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
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
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
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.