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, February 21, 2012

Do It Better

This is not the easiest post to write.

I've given up on my alien invasion novel.  You know, the one I've referred to again and again?  Yeah, that one.  Before I continue, understand that this decision was not made lightly.  I got the idea for a series (this novel was to be the first installment) in July of 2009 and began writing it three months later.  So to say that I'm putting down nearly three years of work is never something I do on a whim.

My novel changed a lot in the last three years, and so did the concept of the series to follow.  Not all of those changes have been things that I wanted to do, but felt compelled to do.  Certain issues of character took the plot of the greater whole in completely different directions.  The logistics of other plot points crumbled apart.  Ultimately, I've come to the decision that writing a series was not written into my life's script.  A stand-alone book, I think I can do, and I've got ideas aplenty.  But dedicating so much time to a series of an undetermined length, something that grew beyond my control like Frankenstein's monster, that is something that truly goes against the grain of my character.

Now, I'm not going to make up excuses for myself, and I'm not going to waste your time with the minute details of all the problems I've come up against in the process.  What I will say, especially to the writers among my audience, is this: if you have a project that falls apart, DO NOT consider it time misspent.  It is a massive learning experience, that's what a dead project is.  I've spent a couple of years working on this novel, but it wasn't spent sitting on my ass doing nothing.  I've learned a lot about my writing style, my voice, my revision techniques.  I've picked up certain skills and habits that I will take with me as I move on to writing the next story, and you should too with whatever it is you're working on.

Yes, in the short term, it does suck, particularly when you look at all your drafts collected, all the paper and ink used and the long hours that went into it all.  You look at that physical manifestation and think that you've made some pretty big mistakes somewhere along the road.

But if I'm not able to encourage you to learn from your experiences, then maybe a more established name can.  Alan Moore once said, "How good am I as a writer compared to these guys that I like reading?  And you think, 'Actually, I'm rubbish,' and so you try to make yourself a little bit better.  And, if you're honest with yourself, not over-critical -- there's no point in looking everything you do and saying that's rubbish and tearing it up -- but if you can at least be honest and say, 'Yeah, this has got some bits in it that are good.  I could have done better with these bits.  This is not as good as so-and-so who I admire would have done it.  Next time, this is going to be better.'  And you just try to make each thing you do a little bit smarter, a little bit more sophisticated than the thing you did before.  Eventually, people will notice."

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Timeline Charts

I don't know if anyone else has done this before, but the idea popped in my head and it seemed to work out pretty nicely.

After cutting out a few characters from my alien invasion novel, I knew that there were gaps in the story waiting to be filled.  Sometimes, a couple of months of story time would pass by without anything happening.  With some characters, several months of story time would pass before the book returned to them.

Having so much time to spare doesn't work for me, not with my fiction.  After cutting out the weakest characters, I asked myself where could I put in new scenes that give us more character development and narrative.

Now, I'm a visual learner, so I can't just write up a timeline.  I have to see where the characters are in the story.  Enter Microsoft Excel.

Here's what I did...

In the leftmost column (Column A), I marked down the story time in weekly intervals from the beginning to the end.  If your story is shorter, say a couple of months, you may want to give more focus and do daily intervals.  If it's longer and spans a couple of years, weeks are the way to go because while a month is roughly thirty days, a week is exactly seven days.  Don't worry about taking up a lot of space with your timeline chart.  This is a visual aid.  It's not meant to be printed.

At the top of the subsequent columns (B, C, D, etc.), type the names of each of your viewpoint characters.  Now, with each character, go down the column and mark which weeks in your story's timeline they appear in.  Don't worry about getting the specific day down (unless, as I said, it's a shorter time scale).  Just approximate where in the timeline each one appears.

When this is done, go through your chart and highlight those weeks in which no characters appear at all.  Highlighting will make the gaps stand out and allow you to, at a glance, see how much space you've got to work with.  From there, you use your best judgement.  If you see a three-month gap at the end of a year, ask yourself which characters you'd like to devote some of that time towards.  It may be a few.  It may be all of them.

If you have weeks marked down where certain characters appear, try to find a space for characters you've neglected.  I did this with one of my characters a few times because he would have otherwise not been too noticeable in the final piece.

That's the ultimate goal of the timeline chart.  It's a tool to help ensure that you and your readers are frequently touching base with your characters so that none of them accidentally get thrown off to the side of the road, and it's to make sure that you make efficient use of the time scale of your story.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Cutting Characters

My alien invasion novel is an ensemble piece.  That is, there's a group of main characters, each no more or less important than the others.  This is a great way to give your story range.  A single character cannot see and do everything, so there are others to take his place.  However, you have to be careful not to saturate your story with too many main characters, as I've come to learn this week.

The novel had fourteen main characters.  Fourteen different story threads.  I opened the book by introducing each character at the same moment in time on a particular day.  This is called simultaneous storytelling and it's impossible to do in more than an illusionary way.  Each character's introduction has to be given a page at a time and by the time I was done with the last one, the opening of my novel was about seventy pages.

The solution is simple: sometimes you have to cut the fat.  The best way to do this is to look got characters that seem to be holding you back, characters that don't really contribute to the overall story or don't develop in any significant way.  In Harry Turtledove's Colonization series, the character of Rance Auerbach who is on the run from aliens while smuggling narcotics.  I've heard that Rance is an example of redemption in Turtledove's story, but I think the main backdrop of the series is the escalating tensions between humans and aliens, something that Rance doesn't really contribute towards.  If I were to take Turtledove's Colonization series and re-write it my own way, I'd get rid of Rance entirely.

The advantage of omitting such wasteful characters goes beyond just removing obstacles to the flow of your story.  Doing so also frees up valuable page space that can be devoted to the more critical characters.  When I screened out my weak characters, reducing the cast from fourteen to ten, I found that I had cut ninety-two pages!  Those pages can be used to clarify certain points or to return to characters that have too long of a break between scenes.  Fewer characters also means less complications for the reader.  They won't have to struggle to remember so many people.

How many viewpoint characters should you have?  My rule of thumb is no more than ten.  That should give you enough range to cover many different areas of your story while keeping things manageable.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

That Knot In Your Gut

From time to time, I like to look up writing tips online.  It's not that I think I'm an idiot about the craft, but I do like to keep an eye out for some new trick that hadn't occurred to me before.  These tips are always meant to help, but sometimes they can be a pain for me.

For example, I stumbled upon a page on the Writer's Digest website about what opening chapters must do, mainly introducing the reader to the main character and establishing the situation.  My alien invasion novel does not do this.  The first two chapters are one moment from the vantage point of fourteen main characters.  In fact, we in the audience don't know about the aliens until chapter four, I think.

This could end up being a problem.  I understand that.  An introduction running seventy pages or so might not be for the best.  Part of me wanted to trash the whole thing and start over from scratch.  The more rational side prevailed in the interest of not letting a couple years' work go down the drain.

While I could try to incorporate some of these online tips into future drafts, for now, I think I'd like to keep doing things my way.  Who knows, maybe a slow start might be a good way to ease the reader into the story?

Or maybe I should just trash it and start again?

Friday, February 3, 2012

Why Write Fiction?

I had an encounter not too long ago with a fellow I'm convinced has no concept of fiction.  First of all, he said that science fiction and horror were stupid and shouldn't be published (that alone made me want to punch him twice; once to defend my craft and another to defend the First Amendment).  When I asked why he didn't like those genres, he said it was because made-up events and people "don't do anything," which I think is code for "fiction doesn't contribute the way medicine does."

However, even from the less cynical people, the question does arise from time to time.  Why even bother writing fiction?

Themes are like the sun.  If you look directly at them, you'll burn your eyes out.  So you look to the side instead.  You don't see the sun anymore but you still see the glow of its light.  In a similar vein, it's like the mythology of ancient cultures.  No one in Ancient Greece really understood why humans can be full of hate, greed, lust and envy, so they had the story of Pandora's box to explain it in a way they could understand.  Furthermore, if you read, say, ten books about life on a deserted island, from Robinson Crusoe to Lord of the Flies, you're seeing that story in ten different ways because each author has a different interpretation to the subject material, and each interpretation illuminates something about the material that we didn't see before.

In regards to specific genres of fiction, we read them because of personal attraction.  We read romance to remind ourselves that true love exists.  We read horror for the thrill of a good scare, that fun jolt you get the first time you go to the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland.  We read science fiction to understand the benefits and hazards of different sciences, as well as to see what our future may be like.  Comedy makes us laugh.  Erotica gets us off.  Survivalism makes us raw and vulnerable.

In short, we read news and history and biography to stay informed; we read fiction to be entertained.