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, May 28, 2013

Milkin' It

Not long ago, I advocated exercising restraint and showing patience when preparing to write a long story.  This was mostly because I've been dealing with insomnia and long strings of late nights that ultimately do no good to my health.

I still advocate the need for patience, and I'm still trying to break the late-night habit and get myself up to speed on a normal human sleep pattern, but at the same time I've been plotting like a motherfucker lately too.  As in I plotted a third of my Undead and Inhuman yesterday and the final third today!

By my reckoning, I'm about a month ahead of schedule with the book.  I like that.  Being ahead of schedule is always better that struggling to meet a deadline.  I didn't put in all this plot work because I wanted to impress myself.  Really, the fact is that I was on a roll and didn't see any reason to put off the ideas as they came to me, not when I had an abundance of time to get them down on paper.  Memorial Day was generous to me like that.

Plus, with my production schedule set up the way it is for Undead and Inhuman, different stages are rounded out in monthly segments; a month for plotting, a couple of months per draft, that sort of thing.  So by tying up those final threads in the next few days, I'll be able to move things up and race out the starting gate on the first of June rather than the first of July.

Ultimately, the reason I pushed ahead was because of the long Memorial Day weekend.  I had this great big chunk of time available to meAnd little by little, I have been waking up more and more early.  All this adds up to hours freed up that can be used to get more work done instead of racing for an hour just to get a sentence or two down on paper.

Remember, you can be the most creative sonofabitch on the block, but creativity is nothing if you can't eke out the time to be productive.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The First 100 Pages

It's recently come to my attention that I'm no longer in school.  Well, not exactly.  I know that I'm done with school, but deep within my brain, I've got this ongoing feeling that I need to finish reading a book even if I'm not particularly fond of it.

Case in point: Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys.  I'm not going to review the book or Chabon as a writer.  Wonder Boys was neither good nor bad, but rather lukewarm.  It just didn't slam me against the wall.  I've got three other Chabon books on my shelf, and I'm hoping that at least one of them will be baited just right for this fish to take a bite.  What got me to put down Wonder Boys was when I realized I was on page 100.  I was still waiting for the story to kick in, feeling like I was still in the middle of a big opening act. 

You know how they suggest putting a hook into the first couple of pages to grab your reader's attention?  Well, I don't fully subscribe to that.  It puts too much pressure on me as a writer to try and get those first pages going with the energy of the opening scene in a Bond movie.  Not every story can do that, nor would you necessarily want them to.  If every story started that way, the opening punch takes on a formulaic vibe.  The writer might sit down at his desk and think, "Oh, my god!  This story is doomed to suck sphincter because there isn't a thunderous cannon shot in the first paragraph!"

Readers and writers, take heed: your story should be off the ground by the 100th page.  Some of you might think that's a huge margin of error.  In the case of Wonder Boys, that's about a third of the book.  Okay, I get that.  You don't want to wait until such a large portion of the story passes before realizing it's just not your thing.  Some stories like Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea are simply too short for that hundred-page mark to apply.

Then amend it.  Maybe I gave Wonder Boys a hundred pages because I was truly holding on to hope that I would eventually grab hold of me.  The hundred-page mark is probably best for those really long books on your nightstand like The Lord of the Rings or The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or The Count of Monte Cristo.  For the smaller and medium-sized books that top off at a few hundred pages, the first ten to twenty percent should give you plenty of time to figure out if it's a story you'd want to stick with to the end.

Friday, May 24, 2013


Well, this kind of sucks.  I need to go back and re-plot the characters for Undead and Inhuman.  Or, on second thought, it doesn't quite suck since I've only plotted, like, three chapters over the last few days.  And it's not that I have to re-plot from scratch, but rather I have to go back and comb through what I got so far with a fine comb.

But "this kind of sucks" sounds much more dramatic than "this is kind of so-so".

I blab too much about Undead and Inhuman because I like keeping you guys up to speed on it, but at the same time I want to leave things behind the curtain so that there will be surprises when the time comes to read it.  I will give away two things: 1) the story is about vampires fighting aliens, and 2) the main characters are three soldiers named Austin Joyce, Matt Durham, and Bobby Daniels.  Terrible vampire names.  I'm sure you guys were expecting something like Dimitri or Antonio or Lestat, but these aren't brooding, romantic vampires.  They are people who act just as people do today, and thus have ever day names.

When I finished going over the action and theme cards for each of the chapters, the next step was to go back and plot out the characters chapter by chapter.  And this worked at first, but then I came to a chapter where only one of the characters had something significant to do.  The others, not so much.  So that I'm going to do now is go back and review the plot one character at a time.

With one chapter in particular, I sat back and thought, "Here I am trying to force characters into doing something I don't want them to do."  For instance, one of the protagonists is a drone pilot, and for lack of better options, I had him go from piloting predators to experimental space-drones, and that jump seemed to be too far of a leap.  It seemed completely unnecessary.  Looking back, I came to the conclusion that it'd be better to ignore that character for a whole chapter rather than waste pages and the reader's time with something that serves no purpose. 
I don't expect any of these three guys meet each other during the story.  It's three guys who happen to be fighting one war.  Because of that, their threads are independent of each other, and it's a better use of my energy tracking each one from start to finish, locking off the thread, and then moving on to the next character.

I think the desire to have something for each protagonist in every chapter comes from when I wanted to post the novel as an online blog, and in that format where you're pausing a couple of weeks between installments, you want to let the reader touch base with each character if only to remind them of their existence.

Ultimately, this is a case of me mixing a method with the wrong medium.

Fictional Writers

I love watching movies and TV shows that focus on writers, probably because I feel like there's something about writing that I can learn from them.  Most of the time, the exact opposite is true.  I end up seeing stories about writers of different sorts and the lives they lead rather than the works they produce.  Still, after a while, I've come to categorize certain names that always stand out for me, and I thought I'd share my thoughts on them with you; the writers that I love, the ones I loath, and the ones that fall somewhere in between.

Writers I Love

The Ghost (Ewan McGregor in The Ghost Writer):  The nameless protagonist of Roman Polanski's film about a writer assigned to work on the memoirs of a British prime minister.  The thing I like about this writer is how relatively bland and neutral he is.  He's a down-to-earth fellow living in a simple apartment and working from project to project.  He doesn't try inflating his ego, but instead prefers to let the work speak for itself.

Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson in Stranger Than Fiction): I suppose you could call Eiffel a mold writer, one whose works fall into a particular mold, the defining characteristic of her work being that her main character always dies at the end, usually, as she admits, in subtly cruel ways such as a teacher dying the day before getting off for summer break.  She's depressingly clever, with her research including things such as standing atop her desk trying to imagine what it's like when a person is about to jump off a building, but also immersed in her work to the point where she can be viewed as crazy such as when she visits a hospital emergency room and asks specifically to see the patients who, for sure, are not going to make it.  At the same time, I think Eiffel is aware of how people perceive her just as many writers in real life recognize that "Oh, my God!  He's wacked!" look when we talk to non-writers, and this is why she (and sometimes we) act confidently arrogant towards people who simply don't get what we do.

Shaun Brumder (Colin Hanks in Orange County): For me, Orange County is like looking back to when I first wanted to be a writer.  Shaun Brumder knows what he wants to do, and thinks that there is a right way to get there.  More importantly, he feels he has to get away from the hometown with which he has an intense love-hate relationship in order to realize his ambitions.  He has a built-in fantasy of what a writer is, though there is no ideal beside the work, and when he meets his literary idol Marcus Skinner, he learns one of the big lessons of the profession: you don't aspire to be a writer, you are a writer.

Writers I Hate

Robert Crawford (F. Murray Abraham in Finding Forrester): If ever there were a writer who should never pick up a pen or would do well to live the life of an illiterate, Robert Crawford is it.  For starters, he's pompous.  You can tell that from his word choice with procrastinate over slack off, former over last, and anticipate over expect.  Not that these are bad, but when he speaks, it sounds like he's editing himself, like he's trying to put himself on a pedestal above others.  This leads me to his second, more troublesome quality: he's bitter.  Now, it's true that bitterness can make you a better writer.  If you're looking at a projec that's turned out to be a failure, you can push yourself towards making the next story better.  Crawford doesn't do this.  He could have taken the lessons learned from failing to publish his first novel and applied them towards his second one, but he's too busy hating writers who are better than he is.

Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion in Castle): Richard Castle is the fantasy all writer nurture.  I wish I could go to a book function and sign the breasts of half-naked twenty-somethings.  Castle has been described as a rock star of literature.  Well, so has Neil Gaiman.  But there's a big difference: Neil Gaiman actually gets his writing done rather than run around New York solving murders.  I don't care how smoking hot the cop is.  I mean, I got it early on in the series when he was brought in to consult on a copycat murder based on his own fiction, but then afterwards, isn't there anyone tempted to say, "Uh, what the hell are you still doing here?"  The only good bit of authorial knowledge Castle dispensed was when he said writing his famous character Derrick Storm used to be fun, but when that fun ended, when the character stopped surprising him, he decided to kill off the guy and move on to his next project.  That was five minutes into the pilot, and it all went downhill from there.

Jonathan Flynn (Robert De Niro in Being Flynn): Because he's a real person, Jonathan Flynn shouldn't be on this list, but De Niro's portrayal of him bugged me enough to grant him a dishonorable mention.  Jonathan Flynn is a delusional bum who considers himself as great as Mark Twain or J.D. Salinger even though he's unpublished.  And when he's confronted by his fellow homeless, he looks down on them.  He reminds me of what I've heard about Stephen King's father Donald who had potential but never developed it.  In fact, Flynn doesn't consider the criticism he gets for his own benefit.  For example, when he receives a rejection letter from Viking Press, he focuses only on the good parts and overlooks the reasons why they turned him down.  Valid reasons too, reasons that could have been incorporated into the novel to perhaps make it more marketable.  And one more thing: if I ever say "soon, very soon, I shall be known", I'll snort lines of toner from my printer, wrap millions of joints from the pages of the books I have on my shelves, and use the power cord of my laptop so I may die in autoerotic asphyxiation.

Writers I Love and Hate

Hank Moody (David Duchovny in Californication): First off, I love Hank.  In spite of the many chips on his shoulders, he's a man's man, and I think many of my brethren could learn a thing or two from him.  Hank may be fictional, but his novel God Hates Us All does exist, ghostwritten by Jonathan Grotenstein.  For our purposes here, we'll blur the line between fantasy and reality and say that the real book exists in the fictional world of Californication.  I've read some of God Hates Us All, but not the whole thing.  It's good, good enough that reading it from cover to cover is on my to-do list.  So while it could be said that Hank's work is exceptional, his work ethic is not as stellar.  As his agent Charlie said in the first season, Hank has promised his publisher a novel since his daughter was an infant, which means he's gone for a solid decade without producing anything.  But when his gears start to turn, he can deliver the goods.  My favorite Hank Moody moment is the end of a fourth season episode called Home Sweet Home in which his life seems to be devastated.  He faces trial for statutory rape (goes against my earlier praise, but it's complicated), and his family is furious when he's misled them into thinking he's suicidal.  Hank retreats to a Hollywood hotel and reflects on recent events while smoking and looking out the balcony of his room.  Then he sits down at his typewriter and begins to write, tapping into his own life to find fuel.  There was something on his face, that look of determination and the need to deal with something internal rather than write just for the sake of telling an entertaining tale.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Learning Patience

Prep work on Undead and Inhuman progresses.  I've got a rough idea down for each chapter, and now I'm going through them one at a time to figure out what's going to happen to each of my main characters every step of the way.  I settled on moving forward a chapter each day, and if I keep up that pace, I should be done (or almost done) with plotting by the first week of June.  The plot deadline is the end of June, so this means I can either kick back for three weeks before starting the first draft or push forward and be that much ahead of schedule.

And hell, if I put my foot down a little more on the gas pedal and do two chapters a day, I can get through this in the first day or so of June rather than the first week.  Pretty sweet, right?  And since I've got eighteen chapters to plot out, why not go further, blaze through three chapters per day, and be done by next Monday?

Well, hang on.  I'm not making bowls of cereal here.  More chapters in a day means less time for each one.  With some chapters, the ideas come pouring in.  With others, getting an idea is like getting a good song out of Justin Bieber, and that shit just ain't gonna happen.

Additional speed invites overlooking errors and not thinking things through.  There might be a loose thread or two in those smooth chapters that you're missing, and you'll end up snagging on them later.  And those tougher chapters?  Sure, you'll be tempted to say, "Fuck it!  Let me just write down something - anything - and move the fuck on!"  But if you do that, you're willingly setting yourself up for problems later.  When you're writing that first draft, you're going to hit that substandard plot point and you'll be forced to take time away from the writing to fix it.

And when you've built up steam with the writing, when you're on a roll, it really sucks to have no choice but to take the wind out of your own sails.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Nightmare World

It's well known that Robert Louis Stevenson got the idea for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from a nightmare he had.  More detailed accounts say that his wife interrupted him when Jekyll first turned into Hyde.

I had a nightmare of my own the other night, and like any good nightmare, it's imagery was vivid and its origin mysterious.  In the dream, I was living in a place that reminded me a lot of On The Rox above the Roxy Theatre in Hollywood.  It was dark, the middle of the night, and a night of hard partying had come to an end.  I heard a scuffle outside, and when I got to the window overlooking an alley by Sunset Boulevard, I saw a couple of guys pull out a neighbor and his girlfriend, the couple bearing an odd resemblance to Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart.  Apparently, the guy owed a lot of drug money.  They threw him to the ground, pinned him with a foot on each shoulder, and shot him twice in the back.  I didn't flinch.  Through the grimy pane of glass, it was like watching something on TV.  After a while, I went to the room back behind the stage where slept my roommate - a guy I'd never seen before - and very calmly said I was moving out and heading home.

There's a lot more to this dream than I said.  You know how some dreams seem to last forever?  This was like a four-day maelstrom of alcohol, heroin, loud music (I think I heard Tom Waits singing), and dark light.  It was, in a sense, the most beautiful nightmare I ever had.  And again, it came to me with such clarity that I thought it had potential for at least a short story.

I took off full steam ahead and got some good descriptions down on the first day, but when I tried to move further the next day, I found my brain seizing.  Finally, I gave up, concluding that I had wasted little more than an hour in all trying to set the foundation.

Now, why is it that Stevenson's dream worked when mine didn't?  Okay, well, that's an extremely tricky thing to answer because I don't know exactly what went down in Stevenson's dream.  It's said that Stevenson had a couple of main scenes from his Jekyll and Hyde story, and if so, then he was more likely to weave them to each other.  The dream I had, on the other hand, was disjointed, fragmentary even though the images were unified by a central location.  The action was fleeting, each lacking a beginning, middle, or end.

That's not to say that this was unsuccessful from a writer's viewpoint, because, in order for it to be a success, it implies that I set out to have this dream consciously.  I didn't.  Sometimes, a dream is just a dream and not the seed of a story.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Carving Up Plot

Plotting is like eating a zebra.  No, wait.  Most of you haven't eaten zebra.  Plotting is like eating...um...a zebra.

Regardless of your stance on eating meat, that I'm really talking about here is how difficult it might be if you go plotting your story tackling all the intricate details first, all your little character changes and whatnot.  I suppose I must have missed this because it took me most of the week to remember it while I began plotting my novel.

So here's the mistake that I made.  After I got everything for my plot chart set up on my cork board - I was very pleased by how that turned out, by the way - I began wondering how each of the three main characters would change from chapter to chapter.  Makes sense because we'd be following those three guys, right?  But nothing popped into my head.  My brain didn't shit gold nuggets of creativity, so I thought I'd procrastinate in a productive way by switching to the pink cards on the board, the ones reserved for theme and main action per chapter.  Before long, I said to myself, "Okay, I'll figure out the main action of each chapter and then try to connect each character to it."  Because, since this is a war story, most of the events driving the plot are external and we see how the characters cope and adapt to them.

But even so, some chapters came to me naturally, while I drew a blank on others.  And that was when I realized, "Hey, I've got these strips running up and down the sides of the board showing me the main sections of the story."

So here's a recommendation if you're having trouble plotting your own work, and this might help or it might not.  I'll leave it up to you to experiment.  Imagine your novel is a fresh zebra carcass.  Or better yet, a turkey, if you're not into zebra.

There's no way you're going to devour it in one bite.  I don't care if you can expand your jaws like a snake.  So you take it and cut it up into large chunks.  The legs.  The thighs.  The wings.  These large portions are the main arcs of the story.  You identify what each section is about, distill it to a sentence or maybe even just a quick phrase.

Now you go further.  You break the wing, snapping it along the joints.  This is you breaking each arc into individual chapters, and as you do, think of each arc as it's own self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and end, each one building upon the arc before it.  For example, you have an introductory arc that establishes characters and sets up the story universe.  Then the next arc takes those characters and gives them tension.  Give them one even spanning a few chapters, and devote those chapters to raising the stakes for them.  Dig it?

Once you've set up the chapter-by-chapter sequence - once you've taken those larger cuts of turkey and broken them up into smaller pieces - you pick up each chapter and bite into it, each bite devloping your characters little by little reflecting subtle changes as the story progresses, giving them decision and action based on what's going on in the chapter.

Before you know it, you'll have worked (or eaten) your way through your novel's basic structure.  You can sit back and marvel at it, pat yourself on the back, and have some dessert.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Midnight Disease

In his Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon writes about midnight disease, describing it thusly:
"The midnight disease is a kind of emotional insomnia; at every conscious moment its victim - even if he or she writes at dawn, or in the middle of the afternoon - feels like a person lying in a sweltering bedroom, with the window thrown open, looking up at a sky filled with stars and airplanes, listening to the narrative of a rattling blind, an ambulance, a fly trapped in a Coke bottle, while all around him the neighbors soundly sleep."
Does this sound familiar?  Of course it does.  You're a writer dammit!  You live on vampire time.

Or at least I am lately.  Insomnia is nothing new.  I'm on the fifth night of my latest round of it.  It's not entirely writing-related, but it has got me thinking about when my writing did keep me up late at night, sometimes clear through to the next day when I'd stop to see that the sun was well over the horizon.

I feel like I work best at night.  It's when I've got the largest continual chuck of time available to me.  On the other hand, there's the daytime when I'm expected to go out and interact with people.  When people see that you're tired and cranky, well, that makes the experience all the more painful.

I know I'll have to break the midnight disease eventually.  Right now, I'm just trying to figure out how.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

All in the Cards

By pure coincidence, Chuck Wendig had this thing on Twitter recently about plotting, remarking about how each of his stories needed a different way of outlining.

I've noticed this with my own work that what might work for one project might not be right for another.  I've done standard outline with the bullet points and the Roman numerals.  I've tried roughly sketching out the story on road maps - useful if you're doing a journey story; not so useful if you're writing about people trapped in a basement.

With Undead and Inhuman, I've taken to the idea of using index cards as a starting point.  This was by accident.  While working on the worldbuilding material, I had jotted down ideas for what I thought would be good chapter titles, and then wrote them on cards to try rearranging them in what order I thought they'd flow most nicely.

That was when the corkboard came out, the one from when I tried doing a collage.  And I suppose what I've got is a collage, but one of cards and notes rather than images and quotes.  I still need to actually fill out those cards, but the system I've roughed out seem doable. 

You can see the board and the layout below.  I sorted out the chapters in yellow along the left and right edges.  The white strips beside them show the major portions of the story.  You have some stretched dealing with fighting, others with training and preparation, and others still about falling action and the ending.  After that are strips of purple, blue, and green running horizontally.  These are for the three main characters in the story alternating chapter by chapter so I can write down little ideas on what each person goes through step by step.  And finally, the pink cards are for main action or theme for each chapter.  For example, one chapter could have the aftermath of a plane crash as the main action with the theme being shock and disorientation.  There's not going to be a plane crash in Undead and Inhuman.  I just used that as an example.  And that page on the bottom right of the board has a quick key to let keep the color code straight with the rest of the white space available in case I want to write down any random thoughts to include in the first draft.

The board itself is kind of a first draft too.  Ultimately, I'll take what I've got up there, organize it more clearly and expand on it in the story bible.  And even then, there's every chance in the world that this could all change by the time the book is done.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Now Comes the Hard Part

So now that I've finished dicking around with the fictional material on Undead and Inhuman, the time has come to get to the difficult task of plotting the damn thing.

Now, it's true that I think plotting is about as fun as paying my bills, but its a necessary thing to go through.  Every writer ought to just suck up the fact that it needs to be done.  I know there are some you out there screaming and pulling out hair about how unfair I'm being and that I'm a monster trying to stifle the creative cream welling up in the loins of your brain.  I'm not.

Believe me, I've tried to go with the flow on writing.  The first draft is supposed to suck, so why not vomit on the page and sort it out later?  And I'm sure that works for some, but not for me, and I can really only be an authority on myself and my own methods.  To me, revision is the easiest part of writing because I'm not making things up for the first time.  If I fly by the seat of my pants in the first draft, what I'm really going to end up with is something so convoluted that I'd have to chuck it to the garbage and start over again.

So the reality is that plotting is a way for me to save time.  Yes, the first time around, it'll feel like I'm Captain Kirk climbing El Capitan, but once I get it down, that mountain will be as easy as Spock in a pair of gravity boots.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Incomplete Worlds

The story arena.  This is the arena, uh, in which your story plays.  Yeah, simple and straightforward, right?  Every story - fiction or nonfiction - has this.  We need the where and the when.  A friend talks about her Mother's Day and begins with, "So at my house this afternoon..."

It's true that some stories have more elaborate arenas than others.  Hell, the Star Wars films have a whole goddamn galaxy upon which Skywalker Ranch can ejaculate loads of computer-generated wonders.  Others, such as My Dinner with Andre, need only a table at a restaurant.

Exactly how big of a story arena you're going to need is up to you and the story that you plan on writing, and far be it for me to go telling you how you should even put it together.  But having just finished getting the story world pinned down for Undead and Inhuman, one thing that I can suggest is that you don't go overboard.

During the making of The Phantom Menace, George Lucas said that everything had to be designed and thought through right down to the forks.  I can understand this because this was done while the script was being written and not everything was pinned down and set in story.  Add that to the visual medium of film, where you do need to know what everything looks like, and it makes detail much more important.

You don't have to worry as much about that with fiction and prose.  I was at Pasadena's LitFest yesterday, and one of the panels had Amber Benson of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Fame.  She touched upon Anne Rice's work and Rice's penchant for incredible detail, saying, "That's interesting spending a page and a half describing a rug that never appears again in the book."  That's a page and a half that could have moved the plot forward or developed character.  Of course, there are stories really do need this kind of detail like The Picture of Dorian Gray because it has a lot to do with the experience of the senses.  In such cases, description and detail are part of the story itself rather than just the icing on the cake.

My advice for tackling the story world is to keep it as simple as possible.  The worldbuilding notes I got for Undead and Inhuman are roughly twelve pages, and many of the different facets of that universe are condensed down to about half a page.

There are two benefits to this.  First, it means you don't have to go crazy and pull your hair out worrying about - how, for the love of Cthulu! - would vampire homes be built in the future!  I got that tiny example down to four brief sentences.  Second, and I've said this before, your story bible shouldn't be fully formed before you start writing.  You should have just enough information down to see that there's a house on the other side of the street shrouded in fog.  The detail of the porch, the color of the front door, the number of windows, those are things you'll find out as you get through the writing.

And as you do, you include them in your notes and keep building them up.