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.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Words of Wisdom

Lately, I've thought a lot about writerly advice.  Not many people ask me for advice.  I sometimes get questions about the writing life like how I stay motivated or where I come up with my ideas.  Those are pretty basic.

But I've been writing for several years now, and if I could go back in time, there are some things I'd say to my younger self.

Start now.

When I was an undergrad, I knew a guy named Sam who was easily the most talent student in the English department.  Man, that guy could write!  We had a class on Shakespeare and I learned that he was already published.  I thought that was ballsy at the time.  To me, writing was like any other profession with a formal learning.  My plan was to get my English degree, then go on to a creative writing program, and then start my career.  Turns out that I was the dumbass.  The truth is that creative writing programs simply give you options for craft and introduce you to a lot of peers and colleagues.  That's fine, but I didn't get my first publication until I was in grad school.  Had I followed Sam's example, I'd be a solid four or five years ahead of myself right now.

Forget about that Great American Novel!

The novel I was working on since New Years crashed...again.  It lost that special spark, my interest in it waned, and I dropped it entirely.  I've decided to give up on the novel.  That is to say I've given up the ambition of the novel.  I think a lot of young writers put the novel on a pedestal like it's some sort of holy relic, and I was one of them.  Honestly, I think the reason I was so stubborn about it was because I didn't want to look like a failure, or like someone who'd abandoned his dreams.  Stephen King once said that a lot of young writers try tackling novels before they're ready.  I think I'm one of them.  He also said that there have been times when a good short story idea expands itself into a novel.  I'm finishing up one short story, but I'm also plotting out another.  I started a first draft and wanted to make sure all my beats were lined up, but more importantly, I noticed that draft was quickly growing out of the short story range and into a novella.  And I actually like that because there's no burden of the novel as a monolithic entity.  It's just a short story, but if it takes off, so be it.  So to my younger self (and you youngsters reading this): focus just on the story, and don't obsess over the size of the thing.

Be flexible.

I've taken to heart Stephen King's advice in On Writing, as well as Chuck Wendig's wisdom on his Terrible Minds blog.  I've praised John Truby's The Anatomy of Story where he talks about how artificial the three-act structure is, but having gone through my story analysis course at UCLA last year, I can also say that there are certain benefits to the three-act structure.  And I've got a few other how-to books on writing from which I can point out pearls of wisdom.  All of these people are right.  There's no specific way to write a story.  John Irving says he has to know the last sentence of a story before he can tell it.  Stephen King thinks that spoils the fun and mystery.  Keep your mind open to any and all tactics, build up a toolbox, and then decide which works best for you.  If you end up having one specific way suited for how your mind works, that's fine.  If you decide to revamp your approach with each story, that works just as well.  Know thyself.

Focus on what's in front of you.

If you think you've got a story idea on the horizon, ignore it.  Seriously.  I don't care if you think it is going to blow Hemingway and Fitzgerald out of the water.  Don't write it down either.  If it's worth writing, your mind will subconsciously hold on to it.  You've got a story in front of you right now.  It needs your attention.  You owe it (and you owe it to yourself) to see it through to the end.  My recommendation is to work on no more than two stories at any given time.  If you have one story, then you can focus all your energy on it.  But in my experience, I've found that working on three or more pieces stretches my mind too thing and I have trouble keeping track of all my projects.  This is just for fiction, by the way.  I also do nonfiction on the side, but even then, I don't do more than one article at a time.  It just get to be too overwhelming for me.

Remind people who the real bastard is.

You're going to fuck up.  A lot.  That's part of how you learn, but when you're writing hoping to get even a small paycheck, those mistakes can also crush your self-esteem.  So when someone tells you you'll never make money writing, or asks you what you really do, tell them, "Listen, asshole.  I know how tough this shit is.  I don't need you to rub it in."  Say it kindly, or say it bluntly.  I leave the choice to you.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Submission Trackers

I sent out my new short story to Penumbra just now.  I got the story logged in my submission tracker at Duotrope, but I want to talk to you guys about setting up your own submission tracker at home.  I think it's important to keep your own paperwork on the side of the "official" stuff.  It's like keeping track of finances.  Sure, you could check your register online with your bank nowadays, but I always think it's helpful to have a little bit of redundancy.

My tracker is taken right out of Writer's Market, but it's basically an Excel file with the following columns:
  • Manuscript Title: The title of the submission.
  • Market: The name of the magazine, agency, or publisher you're sending your story to.
  • Contact Name: The name of the person at the market getting your work.
  • Date Sent: The date you send in the work.
  • Date Rejected: The date your work was rejected.
  • Date Accepted: The date your work was accepted.
  • Date Published: The date your work was printed.
  • Payment Received: How much you were paid (if applicable).
  • Comments: Any additional notes about your experience with that specific market.
I keep a separate spreadsheet for each year, and because I'm a visual guy, I like to highlight and color-code things.  Submissions that are out are highlighted in blue.  Submissions that have been accepted and published are highlighted in orange.  Submissions that are unmarked are likely rejected.  Not that there's anything wrong with those markets that have rejected you (and you may be accepted by them at a later date), but it's important to skim your tracker and see what's out pounding the pavement, and it's a nice confidence booster to see where you've had victories.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Gang

I joined a local writer's group through Meetup that started just recently.  We had our first session last night.  The group is pretty straightforward: sit down and write for two hours.  Quietly.  There was no workshopping and very little in the way of intros.

I was surprised by how much I did.  There was an hour of short story work followed by an hour of revisions.  After that, we spent about fifteen or twenty minutes going around the table speaking briefly about what we worked on.  The responses were pretty close to the chest, including mine.  A novel here.  A screenplay there.  Nothing about premises.  I guess we were all a little shy.  I passed along to one guy a suggestion on character descriptions that I heard from Justin Cronin when we met at Vroman's in Pasadena.  The guy, I think, took the advice with a hint of skepticism.  Perhaps I should have flipped him off with my MFA diploma, but I left that at home.

It was a pleasant evening aside from that minor discomfort.  We're having another writing session next Monday, but I'm a little wary because my tutoring schedule would conflict with it in a major way.  It's been a while since I've written alongside other people, so I'm willing to give this group a chance and see whether or not it'll make me more productive.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Digging In

The great thing about dealing with a potential burnout is knowing that the malaise will eventually subside and you'll feel all rejuvenated and hyper like an Asian Giant Hornet on speed.  Ironically, I think a helpful way of doing it is to look at your work.

Because I'm so job-hungry, I updated my curriculum vitae today (I have five).  I saw on my writing CV that I had six credits, most of them from within the last couple of years.  The weird thing was that feeling of it dawning on me that, yes, I have been writing.  It doesn't seem that way when you're editing at 11 PM or clawing your way towards your laptop at 6 AM when the sun's just coming out.

Then I looked at my binders of writing and saw that I had quite a bit stored up just from the last few months.  Short stories.  Articles.  Novel work.  Notes for upcoming projects.  A lot of it's still raw, but some are nearly ready for submission.

My point is that rather than feeling overwhelmed, I was pleasantly surprised to see evidence of hours, days, and weeks at the keyboard.  Unfinished?  Yes.  But a vague fog?  Hardly.

This doesn't sound like something I'd normally say, but if you're feeling like the work is getting to you, turn into a "glass is half-full" kind of person and take stock not of what lies ahead, but rather how much you've got behind you.  Many times, you'll see that the end of a project is closer than you think, and that'll get you charged for pushing the rest of the way.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Burning Out

It's been quite a week for me, not entirely for the best.  I feel totally drained like Dracula's been sucking me dry.  I don't even know which Dracula, but because I'm a fan, I'm going to say it's the Christopher Lee version.  Yeah, Chris was and still is a bad-ass.

It's been a week of frustrated tutoring and late nights of script reading.  Luckily, I've lightened my writing load a bit, but when I woke up mid-morning today feeling exhausted before I even got out of bed, I knew something was off.

I think a few things need to change this week so I get back on my energetic horse for the next.  I feel like I've been taking too many shortcuts with work, not exactly getting lazy but not exactly being focused either.  It's that sort of daze you get where you think you're work is fine enough to send it without proofreading, all in an effort to turn it in more quickly and get to bed sooner.  That's got to stop.

With writing, I should just accept that there are going to be days where I simply can't sit down at my laptop in the morning, days where I know I've overslept and can't recover that time later.  That's why I've got Saturday saved as a catch-up day.

But most of all, I think I need to stop kicking myself in the ass thinking it's a sign that I'm about to get the ax when a supervisor wants to offer feedback to improve my work.  On three separate occasions, friends of mine who've never met each other have said, "You're too hard on yourself."

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Why Earth Go Boom?!

I was watching The Walking Dead a couple of weeks ago where Glenn met Abraham Ford's group en route to Washington DC, and there was a part where I almost had to laugh: just before they cut to commercial, Ford introduced one of his party, Eugene Porter (with a apocalyptic mullet), and said, "He knows exactly how this whole thing started."  Well, howdy doody, boys and girls!  I guess we can all go home!  By that point, given how irrevocably fucked the world is, does it really matter how the apocalypse began?

Does it matter how any apocalypse in fiction begins?

Some would say...maybe.

Audiences like to have answers, even if they're really crappy ones like the trees were just warning us.  Yeah, I'm looking at you, M. Night.  Other times, the story gets by without an explanation at all.  Yeah, I'm looking at you, Cormac McCarthy.

In rare cases, such as The Road or the 2011 film The Day, a mystery cause works perfectly fine because within the confines of the story, the cause is unnecessary.  The world went to hell.  People turned on each other.  Survivors must endure the wackiness.  Survival is almost always the universal theme of apocalyptic stories.

In other instances, the cause is integral to the story.  Even though The Walking Dead doesn't explain how the zombie plague began, what we do need to know is that zombies themselves were the reason for civilization's downfall.  What creates them isn't even important anymore, whether they're created from voodoo curses or government viruses...or radioactive contamination from a probe returning from Venus.  Yeah, I'm looking at you, George Romero.

In some cases, such as alien invasion stories, the details of the apocalypse become even more important because the threat is a thinking one that plans and forms strategies.  In order for the writer to get the most bang for the buck, the capabilities of the aliens need to be known.  Do they have force fields or ray guns?  Are they looking to annihilate all of mankind, or can a truce be made?  Do they even think like we do, or are they a hive mind like the Borg?

So yes, no, maybe so...the cause of the apocalypse is only important if your story demands it is.  If it does, hammer that stuff out and stick to those notes.  But be warned: overthinking the cause can lead to long bouts of procrastination.  This is one of the reasons why I've avoided writing science fiction lately.  Too much research can lead to some very cool ideas, but nothing that serves your story.

Think about the story first, and then retcon, reverse engineer, and backronym your disaster.