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, September 1, 2015

The Hook

I sat down to start reading SM Stirling's The Sky People.  Actually, it was my third reading.  The first time I saw the novel in a bookstore, the title grabbed me.  "Sky People" was a term used by the Na'vi to describe humans in the film Avatar.  The green cover showed two rifle-armed astronauts in a jungle with a triceratops and a saber-toothed tiger on the periphery, and the summary on the back - an alternate history story set during the Cold War in which Venus and Mars are habitable with their own native civilizations - sounded pretty cool.

The furthest I've gotten into The Sky People was about a quarter of the way through the book.  I think I got through the first couple of chapters in the first reading.  But tonight?  I got through chapter one, and put it down.  This is not a condemnation of Stirling's novel, or of Stirling himself as a writer.  I love science fiction.  I love alternate history, and I love stories set in a fictionalized Solar System when many other writers choose planets light-years away.

The Sky People has a lot going for it when it comes to world-building.  It realistically forces the Space Race into overdrive.  Stirling shows us a lush and identifiable Venus; Mars doesn't appear until the sequel In the Courts of the Crimson Kings.  We've got NATO-run Jamestown and Soviet-controlled Cosmograd.  Bronze-age natives clashing with Neanderthals.  Hell, there are even Encyclopedia entries describing this alternate Venus along with initial exploration decades earlier.

What The Sky People lacked - for me, at least - was a strong hook.  World-building is a great creative exercise, but the first job of the writer is to entertain and tell a good story.  A hook is the first step to draw in the reader.  Story world isn't a hook.  It's a stopper, a term I learned during a short stint as a charity fundraiser last month.  Yes, I was one of those guys on the sidewalk raising donations for charity.  People passed by me all day long, and a stopper is designed to do just that: stop potential donors (potential readers in this case).  You next give a quick icebreaker and an introduction to the pitch - remember, folks got places to go and people to see - but then you have to give them a problem or a crisis.

This is the real hook, a central problem so jarring that readers keep with the story to find the resolution.  Soviets put nukes into Cuba, and we want to know how America will dodge a nuclear war.  Flesh-eating zombies surround a house, and we wonder how the occupants inside will escape.  Claudius takes Hamlet's birthright, and we wonder how the prince will regain what was stolen.  I believe the crisis Stirling is trying to give us is that the Soviets were smuggling guns to Venus that got into the hands of the Neanderthals.  It's a good crisis with echoes of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Prime Directive of Star Trek, but unfortunately it didn't grab me as much as I would have liked.

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