- Writing about the future can be a positive experience.
- Regular output is critical to writing.
- Finish the project you start. Don’t wander off.
I write optimistic futures because I honestly believe the future is bright.
Welcome to the forty-eighth episode of Interviews from the Void where I interview writers about their writing process, discussing the mechanics and physicality of the craft.
In this episode, I’m honored and excited to be chatting with writer Andy Weir.
Arthur: I love and appreciate your perspective on science fiction: a positive outlook for humanity, contrary to the dismal dystopian settings. Does this stem from your general outlook on life? Do you think more positivity in a story has a greater impact on audiences than a negative?
Andy: I don’t know about how it affects the audience – I think readers just want a good story. I write optimistic futures because I honestly believe the future is bright. If you look at any year in history and compare it to one 100 years later, which is better? In almost every case, you would like the latter year better. Humanity just keeps getting better.
Arthur: Do you have any writing techniques or practices you employ to hone your craft? Do you mind sharing?
Andy: The main thing is to keep your output coming. You have to actually write. To do that, I set a word count goal of 1000 words per day when I’m working on a first draft.
THE MARTIAN had a total of 12 drafts.
Arthur: How long did it take you to write THE MARTIAN? What about ARTEMIS? What did you learn while writing THE MARTIAN that helped you write ARTEMIS?
Andy: It took me three years to write THE MARTIAN. Bear in mind that I was employed full time as a software engineer at the time. ARTEMIS took me about a year, and for that one I had quit my day job and dedicated all my time to writing. I would say the main lesson I learned in THE MARTIAN is to stay the course and get the draft done. You can’t just wander off to a new project. You have to stick with the one you’re on.
Arthur: What was your editing process for each of your books? How many drafts did you go through? What did you learn through the various revisions?
Andy: THE MARTIAN had a total of 12 drafts, though the last few were very small changes—spelling and grammar fixes, etc. ARTEMIS was more fluid. I gave chapters to the publisher as I wrote, got feedback, revised in place before moving forward, etc. I can’t say really how many “drafts” there were because the editing was all interspersed with the writing.
She owed money to mobsters. I’m glad I got rid of that plotline. Very generic and overused.
Arthur: Was there a major change in either THE MARTIAN or ARTEMIS in the early drafts that improved the story? What was the change?
Andy: In THE MARTIAN, when originally starting out, I planned for the entire story to be just Mark on Mars. He would surprise the Ares 4 astronauts by showing up at their landing site unexpectedly. The further I got into the book, though, the less realistic it seemed to me that he would do all of those things and never be noticed by NASA. As for ARTEMIS, I originally had several other subplots in mind and a completely different motivation for Jazz—she owed money to mobsters. I’m glad I got rid of that plotline. Very generic and overused.
Arthur: Science drives your plots. I’m fascinated by the writing process of incorporating science into a plausible story. How did you decide on the starting conflict for THE MARTIAN and ARTEMIS? What was your approach to outlining and plotting the pace of the story?
Andy: For THE MARTIAN it was a pretty straightforward man-vs-nature story. So the conflict begins with nature slapping the shit out of the protagonist. For ARTEMIS, it’s more nuanced. Jazz’s problems are largely of her own making, so I had to set up her character before introducing the conflict.
Endings are hard – you have to give the reader a sense of closure.
Arthur: In The Great Courses, there’s a class called “The Creative Thinkers Toolkit.” The instructor discusses Hemmingway’s approach to writing endings: Hemmingway wrote multiple endings, upwards of thirty or more for one of his novels before he chose one that worked. How do you write your own endings? How do you decide how the ending will provide the emotional resolution to bring the story to a close?
Andy: I usually have an idea for how the book will end before I start writing it. But I don’t know the specifics or the details. I knew Mark would be rescued but I didn’t know how. I knew Jazz would make a sacrifice for the good of ARTEMIS but I didn’t know what form it would take. Endings are hard – you have to give the reader a sense of closure. So yes, it’s definitely crucial.
Arthur: There’s a book called DEEP WORK written by Cal Newport, which discusses how we learn to focus for a task which requires “deep work,” such as writing a novel. Tell me about your writing space. Are there specific attributes to your work space which help you focus on your writing? How do you free yourself from distraction when you’re in the middle of a writing session?
Andy: I have a home office. I do most of my writing in there. The only real distraction I have are my pets. They can be quite demanding when they want attention. Most of my creative leaps happen while I’m on my walks. I take long walks around my neighborhood to think about the story I’m working on.
Most of my creative leaps happen while I’m on my walks.
Arthur: I’m fascinated with the first lines, paragraph and chapters of stories and how they can grab a reader’s attention. Your short story, THE EGG, has a great starting line: “You were on your way home when you died.” How did you come up with this starting line? How did you decide upon the ending?
Andy: The Egg was just an idea I had for how the universe could work such that life was fair. So you could say I started with the ending and worked backwards. As for the first line, I always try to have a good line to snag the reader. That’s what I came up with.
Arthur: In my interview with Hugh Howey, he discusses the experience he wants to create for his readers. He hopes to make them miss their subway stop because they are so immersed in a vivid and impactful world. What kind of experience are you hoping to create for your readers?
Andy: I want to keep them up all night. There’s a point when you are reading at night when you put the book down because you’re tired. But you don’t do it in the middle of a gripping scene, right? So as I read my text, I look for paragraphs that might be the point where someone puts the book down for the night. And I ask myself “do I really need that? Can I do without it? Can I sneak that exposition into some more exciting scene elsewhere?” Basically I don’t want to let you put the book down.
I want to keep them up all night.
Thank you so much, Andy, for taking the time to share your writing wisdom. All of us are eagerly awaiting your next book and can’t wait to hear more about it.