What I Learned About Writing: The Martian

Similar to my last writing post about some things I learned by reading The Grace of Kings and Lonesome DoveI recently finished Andy Weir's excellent science fiction adventure The Martian. I learned three major things about writing from reading his book.

Before I do that, if you haven't read about Weir's journey in publishing this book, you should. He went from $0.99 self-published author on Amazon to a big publishing deal and a movie deal overnight. A movie based on the best-selling novel comes out later this year, directed by Ridley Scott and staring Matt Damon. I'm not sure his meteoric rise helps aspiring writers like my self (as his story is probably more akin to winning the lottery than a typical writer's journey), but it's fascinating.

Here are the three things I learned about writing while reading The Martian.

1. You can do things an editor or writing instructor would never let you do -- and they just might work
One of the stunning things about Weir's novel is the change in POV. He uses a first-person journal style for most of the book's first act. The main character's journal entries are loaded with scientific terminology and a dry, sarcastic wit. I can just imagine an editor reading this first part and saying, "Yeah, you see, no one wants to read this guy's journal. You need to be third person limited. That's where sci-fi is today."

Then in the middle of the book, the author leaves Mars and we meet the NASA team on earth trying to save him; for those scenes he uses third person limited. And just to mix things up, he has an occasional third person omniscient, a movie-like narrator who tells us when things are about to go really bad for our protagonist.

The crazy part: despite it being highly unconventional, it works, and it sticks out in the universe of sameness creeping into sci-fi, fantasy and YA, where our narration choice seems dictated by genre. Weir shows it doesn't have to be so. But I don't believe most major publishing houses would have let Weir's novel reach the public in the form it did. And that's why I'm glad he found his audience in a nonconventional way. 

2. Story and character trump everything else
We all know this. Reviewers say it, editors preach it, and creative writing instructors cram it in our little brains. Especially in genre fiction, the story and the characters matter a lot more than structure, tone or language. Everything's important, but story and character is where you can't fail.

The Martian is evidence of that. The story is simple and amazing: a lone astronaut stranded on Mars trying against all odds to survive. Weir compliments a tremendous idea with wise-ass botanist astronaut Mark Watney. Great plot idea + likeable characeter = success.  

The Martian will not win literary awards. It's structure is sometimes uneven, it's dialogue on earth and among Watney's shipmates is a little artificial, and there's too much "telling" versus "showing", especially in the journal entries. 

But we forgive its faults, embracing a great plot and a great protagonist. We forgive Weir for his "mistakes" because as our protagonist struggles to overcome ever surmounting obstacles, we want him to succeed. We care. And isn't that what every genre writer strives for, creation of characters like Bilbo, Frodo, Harry Potter, Jack Ryan, Rand al'Thor, Kvothe -- characters we want to win, characters which become friends in a way few real friends ever do?

Add to that list Mark Watney.   

3. A story will be enjoyed on different levels by different readers -- and that's ok
I have an apology to make to Andy Weir: I skipped several paragraphs throughout. It was very clear from page 1 that Weir did a tremendous amount of research on this, and that his research actually drove much of the story, which is terrific. And though I like pop science, the amount of detail Weir provided was too much and oftentimes over my head. 

But if you look at reviews of this book at Goodreads or Amazon, you'll see science geeks going absolutely crazy (in a good way) over the amount of detail. The paragraphs I skipped were absolute gold to other readers.

Skipping those paragraphs didn't not hurt my enjoyment -- I used to do the same thing in some of my favorite Tom Clancy novels when he'd get too technical for my tastes. Good and great books can be enjoyed on different levels and in different ways by different readers. And that's a good thing.

As I write nearly every day, and as I read nearly every day, I find myself examining what I read in a different way than before. I'm not just trying to understand if I like something, but why I like, and what the writer did to engage me as a reader. The amazing thing is, of the books I've read in the last 12 months, the styles and techniques have varied so substantially that it's hard to quantify a 'recipe' for a successful novel based on the successful novels I've read. 

Most good books I read break the 'rules' of writing genre fiction in one way or another. As Mary Robinette Kowal points out, this is often done purposefully and knowingly, as a way to subvert cliches or genre norms. But many times, I think the 'rules' are broken accidentally or at least subconsciously. And though I read and learn a lot about the art of reading, sometimes it's good to step out of the writers echo chamber and write, ignoring what you've been taught and trusting in your voice and your ideas.