In late 2009, I wrote a short story called “The Egg.” I’d been writing short stories for quite a while at that point, a good 10 years, and I’d been slowly accumulating readers to my website. “The Egg,” which I banged out in 40 minutes and is only 1,000 words long, seemed to really resonate with people. I didn’t expect it to be a hit when I made it, I thought it was just one of the many short stories I wrote and uploaded to my website, then called it a day.
People liked it because it was a good digestible size for the internet audience. It was only 1,000 words long, it only takes a few minutes to read, which is about as much effort as you’re willing to put into a random link that your buddy sends you. You can take the entire content of the story and post it in a blog post. It can get around easy, it’s got good communicability. It became a minor meme. Millions and millions of people came to my website to read it. I had a mailing list with a modest number of people on it and that grew — up to about 3,000 people total. I already had maybe half that amount before I had “The Egg” out there, but it definitely increased my readership.
You may wonder why this matters to The Martian. While I was writing The Martian I had these loyal readers, which had now just doubled, sending me a lot of encouragement, a lot of feedback, and a lot of fan mail, basically. That really kept me going because I am driven by having an audience, that’s really important to me. It’s really hard to get motivated to write. Anyone who’s ever tried to write will tell you that the hardest part of writing is writing. It’s easy to sit around and imagine a scenario but it’s really hard to sit down and actually type it out. Having people cheer me on every chapter was a big help.
Also the people who were sending me these emails were very scientifically minded people. They’re the sorts of folks that I’ve accumulated over the years. That means nerds. So they would send me corrections to my math or they said, “you did the chemistry wrong there, or whatever.” That helped make The Martian more accurate. I did a lot of research and scientific accuracy was very important to me. Having this core group of nerds watching my every move… As a nerd myself, I can tell you there’s nothing we love more than telling someone they’re wrong on math — it’s just something that’s makes us happy deep down inside.
I had 3,000 fact checkers, it was awesome.
Eventually I finished The Martian and I moved on to other serials. I started getting notes from people saying, “Hey, I love The Martian, but I hate your website,” — because my website is crap — “Can you just make an e-reader version that I can just download and put on my e-reader?” I did that.
Then I got other emails from people saying, “Hey, love The Martian, hate your site. I see that there’s an e-reader version but I’m not very technically savvy and I don’t know how to download the thing from the internet and put it on my e-reader, I just don’t know how to do that. Can you just put in on Amazon so I can get it through their system like I normally do?” I figured out how to do that too (it’s really easy to do and any idiot can do it, I’m proof).
Here’s the thing, you have to charge at least 99 cents. You’re not allowed to give the book away because that’s how Amazon makes their money. They don’t let you give it away for free. I wanted to give it away for free but I begrudgingly set the price at the minimum of 99 cents because what I was interested in was readership, not money. As a software engineer, I made plenty of money. I was happy, this was my hobby not a source of income.
Once it was on Amazon, I said, “All right everybody, you can read it for free on my website, or you can download the e-reader version for free on my website, or you can pay Amazon a buck to put it on your Kindle for you.” More people paid the buck than downloaded it for free because people are willing to pay a dollar to get around technical tasks. It sold really well and it worked its way up in the Amazon sales rankings and it got into the top-selling list for sci-fi and then for all of Kindle. That got the attention of both Random House and Fox.
First, an agent contacted me and said, “Hey, do you have an agent? If you don’t I’d like to be your agent. I’m pretty sure I can get you a print deal.” Within a couple of weeks he had me on the phone with Random House. Then, while those negotiations were going on, Fox came for the film rights. Now I had both of these negotiations going on at the same time, all being managed by my agent. At this point I was still a full-time software engineer. I was fixing bugs in my cubicle and then running off to take phone calls on my movie deal and then back to fixing bugs in my cubicle.
It was really surreal.
In the end the two deals — the print deal and the movie deal — were agreed to four days apart. I went from nothing, I went from “I’m a hobbyist and I posted this to my website” to all of the sudden “Okay, I have a print deal with a major publisher and a movie deal with a major production company.” That was pretty cool.
The print deal went along smoothly and it came out and it got onto the bestseller list and eventually worked its way up to number one. I had done many, many editing passes on the book before the professional publishers ever got a hold of it. Ignoring my own edits, just talking about the process with Random House, it was pretty minor. Most of the stuff Random House wanted was all about wordsmithing, there was very little that they wanted changed in terms of plot or character or anything like that. There were a few “this paragraph where you’re describing this thing doesn’t make a lot of sense, you went over my head, try to simplify it.” Or, “Hey, this scene you have of NASA people talking to each other but you never even set the scene. I don’t even know if they’re in a conference room, living room, a restaurant, or a car.” The details of prose.
The movie rights deal was actually a movie option deal which just basically means they’re paying you a small amount of money to be the only people who have the right to purchase the rights. In other words they’re buying exclusivity in advance without actually buying the film film rights. That’s how movie options work. Everybody told me: “Don’t get too excited, studios buy hundreds of options for every one movie they actually make. You have less than a 1% chance that this will be made into a movie. Just enjoy the money you got for the option.” For 18 months Fox were the only people who would be allowed to make the movie, and then when they don’t do it, I’d have the rights back and could sell them to somebody else. There are a lot of authors who just make a good living by just cycling those film rights because the studios never want to really let it go so they just come and renegotiate by the end and give you more money to maintain exclusivity.
In this case all the stars aligned and everything came together. Drew Goddard took an interest in the screenplay and took an interest in writing and originally he was set to direct. He wrote a great screenplay and then he left the project to go work on the next Spiderman movie because at his core he’s a big comics guy.
We had this great screenplay and then Matt Damon took an interest in playing the lead and then Ridley Scott took an interest in being the director. These two huge names just said, “That sounds good, I’ll do that.” Then things started to really snowball because once you have those two on board the studio really takes notice. Just having these names attached is almost guaranteed to make the movie turn a profit. Then of course you get a bunch of incredible talent attracted to the project as well because you have this legendary director and everybody wants to work with him. It just snowballed. Everything just started coming together.
It got a nice juicy budget and they made a beautiful movie. I’ve seen it. I went to the premiere in Toronto and it was just incredible. I know I’m obviously very biased but I really think it is a good movie, I think it’s going to do well. Critics like it a lot too.
At this point, I’m actually past the nervousness and everything like that because my main focus, the entire core of my existence, up until the premiere was the premiere. The premiere — first off that’s my big day in the sun. That’s when I get to walk the red carpet and meet all the stars and hang out at parties with Hollywood elite and stuff like that. Second off, the premiere was the first time that the media really got ahold of the movie. It’s the first time that reviewers saw it. There had been pre-review showings for NASA employees and JPL [Jet Propulsion Lab] people but no professional movie reviewers yet.
Now, boom, all of the sudden here you go, here’s the premiere. The premiere itself, the events of the premiere — the party before and the premiere and then the afterparty — that was probably the best moment of my life. They showed it in the theater that seats about 2,000 people and there were a whole bunch of movie reporters from all over the world. They just overwhelmingly loved it. What I was nervous about was how the critics were going to see it, what their opinions were going to be. Now that that’s done, I’m just like, “All right, I can sit back and enjoy the ride because I know audiences are going to like it.” I was just worried about what the critics were going to say.
Even more exciting was my trip to Johnson Space Center. All of a sudden I had unprecedented access to visit NASA. They brought me into the mission control center for the International Space Station and let me sit at the CHRONOS station, which is one of the flight controllers, and they let me remote control a camera mounted on the outside of the ISS. I mean, that is some pretty cool shit. NASA is very excited because they think it will help increase public interest in the space program, and also they like that there’s a sense of scientific accuracy which is preserved in the film. They feel like it’s good to educate people on the real challenges for interplanetary travel, and then also I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that NASA is portrayed in an extremely positive light.
Being a full-time writer was a dream, but I didn’t delude myself into thinking it would just be all a picnic in the park. It’s a lot of hard work. It was a transition. I won’t lie, there are parts of this that are not fun at all. The biggest challenge for me was going from a situation where I had a bunch of co-workers to being alone in my house all the time. That was rougher on me than I expected. I’m a social person and I like going to work every morning and saying “good morning” to everyone and sitting down and just shooting the shit. “How was your weekend?” I liked my co-workers and I was respected at my job.
Suddenly that was gone, I’m just by myself, I’m at home. That was a little rough on me. Also I missed in being a computer programmer where you have extremely well-defined objectives. It’s very clear what your job is. In writing it’s “Okay, write a story about whatever you want and try to make it not suck.”
It’s just so much more subjective. So that was a transition. I’m still transitioning.
WATCH A PROMO FOR ‘THE MARTIAN STARRING NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON