Rewrites and Reading The Martian


Two thumbs up, but...

Two thumbs up, but…

Today is reconstruction day in the rewrite phase. I pulled seven chapters and did a total remodel on them.  In addition to that, I wrote two new chapters: a new beginning and a new ending.  Now, I have to do some reshuffling to get the new material to fit. Most of this week will be re-reading the book in its entirety to see if I’ve done enough to make this a Dani Pearl novel with a strong supporting cast, instead of a closeout kings’ story featuring Dani Pearl.

During my down time I’m reading The Martian by Andy Weir. Weir’s self-publishing triumph somehow escaped my notice, but I’m happy to see an indie author jumping up to the big time.  I want to see the movie, but not before I’ve finished reading the book.  I’ve heard both high praise for and biting criticism of the novel, and I have to say I understand both.

The story is completely engrossing. It’s virtually impossible not to pull for the main character, Mark Watney. He’s resourceful, funny, and intelligent. Some might even call him delightful.  The mixture of personal log entries with third person narrative is nicely done.  Weir does an excellent job of keeping the reader invested in Watney’s plight. I’m just a third of the way through the book, but that wouldn’t stop me from recommending it to friends and family.  It’s that entertaining.

The criticism I’ve heard, and to which I agree to some extent, is that there are some technical issues with the writing that temporarily pull you out of the story.  There are no typographical errors and there is no misuse of grammar that I’ve spotted.  Nothing like that.  But there is an enormous amount of exposition. Science fiction is a genre that needs a certain level of explaining just because you are dealing with subject matter that is either invented or real science. You want the reader to have some understanding of what the characters are up against, so you serve up background information to them that would be frowned upon in other genres. I don’t really have a problem with Weir’s use of exposition in this case.

The use of exposition that I object to may not be noticed by most readers.  I’m looking at it from a craft perspective.  Understand, when I say objection, it doesn’t mean it ruins the story for me, or that I haven’t made these same mistakes. It doesn’t, and I have. However, with more than a dozen books under my belt, I am trying to eliminate them when I notice them. They do slip through the cracks from time to time.  I’m not sure why Weir’s editor didn’t catch them, however.  As I understand it, this is his first book, so I’m giving him a pass. He’s obviously a really smart guy that constructed a story much like Mark Watney constructed the pieces that helped him survive on Mars, with a lot of good old fashioned ingenuity.

Here are some examples of what I’m talking about.

When we first meet the folks at NASA in chapter six, we are in Venkat Kapoor’s office. Kapoor is talking with a man identified as administrator Teddy Sanders.  The administrator is admonishing Kapoor for not speaking at Watney’s memorial service, and he delivers the following dialogue after Kapoor explained he didn’t want to speak:

“Yeah I know that. I didn’t want to either. But I’m the administrator of NASA. It’s kind of expected.”

As a reader, it feels like I was just force fed Sanders’ title.  It just didn’t seem a like a natural exchange between a boss and his subordinate. It’s a simple fix from an editor’s perspective. Given the book’s tone, I would have suggested something like, “I’m in fucking charge. It’s expected.”  Knowing the man’s official title wasn’t completely necessary and to get it in such a fashion was a little jarring.

Weir also falls into the trap of telling us how characters feel. Example:

“Fuck,” Annie said, thoughtfully.

Stephen King is famous for giving the advice to eliminate as many “ly” words as you can, meaning adverbs, also known as modifiers. In this case, Weir had an opportunity to show us how Annie felt by describing the timbre of her voice, or the expression on her face. Telling us she was thoughtful in her expression of the word “Fuck” robs the reader of experiencing the emotional turmoil that Annie is feeling.

Another bit of criticism is Weir constantly identifies the speaker when the flow and nature of the conversation makes it unnecessary.  Here’s an example of a television interview:

“A pleasure to be here, Cathy” Venkat said.

“Dr. Kapoor,” Cathy said, “Mark Watney is the…”

The ellipses are mine.  The point is this, there are two people in the television studio talking on camera. We didn’t need to know that it was Cathy presenting an interview question to Venkat when he had already acknowledged her name. If you remove “Cathy said” from the passage, we still know it’s Cathy speaking, and it trims some fat from text. Again, an editor should have pointed this out.

These criticisms are minute when compared to the level of enjoyment I’m getting from this book. I share them here today because I know a lot of writers visit this page, and while such “errors” obviously won’t prevent you from landing a huge publishing contract, I still think it’s prudent to commit to perfecting one’s craft. Weir has done a masterful job of taking an enormously difficult premise, filled with tons of technical information and making it not only assessable to the average reader, but also entertaining. A tip of the hat to him for his talent and success.  I’m looking forward to finishing the book and seeing the movie.

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