Interview with Michael A. Ventrella

December 16, 2010 at 1:49 pm , by Alyce Wilson

Today, I’d like to feature an interview with Michael A. Ventrella, author of the science-fiction books “Arch Enemies” and “Axes of Evil.” Ventrella is widely regarded as an animation expert, having founded the magazine “Animato” in the mid-’80s. In 1989, he helped form the United States’ largest live action role-playing organization, now known as The Alliance, and he continues to write plotlines for them. His “Rule Book” and “Players’ Guide” sell regularly in gaming stores and on Amazon.com.

Ventrella has dabbled in politics and works as an attorney. He is a regular fixture at science fiction conventions on the east coast, where he appears on panels to discuss fiction, animation, and gaming. I was fortunate enough to connect with him through the Writers’ Coffeehouse, a group begun by author Jonathan Maberry.

What’s your usual writing process, from idea to finished work?

Move the cat out off the keyboard and begin typing.

Seriously, though, it varies depending on the project. My short stories were not as pre-planned as my published novels. And the new novel has veered far from the original outline.

One thing they all have in common though is that I know how each will end beforehand. I never start off a story without planning it out in some way. My readers should always be going “Wow, what’s going to happen next?” but never think that I’m making it up as I go along.

In particular, what was the process for “Arch Enemies” and the sequel “The Axes of Evil”?

Both of those fantasy novels were very outlined and planned out, because at the root, they are mysteries. Oh, they’re not “whodunits” but there is a complicated scenario that the main character has to figure out.

In “Arch Enemies” young Terin is grabbed and told he’s the great hero that has been prophesized to save the land. Turns out he’s not, but everyone thinks he is. In the end, he saves the day not because he’s the greatest swordsman in the kingdom or because he’s got special powers no one else has (because he clearly doesn’t) but because he figures out all the “clues”. It’s his cleverness that is heroic.

In the sequel, people are now convinced Terin is special, and so somehow he keeps popping up in all the duchy’s prophecies. (This is explained, don’t worry.) Thus “The Axes of Evil” finds Terin with three barbarian prophecies (from three separate tribes) which contradict each other. Further, the Duke has ordered him to get the barbarians off the land. He then discovers each barbarian chieftain has a mysterious axe with indecipherable writing which could give him the solution he needs. Not to mention he has to kill a werewolf when he doesn’t have any silvered weapons…

In any event, he finds a way to solve all of these problems by the end of the book.

You see, I like to throw as many impossible barriers against my characters as I can and then find clever ways to get around them. Stories where the bad guy is defeated because the hero keeps hitting him with a sword until he dies just don’t appeal to me as much.

To write complicated plots like that takes a lot of planning. You’ve got to place all the clues in the story in ways that aren’t too obvious—but also in a way so that when the hero figures it all out, the reader goes “Ah, yes! I get it!” and not “Where the heck did that come from?” So my outlines are pretty extensive.

In your life, you have explored many interests, from playing live music to serving as a public defender and getting involved in politics. How have those experiences served your writing? Do you think there’s a connection between any of your other interests and writing fantasy?

I’ve just always been a person who never let anything stop me from going forward when I wanted to do something, really. I’ve failed at some, but at least I can say I tried.

I used my musical experiences to explain how the magic system works in the Terin novels. I’ve used my political experiences in the novel I am working on now (about a vampire who runs for President.) And I suppose in some ways every experience you have in life helps you to better understand people and hopefully makes you a better writer.

I’m not sure where writing fantasy comes into all that! Maya Angelou once said something like “If there’s a book you really want to read that hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I just write books that I would like to read!

You write plots for live action roleplaying games, through the Alliance. How is that different from writing a novel?

It’s greatly different. In a game, many people will all be playing at once—each wanting to be the hero. So it’s written to try to give everyone something to do. I’m also limited by the rules of the game and real world limitations of what we can represent in the game (such as huge castles, giant monsters, invisibility spells, flying, and so on). Plus since it’s a game, the players can move the plot in many directions, so you have to write it pretty open-ended (“If they do A, then B happens, but if they do C, then D happens”…)

A novel, of course, needs a main protagonist, not a hundred of them. And a novel should not be limited by artificial rules.

When I decided to write “Arch Enemies” I placed it in the world of the game because it was already richly developed. I pretty much ignored the rules completely. If I needed Terin to be able to cast a “Silence” spell for plot reasons, I didn’t care that such a spell would be impossible for someone of his talents in my game.

People who have read the novels have no idea they are based on a game, and that’s exactly what I want.

My husband is a gamer and is fond of the podcast “Gamers with Jobs.” What are the challenges and rewards of balancing gaming with your career and family life?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t game much any more. I helped to found one of the first and largest live action role-playing (LARP) games in America back in 1989, which has now become “The Alliance”. I have chapters all over the US and Canada. My job now though is more as an administrator.

Other than that, I don’t know why balancing “gaming” with your job is any different from balancing “sports” with your job or “politics” with your job. You should always find time to do what you love in your spare time.

In a similar vein, how do you balance your writing career and your law practice?

The hardest part is finding time to do everything I want to do. Life is too short. That’s why it takes years between my books, sadly.

Do you have any big plans for Arisia this year?

I love to attend Arisia. It’s one of my favorite conventions! I started attending way back when we lived in Boston. I was asked to be a guest because of my LARP in the 90s, and I’ve been going pretty regularly since then. We’ve missed the last few due to my wife’s health, but I’ve got my reservations for this one. I’m anxiously waiting to see which panels I get!

But big plans? No, I don’t have any new books to promote right now—“The Axes of Evil” came out in March of 2010.

I am editing a new anthology of stories taking place in the world of my novels. I have a story in there as well. That book will be called “A Bard’s Eye View” and no specific release date has been set yet—but I expect that will be available by mid 2011.

As a writer, how do you use social networking to help your career?

I’ve done a few things with social networking.

First, I set up a “fan” page on Facebook just for writing. This way, my other friends who couldn’t care less about my books aren’t bored when I talk about writing, and the people who only care about my writing aren’t bored (or upset) with my political comments. Plus, a fan page allows people to “follow” me without me being able to read their profiles or anything. That kind of anonymity is a good thing.

The problem is that I don’t think I deserve a “fan” page yet. I feel kind of pretentious having one. I wish they called it a “professional page” or something.

I linked my fan page to Twitter so all my updates are posted there as well, but honestly, I never saw the appeal of Twitter. It’s like Facebook for people with short attention spans.

I’m listed on LinkedIn and GoodReads and a few other places, but mostly it’s just for being listed. I hardly visit them (although I did an “Axes of Evil” contest on GoodReads and received some nice reviews and increased interest in the book because of it).

Let’s face it, time spent on those things is time that is better spent writing.

Second, I use Facebook to friend authors I like and to network with them. Then I can ask them to be interviewed on my blog! That’s where I put in an effort to have something valuable added every week. Usually, I am interviewing writers, editors and agents I have met at conventions, writer’s groups, or on Facebook. Sometimes I post a blog entry of my own, discussing what I have learned about writing and the publishing industry.

How do you see the role of technology and computers (social networks) changing for writers in the future?

Well, social networking has changed the world in many ways, and for authors there is no exception.

The biggest change for writers is the development of e-books. I sell more e-books than paperbacks, but then again, Double Dragon is the number one science fiction and fantasy e-book publisher out there.

The worst technological change is the development of self-publishing and vanity presses in that everyone can get published these days—and does!

Sometimes writers who should be with a real publisher get conned into doing a book with Publish America or Lulu or something, and then no one takes them seriously. They may actually have a good book, but the image these things have in the industry is terrible. It’s assumed that if you did this, your work wasn’t good enough, and then when you later try to sell another novel, an editor will check you out on the internet, see that you’ve been self-published, and probably not give you the consideration you deserve.

I’ve discussed this issue many times on my blog!

What advice would you offer to beginning writers?

There’s a lot. That’s the theme of my blog!

However, I have talked to many aspiring authors and there is one trend I see most often: They never finish!

Finish the book! Don’t go back and keep polishing your first chapter until it’s perfect. Finish the entire book first and then go back to polish. It’s great for your ego to get it done, it encourages you more, and most importantly, no editor will ever be interested in seeing a work in progress.

To read my blog, follow the link on my web page. Be sure to also click on the Facebook icon and become a “fan” so you can get updates as to who is being interviewed on my blog.

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1 Comment so far

by Sally Cruikshank

On December 24, 2010 at 9:35 pm

Excellent interview, and Michael, your advice to beginning writers applies to animators starting out also.

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