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, 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.