Review: The Martian

For this week’s review, I bring you The Martian, by Andy Weir. It is a near-future Sci-Fi, set within the next few decades.


The premise snagged me right away:

Mark Watney is stranded on Mars after his mission is aborted.


He is a member of the third mission to Mars. The most junior member. A huge storm blows up a few days after the mission reaches Mars’ surface, forcing evacuation to the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle). En route through the storm, Mark is hit by an antenna and knocked out.

Through a series of freak events, Mark’s crew members think he is dead.

Through a series of even freakier events, Mark actually survives, in spite of his suit being breached.

The MAV almost tips over in the storm’s high winds, and the crew is forced to leave – or risk being stranded on Mars.


So, Mark is on Mars. He has shelter, and he has food for now – enough for a year. The catch is that the next Mars mission isn’t due to arrive for four years, and he has no way to communicate with Earth.


The book is about Mark’s efforts to survive, and NASA’s efforts to retrieve him.

It was clearly meticulously researched. Umpty-nine things go wrong, and there are a corresponding umpty-nine clever fixes, each carefully grounded with detailed explanations. I’m enough of an engineer that I enjoyed the explanations, and appreciated the effort that went into them. I wasn’t quite enough of an engineer to read the explanations as meticulously as they were written.


I was impressed that the author was able to keep the tension and pacing through 369 pages of things almost killing Mark (and maybe actually killing him – wouldn’t want to give away the ending!). If the story had been on earth it would have been easy to hit the “oh, come on now!” point, but this is on a harsh planet, over a pretty fair span of time. With that background, the Murphy’s Law effect seemed inevitable instead of forced.


The story is split into first-person chapters from Mark’s point of view and third-person chapters looking at what’s going on back home.

I admit that I was a bit taken aback the first time I hit a third-person chapter, mostly because the first five chapters/48 pages were in first person. At that point I thought the whole book would be in first person.

That moment of “er – wait a minute!” was my biggest beef with the story. It definitely threw me out for a whole twenty seconds.

However, the third-person parts on Earth gave an important perspective. I think it would have been possible to write the whole book from Mark’s point of view, but that would have missed out on some wonderful emotional and dramatic moments.


My writer-self wonders whether Andy could have slipped a third-person Earth chapter in earlier. Perhaps something in third person showing his fellow crew members or Earth responding to Mark’s loss. But that would have weakened the logical sequence of point of view.

As it is written, the book only introduces a point of view shortly before it is “connected” to the rest of the story. The Earth point of view picks up very shortly before they discover Mark is alive. The crew’s point of view picks up very shortly before they are told Mark is alive.


Anyway, the POV management was an interesting aspect. Aside from that very first jolt, I thought it was quite effective.

I often get annoyed with multi-threaded books because I almost always like one thread better than the other. In this case, I was never sorry to leave one viewpoint and get shunted to another – they were all interesting.



The Martian is a great survival tale that has some neat engineering and excellent plotting/characterization.

It is Andy Weir’s first published novel. I look forward to seeing what he writes next!

New Effort – Reviews!

I’m going to start working the occasional book review into my weekly posts. Working on my own writing craft has made me more conscious of certain aspects of books. When reading for pleasure, I still try to look at books as a reader first, but the writer is always lurking in the corner.

These reviews will try to balance the reader view with the writer view – hopefully to useful effect.


The Martian – Andy Weir

Fun with Revisions

I have been busy revising my YA fantasy novel for the last month.

I came away from Viable Paradise wanting to strengthen the cultural and historic foundation for my world. I spent the first month doing research; I have been integrating the fruits of that research ever since.

It isn’t that I’m adding or changing that much, but each 10-200 word snippet has to be judiciously inserted, and then massaged to match the 2nd-4th draft quality of the rest of the work.

It is fun, but it is slow going.

I went through and tagged all the spots that I wanted to tweak. This last week, I have been bobbing up and down between having 27 and 30 sections to modify. That is down from about 50 at the start, but I seem to have hit the dreaded Editing Plateau.

Part of that is the tendency of the edits to proliferate: insert a detail about the city in section X. Realize that section Y should have further exploration of the same thing. Add section Y to the list.

Part of that is my reluctance to officially check off the changes. I go back and re-read each insertion. Edit. Tweak. Re-read. Allow it to rest. Come back. Re-read. Edit.

Some of them have been pretty easy to finalize. Others have been in draft form for several days, and will remain so for a little while. Inserting information while avoiding info dumps can be tricky, and I sometimes have trouble telling whether I have crossed the line.

That’s what beta readers are for, though!

My other struggle is coming up with substitutes for slang.

I love language, especially the weird mutt that is English, but some of my favorite words and phrases are too vividly vernacular to play in a fantasy setting. It is an interesting problem.

It is always a judgment call whether it is appropriate to use certain kinds of slang in a work of fantasy. If you view it as a translation, you have more leeway, but there is still a limit.

There were a number of terms or idioms that I used originally that I have now marked for substitution. In some cases I’m having trouble coming up with a reasonable/interesting substitute that will be easy to understand.

The one that is currently giving me fits is bigwig. There are lots of great (approximate) equivalents: high muckety-muck, big kahuna, nob, nabob, VIP.

None of them are remotely suitable.

So now I’m trying to come up with an equivalent that is actually appropriate for my story’s culture, that will be easy for the reader to pick up.

I’m toying with something based on military structure, armor, or weaponry, since the nobles in the country come from a martial culture. I could potentially go with a crossover term such as “brass”, which has the advantage of not being completely unfamiliar, but also comes with baggage.

I will probably wind up cutting my losses on some of the slang, either going back to the regular word (e.g. changing “green monster” to “envy”), or letting the real world slang slip through.

I’m hoping to finish up the current round of edits in the next week or two, so that I can put out a call for beta readers. We’ll see how I do with preventing the edits from proliferating. I have “finished” it before, surely I can again . . . ?

My First New Year’s Resolution!

I have never made a New Year’s Resolution.

January 1st isn’t an especially good time to start things, at least for me. I’m usually backlogged with work and projects from the holidays. The weather isn’t great. I just want to stay at home and catch up on things.

All that said, I am going to break my long-standing tradition and make a New Year’s Resolution.

I resolve to update this blog once a week, regardless of what else is going on in my life, for at least the next year.

I want to work blogging into my schedule, and this seems like the kind of goal that actually works well with the major January 1st benchmark.

There are lots of things that I have been meaning to talk about, but I have a full and happy life. That’s mostly good, but it means that “talking about stuff” tends to fall off the back burner.

So. Weekly blog commitment.

Anyone want to jump on the bandwagon?

Happy New Year!

How I Benefited from Viable Paradise

If you missed it, here is my intro to Viable Paradise.

I think that everyone who attends Viable Paradise gets something a little different out of it.

For me, the benefits were many and varied. In no particular order, the most important benefits from my point of view were:

Sum Up . . .

Meeting other writers

I had never been to a writing workshop. I have yet to go to a writing conference. As such, Viable Paradise was my first opportunity to really get together with other writers, and talk life and writing. To all those other writers, slaving away in isolation: find yourself some in-the-flesh writers to talk to! It’s great.

Part of that was being able to talk writing and craft, and swap advice and tips.

Part was having a natural conversation starter – which, for an introvert surrounded by large numbers of people (N > 3), is very helpful.

My fellow workshop-goers were a delightful bunch of people – as were the staff and instructors. I have never had such an easy time chatting with so many people.

Getting a crash course in writing and publishing from the pros

This is the obvious-from-the-outside benefit, and it was great.

The talks were made up of collegiums and lectures. The collegiums had an instructor leading them, but relied more on discussion and Q&A from the students. The lectures had a primary presenter, but there were always multiple instructors in the audience, and they would often give their input on the topic. That was especially helpful for getting a sense of different writers’ approaches and opinions. Writing process topics brought an especially wide range of experience.

The actual talks were on a bunch of topics. I would broadly divide them into “how to write better”, “how to develop better content”, and “how to manage the writerly life”.

“How to write better” topics covered all sorts of craft information. Things like how to express character emotion without telling. These talks distilled a compendium of intermediate and advanced writing knowledge, and gave a practical high-points version with Q&A.

“How to develop better content” topics covered various aspects of background and story that would help a story to be more compelling and believable. Not how to express it, mind you – that was the craft section – but what to put in. Some topics were more pertinent to SFF, such as things to consider when world-building. Others covered more general considerations, such as common mistakes dealing with injury and death in fiction of all sorts.

“How to manage the writerly life” topics covered everything from tricks to use in getting unstuck, to maintaining health (mental and physical) in a solitary, sedentary, slow-paced task.

I am not going to go into detail on the content. That would be a week or two or three of daily posts, and I’m doing well to manage weekly or monthly.

Besides, it will be a goodly while before I feel fit to “teach” any of it.

Socializing with the pros and enjoying them as real people

The instructors did not just float in from on high for the critiques and talks. They joined us for meals and hung out in the evenings.

They all turned out to be nice people who love writing, and also love lots of other things.

I especially enjoyed the sing-alongs that took place in the latter part of the week. They may have occurred in the first part of the week, too, but I was doing my homework.

It was important for me to have a chance to see the instructors as peers and human beings.

Based on the interactions I enjoyed at VP18, I will be far less likely to freeze up or go “fan girl” when presented with a writer or editor whose work I admire.

 Meeting other writers at a similar stage in the process

It was great meeting the pros.

In many ways, it was just as wonderful being able to talk with other writers at roughly the same point – give or take a year or two.

They represented writers who could understand my situation, and provide sympathy and support in a way no one else could.

Those a little further along in the process were in the position of being able to give glimpses up ahead.

I had a very nice chat with Fonda Lee about the process of getting an agent and getting her first contract.

The staff at VP were also primarily writers and alums. That gave another bunch of people who could give a glimpse a little further along.

Reading and analyzing a broad range of work

My class included the gamut of SFF writers, from hard sci fi to epic fantasy. That meant that reading for critiques was impressively varied, as were the results of the short-story writing exercise.

It’s well and good to say that you can read all of that at home.

It’s technically true, and some people probably do that.

I admit I usually read a fairly narrow subset of SFF, simply because my time is limited and I’m reading to unwind.

It was lovely and mind-expanding to read the whole range.

I would have read much of it for pleasure, but not all of it.

It was good practice analyzing something that didn’t “grab” me. The fact that I wasn’t the target audience didn’t make it bad, and it was a very interesting exercise to try to look at the strengths and weaknesses analytically, without letting “like” come into it.

Gaining a future pool of potential critique partners

One problem I’ve been struggling with is how to find people to help me beta read my work.

I have some friends who are willing to help, but that’s a very narrow audience, and none of them are writers.

The internet has lots of writers, but it really has too many.

Having a group of friendly people who I can ask to beta is great. I don’t expect all of them to do it – wouldn’t want all of them to do it – but even if two or three or four of the twenty-four are happy to swap reading duties, that puts me way ahead.

Learning I can spin a short story out a bunch of random prompts

I had never finished a short story.

I’m a natural novel writer, because I keep spinning the story out and out and out.

As part of the week’s exercises, we had to write a short story using some rather bizarre prompts.

It was traumatic for the first few minutes, but tremendously liberating after that.

The short time frame and some advice on story arcs actually allowed me to produce a workable short story. My first!

Going forward, I’m hoping to mix the occasional short story into my writing work, between novels. It will be great practice, and is not something that I had considered since my last failed attempt to write a short story . . . some six years ago.

Getting feedback on my writing

For me, getting feedback on my writing was a huge benefit.

I had been working largely in isolation, and hadn’t been able to determine whether my stories were engaging, interesting, or generally something anyone would want to read.

It was wonderful – albeit scary – getting in-person critiques from fellow writers.

We each had our work critiqued by a group of students and two instructors. We also got one-on-one sessions with two additional instructors.

For me, this was one of the most valuable parts. It isn’t that anyone said anything truly earth-shattering about my chapters – mostly I got some food for thought about where to build up my world, and feedback on things people were interested in, or concerned about.

It was just wonderful to know that people enjoyed my chapters.

I’m oddly blind with my writing. I’m not alone in this, but I don’t know that all writers suffer the problem as seriously as I do.

It isn’t that I think my writing is bad.

It’s that I can’t tell.

Oh, I can tell whether the writing is grammatical.

That the scene follows logically and is well based.

That the characters are consistent.

But is it interesting? Would someone keep reading after I unchained them?

Beats me!

So it was very beneficial to get real, live, honest feedback: enough flaws to feel real and give me something to work on, but also plenty of encouragement, affirming that I have something!


Sum Up

So, that’s what I got out of it.

Writing buddies.

A list of things to work on.

Beautiful memories.


That doesn’t capture everything, not by a long chalk, but it covers the high points.

Updated 11/19/14 to include some missing links.

Thoughts on Viable Paradise 18

It has now been a month since I left Martha’s Vineyard after the glorious, dizzying, jam-packed week that is Viable Paradise.

I have spent the intervening month recovering, paring my 4000-word VP short story down to 1800 words and submitting it, doing research to beef up the world building for “Joining the Draken”, and generally expanding my writerly horizons.

Now that I have a little more perspective, I’d like to capture my thoughts about Viable Paradise before the details fade from my erratic memory.

First, for those who do not know what it is, the technical definition of Viable Paradise might be “a week-long workshop in which 24 writers have critiques and attend lectures by industry professionals.”

That is accurate as far as it goes, much as “a Lotus is a car” is technically accurate.

Over the next couple days, I will address a few aspects of my experience at Viable Paradise.   As I add them, I will link to them here.

In addition to my impressions, several of my fellow students have done nice write-ups of their experiences with Viable Paradise.

In order posted:

Finally, an impression from the instructor side of the aisle:

Steve Brust 10/17


A New Blog

I have been writing off-again, on-again since doing my first NaNoWriMo in 2007. I primarily write YA fantasy.

This is not my first blog, but I’m hoping that this go-round I’ll be more faithful about it.

The goal of this blog is to capture information about my writing process, tidbits from my research, and notes on my life. Much of it will be useful to my future self, and hopefully some of it will be of use to my fellow writers.