About Mario

My photo
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.

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.