Best-Selling Author Shares Thoughts on Storytelling, Inspiration, and Creative Process
Before he was the best-selling author of The Martian, Andy Weir was a computer programmer who wrote short stories as a hobby. In his words, “I thought I was writing for a tiny niche audience of hard-core science dorks.” Now working on his second manuscript with Random House, Weir reflects on the journey he took to get here.
CCO: You had a short-story blog for a long time before The Martian came out. Did the experience of getting immediate feedback from an audience help you develop your craft?
Weir: I started the website because I wanted a creative outlet. I wanted a place to put my creative stuff. I had tried earlier in life to be a full-time writer but couldn’t break into the industry. So I was a computer programmer for 25 years. I just used it as a place to dump my short stories.
I slowly accumulated readers; I got about 3,000 regular readers over the course of 10 years. That sounds like a lot … but 10 years was also a very long time. It was just a hobby of mine.
Absolutely, the readers helped with the storytelling. I would get feedback immediately when I was posting short stories, which was really cool. And I was getting feedback on every chapter when I was publishing The Martian’s chapters on my website. My audience was pretty much nerds like me and so they would point out any technical, scientific, or mathematical errors in the text immediately. It was like having 3,000 fact checkers.
CCO: What was their reaction when suddenly this guy who they’d been following rocketed into the stratosphere of fame with the book?
Weir: They were really thrilled. Lots of people sent congratulatory emails. The original readers are like Andy Weir hipsters; they would say “I read Andy Weir before he was popular!”
CCO: Along the way, especially over a decade, there must have been moments of doubt.
Weir: I actually didn’t have those moments of deep doubt because I wasn’t trying to do anything other than what I was doing. I wasn’t thinking it was all a means to an end to get published. It was just me writing stuff and posting it on my site; what I got out of it was the feedback and fan mail from my regular readers. I had no idea it would ever become popular outside of my tiny little audience.
CCO: What were your sources of inspiration? What genres inspired you as a writer?
Weir: The main one would be Apollo 13. Both the real-world events and the movie. There’s that one scene in the movie where they have to make an oxygen scrubber and a CO2 filtration system from the lunar module work, and they have to make this contraption that will run the air through it. They’re all floating around in space with duct tape, stuffing a sock in this one spot. I thought that was so cool. It was very MacGyver-in-space. I thought, I want to write a whole book about that.
CCO: The Martian is so scientifically dense. Did you ever worry that you were going to lose people?
Weir: Absolutely. That was a constant balancing act for me. On the one hand, it was an immutable requirement to me that it be scientifically accurate. That means I needed to exposition all this deep scientific crap to the reader, but I also didn’t want it to read like a Wikipedia article. That’s why we have the smart-ass narrator; that’s why there’s a joke every paragraph or two … to keep it funny.
I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from readers after the book got big and they would say stuff like, “I’m not really into science and it’s not even that interesting to me. I love the book, but I skimmed those paragraphs that described it.” For me, that is awesome. There’s this relationship that forms between author and reader. The reader has to trust you. If you get to the point where the reader is willing to just say that he trusts that everything is correct, and that he can skim that paragraph because he doesn’t need it to be proven to him—that’s rare and great.
There’s this relationship that forms between author & reader. The reader has to trust you. @andyweirauthor
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I didn’t have any idea that non-scientific people would ever like the book. I thought I was writing for a tiny niche audience of hard-core science dorks, but it’s great that it worked out this way.
CCO: You’ve talked about the challenge of just sitting down and writing … how grueling the process can be. Do you have any habits or rituals that make it easier?
Weir: Of course! First thing I do every morning is make sure I’m properly caffeinated, and usually that’s with Diet Coke. Now that I made a bunch of money off a book, I get to do stupid, eccentric things, right? I have a restaurant-style soda fountain in my house now. That’s the wild, partying kind of guy I am … I’ve got Diet Coke on tap.
After caffeinating, I’ll spend 30 minutes to an hour answering fan mail in the morning. It’s a nice warm-up because I’m writing, but I’m not straight into the book. I also like to take a walk every day. Other than that, I try to set myself a word count.
I try to get 1,000 words done a day. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I blow right past it when I’m really motivated. Another writer (I don’t remember who it was, unfortunately) once told me: Sometimes you’re very, very motivated, and you’re cranking out words. Other times, it’s a complete slog, and each sentence is torture. You’re lucky if you get 300 words done across the whole day. But if you look back on your work months later, you can’t tell the difference between what were your motivated days and what were your slog days. That’s really encouraging when I’m having a rough day.
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CCO: If you think of story archetypes, one popular archetype is the so-called hero’s journey. In it, the hero encounters a monster – that monster sometimes is of the physical world, but sometimes it’s a psychological monster. On your hero’s journey, what is your monster?
Weir: It’s definitely a man-vs.-himself plot. There are the four classic plots: man vs. nature, man vs. society, man vs. man, and man vs. himself. Well, mine’s the last one. I have a bunch of anxieties. I struggled with depression when I was younger. Later in life, I had severe anxiety problems, to the point where I was dramatically reducing the quality of my life. Now, I have therapy and meds, which help a lot. That’s my monster. It’s just me.
CCO: Do you think that struggle makes its way into your writing? Does it inform your writing in some way?
Weir: I don’t know. I’ve put thought into that. I’m just not sure. The whole time I wrote The Martian, I was still suffering from pretty severe anxiety issues. Anxiety makes you paranoid about the way the world is going to screw you over. Did that help me write a story about a guy who’s on a world that’s literally trying to kill him at every turn? I don’t know, maybe. I honestly don’t know the answer to that.
The hardest thing to analyze is yourself. It’s so much easier to look at someone else and notice a particular problem and point it out to them. It’s very easy to do that. But it’s very hard to do it to yourself. So I honestly don’t know.
CCO: One thing I see marketers struggle with is taking on more ambitious projects. It’s easier to do a little 3-minute video to get an audience’s attention. It’s much harder to take on more complex projects, be they long form content, documentaries – topics and projects with more depth and subtlety. Can you offer words of inspiration?
Weir: The most important thing is to find the interesting part. I think marketers are very message-focused. They know what they want people to hear. They have to work backwards from there to figure out how to make that happen. What they should do is find the thing that’s unique or interesting that captures people’s attention. Figure out what that thing is; don’t worry about the message right now. Just find the interesting part, and then figure out how to link that to the message.
Find the interesting part of your story and then work towards the message, says @andyweirauthor.
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One of the most successful content marketing projects I ever saw was a documentary about FedEx way back in the late 1980s. Back then everything went to their central airport in Tennessee. If you FedExed a package to your next-door neighbor, it would go to Tennessee and then come back. It was the most efficient way on average for dealing with shipping. The documentary showed the whole process in detail. This was in the ’80s, when we were used to the U.S. Postal Service, which could take six to eight weeks to deliver a package. With FedEx, you could order something by phone today, and it would be at our houses by tomorrow. It was a complete disruption in the delivery system. The documentary lets you see the inner workings at FedEx.
Audiences are extremely aware of preachiness, especially in the modern era. Hollywood has decided that everything has to have some freaking political message, which drives me crazy. The Martian, by the way, had no political message. Dude didn’t want to die … that’s it. People quickly, even if they don’t do it consciously, identify the message, get mildly annoyed at it, and then start ignoring the parts of the movie that push that. That’s why I try to avoid it.
Instead, find the interesting part of your story and then work towards the message, rather than desperately starting with the message and trying to work towards the interesting part.
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This article originally appeared in the February issue of CCO magazine. Subscribe for your free print copy today.
Andy Weir was the keynote speaker at last year’s Intelligent Content Conference, the content strategy event for marketers. Register today for ICC 2017, March 28 to 30 in Las Vegas. Use code BLOG100 to save $100.00.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute
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