How to Write a Debut Novel That Becomes a Blockbuster Movie

Andy Weir wrote a novel in his spare time — and it was turned into a hit Hollywood film starring Matt Damon. Here are his tips on how to do it.

Andy Weir was working as a software engineer, as he had been for the previous 20 years, when he wrote and self-published his novel, The Martian.

It went rather well.

The book was turned it into an Oscar-nominated movie, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, that made $630 million at the box office after its release in 2015. Andy quit his day job, became a full-time writer and has since written two more books, Armetis and Cheshire Crossing, that have both been picked up by movie executives, the latter by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment last year.

Many of us have long-held ambitions to write a novel one day. And as the coronavirus pandemic has led to many of us having more time on our hands at home, now could be the time.

So here’s some great wisdom from a man who has been there, done it and made friends with Matt Damon. Our favorite tip: “You actually have to write.”

Andy Weir // 📸: Penguin Random House

Andy Weir // 📸: Penguin Random House

What was it like having your debut novel turned into a blockbuster movie starring Matt Damon?!

Pretty damn awesome, I’ll tell ya. It still seems like something out of a dream. Honestly, now that the hubbub is over, it all feels like something I only fantasized about rather than something that actually happened.

How did you carve out time to write when you still had another day job? Did you have a routine?

I didn’t have a life. I lived in Boston when I started writing The Martian. I’d moved there for work. I didn’t have any friends, didn’t have a girlfriend or wife, so I had literally nothing to do in my spare time. So I wrote.

A lot of us with ambitions of writing a novel procrastinate and never put pen to paper. What advice do you have?

1) You have to actually write. Daydreaming about the book you’re going to write someday isn’t writing. It’s daydreaming. Open your word processor and start writing.

2) Resist the urge to tell friends and family your story. I know it’s hard because you want to talk about it and they’re (sometimes) interested in hearing about it. But it satisfies your need for an audience, which diminishes your motivation to actually write it. Make a rule: The only way for anyone to ever hear about your stories is to read them.

You wrote The Martian about your life-long passion for space and sci-fi… do you think it’s important to write about what you know?

Absolutely. Whatever it is you’re in to, be it cars, gardening, or 13th century Belgian history, you’re an expert at it. Because it’s interesting to you, so you’ve already done the work to become knowledgeable about it. People love to read material from someone who knows what they’re talking about.

The Martian, Armetis and Cheshire Crossing have all had the rights picked up by movie companies. Why do you think your work has been so appealing for film adaptations?

Honestly I think it’s because The Martian did so well, all my other books get picked up as a matter of course. Studios associate my name with the success of the film. Is that reasonable? I don’t know. But I do know they consider me “hot stuff”. So I honestly don’t know if those other stories deserve a film adaptation or if it’s just residual success from The Martian.

Once the rights are picked up, do you remain involved in the process of adapting for the screen?

Mostly my job was just to cash the check. Though they did send me the screenplay to get my opinion. They weren’t required to listen to anything I had to say. They kept me updated on the production because they’re cool. And in the end, the film is very true to the book, so I’m happy.

Can you talk a bit about your process for researching your books?


The Martian is referred to as your ‘debut novel’ but how much writing had you done before that?

I’ve been writing since I was a kid. The Martian was actually my third full-length novel. So I definitely paid my dues with failure after failure before breaking in.

You self-published The Martian. Is that a route you would recommend to those with ambitions to become a novelist?

I would definitely recommend you try traditional publishing first. A publisher has a whole publicity and marketing department to get your book out there to more readers. But if you can’t get interest from a publisher, that’s okay. This is the best time in history to self-publish. There’s no old-boy network between you and your readers. You can self-publish an ebook to major distributors (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc.) without any financial risk on your part.

What advice do you have for people on how to find an audience for their work?

I don’t know what to say. It’s hard. I got lucky because word-of-mouth worked out for me. But that’s kind of lightning in a bottle.

Is Matt Damon as nice as he seems?!

He really is! He’s as pleasant to the waiter at a restaurant as he is to the President of a studio.

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