About Mario

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Born and raised in Los Angeles, Mario Piumetti is a freelance writer of science fiction, horror, screenplays, and nonfiction. He has a bachelor's degree in English from California Lutheran University and an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University. An avid music lover, his work is heavily influenced by rock, punk, and metal. You can contact him at mario.piumetti.writer@gmail.com.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Keeping Your Spirits Up

My family had relatives over for dinner during the holidays and the conversation got around to our latest plans.  I mentioned that I got the week off from my day job but that I was still under pressure to get work done, writing work.  My aunt said something like, "Oh, no, Mario.  What work?  You're on vacation."  Ah, my relatives.  God bless 'em, but they can be a bit clueless sometimes.  If it don't earn a red cent, it ain't work.

This isn't something I've experienced alone.  How many times have you heard people refer to your writing as a hobby, as a way to unwind at the end of the day?  "It's not like you're a real writer like J.K. Rowling."  I've heard it all before from relatives and friends and roommates, and it's a true insult.  If you're writing, you're a writer.  The only time that earning money becomes a factor is when you have to report yourself as a writer to the IRS (that's a topic for another time).

Maybe writing really is a simple pastime for you.  There are writers who never intended for their storytelling to become so fruitful.  However, if writing is a serious endeavor for you, try to maintain your optimism and belief that you will eventually get into print.  Remember that there are crappy writers on the market today.  If their publisher buys their garbage, it's only a matter of time before work of your quality gets noticed.

Or, if you need something more substantial than quality to keep your spirits up, then think quantity.  As a matter of simplicity, I keep my writing material in binders.  Dozens of binder.  Ask yourself, "Does that look like a hobby?"

Monday, December 19, 2011


Never judge a book by its cover?  Don't dis the plot just because of the title?  That may be so, but the title of a story is very important.  And if you don't want to believe that, well, you can go ahead and live in Fantasyland.  Just think about it.  Would Stoker's novel be as attractive if it were called Bloodsucking European Guy?  How about Stephanie Meyer?  You think she'd be a pop culture icon for penning Sparkly, Overly-Emotional Vampires Who DON'T Drink Blood?

Yeah, I didn't think so either.

The title is responsible for establishing mood in a reader even before the first paragraph is read, and there comes a feeling when you've found the right title for your project that fills you with a kind of warmth.  You just know that it works.  Now, we can't imagine Dracula being called anything but.

Nevertheless, finding the right title can be a journey on its own.  I'm not saying that it needs to take up all of your time - something's wrong if you're spending five hours a day figuring the title but only five minutes writing the story - but you need to put some thought into it.  A working title will suffice only until it's time to present the final product.

Don't be afraid to ditch a title you thought was great at the start.  It happens.  The title of my alien invasion novel was, for me, set in stone for nearly two years.  Recently, however, I've felt it's kind of drab and now I'm looking for a replacement.  Also, don't ever - EVER! - make your title so lengthy that no one will easily remember it.  Ellen Bass has a poem called When the Young Geneticist Was Asked, "Aren't you worried about the implications of your work?" with a Toss of Her Sun-Streaked Hair, She Declared, "No, not at all.  I can't wait to fuck a clone."

I'm not kidding.  That's the full title.  The poem itself isn't long; I read it a few times in grad school.  But ever time I'd discuss it with my adviser or fellow students, I always called it "that geneticist poem."  How else was I to remember it?  So my cardinal rule is to keep the title short, no more than ten words.
That said, here are some ideas that might help you on your way:
  1. Quotations: For my alien invasion novel, I used a quote from Ronald Reagan that I thought would fit the overall theme.  You can use a historical reference or you can quote something said by a character of yours.  They do this in movies a lot with Saving Private Ryan, As Good As It Gets and (dare I say it?) Hot Tub Time Machine.
  2. A character:  You make a character's name the title like Stoker did with Dracula.  Other examples are Virginia Woolf's Orlando and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.  The title or nickname of a character works very well too: Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera, Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel or Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.
  3. Place names: Off the top of my head, Dante's The Divine Comedy is a good example with each part relating to a certain place in the afterlife - Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Paradise).  The Road by Cormac McCarthy is another good one.
  4. A hidden meaning: This is a great way to add layers beneath the obvious.  Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead is a good one, relating the zombies (obviously) but also the notion that the survivors are in a state of death as well.  Justin Cronin said that The Passage refers not only to the journey of the characters but also to the world's transition from a living one to a place of death.
  5. An event: The title can relate the main situation of the story such as H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds or Joe Haldeman's The Forever War.
There are some other ways to name a story, but these, I find, are the most common guides.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Back to Basics

I think it's easy to lose sight of which methods work for you as a writer and which don't.  Everyone has a particular way of writing, a certain way of doing things when approaching a project, and sometimes you can forget that.

Ben Franklin, I've heard, did his best writing in the bathtub.  I don't, and I don't use a quill and ink either.  I've always been a computer writer - I just feel more at ease typing, and it's faster for me as well - and I find that my words come out best with loud music playing.  There are only ten bands that I listen to when I write: AC/DC, Aerosmith, Alice in Chains, Eagles of Death Metal, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, Motley Crue, Nirvana, The Offspring, and The White Stripes.  Music has such a profound impact on a writer's productivity that most of us pay almost no attention to, but it's there.  When I want to crank out a few thousand words, these guys help like no other.  I don't know why.  They're just my bathtub.

Now, if the myth is true, imagine Franklin writing out of the tub.  I realized this week that I tried to balance writing with family time, taking my laptop with me when I hang out with my parents or my siblings.  And because I want to be polite, I usually go without the music.  Big mistake.  It's a mistake because now I'm more focused on carrying conversation in quiet.  I'm not that kind of writer.  I'm a writer who needs to be locked up and screaming "Girls!  Girls!  Girls!" along with Vince Neil.

If you feel like you've lost some of your steam, then maybe it would do you good to take a moment or two and reflect on what gets you writing like a madman.  And if you are a writer who works best alone, don't be afraid to let your friends and family know that you need that alone time.  They'll understand.  If they don't, turn the table on them and demand that they try writing your book.  That tends to shut people up.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Character Summaries

If you're working on a writing project with more than a handful of main characters, it's really easy to loose track of who's doing what.  With my alien invasion novel, I've tried keeping an eye on things by marking down what pages each character appears in, but all that really tells me is how frequently they appear.

This week, I stumbled upon a new idea: character summaries.  It's a simply concept.  You mark down the pages that a particular character appears in, and write a few sentences on what goes on with that character from point to point in the story.  Doing this is especially helpful for long projects, saving time that you'd otherwise spend sifting through dozens or even hundreds of pages of material.

Don't worry about going into heavy detail or motivations.  You know what drives your characters.  If there is a change in motivation, a brief sentence on that change will do.  If a side character appears that you think might become important later on, make a note of that in the relevant annotation.

Just keep in mind that it's not a synopsis that you're writing, so you don't need to go crazy on the amount of information you record.  If a few months go by between vignettes for a character, chances are that he or she will have forgotten some of the finer details of that last scene.  Unless, of course, that character has a photographic memory.

Even then, photographic memory or not, you as a writer will want only the bare essentials of each scene.  The summaries have less to do with character development and more to do with how the plot flows.  For example, you don't want to have the first vignette take the character down one road to a particular goal, forget about that goal a hundred pages later and then have him or her go down another path that doesn't logically connect with the first one.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Neglected Characters

My alien invasion novel has fourteen viewpoint characters.  Each chapter is made of seven vignettes, each of these following a particular viewpoint character.  A while ago, when I was starting my most recent chapter, I thought it would have a nice flair of spontaneity if I picked my next set of characters out of a bucket.  Well, it wasn't a bucket.  It was more of an old, plastic water pitcher.

Regardless of the pitcher's material, I recently learned something: picking your next scene at random is pretty goddamn stupid.  Like, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians stupid.  I did manage to make that set of vignettes work, but to be honest, I think I got lucky.

When you have a large ensemble cast like this, it's easy to lose track of them.  I think I mentioned in a previous post that I write down all the pages that each of these key characters appear in, keeping an eye on how long it's been since a reader has spent time with any one in particular.  If you're doing this, good for you.

So you finish a chapter and are scratching your head wondering who to turn to next.  List out all of your viewpoint characters.  Mark next to the names the following information: whether they appeared in the most recent chapter or the one before (don't worry if you haven't seen them for more than two chapters, I'll get to that in a bit), the most recent page number in which they were the vignette subject and the number of pages that have gone by from their last vignette to the end of the story you're at right now, as well as the number of vignettes they've so far hosted.

Now you do process of elimination.  The characters who just appeared in the most recent chapter, ditch them for the next one.  Just give them some time off and let them breath for a while.  And if they've been in each of the last two chapters, then DEFINITELY leave them alone for a while.  You have other characters in your story, don't neglect them.

The characters that have made that first cut, go through them and check the ones with the fewest number of vignettes to their names.  Chances are it's been about a hundred pages since you've let the reader spend time with them.  If they've had only a couple of vignettes, then this is prime time to right a new one that gives them more character development.

The point of this little exercise is to figure out which handful of main characters have been sitting on the bench for too damn long.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Stress Relief

I emailed a friend of mine from grad school to see how she was doing.  She has another year and a half to go before getting her MFA, and she wrote back telling me how stressed out she was with the workload, the research papers she has to do on top of writing and trying to maintain some semblance of sanity (as though there really is such a thing to writers).

I understood and sympathized with her due, in no small part, to the fact that I have been down that road.  Stress CAN kill you, whether you're a grad student or an established writer, but I've got a few tips that might help:

  1. Take one day off from writing each week.  Writing is like any other job, meager-to-nonexistent as the pay is, and like any other job, you need some time off.  Take this day to do something, anything, to regain a measure of control.  If you have bills, use this as a day to pay them.  If you're schedule is out of control, plan your writing objectives for each day of the next week.  If you have nothing at all to do, veg out in your pajamas and sleep in.
  2. Keep a journal and try to write in it daily, even for just a little bit.  I find a journal to be much more convenient than a therapist because you can go to the journal whenever you want for however long you want, and there's no gigantic bill to deal with.  After a while, you can go back to some of your earlier entries and see how far you've come as a writer, how much more focused and diligent you are now as opposed to then.  And don't forget, a journal is a great place to jot down ideas that you can use for later projects.
  3. If you don't have a hobby, find one.  Have yourself a movie night.  Revisit old boardgames.  Take up dancing (with or without your clothes; I don't judge).  Find something you can do for fun that is NOT related to writing.  If you feel like you're too crunched for time to invest into a hobby, you can kill two birds with one stone by setting time for your hobby on your day off from writing.
  4. Break up your workload into smaller portions that are easier to manage.  If you really have to get through a draft of your writing project in one day, go through it a page at a time and take short breaks between pages (depending on, of course, how long that project is).  And try not to rush through it.  As they say in the Army Rangers, "Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast."
  5. Keep yourself physically active.  Exercise.  Play sports.  Get laid.  Physical activity is well known for stress relief, what with the endorphins and all, and it keeps you looking dead sexy for when you speak at a writer's conference.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Itty Bitty Details

Here's a no-brainer: detail's crucial for any piece of writing.  We always hear of the "show, don't tell" rule, of using all five senses to paint a clear image for the reader.  And, speaking for myself, sometimes it's a lot of fun crafting a scene rich with specificity and low on vagueness.

Of course, there are times when details can be a pest.

Case in point: my alien invasion novel.  I was working on a new scene for a character living in Iran.  I had looked up everything that I could about that country.  Currency.  Food.  Television.  I thought I had it pegged down.  Then, quite randomly and by accident, I asked myself, "How do they mark time in Iran?"  It makes sense.  Iran is not a western nation, and there's a lot of northern European influence in the West when it comes to tracking time.  The days of the week, for example, such as Thursday come from "Thor's Day," a Viking influence.  Iran works on the Persian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar that we use here in the United States.  The days of the weeks, the months, even the years are not the same.

Luckily, I was able to fix the problem fairly soon.  I found a calendar converter online.  Put in, say, December 5th and it gives you the equivalent in a variety of time systems.  And because I keep a list of the pages the different characters appear in, I was able to find those portions of the draft that needed alteration in short order.

Small details often get overlooked, but they are important for being another way of convincing the reader to be in the moment of the story.  It's not only how certain characters tell time.  The United States is the only country to officially use the U.S. dollar (actually, that's not true; Panama, Ecuador and El Salvador use it as well).  You're not going to pay for movie tickets in Russia or Italy or Brazil with a handful of Lincoln slips.  Distance is another thing.  Americans are so accustomed to using the standard system of measurement (feet, yards and miles), but reading about a character in Britain loses it's believability if he doesn't use the metric system.

The solution requires no genius-level of intellect, folks.  This is just a friendly reminder: get your little facts down right at the start of your writing so you don't waste time later as a fact-checker when you can be using it to refine characters, dialogue and plot; all those annoyingly important matters.

There's a flip side to this.  Sometimes you can start a project with certain details appearing important, and then finding out that they are actually quite trivial.

Switch over to my outer space survival story.  When you write a man-versus-nature story, it's necessary to know that environment and, in a sense, make a character out of it.  This story set on a distant planet, I sketched out the climate, the terrain and even created a rough food web for different areas.  Then, quite stupidly, I started writing more detailed notes on the plants and animals that the characters would encounter.  This is a waste of time.  Rather than do the Avatar thing and try fleshing out a planet in hyper-detail, I should have concentrated on the characters' spaceship and equipment.

Why?  Why neglect the nature and focus on the technology?  The best way I can explain it is this: take that same man-versus-nature idea and put it in a forest on Earth.  A character doesn't need to know how the wolves around him socialize with each other.  All he needs to know is that they are a threat to him.  They can kill him and eat him.  On the other hand, detailed information on the stuff in his backpack is more crucial because that's the stuff he depends on to survive.

When I was in grad school, we had a visiting professor from USC, a writer named Percival Everett.  I asked him how he knew when he had done enough research and gathered enough information before starting a project.  He said to me, "You just know."  When you approach your work, plan ahead and figure out what material is most relevant to your needs.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


There's a phrase (or some variation of it) frequently tossed around in writing circles: "There's no such thing as bad writing, just bad revision."  As with must other sayings, its popularity is linked to the truth behind it.  First drafts are, in my opinion, the worst thing about writing.  Coming up with something out of seemingly thin air gets me nervous every time, and I don't really think that will ever go away.

Revisions, on the other hand, I have a much better time with revisions.  It's not about creating something new, but refining what you've got.  It's hard work, don't get me wrong on that mark, but it's Easy Street compared to the first draft. 

Over the last few years, I've picked up on a few tips and tricks to make revisions as smooth as possible.  Revision styles and tactics do vary among writers from project to project and across different genres.

First, take some time off when you finish a draft.  Don't plunge back into it right away.  Time away from your work will let you forget some of the exact details of what you wrote, and then, when you go back to reread it, you're able to approach it like any other reader.  A couple of times, when I'm rereading, I'll come across an odd sentence and ask myself, "Why the hell did I write that?"  How much time should you take off?  I'd say about a month.  Taking longer and you risk becoming lazy about the work and putting it off to the point where it never gets done.

You should also read your work out loud to yourself.  Your ears will pick up on errors that your eyes miss.  It's a bit remedial, but I think everyone's guilty of forgetting this.  No, you don't have you read aloud every single time, but each draft should get at least one round of the vocal treatment.  Even sentences that are structurally and grammatically correct can sound very odd when you hear them.

Don't be afraid to show your friends what you're writing.  You're going to have to show someone your work eventually, so you might as well get over that phobia now and save yourself the grief later.  Pick a handful of people who are familiar with your writing, people whom you know will give you honest criticism.  This involves pointing out your strengths as well as your weaknesses.  Give your draft to your feedback group to go over during that month or two you're taking off.  Pick and choose the best pieces of feedback before moving on.  Remember that any critique is merely a suggestion.  There's no law saying you have to follow any of the advice you get.  Of course, if these are people whom you trust, you should be responsive to some of what they have to say.

Also, if you've already sent out work to be published and you've received rejection letters, go through those to see what they have to say.  Some letters are pretty brief and nothing more than "thanks, but no thanks."  Others, however, have a great level of detail in them.  With my short story "Patient Zero," I received a letter from Analog Science Fiction and Fact.  Despite being a form letter, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it included a list of the most common reasons why a submission is turned down.  Analog has been publishing for close to 75 years, so they do know a thing or two about writing.

In the end, good revision rests upon three pillars: maintaining some distance from the piece, being attentive to what you've written and keeping an open mind to the feedback from others.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Finding Footsteps to Follow

I first found an interest in writing in 1997.  Paul Verhoeven turned Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers into a film, the movie Stargate was turned into a television show that would endure for ten glorious years, and a video game company called Blizzard made a charming little thing called Starcraft.  1997 was (unofficially) dubbed "the year science fiction became a black hole and sucked Mario Piumetti into the event horizon."

So, with all this military science fiction floating around, I naturally tried to take a crack at it.  Translation: I totally tried ripping off episodes of Stargate, and luckily I was too shy to attempt publication.

Why do I bring any of this up?  Because writers do not form in a vacuum.  Everyone has someone or something inspiring them.  Shakespeare had his influences.  When writing Paradise Lost, Milton aimed to follow in the footsteps of Homer, Virgil and Dante.  When Octavia Butler began writing, she wrote the characters that everyone else wrote: "a white man who drank and smoked too much and who was about thirty", as she put it.  But eventually, Butler and Shakespeare and Milton, as well as every other great writer, found a unique voice that suited them and went with it.

Nevertheless, a starting point is a necessary thing.  In the Sean Connery film Finding Forrester, reclusive author William tells his protege Jamal: "Sometimes the simple rhythm of typing gets us from page one to page two.  And when you begin to feel your own words, start typing them."  This is one of the pieces of literary wisdom that the film offers to aspiring writers, and that's why I highly recommend it, but that's neither here nor there.

Mimicking someone's style when you're starting in writing helps you in a couple of ways.  First, it gets you in the habit of physically putting words on a page.  Second, and more importantly, as you look around for a style that attracts you, you expose yourself to what's out there in the literary world.  You're not just finding out how to put sentences together structurally, but your absorbing different ideas: the desolation of a dying world in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, change and agelessness in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, single-minded revenge in Seth Grahame-Smith's Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.

Don't freak out if this doesn't happen overnight.  It takes time to read and digest one book, and years to get through a large stack of them.  Speaking for myself, I think it took something along the lines of ten years before I really began developing my own story ideas, and another two or three years to find my writing voice and style.  And it's still developing.

If you don't think you can stand being patient for something like this, then you might want to rethink writing.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Zombie Fiction

It does seem like the zombie apocalypse is upon us, doesn't it?  The Walking Dead just began its second season on television, and the graphic novels are still going strong.  In film, we have Zombieland, Brad Pitt in an upcoming adaptation of World War Z, and George Romero continues directing films about the living dead.  The foreign film market isn't standing idle either with films such as Italy's Eaters.  And, of course, there's the literary world with novels such as Zone One by Colson Whitehead and Mira Grant's Feed.  Even the Star Wars universe has been infected with the novel Death Troopers.

Either the public has a terrible bout of necrophilia, or there's something about zombies that makes us come back for more.  When I think of zombie fiction, I think of a chaotic world with little civilization and an abundance of shambling, flesh-eating freaks, a world in which your best friend is the timeless shotgun and the word of the day on Pee-Wee's Playhouse is "BRAINS!!!"

Zombies play on our fear of cannibalism.  It's one thing to be eaten by a shark or a lion, but being eaten by your neighbor is another level of creepiness altogether separate.  I think people have an innate fear of teeth, perhaps an evolutionary memory left over from when our ancestors were easily prey as well as predator.  And unlike other predatory monsters - vampires, for example - there is no reasoning with a zombie.  It's not some suave European stereotype that wants to seduce you.  To a zombie, eating your girlfriend literally means eating your girlfriend.

The zombie apocalypse also makes for a great MacGuffin for a survival story.  In order to have a good apocalyptic survival story, civilized order and society must break down.  This can happen with any sort of disaster, and it's not restricted solely to the undead.  Hurricane Katrina was a great real-world example of this with the looting and violence that took place in the aftermath.

Disease, zombie plague or not, can be even more alarming.  When watching a documentary on the 1918 Flu Pandemic, one interviewed virologist said: "An epidemic erodes social cohesiveness because the source of your danger is your fellow human beings.  The source of your danger is your wife, children, parents and so on.  So if an epidemic goes on long enough and the bodies start to pile up and nobody can dig graves fast enough to put the people in them, then morality does start to break down."  And, in fact, during the 1918 Pandemic, people were justifiably afraid that it was the end of human civilization.

Why is it that we don't see more pandemic fiction than zombie fiction?  I think it's because zombie fiction can offers a slim chance of survival.  When a disease like the flu is rampant, you can't hide from the germs.  But if the disease is spread from bite-to-bite like rabies, you know that you can be spared by avoiding contact with the undead.  Also, you can't see germs with the naked eye; zombies put a face onto the danger.  It brings about a clear "us versus them" mentality.  Even among the survivors, trust can be a rare thing because everyone wants to live and sometimes that means putting others in danger.

With zombie fiction, we also get a chance to start over.  Stories such as Justin Cronin's The Passage feature colonies of survivors banding together.  Whereas we now live in a world of big cities, civilization retreats to the small town.  In a small town, your relationship with your neighbors is more intimate because they're your main source of human contact.  That's not to say that it's all picture perfect, but the interpersonal contact is much more noticeable.  I once heard about a poll conducted in Los Angeles - the most populous city in the most populous state of the U.S. - and the prevalence of loneliness was surprisingly high even though you're surrounded by millions of people.

That, I think, is the secret to the success of zombie fiction: a simultaneous fear of great masses of people alongside an attraction to small groups of people.  Going back to that poll on loneliness, perhaps zombie fiction is an exaggerated reflection of real life.  We're all surrounded by complete strangers, any of whom can be a danger, but we're seeking out individual survivors in the horde.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Great Unexpectations

When I started working on my alien invasion novel in 2009 (it seems like ancient history to me now), I had the plot organized on a set of note cards that I followed with almost religious zeal.  I'm sure I still have them somewhere.  Obviously, if I say that those cards must be lying around somewhere it means that I've relaxed on the devotion, and you should too.  Plotting and getting scene ideas down on paper before you write is a great thing, but remember that it's just that: stuff on paper, not God's covenant set in stone.

When I began the 9th draft of my novel at the beginning of the year, almost all of it changed since the first draft.  The biggest change was that my cast expanded from two viewpoint characters to fourteen.  I have to write new scenes pretty much as I go along but the broad strokes of the plot remained the same; it's all set in the same story universe, so the major events that occur would be the same for everyone.

I'm writing the first in a series of novels, and the idea was to get everything done in five volumes.  This was back in the days when I had only two viewpoint characters.  Multiplying out the cast would make the first story too large in terms of page numbers, so I resolved to split it into three parts.  The first part, the novel I'm writing now, would end with American fighter pilots shooting down an alien spacecraft and giving us our first look at our otherworldly enemy.

This.  Is.  Stupid.  There are three outcomes possible if I stayed this course.  First, the reader would be blown away by the aliens I'd written and excited for more.  Second, the reader would be disappointed and quit on me.  Third, and most likely, the reader would get tired and give up before reaching the end.

Going back to that soldier in Denmark.  The scene I was writing was originally about him fighting severe civil unrest in Copenhagen.  Literally five or ten minutes before I sat down to write, I changed my mind.  Civil unrest be damned.  The aliens were landing.  This move was completely unexpected, but after two hundred plus pages without seeing the aliens directly, I felt like the reader just had to come face to face with them.

This also meant that my beloved note cards were useless.  The landing of the aliens, as you might expect, is a major event, not some minor change like switching menu orders for a character's lunch.  I still expect to get this first big chunk of the series done in three parts, but now I really have no idea where I'm going.

There are plenty of reasons why it's good to abandon the plot you started out with and move on in a new direction.  Being a war story, my novel now has a slightly added sense of realism.  That is, you've got two forces fighting each other, each doing their own thing in ways that take their opponents by surprise.

Regarding craft, this change of plot has two boons to it.  First, it keeps the work fresh.  If you always know what's going to happen, you risk losing interest and give up.  Or, if you're locked with a long-term project like a novel, you come back to your keyboard with a sense of frustration, saying to yourself, "I know I have to work on this, but it's such a chore."  A writer's work shouldn't be a chore.  It should be a pleasure.

Also, this keeps your storytelling skills sharp.  When you write a plot on paper and stick to it word for word, you don't give your brain any exercise.  By leaving the future and the outcome of the story unclear, even to you, you keep asking yourself what comes next.  You keep exploring the options and making decisions.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Challenges, Collaboration, and Productive Writing

Just the other day, someone challenged me into writing a screenplay, a comedy version of the new movie Real Steel.  I was hesitant at first, but then became enthusiastic as I thought about a variety of wacky scenarios that I could come up with.

Comedians have The Aristocrats, a joke that is part-warm-up-exercise and part-one-upmanship.  The purpose of the joke is not only to shock the audience but to test the comedian's ability to think on the fly and come up with material.  Writers - actually, anyone in any art form - can do the same thing by challenging each other to enter new territory.  For me, it's writing comedy and writing it in dramatic form rather than prose or verse.

Some writers can get too comfortable in certain genres.  J.K. Rowling, for example, has spent her entire career so far focused on Harry Potter.  That's not to suggest that the Potter books are bad, but now, especially with the series completed, what comes next?  Write about Harry Potter twenty years down the road, or move on to something different?  If I personally knew Rowling (I don't), I'd go to her and say, "I dare you to write a detective story.  No wands.  No evil wizards.  A man is found floating face-down in a pond on a golf course.  Solve the mystery."

This exercise, which I would not advise trying to get into print, is very useful to hone one's skills as a writer and to explore potential genres for newcomers.  A guy wants to try being a writer, but he doesn't know what genre he'd like to go for.  He's not a big reader and doesn't have much time to read (that's crap, by the way; as a writer, you have to read).  So someone tosses a random thought: "Jerry, try writing about spies in World War I."

Again, let me emphasize that success is not the goal with this exercise, trying is.  If you start writing something new and find you're enjoying it, then maybe that can be developed into a new short story or a novel, or a screenplay.  But at least have the guts to step outside your comfort zone because you really don't know what writing you're good at unless you try something out.

Collaboration - working with another writer on a single story - is another thing I've thought about over the last few days.  I was talking to a friend of mine in Egypt earlier this week and she suggested that we write a horror story together. 

Imagine you and another writer are playing a game of catch.  The baseball is blank.  You have the first throw and you write a paragraph onto the ball before throwing it.  Your friend catches it, writes another paragraph to build up on what you wrote, and tosses it back.  You catch it, write more building upon what she's written.  The story is continually bouncing back and forth between you two (or three or four, or however many writers you're working with).

This should teach you two things.  First, like the earlier idea of challenging yourself into new territory, you should come up with new ideas.  You should be developing your ability to generate new stories at any moment based on whatever information is given to you.  In short, you're becoming a better storyteller, and this will help make things easier for you in the future when you're working on your own.

Secondly, you should be learning craft issues from your collaborator.  Last week's post on dialogue, for example, I said that I start most stories with a rough script.  I don't think every writer does this.  Perhaps another writer has trouble with dialogue and this is a useful new skill for her to learn.  Turned the other way around, maybe I can learn to stop using the script as a crutch to help me along.

Writing, by its very nature, requires a lot of time spent by yourself, but don't shut the world out completely because you may be missing out on a number of learning experiences.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


For a guy who likes to talk, I sure do loathe writing dialogue, but it's an unavoidable facet or writing.  It's a well-known rule that a writer ought to show rather than tell what goes on, and dialogue is a must-have for this.  No good piece of writing summarizes all of the conversations between the characters.

But there is one major hurdle I see when producing dialogue, and that is the inter-speech text, the non-spoken parts.  The reason this is a problem is because when we converse in real life, there's no pause of exposition.  For example, if I tell my brother, "What are we eating for dinner tonight?" he's not going to wait as an unknown narrator described his thought process.

I'm no screenwriter, but a script is, in my opinion, the best way to get through this.  The trick is to get as much of the spoken words of the characters onto the page as possible.  The inter-speech text is kept at a bare minimum, usually restricted to basic physical descriptions of characters, settings and action; you keep this so bare that you're almost writing sentence fragments.

As you read and proofread the script draft, you'll notice that the pacing of the dialogue is closer to what you get in real life.  Polish up the speech as much as you can, and then go back and fill in the blanks using those sentence fragments as a guide, expanding on them, elaborating on description and whatnot.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Book Series

Writing a novel is hard work.  Characters need to be unique.  Dialogue must flow naturally.  The plot much be both interesting and realistic.  It's a pleasure cruise but without the cruise and, occasionally, without the pleasure too.  Writing a book series only multiplies the problem.

There are some benefits to a sequence of novels.  It could, for example, develop a following and a loyalty among readers.  If a publisher contracts you for, say, a seven-book deal, you know you've got job security for seven books (unless, of course, you're suffering from writer's block; God help you).  Nevertheless, the problems persist.

The first book in a series is the most difficult, especially for first time writers who cannot rely on name recognition to ensure a readership.  In the first book does not catch the attention of the readers, then they won't want to pick up the second or the third of whatever number of installments there are in the rest of the series.

So, on the one hand, you have writers like J.K. Rowling and her debut novel Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (or the Philosopher's Stone, for you Brits).  By and large, it's a stand-alone book, meaning that you can quit Harry Potter and not have to worry about any lose ends.  Because of the warm reception the book received, Rowling went on to add another six books to the series.  Without that positive first response, the publisher would have likely ended Harry Potter right there.  And where would Daniel Radcliffe's career be then?

On the other hand, you can leave lose ends provided that the story is good enough to leave readers wanting more.  Harry Turtledove is probably the best series writer I've ever read because of this.  In the Balance, the first installment of his World War series, has a wide selection of characters from American infantry to Chinese revolutionaries to Jewish holocaust victims to alien conquerors.  Such a large ensemble cast would up the odds of most readers finding at least a few characters to root for.  He gives us a wonderful introduction to a 1940s Earth invaded by richly-developed aliens, has a number of characters endure harrowing experiences, and ends it with one of the characters on a search for his wife.

Speaking for myself, there were certain characters that I did not find particularly interesting, mainly the Soviet characters.  On the other hand, I found most of the Americans engaging, and I kept wondering whether or not the holocaust characters would live or die as the Nazis fought the aliens.  This brings me back to the point I just mentioned.

Another thing that Turtledove does very well is distill each installment of the series to a central event and links these to an arc that covers then entire work.  That arc is nuclear weaponry.  In In the Balance, humans steal nuclear materials from the aliens.  In the second book, Tilting the Balance, the Soviets develop and use the first atomic bomb.  The third book, Upsetting the Balance, has more nations armed with nukes and going to town on the aliens.  Finally, the last book, Striking the Balance, has the aliens confronting this crisis and reaching a stalemate between us and them.  I'm not saying this is the only thing that happens in the series, but it does help to streamline the whole.  This is helpful for a writer to understand because it's very easy to get lost in the details of your writing and lose sight of what you series is about.  Pick a storyline, any storyline, and use it as an organizing principle.

Oh, and, since I'm discussing Turtledove, always...leave...the reader...wanting...more!  Turtledove goes all the way with this rule.  At the end of the World War series, we know that there's more to come; from the first pages of the first book, we know that there are more aliens en route to Earth and Turtledove shows us what happens to these aliens in his follow-up Colonization series.  Even Homeward Bound, the most recent of these novels, leaves me as a reader feeling that there's more to come.  Whether or not Turtledove delivers is, of course, up to him.

I should emphasize, however, that Turtledove did have a bit of name recognition at this point.  By the time In the Balance was published, he was already halfway through his Videssos novels, which began publication in 1987.  While Turtledove is probably best known for his Southern Victory books, these did not come into print until the late-1990s.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Writer as a Polymath

As I come to the end of my two-week hiatus from my alien invasion novel, I've come to realize how close writers are to polymaths.  We're not carbon copies, of course, but we do have our moments.  Like da Vinci, Galileo, Ben Franklin and Asimov, we have to, at times, try to know everything about everything.

This week, I've done research and notes for another novel I have in mind, one that puts the theme of man versus nature onto another planet.  To get all the details right (or as close to right as I can get), I've had to be a planetologist, climatologist, chemist, physicist, botanist, zoologist and astronautical engineer all at once.  Again, I'm no expert, just an inspired amateur, but when you sit back to think about it, you start to see that research for a writer is almost as big an ordeal as the writing itself.  You pile up hundreds of pages of reading material, take thousands of notes, and absorb it all.  And then, when you go to bed at night, you remember that you still have to make a narrative to go with it.

How do you keep your head from exploding?  I don't believe I said anything about your head not exploding.  In fact, whenever I feel worn down by hours and hours of research, I try to remind myself that this will all ultimately find its way to the page.  You know how you bottle up your anger and people tell you to let it out by punching a pillow?  Same concept.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Working Vacation

I was talking to a writer friend of mine in Australia last week and I asked her which among her current writing projects was her favorite.  She told me hers and I told her mine, and I was surprised that my answer was the apocalyptic road trip, not the alien invasion novel that I've been working on for the last couple of years.  Her suggestion was to take time off from the novel and focus on the road trip story.

This is sound advice for any writer who feels threatened by burnout.  We all get it, even with the stories that we would leave our spouses for in order to have an affair with.  There comes a time when you have to say, "I think we should see other writing projects."  This working vacation is not an excuse to do absolutely nothing.  Far from it.  It's an opportunity to give attention to those writing pieces that you've neglected for far too long; for example, a short story that you started months ago and haven't had time to get beyond the first page.

For me, it's a chance to get research done on another novel idea that's plodded along at a snail's pace.  I love to research for stories.  It counts as a measure of productivity and it's always fun to learn new things.

A working vacation also gives you space from your writing that allows you to see flaws you could before when you were too involved.  A while ago, I mentioned that I was working on a detective story.  Almost as soon as I took time off from my invasion novel, I realized that there were huge problems with it, mostly issues regarding setting up the characters and establishing their relationship to each other.  In addition to story research, I'm not taking the time to go back and re-figure the plot for the detective story, which actually might not end up in the mystery genre at all.

If you find you're having similar problems and feel like you drive to write is slowing down, a working vacation might be just the thing you need.  The exact nature of this downtime is up to you and depends on what writing you're doing, but the ultimate goal is to get your motivation back.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Rejection Letters and Simultaneous Submissions

This week, I got my first response for a writing submission.  It was a form letter from Asimov's Science Fiction rejecting my short story "Patient Zero."  Yes, I felt a moment or two of discouragement - who wouldn't? - but then I moved on.  Crying over one form letter from one publication regarding one story doesn't really serve a higher purpose; I sent "Patient Zero" out to other magazines a day or two after getting the rejection from Asimov's.  After all, the letter they sent me wished me luck placing it elsewhere.

While I was in grad school a professor of mine told the difference between a successful writer and an unsuccessful one, and that difference is a large stack of rejection notices.  The writers who do make it have a tough skin calloused enough to shrug off little pinpricks of momentary setbacks.  The unsuccessful ones stop sending out their work after a dozen rejections; they go on to become accountants for writers who do make it.

All you can really do is keep going.  If you can't, then you're going to have a problem.  No book, no seminar, no yoga technique will ever be able to help you as a writer if you don't develop early on the ability to take rejection like a man.  Form letters should be ignored altogether; the only purpose they serve is to notify you that one magazine does not want a particular story.  Personalized letters are infinitely more helpful as they may clue you in to a specific flaw that your work might have.  And acceptance letters...well, if you feel bad about getting those, then you really need to have your head checked.

There is, of course, a limit on how long a story can continue pounding the pavement before it's time to retire.  Here's my little formula: send a story to five or six publications.  If they all reject it, sit back and give it another revision.  Most magazines take about a month or two to response to a manuscript, and that time away from a story gives you the distance to go back to it with fresh eyes as though you're reading it for the first time; problems you overlooked earlier might stand out more clearly.  Revise the story once or twice and then send it out again.  If it gets rejected another five or six times, then it's probably a sign to retire the story and start a new one.

I would also ignore the rule about simultaneous submissions.  A simultaneous submissions is exactly what it sounds like.  It's one piece of writing sent out to multiple publications at the same time.  Most magazines don't like this.  Editors, I hear, are slow to forget this, and I think that's more of a business move than anything else.  They don't want to accept a story and get geared up to print it only to find that a competitor made a deal for it.  However, as a freelance writer, you're job is not to ensure that one magazine stands above all the others.  Your job is to get your story in print sooner rather than later.

As an example, Asimov's Science Fiction responds to manuscripts in about five weeks, and they're one of the quicker magazines.  Some take up to eight months.  That's a long time to wait for a single yes-or-no answer.  In this fashion, a short story can take a couple of years before it's either accepted or you decide to retire it.  Folks, that just ain't right.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Short Stories

If you asked me, say, a year ago how I felt about short stories, I probably would have said that I'd avoid the form like some of the worst evils in history: the Black Death, the Nazi party, the cast of Jersey Shore.  I tried writing short stories in a fiction class as an undergrad and they never seemed to work out.  Everything came out feeling rushed because a short story doesn't qualify as one if it's a hundred pages long.  I've changed my mind since then.

When you're starting off in your writing career, it's very easy to go around saying that you're writing the great American novel (a myth that I plan to debunk in a later post).  You get a great idea for a book and you plunge into it will all the steam you have.  The problem with this is that you're not yet ready to tackle the prospect of novel writing.  Even if you get your book through a few drafts, you have the daunting situation of being an unknown author trying to pitch your work to an agent with no credits to your name.  While agents are in the business of looking for the next big writer, it's still a good thing to have some writing credits to your name so that prospective agents see that you have spent time getting projects finished from initial thought to final print.

It comes down to numbers and word count.  Novels are at least 40,000 words.  Novellas run between 17,500 and 40,000 words.  Novelettes are between 7,500 and 17,500 words.  Short stories are 7,500 words and under, with flash fiction topping off at 500 words.  For the sake of argument and to spare me from strenuous arithmetic (I'm waiting for my mug of coffee to kick in), let's say that I write a hundred words a minute.  At that rate, a novel can take as little as six or seven hours and a short story can be done in about an hour and a half.  Thus I can get through a short story draft sooner, get to the revisions more quickly, edit and rewrite.  In the end, a short story can be ready in about a month, whereas a novel takes years to complete.  Once the short story is done, it can go out sooner to magazines and you get that acceptance or rejection notice accordingly earlier.  The point that I'm trying to make (for those of you merely skimming this post) is that if your work is really good you can sell perhaps half a dozen short stories in a year, building up credibility as a writer so you can approach that agent with your masterpiece.

That works for the business of writing, but there's also a craft issue.  Writing novels takes the pressure of the word count off of your shoulders.  You don't have to be economic with your word choices or the frequency of your metaphors or the length of your descriptions.  With shorter fiction, on the other hand, you still have to write a narrative from start to finish, but with that ceiling overhead.  As you get better at short stories, you learn how to identify stronger aspects of the story and give them attention and development.  This will serve you later on as a novelist because as much as a limitless word count can be a blessing, for the reader it can be a burden.  Just think.  All those really big books with small print and no pictures!  What if it's boring?  Novelists who hone their skills through shorter fiction, I believe, are less likely to bore their readers.  The more you practice with shorter and shorter fiction, the better you'll be.  I have a lot of respect for people who can master flash fiction; I haven't had the guts to try that yet.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Every now and then, a writer has to deal with the issue of a troublesome character, and I don't mean a character with an antagonistic personality.  A character that seems like a great idea at the start of a project might turn out to be a dud once you get into the writing.  I had such a scenario this week while working on my alien invasion novel.  The story features an ensemble cast, characters from around the world showing us the invasion from different angles and viewpoints.  Many of them are in the military and show us what the fighting is like.  Others are in government and political positions with decision-making power.  And a few are meant to show us the invasion from the point of view of ordinary people.

One of these was a waitress in southern California, someone with an ordinary job just trying to get by and make ends meet.  I recently reviewed the progress of the novel, figuring how much page time I devoted to each character and looking for those I had been neglecting, and I realized that this waitress had her last scene some hundred and twenty pages before where I currently am.  She appeared in the story twice and had a total of maybe fifteen pages in all.  I try to give my main characters an equal amount of exposure to the reader.  This character was clearly not in the limelight.  I knew that she had a new scene approaching and I began to ask myself what she would do, and I had nothing.  Waiting tables, sure.  Maybe a phone call to her parents or something.  Definitely nothing important to our understanding of the situation.

A character shouldn't bore the reader.  That character doesn't have to be the most exciting person in history, but at the very least much grab our attention and draw us in on some level.  This waitress, I found, was so disconnected from the rest of the story - not so much the plot, but rather fabric connecting beneath that connected everyone else - that I began to hate her.  I've hated characters before, but never a primary one.  I also began to think that, if this woman was meant to show the invasion from the average Joe (or Josephine, in her case), then she seems somewhat redundant; I already have a similarly mundane character, a priest in Germany who not only shows the war from the main street perspective but also helps touch on the issue of aliens and religion.

Solution: the waitress must go.  This brings the second problem of finding a replacement.  See, I decided that I want each chapter of the book to feature seven viewpoint characters.  I don't want the same seven in every chapter so you need at least fourteen in order to switch from chapter to chapter.  An uneven number like thirteen upsets this balance.  So what kind of character can replace the waitress?  I've got military people aplenty.  I have government officials and priests.  I have a biologist that helps explain the aliens to the reader.  Ah!  I don't have an engineer explaining cool technology to the reader.  This might seem like a shallow character, but with a little bit of thought we can find the potential for something dynamic.

I've seen plenty of movies and read plenty of books that deal with the atomic bomb and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I've seen only one movie about Robert Oppenheimer while he was working on the atomic bomb.  It was called Fat Man and Little Boy, a great film showing Oppenheimer dealing not only with a great technical challenge but also the moral implications of his work.  This new character is something of a 21st century Werner Von Braun.  Von Braun was an interesting historical figure (to me, at least), a scientist who dreamed of building rockets to send man to the Moon.  And indeed he did with his work on the Apollo Program.  However, he also had to live with the fact that, during World War II, he built missiles for Nazi Germany.  Now, humanity will commit genocide in this novel - I won't sugarcoat that - but it's probably the closest thing to a justifiable scenario as you can consider.  The aliens won't give up in their attack on us, and humans will go extinct if they win.  This new character does take some pride in knowing he's giving humans a fighting chance to survive, but I like is the image in my mind of him waking up some twenty or thirty years down the road, looking in a mirror and saying to himself, "You know, when I was a kid, I wanted to build rocket ships like I saw on TV and read in comic books, but all I've really done is make stuff that blows up."  On top of that, there's the dread of mankind winning because as soon as the aliens are defeated - if they're defeated - humanity will just go back to beating itself up.

So what do you get from this exercise?  Well, hopefully, you'll see two things.  First, this should show you that you need to constantly inspect your characters to make sure that they're living up to your standards.  If they aren't, have the courage to tell them that you've had fun but that they need to go home.  Secondly, if you need a new character, you should be able to find one by focusing on something that you're story is lacking.  If I have a story set in a hospital and not one of the characters works in medicine, then maybe I ought to consider writing a doctor or a nurse.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Organic Writing

Organic writing can be a refreshing way to produce a narrative.  It's somewhat akin to stream of consciousness.  The difference is that organic writing involves a small bit of planning, very small.  Most of this is background research to help flesh out the story arena.  As far as plot goes, you generally work off of a basic premise and nothing more.

In my "Priorities" post a while ago, I mentioned that I was working on a story that I described as an apocalyptic road trip.  Research was done in a couple of weeks, the shortest period of time I've ever had when researching for a story.  Even then, the research was focused exclusively on the apocalyptic event (I won't say what that event is; I want to leave some surprises).  Another thing that made this research phase unique from others I've gone through is how broad and general it was.  With my alien invasion novel, for example, the research was done over three months with an additional two months later, and it was primarily focused on details for the alien invaders: their biology, technology, society, etc.  The apocalypse story, on the other hand, left many details up in the air.  Like Cormac McCarthy's The Road, it is not important to know the hows and whys of the end of the world.  All we need to know is that it's set during the end.  We in the audience need to know just enough about how it impacts the lives of the characters.

So research for the apocalypse story took a couple of weeks, a little each night; I probably could have crammed all of it into a single day.  Next, I wrote a short summary on the core cast, the survivors that we would travel with.  I kept it simple with only ten characters.  You never want to bring too many people into a story like this.  A multitude of characters can work sometimes, but not in this case, not when one thing you want to stress is isolation.  For all their humor and smiles, I'm sure the characters on Gilligan's Island would have killed each other in reality.  They just wouldn't be able to stand the same faces over and over again.  Keep the characters simple but diverse.  Write down a few details about each of them (age, date of birth, place of birth, occupation, physical description), but don't write full biographies.  This is an important aspect of organic writing because you want to learn about them as you write, you want to surprise yourself with the details that you discover along the way.  If you think through all the details beforehand, the material will seem stagnant.  Then, as this is a journey story, you get a road map (I got one of the western United States) and draw out the course that they take.  Don't be afraid to let the road wander to and fro, but don't let it wander aimlessly.  After all, the characters still need to strive to go from Point A to Point B.  A thousand-mile detour to Point C makes no sense.  Also, don't expect to follow this path religiously.  As you write, unexpected divergences may arise, though I won't pretend to know what they might be.  As in real life, you should never predict the future when you do organic writing.  You should just try to follow through on the plan you have and take the punches as they come.

Now for the actual writing.  I was going to write this story in the third person, no differently than you'd expect to see in a lot of other writing.  As I researched, I toyed with the idea of letting one of the characters keep a journal so we can look into the mindset of the survivors of this catastrophe.  This is nothing new.  We see it in The Road and movies such as Zombieland or Stake Land.  With apocalyptic fiction, you want that intimacy.  In our everyday lives, we don't struggle through the barren wastelands of a nuclear holocaust, so we have no frame of reference; a survivor relating this experience helps us to overcome this handicap much like when a war veteran talks about this time in combat.  This also makes the writing process easier on you.  Remember, the key thing we want is surprise.  We don't want to know beforehand what's around the corner, and we don't want to know the intimate details of all the characters.  Writing in third person, we would need to know about all of the main characters because we would write from each perspective.  On the other hand, writing from one character's viewpoint gives us a window to look out through.  The narrator doesn't need to be detailed either.  Just have a sense of what he or she is like, and allow that person to discover new things about the people around him or her.

There's one more thing about the use of a journal that brings this a little more closer to the organic aspect of this writing.  Sitting and writing the story in longhand with little other material lets the subject matter bubble in your mind as you move along.  When you write by hand, you have to not think about a deadline because you already write more slowly than you type.  In fact, when you write your first draft of an organic piece, I strong recommend that you do it without a deadline in mind.  As it takes more time to get your words down on paper, you are able to dwell more on the current situation of the characters.  In the rush of typing, you might overlook something and when you need to write the next event, you're stuck and have to think about it.  In other words, your mind and your pen are in sync as you write organically.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Resetting Clocks

Insomnia is a danger to writers that I don't think gets enough attention.  Writers will often talk about the problems of writer's block or research.  Others will say that the craft of writing is a joy but that the business of getting published is a nightmare.  No, in this writer's opinion, it's insomnia and managing time that's the real struggle, and here's how.

It's a healthy habit to schedule your writing each day and goes a long way towards keeping you on track.  However, life does not revolve around a writer's work, but the other way around.  You sometimes have to put in extra hours in your day job.  You might have a relative sick or in the hospital, or you yourself might wake up ill.  When this happens, I have the nasty tendency to go ahead and try to get all of my work done regardless of what surprises have come my way on a given day; there are times when I go to sleep at two or three in the morning.  Now, the next day (or later that morning, depending on how you look at it), I have to wake up early to start on the same amount of work.

I have to sleep eight hours, almost exactly.  If I go to sleep at 2:37 AM, I'll wake up at 10:37 AM give or take a few minutes.  So, ideally, I'll have to be asleep by midnight in order to wake up early enough to start the next day's work.  I know that the solution to the problem is simple, and I'm not going to try and blow it up into something epic when it isn't.

The point that I'm trying to make is that you have to strike a balance between progress and function.  If I end up sleeping the necessary eight hours, I'll be awake enough the next day for work, but I'll have less time to get it done, which means that I'll be up late again in order to catch up.  On the other hand, if I sleep for three or four hours, I might wake up early enough to get my writing done, but it won't do me any good because I'll be too tired to get any writing done, or not done very well.

I remember in college I tried to maintain a load of writing while preparing for semester finals.  I managed to get through my finals, but my writing time was usually from midnight until four or five in the morning; a couple times, I'd be awake for a few days without sleep.  When I went back and took a look at the writing I produced, it was useless, utter gibberish, and had to be rewritten.  Two weeks of writing were wasted.  Don't let this happen to you.  If you're having sleep issues, take a day off to rest up, maybe even two days.  Don't write fiction.  Don't write poetry.  Don't even write a grocery list.  Focus on resetting your clock and then get back to work.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Cross-Genre Pollination

On Friday, Cowboys and Aliens was released in theaters.  I haven't seen it, so please try not to screw with me with comments like, "Oh, my God!  I can't believe Harrison Ford is really Daniel Craig's father!"  I'm on to you, cheeky bastards.  Still, the mental image of adventurous gunslingers chased by high-tech spaceships is a great one and got me thinking about the mixture of genres.  It's something that's had my attention ever since I saw Back to the Future, Part III that mixed time travel with westerns, and at times poking fun at the western.  Moving closer back to literature, we see this a lot with the mash-up novel introduced with Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and followed by a deluge of imitators hopping onto the wagon: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Android Karenina, Little Women and Werewolves, etc.

Done properly, cross-genres can make for fantastic literature and fresh storytelling.  You have to be careful not to overdo it.  If you mix more than two genres, you risk ending up with something mushy and incoherent.  The more genres you try to combine, the more this problem is amplified.  A good way to start is to take to genres that are polar opposites.  Let's see if we can mix romance and zombie fiction.  You've got the intimacy of romance and the bloody gore of the zombie.

First we need to define these two.  What makes romance fiction what it is?  The two basic requirements are the development of a loving and affectionate relationship between two people and an optimistic ending.  Zombie fiction is an offshoot of apocalyptic literature.  It's the traumatic and shocking occurrence of the undead overwhelming civilization.  They each deal with a different level of the hierarchy of needs developed by American psychologist Abraham Maslow (it is sometimes called Maslow's Triangle).  The foundation of the triangle is physiological needs.  Everyone needs food, water, air, sleep; the things that allow us to function biologically.  The next level above that regards safety where the character needs to defend his property or his job.  It's also the level in which characters try to keep from being subdued by the elements, from being subject to disease...from being eaten by zombies.  Once you've established biological needs and safety, then you can go on to love and belonging with friendship, family and sexual intimacy; things that you see in a romance story.  Above that, you have self-esteem and then self-actualization.

Now let's see if a zombie romance can work after all.  The zombie element fuels the setting, the story arena.  It's not set in a world where people churn out poetry and love letters on an hourly basis but rather a world in which you are a menu item.  For the sake of this exercise, let's say that the story begins about six months after the apocalypse.  The first thing we have to do in a romance is establish the couple.  Do they know each other already or have they yet to meet?  In this case, I think the latter is a nice challenge for a writer to try and overcome.  It's tough enough to meet your soul mate in the normal world.  How do you find that same person when the world is turned on its head?  The answer, of course, is simple: coincidence.  In this zombie world, random chaos is the norm, so random meetings are equally mundane.

Our lovers - we'll call them Ted and Angela - meet while scavenging for food in an abandoned grocery store.  Each is part of a different camp of survivors but for now they're trapped in the store as a pack of zombies are lured in by the tasty aroma of rotting meat in the butcher's shop.  Ted knows that chicks dig it when you save them from the undead, and he helps Angela flee from the store.  Stunned that they've found other people, Camp Ted and Camp Angela unite in order to better their chances of survival.  As the story unfolds, they bond over activities such as gathering water or cooking dinner for everyone else; in a setting like this, you know that Ted and Angela won't go out to a club or a movie.  Eventually, for all the bonding that we have between them, there's got to be an event or conflict that threatens to split them apart.  Again, think setting appropriate.  I don't think Angela will care that Ted had a girlfriend before the apocalypse (the girlfriend is probably dead or undead anyways).  Romance stories need some sort of physical intimacy, so I'll have Ted and Angela sneak off into the woods for some, uh, "quality time."  Of course, this is a stupid thing for them to do.  You never go into the dark woods during the end of the world because there's a chance of zombies lurking around.  And in this case, there are.  Ted and Angela are separated as they run from the zombies.  Ted returns to camp, grabs a shotgun and goes back into the woods to retrieve Angela before a terrible fate befalls her.  He kills the zombies in his way, finds Angela and they live happily ever after, which right now is a very relative concept.

This is not a terrific story, but it does serve as an adequate example for our purposes.  Notice that the story revolves more around the romantic elements than the horror ones.  You cannot strike a perfect balance when you cross genres.  Going back to Cowboys and Aliens at the beginning of this post, we ask, "Is this a science fiction western or a western with elements of science fiction?"  In the 1950s, John Wayne starred in a film called The Searchers, considered to be the greatest western ever.  In the film, he plays Ethan Edwards, an ex-Confederate soldier looking for his abducted niece.  Now, imagine Ethan is an alien.  The film plays out exactly the same way, except that Ethan is green and bleeds orange.  In this case, The Searchers is still a western because the science fiction elements do not take precedence.

Monday, July 25, 2011


Time management is a skill that every writer should have a good grip on, especially writers like me who have trouble finding the off switch.  The off switch is the ability to inhibit your brain's ability to come up with new ideas.  I have this problem all the time: I'm working on a story and a new one pops into my head.  I want to do something with the new idea but I don't want to give up on the current one.  As a result, I now have seven items on my writing plate: four novels (an alien invasion story, a supernatural detective story, an apocalyptic road trip and a survival story set on another planet), two short stories (one about vampires, the other about aliens) and a bunch of poetry from my final semester at grad school that await revision.

Some people would look at this scenario and question writing altogether.  Others want to keep moving forward but are afraid that the task is too daunting, like crossing a desert with only a cup of water.  This is a fact.  I know that when I was in college and just beginning to write, I was so overwhelmed by all that I wanted to get onto paper that I would often question whether or not I wanted to do it at all.  Don't worry.  It only looks daunting.  I'll show you how to fix it.  For this exercise, you'll need a pen, paper and three colors of marker.  Or you can read on without doing the exercise.  I'll let you decide.

First, write down a list of everything you've got in the works.  Everything from stories you've worked on for years to those you thought of when you began reading this post.  Now take one color marker (I'll pick red for this) and put a dot next to those that need your attention now.  Use another color (let's say green) for those that can wait for weeks or even months; I'd say years, but the novice among you might freak out at that.  Finally, with your third marker (this one can be orange), mark the items that you want to work on but the world won't end if they're unfinished by next weekend.  With that first marker (red), you've marked you high-priority stories.  With the second (green), you've marked the low-priority ones.  And the third marker (orange) has marked the medium-priority narratives.  I'll use my list to help illustrate if you're having trouble:

 High-Priority Stories:
  • Alien invasion novel
  • Detective story
  • Vampire short story
Medium-Priority Stories:
  • Apocalyptic road trip
Low-Priority Stories:
  • Survival story
  • Alien short story
  • Poetry 

Now it's a matter of using the time in your day to get the most out of this list.  My day job is tutoring for a few hours three or four days a week, which means that I have a good amount of time to be a productive writer.  "Patient Zero," my alien short story, is low-priority because it's finished and out for consideration with a few magazines, so I can ignore it until submission responses come it.  The survival story set on another planet can also wait, as I know I won't get a shot at it until way, way down the road.  In the meantime, I can do a little bit of research now.  Say, an hour a week during my days off (I have a rule that you should take one day a week off from strenuous writing).  Nothing too taxing.  A documentary one week, a news article about the latest planet discovery or browsing a website on how scientists think humans could colonize space.  The point of this slow-paced research is that you're still making progress in the long run kind of like the tortoise versus the hare.  I'll admit now, sadly, that my poetry work will probably fall in the "do it when you can" category.  It sucks, but there's always going to be some piece of writing that will fall onto the back burner.

Now let's take a look at the high-priority stories, those pieces of writing that can't be pushed off until later.  The alien invasion novel is one that I started a couple of years ago.  Because I've invested so much of my energy into it, I want to keep it going, so I'll schedule time for it every day.  The other two stories - the detective story and the vampire short story - need to share time.  I began the detective story about a year ago but have neglected it for some time.  By putting it in the high-priority category, I'm forcing myself to pay attention to it once again.  You have to do that sometimes.  You have to make a commitment to work on a piece.  The vampire short story is also on the list because I like to have at least one piece of short fiction going at any time (I'll discuss my feelings on the short story another time).  The option that I'll take with these two is to simply alternate them.  Tomorrow I'll work on the short story, the next day on the detective story, and switch back and forth between them day to day.

The medium-priority story - the apocalyptic road trip - is something reserved for the evening, it's a mix between a high-priority piece and the slow, relaxed progression of, say, the survival story.  The road trip will be done about an hour a night as opposed to an hour a week, and I plan to write it organically (again, I'll talk about organic writing in a future post).

Before long, I'll establish a rhythm to my schedule that allows me to continue with my day job without burning out from exhaustion, and that's a good thing.  That sort of stability takes away one headache.  I won't have to worry about cramming my stories into one day.  It doesn't matter that I don't work on my detective story tomorrow.  That's what Tuesdays are for.  I won't have to stress over my road trip story when I can work on it for half an hour or so before bed.

Take this to heart, especially the "burning out from exhaustion" part.  Not only is fatigue detrimental to your health, it produces poor writing.  There were times in grad school when I slept for a few hours a night and it showed; I've marked up previous drafts until they were redder than the Soviet Union.