John Green (born in 1977) is the beloved author of The Fault in Our Stars, Turtles All the Way Down, and Looking for Alaska.
Here are a dozen of his wonderful quotes to help you write your novel!
1. Writing is something you do alone. It’s a profession for introverts who wanna tell you a story but don’t wanna make eye contact while telling it.
John Green is exactly right. This profession is perfect for introverts because we love to tell stories, are desperate to tell stories, and yet have no desire to actually tell any of them directly to your face. I would be mortified to tell one of my stories to someone in person. But to tell a story to many, many people on the page? That’s the dream. That’s the passion, always.
2. I really think that reading is just as important as writing when you’re trying to be a writer because it’s the only apprenticeship we have, it’s the only way of learning how to write a story.
He’s absolutely right about this one too. You can take a hundred classes about how to be a writer, and you can talk to your friends about writing until the end of time, but there are really only two ways to become a good writer. Write every day. And read every day. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read in every genre possible. Read good and bad fiction. Reading is truly the best way to learn how to write a story.
3. I just give myself permission to suck. I delete about 90 percent of my first drafts, 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 percent chance I’m just gonna delete whatever I write anyway. I find this hugely liberating.
One of the best things you can do as a writer is give yourself permission to suck. Because not every writing day is going to go well. In my experience, only a few writing days ever go well. Most of them suck, and you know what? That’s okay. The important thing is that you write every day and reach THE END of any project you start. Writing is a long process that doesn’t end with a first draft. Many writers never finish things because they’re scared to suck, but the best thing you can do is give yourself permission to suck and keep going no matter what.
4. When I think about characters, I like to think of them in their relationships to each other. In the same way, I think that’s how humans are ultimately defined. We are our relationships to one another. And a lot of what’s interesting about us happens in the context of other people.
One of the most exciting parts of writing a novel is putting your characters in a room together. Is coming up with complex, three-dimensional characters who often want different things and then toss them into a scene together and see what happens. It’s especially a thrill to have two characters with the complete opposite of desires and motivations share a scene together. How does your main character interact with a teacher he hates, a friend he adores, his parents, his siblings? Relationships in fiction tell us so much about your characters, and they’re sure fun to write about.
5. Nostalgia is inevitably a yearning for a past that never existed and when I’m writing, there are no bees to sting me out of my sentimentality. For me at least, fiction is the only way I can even begin to twist my lying memories into something true.
One of the best things about fiction is to take elements from your life you wish had happened and then turn them into reality on the page. Often what doesn’t happen to me in my own life will turn itself into a really nifty story idea, and that idea will build a bridge to more exciting possibilities. Stephen King has often said that a great place to start when it comes with novel ideas is ask yourself, “What if?” What if this had happened instead of that? What if I had chosen this path instead of that one? Think about what could have happened to you in a pivotal time in your life, and who knows? Your next amazing novel idea might be waiting.
6. There is a lot of talk in publishing these days that we need to become more like the Internet: We need to make books for short attention spans with bells and whistles — books, in short, that are as much like ‘Angry Birds’ as possible. But I think that’s a terrible idea.
Agreed! A terrible idea! Oh my God, if we ever reach the point where all the new books are filled with bells and whistles to accommodate those with low attention spans, then we’re in trouble. There’s a time for Twitter and Facebook and all things Internet, and there’s a time for big, beautiful, ambitious novels that transport us to another time and place. I actually prefer longer novels to anything else, and I certainly have zero interest in anything published that’s geared toward people with low attention spans. I think this kind of future is still far away, thank God. I still think books are in very good hands.
7. We’re professional worriers. You’re constantly imagining things that could go wrong and then writing about them.
The same way we like to imagine things going a bit differently in our past and then potentially writing about that, we also tend to imagine things that could go wrong in our future, am I right? We’re standing in line at a bank, imagining ten different things that could go horribly wrong, and often one of those ideas can make for a great story. No matter what your day is like — good, bad, indifferent — imagine the worst thing that could happen and then write about that. Come up with something too fantastical to happen in real life… and then write about that.
8. I’m a big believer in pairing classics with contemporary literature, so students have the opportunity to see that literature is not a cold, dead thing that happened once but instead a vibrant mode of storytelling that’s been with us a long time — and will be with us, I hope, for a long time to come.
One thing many aspiring writers forget to do is read the classics as well as the new shiny novels that are recently published. I do think it’s important to always be reading new books to see what editors are looking for and to get at least a feel for what the current marketplace is like, but to improve your writing, it’s essential to read at least a few classics every year. Sure, some of the language and style might have changed in fifty years or a hundred years, but to see how the masters told stories will absolutely help you in the long run.
9. My interest as a writer is not in reflecting actual human speech, which, of course, does not occur in sentences and is totally undiagrammable. My interest is in trying to reflect the reality of experience — how we feel when we talk to each other, how we feel when we’re engaging with questions that interest us.
Dialogue is a tricky thing. You can’t actually write dialogue that’s copied over from real human speech. Have you ever sat down in a coffee shop for ten minutes and transcribed every word of what the two people next to you are saying to each other? Half the time it’s jibberish. Lots of uhhs, ohhhs, likes, and the rest. You don’t want to write all that in your fiction, but at the same time you want your dialogue to sound realistic, help develop your characters, and move your story forward. Like with everything else in writing, lots and lots of practice will help you fine tune your dialogue skills, as well as help you capture the reality of experience always.
10. What I eventually realized is that the real business of books is not done by awards committees or people who turn trees into paper or editors or agents or even writers. We’re all just facilitators. The real business is done by readers.
When you’re writing a novel, you really have to keep your head out of the business of things and not think about awards and New York Times bestseller lists. The best thing you can do when you’re writing a novel is write the best story you can. You want to finish the story, and revise it, and revise it again. You don’t want anything less than your best to be put into the world. And remember at the end of the day that readers get the final say. Once your work is done, then the real business is done by readers. Your novel will one day belong to them. Be comfortable with that. Be excited about that.
11. I enjoy writing about people falling in love, probably because I think the first time you fall in love is the first time that you have to figure out how you’re going to orient your life. What are you going to value? What’s going to be most important to you? And I think that’s really interesting to write about.
A million times, yes! This is one of the things that pulls me back to YA fiction time and time again. Your time in high school is such an important, vibrant, scary, funny, memorable experience. It’s such a fantastic time of life to write about, and I still love doing it. As a gay person, I’ve also been pulled to writing about LGBTQ characters falling in love for the first time because I remember what it was like to fall in love with another guy around that time, and boy, I’ll never forget that feeling as long as I live.
12. When you’re writing a novel, you spend four years sitting in your basement and a year waiting for the book to come out and then you get the feedback.
What non-writers don’t realize about writing novels is how much intensive work is done for years on every project. I think non-writers assume you write a first draft of a book, and then six months later it’s in bookstores around the world. Many people have no clue what it takes to write a book, how long the journey is from your inception of the idea to the book actually reaching bookstores. How many tears are shed as you revise, revise, revise, and work with beta readers and literary agents and editors, and how very often along the way the novel never gets published at all.
If you want to be a writer, you have to be in it for the long haul. Through the good times and the bad. And if you stick with it long enough, eventually you’ll have a book in the world, and you’ll get the feedback from readers you’ve been waiting to receive for years.
Have patience. Keep going. Your time will come.
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