Writing the Other Sans Fail Registration Now Available

I am pleased to tell you that the Writing the Other Sans Fail Class registration is now live!

When: Saturdays, 2 – 4PM Eastern Standard Time, February 11 – March 4, 2017
Where: ONLINE via Zoom Video Conference
Price: $360
Register Here

The goal of many game designers is to attract and retain players who want to see themselves as the hero in their own story. To do that, game writers lend their talents to portray characters whose gender, sexual orientation, religion, racial heritage, or other aspect of identity might differ from their own. Many game writers work within a team-based environment or with a developer, and are optimistic but fearful of what good representation means. Worried they’ll present a character wrong, offend players for their effort, get harassed or be fired for speaking up, some game writers opt to take the safe route instead.

It is possible to design characters and game material from a position of mutual respect in a sensitive and convincing way. This workshop can start you on the path to doing just that.

My Dragon Talk Appearance and a D&D-inspired Creative Prompt

D&D Ampersand

“Heeeeeeeeyyyyyy yoooooooouuuuuuu guuuuuuuuyyyyyyssssss!” to quote Goonies. Greg Tito and Shelly Mazzanoble, two fine and upstanding individuals over at Dungeons & Dragons, invited me to speak on Dragon Talk, the official D&D podcast.

“Shelly Mazzanoble and Greg Tito speak to Monica Valentinelli, a prolific creative writer with heavy involvement in all forms of D&D from adventure writing to running and playing games with new players. In Lore You Should Know – Matt Sernett and Chris Perkins jump into the Yawning Portal.” — SOURCE: Monica Valentinelli on D&D

The article has three different ways you can listen to me babble on excitedly. I hope you find my talk valuable!

D&D-Inspired Creative Prompt

One of the things we talked about in the podcast, was that character motivations help to make adventures stronger. Sure, your players might want a MacGuffin. Why do they want that loot beyond re-selling it or using it to have more power?

Often, a MacGuffin in a D&D adventure translates into a kick-ass piece of loot the party earns after slaying monsters, that is then used by the characters to increase their effectiveness. The conversation about MacGuffins, however, evolves when applied to fiction. “In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot,” as defined by Wikipedia.

TVTropes.org has a slightly different (and a little more blunt) definition for MacGuffin: “A plot device which nobody actually uses, and whose nature and identity are basically irrelevant.”

Creative Prompt: Why Would You Use a MacGuffin?

With this in mind, my creative prompt today is a step-by-step process to examine the MacGuffin and put it to good use in an adventure or a story. *rim crash*.

(1) In 300 words or less, create a unique MacGuffin that has an interesting history.
(2) Figure out ten reasons why someone (or some thing) would want to use that MacGuffin. Don’t be afraid to think creatively about this; avoid the obvious!
(3) Identify the location of the MacGuffin and decide if that loot is protected.

For Dungeon Masters:

(4) Tie each reason from Step 2 to a character in the adventuring party or an NPC. Consider using NPCs from factions as well, to flesh out monsters, townsfolk, and other types of antagonists.
(5) Determine who (or what) could be affected by using the MacGuffin. This can be a list tying back to your NPC motivations, but it can also be towns filled with innocents, etc. This serves to ground you, as the DM, to understand the cost of using the MacGuffin for better or for ill.
(6) Write a one-paragraph summary of an adventure based on using that MacGuffin. Think “big picture”. This is what your adventure will be about; it also means that finding the MacGuffin should happen early on, and using the MacGuffin causes interesting problems the party will have to resolve.
(7) Now, break up that adventure into an outline of sessions and scenes–as many as it takes. This’ll give you the foundation for a campaign, but will also tie motivations together for your party, their allies, and their rivals to give it a little oomph.
(8) Play!

For authors:

(4) Assign motivations to use the MacGuffin for three characters: a hero, a sidekick/love interest, and a villain. Use the goals that are the most at odds with each other, to increase conflict.
(5) Steps 5-8 are all about brainstorming! Write down a list of obstacles preventing your characters from using the MacGuffin, and ways they might overcome them or fail. For example, say the MacGuffin is a magical item, but your hero doesn’t/can’t perform magic. As another, the MacGuffin could only be used by the descendant of its original owner; that character is either the villain or they’ve already passed on. What creative solutions can you figure out to resolve those issues and get your characters using the MacGuffin in your story?
(6) What happens when the MacGuffin is used? Who stands to be helped by it? Hurt?
(7) What needs to happen in order to “turn off” the MacGuffin’s power?
(8) What do the characters involved stand to lose/gain by the loss of the MacGuffin? (Like Step 6, this is another way of helping you determine the stakes for your story.)
(9) Write a one-to-two paragraph summary of your plot. Don’t forget to figure out a few possible endings ahead of time! These will probably come out of brainstorming for Step 7.
(10) Cue… Writing to form! (e.g. short story or flash fiction)

If using a MacGuffin doesn’t sound interesting to you as a plot device, you can always figure out what else you’d want to do with it. You could destroy or create a powerful object that has evolved from its MacGuffin-esque roots, instead. Keep in mind that destroying, creating, designing, and piecing together objects also run the risk of turning them into MacGuffins if your characters either don’t use them, or you don’t have a reason for doing so for your plot. In other words: it shouldn’t simply be an object everybody’s after. Even in Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s goal might be to destroy the One Ring to save the world, but he does use it for different reasons and that creates problems for him. Though your opinions might vary on this, to me the One Ring is a fantastic example of a MacGuffin-turned-plot device because it a) is unique, b) is used by Sauron (past), Isildur (past), Frodo, Bilbo, and Gollum, and c) matters to the overall story. Arguably, I could take that a step further and say that the One Ring is its own character, too, since it represents the will of Sauron–but that’s a nerdtastic discussion for another day.

Happy writing!

    Mood: Critical hit! Heh, heh.
    Caffeinated Beverages Consumed: Four… Five? Cups of coffee. Hey, it’s cold.
    Work-Out Minutes Logged Yesterday: Vacuuming counts. Right?
    In My Ears: The heater, because it is freakishly cold.
    Game Last Played: Dragon Age: Inquisition
    Book Last Read: Research materials for work.
    Movie/TV Show Last Viewed: Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
    Latest Artistic Project: Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge and Rules
    Latest Releases: Read my end-of-the-year list of releases for an overview of what I’ve put out for 2016. Check out Upside Down: Inverted Tropes in Storytelling and, if you like it, consider leaving a review.
    Current State of Projects: Read my latest project update.

An Interview with Mike Mearls about Game Writing

SFWA.org Logo

In December, as part of my column about game writing for the SFWA, I interviewed Mike Mearls, the Senior Manager of the Dungeons & Dragons creative team at Wizards of the Coast. If you are not familiar with Mike’s work, he is a game designer and writer who co-designed 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons.

Here’s a sneak peek at the interview with Mike Mearls!

What was the first roleplaying game you worked on? Can you describe your assignment?

The first game I worked on was Unknown Armies, an RPG of modern occult magic released in 1999. I wrote a few small pieces for a supplement called Postmodern Magick. The book was a grab bag of characters, locations, magic items, and so on. I wrote three small pieces, a new ritual, a new variety of spirit prone to possess people, and a pair of characters that GMs could insert into their campaigns.

That project was an ideal starting point, as none of the three assignments were more than a few hundred words. Each assignment was also very focused. I needed to create one thing, rather than take on something more sprawling. The assignment felt easy to manage, and having that first success under my belt helped build my confidence.

For more, please visit Mike Mearls of Dungeons & Dragons: Documenting Imaginary Worlds on SFWA.org.

Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge & Rules

Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge Participant Badge

Born out of both my personal experiences and the knowledge that oppression tends to crush the artistic spirit on a cellular level, I have created a Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge for those who need it. This challenge, which came together from inspiration to draft guidelines, is designed to be flexible to work with your talents and lifestyle. Don’t be afraid to customize the specifics to fit your needs. Your art? Your rules.

Why take the Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge? When times are tough, the feeling that artists are not necessary tends to permeate because art is viewed as a luxury item in some cultures since we don’t produce food, clothing, or housing. The exact opposite is true, because art is a documentation and representation of our humanity and all our struggles. People turn to stories to find hope, to be inspired, to reach inside themselves and discover their own courage. This challenge is about making art to tap into your voice and tell your story. After all, one story can change the world. The problem is, we have no idea which story that will be, when it will be told, or in what medium. It’s up to us to find it–by making art!

Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge

I’ve designed the challenge to be simple, but grounded in four actionable areas. They are: Motivation, Discipline, Accountability, and Connection.

Rules Summary

This is a summary of the rules I’ve designed for the challenge. In the longer version, I offer means of customization to fit your lifestyles. After you’ve read the rules, write down in four-to-five sentences what you’ll pledge to do for 2017 and post them publicly or privately. Combined, those actionable items will help keep you grounded and focused on making art, while remaining connected to the world around you.

My Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge pledge:

  • I pledge to devote one hour a day to my original art.
  • If I don’t feel motivated, I pledge to write down the reasons why I wanted to take this challenge for fifteen minutes or one-to-three pages whichever comes first.
  • I pledge to mark down on the calendar whenever I complete a day’s efforts.
  • As the challenge creator, I pledge to create a weekly accountability post every Wednesday beginning on January 9th. Comments will be open. Hashtag #makeartnotwar2017 #manw2017
  • I pledge to check into social media twice a week for personal use, and once a month with my local community of artists and writers.


Find your personal reason to make art and use that as your rallying cry for 2017.

Artists are human beings, not robots. Writers need to discover our characters’ voices. Painters need to glance at a blank canvas and draw that first line. Musicians need to hear the first stanza. Sometimes, however, we get stuck. We don’t know what to write. We don’t know if our art will resonate. We don’t see how our words will matter–because we can’t predict the future so we freeze up. We punish ourselves. Then, we read the news and get depressed; or, we get bad news and get even more depressed. Caught in that never-ending cycle of wondering what our worth is, some artists cease to create altogether.

There are 1,000 reasons to never pick up that pen, that inkwell, that stylus. What is more important? Those precious few reasons why you’re making art. Before you begin the challenge, figure out why you want to make art to find your motivation. Maybe you have a mantra, like “I want to make readers laugh.” Maybe, however, making art is so ingrained in your identity you might say: “I need to write to be happy.” Or, maybe you have a goal or business plan that helps keep you grounded on: “I need to draw to pay the bills”.

When you get stuck, take fifteen minutes and remind yourself that you’ve taken this challenge because your art is important to you. Abandoning the act of making art is not an option, and you will not retreat. Say that reason out loud, sing it, letter it, draw it–whatever you need to do. Focus on that mantra and recharge your artistic batteries, for the well of inspiration you draw from will never empty, not as long as you have the will to draw from it. After all, motivation is about reminding yourself how to find the will to make art when you lose it.


Discipline is the time you will take every day in 2017 to make art.

The challenge is designed around spending one hour every day to make your original art.
Modifications are as follows:

  • Subtract Half an Hour: Thirty minutes is good for beginners! If this allotted time does not challenge you, however, consider upping it to 45 minutes or an hour.
  • Add Fifteen Minutes: Tackle one household chore or personal health item every day like making the bed, eating vegetables, flossing, etc.
  • Add Half an Hour: Get moving, get grooving. Pledge to dedicate this time to a physical activity like biking, climbing stairs, going for a walk, going to the gym, etc.
  • Add an Hour: Switch techniques, genres, art forms and start something brand new–or double your time.

One thing to keep in mind, is that it doesn’t matter how good the art is you make if you are learning. Stretching the boundaries of what you normally do often means that your first attempts will probably suck. That’s okay! Give yourself permission to suck, but also to improve, revise, refine. You cannot see how far you’ve come, or how you’ve internalized the techniques you’ve been practicing, unless you put the time in. This is why discipline is needed to keep you on track.

A few things to think about depending upon your situation:

  • One hour writing sprints typically yield 750 to 1,200 words of text.
  • To hit the NaNoWriMo word count goal of 50,000, you would average 1.5 to 2 hours of writing every day.
  • If you’re a professional artist, consider using this hour to create something you haven’t sold or been contracted to create yet. Think of this as your pie-in-the-sky wish list!
  • If you need supplies, pay yourself a dollar every time you make art.
  • If you have kids, roommates, or family obligations, consider working out a time where you have an hour to yourself or, alternatively, break it up into two half-hour segments.
  • To instill discipline, you will need consistency. If you know you’re going to miss a day, either plan to make it up (if that works for you) or spend half the time on it instead.

The keys to making your own art on a regular basis is commitment. The motivation is the “why”, the discipline is the “how”, and the accountability is the “what”.


Pledge to hold yourself accountable to this Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge.

It’s one thing to say you’re going to make art or write that novel or what have you, it’s another to actually do it. Accountability is about proving to yourself that you have done the work you pledged to do.

Methods for accountability include:

  • Use a diary and write journal entries to mark your progress.
  • Buy a calendar and put smiley face stickers on it, or use the calendar on your phone.
  • Buddy up and find someone else who’s taking this challenge to hold each other accountable.
  • Check in every Wednesday here on my website, beginning on January 4th. Comments will be open.
  • Print out a free calendar and “X” off the days.
  • Use the hashtag #makeartnotwar2017 or #manw2017. Share your efforts every week–even talking about it with other challengers will help!

Accountability doesn’t have to take a long time; just by checking off a date on your calendar right after you’re done will complete this part of the challenge. There is no greater sense of accomplishment than being able to quickly look back at what you’ve done. Super important!


Manage your connections with your online and offline communities to remain focused but grounded.

For this challenge, connection taps back into the reasons why you’re making art. A story you write could make someone cry. A digital painting you create could instill a sense of wonder. The art you produce is a unique part of your identity, your humanity, and at the other end of your art is a reader, viewer, or player who’s interacting with your creation. Often, the best art evokes an emotional reaction, regardless of how well its crafted. Our relationships help give us the connections needed to understand the spectrum of human emotion. They also provide the means for self-care, and a tool to help us support one another.

Unfortunately, our connections can work against us because there are so many different ways to connect, that they wind up distracting us from what we want to accomplish as artists. The truth is that artists need solitude in order to create; being alone, even when it’s depicted in a positive, almost spiritual light, carries many stigmas with it. We hear the word “loner” and internalize our need or enjoyment of solitude as being wrong or bad or a sign that we’re broken. We need that “alone time” to focus, to listen to our innermost selves, to channel our voices into making art before we can share our creations with others.

This leg of the challenge is about managing your ability to connect against the discipline required to make art. For me, that is broken up into two, distinct parts: offline and online. Your mileage on these two areas in particular will vary widely, depending upon your situation.

I am listing below what I’m pledging to do for my challenge, in the hopes that you’ll use this as a baseline.

    Weekly Check-In: Pending any work-related promotions, interviews, this challenge, etc., I pledge to check in to social media no more than twice a week for personal usage.
    Quarterly Downtime: A few years ago, I took 100 days off of social media, and since then I’ve found that it took me two weeks to reset. I usually take the week off after a big show, but I will consider taking more of these breaks if limiting my access is not effective.
    Monthly Connection: I started this back in October/November, but it bears repeating now. Once a month, I am connecting with other artists/writers in my local community–outside of convention season.

Now that I’ve written the rules, it’s time to spend the last two weeks of the year reflecting on what I want to do for my challenge by reviewing what I’ve got on deck. I will post next week about this in particular, to help you prepare as well.

Rise up. And take the Make Art Not War 2017 Challenge with me!

[Announcement] Writing the Other 2017 Classes

I am pleased to share that I am teaching a Writing the Other class about RPGs in February 2017. The full text of the announcement, including instructions on how to get updates, is on the newly revamped www.writingtheother.com website.

In addition to the classes that I am teaching, I thought you might be interested in the works of these talented instructors. Please consider checking them out!

New Writing the Other Classes

2017 is almost here and we’re already planning a full year of Writing the Other classes! In addition to Weekend Intensives every other month there will be at least three Multi-week Classes. And we have an exciting roster of new classes and Master Classes coming up:

  • Writing Inclusive Games – Creating RPGs Sans Fail with Monica Valentinelli | February 2017
  • Master Class: Writing Bisexual Characters with Faith Cheltenham | February 2017
  • Master Class: Writing Your Future Self – Creating Older Characters with Ellen Klages | early March 2017
  • Master Class: How To Fail Gracefully with Mary Robinette Kowal and K. Tempest Bradford | April 2017
  • Master Class: Avoiding Offensive Tropes in Horror with Chesya Burke | Summer 2017
  • Worldbuilding Intensive (instructors TBA) | Summer 2017
  • Master Class: Writing From the Diaspora with Ken Liu | Autumn 2017
  • Master Class: Beyond Belief – Writing Plausible Atheist and Religious Characters with Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward | Autumn 2017

We also plan to have Master Classes on Writing Lesbian and Gay Characters, Writing Characters With Mobility Disabilities, and Depicting Class in Fiction later in the year.

For more about these classes, visit www.writingtheother.com.

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