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.

I’d Like to Pass Your First Pages

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My first pass pages! Love the “Author Set” note at the top.

Another milestone complete in The Chance You Won’t Return‘s journey to publication–first pass pages!

First pass pages are another round in the editorial process. This time, edits are really minor–removing an extra comma here, changing a word or phrase slightly there. By this point, the book should read almost exactly like it will come publication. Reading through, I marked any pages with edits with blue sticky notes, because otherwise it would have been so easy to miss changes when I sent them along to Candlewick.

At this point the manuscript is still unbound, but its pages are printed to look like they will in book layout. After seeing the manuscript as a Word document for the last few years, seeing it looking almost like a real book is pretty exciting.

I’m also a big editorial nerd, so I had fun reading through the manuscript and catching any stray errors. It’s like Where’s Waldo? but with fewer striped shirts and more em dashes.

First pass pages also means that we’re one step closer to ARCs and seeing The Chance You Won’t Return as a real-life book with a cover and bound pages and a spine so it can sit on a shelf. I’m going to have to break out all the happy gifs when that happens. In the meantime, here’s my post-first pass pages happy dance:

Onward and upward!

Em Dashes, Fact Checks, and Timelines: Fun with Copyedits

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I love getting mail with this letterhead.

One step closer to publication–copyedits!

Copyedits are different than the editorial letters you may get from your editor. These all deal with the nitty-gritty of your manuscript–consistent spelling, where the commas should be, if your character is supposed to be going to the moon on a Tuesday or Wednesday, etc. Basically, copyeditors are like Nancy Drews for the book world.

This week I received my copy-edited manuscript from Candlewick and, thankfully, it was a pretty painless process. This is probably helped by the fact that I a) have worked in publishing, so I’m familiar with the process/terms and b) I’m a huge grammar nerd at heart. I feel like copyediting is basically a game in which you have to find all the secret, hidden mistakes. Get all the points with correct grammar!

A few things my copyeditor caught:

  • The manuscript!

    The manuscript!

    When I switched the spelling of one minor character’s last name and then switched it back.

  • Missing words in quotes by Amelia Earhart (which is probably why I shouldn’t try to type while holding a book open).
  • That if Halloween is on a Sunday, Christmas shouldn’t fall on a Tuesday.
  • Missing commas (a comma fan like I am was only too happy to put them in).
  • When I try to use words that almost sound like the one I actually meant to use.

I’m so happy that someone went through my manuscript and was able to pick out all these little errors that would have looked so horrific in print. And I’m even more psyched that this means we’ve taken another big step in the editorial process!

Let It Stand

Yesterday, fellow 2014 debut author Michelle Schusterman posted some editorial trivia on Twitter:

Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 5.18.35 PM

So of course I needed to write a stet parody song based on the Beatles’ “Let It Be.” I would sing it for you, but a) I currently have bronchitis and b) I have a terrible singing voice even when I don’t have bronchitis. So for your reading pleasure:

Let It Stand 

When I find my draft in times of trouble, my editor will take my hand,
Speaking words of edits, let it stand.
And in my draft’s revision, she decides against her first demand.
Write down words of edits, let it stand
Let it stand, let it stand, let it stand, let it stand
Write down words of edits, let it stand.

And when the copyedits come in, asking me to please expand
There will be a respite, let it stand.
For though there may be edits, my draft still shows what I had planned.
There it is on paper—let it stand.
Let it stand, let it stand, let it stand, let it stand.
There it is on paper—let it stand.
Let it stand, let it stand, let it stand, yeah, let it stand.
Write down words of edits, let it stand.
Let it stand, let it stand, let it stand, yeah, let it stand.
Write down words of edits, let it stand.

And when my draft is choppy, there is still a phrase that sounds so grand.
Say again in Latin, let it stand.
When I read through my copyedits, there’s a word I understand.
There it is on paper—let it stand.
Let it stand, let it stand, let it stand, yeah let it stand.
There it is on paper—let it stand.
Let it stand, let it stand, let it stand, yeah, let it stand.
Write down words of edits, let it stand.

I know. Paul McCartney is really worried that I’m going to surpass him as a songwriter. (Also, they say “let it be” a LOT in this song.)