Games, short stories, essays, nonfiction about pop culture, comics, novellas, and media tie-in fiction—Monica Valentinelli has worked in them all, and her body of work only continues to grow. She has also been recognized numerous times for her work and earned several awards, including the Judge’s Spotlight Award in the 2015 ENnie Awards for Echoes of War: Thrillin’ Heroics.
Valentinelli talked with TechRaptor over email, discussing her career, her process, and working on projects like a game based on Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
TechRaptor: Could you please tell us about yourself?
Monica Valentinelli: I’ve been working in the hobby games industry as a narrative designer and tabletop gaming producer for over a decade. I’ve worked with dozens of publishers, including Wizards of the Coast, Steve Jackson Games, Onyx Path Publishing, Atlas Games, Catalyst Game Labs, and Pelgrane Press. Most people recognize my work in the Firefly universe. I was the line developer/lead writer for the Firefly RPG; I also wrote The Gorramn Shiniest Dictionary and Phrasebook in the ‘Verse as well as the Firefly Encyclopedia which were published by Titan Publishing. In addition to games and reference materials, I’ve published short stories with publishers including Apex Book Company, Uncanny Magazine, and Stone Skin Press; essays for Hath No Fury, SFWA.org, Sony’s Crackle; and have edited anthologies such as Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling.
TechRaptor: What drew you to working with games? How did you join the field?
I’ve always loved the collaborative aspect of gaming, and I enjoy making games that provide a cohesive experience blending a smartly-created world with supporting rules. I had a background in writing before I joined the gaming industry; I had studied at university and didn’t feel a literary style fit my love of genre. I was looking for opportunities to write, and stumbled across an open call for a game inspired by Kafka’s The Metamorphosis called Noumenon, which was published by Abstract Nova Press. From that first brush back around 2004 or so, I’ve since gone on to write, edit, and develop many, many, games and stories set in expansive worlds ranging from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn to Vampire: The Masquerade.
TechRaptor: How do you approach writing, editing, and game development?
Most games are produced according to a set of processes overseen by one or more people. As a game developer in charge of a project like the Firefly RPG, my role (and what I have the power to do) depends upon which company I’m working for. Some companies have a clear picture of what they want; others work with game developers to figure out what the next steps are. Most of the pieces in a game developer’s process, however, are a mixture of project management and game design. My approach varies from game to game, because every game I’ve developed is very different from one another.
Editing is a piece that fits into the end of a project. However, I’ve found that talking to editors at the beginning of a project (whether that’s an anthology like The Cainite Conspiracies or a game) is one of the smartest things you can do, because you get a second opinion on the project’s vision and can put together a style guide for writers. Where most games need work is in the spot between “this is one writer’s vision” versus “this is what’s best for the overall game.” Developers often make decisions to ensure that my Court of Shadows draft material still feels like Shadowrun, for example, and a good editor will help ensure the style and lexicon is consistent and cohesive.
That said, I’m keen on making sure expectations are clarified up front since there are multiple types of editing: content, line, proofreading, etc. My preferred type of editing is for content and canon, and I usually ask a publisher what type of editing they’re looking for. Since I’ve done game development, I never want to step into a project to reinvent it at the 11th hour, which is typically when editors are brought on.
My approach to writing? I don’t even know where to begin with that question, because that varies from project to project. I had a very different process writing Over the Edge for D&D 5th Edition than I did writing and researching a Salem Witch Trials-inspired piece called Doubting Souls for Dark Eras. In general, I’m known for using word conservation in my prose. I write opposite to the way I speak.
I do feel that each form (storytelling, narrative design, TV/movie scriptwriting, etc.) requires its own set of techniques to master, and that tends to carry through all my work; that said, stories are transformative and can transcend across mediums. I’m fascinated by that in particular, because storytelling is such a powerful tool and we all respond to different mediums in unique ways. Exciting!
TechRaptor: Could you describe your work as a media tie-in writer?
I work on licensed properties that produce ancillary works such as games, stories, etc. Most of the work I do right now is tied to an existing license or IP, which means that I don’t own what I make.
The vast majority of the work performed in comics and games is work-for-hire; it’s by far one of the hardest things a freelancer has to learn, because an individual doesn’t have as much power as they think they do when they’re writing in someone else’s sandbox. When you’re writing for yourself, you don’t make the same types of decisions as you do when you’re writing for someone else. When you’re providing content, you might have the freedom to write what you want because a company trusts you to do your thing—but the end result isn’t your work. The company can do whatever they want with what you provide, and contracts often spell this out in detail.
Part of the reason why I like working on media/tie-in is because of all the lessons I learn from the field and the people I’ve met. Each project is a lot like putting a puzzle together, and there’s a strong sense of collaboration between creators and fans. I’ve also learned so many invaluable insights about different fields, and that can (and has) only helped my career.
TechRaptor: How did you become involved with Onyx Path Publishing?
I had worked on a few White Wolf-related projects prior to the foundation of Onyx Path Publishing (in 2012) that included Strange, Dead Love and Scenes of the Embrace for Vampire: The Requiem. When Onyx Path was first founded, they reached out to existing White Wolf freelancers to continue working on World of Darkness, Chronicles of Darkness, and Exalted gamelines. I’m one of the lucky freelancers who signed on and continued to work on games like Scarred Lands, Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition and the upcoming Hunter: The Vigil 2nd Edition.
TechRaptor: Can you tell us about your current and future projects?
I’m super excited that I’ve got more fiction coming out! I have a short story called “From an Honest Sister, to a Neglected Daughter” debuting in Sisterhood: Dark Tales and Secret Mysteries from Chaosium Publishing, another piece in the upcoming The Dagon Collection from PS Publishing, and a third in a fantasy anthology inspired by Monarchies of Mau RPG. Plus, Renegade Games is releasing a solo card game called Proving Grounds in May 2018; I developed the world and wrote a novelette for this unique game.
As to the rest, I’m wrapping up Dark Eras 2 and Hunter: The Vigil 2nd Edition for Onyx Path Publishing. Right after that’s done, I have a Scarred Lands adventure I’m writing as part of my promised rewards for an Extra Life charity drive.
I’m keeping quiet regarding future projects at the moment; the cycle between announcement and delivery changes often, and I’d much rather get excited when projects are done and almost out! But, if you ever want to know what I am releasing, you can check out www.booksofm.com.
TechRaptor: Good luck with your work, and thanks for your time.
Thanks so much for a fun interview! Cheers!