Story Structure and the Self-Published Home Run

Andy Weir

Andy Weir is a self-confessed geek. 

He is also the author of the bestseller, The Martian, the film adaptation of which is in theaters right now.

He was (the tense there is important) a computer programmer by day, a science fiction fan and aspiring author by night.

Weir is a guy who sweats the details in all things, and those details – technical veracity that doesn’t depend on concoction – often escaped him in the stories he read for pleasure.  He’d submitted a few of his own manuscripts to agents and publishers, but nothing happened, perhaps because they were loaded with those details.

Sometimes that becomes the juicy irony behind a massive success story. 

Kathryn Stockett, for example, submitted a manuscript entitled The Help to 46 so-called elite agents, and not one of them signed her.  Remember that one when your next rejection slip arrives.  William Goldman was spot-on right when he said of Hollywood and the publishing machine, “Nobody knows anything.”

If you like stories like this about writers who don’t give up, about pathways to success that are anything but traditional, keep reading. 

This one is for you.

Martian book cover

Andy Weir had an idea.  A concept, really (as defined in my new book), because while compelling, it had no hero and no dramatic arc… yet (which exactly fits the mold of the definition of concept).  It was just something he wanted to explore.  And so he began writing what amounted to short chapters on his website, launching a story about an astronaut who, through no fault of his own, finds himself stranded in Cleveland without a wallet.

Okay, that’s not true.  Just seeing if you’re tracking with me here.

His protagonist found himself stranded on Mars. 

The story became a sort of diary about all the things he had to confront to survive, most of which could easily kill him, and how he MacGivered his means of survival, cobbling together all kinds of solutions and tools with absolutely accurate science.  No ending yet, just the unfolding tale of Mark Watney and his time on Mars.

Soon those blog posts had a following. Some readers were fellow science geeks who gleefully corrected anything (as science folk usually do) that wasn’t realistic.  After a while, when a killer ending manifested (this has to happen before any manuscript will work), one of those readers suggested Weir post the chapters online for all to read as a singular collated manuscript.  Weir selected Amazon Kindle for this, posting it for free.

It didn’t take long for takers to show up in the tens of thousands. 

The Martian became the #1 free Kindle book, inspiring another reader to send Weir an email that said something like this (I’m assuming and paraphrasing here): “Dude, you need to sell this.  You’ll get even more takers.”

Because across the vast sea of readers out there, most still assume that a story selling for real money is better than something available for free.

So Weir published The Martian for 99 cents. 

(Sorry, it’s nine bucks as of today.)

And as predicted, sales instantly explored, reaching the coveted #1 Kindle book throne very quickly.

Andy Weir was a happy science guy, this outcome far exceeded his expectations.

But fate was just getting started turning his story into an unthinkable dream shot.

An agent found him and offered to take The Martian into the dark world of traditional publishing.  Weir said yes, his expectations nowhere near what was about to happen.

Very soon thereafter the agent called with the news: he had found a publisher who would pay a mid six-figure advance for hardcover rights.

And then, the agent called four days later – sit back and allow that one to sink in – to announce that the movie rights for the book had sold, also for significant cash.

That was a good week for Andy Weir.

But then, the odds descended.  Only a fraction of these movie deals ever reach the screen.  So Weir wasn’t counting his chickens… yet.

More good news.  Ridley Scott, perhaps the biggest name in high concept movies, wanted to direct.  And Matt Damon would sign on to play Mark Watney, the stranded astronaut.

Shortly thereafter the novel became a New York Times bestseller.

Imagine, if you can, this happening to you.

It’s the most delicious self-publishing success story since Twilight, which had a similar path.  Other self-published novels have found significant success as well, but don’t forget that the path to the bestseller list and the silver screen remains a steep and arduous one for self-published authors, the odds remain orders of magnitude higher for traditionally published projects.

But then, in that scenario, you absolutely have to land an agent, and we’ve shown that sometimes they don’t know their own ass from second base.  So if your self-published project finds one for you, that’s the best outcome of all.

Why does The Martian work so well?

Have you read the book or seen the film, which is quite close to the dramatic and details of the novel?

As a student of storytelling craft, you should.

Two things jump out.  First… the concept is killer.  Concepts alone can make or break you, and this one is an example of the former.  Before you add the hero, the situational center-piece of Weir’s concept is irresistible.  It drips with dramatic potential, and the closer you look at it, a rich stage for character and theme crystallizes before your mind’s eye.

That alone makes this novel an ideal candidate for deconstruction here on Storyfix.

Because it is the structure of the novel (and of the film, which matches identically) that elevates The Martian as an even better learning model.  Its structure is perfect.  Quartile by quartile, story milestone by story milestone, scene by scene, the architecture of the novel is a poster child for classic four-part structure (3-Act structure if you’re still stuck in that less precise model, which is the same basic sequence).

In my next post I’ll walk you through The Martian from a structural perspective, defining those quartiles and parts and their specific locations within the novel. 

But I’ll tell you this now… those major story milestone occur within only a few pages of their optimal target.  And that isn’t remotely an accident.  If you are skeptic, allow this to convince.  If you are already a student of structure, all this to pump fresh adrenaline and hope into your writing chops.

The question then becomes, how did Weir pull that off?  Is he a student of some form of structure, or is he a pantser who somehow found the thread that would make his story work?

I certainly don’t know, but from what I’ve read, Weir is a candidate for structural thinking (most programmers are).  And even if he’s a panster, the likely backstory is that as he revised the story based on feedback and his gut story sensibility (that’s the story of every successfully pantsed novel, drafts evolve, and the end-zone of the evolution almost always aligns with the principles of structure, whether they want to acknowledge it or not), it moved closer and closer to the paradigm that awaits all of us, even in a first draft if you understand it well enough.

Until then, head to the theater or grab the paperback (which I read in one sitting while on a flight from Paris to Salt Lake two weeks ago, an 11 hour sequestering that my wife and I are just now recovering from).

Thank  goodness, and Andy Weir, I had that paperback with me.  And thank goodness someone like Ridley Scott and Matt Damon made it happen for him in Hollywood.

Now you can benefit from the learning the story makes available.

Click HERE to read (or return to) the deconstruction post.


It’s November Mustache Month… a Challenge for Men’s Health

I’m posting this for my son, who is 25 and lives in Austin, Texas.  He’s growing a mustache for his fund-raising efforts on behalf of the Prostate Cancer Foundation, the Prevention Institute, the Livestrong Foundation, Ichom, and several corporate sponsors, for men everywhere who would benefit from preventative and care programs that will save and enrich their lives.

I’m proud of my son for doing this. 

I hope you can toss a few bucks toward this cause, using this THIS LINK to donate.  

As you can see, my son is way better looking than me, even with that ‘stache… which goes away in December, he promises.

nelson with stash



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13 Responses to Story Structure and the Self-Published Home Run

  1. I like the ‘stache, course I’m partial to them anyway. Now I need to read The Martian. Geesh, my TBR keeps getting higher and higher.

  2. can’t . . . keep . . . up . . .

    Understanding story structure allowed me to list all 64 scenes of my next book yesterday morning, and then draft a workable outline of the following book in the afternoon. A short afternoon.

    Infinitely easier to build the puzzle when you look at the picture on the box.

    And oh so much harder when you pretend there is no box.

    • Anne Kaelber

      Joel — I thought I understood story structure. I had my beats laid out. But the writing revealed things weren’t working. This is my first attempt at writing a novel with a plan instead of pantsing it, so I expected there to be problems. I found some beats barely crossed 500 words, while others almost hit 5000 words.

      I understand the words when I read the various writing books which talk about plotting and not pantsing. When other stories are broken down, it makes total sense. But, when I go off to work on my own novel, I can’t make it work. It’s like Calculus all over again. 🙂

      What would you say helped you the most with being a plotter, not a pantser? Or are you like the math geeks in my Calculus classes: naturally gifted? 😀


  3. This post literally gave me chills! I LOVE reading stories like this about self-published authors. Write a book readers can’t put down (or stop talking about), put the book out there yourself, find a readership, and let the agents come to you. 🙂

  4. Eva

    I saw the movie a few weeks ago, and tried to place the story points (inciting incident, first plot point, etc) while I watched. I wasn’t watching the timing itself, just trying to go by what was happening in the story. I’m eager to see if I was close. If so, I’ll feel like I have a much better idea of structure.

    Looking forward to the analysis.

    I wonder if you could interview Mr. Weir to get his perspective on his process.

  5. Kerry Boytzun

    Your son is better looking than you at the same age? Your son got his hunk looks from baseball studmuffin, Daddy-O! Post some young pictures of you, Larry, and we’ll see. I have one of your books and it has a picture of you that looks like maybe late thirties? Handsome as a movie star, but a man’s movie star.


  6. I’m looking forward to that story analysis! It’s been a while, and I know how much work it is.

  7. I’ll try to get this book in time for the deconstruction.
    Thanks Larry.

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