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Andy Weir: The Martian Writer’s Internet Success Story

Oct 26, 2015

By: Lynn Barker

Kidzworld was in Santa Fe, New Mexico to check out a Q and A with the author of “The Martian”, Andy Weir. Making the event all the more special was popular “Game of Thrones” fantasy novelist George R.R. Martin who questioned Andy from onstage at the small, charming and historic Jean Cocteau Theater purchased and refurbished by Martin a few years ago.

Author Andy WeirAuthor Andy WeirCourtesy of Random House

Andy admits that his success was a long time coming. He had really given up on being a professional writer after multiple rejections of his short stories and novels until, in true modern-age style, the persistent writer started posting his work on his own website chapter by chapter as he wrote. Fan input corrected some of his technical errors and demands for an E-book version brought more readers until publishers and a literary agent caught notice. Once the novel hit top numbers on Amazon, movie studio 20th Century Fox wanted to make a movie and the rest is top-grossing film history.

The Jean Cocteau TheaterThe Jean Cocteau TheaterCourtesy of Jamey Stillings

Andy Weir and George R.R. Martin took different paths to literary stardom but both admit that they create a basic story then wing it from there without detailed outlines. Wearing similar newsboy caps, the two authors entertained a sold-out crowd. The presentation included Andy reading the first chapter of his novel. Read on for some great and inspiring creative writing tips and a fun Hollywood success story.  

George at his Jean Cocteau TheaterGeorge at his Jean Cocteau TheaterCourtesy of Jamey Stillings

George: You were on the verge of giving up this writing dream of yours at a certain point?

  • Andy: Well beyond the verge. I had completely given up. I had always wanted to be a writer ever since I was a teenager but I also like regular meals and not sleeping on park benches and stuff so when the time came for me to choose a career I picked computer programming. I was fairly good at it. Then I went to college for four years and didn’t finish because I ran out of money but it was 1994 and the software industry was beginning to spin up so it wasn’t hard to get a job programming computers. But all along I’d wanted to be a writer of almost exclusively science fiction.

George: Was this because of what you read as a child? Did you cut your teeth on (classic sci-fi writers) Asimov and Heinlein and Robert Silverberg and Arthur C. Clarke and those people?

  • Andy: Yeah, pretty much you just nailed it. My dad had an inexhaustible supply of classic Sci-Fi books that he’d collected over his life so I ended up reading kind of baby boomer science fiction. Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov are my favorites, my holy trinity or the ones I aspire to be like.  I was writing short stories, although crappy ones, when I was fifteen, always science fiction.

Book cover for The MartianBook cover for The Martian

George: So you read those science fiction stories and said “I wanna write this stuff too.”?

  • Andy: Yeah and while I was in college learning how to be a computer programmer I did write a book but it sucked and I knew it was bad so I put it in a drawer and forgot about it. It was a dystopian nightmare kind of story. Fortunately that was in the era before the internet so it’s never going to get out there. Nobody is going to find it. My mom has a hardcopy and won’t tell me where it is. I will deny any association with it.

George: Watch what you leave in your drawers (laughter).

  • Andy: Later on in life I was one of the programmers on “Warcraft 2” to show you how long ago that was. Then I was working for AOL and they merged with Netscape in 1999 and I was laid off along with 800 of my closest friends. I had a lot of AOL stock options I had to sell. I sold them at their all-time high.

George: So you were forced into wealth.

  • Andy: It wasn’t some huge, massive amount of money but enough that I could go several years without having to work so “right, here’s my shot. I can be a writer”. I could spend the next three years writing a book and trying to get it published. So I wrote a book and I couldn’t get it published. Couldn’t get an agent, couldn’t get publisher interested. No traction at all. It wasn’t that good a book but better than the first one. After that I said “Okay, I don’t have what it takes” so no need to wonder what might have been. I gave it a good shot. I went back into the software industry.

Watney (Mark Damon) decides he will liveWatney (Mark Damon) decides he will liveCourtesy of 20th Century Fox

The Original Idea for “The Martian”

George: What inspired you to write this story?

  • Andy: I’m a space dork and have been all my life. My dad is a particle physicist, my mom is an electrical engineer so I was doomed to be a nerd from day one. I’ve always been into space flight, spaceships and satellites. In 2000 or so, I was sitting around wondering how we would do a manned mission to Mars. How do we get the astronauts to Mars? How do we keep them alive when they’re there? What do they do when they’re there? And, how do we get them back? I wanted to come up with my own Mars mission project.
  • I knew any mission must account for problems and failures and accidents so you can’t have the first thing that goes wrong kill the crew so what is the back-up plan? What If this or that thing breaks? What if these two things break at the same time? It’s like commercial airplanes. No one thing can break that will cause a plane crash. It has to be a whole bunch of things. What are those bunches of things that could break and ruin a mission? Then I thought that could make a pretty interesting story. So, I created an unfortunate astronaut protagonist and tortured him for 350 pages (laughter).

Is everything destroyed?Is everything destroyed?Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Taking it to the Web

Around that time the internet was getting more popular so I thought I could write as a hobby. I could have a web page. I could have readers that read my stuff regularly and I could post whenever I want. So, I’ll write for fun. “The Martian” was one of several serials I was working on at that time. There was “Jack” about aliens invading earth and there was “Bonnie Mackenzie” a children’s story about a mermaid in the 19th century. But, “The Martian” got popular, just posting it chapter by chapter on my website.

George: Like you would post chapter four but there was no chapter five written yet?

  • Andy: Right but I told all my readers that I reserved the right to go back and make changes to earlier chapters if I need to. This stuff isn’t set in stone. You are watching me slowly write a book.

George: You had a website when you were completely unknown. You had never published anything. What drew people to your website? You had like sixteen visitors then they talked to other people?

  • Andy: Yeah, pretty much. It was about ten years of writing fiction and web comics, a lot of short stories then my serials.

George: Did you ever send anything out to editors?

  • Andy: No, at this time I had completely given up on being a professional writer or getting published. This was just a hobby. I had plenty of rejections on my second novel that I spent three years on. It was like ten years of writing for my website before I even started “The Martian”. It slowly built up a mailing list of about 3,000 people and they were my regular readers and that was cool because they were all nerds like me.
  • After I finished “The Martian” I thought it was done and was going to move on to my next project but I started getting e-mail from people saying “Hey, I love “The Martian” but I hate your website. I hate reading a book on a web browser. Could you do an E-book version?” Then people would say there weren’t technically savvy and couldn’t download the E-book and can I just post it to Amazon? So I figured out how to do that. You are not allowed to give it away for free. Amazon makes their money from the book sales. You have to charge at least 99 cents. So I put it up there.

Watney (Mark Damon) working in the Habitat on MarsWatney (Mark Damon) working in the Habitat on MarsCourtesy of 20th Century Fox

George: So you got some income after years of writing “The Martian”?

  • Andy: Yeah, a cool 30 cents a copy! (laughter). It was just rollin’ in. I went and bought some coffee and a sandwich maybe. It made it into the top sellers list on Amazon and that gets it on Amazon’s “You might also like” list. Then if it’s on the top ten of Sci Fi then people looking for Sci-Fi can find it and it snowballs quickly.

The Martian Trailer

Becoming a Movie

George: So how did it go bigtime from there?

  • Andy: That got the attention of an editor at Random House and his colleague, a literary agent read it and liked it and signed me on as a client then turned around and said then said “How much money are you going to give us for this book?” Then 20th Century Fox came for the film rights.
  • Everything was backwards. I had completely given up then after years of no traction, working hard and getting nothing then I end up with a literary agent coming to me, publishers coming to me and a studio. It was really weird.

George: So did you just sell your baby to Fox or want to be a producer and the screenwriter of the movie?

  • Andy: I just sold my baby (laughter). I don’t have any clout. I’m not bargaining from any position of strength at that point. I’m a completely unknown author. We were actually selling the rights to Fox before the print edition had come out. This was a take it or leave it offer so I took it. The print deal and film deal were four days apart.

George: Later they came to you and said “We’ve got Matt Damon”?

  • Andy: They got Drew Goddard who wrote the screenplay adaptation and wanted to direct as well. After he wrote the screenplay they got Matt onboard and Drew left to work on the next Spider-Man movie. So Ridley Scott came in and said “I’ll direct it” so the studio was like “Oh, really” and taking it seriously. All this while I’m still sitting in my cubicle working as a computer programmer and fixing bugs. It’s a surreal life.

The crew before Watney (Mark Damon) is left behindThe crew before Watney (Mark Damon) is left behindCourtesy of 20th Century Fox

George: Did you talk with Matt or Ridley about the movie?

  • Andy: They chose to involve me but my only actual contractual thing was to cash the check and I did that fairly well. Drew did call me with technical and creative questions. While they were filming Ridley would send technical questions since, unlike NASA and JPL, I could answer immediately. I was a good source. I got to go to the red carpet event and Toronto Film Festival where everyone was there promoting the movie.

George: Have you ever tried to grow a potato in a jar of (poop as astronaut Watney does)?

  • Andy: I’m the anti-Watney (Mark’s astronaut character and a botanist) when it comes to that. There are little seeds going “Nooooo”. I’ve never been able to keep a plant alive.

All alone in a Mars wastelandAll alone in a Mars wastelandCourtesy of 20th Century Fox

Advice for Writers

George: So what do you say to aspiring writers? The two of us represent different ways of (making) it. The advice I give to people is very old school. It’s the best way to break in in 1972. Write a bunch of short stories and sell them (to science fiction magazines). You build up a reputation for short stories then finally you write your long-awaited first novel and sell it to a traditional publisher. You go to a lot of conventions so you can meet publishers and editors.

You are the new independent publishing, internet success story that throws all of that in the trash. But there are some really bad 99 cent books that are on the web as well. What advice do you give to the wanna-be writers?

  • Andy: First off, I freely admit that I bungled into this so it’s not like I have a formula for how to make this happen. I don’t really know what I did right. The advice I give as standard is actually write. You can’t sit around and fantasize about a story idea you have in your head all day and night. Until you actually start writing things down in your word-processor or with a pen, you haven’t written. A story is great in your mind until you start writing it and find all the little problems with it. So number one is actually write.
  • Number two is resist the urge to tell your friends and family your story. The problem is when you tell a story verbally, it satisfies that need to have an audience and it makes it harder for you to motivate yourself to actually write. So make a rule for yourself. The only way anybody ever finds out about this story is to read it.
  • Then the third thing is there has never been a better time in history to self-publish because there is no old-boy network between you and the reader but there are no gatekeepers (to find just the good stuff). But there are reading systems like Amazon and Barnes and Noble with rating systems.

Questions from the Audience

Q: They added a bit at the end in the movie without changing your story. Is there something you wrote that you wish had been in the movie?

  • Andy: There are a few things, some gags and jokes. I was sad that the Aquaman joke didn’t make it. I love that. It’s one of my favorite things. I really wish that had been in. Ironman made it but that wasn’t as funny.

Q: Are you trying to beef up our space program by writing this book?

  • Andy: It would not surprise anybody to learn that I would like us to be doing more manned and unmanned spaceflight. It was not a goal of mine to further that agenda. I never have a moral or try to change the reader’s mind on anything. I just want you to have fun.

Q: If this mission were round trip and not a suicide mission would you personally go?

  • Andy: Nope. I write about brave people but I’m not one of them. I don’t even like flying. To come out here from Oakland, Ca. to Albuquerque, I took that two hour flight but I do not have the right stuff.

Q: Are you pretty happy with the movie?

  • Andy: It’s a pretty faithful adaptation of the book so I’m really happy with the film. They pulled some stuff out because otherwise it would be a six-hour movie but the things they pulled out were things I would pull out too if I had to trim. The Hab (habitat) looked exactly like I imagined it. The rover pretty much looks the same but the Hermes looked totally different than I’d imagined.
  • As for people, I just had blobs in my head, no visual concept of what they look like but I had Commander Lewis as being older in her ‘50’s, maybe even ‘60’s so I was a little surprised when they cast Jessica Chastain but now when I think of Commander Lewis, I see Jessica Chastain (laughter). I’m easily programmed.

Movie tie-in version of Andy's bookMovie tie-in version of Andy's bookCourtesy of 20th Century Fox
Have Your Say

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