Three things to learn from Andy Weir’s ‘The Martian’

I just read Andy Weir’s The Martian. Woah! Awesome! And yeah, I know I’m six months late. But hey…

ROMBUS in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away ready for landing. Public domain, NASA.
One of my favourite never-flown Mars mission pictures – this isn’t from Weir’s book. It’s a 1969 impression of Phil Bono’s gigantic ROMBUS booster in Mars orbit circa 1986, with the Mars Excursion Module backing away ready for landing. Bono was an engineer working for the Douglas Aircraft Corporation – his concepts for a re-usable booster were worked out in detail and as much within reach of 1960s technology as a winged shuttle. If ROMBUS had been picked up when Bono proposed it in 1964 as the official post-Apollo program, we’d have maybe had Mars and Moon bases by now. Sigh. Public domain, NASA.

It’s a classic author success story. He self-pubbed on Amazon – then was picked up for mainstream print release and an A-list movie.

I haven’t seen the movie yet. But what Weir has achieved is wonderful! Movie or TV adaptation is every author’s dream, and all kudos to Weir for getting there. It hardly ever happens, even for authors who’ve been mainstream published. A few years back one of my books was going to be made into a six-part TV series, which got as far as a film company giving it a script treatment and negotiations with a TV network before the whole thing foundered on the rocks of funding, but that’s another story. (I got kerb-crawled the other day by someone who recognised me from the documentary TV series I did appear in, but that’s another-another story…)

So Weir deserves every accolade. He’s written a fantastic book. A genius book. The Martian is a simple story – stranded astronaut has to do enough smart stuff to stay alive and get himself into a position to be rescued – but that’s how all the best stories are. Simple and, with that, utterly powerful. Remember Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea? A lone human against nature. That’s what Weir gives twenty-first century readers – on Mars. The Martian is gripping from first to last page. It’s one of those books that leaves you sorry it’s ended. Wonderful.

With a couple of deliberate exceptions such as the actual kinetic energy delivered by a Martian dust storm, the science is spot on. That includes using an Aldrin Cycler orbit, which is a real thing that will really work (yes, that Buzz Aldrin – years before he walked on the Moon he did a PhD in rendezvous dynamics at MIT). The book’s sharp, witty, the characterisation excellent. The structure’s finely honed – the tension rises, steadily, in waves. It’s awesome on all counts. Captured me at every level, especially the science. I even found myself visualising the trajectory curves at one point as if I was trying to solve an – er – [cough cough] Kerbal Space Program scenario.

Bonneville Crater
Real Mars: Bonneville Crater, 2004 view from the Spirit rover. NASA/JPL, public domain.

The thing is – what can we learn from this, as writers?

First off, I think discovery is a lottery. A lot of what’s self-pubbed on Amazon is, basically, dribble. Some books are amazing – as Weir shows. And I bet there are a lot of others in that category. But they haven’t been found yet. And they may not be. I suspect a lot of awesome books are being drowned by the volume of dribble and by the fact that everybody’s shouting for attention with the same tools – meaning the whole lot disappears into ‘white noise’.

Second – despite that ‘invisibility’ problem, quality counts. I read the mainstream version of The Martian, the one that went through the commercial editorial process. No changes to the plot, but according to Weir there was some adjustment to the wording.  That’s a normal part of publisher quality assurance/editorial processes. The thing is, plot and detailed narrative structure are the important bits. The specific words can be re-wrapped and honed around it, more or less, depending on the author – but getting that story right first is the key step. Weir nailed it.

So the onus is on, folks. Maybe what you write will be buried. But maybe it won’t – and to be picked up, it’s got to be good from the get-go. Fiction or non fiction, it’s got to be right to have a chance.

Watch this space – I’ve been in the writing and publishing business, professionally, for over thirty years. I’ve got a few how-to writing and publishing tips to share (click on the ‘follow’ button up there on the right column if you want).

And finally – no matter what else happens, I don’t want to be stuck on Mars. Or maybe I do, if it means I can avoid being drowned by dribble and only read the good stuff like Weir’s. Just saying.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


9 thoughts on “Three things to learn from Andy Weir’s ‘The Martian’

  1. Nice positive story. Must be beautiful to go from self-pub to screen adaptation.

    And you’re wright about story also. Simple often wins out provided the content within is engaging. I often get caught up in mind games of over complicating stories and ideas.

  2. Cool, I have not read the book yet, though I saw the movie and I greatly recommend it to you!

    As you said “we could have colonies on Mars and Moon” (though I guess that this is exaggeration), if we put more money into space programs we could be far ahead of where we are now. For example if we quit the stupid ideas as Trumps wall which could cost around 20 billion dollars and also the planned canal in Europe (which I guess and hope will be cancelled) which could cost 100 billion euros. -_- (Not talking about lot of other dumb stuff)

  3. I wasn’t interested in reading The Martian before, but I sure am now. That’s a great point you made about how self-published gems must surely be lurking unnoticed under all the dribble. As a huge reader, I am exhausted by authors constantly hawking their books. As a writer, I certainly understand it. So what is the answer? As much as I long for a career as a novelist, I have to remind myself that my true goal is to create great art and, as I tell my children, to have faith that following my passion will open doors.

    1. I thoroughly recommend ‘The Martian’ – it’s one of those rare stories that has both geek factor appeal and a ton of stuff for a general readership who might not usually read such tales.

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