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Interview with Freelance Writer Monica Valentinelli

Posted on September 5, 2008 by Flames

Freelance writer Monica Valentinelli likes to play around with ideas, forms, rules, words… and just about anything else that can be thrown into a creative stew pot. She blends a love of history and philosophy with a love of dark fantasy and horror to create startling and exciting fiction and games.

“Monica possesses a genuine passion for creating and a sharply self-critical eye, both of which are essential for someone to grow as a writer,” said James Lowder, author and editor, whose most recent anthology, Worlds of Their Own was released last month. “She has lots of good ideas and the discipline to develop them in interesting, genre-expanding ways.”

Valentinelli has worked on games for Abstract Nova, Eden Studios, Rogue Games, and Twilight Games in addition to several other companies for games that are not yet in print. Most recently she contributed to Exquisite Replicas, Aletheia, and Noumenon, all from Abstract Nova. The setting chapter of Exquisite Replicas, “Initiation,” shows Valentinelli at her darkest, weirdest, and most experimental… which is to say, at her best.

“When I write, I feel like I’m right smack dab in the middle of the rivers of creation,” said Valentinelli. “Whether it’s a story, a business proposal or a game, I feel that each type of writing requires a different skill set to make the finished product sparkle.

“I thoroughly enjoy that the medium is constantly changing, and that I can continually learn and grow with every project. As any writer knows, if you’re not evolving with the times–you might as well trade in your laptop and build a time machine, instead.”

In the spirit of online test marketing, Valentinelli has been serializing her novel, Argentum, the first novel in the The Violet War series, and taking feedback from her many readers.

Valentinelli and I spoke around the time of GenCon 2008, while she was preparing for the debut of Exquisite Replicas.

Jones: What’s the difference between writing for games and writing fiction?

Valentinelli: There is a huge difference between writing games and fiction. Huge. When you write fiction, you’re telling an entertaining story replete with a plot, characters, setting, etc. Fiction has a very one-to-one relationship with your audience; it’s just you (the author) and the reader. The reader can’t change the plot (unless, of course, you’re reading a “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure”), which makes the medium more static than a game.

With game writing you’re not writing plot — you’re writing the potential for a plot wrapped in a set of mathematical rules that need to make sense. Game writing is a lot like technical writing, and requires a different set of skills than fiction does.

When you write games, though, I should note that you have an agreement with the publisher so you don’t go willy-nilly and include cute, little sprites in your game about flesh-eating necromancers. There are a lot more restrictions that you have to deal with in game writing and you’re not always going to agree with the publisher who, ultimately, is “the boss.”

Jones: In which do you feel more at home, fiction or game writing?

Valentinelli: Well, I’m attracted to both types of writing for different reasons. Fiction I enjoy because I feel I have more flexibility with the format and the content than game writing.

Game writing I enjoy because of the team aspect and the challenge of fitting text around an outline and a system. It’s a lot like putting the pieces of a puzzle together and–in the best of scenarios–you’ll have contributed to a highly-playable and marketable game.

From playtesting to working on the outline and editing chapters of text, if you do not have a good synergy with the people you’re working with on a game, it will show. The role that I find myself in depends upon the publisher I’m working for, how well-versed a company is in the production process, and what the company’s expectations are.

Jones: What can you tell me about your novella, “Twin Designs” from Tales of the Seven Dogs Society?

Valentinelli: When the collection was being planned, Lee and Matt had a choice to make, and that was whether or not to have the same, iconic set of characters for each of the stories or let us create our own. They opted for the latter, so my story focuses on one take on the Seven Dogs Society, whereas Matt’s and Jim’s are two different ones. I felt that I knew the setting pretty well, having contributed to the game, and I double-checked with the other writers to see if they were going to include the metaplot or not before I went any further.

Before I even got into writing “Twin Designs”, I knew that there was something I had to show off from the game, to hint about what Aletheia is really about without spoiling it for people. In order to do it, though, I had to break a lot of conventions.

In Aletheia, you play a psychically-gifted investigator that belongs to a group called the Seven Dogs Society, headquartered in a sprawling Victorian mansion in Alaska. The novella is split into two points-of-view from two of those members, Ralph and Edgar, his twin brother. The basis for the story is a little-known power called “Presque Vu”, which gives you the ability to see whether or not an action or event is part of the Grand Design, to receive insight about it which is crucial to the player’s investigations.

“Twin Designs” was written and designed the way that it was for multiple reasons: to provide a stand-alone story, to show that not everyone is going to interpret Presque Vu the same way for their character, and to show off a little bit about the mystery behind the Usher Codex.

In all honesty, I’m expecting mixed reviews because I feel that I really stretched the boundaries of a typical, adventure-style fiction story. This isn’t a scene-by-scene type of a story where the group investigates a mystery while chased by bad guys that a lot of people enjoy reading; while there are bad guys, there’s a lot of focus on character development which was intentional and “crucial” to the mystery of the Usher Codex and the characters.

In some stories, the characters are on an adventure; in “Twin Designs”, the twins are the adventure.

Jones: How do you develop a character, both before and during the writing?

Valentinelli: Character development for me is actually pretty straightforward at the onset, because I never create characters that live in silos. In some way, the character has to have some connection or “hook” to the world that he/she’s in. I don’t do a lot of development up front, because much of the character’s personality for me doesn’t come through until I’m writing them down. For example, in “Twin Designs” I named Ralph and Edgar after Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allen Poe because I wanted their characters to be philosophically “light” and “dark.”

Well, Ralph and Edgar didn’t exactly wind up that way; as the story was being written there was one point where I thought that Ralph ended up a tea-drinking, whiny, snot-faced elitist. Edgar seemed to be this character that would listen to your sob story, look you straight in the eye and say, “Shit happens.”

For me, a well-developed character needs to be three-dimensional, human. They’re the good guys that will steal your lunch money when they’re down on their luck, or the bad guy that protects fluffy bunnies because he has one as a pet. Well-developed characters, like people, also change and evolve with the world around them. They apply what they’ve learned, however subconsciously, and go on living.

Jones: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that Exquisite Replicas is the darkest game you’ve ever contributed to.

Valentinelli: In my experience with horror games, your character either can see the horror or he/she can’t. “Exquisite Replicas” is a little bit of both; your character isn’t sure that what they’re seeing is real. Even if they think it is, there are very few people who will believe them. That hit me pretty hard when I was focusing on how to describe the setting, because I kept putting myself in the character’s cheap, black suit, wondering what it would be like to have the ability to see the Replicas–knowing that they’re unnatural and wrong–but feel powerless to do anything about it.

I’m typically drawn to horror because I feel that kind of adversity causes true heroes to shine more brightly in the dark. However, this is a game where the heroes don’t “shine,” they don’t have parades, and they can’t really pat themselves on the back. Characters have to sacrifice the illusion that they’re safe to rush out and rescue–who? Whose decision is it to save your character’s husband or your family’s cats instead of your teammate’s sister, your leader’s son? Who has the power, time and resources to donate food or help your team hide from the mortals who think you’re criminals?

Jones: What did you learn about the game writing process between Aletheia and Exquisite Replicas?

Valentinelli: No matter what type of a game you’re working on, you can’t ever take the same style of writing and stick it into an outline. It’s essential to understand the pace of a game–whether it’s proactive or reactive–to write the text accordingly. Aletheia is what I would call a proactive game, where “Exquisite Replicas” is a reactive type of a game.

In a proactive game, when an event happens your characters have more time to make decisions that affect the story. For example, your character doesn’t “have” to investigate a supernatural event in Aletheia, but it is part of the job. Your character can choose where she wants to go and how your team investigates it by using a set of guidelines. Here, the text is more straightforward and, at times, scientific to play up the crucial “observer” aspects of an investigator’s role.

In Exquisite Replicas, it’s more reactive because your characters have a limited amount of time to figure out what you’re going to do next. The feel is much more frenzied because it’s a do-or-die situation where your character either acts NOW or you suffer the consequences of your actions. The text is winding, spinning and diluted because, as an Initiate, you learn about the world from DM-107864923Q-AAP who has suffered those consequences. Her character serves as an example of what can happen if you choose–poorly.

Jones: What are the pros and cons of working in a Shared Universe?

Valentinelli: Pros? The biggest pro is that you are working with other writers on a creative project, so you’re not isolated in your craft. Always a danger, if you’re not in a writing workshop or a writer’s group it’s all too easy to put the blinders on and “forget” to think objectively about what words you’re putting on the page. A “shared universe” encourages and fosters teamwork even if you’re not working with the other writers directly, because you’re collaborating on work that’s either already been designed, or a universe that you’re helping to create.

Certainly the most technical experience [I’ve had working in a licensed setting] was trying to make sure I had all the setting details right for “Twin Designs”; I literally had the Aletheia .pdf open and was doing massive amounts of searches to make sure I described the floors, rooms, and other minutia correctly.

The biggest “Con” to working in this type of a format is the headaches of legalese. Legally, shared worlds and licensed settings are defined as two, separate things. Typically, with “licensed” settings (which is really what most gaming fiction is) you don’t own the rights to what you do. With shared worlds the rights may vary depending upon the contract. For example, if you’re lucky enough to work with George R.R. Martin and his ingenious “share”-based ownership of “Wild Cards”, you’ve hit a gold mine.

Jones: Can you tell me a little about the process of building the setting for the serialized novels that make up The Violet War?

Valentinelli: The first decision I made was to figure out how magic worked. In the setting, I wanted everything–from the crabbiest werewolf to the fantastical gryphon and the betrayed Illuyankas–to be real. In this universe, magic is based on the characters’ biological makeup which is kept in check by Nature.

The second decision I had to make was to figure out how I wanted to break down the series from this larger-than-life idea I had about the war between magic-born and mortals. At the heart of the Violet War are the Alchemists, humans with no innate magical ability that tinker with genetics just as much as they do with metals.

The first book, “Argentum”, focuses on one of the Condemned, an exiled magic-born named Sophie Miller who is on a quest to return to her world any way that she can. Her character’s memory loss has allowed me to introduce the setting piecemeal, but it’s not without its own challenges, especially in the online format.

Jones: In The Violet War, how are your zombies and vampires different than run of the mill monsters?

Valentinelli: Any monstrous figures in the Violet War are a byproduct of a failed Alchemical reaction. Zombies, vampires, werewolves, etc. do not work independently, they are born slaves to the Alchemist, but may also be commanded by the being whose genetic make-up created them. For example, say that the Alchemists were working their magic on a feather from Quetzalcoatl and the reaction failed miserably. If *poof* there’s a feathered bird-zombie in their midst, both the Alchemist and Quetzalcoatl could control it–but only those two. Alchemists are often strongly discouraged from taking huge risks in their experiments, or if they do they’re asked to kill their “creations” outright. ‘Course, that doesn’t always happen.

The weakness for these creatures is always the common elements used to create them. Vampires, greedy for blood, are sensitive to gold. Zombies don’t eat in this setting and have a shortened lifespan; many Alchemists intentionally create them, though, using them as a type of homunculi –especially if they’re doing something they’re not supposed to be doing.

Jones: What part of the world-building process do you enjoy most?

Valentinelli: Remember the phrase, “Phenomenal cosmic power! Itty bitty living space?” World-building is a lot like that. You’re creating plot planets and star characters and magical gravity, but you have to smush it all down into a keychain-sized, readable story. I like the smushing–a lot–because I feel like I’m turning big ideas into something small and digestible.

Jones: “Smushing”?

Valentinelli: Smushing is a word I use to describe taking really big “world-building” concepts and distilling them into a one-or-two sentence summary. The process allows me to have free reign when I’m brainstorming, but then brings big ideas back into reality.

Jones: How has the Violet War story changed since your original conception?

Valentinelli: Oh, it was originally a lot darker than I had intended it to be. Initially, the main character was going to tell the story from flashback mode in a torture room, but I stopped that cold. Sophie’s character may be a lot of things, but she wouldn’t have been able to realistically survive a magical torture chamber after what she had done.

Jones: What part of you shows up in The Violet War?

Valentinelli: I’ve always had an interest in philosophy, folklore, archeology and mythology; if you read a lot of cultural myth, you might notice that a similarly themed god (or goddess) shows up multiple times in different areas of the world. In Violet War, many of the gods, goddesses and other beings can be referred to by multiple names, but are pulled from places all over the world.

Jones: What is it about Kurt Vonnegut that resonates with you?  What has Vonnegut taught you about writing?

Valentinelli: First time I read Vonnegut, I was knee-deep in a pile of books like The Fountainhead, Cat’s Cradle, Fahrenheit 451 and Flowers for Algernon. The thing that struck me the most about Vonnegut is that it seemed like he had no boundaries, no limits to his made-up vocabulary or the message behind his books. He wasn’t confined to “what everyone else was writing.” He made up the rules as he went along. He lived through terrible human atrocities we can only see in pictures today. But he never stopped — he kept on going.

Vonnegut has taught me that it’s okay to experiment and play with formats. It’s all right to try new things, to breathe freshness into tired mediums using as few words as you possibly can. While I don’t always follow his mantra, my writing is never static as a result of his early influence on my work.

Jones: Are rules your friends or foes?  Good or bad?

Valentinelli: Well, there are really two types of rules; conventions and mechanics. Writing conventions are a necessary evil, because without them you wouldn’t be able to write-for-hire. When you write “for” someone else–no matter if it’s a brochure, a want ad, or a character description–you have to meet their expectations as the “publisher.” Depending upon the market, you may also have to silently satisfy the reader as well. If someone were to hire me, for example, to write a story based on “Hellboy”–I would be obligated to look at previous work and figure out what the conventions of “Hellboy” are to write the story. In that case, I have to satisfy not only the publisher, but the reader and fans as well.

Mechanics, on the other hand, are a whole ‘nother ball of wax, because you’re confined to write based on those “game rules.” No matter what your game mechanics are–systemless, multiple systems, or “new”–solid rules enable writers to write great games.

Interview by Jeremy Jones

Visit www.mlvwrites.com and www.violetwar.com for more information on Monica’s fiction, game design and other projects.

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