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, 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.