Today I welcome writer and game designer (among other things!) Monica Valentinelli to GeekMom! I first met Monica at Gen Con a few years ago, and she rapidly became one of my favorite people in the industry. Not only is she busy with awesome projects, but she always takes time to help folks and while she doesn’t shy away from giving her opinion on current issues in the industry, she seems to have a reasonable and balanced approach to them. Monica is celebrating the release of her latest project, Firefly: The Gorramn Shiniest Language Guide and Dictionary in the ‘Verse, and so I thought I would take this opportunity to ask her all the hard questions. Welcome, Monica!
GeekMom Mel: Tell us about yourself!
Monica Valentinelli: Hi Mel! I’m a full-time writer, former musician, self-proclaimed foodie, cat lover, and martial arts movie fan. Most fans know me for my work in gaming, but I also write stories and comics when I can. Though I write in a broad range of genres, I’m best known for my work in science fiction and dark fantasy.
GMM: Who is your favorite character in the Firefly ‘verse? Which character do you feel you have the most in common with?
MV: That’s a tough question! I like each character for different reasons, and I think that’s what is so great about this show. There’s some part of each character that we (fans) identify with. If I had to pick one, however, it’d be Shepherd Book because his character has the greatest potential for new stories and flashbacks involving the Alliance. Secrets are great fodder, even for characters like Inara, and yet every time Book shares a nugget about his past it takes the rest of the crew by surprise. The character that I feel I have the most in common with is Zoe. I’m more talkative than she is, mind you, but if there’s a job that needs doin’, she’ll do it. Her initiative in War Stories shows she’s a leader and tough negotiator when she wants to be; I can relate to her sense of loyalty to the captain, to her husband, and to the crew. She backs folks who treat her right and support her, and I admire her “no b.s.” attitude.
GMM: What spawned this project? What was your favorite part of working on it?
MV: Like several of my projects, the Firefly: The Gorramn Shiniest Language Guide and Dictionary in the ‘Verse started with an e-mail. My favorite part of working on this book was the revisions process! Once the analysis segment was done, I was able to build word lists and do the bulk of the writing after arranging the outline. That bit–the writing–is like drinking water for me. I enjoy writing based on an outline that I’ve devised, because by that point I’ve fully wrapped my mind around what the project is about. The writing I often take for granted, because there’s no structural or analytical work involved in that; once I’m “in the zone,” I go until the project is done. Then, once I’ve allowed the draft to breathe, I can dig into the revisions and hammer the final version into shape. In this case, I also had the pleasure of incorporating a wonderful contribution from Jenny Lynn, the show’s Chinese translator, in addition to working with a fabulous editor, too. I couldn’t be prouder of the end result, and this book has definitely benefited from their efforts.
GMM: You were also the developer and lead writer for the entire line of Firefly RPG books from Margaret Weis Productions. What was it like to work on that? Were you a big Firefly fan before?
MV: I was a Firefly fan before I signed on for the project back in 2012, but I had also worked on other properties before that. Understanding the nuances of licensing helped me a bit in this case, because I wanted to ensure the fans were satisfied while fulfilling the agreement between myself and MWP, and MWP and Fox.
Being the developer on the project required me to wear multiple hats (developer, head of canon, lead writer, etc.). While my contribution was important, however, producing over 500,000 words of game material and six books could not have happened without the talents of several creative and fantastic individuals which included Margaret Weis. The Firefly RPG corebook and its supplements are the result of a team effort, and there were many people we hired to help breathe life into the ‘verse. Unlike my other gigs, however, this line ate up the bulk of my creative time due to the complexity and the work involved, so I had to put fiction on hold while I helped finish manuscripts and get books out the door.
GMM: Because you’ve worked on a couple of Firefly related projects now, do you find your enthusiasm changing at all for the franchise?
MV: Being a part of the Firefly universe peripherally has been both rewarding and frustrating, because I am itching to tell stories in the ‘verse. Whedon’s team did a phenomenal job, especially with the dialogue, and that shines through in the scripts themselves as well as the performances of the actors. Firefly will always have a special place in my heart for many reasons, but it is a challenge sometimes to hold myself back from writing more material.
GMM: You wear a few hats: game developer, author, editor, and I’m sure I’m forgetting something. Do you ever feel worn out? How do you keep a sense of balance in your life?
MV: I work full-time+, which means I have to wear different hats if I want to stay in business. I don’t view these as hats, necessarily, but skills I’ve acquired over time working in newspapers or with various publishers. The best way for me to effectively “wear” them, however, is to figure out what’s the most beneficial use of my day and do that. The times I’m worn out, are the times when I am focused too heavily on PR or peripheral issues/discussions that impact my peers or the folks I hire.
The hardest balance for me to strike is figuring out what to pay attention to and what to ignore, because there is a lot of negativity that has the potential to eat me, you, everybody alive. At the same time there are certain topics, like the conversation around bringing multiculturalism into media, that I feel I need to have some amount of awareness. To ensure I’m not going down the rabbit hole of contemporary issues, I have to be as vigilant as I am when it comes to figuring out when to cut off research for a project, because not writing hurts me more than anything else. The less I write, the more readers I lose, the more money I lose, and the darker the future of my career becomes.
GMM: If there is a youngling out there who is interested in being the next Monica Valentinelli (don’t laugh, my son said he wants to be Matt Forbeck when he grows up 😉 ), what advice would you give? Is there a path you think might lead to either more success or less frustration?
MV: Shakespeare’s quote “to thine own self be true” from Hamlet comes to mind. If you are a writer, be a writer. Be an astronaut. Be a gymnast. Be a chef. Be a makeup artist. Or, be all of these things or none of them. Be “you” the way that only “you” can–and be stubborn about it. There are a thousand opinions on the proper way to live, on the right way to become a writer, on the correct way to be published. There may be some truth to the advice you’re given and yes, it will always be challenging to know the difference between practical tips and empty words, but without having a clear sense of self it’s easy to get caught up and lost in what everybody else is doing and saying. Eventually, you’ll find out the secret to being a writer is no different than the secret to being a great chef–you just have to write and ensure that’s your priority. And keep writing!
GMM: What is the best part of your professional life, in your eyes? Conversely, what frustrates you?
MV: I suppose I’m like many writers, in that I wish I could write without ever having to worry about money or marketing or contracts or what-have-you. The days I completely and utterly lose myself in my work, are the best days. When I hit “send” on the proof copy of a manuscript, and I know that book is going to be released? That is a great day. The days when I have to do administrivia, PR, and non writing-or-creative activities are the days where I feel like I accomplish very little, but know how essential those tasks are to building to backbone for my business. There are, unfortunately, more responsibilities that writers of today have had to take on, and the need to boost one’s own signal in a positive (but not annoying) way is taxing sometimes.
GMM: If there was one franchise you could do a project for, something you’ve always wanted to do, what would it be?
MV: Many years ago, I read Splinter of the Mind’s Eye by Alan Dean Foster and knew I wanted to write a Star Wars novel one day from the perspective of a female Sith lord. I still do. Since then, I have grown to love different stories and characters. My list of “that’d be fun to work on!” has expanded to include Final Fantasy, Hellboy, Buffy: the Vampire Slayer, Batman, Pet Avengers, Doctor Who, any film by Studio Ghibli among many others. These properties inspire me to create my own worlds or contribute to an existing body of work–win, win either way!
GMM: What’s coming up this year? And what can fans expect to see in the future?
MV: Hah! This is the year of working on projects that’ll either be out this Fall or will debut at some indeterminate point in the future. Thanks to the wonders of non-disclosure agreements and press releases that haven’t dropped yet, I can’t talk much about my current slate, but I can tell you what will debut. Thanks to the generosity of a few thousand backers, two projects are guaranteed to be published. The first is a trope-and-cliché smashing anthology I co-edited called Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling. This collection of short stories will be published this fall by Apex Publications. The second is a new edition of the tabletop game called Unknown Armies, which I contributed to. The Kickstarter for Unknown Armies 3rd Edition is still going on, and the book will be out sometime next year. I am also developing the Cortex Plus Action corebook and Hunter: the Vigil 2nd Edition; both are in outline phase right now. The best way to keep apprised of what I’m working on, is to visit my website or sign up for my newsletter.
Thanks for a fun interview, Melanie!
Monica Valentinelli writes stories, games, essays, and comics for media/tie-in properties and her original works from her studio in the Midwest. She’s a former musician of 20+ years and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Creative Writing program who now writes full-time. Recently, Monica has filled the shoes of lead developer and writer for the line of Firefly RPG books based on the Firefly TV show by Joss Whedon, and her new book The Gorramn Shiniest Dictionary and Language Guide in the ‘Verse will debut from Titan Books in Spring 2016. Her sanity is kept by her two cats, water frog, bettafish, and her long-time partner. When she’s not obsessing about deadlines, she designs jewelry and dabbles in other artistic endeavors. For more about Monica, visit www.mlvwrites.com.