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, July 24, 2012

Color-Coding Your Outlines

I've begun the outline for the new alien invasion novel.  People tackle the outline in different ways.  Some people use note cards, while others use mind maps in which events branch off of each other like a tree.  And there are some who skip the outline altogether, which isn't a bright idea since you'll end up fumbling around hoping for something to congeal.  I like to list out a sequence of events from start to finish.  The writing then becomes a simple matter of checking things off as I move along.

These outlines can be a mess though.  I think the longest outline I've written was maybe ten pages.  When you have an ensemble of characters, it's easy to lose track of them.  I'll wonder about a particular character and how long ago in the plot it's been since I've touched base with him, and then I have to waste time search for him before moving on.

To fix this, I've decided to highlight the outline with each character matched to a specific color.  You can do this with a real highlighter, or, if you're like me and do pretty much everything on your computer, your word processor should have a highlight function.  It's a real time-saving tip.  If someone's marked as red or yellow or puke, I just scroll up until I find that color, read over what I had them do in their last section of plot, and then continue on with it.  I'll usually try to have it connect in some way with the latest plot point I've written for another character.

If you're a visual learner - if moving around note cards or scribbling through character webs isn't helping - then give this a try.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Maps, and the Possibilities They Bring

Regarding his writing process, J.R.R. Tolkien once said, "I wisely started with a map and made the story fit.  The other way about lands one in confusions and impossibilities." 

I didn't think much about this wisdom until last night while working out ideas for my invasion novel.  Not every story needs a map.  If you're doing a story along the lines of My Dinner with Andre, all you need to know is that there are two guys (dudes, if you will) talking over dinner.  Can you see me writing My Dinner with Andre?  Yeah, I can't either.

But here's what I did do.  I looked up a set of maps from 1898 when my invasion story is set.  I wanted to know how expansive the major countries of the world at the time were.  It's a reasonable thing to do.  If you write a present-day story set in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, you'd look up a map of it on Google or Mapquest so you get an idea of how big the town is and where the roads are, the houses versus the stores or the school.

I didn't find a world map for 1898, but I did find a map of the continents from North America to Australia.  Once I saw where all the countries were, I moved on to what characters I wanted to write about.  This partitioning of the globe had an unexpected benefit.  With with one, I asked myself, "Who in this place would be interesting to write about?"  They don't have to interact with each other.  They only need to be interesting.

The African map stands out as a good example of character possibility for me because I came up with what I think are two really interesting ones.  The first character is a South African guerrilla fighter.  The idea popped into my head because at this time Britain and South Africa were just about to get into the Second Boer War, which helped give rise to the word commando.  Commandos fighting aliens?  Sounds cool to me.

The second character is Winston Churchill.  You can laugh at that.  It's healthy.  The idea of Churchill - old, fat, and chomping on a cigar - fighting aliens is as absurd as Lincoln fighting vampires.  But in 1898, Churchill was a 24-year-old cavalry officer in Sudan.  I don't have to change Churchill himself to get started, only his circumstances.  I'm biased, of course, but I have every right to be.  I'm the writer.

Now I'm not saying that looking at a map solved my story problems completely.  I did have to dig a bit into history.  As far as how the invasion will unfold, I'll have to go back, see where everyone is, and move them around like chess pieces.  But the maps did give me a good starting point and spared me from a lot of confusion.  The same might work for you.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sudden Changes

In my post a few days ago, I said that I was writing an alien invasion story set during the Civil War.  As of yesterday, I've switched that setting from the early-1860s to the late-1890s, clearly long after the end of the Civil War.

Why?  Why the change?  What difference does thirty years make?  For me, the difference is a lot.  This is something I learned from reading Harry Turtledove's World War series.  For Turtledove, it was important that his aliens not be too far advanced in their technology that humans would be overwhelmed.  To do this, he made his aliens some fifty years ahead of mankind in World War II, 1990s material, which was around the time he wrote the first novel In the Balance.

I like this move, and I'm not ashamed to say I've given it consideration for my own aliens.  But the problem is that humanity in the mid-1800s would never be able to combat a foe with jet fighters.  Yes, they had aircraft during the Civil War, but that was limited to balloons.  The idea was to have the story end with America at about a World War I level.  A fifty-year leap in technology seemed to jump way too many sharks for me.  Put the story in the 1890s and you cut that gap in half.

Why do I bring this up?  Why do I divulge any of what I know about writing?  Because I'm hoping you'll learn from it and apply it to your own work.  Imagine the North and the South in an epic battle with aliens wielding machine guns and missiles.  That was a pretty impressive image to me when it popped in my head, but when I got to thinking about it, it wasn't realistic enough.  The turn of the century?  Yeah, that could still give things a nice steampunk element.

My point: whatever cool idea you got swimming in your head like a naked supermodel, put a little more thought into it.  On its own, it could fall like a house of cards, but with some development, it could be the start of something fantastic.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Research and Other Fuckery

First of all, I'd like to explain my long absence from this blog: no, I'm not dead.  I've been picking at my brain trying to figure out how to un-fuck the problems I've been having with my novel, and then I dived headfirst into prep work for it.  As I try to get back my blogging mojo, I thought I'd drop you a quick note on the wonders and pitfalls of that one unbelievably fucked up and yet still vital aspect of pre-writing: the research.

A day or two before I started this latest research binge, I had a chat with a friend of mine from college.  I clearly remember him saying, "Research?  You used to research the bejesus out of things."  This is true.  I have a hard-on for research and one would think that I'd found the brain version of Viagra.

Research is important for the writer.  You need that knowledge to give credibility to your story, or rather you story world.  There's a scene from the Billy Crystal movie Throw Momma from the Train where a writing student read from her war story set on a submarine.  I'll never forget what she said: "'Dive, dive!' yelled the captain through the thing.  So the captain pressed a button, or something, and it dove."  Even Billy Crystal's character said you should know some submarine terminology if that's the setting.  Does it have anything to do with the story?  Probably not.  But if Gene Hackman or Denzel Washington didn't know what an emergency action message was, Crimson Tide would have lost some of its luster.

Now, that being said, I do think there is a point where you can ease your foot off of the pedal.  For example, the invasion story I'm writing is set during the Civil War, and God knows how tempted I was to research to the gills on that, but I didn't.  Railroads, for example, were largely left to my imagination because I don't have a lot of scenes set on trains, and those that are don't go into heavy detail on locomotives.  Trains were vitally important during the conflict, but I doubt many of the guys fighting for either the North or the South knew how they worked.  All they needed to know - and for my purposes, all I need to know - is that trains were important.

Also, don't be afraid to take some liberties with your research.  For example, looking into the different armies of the Civil War (the Army of the Potomac, the Army of the Shenandoah, etc.), I found out that a lot of these armies got disbanded and absorbed into other, larger units that themselves were constantly changing.  Finally, I said to hell with it.  If Robert E. Lee had a certain number of corps and divisions at Gettysburg, then that's what he's got throughout my story.  And if Civil War buffs want to cry foul, let them.

Research is an invaluable skill for a writer, but you have to know when to prioritize what you need and what you can fool around with.  It takes practice to figure out this distinction.  In the meantime, while you do work your way towards that mastery, always remember to take deep breaths and keep your head on straight.  Otherwise, the reports of your brain-death will not be greatly exaggerated.