? (what inspired you to start writing)

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dinah May 6, 2015 at 12:33 pm

what expire you to become an author

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Izzy May 6, 2015 at 1:20 pm

I’m writing a speech about your success at school and I was thinking, do you have advice that doesn’t just apply to writing but to anyone?

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Fran May 9, 2015 at 1:23 pm

I was just wandering… You talk about how you find material for your books, but how does that material then reaches the actual book form? Do you plan your writing in advance, or do you just sit down with a general idea and then go with the flow? Do you know exactly what is going to happen before you start writing? And how much does your idea change during the process?

Someone please help an aspiring writer out! ;)

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Allie Girman May 11, 2015 at 12:21 pm

What influenced you to become an author?

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juan May 13, 2015 at 9:53 am

when i was young like 3 years ago i used to see how dora the explora talked and wanted to sound better and it started off with writing comeback lines and it became to the book we all know now.

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penolope May 13, 2015 at 9:54 am

i love your book OMG i want you inside me

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Alex Thomas May 20, 2015 at 11:56 am

What kind of literature did you enjoy. The reason why I am asking you this is because I am in seventh grade and I am doing a project on you. I hope you answer back! By the way my library teacher just messaged you on Facebook so i hope you answer back!

Alex Thomas

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Hailey Oppel May 22, 2015 at 2:01 pm
kiana churchill May 25, 2015 at 3:19 am

Im 14 yrs old and somehow I feel so much older, I feel that I can understand and cope with things that most adults can’t, perhaps thats why I have fallen in love with books and writing. I can create something so “abnormal” to society and only make it into something beautiful. I want to say thank you for inspiring young writers like me with your talent; perhaps one day we’d sit down together and write, but who am I kidding, I’m only just a girl, right? Well Mr. Green I will see you in the words. Thank you once again.

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Natalie May 26, 2015 at 6:41 pm

Hi John Green,
Im doing a report on one of your books “An Abundance of Katherines”. Now the book is amazing in my opinion, but my teacher has asked me to write a “discussion” of the writing strategies (tools) the author (John Green) uses to capture and hold the readers attention and to communicate information/ideas. I was wondering, what strategies do you use?

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kaitlyn May 30, 2015 at 11:26 pm

Hello, may I just say how truly inspiring your books are for me. These questions actually helped me a lot, but I actually have one question. How did you come up with such amazing dialogue. I feel like each remark your characters ever say are deep and meaningful. I’m curious how you came up with such like Paper Towns when Margo said “All those paper people, living in those paper houses burning the future to stay warm.” Do you overhear things that inspire you to write about that? Do you sit down and think about it? Does it just, like, BAM pop out of nowhere?

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Erica May 31, 2015 at 6:18 pm

Dear John Green,

First I just want to say you’re an amazing writer and that your books are really inspiring. You’re one of my favorite authors. :)

But, I have just one question. Is there anyone in your life that influences/inspires you? Anyone that influences the way you write, or why you write?

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MorganP June 16, 2015 at 9:39 am

Hi! I’m a young adult and I’m really love writing, so I came here, I guess, to make sure I was “doing it right.” I mean, I’m just doing it for fun, but I wanted to actually publish it on Wattpad or something like that for constructive criticism. I feel like it sucked, and I agree that starting over feels really liberating (so far, I think I have 5 or 6 different drafts). And I deleted some of them, too. I hope it turns out well… There are only two drafts (of the prologue) that I actually like. I usually don’t write outlines, but after free-writing for a bit, I came up with some ideas that kept connecting and evolving, SO… I think I might end up actually liking it.

I always let my siblings or friends read it or even my parents, for constructive criticism, but I’m gonna start posting online so I can get advice from others. I really hope it’s good…if not I will feel like a failure.

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MorganP June 16, 2015 at 9:41 am

*I really love, not I’m–started a thought and didn’t finish it.

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Marian Henderson June 30, 2015 at 10:51 pm

If you could tell every inspired, young writer one thing, what would you tell them and why? P.S: Your books are amazing!

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