What I Learned From “The Martian”

The Martian is a 2011 sci-fi suspense novel about astronaut Mark Watney, who finds himself stranded on Mars after a huge dust storm ends his crew’s mission and nearly kills him. It’s a book that combines near-future hard science-fiction with a classic survival story. Author Andy Weir keeps the story rooted in realistic science and extrapolates what the first few manned missions to Mars might look like. But it’s Watney’s struggle to survive and overcome one impossible challenge after another that gives the book its heart.

Rather than review a decade-old book, I decided to look at what the story does well, and what lessons I can learn from it to improve my own writing.

A Good Opening Is a Juggling Act

There’s a lot going on at the start of the book. The astronauts of the Mars mission leave their habitation module in the midst of a severe dust storm, fleeing to their launch vehicle so they can escape before it tips over in the high winds. They’re unable to see each other in the dust. When Watney is skewered by a high-speed flying antenna, disabling him and his suit’s comms, his teammates have no choice but to leave him for dead.

Weir could have started the book with this high-octane action scene, but he doesn’t. Instead, he starts with this:

Chapter 1

LOG ENTRY: SOL 6

I’m pretty much fucked.

That’s my considered opinion.

Fucked.

Six days into what should be the greatest month of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.

I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.

For the record…I didn’t die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them. Maybe there’ll be a day of national mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say, “Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars.”

And it’ll be right, probably. ‘Cause I’ll surely die here. Just not on Sol 6 when everyone thinks I did.

There’s no doubt that the action scene would start the book on an exciting note, and it would set up the plot nicely, but wouldn’t do much more than that. Instead, Weir starts with a log entry and Watney’s assessment of his situation, before he describes what happened.

This has a few advantages. It immediately gives us hints of Watney’s personality. The way he describes the situation is important. These few sentences set up Watney as the main character and the challenge he will have to overcome: surviving Mars, alone. This primes us to ask “what the heck happened?” And now we’re hooked, and we keep reading to find out more.

Adjust the Narrative Style to Fit Your Needs

I can’t remember the last time I read a book that splits up the scenes of the story in so many different ways.

The first five chapters (about fifty pages) are told entirely through Watney’s computer logs. We get to know him and his situation, and see him go into problem-solving mode as he tries to solve the immediate challenges of staying alive. Interestingly, the logs are relatively short, with several logs per chapter.

Next, the book goes into a third-person narrative style to go back to Earth and the folks back at NASA. There is a larger cast of characters to follow at NASA, so this shift makes it a lot easier to follow what’s happening, while sacrificing some of the closeness to a single character that the “logs” style give us with Watney.

The next major shift is at chapter 12, about halfway through the book, where we finally get a flashback to the action-packed scene of the astronauts fleeing earth. This comes at a time where things are going well for Watney, so it injects a bit of needed tension. More importantly, this flashback serves to introduce us to the rest of the crew of the Ares III mission, just in time for them to come into the story. After the flashback, we immediately roll into a scene with these same people in the present.

Finally, throughout the book, little mini-scenes and dialogues play out as back-and-forth messages between those in space and those back on earth. These serve a few different purposes, but mostly convey necessary info quickly so the story can move on to something more interesting.

What was most surprising to me about all of this is that it’s really not distracting. As long as these different techniques are written well and serve the needs of the story, they enhance the experience, rather than detracting.

Go to Great Lengths to Cut the Boring Bits

The style of Watney’s logs give Weir a great way to skip the boring parts, and opportunities to create micro-tension as Watney describes his plans in one log, then describes the results of those plans in the next log, often within the same chapter.

The story doesn’t even touch on the people back at NASA or Watney’s crewmates until it’s time for them to enter the story. All along the way, the important information is provided, the characters introduced, exactly when they are needed. Information that isn’t worth an entire scene is conveyed through quick exposition or text messages.

The book doesn’t slow down, because as soon as there’s any risk of that happening we skip ahead to the next exciting bit.

The Try/Fail Cycle is an Engine That Drives the Story

Watney is faced with a big challenge: survive and somehow get off Mars. That one overarching goal is actually composed of dozens of smaller challenges: having enough food, water and air; making contact with earth; and traveling hundreds of kilometers to another mission’s launch vehicle. Back on Earth, they have their own challenges. As the characters try to solve each problem, they sometimes succeed, sometimes fail, sometimes have to change strategies and try again, or deal with the fallout of a bad decision or unexpected event.

The book exemplifies how the try/fail cycle can drive a plot. The characters have clear goals and sub-goals, and clear stakes for success or failure. Plus, Weir uses these cycles to ramp the tension up or down. I could sense when a few things had gone well for Watney that it was just about time for some new catastrophe to blow up all his well-laid plans.

The tension only abates occasionally, to give the reader a reprieve. Once we’ve taken a collective breath, a new problem is introduced, and once again the characters have their work cut out for them. They have to inch forward, fighting every step of the way.

One example even interleaves Watney’s happy logs, where everything is going smoothly for a change, with italics description of the manufacturing process for a particular piece of equipment. What would otherwise be relatively mundane description of things going well becomes ominous as it becomes clear that the description is foreshadowing the imminent failure of that equipment, and the ensuing disaster.

Asymmetric Information Can Create Tension

For most of the book, Watney is completely cut off from NASA, or can only communicate one-way through simple morse code messages, spelled out in rocks and read through satellite photos. This creates a dynamic where Watney knows things that the people at NASA do not, and vice versa. In each of these cases, Weir uses this asymmetric knowledge to create tension.

The reader, being able to look out through multiple viewpoints, can see the incoming problem while some of the characters remain ignorant until it’s too late. The characters would have too easy a time overcoming some of these challenges if they could work together with no hindrance, so Weir creates believable problems that prevent them from working together.

Sometimes You Don’t Need a Villain

A lot of readers love a great villain, but this book really doesn’t have one, and it still works. If anything, Mars is the antagonist, but none of the characters really bear any ill will toward the big red rock. Despite effectively being a prisoner on the planet, alone for months, Watney has mixed feelings whenever he thinks he might actually escape.

If the book has any overarching message, it’s one of optimism. It says that almost anything can be overcome with human ingenuity, and our greatest strength is our ability to work together. Near the end of the book, Watney ponders how he could have never come as far as he had without the help of hundreds of people working tirelessly at NASA, along with the rest of his Ares III crewmates, and even some surprise help from the Chinese space agency.

A story like this can be hopeful without being saccharine. Not every story is zero-sum. Sometimes nobody has to lose and everyone can win. And I think that’s the kind of story that a lot of readers are finding appealing right now.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #44

This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead! You can start from the beginning here.

Last Time

I wrote a rough draft of the last chapter and started getting into revisions on Chapter One.

The Hook

As I talked about in a post earlier this week, I spent some time refining my first sentence, first page, and first chapter. I started with the hook.

In the rough draft, my opening paragraph is this:

The cave was a dark, low tunnel, crowded with formless shapes. Christopher struggled to identify his surroundings through eyes bleary with sleep. There was a long roar, followed by a thump. A buzzy, persistent rumble emanated from the darkness around him. Christopher rubbed his eyes and blinked several times, breathing deep and trying to clear his vision.

The first thing I did was get rid of the roar and the thump. I originally intended them to be the sound of other passengers jumping from the aircraft, and the door shutting behind them, while Christopher is still out of it. There’s no more mention of it later on, and it just ends up being confusing and slowing things down slightly. I rearranged and reworded almost all of the rest of it, although the meaning changed very little.

The cave was night-dark and claustrophobic, crowded with indistinct shapes. The cave was night-dark and claustrophobic, crowded with indistinct shapes. Christopher struggled to identify his surroundings through eyes bleary with sleep. All around him was loud buzzing; it permeated his body. He pressed his palms to his eyes and breathed deep, trying to clear his head.

Hopefully the question of where Christopher is and what is happening is enough to hook the reader, without being too confusing. Part of that relies on me quickly revealing more about what’s happening in the remainder of the first page.

The First Page

My goal in the first page is to get across a couple of ideas:

  1. Christopher feels strange, as though he’s been drugged.
  2. He realizes that he is not in a cave, he is in the passenger cabin of a small plane.

Next, as quickly as possible, I need to reveal that the passengers are missing, the pilot is missing, and Christopher is in a world of trouble. This leads naturally into the rest of Chapter One, which is all about answering the question, “what is he going to do about it?”. I think the rough draft does this decently well, so I worked on saying more with fewer words, rewording each of the next 4-5 paragraphs.

This is what my first page looks like, after some revision:

The cave was night-dark and claustrophobic, crowded with indistinct shapes. Christopher struggled to identify his surroundings through eyes bleary with sleep. He was surrounded by loud buzzing; it permeated his body. He pressed his palms to his eyes and blinked repeatedly, then breathed deep, trying to clear his head.

Although his surroundings were shadowy, Christopher could make more sense of the shapes around him as he blinked away his grogginess. The hunched, round shapes were seats. He fumbled around, felt the thin padding beneath and behind him, felt the arm rests.

Christopher’s perception shifted and he understood what he was seeing. Not a cave; an airplane cabin. Why had he thought it was a cave? Moonlight faintly illuminated the outlines of the small, round windows. The prop engines buzzed. Now that he thought about it, Christopher could feel their vibration through his seat.

He tried again to blink away the sleepiness that clung like cobwebs. Even when he had pulled all-nighters in college, he hadn’t felt this discombobulated. This was more like a bad hangover.

Christopher had been skeptical when one of the other salespeople in the department warned him not to sleep on planes when traveling. Better to hold out and hit a new time zone running, one of the veterans had said. Christopher had thought he was exaggerating.

He tried to stand and found himself still seatbelted. He fumbled the clasp open and stood fully, immediately banging his head on the sloped ceiling above. Christopher felt a sudden head rush from standing too quickly, but the pain of his bruised scalp helped to cut through the fog of his thoughts.

It was too dark in the passenger section of the little plane. Before he had dozed off, Christopher recalled little LEDs along the aisle between the seats; recessed lights along the seam between wall and ceiling. He had to turn around to face the front of the plane. Unlike the large passenger planes Christopher had flown on for other trips, this little plane had seats back-to-back, with some facing forward and some facing the rear of the plane. There were only eight seats in the passenger area, and Christopher’s was near the back, facing the tail.

The seats were all empty.

The First Chapter

To revise the rest of Chapter One, I looked at the order of events and made sure I was happy with everything that happened, and what order it happened in. I did end up making some small adjustments from the outline, which is to be expected.

Next, I took several more passes through the chapter to look specifically for some of the things I mentioned in my “firsts” post: adjectives and adverbs, sound, character voice, and pacing. It’s a long chapter (although it’s getting a little shorter in editing), and I still need to spend more time with it to get through all these improvements.

After that, I’ll pass it to my first reader/editor — my wife — and I’ll make more revisions based on her evaluation.

Cover Work

I’ve also been looking at options for cover art. As long as I’m experimenting (and not strategizing for an Amazon e-book bestseller), I thought I might try to make a cover myself. However, when it comes to visual art I’m a somewhat enthusiastic dabbler. I have no formal training. I just occasionally make things for my own enjoyment.

So, I tried making a cover, and I didn’t much like it. Then I started digging more seriously into other options, from paid services to DIY. I can say right now that I won’t be spending a ton of money on a cover (and boy can you spend a lot of money on a cover), but I’m still looking. More to follow.

Results

I revised Chapter One, with special attention to the opening. I spent time creating a book cover that I didn’t like, and then evaluating other options for book covers.

First Sentence, First Page, First Chapter

As I’m working on my serial novel, Razor Mountain, I’ve reached the point where I have a rough draft of the first two chapters. In some ways, each of these is a first chapter — each one introduces a separate point of view character, in a different setting and vastly different time periods.

I let these chapters “rest” for a week or two, and then came back to revise them. There are many different ways to revise, but today I wanted to talk a little bit about beginnings, and all of the “firsts” of the book — the first sentence, first page, and first chapter.

If there are any parts of a novel that are more important than the rest, they are the beginning and the end. A good ending will often buy the reader’s forgiveness for weaknesses in the middle of the book. A good beginning, on the other hand, is vital to get the reader interested in the first place, and to tee up all of the wonderful stuff you have planned for the rest of the book.

Consulting Some Books on Writing

Anyone who has followed this blog for a while is probably well aware that I am a collector of writing advice, tips and tricks, so I looked through my collection of writing books and pulled out some pertinent ones. If you can build up a little library of books and writing resources that you like, it can be very helpful to focus yourself by picking out a few related books and skimming or reading the relevant sections before you embark on a particular task.

When I buy a book on writing, I do try to read it right away and internalize what I can. However, I have plenty of these books that I last read five or ten years ago. I’ll be the first to admit that I only have so much storage space in my internal memory to hold on to that knowledge. But that’s the great thing about books — all that knowledge is still there, in external (paper) memory.

I first pulled out The Portable MFA in Creative Writing by the New York Writers Workshop. In the chapter on fiction, it has this to say about story-opening strategies:

The purpose of the beginning of a story is to introduce character and conflict. Another purpose is to catch and hold the reader’s interest. One way to do so is to raise a question in the mind of the reader. Another way is to quickly immerse the reader in the action of the story, to eliminate boring exposition…conflict, when effectively dramatized, also catches the attention of the reader.

This hits a lot of the points I was working toward when I initially planned the beginning of the novel. However, now that I have a draft, I need to make sure that I actually execute my plan effectively. I’ve set up clear questions at the beginning: why does Christopher wake up groggy on a plane where the passengers and pilot have vanished? I need to make sure that I quickly jump into the action of him making this discovery and then attempting to deal with the situation. I also need to show some of his character through his thoughts and actions in this stressful situation.

Next, I moved on to The First Five Pages, by editor-turned-agent Noah Lukeman. This is a text all about beginnings, and while it focuses on crafting an opening that will appeal to agents and editors in the traditional publishing world, the bulk of its advice applies to any fiction opening, regardless of how you plan to publish.

Lukeman suggests several things to trim and improve:

  • Adjectives and adverbs — This is pretty common writing advice. Replace them with better nouns and verbs, find more unusual or evocative modifiers, or swap-in an analogy, simile or metaphor instead.
  • Sound — This encompasses myriad vague things: sentence construction and the use of punctuation like comma, semicolon, em-dash, and parentheses; “echoes” like the repetition of character names, pronouns, or unusual words; alliteration and the repetition of specific sounds in close proximity; and resonance, the sound of the language separate from its meaning.
  • Dialogue — An overuse or complete lack of dialogue, dialogue as artificial infodump, melodrama, or just generally difficult-to-follow exchanges.
  • Showing vs. telling
  • Viewpoint, narration, and consistent character voice
  • Characterization — Not skipping over properly introducing characters in the hurry to move the plot along.
  • Pacing and progression — Do the individual parts of the story flow together in sequence?
  • The hook — A really interesting or exciting first sentence that still fits with what comes after.

There are many other sections in the book, but these were the things that stood out to me as I skimmed through it this time.

The Hook

The hook is typically considered the first sentence, or less often the first couple sentences. It is called the hook because that’s what it should do to the reader: hook them and pull them into the story.

The first sentence and first paragraph should be concise and exciting — although you can decide what exactly exciting means for you — action, dialogue, or an interesting premise. It will help if that beginning leads the reader into those key elements: holding interest and elucidating character and conflict.

My intent with Razor Mountain is to start the story with Christopher on the plane. He wakes up (which is admittedly a well-worn trope for a book opening), groggy from being drugged. It is dark. At first, he thinks the poorly lit passenger cabin is a shadowy cave. It is only as he looks around and regains his senses that he realizes where he actually is. I’m also hoping to achieve some symmetry with this opening, where the beginning and end of the first act involves a character in a cave. Likewise the beginning and end of the entire book.

The First Page

The first page or first few paragraphs are an extension of the hook. A hook can be exciting and hold the reader’s interest with all sorts of tricks, but that will only take the reader so far if it doesn’t lead naturally into the rest of the book. The first page is an expansion of the hook.

The hook drops the reader into the story and shows one, maybe two important things to get the reader invested. The first page gives you more space to work, but also demands more. The reader needs to be anchored to a place, or people, or more likely both. Enough of the setting and characters has to be described, in order for the reader to start to envision what’s happening. All of it still needs to keep the reader engaged and pull them along.

The First Chapter

When the reader turns that first page, you’ve achieved an important milestone. You’ve hooked the reader. For the rest of the chapter, you’ll be doing largely the same things, on a broader scale.

The first chapter is a sort of promise. Whether you’re intending it or not, the first chapter promises the reader an idea of what the rest of the story is going to be like. Since it’s happening either way, you had better lean into it, and make that promise count. Maybe you’ll hint at exactly what they’re getting by highlighting the style of the book or introducing important characters and settings. Maybe you’ll foreshadow future events. Or maybe you’ll be subversive, setting the reader’s expectations, only to shock them with a plot twist later on.

Razor Mountain Firsts

Later this week, I’ll talk more about working on the first sentence, page and chapter for Razor Mountain, as well as all of the other revisions I’m working on for Chapters One and Two.

From the Blogroll: Nathan Bransford

Do people still do blogrolls? Is that a thing? Am I old?

Well, regardless of what the cool kids are doing these days, I’m going to take an occasional little Wednesday post here and there to point you toward some of my favorite writing bloggers.

First up: Nathan Bransford.

Nathan has been blogging for fifteen years. In that time, he’s been a social media guru, professional literary agent, published author, and most recently, freelance editor and book consultant.

Nathan’s blog is a great resource for writers, whether you’re on the traditional publishing track or self-publishing. It’s one of the most organized blogs I’ve ever seen, with detailed lists of articles featuring writing advice, agents and publishing, and self-publishing, all broken down into sub-categories for easy reference.

In addition to all this general writing advice, he also writes “This Week in Books” posts, where he collects interesting news about the publishing industry, and weekly critiques of first pages or query letters that people send in.

Check it out at https://nathanbransford.com/blog.