I met Andy Weir at his home in Mountain View, California in 2015, a few weeks before the film of his best-selling book The Martian came out. His condo was modest but comfortable, shared with his cat, a vast collection of board games, and a wide collection of booze bottles for the cocktail and game nights he held for friends.
He was friendly, fun, and still slightly shell-shocked by the steady trickle of journalists coming to hear his story – as well as thrilled to have finally realised his dream of giving up his day job as a computer programmer to become a full-time writer.
“I still have no idea what I did right,” he said, and it’s true that there was a lot of luck involved.
But like most cases of overnight success, his story is also one of practice, persistence, and patience. He wrote two terrible books before he wrote a good one. He created a web comic, Casey And Andy, that built up an audience of 50,000 readers. And he honed his craft by self-publishing a steady stream of short stories – including one, The Egg, that went viral in 2009.
He’s since published more novels, and written a TV series that didn’t make it past pilot season. As he said when we met, it’s hard to improve on a debut as charmed as The Martian. But I also very much doubt that fact will discourage him from trying.
What we can learn from the success of The Martian.
1. Write what you know. Then find an audience.
“I slowly accumulated this core group of about 3000 readers over ten years of posting stuff to my website. And they’re all dorks, hard-core science geeks – because that’s the sort of stuff that I wrote. I’m one of those guys that’ll nit-pick every little physics problem in a movie!
“With The Martian, I wanted to write a serial that had tons of maths, show your work, all that stuff. I still have no idea why it has mainstream appeal. I guess people liked the snarkiness of the main character.”
2. Represent, but don’t get preachy about it.
“People keep saying I have strong female characters in The Martian. But there’s no feminist message. I never have a point or a goal when I’m writing a story. All I want is to entertain the reader. I’m not trying to push an agenda, to make a political or an ideological point.
“Everyone in the book is competent. Just some of those people are also women. I guess that’s just how I do female characters.”
3. Follow your dreams. But not to destruction.
“I wanted to be a writer even when I was young, when I was 12, 13. But I’m not a big risk taker. I don’t like taking financial risk if I can avoid it. So I never considered it a realistic goal until 1999, when I was laid off from my job at AOL.
“I lived off of my severance for three years. During that time, I wrote a book and tried very hard to get an agent. No publishers were interested, no agents. It was just the standard experience most authors face.
“So in 2002 I thought, ‘OK. I gave it a whirl. I don’t have to wonder what might have been. Now I’ll go back into the software industry. Which was not a big failure, for me. I enjoy working with computers. I’m good at it.
If you do something for 25 years, you’re going to get good at it. It’s not like I’m a genius or anything, it’s just you suck less every year!
“So I went back to a profession I loved, and started writing for fun. That’s when I made my website, and I started accumulating readers.”
4. Listen to your audience
“I got a lot of input from those early readers. Especially on the chemistry, which is my weakest discipline. Chemists would say, “Oh hey, yeah, you were almost right. Here’s what you said happens in the book, but here’s what would actually happen. And you could fix it by saying this.”
“It was really helpful. I had electrical engineers emailing me. I had a reactor tech on a US nuclear submarine, just telling me how this stuff works. It was amazing. Because I didn’t have any contacts in aerospace at the time. I didn’t know anyone in NASA. All my research was just Google.”
5. Details matter. A lot.
There were a few places where I had these cool ideas, then I’d do the math and I’m like, ‘No. Does not remotely work.’ Science drove the plot. Sitting down and doing the math gave me information that I wouldn’t have even thought of.
“A good example is when he’s farming the potatoes. He brings in soil from the outside, but he needs a certain amount of moisture for plants to be able to grow. Mars is basically arid, completely dry. And there’s just no way a manned mission would have enough water to do this. So I got stuck on that.
“Now, I could just hand wave. If I just didn’t mention it at all, I would have got away with it. But it bothered me that this wouldn’t really work. I needed to come up with a way for him to generate hundreds of litres of water. And that led what I think is one of the best sub-plots of the book, where you have this whole complicated process of making water – and he blows himself up.”
6. Originality, not so much.
At least not as long as you have your own, fresh take on an old idea. “The story is basically man versus nature. It’s not a new concept: it’s Robinson Crusoe.”
7. Put your work out there.
When readers complained it was difficult to read sitting at their computer, Weir published The Martian as an e-book. Then put it out on Kindle.
“I posted it in late September 2012, and by December it was on the top sellers list. I wanted to put it up for free, but it wouldn’t let me. So it was like 99 cents, which is the minimum they’d allow.”
8. ..And the right people might find you.
“At Random House, an editor named Julian Pivier heard about the book and he was like, “I don’t know if I should read it or not. It seems to be very, very technical. I don’t know if it would apply to a wide audience.”
“But David Fugate, who’s a literary agent, decided to read it because Julian was interested in it. Then he contacted me and said, “Do you have an agent? If not, you want one?”
“So after three years of not being able to get any traction with literary agents, I had one knocking on my door! He sold the book to Julian, and then at the same time, Fox became interested in the movie option. But everybody told me not to get too excited. An option isn’t that big a deal.
“It’s nice because they give you some money. And if they keep renewing it, every eighteen months or so, they’ll throw you a little bit more money. There are some authors who make a really good income from twelve books that studios keep optioning forever. But the films are rarely made.
“Still, the publishing deal and the movie deal were done four days apart. At this point I’m still sitting in my cubicle at work, fixing software bugs. Then wandering off to take a call about my movie deal! I really liked my job at the time. I worked for a company called MobileIron which is literally right down the street, a seven-minute walk from here.
“My co-workers were all rooting for me and really happy watching how this all played out. I finally quit working there, because The Martian was clearly going make enough money for me to follow that dream of being a full-time writer.
“But it was absolutely not a “take this job and shove it” situation. It was bittersweet. I was sad to go. That was actually the hardest part of the transition to being a full-time writer: losing the social interaction that I’d come to really enjoy at work.”
9. Writing is rarely easy.
“I need to be alone, to write. I say the dialogue out loud, to see if it makes sense. So anybody watching me write would see me having conversations with nobody. With feeling and emotion,because I want to make sure that this is a realistic conversation!
“It’s been a real adjustment to go from the highly social, collaborative environment of computer programming to working by myself. In programming, you also have extremely clear objectives and they’re very, very measurable. Is the computer doing this thing? If the answer is yes, then you’re done. If it’s no, you’re not done.
“But in writing, everything is kind of fluid and you’re never really done. There’s no closure, there’s no clear objective. It’s subjective. And being completely self-disciplined is difficult. It’s really easy to goof off when there’s nobody cracking the whip on you!
“When I’m having a tough time writing, that’s when my house starts to get sparkling clean! It’s like, ‘Well, it’s been a while since I flipped the mattress. And it’s time to beat my rugs!'”
10. To write a good book, first write a few bad ones.
“My first book, The Observer, was just terrible. Fortunately, it was written before the era of the internet so there are no digital copies out there. My mother has the one surviving copy. She refuses to destroy it, and she keeps it well-hidden because she knows what will happen if I find it. It’s a weak plot with lame characters, and it’s badly written. Usually, an author has an inflated opinion of his own work. But even when I’d just finished it, I knew it was utter crap.
“The second book, Theft of Pride, had a decent plot, and interesting characters that even had some depth. But the prose is so bad. That is still my weakest skill. I’m pretty good with coming up with storylines, but the actual wordsmithing is often clumsy. But I’m getting better. I’ve been doing it for ten years as a hobby, and now I’m doing it full-time. As I said before, if you keep doing something long enough, you suck less at it!”
11. No matter how hard you work, luck still plays a part.
Few authors have control over how their story is adapted for the screen, so it was lucky that scriptwriter Drew Goddard chose to stick closely to the book, and to involve Weir in the process. It then seemed the film would stall: Gravity had just come out, the studio was worried that The Martian was too similar in stetting – and also that there was no love interest.
But then Matt Damon expressed interest, and Ridley Scott came on board as director.
“It was a nice combination of events. Drew Goddard really liked the story as is, so he made an adaptation just beat for beat identical and then Ridley doesn’t mess with screenplays that much. They identified the scientific accuracy as a core element of the story, so that was a priority – thankfully. I had no control. For the most part, my only job is to cash the cheque. But they chose to involve me. Another thing that can get in there and screw things up is the studio itself. But Ridley is such a respected director that didn’t happen, either.
“Also NASA was very happy with it. They see it as a way to educate people in the realities of space travel, and they think that it’ll increase interest in the Space Programme. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt, too, that it portrays them in a very positive light!
“The NASA logo is actually copyrighted. You can use the FBI logo in a movie if you want, it’s public domain. But you need NASA’s permission to use its logo. Gravity wanted to use it, and it took so long to get permission that they had to digitally remove the logo from the trailers, because it still hadn’t been cleared at that point.
“NASA is a large, slow, federal organisation that has no vested interest really in giving you the logo. So they do things at their own pace. But for The Martian, the studio said they have never gotten the permission handed back so quickly!”
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My interview with Andy Weir originally appeared in The Telegraph. Read it here.