Monday, October 30, 2017

Monica Valentinelli

Author Monica Valentinelli joined us to talk about her work in fiction, games, and media tie-ins, and we had a super-interesting discussion!  Monica told us that she likes to write horror, dark fantasy, and dark science fiction, but that when it comes to horror, she's not a fan of chopping off somebody's arm and calling it horror. She prefers atmospheric horror including the works of Edgar Alan Poe, Mary Shelly, and Anne Rice, among others.

"What is horror?" she asks. Is it a mood or a genre? Genre is more of a question of which shelf to put a book on, in her mind. Not until revisions do you have a sense of that. She finds it easier to write horror and the darker genres because she can capture that mood. She also says the motivations of the characters are clearer because they are "drawing to the point of light." Even if things are terrible, there is that little point of light that they are trying to move toward.

Monica said she likes to look at what kinds of situations are no-win. She prefers gray skies. When you are surrounded by darkness, what do you do? Are you crushed? Do you fight?

I asked her if she uses any talismanic words (recurring words that evoke particular feelings). She explained, "I don't write by fixating on words..." Instead, she focuses on the sound of the narrative. She has a background in musical history, and perhaps because of that she includes reading aloud as part of her process.

She describes a story as being like an iceberg. Readers see the tip, but they need the impression of depth.

Monica is writing a novel about alchemists, who have specific behaviors like purifying themselves by going into the hottest water possible. The details paint the picture for the reader. History is messy. Monica says she researches obsessively. In her view, human nature doesn't change, but technology does. She likes to look at the advertisements and letters from a historical period. What does a tentacle mean to a story? You don't know until you know what the characters see it as. She doesn't want to get stuck in tropes.

I asked Monica what her research process looks like. She told us it depends on what she already knows, and what she's doing with the topic. For Dark Eras, a "near world" urban fantasy game, she was creating a template so people could play as monster hunters. That sent her into research on Salem, and the pre-Enlightenment views on why crops failed, etc. (The general view was that it was the devil.) She spent three months researching a twenty thousand word chapter. There were a lot of tensions in the community and aspects of the history that had remained unexplained in the usual accounts. Tituba was married, for example. Also, these were not the only witch trials that were happening at that time.

Monica says the danger is that research can become procrastination. It has been for her novel. It's important as you research to ask, "What is the purpose of the research?" and "Am I losing focus?" It takes time to process the layers of information. There is also the question of how you are using the information. Are you writing historical fiction? Or are you being inspired by it?

Monica told us her alchemy novel is in the same world as Violet War, and right now she's working on multiple stories in the world.  She has been influenced by working in games and media tie-ins, where you can ply in a sandbox. She wants to know the world really well so she can write quickly.

I asked her what it was like to work on media tie-in projects. She told me you see what's on the stage. The most important part is actually contractual: there is a contract and licensing agreement between the company producing the product and the license owner for a particular period of time. That amount of time varies widely. That agreement determines the scope of the project, and every arrangement is different. If you are working with a team, it's different from just working for an editor. Monica worked on a Firefly role-playing game, and on a Firefly dictionary. She said how and where you can build things depends on what material you are given. Sometimes there is a setting bible; sometimes you need to make one. The tough question is where your creativity can stray from the core of the property. When is Star Wars no longer Star Wars? It's not something you own. It's highly variable, and Monica says that you need skills to collaborate and manage your own ego. If you aren't willing to do this, you can be replaced by someone who is willing to do the work. Monica says she has brought a lot of learnings from this to her own life. Her big goal is to do something like Rick Riordan Presents.

I asked Monica about her favorite aspects of worldbuilding. She says she likes to have milestones and touch points. "I have to know about how magic works to write about a wizard," she says. Character psychology is more about characterization for her than about worldbuilding.

She likes to start a story by developing an elevator pitch. (This is a description of a story that can be delivered to an agent or editor during a short ride in an elevator.) It's a 1-5 sentence summary of what the story is about. Otherwise, Monica says, she's going to go off the rails. She picks two books or movies that it's most like. That helps her put a visual container on the story.

Monica said that when she works on character, she focuses on how characters react to things. She uses a book called The Secret Language of Birthdays, which give keywords and personality traits for people who have particular birth dates. It often gives both positive and negative traits, and gives her clues for a starting point. A basic background for a character helps her give someone direction. She writes down character motivations. The value of her research is filtered through this. Does my character really care about the types of shoes they wore in 1865?

Her interest in history sometimes gives her trouble when actual history doesn't match with the popular narrative of that history, and readers try to tell her history worked one way, when she knows it worked another way. She thinks it's important to be accurate so that the incorrect narrative doesn't "become the history"for her readers.

Right now, Monica is looking for places to publish her short stories set in her macro-world. She's also writing something for a collection in which each story is an auction item. Hers is a found rare book, "The Mythica d'Argent," a metal book with chemical mysteries, such as the fact that it doesn't tarnish. She also has a lot of gaming work coming out shortly in Dark Eras 2, where the chapters are about different historical eras in a near-world, including the period of Galileo Galilei, the Empire of Mali, the Qing Dynasty, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

I asked Monica how working on a novel was different from working in a game. She said that in a novel, you get to use your own voice, but the story is usually static. The reader will take from it what they want to. In a game, there is the potential for story. Games are dynamic, though video games are less dynamic than role-playing games. Groups of people can pick up the threads and tell their own story, so you do want to tell people all the details of the world, in a way that doesn't happen in a novel. In the novel, there is a focus on plot, subplots and characters. Pieces of the world that aren't relevant to the characters get cut. In a game, you have to have twenty magical items so the players can pick one. You have to present "the whole iceberg." As far as narrative, the character motivations in a role-playing game are decided by the player. Motivation in a video game is generally provided. A lot of plot isn't usually there in the game unless it's provided by non-player characters. For a game, there's a mixture of cool setting, cool beings or entities that people can work from, and there must be more material than one person can use. You are designing the rules.

Monica said she perceives a mental transition phase between novels and games. The Violet War is something that she aims to make into a playable role-playing game, but there are a lot of steps still necessary. She needs readers, material, marketing, etc. But for now she needs to focus on what she's doing, which is writing short stories in the world to attract readers.

Monica, you were a wonderful guest and we really enjoyed talking to you! Thank you so much for your insights and for answering all our questions, and good luck with your projects.

This week, Dive into Worldbuilding will meet on Wednesday, November 1st, and we'll be talking about Precociousness. I hope you can join us!