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.

{ 219 comments… read them below or add one }

Lyssa January 7, 2014 at 6:39 pm

How do you know when something is “written poorly” like you say fear? I honestly relate to that fear more than I can express so I just want to know what you consider to be bad writing?

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Bashar mohammed January 12, 2014 at 12:07 pm

if youunder my name I will not exist anymore who I am?

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Ariana Bell January 13, 2014 at 9:14 am

Can I just say that you are my all-time favorite author. You are what really inspired me to write after I thought I had always failed. Thank you for that. I love the way you write books how it really is for young adults and how you don’t sugar-coat anything. Thank you for that also. You’re an amazing author.
Sincerely,
One of your biggest fans<3

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Garrett January 17, 2014 at 5:01 pm

Dear the awesomest Nerdfighter in all of Nerdfighteria,
I’m fifteen and I’m a Freshman in High School. I had a couple of questions about publishing books. How did you get your first book published. I’m writing a book that I’m almost half done with, and I have no idea how to get my manuscript out there. I don’t know how to find an editor, I don’t know how to contact a publisher, I don’t know a thing. All of this was going through my head and I thought, who better to answer this than the author of the four books that inspired me the most? I don’t know if you’ll ever read this, but I thought that you could answer any questions I had. I want to be just like you. I have thoroughly enjoyed LFA, AAOK, PT, and TFIOS. I have been watching Vlogbrothers since June 2009 and Crash Course since the start. I hope that you can take a look at this and give me some advice. Thank You

Garrett Allar

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Cathy January 17, 2014 at 9:31 pm

Hey there, I have a point of inquisition kinda off the back of how poignant, intuitive and utterly alive the stories of ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ and ‘Looking For Alaska’ were – it may seem trivial but I was wondering how it was that you sought out your information such as your interviews with cancer patients and their families for TFiOS? I ask mainly because I’m working on a project of my own, a story on similar subject matter and have hit a blank from being a bystander, as it were – I want to give an honest portrayal but have no experience in approaching research such as this. I guess the crux of the matter is seeking your advice on research from your experience? If you ever do read this, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for your superb and inspiring handiwork – your stories unfold really quite tangibly which makes for great escapism! Thank you, Cathy

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Kristina January 21, 2014 at 6:10 am

Hi,

I am writing a school assignment about you and your books! But I was wondering, is there any connection between you and the book (TFIOS)? Like, what does it mean to you?
Thank you.

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Tori January 23, 2014 at 6:47 pm

What jobs/internships did you do that helped you become a such a successful author and talented writer?

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Bronwyn January 23, 2014 at 7:35 pm

Hello! I’m doing a school project on an inspirational person, and I chose you (this is the third time I have used you for a project and I’m hoping that’s not creepy). I was just wondering: why do you write? Just curious ☺️

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Sophia January 24, 2014 at 1:51 pm

Hi. I am doing a project on you and your books and I wanted to know why you write and why you enjoy it? Also i was wondering which character in any of your books is most like you.
Thanks!

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Kenzie January 25, 2014 at 6:52 pm

Hi! I’ve read each and every one of your four books (also Will Grayson, Will Grayson with David) and I just wanted to say that it always amazes me how incredible they come out! They’re all so funny and witty, as well as thought-provoking and smarty (if that makes sense. I couldn’t think of another word for that. Educational just doesn’t sound right.) I love all of the different writing strategies you use, and the language tie-ins and words, too! Writing has been one of my dream goals and jobs in life for as long as I can remember. I have a few questions, though.
I get many great ideas for what I think could sprout to be great books or fan fics, and I write them down and save them all with a short synopsis, many of which I have tried to start writing. But, I always get stuck and I can never finish a story, no matter how hard I’ve tried. How do you do it? Do you have any routines that you follow throughout the writing process? Any huge inspirations, or songs/movies you listen to as you write? (I read all of the faqs up top, I’m just wondering if you have a slightly more specific routine or such?)
I admire you infinitely, and your works are constantly teaching me more. One day, I aspire to be someone like you.
~Mackenzie (I’ve always thought that the tilde looks super cool in a signature haha)

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Justi January 28, 2014 at 2:24 am

Why is the sky blue?

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#yolo April 4, 2014 at 2:07 pm

#yolo

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Frank Kinsella January 30, 2014 at 12:06 pm

My youngest daughter is trying to finish the third book of a series and I want her to publish but she says she isn’t ready because it is her first attempt. How long do you spend on your books and when do you know they are ready to send to a publishing house?

Love the books.
Frank

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libni February 4, 2014 at 1:56 pm

hey Mr John Green, im gunna write a book that takes out all your books! haha its a challenge what do you say? i love your work so much. i hope one day you can read my book . xx stayyyyy nerdy

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Samiha February 8, 2014 at 3:29 pm

Hello Mr. Green,
Firstly, let me just say I will forever love your writing and, in my mind and many others, you are the most amazing author this world has ever seen. The first book I read of yours was TFiOS and it is my favourite book (of course!). I read this a few months ago and since then, I’ve read LFA, Paper Towns, and I am currently reading Katherines. I know you will probably never see this comment, but I’m trying anyway. I don’t know exactly how to express myself, as my 13-year-old brain does not contain the knowledge to do so, so I’ll just say that I truly love your writing and I think that you’re a philosphical genious. I don’t have a question about any of your books (because I know you will say “books belong to it’s readers” so my question is, what advice can you give to a young person that would like to begin writing? Thank you in advance :)
Yours truly,
Samiha

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Asya February 9, 2014 at 3:48 am

Is there a connection between TFIOS and your life as in have you experienced anything that have you the inspiration?

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Leah February 9, 2014 at 9:36 pm

Hey so first off let me just say i love your books and i think you’re hilarious and brilliant. I noticed in most of your books, you focus on mattering(mostly in Katherines and TFIOS). I find this really interesting and i was just wondering if there is a reason why you chose to incorporate that in your books. also, while i was reading Katherines, of course there were soo many awesome lines, but one part that i absolutely loved was when Lindsey was talking about how she is a chameleon and just does what the people around her do or would want her to do. and i think the reason i loved this so much is because its so true and relatable , and I, and many people claim to be unique and ourselves, when many times we’re just being chameleons and trying to camouflage. so thank you for that revelation! also can you please come to new york and do a book signing or something it would mean the world to meet you. Also(last also, i promise :) are you writing another book any time soon?

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Elizabeth Shehter February 11, 2014 at 1:08 am

Your books have inspired me a great deal. I personally don’t have the capability to sit down and write a whole book, though I have tried. But mainly I just don’t have a way with language and words like you do. It is amazing all the deep, thought-out ideas you can think up in a matter of pages. Anyway, I’ve read most of your books but it is not enough, I was wondering when, if ever, will you be writing another one?

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Astrid H. February 12, 2014 at 2:46 pm

John Green,
Now, this comment may become lost into the abyss of this comment section, buried by all the other fans and Nerd fighters with questions. But anyway, you may see this aside from that fate. So my question is, how do you accurately write the opposite gender? I am currently starting to write a novel, which came from a sudden idea of a few paragraphs, which has evolved into the idea of a novel shaped around these few paragraphs, and I began in the perspective of a teenage boy. I, however, am a teenage girl, and have been finding it quite difficult to write in that perspective. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
-Astrid H.

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Brianna Miranda February 12, 2014 at 9:27 pm

hello John Green!

Ive writen to you before when i had explained my love for your book (TFiOS) <3 omg it was my fave so far !! i just wanted to say that im a massive nerdfighter and im just beyong impressed with your book and i hope to read many more !! BTW im doing a project about you in my school ( im in 7th grade ) and i can not wait to show all my friends what an amazing writer you are !! oh and another BTW, i love your Youtube vids, your hilariouse!! :)

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Maddie M. February 15, 2014 at 4:32 pm

Hi Mr.Green, I am a huge fan of your books, and after reading TFiOS I went on a reading binge and read all of your books in a month. Which just so happened to inspire me on writing my own. The problem is is that I don’t know what to do. I have a plot and the research all done, I just don’t know where to start! For example, how do you lay out everything? Like beginning, middle, and ending, how do you know where to place ideas? Do you make a time line?

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Sasha February 16, 2014 at 5:16 am

I enjoy reading your books quite a lot. I can see why you prefer to write teenage fiction rather than adult stuff. There’s one thing that scares me, and it is growing up and not being able to cry while reading a book anymore. I like suffering while reading, i think that’s the whole point of books. They prepare us for real life. I would be really happy, if in 30 years, when i am 46, i still enjoy reading your novels as much as i do now. If you ask me, i like LFA more than TFiOS. But that’s just me. Wish you the best :)

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Ariana February 18, 2014 at 1:23 pm

How would you describe your writing style?

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Meghan February 18, 2014 at 6:14 pm

Let me first say that I loved loved loved The Fault in Our Stars, I have the intention of reading your other books because I’ve heard reviews from my friends about how they are good so… here is my question (sort of): I am a writer myself and want some help with editing and things. Is there an email that I could send a draft of my writing to?? Thanks so much!!

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Danielle Hartless February 19, 2014 at 8:27 pm

Hi Mr. Green. I was wondering if you could help me out. I am currently trying to write a book (a fiction one of course!) and I don’t know where or how to start? What did you do in situations like these?

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sean February 22, 2014 at 11:35 pm

do you find it hard after developing such likable characters to leave them behind and create new ones? also do you find authors base a lot of their writing style on their favourite authors for example was your style of narrative inspired in anyway by the narrative in catcher in the rye?

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Abby March 2, 2014 at 2:54 am

Hi Mr. Green!
I’m writing a novel, and although it is still (most definitely) a work in progress, I was wondering if you could answer this question for me, you being so utterly exquisite at what you do and what I hope one day to do:
How do you approach your characters from a psychological standpoint while you write them? How do you ever sort out every character’s thought processes and intricate minds when each one is so in-depth and each mind (realistically) is as unsolvable as an infinite collection of labyrinths that intertwine within each other and everywhere in between? Each character’s mind is as vastly complex as the universe itself…”how do you plan?”, I guess is what I’m trying to ask. Or do you even plan at all? Do you just know, somehow? Can you please just fill me in on the “somehow”? I’d like to be in-the-know of that somehow.
Thanks! :)

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Anabelle March 18, 2014 at 8:20 pm

Dear Mr. John Green,

There are countless comments in this long scroll, and even more being posted by the minute. And I know that my comment will become on in a thousand, lost in the flurry of others like be, scrounging for bits of your attention. But I am not going to write to use poetic language and pretentious words, for only Augustus Waters does that justice (admittedly Gus is quite possibly perfect, or as close to perfect as any person, fictional or living, can be) I was wondering, how do you name your characters. Names like Augustus Waters and Hazel Grace Lancaster and Margo Roth Spiegelman and Alaska Young must come from from somewhere, for those names will exist in my brain forever, only to leave as I leave.

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anne April 7, 2014 at 9:57 am

Do you think the movie adaptions to your books will be different and not use the lines written in the books?

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Darian April 7, 2014 at 11:10 pm

I had a creative writing professor who told me that, “All fiction is nonfiction”. Do you, as a novelist, agree with her on this?

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SJDFB April 9, 2014 at 1:21 pm

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