#92 Andy Weir

WeirphotoAndy Weir joined James Altucher to talk about what it was like to write The Martian, his journey to get there, and how you figure out how to grow potatoes on Mars. Weir’s book is coming out as a movie in November, “thankfully a few weeks” before Star Wars he tells James.

Weir’s journey to best-selling author was a long one, and nothing along the way indicated it. He tells James that he always enjoyed writing but not until a full year after Random House purchased the book rights did he quit his job. His conversation with James begins when Weir had to drop out of college because he didn’t have enough money to pay for the living expenses associated with school. “I can either scrape up enough money to continue paying to work all day, or I can work all day and get paid.” he tells James. Choosing that latter over the former, he went to work.

This attitude of financial responsibility was “drilled into me” Weir says – and it might be a good thing. He says that many of his friends had parents that paid for everything and didn’t learn financial responsibility until they were on their own. Not so for Weir, and not so for many financially successful people.

Fellow father Feiler (Bruce) wondered the same thing, what do the financially most successful teach their children about financial success. Feiler interviewed financial advisor Byron Trott who told him, “One of the biggest problems I see in families, is a reluctance to let your kids make decisions for themselves.” Trott goes on to say that making small mistakes now might prevent big mistakes later.

So, Weir went to work but even then his finances weren’t fluid. He had to take gap loans from his father to cover times when money was tight. James asks if not paying his dad back ever occurred to him – never Weir said. Altucher asked Maria Popova (episode #89) a similar question about dropping out and she told him the same thing – never.

I wonder how absolutes clarify what we focus on. For Weir there was no question about paying his dad back. Popova had to finish school. Even later in the interview when Weir tells James how he works there are absolutes; no TV, no random internetting. (Redditt, we’re looking in your direction).

Weir got a job with Blizzard Entertainment working on Warcraft II. It wasn’t uncommon in the mid 90’s to work 80-100 hours a week to finish a major coding project he tells James. His work at Blizzard led to a job with AOL until he was laid off, but with a decent severance package. There’s no comment in the interview if his salary went to creating more AOL connection cds. Ted Leonsis tells James in a previous episode how they came up with that idea in the first place.

With his severance package and an idea for a book, Weir spent the next three years writing and trying to get published. Almost immediately a wise sage scrolled through his manuscript and found the hidden gem that is Andy Weir. Wait. Tha’ts not what happened. Do you know what happened? Nothing. Three years for nothing. Even David Levien (episode #85), who had Hollywood and entertainment connections, only landed the Rounders script because of a bit of luck.

Instead, Weir went back to work as an engineer and slowly the internet became more popular. He figured he could just write online. The Martian began as a serialized story for his online community. This web version led to an ebook which led to a Kindle book, but not at his direction. Weir said that he “self-published and figured I was done and that was it.” The only reason he put it out as a Kindle copy anyway was because people didn’t know how to download the free ebook version available on his website. This must be when the treasure chest of writing fame opened. Nope, just a bit longer yet.

That September saw 20 copies sold. October about 100. By March the following year sales were up to 35,000.

Weir said that part of the success was the social proof and suggestion that Amazon offered. There were a lot of reviews, James says 6,000 at the start of the interview, but it was also in that “People like you bought” suggestion area of Amazon. I had always thought this was an algorithm, but not entirely. In fact, the NPR Planet Money team interviewed people who do this, the Mechanical Turks. Amazon pays people to go through the suggested items to make sure the pairings make sense.

The Martian was gaining steam. Being at the top of the list for number of reviews also helped with what Malcolm Gladwell introduced as the “Matthews Effect.” Named after the biblical verse, Mathews 25:29, it’s the clever sociological phenomenon that the rich get richer and the poor poorer.

Gladwell explained it in terms of Canadian youth hockey, where so many kids on the elite teams had birthdays early in the year; January through March. What does your month of birth have to do with your hockey skills? The theory goes that because the cut-off date was January 1st, the kids born earlier in the year were bigger than their peers born at the end. Bigger meant being a bit more coordinated and a bit better at hockey. If you were a bit better then you got a bit of extra attention from the coaches and got a bit better at hockey. Bit by bit and on it went.

Through all this, Weir’s glad he began in self-publishing, telling James:

“Self publishing has really opened up the publishing world. Now there’s no intermediate steps where someone at the publishing house has to guess on whether a book will sell or not.”

Seth Godin (episode #86) also tells James that the cultural and geographic boundaries are gone. The only thing that can hold you back is the “cultural pollution” in your life. Gary Vaynerchuk (episode #2) told James much the same thing, that the gatekeepers are gone, but they are gone for all of us. There’s a Randy Weir out there who’s book didn’t hit, who’s book isn’t going to be a movie, who’s going to be paying money to read a best seller rather than making money for writing it.

As his readership grew and Amazon sales number began to tick up, James asks if Weir ever considered quitting his job and squeezing the book sales for all they were worth. “Never” he says, he just wanted the readers. Marcus Lemonis told James something similar, suggesting you should worry most about the work and the money will follow that. In On Writing (small note: If you liked this interview with Andy Weir, you really need to read On Writing. It’s a perfect companion to the advice that Weir gives and goes a lot deeper into some of the ideas) Stephen King answers, “Do you do it for the money, honey?”:

“The answer is no. Don’t now and never did. Yes, I’ve made a great deal of dough from my fiction, but I never set a single word down on paper with the thought of being paid for it…I have written because it fulfilled me.”

Another piece of King’s advice that Weir has seemingly followed is to read and read a lot if you want to be a writer. Weir says that Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke were some of his favorites. Plus he had to do a lot of research about space to write about space. Weir tells James he was always interested in astrophysics, but to get the science right he had to dive deeper into fields like botany. Luckily his serial form lent itself to getting that stuff right. He essentially had crowd-sourced fact checking. Jimmy Wales (episode #54) would be proud. Whales told James that he hoped a crowd funded movie would be made someday and fact checking about growing potatoes on Mars for a book that becomes a movie seems like it might be a good first step.

Another perk of writing in the serialized form was that it let Weir learn as he went, and in a way the form followed function. This constraint was also helpful to David Levien (episode #54) who wrote his most recent series of books on the train during his commute. Levien had to write quickly, with not a lot of time and that’s about perfect for the style of novel he was working on.

James asks Weir what it’s like to have your book sold and be turned into a movie, to which Andy replies:

“I was spectating eagerly, as the writer of the book my only job was to cash the check.”

He tells James that this doesn’t bother him because he sees the different skills required for the different roles. Screenwriting is different that book writing which is different from making the actual movie. These nuanced differences have been part of what other people have told James too – notably comedy writers. Dave Berg told James that for Jay Leno’s stand-up routines were different than his monologues which were different than telling jokes for a TV shows. Carol Leifer (episode #66) also noted that writing comedy for TV was different than writing comedy for stand-up. Simon Rich (episode #83) too shared that in writing his books he can really go off the deep end where as TV (and this is an Alex Blumberg (episode #70) quote) “has to be on rails.”

Not until Weir was mailing a contract back to Random House, on Broadway St., NYC – did he feel like things were real. He signed with Random House in March of 2013 but the book didn’t come out until February 2014 and not until April of that year did Weir leave his job. “Everybody at the company was rooting for me” he told James. Scott Adams says something similar, where he kept working even after Dilbert became popular, in-part, so visitors to the office could see the engineer in his natural environment.

Near the end of the interview is a nice and nuanced explanation of how movie rights work. Simon Rich had hinted at this in a previous interview and it was nice to hear it explained in full. The way it works according to Weir is this: a studio gives you a contract and a “small pile of money” for the exclusive option to buy the movie rights. If they exercise their option, they give you the big pile of money too, but sometimes these rights elapse and another studio can buy them. Weir says that for every movie made 100 options may have been drafted.

For The Martian it wasn’t until the day before they began filming that the studio exercised the rights. This explains why when James asks, did you pop a champagne cork, Weir tells him, “it just becomes more and more likely slowly over time.” There was no single moment.

James also asks if Weir is going to get a big back-end payout but Weir is skeptical. Movies never break-even thanks to tricky Hollywood accounting he says. Maybe not now, but they once did.

Arnold Schwarzenegger told Tim Ferriss that his biggest payout was from a movie you might not expect. Their entire interview is great but this movie part came together like this. Arnold had some success in the action genre but felt he could nail another type of movie too. He teamed up with two other talents (giving names would give it away) and the trio went to the studio saying they could make this movie pretty cheap, but they wanted a certain percentage of the back-end. The studio agreed. That movie was made for $15M but went on to gross $110M.

To James’s disappointment neither Elon Musk or Matt Damon has called Weir to talk about – literal or fictional – survival on Mars. To the former, Weir says that there are a lot of scientists much smarter than him, to the latter he says, “the original intent is less important than the director’s vision.”

The interview ends with James asking about advice for writers. Weir says he gets this a lot and has three suggestions.

1. Write. “It’s easy to daydream and fantasize about what your story is going to be and how awesome it’s going to be. It’s hard to actually write it.” Summon up motivation and do it. Write. Don’t imagine. Write. Write. Write.

2. Don’t tell people. When you tell people, Weir says, you lose a bit of drive that gets you to actually write it. Make yourself a rule that “the only way my friends are allowed to find out what my story is by reading it.”

3. This is the best time to be an aspiring writer. The internet and self-publishing lets you put something out there to see if people like it. There is nobody between you and the readers. Take a moment to appreciate that. This is one of the best-selling authors of the last few years and he spent three years not that long ago, coming up empty handed in getting someone to read his work.

And, to the people that don’t have enough time, Weir says that writing takes time. Two points on this: Ryan Holiday (episode #18) wrote that you find time for anything (like reading or writing) the way you find time for anything. Did you eat today? Brush your teeth? Go to work? Holiday would ask how you found time for that. The other point is that writing takes a lot of time (these blog posts each take 3-5 hours) and you need help to find that time. Ann Bauer wrote in Salon that to finish her book she had to move in with her parents and is now “sponsored by my husband.”

My own process for writing these post is a mix of the two. When I walk our dog and when I make breakfast, my headphones are in and I listen to the James Altucher (and other) podcasts. Most mornings I get up between 5-6AM to draft these (and other) posts. That said, my wife has a good job that lets me do this.

For more Weir, and a snapshot about what things looked like a year ago, check out his AMA.

His talk at Google was also around the same time.


Thanks for reading. Part of my creation process for these posts is to write an idea list. Every. Single. Day. If you want help creating that habit too, I made something that might help. If I had a typo or interpretation error please let me know, @mikedariano.

That Arnold movie was Twins and co-starred Danny Devito and was directed by Ivan Reitman. 

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