The Advantage of a Reader’s Guide for Writers

So, I’m convinced we can learn anything from any source we encounter, especially when we’re not looking for it. The trick is to recognize it as a lesson when we see it or hear it or feel it or taste it…you get the idea.

Monday night, when I finished reading The Martian by Andy Weir (and then watched the movie to see how close it is to the book—pretty close, with a few disasters omitted and a slightly different and modified ending plus epilogue), I didn’t fully close the book until I read through the supplemental materials at the end, including “A Conversation with Andy Weir,” “An Essay from Andy Weir: How Science Made Me a Writer,” and, most relevant to this post, “A Reader’s Guide” because I wanted my money’s worth. I suspect most readers would’ve closed it after reading the final lines, and that’s understandable, as I would usually do the same. And anyone but the avid consumers of knowledge would feel okay with leaving the rest of it on the table because the important part, the story itself, is now over.

But as I was reading through the reader’s guide, being kinda nerdy that way, I realized it was unintentionally giving me a lesson on how to write a novel.

Now, let me be clear that I’ve been studying how to write a novel for many years. I’m not learning anything new per se, just better understanding the lessons I’ve already picked up along the way. But for new authors, or those who are out of practice, or those who are in-practice but still clueless, there is much to learn from reading books on writing. But, incidentally, there is also much to learn in the reader’s guides for novels you might like. You know, learn by accident doing something you already like doing. Win-win. Just figure out early that you’re learning something useful.

Here’s an example:

After finishing with the movie, I started listening to The Story Grid Podcast, hosted by Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl, the episode titled “The Martian and A Christmas Carol,” or simply “The Martian Carol,” as it’s referred to on The Story Grid website, and took some mental notes as they broke down The Martian’s global genre, which is Action Adventure, and its specific plotline, Man Versus Nature. If you look at the first paragraph of the reader’s guide you’ll see the passage,

“A castaway story for the new millennium, The Martian presents a fresh take on the classic man-versus-nature battle for survival by setting it on the surface of Mars—a planet completely hostile to sustaining human life.”

Why is this caption important for the writer? Well, it tells you the genre and plotline right there in the opening line. If you visit The Story Grid website, which is all about teaching writers how to edit their books, you’ll see that knowing your genre is the most important first step in writing your book. If you know what kind of genres your favorite books fall into, you’ll have a better understanding what conventions are needed once you start writing the book of your dreams.

So, considering that, let’s look at some of the reader’s guide questions. Again, these are taken directly from the reader’s guide at the end of The Martian paperback. There are twenty in the book. I’ll highlight the first three to make my point. Very slight spoilers in the questions. Also note that I won’t actually attempt to answer these questions the way they’re intended. Rather, I will briefly discuss why they’re helpful for writers to think about:

Question #1: How did The Martian challenge your expectations of what the novel would be? What did you find most surprising about it?

This is a great question to ask yourself when you finish writing your book because if the answer is “it didn’t” or “er…nuthin’,” then maybe you didn’t try hard enough to write a compelling story. So a good follow-up question might be: What would’ve made the novel more surprising yet natural? Of course, the ideal solution would be to anticipate this question before writing so that you can consider what surprises the reader might find before you write right past them.

Question #2: What makes us root for a character to live in a survival story? In what ways do you identify with Mark? How does the author get you to care about Mark?

More specifically, why should the reader care about Mark? Or, why should the reader care about your character? If we consider Mark Watney’s plight, how he handles it, and whether or not we care, then we can begin to understand what it takes to get us to care about a particular character, including the ones that we write about. Isn’t that an important part of writing fiction: getting the characters to an empathetic state?

Question #3: Do you believe the crew did the right thing in abandoning the search for Mark? Was there an alternative choice?

If we can answer this question honestly, then we can begin to see the consequences of our characters’ choices and how those consequences feed into new consequences, if we’re honest with ourselves and make a decision early on not to take the easy way out. If Andy Weir had been asked this very question before he wrote the book (assuming the story was a disembodied entity just waiting for a book or website to latch onto) would having the captain spending so long searching the evacuation area that she discovers Mark alive and well, though unconscious, be the easy way out? What if she found him and assumed he was dead? Would that still be the easy way out? Would that make the story better, worse, or basically void of the point? Isn’t abandoning the crewmate without certainty of status far worse, and thus harder to write but with a more satisfying payoff, than the alternative, easier choices? Doesn’t that choice give us a story?

Clearly, reader’s guides are handy for writers to read along with the novel itself because they can train authors how to anticipate the questions that avid readers might have when reading their books. Many novels don’t have reader’s guides attached, but for those that do, like The Martian, which is really a fantastic book through and through, as is the Blu-ray version, if you’re an author, I would take a little bit of time going through the questions and answering them honestly for your education. The more reader’s guides you examine, the more likely you’ll ask similar questions for your own books and preempt answers to your readers’ questions.

Just a thought I had Monday night.

And, for the record, I highly recommend reading the book if you like stories about humans overcoming ridiculous odds to survive nonsurvivable situations while exploring places we’ll likely never visit ourselves. But I also recommend you read it before visiting the reader’s guide. It helps to know the story before trying to answer questions about it. Oh, and the movie is great, but the book is better.

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