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3 Things I Learned About Writing: Analyzing Andy Weir's THE MARTIAN

2. When writing suspense, write good comedy. Log Entry: Sol 61 How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.

This reoccurring column takes the classic writing advice “good writers are good readers” and puts it to work, by looking at books across all time periods and all genres to find techniques that we can apply in our own work. This installment examines the New York Times bestselling novel and future film, THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir.

1. Science matters. Research matters. Always.

Then, I’ll release hydrazine, very slowly, over the iridium catalyst, to turn it into N2 and H2. I’ll direct the hydrogen to a small area and burn it.

If you’re going to write a novel about space, you have to know your science. You have to. Chemistry and I were not good friends in high school, but I know this science is right. I know that work and research went into this novel. Don’t think you can just write over your readers’ heads. Trust your readers and do the work. It pays off.

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Column by Hannah Haney, a regular contributor to the GLA blog
and to Writer’s Digest. She is the Managing Editor for Relief Journal
and has been published in The Cincinnati Enquirer and Writer’s Digest.
In her free time, she reads good books, 
eats good food, and writes bad
poetry. You can follow her on
Twitter or on her blog.

2. When writing suspense, write good comedy.

“[Watney’s] stuck out there. He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?”

He [Teddy-NASA official] turned back to Venkat. “I wonder what he’s thinking right now.”

Log Entry: Sol 61

How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.

This book has been intense by this point. NASA is trying to figure out how to rescue Watney; Watney is trying to figure out how to not die. NASA is worried that Watney is losing his mind; Watney is worried about how Aquaman can control whales. In a high-pressure novel with extreme stakes, these small moments are laugh-out-loud hilarious. These moments are vital for the reader. Make sure you include them. They don’t have to be extremely funny—the smaller and subtler the better.

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3. Suspense is best served subtly.

 "There was a huge sandstorm. What isn’t there sand all over them [solar panels]?”

“A good wind could have done it?” Venkat said, unsure

“Did I mention I never found Watney’s body?” she said, sniffling.

Venkat’s eyes widened as he stared at the picture. “Oh…,” he said quietly. “Oh God…”

Mindy put her hands over her face and sobbed quietly.

This is how NASA learns that Watney didn’t die on Mars and is surviving somehow. There is nothing direct. NASA didn’t see an image of Watney. They saw cleared solar panels. Weir doesn’t write “And then NASA discovered that Watney was alive.” He gives it subtly, letting the reader slowly experience the horror NASA experiences. And with Mindy’s crying, suddenly the stakes have been raised. Watney isn’t all alone. There is potential for help.

BONUS: Sometimes your book will be wrong. It’s okay.

Scientists have for the first time confirmed liquid water flowing on the surface of present-day Mars, a finding that will add to speculation that life, if it ever arose there, could persist now. – The New York Times.

One of the biggest struggles Mark Watney faces on Mars is that there isn’t any water. He has to use his water reclaimer and do lots of chemistry and science-y stuff to create water out of the elements in the air. The film version of the The Martian was released just 5 days after this announcement. This note is especially important if you’re writing science-fiction. Science is constantly changing. Something that is true when you wrote book can be completely false two months after publication. It’s not the end of the world. Brush it off your shoulders. No novel is flawless. Write the best product that you possibly can and what happens after that, happens.

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