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, August 28, 2012


When writing is slow and the weight of the world gets me down, I watch Orange County.

There's a part in this film that strikes me more than even the greatest of Oscar winners.  Colin Hanks's character, Shaun Brumder, has a meeting in the second half of the film with his literary idol, Marcus Skinner (played by Kevin Klein).  During the discourse, Shaun says, "I want to be a good writer, Mr. Skinner, but I'm just afraid that if I don't get out of Orange County, it's never going to happen."  Skinner says the most uplifting of responses: "You don't have to be afraid of that, Shaun.  You are a good writer."

My alien invasion novel fell through again, and the result has been another in a string of depressing nights.  But watching that scene always stirs a bit of hope in me.

Every writer wants validation.  We want to know that there are people out there who connect with our work.  Accuse me of spinning cliches, but it's more valuable than gold.  Like Shaun Brumder, I'm scared that I have no future as a writer, and the fear makes me question my devotion to the craft entirely.  But now - literally, just a second ago - I thought back on the writer's fair this last weekend, about the Confident Writing seminar.

Writers write because they enjoy telling stories.

You want to call me a cliche?  Go ahead.  You want to say I'm some Hallmark card?  That's your prerogative.  But I know I have an advantage in that such words are true.  The only reason I torture myself the way I do over my work is because I want to ensure that it's the best that I can possibly give.

So, to all those who stumble upon this - from the U.S. of A. to Russia to that lovely, arid landmass called Australia - don't give in to your fear of being a writer.  I sincerely believe that everyone has what it takes to make it.

And if you're one of the nay-sayers who cries "bullshit", go fuck yourself.  What have you created lately?

Sunday, August 26, 2012


In case any of you wondered what it was I wrote at the Forging Creativity into Fiction Craft seminar at the UCLA Writers Fair, here it is.  It isn't Pulitzer Prize material - I scribbled it on the back of a page - but I still felt pretty good about the burst of inspiration I had while writing it.  I just hope I can tap into that again in the future.

Enjoy, or tear apart.  This was really just a quick ten-minute assignment...

I looked down at Samantha.  She was shocked as though I'd just finger-banged her cat.

"Why do I have cheese in my pocket?" she asked.

I shrugged.  "I dunno.  What else have you got?"

Samantha sifted through her pocket, taking out each item and examining it.

"Lint, obviously," she said.  "My car keys, your whiskey flask -"  She paused to take a deep swig of it, and then tossed it back empty to me.  "- and this cheese."

I looked at her hand and saw a long, soft cheese stick white and fat like a termite queen.  It was strange since she: A) was allergic to cheese, and B) hated even the sound of the word.

"Maybe it's a new sex toy?" I said.

"Yeah, that's it," she said.  "I got tired of banging my husband, so goddamn CHEESE is the next best thing.  Jesus!  I'd turn lesbian in a heartbeat and hook up with Bea Arthur's corpse before sticking this thing in me!"

2012 UCLA Writers Fair

Today, I went to this year's writers fair at UCLA.  I got there a little late, sure, but it's Sunday.  What sort of people get up early on a Sunday?!

No, no.  It was a good event, lots of fun.  I had planned on going to four of the seminars, but my tardiness forced me to drop the first one.  It was on the basics of fiction writing anyways, and If I needed to sit through another lecture on why plot and character are important to a story, then I figured I had no right being at the fair at all, or even being a writer.

But the other three seminars were good ones, and I wanted to share what I learned from them.

Writing Your First Novel:

This panel, chaired by Antioch alum Eduardo Santiago, consisted of writers sharing their "I lost my novel virginity" stories, giving the audience pointers on what they could do to prepare themselves for the rigors of novel writing, as many of them had yet to start on their great works.

The biggest advice was that the book needs to reach its end.  Fame and fortune are not the ultimate goal; just getting to the finish line is.  One problem that first-time writers have is that they don't plan out their work in advance, the common thinking being that such planning stifles the creative flow.  The truth is the exact opposite.  Craft, tools, and techniques allow your brain to focus on creativity and inspiration so you can put the bulk of your energy into figuring out what that next sentence should be about rather than how to put it together mechanically.

Also, the first chapter is one likely to end up in the garbage because the characters and the novel as a whole will change so much that by the end of your draft, the final chapter will tell you what the first chapter should really be about.  And don't have an agenda or some great master plan, or you'll back yourself into a corner.  Instead, boil your themes down to a couple of broad words, then develop from there.

As far as what writers should physically do, the consensus of the panel was to devote at least one hour a day to writing, maybe two hours a day on weekends.

Confident Writing:

I was surprised to learn here that no writer really has confidence, even the pros.  The point of this seminar was to find what motivates a writer to produce work.  Unsurprisingly, the answer was because writing makes us happy.  One of the panelists, a man named Daniel Jaffe, had actually left a lucrative law career to become a writer.  No one denies the doubt, and everyone accepts that writing is a kind of socially sanctioned mental illness, but in the end, we continue to write because we derive a rewarding sense of fulfillment from it.  And if your family doubts your prospects as a writer, it's not because they think you suck; it's because they're worried you won't be able to support yourself off of it.

The discuss then turned to the critics and the rejection letters that we all must put up with.  Rejection letters are part of the job.  Accept it.  The key test of a writer is being able to bounce back from those moments of pity.  If a magazine sends you a rejection notice, it's not because you lack talent.  Most of the time it's because your story hasn't drawn out the right editor.  If you do get published, and you get a bad review, try getting some perspective on the matter.  If it's one critic's review, then it's one person's opinion on your work.  Try to gauge the pulse of the wider audience, and then motivate yourself to proving that jackass critic that you are a good writer.  Even the thought of your audience can be daunting, so aim smaller and try pleasing a small group of people with names and faces.  Then take it from there.

One more thing stood out in this panel for me, and it was a story that Daniel Jaffe told us.  He described for us a trip he'd taken to Argentina where he met a man whom I think said he survived the Treblinka extermination camp during the Holocaust.  This man said he saw the words "writing survives" on a wall.  If nothing else, you should be motivated into leaving behind someone for others to read and enjoy.

Forging Creativity Into Fiction Craft:

Originally, I'd planned to stay in the room where Confident Writing was held for a seminar about writing and balancing a day job, but I stepped outside to check a voicemail and came back to find the room packed with people.  I didn't want to stand for an hour.

This was a very hands-on seminar, and I didn't have much time to jot down notes.  There was a short writing assignment in which we each had to pick between two pictures - a man or a woman - give them a name, list the contents of their pockets, and describe their current problem.  Then we had to write about them or give them a monologue or a scene between them and some other random character.  Mine had the woman wondering why she had a cheese stick in her pocket, and a friend of hers suggesting that it might be some new kind of sex toy.

Confident Writing talked about reacting against negative feedback, but this seminar was the opposite, encouraging writers to focus on their strengths.  Some of us, including me, volunteered to read our brief assignment and got instant feedback on what worked; I was happy to know that my heroine was described as being opinionated and lacking an abundance of bullshit.

That's the main thing the panelists emphasized.  In a workshop, the flaws of a piece are pointed out, and that's find in order to iron out some of the glaring problems.  But if that happens too often, you'll focus more on avoiding what you shouldn't do and overlook the things you got right.  For example, in this short writing piece, I knew that the non-dialogue prose was anemic and needed more.  If someone told me that in a workshop, I would fixate on the problem and not worried enough about developing the witty female protagonist.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Even Eagles Die

I'm sitting out on the third floor balcony at the Barnes and Noble in Glendale.  Walking here from the parking structure, I looked up and there it was: the Moon, dull grey like a pearl stuck in the clear blue afternoon sky.  A thought came to me: people have been there, to another world.  They've gone, planted flags, and walked along its surface.

Neil Armstrong, the first man to go to another world, passed away today at the age of 82.  His death struck me in a way that I felt numb, cold in sunny southern California as though I might as well be on the Sea of Tranquility where he landed in 1969 with Buzz Aldrin.  Armstrong's death is as profound to manned spaceflight as John Lennon's was to music.  Few people make it as astronauts, and among those who do, fewer still have ventured farther than Earth's orbit.

Armstrong's death resonates with me on a deeper level than that of a science fiction writer.  It's too easy and cheap an excuse to say that my sadness comes because I write about space.  I certainly never felt this grieved over someone I've never met or even seen in person.

Gene Cernan was the last man to physically touch the Moon when he and Harrison Schmitt landed during the Apollo 17 flight in 1972.  In those forty years since, the only sign of man's presence has been what we left behind on the lunar surface.  Enviously, I would ask my parents what it was like to wake up in July of 1969 to Armstrong's landing.

That's why Neil Armstrong's death is such a big one to me: envy.  In my life, I've never seen a live broadcast from the Moon.  As things are, the prospect of a landing on Mars seems bleaker like a promise made and broken again and again.  My generation has no great explorers, the job taken over by robots.

I'm not naive enough to believe that humans should return to space merely to fulfill an emotional indulgence.  Even during the 1960s, when planting flags was what everyone saw, the goal wasn't just to amaze the world, but to say we were here before Comrades Khrushchev or Brezhnev.  Still, I'm hungry, and I think my peers are.  We're ready to sink our teeth, dig in, and carve our own piece of history.

In the meantime, I hope that Armstrong has landed on another Sea of Tranquility.

Truby's Plot: Allies and Opponents

Allies and opponents are really two separate parts of Truby's plotting method, but in a story like Fully Metal Jacket, with so many grey areas, I might as well get both knocked out at the same time.

There are five kinds of characters.  First, obviously, is your hero, your protagonist, your main character, whatever you want to call it.  Then you've got the opponents whom are fighting your hero over something of value.  The allies are those characters that are helping your hero.  Next is the fake-ally opponent.  This is a character who looks like a friend of your hero but is actually working for the opponent.  Conversely, there are fake-opponent allies who might seem to be against your hero but are actually trying to help.

I love the fake-ally opponent and the fake-opponent ally because they represent the grey area of characters, and you're never quite sure whose side they're really on.  Truby says that the fake-ally opponent is more useful in fiction because it gives more power to the main opponent, and when the spine of your story is about the hero overcoming that opponent, a more powerful enemy presents the reader with greater drama.  Speaking for myself, it is this rarity that makes the fake-opponent ally much more appealing, a character used rarely enough that the audience is surprised by its presence.

So we already know that Joker is the hero of Full Metal Jacket.  Let's see if we can categorize the other characters.

Let's start with the opponent since that's the other character you must have.  You might think that Hartman is the opponent in the Parris Island section because he's such an antagonistic hard-ass, but it's actually Vincent D'Onofrio's Pyle.  After all, Pyle is the only one who actually kills in Parris Island, snaps and becomes a psychopath.  Similarly, because you have to dig beneath the surface to find the connective tissue between the two halves of Full Metal Jacket, once you realize that Pyle is the hidden opponent at Parris Island, you have to find the corresponding counterpart in Vietnam.  The Vietnamese?  No.  They're more of a background opponent.  The real opponent in the film's second half is Animal Mother, played by Adam Baldwin.  He's a callused racist who enjoys killing way too much.  I think he's Pyle had Pyle lived through the first half of the story.

Now, going back to Hartman, can you guess what category he falls under?  That's right, the fake-opponent ally.  Hartman is not trying to run his trainees out of the Marine Corps, and clearly states from his first scene that he is there to instruct them, to get them ready to survive combat.  The second half doesn't have either fake opponents or fake allies, but that's okay because such characters are not necessary, even though they add flavor.

The allies are much easier to find.  Just ask yourself who is Joker friend's with?  In the first half of the film, that is clearly Cowboy.  I suppose you can say that Snowball is too, but he's such a minor character that we really never find out whose side he's on, but the general assumption is that he's at least neutral, neither hating nor caring about Joker.  Cowboy appears again in the second half of the story, maintaining his friendship to Joker, and added to Joker's allies is his fellow reporter Rafterman, as well as other members of the Lusthog Squad, though for me Eight Ball stands out the most, probably because he and Animal Mother have such a pronounced relationship.

Again, don't assume that you have to have all five character types in your story.  The only ones that you do need are the hero and the opponent.  Whenever you hear of "man versus society" or "man versus man" or "man versus nature", the second part of that "versus" is your opponent.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Truby's Plot: Desire

Continuing with Truby's plotting method with Full Metal Jacket as our example, after weakness and need, the next essential step is desire, which doesn't take rocket science to understand.

Desire is what your hero wants.  Just as every sentence requires a subject and a predicate, a story should, if nothing else, feature a hero wanting something.  Kurt Vonnegut said, "Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water."  If there is nothing that your hero wants, then there is no story, no journey from Point A to Point B.  If I want a glass of water, the journey involves me getting up, going to my kitchen, finding a cup, and pouring the water.  That's a story.  A lame story, but a story nonetheless.

What is Joker's desire in Full Metal Jacket?  I think in both parts, he really wants to survive.  Clearly, once he's in Vietnam, he wants to get out of the war alive, but even at Parris Island, once he realizes how brutal Hartman can be, Joker wants to get out with his sanity intact.

The idea of mental survival in addition to physical survive is an interesting one to me, and I think it's more important in a good story than just the physical side.  If you look at any story involving survival, you'd be hard pressed to find one in which the hero emerged without some psychological scar.  That's probably because survival has to be a tough, harrowing experience.  It's a struggle between life and death.  If a character gets lost in the woods for a week, and comes out to return to business as usual, then there wasn't that much of a struggle, was there?

If you want a good example of mental survival, you might want to check out the Tom Hanks film Castaway.

The Liebster Award

Have you ever heard of the Liebster Award?  Yeah, I hadn’t either, but my friend Laura nominated me for it through her blog Isolated Thunder.  After doing some quick research, I’ve found that it’s less of an award and more of a platonic Valentine between bloggers – a bloggentine, if you will.

I think it’s ultimately meant to let people know about some of the worthwhile blogs out there, and to give readers a chance to get to know the bloggers they follow.  The Liebster Award is given to bloggers with less than or equal to 200 followers, and there are rules attached to it, a sacred code passed down through the centuries.

The Ancient Code of Liebster (The Rules):

  1. If you are nominated, you have to post eleven facts about yourself.
  2. Whomever nominates you does so with eleven questions for your to answer, and, in turn, you come up with eleven questions to be answered by the bloggers you’ve nominated.
  3. Nominate eleven bloggers you think deserve it.  Tell them that you’ve done so, give them a chance to participate in this, but you can’t re-nominate the person who nominated you.  The people you nominate must have no more than 200 followers.

Blogs and Bloggers I’ve Nominated (Not eleven, but I tried):

April Jones (http://aprilkjones.blogspot.com/)
Ashley Perez (http://artscollide.blogspot.com/)
Alan Carl (http://alanstewartcarl.blogspot.com/)
Jamie Moore (http://mixedreader.com/)
Kristen Forbes (http://krissymick.blogspot.com/)
Lee Stoops (http://leestoops.com/)
Maggie Melo (http://guestservicespy.tumblr.com/)
Robert Egan (http://spacecadeteganallinclusive.blogspot.com/)
Wendy Dutwin (http://www.limelightmedia.net/blog/)

Facts about Mario Piumetti:

1...I have a terrible fear of heights.  I mean, a real fear.  I sometimes have trouble using a ladder.

2...If I had a theme song, it would be Night Prowler by AC/DC.  It's kind of slutty and classy at the same time.

3...I love to cook, especially with eggs, mustard, and barbeque sauce.  A couple of times, I've actually thought about writing a cookbook.

4...In spite of my cynicism, I believe in love.  It's rarely the stuff of fairy tales, but when you find it, it must taste like that perfect glass of whiskey.

5...Chameleons are my favorite animals.  They're so bizarre and freaky-looking, and yet every part of them makes sense.

6...For the first year or so of grad school, I barely talked to anyone.  In fact, I was so isolated, I was nearly expelled.

7...As much as I love science fiction, I've never been to a sci-fi convention.  In fact, I don't think I've been to a convention of any kind.

8...I suffer from insomnia a lot.  You might think being awake for hours on end leads to time to be productive, but it's mostly time staring at my ceiling.  The only good thing about it is that I get to see sunrises.

9...I miss college not because there were missed opportunities - well, yes, there's that - but what I really miss is spending time with my friends.  I don't see them as much as I'd like to.

10...Chevy Chase annoys me.  In grad school, I stayed at a hotel where he was filming something as Clark Griswold, which was a major inconvenience to the hotel guests.  Finally, I asked, "Can't he film his death scene already?"

11...When I was a kid, I was not a very big reader, which is something you don't hear a lot from a writer.  I was very much hooked on TV, and I don't think I really got into books until late in high school.

Laura’s Questions:

1…What motivates you?

Reading someone else’s work.  When I finish a really good book, I want to know how that writer felt seeing it put to print.  Reading bad writers also helps because if you’ve got more skill than them and they got into print, then you’ve got some chance of success.

2…What are you proud of?

I think getting my master’s is what I’m most proud of, even though they say an MFA is useless in today’s world.  It takes a few moments for me to process it when people say how happy they are for me.  For example, every fall I go back to my alma mater for a reunion with the English Department, and a lot of my professors tell me how proud they are of me.  I’d ask them, “Why?  You guys are PhD’s, and I’m an unheard-of nobody.”  The response would always be along the lines of, “Yeah, but you stuck it out to the end.”  They’re right.  Getting an MFA isn’t easy.  For two and a half years, I thought about quitting at least once a week, right up until the final days.

3…What is your current work-in-progress about?

Right now, I’m working on a novel about soldiers in the future born only to fight humanity’s wars.  No, wait.  I'm writing about a zombie plague.  No, no.  I mean, a robot rebellion.  Fuck.  I really have no idea what I'm doing.

4…Do you have anything in particular that you do, music that you listen to, incense burning, or any other thing that is part of your writing mode?

Sometimes I’ll listen to music when I write.  When I do, I can only listen to ten bands: AC/DC, Aerosmith, Alice in Chains, Eagles of Death Metal, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, Motley Crue, Nirvana, The Offspring, and The White Stripes.

5…What writer has had the most influence on your own work?

If I had to pick one writer, it’d be Robert Buettner.  He’s a fairly recent author whose first book Orphanage came out in 2004.  Reading it was like having my heart struck by lightning.  I’ve read great books over the years, but Orphanage convinced me to take my own writing seriously.

6…What do you like most about yourself?

My dick.  Now, that sounds crude at first, but I’m referring to my figurative one.  I like how there are times when I can say what’s on my mind without hindrance.

7…Is there anything you’d like to learn at some point, like a hobby?

I’d love to learn how to fly a jet airplane.  Going faster than sound must be a thrill, but not everyone has a jet.  More mundanely, I’d probably want to learn how to play the electric guitar, or any guitar.

8…How old were you when you started writing?

The first time I did any creative writing was in seventh grade, so I must have been thirteen or fourteen at the time.

9…Are you happy with where you are in life now?

Actually, I’ve very unhappy with my life right now.  I thought it would have been completely different than what it is now.  Maybe it’ll get better.  Maybe I’ll wake up and it was all a bad dream.

10…If your house was on fire and you only had a second to grab a couple of things, what would they be?

My laptop and my flash drive.  All my writing is on those two, and losing that would be like losing myself.

11…Is there a story you have been hesitant to tell, and will you ever tell it?

There are a few.  I might tell them.  I might not.  If I do, they’ll come out through my writing.  Writing is like therapy for me.

Mario's Questions for Nominees:
1...What do you imagine your older self, ten years from now, saying to you?
2...What would you do if you woke up tomorrow illiterate?
3...If your favorite author asked you for advice, what would you say?
4...Has your creativity ever hit a wall?
5...If you had to lead people in group therapy, would you fear for them?
6...Do you feel that your writing is a choice or a compulsion?
7...Who do you think really shot first, Han or Greedo?
8...Has someone ever said or implied to you that being a writer was a waste of your life?
9...If you see a light at the end of a tunnel, do you think it's Heaven, Hell, or a train?
10...What do you hope to leave behind in the world?
11...You're writing your autobiography and have to pick a song for the title.  What song would it be?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Calm the Fuck Down

Jacqui, a writer friend of mine from Massachusetts, is a wonderful bottle of state-the-obvious.  Recently, she said, without sugarcoating it whatsoever, that I needed to get some sleep.  And she's right.  I'm easily a week behind on sleep.

Here's the argument that many writers, especially struggle first-timers, give: "I can't sleep.  All that time spent sleeping could be used for writing, which means I can finish my story sooner, get it out to agents and publishers, and, hopefully, launch my career."

I understand the logic in that, I really do.  But there's one fundamental flaw with: it's completely wrong.  Sleep and rest are essentials that cannot be brushed off.  When you're resting, you're not sitting on ass and being lazy.  Far from it.

What would happen to your car if you had it running constantly?  Let's omit the gas stops because it doesn't take long to fill up a tank.  Let's pretend you ran that car for sixteen or twenty hours a day.  Eventually, it'll get run down and cease to function.

Your brain works in a similar fashion.  There have been times when I've written whole poems on very little sleep, running almost on automatic, but my physical needs took over in the end and I would crash on my bed.  On top of that, in my experience, the longer you go without sleep, the more exhaustion builds up in your system and more time is needed to recover from it.

Does this sound repetitive?  Have you heard this before?  Good.  Because unless you take the advice to heart, I'll always be vocal about it.  And I'm not saying that I'm perfect because I just admitted that I'm burning out too.

Now speaking for myself, I'm ready to move forward and start my novel.  The plot notes are done and everything.  But I feel like it would be better if I recharged my brain and went into the writing fully refreshed.  In the meantime - I don't know - maybe I'll listen to some music, do a little short story work, or catch up on my search for a teaching job.  Lord knows I haven't been as diligent on that as I should be.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Theme vs. Plot

I finally finished my plot notes for the novel.  I'd spent the last few days on it - almost a whole week, I think - and then I redid it again this morning.  Actually, I shouldn't say that I redid the plot, but instead I trimmed the fat.

The novel was originally envisioned as a two-part story; the first part covered the training of futuristic soldiers, and the second showed those soldiers in combat.  Again, it seemed to play on my recent obsession with Full Metal Jacket, which has that same broad layout.  To remedy this, I went back and expanded the plot to have five parts that followed the hero almost through the entire war in the future.

But last night, shortly after finishing the five-part version of the plot, I found this to be unsatisfying.  Two of those extra parts seemed redundant - I had three large sections devoted to fighting when one was good enough - and there was a section that felt dedicated towards why the soldiers are fighting at all., which felt as much a hit on the head as the History and Moral Philosophy sections that Heinlein wrote in Starship Troopers.  I'm not saying that it's not important for soldiers to know why they fight, even if it's on the basic level of survival, but I think this can be woven throughout the narrative rather than bunched up in one corner.

Ultimately, what I found unsatisfying about the five-part version was that I felt it sacrifice thematic material.  The central theme of my novel is violence and finding a sense of identity through it.  As a writer, getting through that is my top priority.  I already know that I have to fight to get my reader's attention to begin with.  If they see a book a thousand pages long, they might get turned off by it before they look at the first page.  But if I can get my point across, tell a good story, and do it for several hundred fewer pages, then my chances of success have greatly improved.

If you have a story that spans a great length of time, focus first on your theme, whatever it may be, and don't be afraid to leapfrog over the other stuff if it serves no great purpose for your narrative.  Saving Private Ryan was a great story, but the whole thing would have dragged on and on if we had to watch Tom Hanks and the rest of the cast going through Salerno or North Africa rather than jump to Normandy.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Truby's Plot: Weakness and Need

No need to mince words.  I assume you've watched Full Metal Jacket.  If not, well, as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman would say, "Watch it now, numb nuts!"

I did forget to mention one thing. Because Full Metal Jacket is basically two stories back-to-back reinforcing each other, I'll explain how the plotting method works in both halves.  And because there's no pot step for the hero, I'll come out and say that the story's hero is Joker, played by Matthew Modine.

Let's start with the seven key steps I laid out in my last "Truby's Plot" segment: weakness and need.  As I said, it really should be called weakness, need, and problem.  The problem is the hero's crisis, the dilemma that must be overcome.  In Parris Island, Joker's problem is that he has been drafted into the Marine Corps.  In Vietnam, he's been deployed to the war.

Next comes the weakness.  The weakness is something that the hero lacks, something that keeps him from moving forward.  It doesn't necessarily keep him from solving the problem, but it does make it more difficult.  Joker's weakness throughout the film is that he is a nonviolent person.  This is extremely clear at the start of recruit training, and even later on during the Tet Offensive, he tells a fellow soldier that he's not ready for a fight, even though he earlier voiced the rumor that the Vietnamese would try to attack.

There are two kinds of need, psychological and moral.  The moral need isn't required, but it does make for a more interesting story.  The psychological need, on the other hand, is required, but not difficult to come up with.  Look at the weakness and ask yourself how it hurts only the hero.  From Joker's nonviolence, we know that he needs to harden himself in order to become a Marine, and later on in Vietnam, we know that he needs to stop treating the war like a cruise, cracking jokes and bargaining with local prostitutes in Da Nang.

The moral need, on the other hand, is hurting other characters, not just the hero himself.  Truby says that there are two ways to find a moral need, and both are used in Full Metal Jacket.  The first way is to take a character's strength and turn it into a hindrance for others.  In training, Joker's strength is his compassion, but this ends up harming others because he hesitates to resolve a situation violently.

The other, more straightforward method is to look at the psychological need and translate it in a way that hurts others.  Joker's sense of humor may be good at diffusing tension, but in a setting like the Vietnam War, it's subtly lowering the guard of his fellow Marines, making them vulnerable to their enemy.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Truby's Plot: 7 Key Steps

I seriously think that every writer ought to read John Truby's The Anatomy of Story.  When I was in grad school, I tried to get it on the reading list one semester for me and my coterie of fellow students, but our adviser turned overruled me.  I guess it was because Truby's book mainly used movies as examples of good plot.  But I'm a child of the movies, and to me a, a good story is a good story regardless of whether it's on film or printed on paper.

Truby's book has a couple of wonderful chapters on plot, and what makes it such a great read is his discouragement of using his plot outline as a set-in-stone tool.  He points out twenty-two steps that go into a good plot, but he also says that a writer doesn't need to include all of them and they can be rearranged to suit anyone's needs.  "The twenty-two steps are not a formula for writing," he writes.  "Instead, they provide the scaffolding you need to do something really creative."

So here I am starting a series of posts that will guide you through each of his steps, to explain how I understand how they work and what they might do for you.  Because the fact is that I'm still going through the plotting stage for my own novel and I take some comfort reviewing the parts to make sure I know what I need to know.

I used Truby's method once before on my last big attempt at a novel, and the first thing I can tell you is that it will all probably change dramatically by the time you get a few drafts into the story.  Like I said, this stuff isn't set in stone.  At the very least, I would recommend using the method to get through your first couple of drafts.  You probably have a big story in your head, and this will help make sense of it all.

As I go through the steps, I'll reference Stanley Kubrick's film Full Metal Jacket.  It's been on my mind a lot lately, and I honestly think it would be easier for you to rent it or borrow it from a friend, and spend a couple of hours watching it and following along with the blog series.

Although Truby says that there's a great deal of flexibility to be had in his method, there are seven steps that he insists are present in every good story: weakness and need, desire, opponent, plan, battle, self-revelation, and new equilibrium.  I admit that I have yet to find a story that doesn't have one of these basic points.

The weakness and need focus on what's wrong with the main character.  This step is broken into four smaller parts.  The problem is the part that tells you what the hero must overcome.  Finding your way home.  Getting a gift for a friend's birthday.  Studying for a test.  These are all problems that must be overcome.  Then there's the weakness, which is what the hero is lacking.  Perhaps your hero has a tendency to lie, or is terribly shy.  And then there's the need, which is broken into a psychological and a moral component; the psychological need is something harming only the hero himself, and the moral is an extension of the psychological that is hurting others.  Roger's weakness is that he is very shy.  His psychological need is that he needs to develop relationships to become more whole as a person, and morally his shyness is causing him to behave coldly, which in turn upsets others.

The next part - desire - is what goal the hero wants to achieve, and this cn be found by looking at the problem.  If the hero's problem is that he's failing a class, his desire is to get a better grade.

The opponent is the character standing in the way of the hero.  More precisely, it's a character who wants what the hero wants.  If the two aren't competing over the same thing, there's no conflict and no story.  Not every story has an opponent, however, but rather an obstacle.  In the film Rain Man, Charlie and Raymond Babbitt may have friction, but they aren't competing with each other.  Instead of an opponent to overcome, Charlie is faced with a mystery: why didn't anyone tell him he had a brother?

The plan is what strategy the hero will use to defeat the opponent and get what he desires, and the battle is the confrontation between the hero and the opponent.  Again, if there is no opponent but a mystery, the battle is a search for answers rather than a fight.

Self-revelation is when the hero is when the hero goes through a change that gets him what he psychologically and morally needs.  He understands what's holding him back in life, and what he has to do to make his life better.  In the case of tragedy, this can be a negative thing, but I'll get into that later.

And the final step is the new equilibrium.  Here, the crisis is over, the world has gone back to normal, but the hero has been fundamentally altered.

The other great thing about the Truby method is how organic it is and how each piece fits naturally with the others.  This is certainly true with the seven key steps.  If there's no plan, then the opponent can't be overcome and he wins.  If there's no desire or problem, then there's nothing wrong with the hero's world, and there's no story.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The First Story in Three Years

About a week ago, a story of mine called Are You Proud of Me? - centered on an alcoholic artist named Andrew Ursler - was accepted and published in a new blog called Arts Collide.  I have the link for it hereArts Collide is a blog made by a friend of mine, Ashley Perez.

I talk about Are You Proud of Me? with a bittersweet sense.  On the one hand, because it was accepted by a friend, the pessimist in me wonders if this was the literary equivalent of a pity-fuck.  Then again, knowing Ashley, who is not one to give in to pity, I I do have to believe that the story had some merit to it.

Some people, I'm sure, have wondered whether or not being published through a blog counts as being really published, as if a blog is less prestigious than appearing on the home page of The New Yorker.

In short, the answer is "yes".  Being published online does count as a writing credit.  This is something I learned while in grad school.  If it's posted online, it can be redistributed beyond the original website, even if that website takes it down.  Even if it's something you post on your Facebook page can be considered a writing credit.  The short rule of thumb is: if it's online, it counts.

The next thing some might ask is how much I got paid for Are You Proud of Me?  And to that, I can say I got the mighty sum of $0.00.  That's right.  This story brought in not one red cent to me, and now I'm starting to think like some of my relatives; if it doesn't pay, it's not real work.  That's bullshit!

Ray Bradbury's early career was one of all work and no pay, and when he did start getting paid for his work, the reward was barely enough to buy a sandwich in today's money.

There's one thing Bradbury said in an interview that's always stuck in my head: if you make one story accepted per year, it's enough to keep you going.  And considering that Are You Proud of Me? is the first thing I've had printed in three years, I'm holding onto that high with both hands.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Experience and Imagination

Today, I tweeted: "Is it better to write, drive around with a topless chick, or write about driving around with a topless chick?"  At first, I thought, Oh, look at me tweeting about nudity.  How clever I am.

Now, thinking it over, I know that I was trying to get something out subconsciously: there's a difference between writing, experience, and writing about an experience.

I can write.  You can write.  Even a monkey can write.  We do this activity every day from jotting down shopping lists to scribbling down reminders to writing angry letters to the IRS.  But the simple act of writing isn't enough for a writer.  The words have to have meaning behind them.  I write in a journal, mostly to help organize some of my thoughts like a lucid dream, but I can't ever guarantee that what I write in my journal is worthy of being reviewed by publisher.  Hell, I know it isn't.  That's why my journal is private.

Next, we come to experience, or driving around with a topless chick.  Neil Gaiman once said that struggling writers should go live their lives if they haven't anything to say, that you should do something to take your mind off of the writing and then come back to it later.  While this can help, and I do try to take time off myself every now and then, I think it can backfire.  A person can spend so much time absorbing new experiences that the writing ultimately gets left on the side of the road.  It's like research, which is great, but you can't forget that you must return to the typewriter or the laptop or the notepad at some point.

Finally, there's writing about an experience, and this can be firsthand experience or, more valuable to the fiction writer, this can be an imagined experience.  With science fiction, I have to imagine the scenario.  There's no precedence for space pirates or interstellar diseases.  Even if it's not science fiction, there comes a point where you have to use your imagination.  In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde describes a murder.  Now, if you're all about the experience, you would ask Wilde, "How did it feel to commit murder?"  And Wilde would, of course, answer, "I've never murdered!  Why would I do such a thing?"

That reminded me just now of something that Stephen King said, something to the effect that writing allows you to explore your dark side in safety; you could, through writing, commit murder without actually doing the act.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Pussy Face

There's a part in Predator 2 where Danny Glover confronts the Predator and calls it "Pussy Face", and there's really no arguing with that nickname.  Jaws wide open, the Predator really does look like it has a vagina for a mouth.

Watching Predator 2 the other day got me thinking about some of my favorite sci-fi movie aliens.  In addition to the Predator, I'm also a fan of the creature from Ridley Scott's Alien and the Brain Bug from Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers.  And there's a consistent trait shared by the trio: they're all perverse.  With the creation of the facehugger, the Alien writers had created a film that's essentially focused on inter-species rape.  When discussing the design of the Brain Bug with his crew, Paul Verhoeven said, "Well, perhaps it should look like a vagina, or perhaps it should look like an anus."

Thinking about the aliens that I wanted to write about, in homage to those gross sci-fi movies I love, I figured there really was no reason I couldn't make a creature that looked like, say, a prolapsed rectum.  'Cause rectum damn near killed 'em!

Going into another round of thinking on my alien story, I thought I might be using too much logic.  I had watched all these science shows on what alien life could be like, and I would base my thinking on only that material.  I'm not saying that research is bad, but there are times when it can put a huge limitation on me.  What I decided to do was reverse the process.  Over the weekend, I came up with some pretty cool and disgusting alien concepts, and now I'm going back and filling in the gaps of stuff like what environment they live in, what kind of tools do they use, and so on.

The bottom line - and I think this is why I'm so excited about this new approach to the book - the bottom line is that sometimes it's more conducive creatively to go for something cool first and then employ logic to fine-tune it.  Function is still there in the back of my mind, but like the first draft of a story, it's much easier to get ideas onto a page and then refine it rather than try and come up with something complete right from the start.

Sunday, August 5, 2012


I've gone through too many story ideas lately, all of which end up in the trash can.  The latest was one I carried for the last week, an attempt to redo The War of the Worlds.  It failed because I simply didn't care about what happened to people in the 1890s.

The other night, I couldn't sleep at all.  The fear of never having an idea to write about left me restless, and when tossing and turning in my bed didn't work, pacing back and forth in my bedroom became the next best thing.

In my bedroom, I have an old article from my high school newspaper.  A friend of mine used to write for the paper, and as we got ready to graduate, he was able to get a piece written about me and my writing.  In retrospect, it was a bit of indulgence, but seeing as how graduates were moving on to delusions of grandeur, it kind of fit the theme of the final issue that year.

I'd written a 70-page story in my senior year.  It was a crappy rip-off of Heinlein's Starship Troopers, and I'm pretty sure no copies survived to this day, but it was significant in that it was the first thing I'd finished.

Later, in my last year of college, I took a class called "Major American Authors".  I had a reputation among the English department for harboring creative aspirations, and convinced my professor to let me write some fiction for my final project, a story about soldiers raised in the future to fight wars so the rest of humanity wouldn't have to.  Unfortunately, I broke my writing hand shortly after and simple typing became an enormous challenge for me while I healed.  My professor let me turn in an outline for the story instead - you have to understand, I really couldn't write for a month.

My professor did press me to keep the concept alive and give it a shot.  It fell by the wayside in the years that followed, but I did keep it in the back of my mind, filed away in the "make your professors proud" drawer.

My high school story didn't have factory-raised soldiers.  My college story didn't feature a horde of alien insects.  But the other night, as I paced in my room, the two ideas met, had drinks, and decided they liked each other.  The best part was how excited I felt over the idea, the kind of excitement I haven't felt since I first got interested in writing.

And it only took some ten years for me to get the idea.