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.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Look at a Really Good Title

I've learned a lot already since I started taking this story analysis course at UCLA.  Like, stuff that's got me thinking in new directions about writing.  Like, stuff I'm probably going to share with you guys hoping that you'll learn something as well.

One of the biggest things to jolt me recently has been the power of a good title.  Now, I've said it before that I believe a good title is key to helping a story's success, but I didn't have a good enough example until last week when I was assigned to read the screenplay for Benny and Joon.  Yes, the romantic comedy starring Johnny Depp as a Buster Keaton wannabe.

So you're sitting there with the title page staring up at you.  Benny and Joon.  What's the first thing that pops into your mind?  Romance.  Because we've seen this boy-and-girl pairing many times before.  Romeo and Juliet.  Sid and Nancy.  You name it.  There's a precedence.  So you start off thinking that a guy named Ben and a girl named June are going to fall in love.

You open the story and are immediately introduced to Benny, a man's man.  June is introduced off-page through a phone call, but you don't hear her.  You just hear Benny talking her through the latest crisis: they're dangerously low on peanut butter!  Benny assure her that he'll pick some up on the way home.  The simplicity of the "emergency", the childishness of it, implies that June is a kid.  So you revise your supposition and think now that this is a father-daughter story, and June is Benny's daughter.

June finally appears and it's obvious that she's not Benny's daughter.  In fact, you learn that she's Benny's mentally-ill older sister.  That forces you to again rearrange the story in the back of your mind.  All from the title.  You've gone from lovers to parent and child to brother and sister.

There's something else in the title.  Notice how I've used the names June and Joon.  Why?  Because of the Johnny Depp character Sam, a talented physical comedian whose dyslexia causes him to mispell June's name in a letter he tries writing to his mother.  Looking back at the title, you realize that it's actually highlight both the main (the brother-sister relationship between Benny and June) plot and the subplot (the romantic affair between Sam and June).

If anyone asks me for a prime example of a really good title, this film will be it.

Another thing I've been thinking about lately isn't just how you come up with a title but why you come up with it.  The title isn't just a label for the story.  It's a part of the story itself.  It's part of that hook at the beginning that draws you in.  So the first thing a title has to do is intrigue the audience.  Think about Joe Haldeman's The Forever War.  A war that literally lasts forever?  But it's told in a finite number of pages.  How does that work?  That's the intrigue.

More important than the intrigue is the tone and the genre that the title establishes.  Benny and Joon does sound like a romance.  Light romance or dark romance?  Light, because the alternate title of Benjamin and Juniper sounds much more formal and serious.

There also needs to be a measure of suspense, which is different from intrigue.  Intrigue merely catches your curiosity.  Suspense shows you some of the story, but only a sliver of it.  It raises expectations in the audience.  A title like Frankenstein has become synonymous with horror.  You know it's going to end up being about science gone haywire.  Let's try something a little less known.  There's a French novel called Against Nature written by Joris-Karl Huysmans.  I haven't read it yet.  It's on my bookshelf waiting for me.  I know that it was a major inspiration to Oscar Wilde when he wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray.  But that title - Against Nature - does sound suspenseful because you know right away that something terrible is going to happen, something that goes against the very grain of humanity, and so you read to find out what that horrible action is.

Also, irony is a good element to have in a title.  I'm thinking of the Roman Polanski film Carnage that, despite the name, isn't set on a battlefield but rather an apartment as the parents of two quarreling boys try to talk through their differences, only to end up making vicious verbal attacks at each other.

A title doesn't need to have all of these things - premise, tone, genre, suspense, and irony - but it should at least have premise, tone, and genre.  Put some thought into this because although a good title can't save a bad story, a bad title can kill a good one.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Frantic: Day 104

I wrote twenty-three words today.  Yeah, twenty-three words.  At this rate, I'm so screwed.  Then again, it's been a while since I've had to write new stuff for the book, so I think I just need to get back into the swing of things.  My goal this week is to try to work up to five hundred words a day.  The week after that, maybe a thousand words a day.  It's kind of like returning to a workout routine after a long break.  Your muscles are a little weak and you need to recover from that.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Dealing with Doubt

As much as I enjoyed my short trip to Thousand Oaks, there was a little blemish when I talked to some people about what I've been doing in terms of work.  No one was surprised that I was pushing forward with my novel, and a lot of people - old English professors in particular - were pleased when I told them how easy it was for me to slip into the writing.

I also talked about this new staff writer gig I've got with Carpe Nocturne and the story analysis class I just started taking at UCLA.  Again, there was a lot of support with what I was doing.  Not like anyone was going to urge me to stop.

One of my professors recommended that I try looking for some work in a non-creative capacity for the Cal State University system.  It might not be something I truly want to do, but at the same time I'm pragmatic enough to understand that I need to find stable work wherever I can, so I have no hesitation with that.  He also told that the UCLA course could just be a money-maker for the school, a class that's probably good for building knowledge but like a study abroad course on frescos; what use is there for that?

I can understand my professor's point of view.  The pessimism seemed more like a game of Devil's Advocate than scorn.  Still, I told him the benefits of the course and the doors it could open for me, and as clichéd as it might sound, I really don't have anything to lose with this class.

What really bugged me was what happened last night when I hung out with a friend and talked about the writer I was doing for Carpe Nocturne.  She asked how much the job paid.  I said it paid nothing, but it was good for my résumé.

"So you're volunteering," she said, toning the word volunteering to make it sound like I was wasting my time.

"I'm padding my résumé," I said.

"So you're volunteering," she repeated with greater emphasis.

"I'm padding my résumé," I countered.

My point is that when you hear the doubts long enough - it doesn't matter if your 28, 18, or 88 - you get used to it.  It's background noise.  You'll hear it from friends and family alike.  The important thing is that if you recognize the risks but understand the benefits, then to hell with what other people say.  Just stand you ground and say, "Dammit!  If I don't do anything, I'll never get anywhere!"

The Hotel Thing

A few days ago, my writer friend Rachael posted a question on her Facebook page: what's your favorite and most productive place to write?  I answered that libraries were the best for me when I'm coming up with new material, some place quiet and with few distractions.  Granted, you still have to wear pants in a library, but still, the quiet and focus is a decent trade-off.

I also know that Rachael has occasionally done the hotel thing where she locks herself in a hotel room for a weekend and does nothing but write, and maybe snort lines of crushed Oreos.

I went away this weekend to Thousand Oaks for a reunion at my alma mater and thought I'd give the hotel thing a try as well.  It didn't work for me.  Even in the quiet of the hotel room, I found myself distracted simply by being in a new place.  Sure, I got about several hundred words written on Friday night, but nothing last night.  I'm back home now, so hopefully I'll be able to get more done.

On the bright side, you can't accuse me of never taking one of those vacation thingies.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Frantic: Day 100

If every day of writing Frantic were an episode of a TV show, then today as the 100th day would be a milestone.

It's been just a little bit sluggish - I wrote only a thousand words so far over the last two days - but so far I've gotten through about sixty or seventy thousand words of the second draft.  I'm pretty much done with the salvaged phase of the draft.  That is, I'm almost done with the part of Frantic that was recovered from Draft 1.

From here on out, I'm back in rough draft mode coming up with brand new material to get to the end of the story, although there might be a sliver or two from Draft 1 waiting to sneak back in.  Of course, that means that progress is going to slow down considerably whereas I was writing chunks of writing last week.  I'm hoping that this big buffer of wordage will keep me ahead enough to meet my deadline for the second draft (December 29th), or perhaps even finish it early.  I got my fingers crossed.

Of course, I still got the plot outline, so more power to me.  My friend Ashley got back to me saying that she thought the outline looked fine, so if I stick to it and check off the beats as I move along, I should be okay.  I'm not as worried with Draft 2 as I was with Draft 1.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Frantic: Day 97

I've been lagging on the blog updates because of a cold this last week, but I've been keeping up with the writing, so that's a good thing.  Actually, between writing, tutoring, and starting a story analysis course at UCLA, I've been busier than usual.

I'm getting close to the end of the easy streak of Frantic's second draft, the easy part being that most of the writing until now has been me going through stuff already written and salvaged from the first draft.  Maybe that's why I started getting cold feet last night about the story.

After a somewhat nervous evening, I'm still forging ahead.  There are a few things that have made moving forward easier.

First, I'm way ahead of myself in the second draft than I was in the first simply because I've got a beginning-to-end outline.  Granted, a lot of Draft 2 is new material, but it's easier coming up with that material when you know roughly what you've got to get across.

Second, I emailed a copy of the Draft 2 outline to my friend Ashley just to get a little feedback.  I'm pretty sure the plot is decent enough right now, but it always makes me feel better to get an outside opinion.  As a writer, my bias is kind of unreliable.  I either want to protect something bad from change, or have a lack of confidence in something good.  Either way, a second set of eyes is a good thing.

People will probably read this thinking, No!  You can't show the plot before you're done with a full draft!  Let me stress something: I'm showing the PLOT, not the STORY.  Story is when you combine a bunch of elements - dialog, characterization, sequences of events, etc. - into a whole thing.  When you pick up a draft of any book, that's the story at a particular point in time.  Plot is the sequence of events.

When you show your plot outline to someone, what you're really asking is whether or not that progression makes sense.  Does a fight between two characters in the third act sound logical given what's happened between them earlier in the outline.  Don't worry about it being the best plot.  Don't worry about it being Nobel Prize-winning stuff.  Just worry about whether or not it makes sense.

If that spine of a plot is solid, then the only thing to worry about is the execution in the writing.  You worry about that in revisions.  And if it still feels tough, just remember that Tony Stark could build this in a cave.  With a box of scraps.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Writer Tech

I hung out with some friends last weekend.  While chatting with one of them, I overheard a couple of others talk about the memo app on their phones and how much they enjoyehaving it.  Mostly, it was about how great it is to jot down a quick idea n the fly, but that got me thinking about the relationship between writers and technology.

Writers at any point of time, I believe, have had some relationship with the technology of their period, but it's a more intense relationship in this age of iPads, iPhones, and iPenises.

All a writer actually needs to work is some method of getting the words out of their head and into a physical form, a writing utensil and a tablet.  Neanderthals used painted on caves.  Egyptians used reeds on papyrus.  Jack Kerouac had a typewriter and rolls of teletype paper.  A computer can be thought of as a delayed typewriter in that you're writing the work one day and printing it out on paper the next.

At least, that's how I view my relationship with my laptop.  But I've also noticed how that's not always set in stone.  In my spare time, I've been brainstorming for another book for when I finish Frantic, and it's all being being done in notebooks.  Sometimes, they'll little descriptions that have popped in my head for the story, and other times there have been full vignettes.  Compared to the way a lot of writing is done nowadays, it's a very retro method to use.

High tech and low tech each have their own pros and cons.

High tech - working on a computer - allows me to write very quickly, especially when the creative floodgates are wide open.  With Internet access, I can look up random bits on information on the fly.  I can replicate and save my work so that there's a system of redundancy so that in case something happens to a hard copy, I can quickly print up a replacement.

Low tech, however - working with a pen and paper - of slowing you down and letting you breath.  You're not distracted by email, or search engines, or videos of cats on Youtube.  That's great if you've got a short attention span and need to force you brain to concentrate on the work.  True, you do need to take a little more care of those handwritten notes because you don't have the safety net of a computer, but when you move on towards transcribing those notes into a digital format, you've had the luxury of letting the story marinate in your mind.

Ultimately, you, the writer, have to decide what your relationship to technology will be in regards to your work, but I think the most technologically successful writers are the ones who build up a toolbox, assess what they've got, and pick the right method for any given project.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Frantic: Day 90

So I got sick last night.  Federal workers may have gone home because of the shutdown, but business is booming for the germs.  I woke up this morning feeling numb and disconnected.  My brain was unplugged from my body and I felt like I was a spectator to my own automatic functions.

Still, I had to get up and get my writing done for the day, at least a few thousand words.  And even though most of those words are salvaged material, they look like absolute crap through the foggy lens of illness.  Or maybe they really are just absolute crap.  Regardless, I've written about ten pages so far today.

Since I'm way ahead of my word count at the moment, I could have easily taken time off.  I didn't because I was afraid that a day off now would interrupt the moment I'd built over the last week.  However, I get it that people get sick, so if you're feeling the pre-winter sniffles coming on, and don't know whether or not you should tell your muse or judgmental bull or pocket kitten to take a hike, keep in mind that health comes first and that you're only mortal.

Case in point: I came down with strep throat a couple of years ago.  I tried to muscle my way through it, but the fact was that I was too messed up to even keep my eyes open.  My throat had nearly completely sealed up, and frankly, I think I might have hallucinated a thing or two (do cats tap dance?).

Unless you're puking green stuff and hosting a fever hot enough to melt glaciers - or, shit, if you feel like crap regardless of those symptoms - just remember that it's okay to go easy on yourself.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Frantic: Day 88

When I wrote the first draft of my novel, I think there were a lot of times when I'd write standing up, hoping that the accumulation of lactic acid in my legs would inspire me to step on it and hurry up.  I tried it tonight with a ten-page scene, "God, this sucks!"  It's probably good for that first draft, but with the second?  Not so much.

It's been a really productive week though.  I'm way ahead of schedule and might even take it easy tomorrow.  Not a day off, of course, because that has to wait until the second draft is done, but perhaps just a couple of thousand words rather than the 5,000-word overdose I've been doing.

Yesterday, however, I finished off the first of my novel's eleven parts.  The story is well underway and I'm in that transitional portion where the characters go from skeptical "Zombies?  For real?" to "Oh, crap!  How do we not end up on the menu."  For sure, in Part 2, I've got a new scene to write, one that wasn't there for the first draft, and if I keep up the present pace, I think I might get to it in a few days.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Frantic: Day 86

So I decided to change the title of my zombie book from No Tomorrow back to Frantic, which was a name I wanted to use for an earlier more road trip-y zombie story.  It was a decision made just a few minutes ago while driving and listening to the Metallica song of the same name.

Regardless of fast versus slow zombies, road trip versus "we're gonna stay put and hunker down", it still rings in my head as a zombie anthem, even though I've heard it was really about James Hetfield's past experience with alcoholism.

And, of course, this meant I had to go back and strike out the posts about "old" Frantic so there's no confusion with "new" Frantic, but that's okay because the old story didn't survive while this new one, I think, does have staying power with it.

And speaking of staying power, even though "old" Frantic has so far lasted longer than "new" Frantic, I'm very proud of how I feel with this current version focusing on a small town surviving rather than a ragtag group roaming and looking for safety.  It might have to do with the fact that I got an actual plot down this time.  Before, I let my mind wander.  Although the first draft of this new version also had me wandering around, I at least had a more stable idea when I started, even though that idea changed dramatically by the time I got to the end.

Writers are often categorized as pantsers or plotters.  Pantsers let inspiration take them like they're flying by the seat of their pants.  Plotters, on the other hand, figure out the road ahead before they start.  I think I'm both.  I'm a pantser at the start, using the first draft as an enormous brainstorming session, but when I have the idea, making a plot - even a very loose plot, a list of a few dozen key events in the story - helps keep me on track as I move ahead.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

No Tomorrow: Day 84

So it begins...Draft 2 of No Tomorrow!

I've expanded my projected word count to 150,000 words just in case this thing grows from the Hulk to the Abomination to the Leviathan to Tony Stark's drinking habit.  As a result, I'm planning on this taking the next three months of my time, or until the year's end.  That's okay because when the ball drops in Times Square on New Year's Eve, it'll give me an excuse to think the world is celebrating my accomplishment.  Celebrate the start of 2014?  Psh, whatever.

With a solid 3,000 words down, today's writing has been pretty easy.  And I expect tomorrow to go pretty smoothly as well.  This is because much of the first half of this draft is stuff salvaged from the previous draft, which means that I'll be able to free up a bunch of days good and early in case I hit a snag later on when I'm writing new material.  Even then, with the plot outlined, I don't expect to have as hard a time as I did with Draft 1.

Not that Draft 1 was a dick-punch.  On the contrary, I had more fun writing it than with any other writing project I've had in a long, long time.

Still, today, that doesn't spare me from winding up all wide-eyed and crazy.