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.

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.