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.

6 thoughts on “The Martian, Rejection, and Finding Your Reader

  1. My mom and I call parts like the science in this story “angel stuff” — going back to the Meg Ryan/Nic Cage movie where she’s a mortal and he’s an angel who gives up his angelhood to be with her. We left that movie disappointed that he was basically a regular guy: they didn’t put a lot of detail in about how being an angel worked. We both wanted more angel stuff.

    In The Martian, working out the science is what makes the story. Without it, Mark Watney is a regular guy. It works in the story, IMO, because it’s the “angel stuff” — the detail that shows you how it works to be Mark Watney, solving impossible problems alone on a barren planet. And if he doesn’t show you what he’s doing, and all he’s thought about how to do it, it doesn’t mean as much when it goes wrong — or right.

  2. Reblogged this on Tim C. Taylor and commented:
    This is a good assessment of why these days you can succeed in publishing if you can connect with readers who will love your book, even if traditional publishing tells you it won’t sell. At a smaller scale, I guess I’m proving that with my Human Legion books. A few years ago they would have been rejected by all the top publishers because ‘no one reads military sf any more’. Year-to-date I’ve sold 66,000 — hardly Andy Weir territory, but enough to live off 🙂

  3. Kudos to you. This is what I have been saying since Ibwas 17; and I say it all the time to detractors and folks in the arts who think “no one will like my stuff”: It’s math and human dynamics (common sense to me). There will always be a niche–perhaps bigger (way bigger) than you think, of pwople who will connect with what you do, if you donit well. Everyone doesn’t have to like it (it’s insane to expect that), nor would you want them, too; “everybody” are pretty uninteresting people. What you want is a sub-group of humanity to appreciate your work–the artists of your particular ilk and a large enough subset or associative demographic there-to related; you want some people interested in your subject matter. These groups alone rub shoulders with enouth people, who in turn connect with their social connections and so on.

    I have awys gotten a sickening feeling when having to expain this, because to me, it is so “common sense” that it terrifies me most people out up the dopey arguments that inspire it; it’s very disconcerting about the general population.

  4. I am reprinting this because I made many “thumb-os,” as it were. And I have added many more ideas.

    Kudos to you. This is what I have been saying since I was 17; and I say it all the time to detractors and folks in the arts who think “no one will like my stuff”:

    It’s math and human dynamics (common sense to me). There will always be a niche–perhaps bigger (way bigger) than you think, of people who will connect with what you do–if you do it well. Everyone doesn’t have to like it (it’s insane to expect that), nor would you want them, to–if you really think about, for a moment (there are millions of people out there you really don’t need as fans; “Misery” comes to mind); “everybody” are pretty uninteresting–and often scary–people. What you want is a sub-group of humanity to appreciate your work–the artists of your particular ilk and a large enough subset or associative demographic there-to related; you want some people interested in your subject matter. These groups alone will rub shoulders with enouth people, who in turn connect with their social connections and so on. Voila: you have an audience of people you can relate to (the goal of writing for the public in the first place).

    I have always gotten a bit of sickening feeling when having to expain this, because to me, it is so “common sense” that it terrifies me most people come up with the dopey arguments that inspire it; it’s very disconcerting about the general population.

  5. “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.” So true.

    I’m glad I have the option – and just chose it two days ago – to go indie, and publish what I feel is very good work, but what I always thought would be a very hard sell to an agent/publisher. My novel has a disabled main character except that this little fact is not the main part of the story.

    But I could see submitting – and getting rejection after rejection, ‘not right for us’ or equivalent. I don’t know what I’m hoping for (but remember The Mill River Recluse? Darcie Chan sold 600,000 copies before a publisher took her on).

    Traditional publishing has its constraints – and I think my book will do much better without them. Andy Weir thought so, too.

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