Today we are going to meet a multi-faceted individual who is not only a writer, but also a lawyer, game developer, and musician/songwriter. He has also acted in community theatre and been involved in Boston politics. In 1989, Michael Ventrella and his wife, Heidi, helped form the largest live action roleplaying organization in the United States, now known as The Alliance. Michael contributed to Inside Scoop: Articles about Acting and Writing by Hollywood Insiders and Published Authors. We're going to talk to Michael about some of these amazing things he’s done. This is one of several interviews I am performing with writers who contributed to Inside Scoop.
Welcome to The Book Connection, Michael. It’s a great pleasure to have you with us.
Thank you! It’s great to be here. This is quite an honor!
Let’s get started by finding out more about you. Did I leave out anything good from my introduction?
No, you make me sound much better than I really am.
How long have you been writing? Who or what has influenced your writing career the most?
I was writing stories even as a kid, but none of them were any good. In High School I wrote a musical comedy play called “But I’m Allergic to Horses” (a western) which the school performed, but then college beckoned. I tried sending in some short stories to magazines after law school, but they weren’t accepted and in retrospect they weren’t very well done either.
The fact is that writing is a skill that takes practice. The more you write (even boring things like legal briefs, in my case) the better you become. A successful writer needs more than just good ideas. My first novel was accepted by Double Dragon, but it is certainly not my first piece of writing.
What I have been doing mostly is writing for my live action role-playing game – there are many complicated plotlines when you have hundreds of players at once in chapters all over the country. There is a “Players’ Guide” to the game (available on Amazon.com! Get yours now!) which contains tremendous background to the fantastic duchy of Ashbury.
So my gaming experience is what has influenced me the most. Other than that, I love reading JK Rowling, Orson Scott Card, Peter Dick, Tad Williams – and classics like Mark Twain and Charles Dickens.
Your biography says that you are a regular fixture at science fiction conventions on the east coast. Do any of these experiences work their way into your writing?
No, not really, since I am mostly writing in a fantasy realm… but if you see me at one and have an idea, let me know!
Let’s move on to your contribution to Inside Scoop because it sounds fascinating. Your article was titled, “Basing Your Novel on a Game: What, are you stupid?” Now, am I correct when I say that this is exactly what you did with your novel, Arch Enemies?
You are indeed correct! Many years ago, my wife and I wrote an adventure for our game called ‘Arch Enemies’ and I kept saying to myself “This plotline would make a great book!” I finally decided to write it, and that’s when I learned why that was a bad idea.
You see, what works well in a game can make for a terrible novel (and vice versa). A novel needs the kind of character development that you just can’t write in a game, for instance. Further, a game is written so that a large number of players can enjoy it at the same time, whereas a novel needs a single protagonist.
I eventually ignored all the game rules, tossed out a lot of the subplots, but kept the well-developed game world as the setting.
I know it works because people reading the book have no idea it was based on a game. And that means I succeeded!
My article in “Inside Scoop” is to hopefully prevent others from making the same mistakes I did in my earliest drafts.
Tell us a bit more about Arch Enemies. What is the premise of this novel?
A young bard named Terin is called before the Duke and told that he fits a certain prophecy. He is the one who will stop the Duchy’s enemies from removing the magic from a special Arch (get the pun now?) behind which the enemy’s leaders have been magically trapped for hundreds of years. However, he is forbidden from reading the prophecy and not told how he is to accomplish this.
The enemy nation is comprised primarily of a race of people called the biata, who are descended from gryphons. The biata have powerful mental abilities, and can control people with these powers as if they were enslaved.
Sure enough, it isn’t long before our reluctant hero is attacked by people he had previously trusted and is forced to go into hiding. His only companions are two squires who are torn between following their orders and doing what they think is right.
But that makes it sound so serious! It’s a fun adventure, with unexpected twists and turns, a bit of mystery, cliffhanger chapter endings, and a nice touch of humor. Terin has to figure out the meaning of the prophecy while never knowing who he can trust, and part of the fun for me is having him figure things out along the way only to discover later that he was completely wrong. Still, everything fits together in the end and clues that seemed unimportant early on turn out to be tremendously relevant.
Do you believe a writer could take any roleplaying game and turn it into a novel?
It depends on how constrained he or she would be by the material.
I’ve started to read a few novels based on games, and I never finished them – I felt like I was just reading a description of someone Dungeons and Dragons adventure or computer game. If I wanted that, I’d just play the game. A good story is much more important than the game itself.
Are there legal issues to consider if the game isn’t one that you’ve created?
Absolutely! Without a doubt. Any novel you see out there based on a game (or a movie or TV show or a toy) has been approved by whoever owns the copyright for the original source. Fortunately, I own the copyright to my game so was able to negotiate a very good deal with myself.
If you could offer only one piece of advice to someone considering writing a novel based upon a roleplaying game, what would it be?
Throw away the rules. No one cares what level a spell is or how it works so long as it is dramatically exciting and important to the plot.
Let’s say you’re a Dungeon Master and your game world is well developed and your players really like your creativity. Take that and use it, but free yourself from the chains of the rules.
Concentrate on the plot and that way, your book won’t read like a transcript of your game. Plus if you do that well you won’t violate any copyrights!
What is up next for you? Do you have future projects you would like to share with us?
The sequel to “Arch Enemies” is called “The Axes of Evil”! I’m very happy with it so far and think it is better than the previous in many ways. I wish I had more time in my life to write, but I hope to get this out by the summer.
Thanks for spending time with us today, Michael. I wish you continued success.