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Flavor Writer's Workshop

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The Writer’s Block

I was screaming. It was an unattractive mix of anima and testosterone, straight from the mouth of a banshee pro wrestler doing a touchdown dance in the end zone of hell. Then I wept.

All for joy, and all because of an e-mail: Would you be interested in submitting flavor text as part of the writing team for . . . 

I’ve written all my life, but I never accepted being a writer until very recently. As a young kid, I wanted to call myself A Writer. Enter the educational system. Who encourages third graders to write seriously? In middle school, everything you do well earns you the vitriol of your peers, so writing was embarrassing. In high school, I did a lot of work on the school paper, which made writing unfun. Then was college—the death knell. Writing suddenly seemed like a means to a degree, an endless procession of term papers I didn’t care about. Writing was the province of hipsters in coffee shops, interminably “working” on their “novels” while they uploaded pictures to MySpace.

GatheringMagic was the first step. I started to believe in my ability to communicate with the support of the great editors and readers on this site. And then, when I tested into the opportunity to submit flavor text as a freelancer for the Creative Team, it represented another level up in my self-opinion. I had to believe—or why waste Wizards’s time considering my work for print?

As a Vorthos and fan of all things fantasy in general, it’s important to me that the feeling of something be right. I want to draw you in, suspend your disbelief, make you laugh, move you, give you a little bit of escape. It’s a bonus if a creative piece can inspire some introspection or offer a social commentary without breaking the spell.

I’m grateful for the chances I’ve had through both GatheringMagic and Wizards of the Coast to contribute to the game and our community. One old coworker from my bar days, a sous chef, acts like the worst kind of drunken Dwarf-lord in a lot of cases, but I think he has the perfect attitude when it comes to talking about his career (perhaps it comes from the fact he used to make chainmail). The cool Portlandia kids always want to talk about how they’re barista artists or existentialist, so they don’t really work—whatever.

My ex-smithy Dwarven friend says, “I make food hot,” with pride.

I can’t quite do it without a hitch yet, but thanks to Magic . . . “I write.”

Writing for Theros

When I saw the flavor specs for Theros for the first time, I was speechless and ecstatic. A rabid fan of Greek mythology from a very young age, I couldn’t believe my good luck!

“The caprice of the gods, the destined hero, the great journey, the untamed wilds beyond the city walls, the raging sea, the birth of civilization, temples and burnt offerings, hoplites and phalanxes, hydras, gorgons, minotaurs, sacred and profane rites and rituals, great thinkers, enlightened despots, revels in the woods, the power of belief—Theros is a plane filled with divine magic and monstrous danger, where heroes are born and where legends are made.” – Planeswalker’s Guide to Theros, Part 1

The Planeswalker’s Guide series gives you a good feel for what writers are exposed to in the style guide when beginning work on a set. Then, you only have to imagine you have a large portion of a set’s cards to write for and are required to submit several selections each for both card title and flavor text (when applicable). For simplicity, just say it’s five hundred individual items you have to submit. And you have a few weeks to do it. Budgeting my time is something I’ve really learned as a flavor text writer. Requiring myself to complete a target number of items each night keeps me on or ahead of schedule, and it means I never miss a deadline.

The faster you work, the more you are paid in terms of hourly. But then, who’s doing this for the money? Freelance writing is all about the love, sweat, and tears. Still, you have to keep your time per card or per item reasonable or you just won’t get there with the quality you want. Ideally, you’d want to be around fifteen to thirty minutes per card to stay sane, but then . . . no one’s in this for sanity. I probably average an hour per card. Some take me two hours.

Gatherer is invaluable. I enter my ideas in the “Flavor Text” search box all the time to make sure I’m not wasting my editors’ time with submitting ideas that have already been printed. Wikipedia, dictionary.com/thesaurus.com, and MTGSalvation are my other tools of the trade. If you have a deep historical card pool knowledge base and an awareness of precedent when it comes to articulating certain mechanics in flavor items, it’s great. I don’t necessarily think those two areas are my strengths, but fortunately, my natural speed, research skills, characterization instincts, and talent in areas like dialogue allow me to be competitive in the freelance pool.

Let’s Name and Flavor Some Cards!

Below, I have a selection of Theros cards for which my flavor candidates were selected. I’m going to break down what I thought about as I was writing and how happy (or not) I am with the final product (context matters, and card designs as well as artworks do sometimes change late in the process, affecting the relevancy and appropriateness of your flavor submissions).

I’d love to see how you would write for these cards. For each card, submit some alternate names and/or flavor text in the Comments, and let’s chat!

Ashen Rider – Card Title

My memory might be foggy (Theros was my first set, and I didn’t have my tracking systems in place yet), but I feel that the art and/or the card itself was different. Flavor items can be reassigned to other cards—I think. Or perhaps the art description was vague and I just envisioned her on a horse. I remember reading Wikipedia on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for inspiration. Regardless, I think the name works here in a memorable, surprising way, but it does stick out a little in the Theros flavor landscape.

Destructive Revelry – Card Title

Revels were a huge part of the satyr section, flavor-wise, in the style guide, so it made sense to try to incorporate that. Basically, I was looking for other ways to say “killer house party.” I like the way this looks, but it’s a mouthful when you put it to the say-it-don’t-spray-it test.

Flamespeaker Adept – Card Title

This is a great example of how flavor precedent comes into play. “Flamespeaker” was given (see the Akros section of the Guide), and I remember going into Gatherer and looking at what other creatures similar to her were called in previous sets.

Nimbus Naiad and Observant Alseid – Card Titles

When there’s a cycle, I always submit coordinating names. I attempted to have an alliteration-plus-theme structure for the nymphs, as a nod to the rhythmic formality of Greek epic poetry, but it was a stretch. Naiad/Dryad/Lampad was given. The white nymph, though, used to be the Oread, and the red one was a Maiad. So I’d submitted “Observant Oread” originally, in a cycle of names that were alliterative and descriptive of attributes. “Nimbus Naiad” was part of a cycle that had a weather/constellation alliterative theme. Phew. I think this cycle was challenging to name, period, hence the variance in their final names and late changes to the nymph types.

Opaline Unicorn – Flavor Text

Since this set was based on Greek mythology, I thought it better damn well have some myths of its own. The iconic status of the unicorn makes this the perfect place to have something really classic, really fruity-tooty, and really epic in statement.

Pheres-Band Centaurs – Card Title

Vanillas tend to be really hard . . . or really easy. Easy if there’s something obvious that hasn’t been taken yet, but super-difficult if there’s just not much to say to spice it up. These dudes looked like stallions from the Pheres Band with big butts. Hyphen or not to hyphen? Without the hyphen, it could’ve been read as Pheres Bandcentaurs.

Thoughtseize – Flavor Text

One problem that comes up is that you don’t know what flavor has been newly accepted for unprinted sets. I wrote the first part of this flavor text, but it became a team effort because (I think) the second part was very similar to the flavor text that ended up appearing on Sin Collector in Dragon’s Maze. Obviously, that meant my item had to be edited. I’m glad they kept the attribution to Ashiok, such a lovely and potentially interesting Planeswalker.

Other Theros Work

Gods Willing

I hope you find value in this peek behind the curtain of what goes into making Magic flavor and what it means to be a writer and freelancer. It’s grueling, with major highs and lows. While it’s a shame for any of us to not take advantage of our innate talents, most success comes from taking calculated risks and exhibiting discipline in your craft. Nearly as important is building a support network of people you admire who are also committed to success and whose opinions you trust.

Where do you want to go?

Till next time, may Magic be your ride.

-MJ

@moxymtg

Moxymtg.com

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