The Martian, Rejection, and Finding Your Reader

Recently I read The Martian. It’s been the big buzz book over the last year or two, with a new movie out. Usually I don’t dive into a lot of the best-seller adult list, but I decided to give it a try after getting recommendations from friends in the sciences who enjoyed it. Psyched by the idea of a sci-fi novel that was heavy on the sci, I requested a copy from the library and (about four months later; thanks, Matt Damon), I read it.

It was fun and exciting. Mark Watney was a clever protagonist with a good sense of humor, and the rest of the astronaut team felt real. The science was well explained to the reader and seemed feasible, like manned missions to Mars could actually happen in my lifetime. The dynamics between NASA and the media and international governments felt genuine. Reading it, I could totally imagine this as a movie.

But if I’d gotten the manuscript as an editor, I totally would have rejected it.

Which is apparently what happened to author Andy Weir. He’d had experience with rejections in the publishing world, so he decided to put The Martian up as a free serial on his website. Success with that led to him self-publishing on Amazon, which led to him being a huge seller on the indie list. That got attention from traditional publishers, and his book was immediately a best seller in the traditional sphere, too.

I’m not surprised the book has connected to fans like it has. It’s an entertaining ride and a high five to science enthusiasts. But I’m also not surprised it didn’t start out in traditional publishing. If I were an editor and the manuscript came across my desk, I totally would have passed–not because I didn’t like the book, but because of these questions:

  • Image by U.S. Army RDECOM

    Image by U.S. Army RDECOM

    Who’s gonna read all that science?
    One of the best parts of the book is that Weir is so careful to document everything Watney has to think about in order to stay alive on Mars–how to sustain oxygen levels, how to grow potatoes, how NASA technology operates on Mars, etc. I would have thought “This is all cool and interesting, but how many readers are going to plow through a book that’s at least half legit science? Where’s the market?”
    Where I fail: Apparently the market is real and it’s big.

  • What’s Watney’s emotional journey?
    Image by Pedro Klien

    Image by Pedro Klien

    Mark Watney is a bright and funny protagonist. Part of the reason he was on the Mars team was because he’s the guy who can lighten up the room with a joke or funny comment. But we don’t get to see a lot of his emotional arch on Mars–sure, he gets upset and frustrated, but we don’t see the depths of his fear or loneliness. It’s a pretty emotionally light read, considering he’s been stranded on a lifeless planet.
    Where I fail: I think that also ends up being a draw for readers–it’s not literary fiction, it’s an adventure novel.

  • Who are all these other characters?
    Image by Tambako The Jaguar

    Image by Tambako The Jaguar

    And considering it’s about a guy stranded on a lifeless planet, the book’s actually got a pretty big cast of characters. Between the other astronauts and the NASA team and the other various scientists/government people, it’s a sizable group to keep track of, and aside from a few people, the voices don’t vary too much. Why would people read through their sections when you don’t care about them?
    Where I fail: a lot of the characters can blend together into NASA/China/etc., which means they don’t bog down the reader with their individual stories.

What does that mean for writers? It means that rejections aren’t a blanket assessment of your work. Your story can be a best-seller. It can be a movie. It can be a story that editors really enjoy, even while they reject it.

It sucks, because it’s so frustrating to think that your story can be great and readers can love it, and even then it’ll still get rejected. But I prefer to look at it as heartening. Even if you get rejected over and over, that doesn’t mean your story is bad or that your writing is worthless. It means that you need to find the right reader–whether that’s an editor in a traditional publishing house, or readers looking for innovative new work in the self-publishing field.

So keep writing, keep submitting, keep getting your work out there. Your work doesn’t have to connect with every reader–it just has to find the right ones.

Links Galore

A few links for your week:


Links Galore

Lots of links I’ve been saving:

Links Galore

A few mid-week links:


My Entirely Non-Scientific Breakdown of What Defines YA

I read a lot of YA. Mostly YA. I write YA, so it’s important for me to keep up with what’s going on in the field, and I like reading my fellow author’s work. It’s also a category I enjoy in general–I read a lot of YA when I was a teen, and haven’t abandoned that side of the bookstore yet.

So I definitely agree that twenty-somethings can get a lot out of YA. They’re coming of age stories, and when you’re in your 20s, being able to reflect on your own teen years while also still feeling so close to that instability and possibility makes for a great reading experience.

However, one part of the post stood out to me: “As far as I can tell, apart from the unwritten no-graphic-intimacy rule, the only true requirement for a book to be considered YA is that the protagonist(s) must be somewhere between the ages of 13 – 19.” Sharma is making a point about how YA can consist of all kinds of genres and plots and emotions, which is true and awesome.

But this got me thinking about what actually defined YA. If the requirement is just that it’s about a teen protagonist, what about books like The Age of Miracles or Tell the Wolves I’m Home. Although those books have a lot of crossover appeal, I’d put them in the general adult fiction section of the bookstore, not with the YA novels. And I’d definitely classify The Book Thief as a YA novel, but its narrator is Death–not exactly your typical teenager.

So here’s my totally non-scientific breakdown of what makes a YA novel:

The main character is a teenager

Again, this can vary a little, but for the most part the protagonist is a teenager. This is about the teen experience, not about the kid or adult experience.

The POV is immediate

This is what makes the big difference for me. Whereas books like The Age of Miracles or even To Kill a Mockingbird are about young characters, and potentially read by teen readers, what makes YA particular is that it’s about that moment of the teen experience. It’s not set many years later, from an adult perspective looking back on this experience. It’s set right then, when the emotions are high and the future isn’t always clear.

The POV is close

Even when a book is written in third person POV, I find that YA novels are written much closer to their main characters’ perspectives. Adult novels tend to keep their characters at more of a distance. One thing I like about YA is that the narration isn’t afraid to get into the emotional messiness.

And maybe most importantly…

Teens are the intended audience

There have been a lot of articles in the past five years about adults reading YA and if that’s okay (of course it is), but they’re not the people for whom the books are written. These books are written with teens and their particular experiences and pressures and dreams and realities in mind. When I write YA, I want to connect with teens who are experiencing a lot of things for the first time and forming their identities and figuring out who they want to be and where they want to go. If these stories also connect with adult readers, that’s fantastic. But it’s secondary. Teen readers, YA is yours, first and foremost.

No matter what makes YA, it’s exactly where I want to be as a writer.

Are there any other features that you think define YA literature? Share them in the comments!

Tunnel Tour and Author Panel – Friday, July 17!

Tunnel TourOne of my favorite parts of being an debut author was getting to know other authors who have had books published in the last few years or have books coming out soon. So I’m way psyched to get together with a bunch of other debut authors as part of Susan Adrian’s Tunnel Tour. Get ready for a great conversation about books and publishing and writing and inspiration and more! The details:

Tunnel Tour, YA Author Panel and Signing
Friday, July 17 at 7pm
Porter Square Books
25 White Street, Cambridge, MA 02140

I can say with great confidence that every panel member is an awesome person and wildly talented author, so make sure to come out and say hi!

Madcap Writing Retreats: Retreat to Advance – Guest Post by the Amazing Natalie Parker

MCR_bannerIf you ask me about writing retreats, one name comes to mind: Natalie Parker. I’ve been to two Natalieorganized retreats so far, and absolutely loved both of them. They’re the perfect way to seriously write in a beautiful setting, bond with amazing fellow writers, and get inspired about your craft.

And now Natalie is taking her retreat organization skills to the world at large! Check out the post below from Natalie for more on her new program, Madcap Retreats, and find out how to get the Natalie retreat experience:

Madcap Writing Retreats: Retreat to Advance by Natalie C. Parker

Nothing has changed my career so much as writing retreats.

In the winter of 2011, I was invited to attend a large retreat in Branson, MO at which there would be 25 established YA authors. I was unagented at the time and though I found the idea of joining such a gathering an intimidating one, I also found it was impossible to pass up.

The experience was a game-changer. Not only did I meet a group of authors who were as encouraging as they were successful, but I sat in a room in which those same authors opened laptops and worked quietly together. There were headphones and tea and snack breaks and chat breaks and there were word documents that looked much like my own, growing one word at a time.

I left the Branson Retreat with a new network of contacts who would guide my career in different ways, determined to repeat the experience as quickly as possible. Only this time I wanted to be the one issuing invites. One year later, that’s exactly what I did: I made my first retreat of 11 authors on the side of a mountain, in a house that also had a turret.

Since that time, I’ve hosted 1 or 2 retreats every year, always with the goal of bringing authors together to create the kind of community we just can’t get in 140 character bites. I’ve hosted authors in turreted mansions in the Blue Ridge Mountains, in French Quarter apartments, in the Texas Hill Country, in historic Savannah townhomes, and in the sleepy Smoky Mountains. And here are the top three lessons I’ve learned from organizing retreats for writers:

  1. There must be Internet. It does not matter if you write to your group ahead of time and say the words “there is no Internet in this mountain chateau IS THAT OKAY?” It does not matter if they uniform answer is, “Yes, Natalie, we are not so addicted to the Modern Age that going without Wi-Fi for 3 days will kill us.” I promise you, none of that matters because when you get to the house someone will build an antenna out of aluminum foil and desperate tears and stand on the roof searching for a signal.
  2. Never underestimate the importance of every bedroom having its own bathroom. End of explanation.
  3. You may begin the adventure with plans of leaving the house, but trust me, this will not happen. To appease any group of authors, I advise picture windows and something that suggests power and mystery. Mountains are an obvious choice, but lakes work very well as do abandoned sugar plantations, rolling hills, and oceans. This way, even if you get snowed in after throwing out all the perishable food so that all that remains are Oreos and a handle of gin, no one will every complain about the view!

I love retreats. They’re fun and exciting and sometimes lead to creating things like Sh*t Writers Say. But I started this by saying that retreats have altered the course of my career in significant ways and that is absolutely true.

After Branson in 2011, I had half a dozen authors willing to weigh in on my query and help me cull my agent list.

After the Wi-Fi-less chateau in 2012, there were authors ready to blurb my first book.

After the Hill Country in 2013, I received crucial advice on how to develop a retreat business.

But more than that, I’ve seen anthologies born over the course of a retreat, I’ve seen mentor and critique relationships gain footing, and I’ve seen the direction of manuscripts shift dramatically and to great effect. And I know there’s even more I haven’t seen.

Like so many writers, my writing time is bound and hedged in on all sides. My writing time is also my “down” time, my “free” time, my “in between this and that” time.” It’s a challenge to find hours that flow from one into another with nothing binding them except the promise of words. Madcap is one way I can offer time and opportunity to myself and to others, and I’m truly excited to be able to do that.

Madcap is for writers at any stage in their career – aspiring, agented, and published. My goal is to continue what was done for me at that first Branson retreat and create the kinds of opportunities it’s nearly impossible to create for yourself. Welcome to Madcap Retreats, join us for an adventure.

MADCAP RETREATS: Web | Twitter | Tumblr

And now we come to the giveaway portion of this post!

I’ve asked a few amazing bloggers to help me spread the word of Madcap far and wide via a Blog Hop. Each participating blog will be giving away 2 e-copies of my debut novel Beware the Wild. And each of those winners will be entered to win one of two grand prizes! They are:

  • A $300 discount on the upcoming workshop – The Anatomy of Publishing: Story & Marketing, August 27 – 30. The workshop will be lead by Courtney C. Stevens and will feature a few fancy guest authors who will workshop pages and queries one-on-one! (More info can be found here).
  • A short stack of ARCs including: JUBILEE MANOR by Bethany Hagen, DUMPLIN’ by Julie Murphy, and THE ANATOMY OF CURIOSITY by Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, & Brenna Yovanoff.

The contest is open to US/Canada ONLY. You may enter via each blogger if that pleases you. Contest closes at midnight on Sunday, June 7th. Winners will be announced by noon on Monday, June 8th.

Additionally! If you’d like to stay up to date on all retreat and workshop offerings by Madcap, you can subscribe to the mailing list by visiting this page. The first 50 subscribers will be offered a free download of either:

To enter the giveaway, leave a comment below about what your dream retreat experience.

Full list of participating blogs:

Actual view from the TN retreat.

Actual view from the TN retreat.

Thanks to Natalie for sharing her retreat skills with the world! Make sure to check out Madcap Retreats and comment below to win in the Madcap giveaway.

In the meantime, I’ll be daydreaming about my next retreat with Natalie and Madcap.