Astrolabe 21: Why does everyone think writing's easy?
Writing's (not) easy
My guess is that a large portion of Astrolabe's readers are also writers in some capacity—whether its writing novels, blogging, drafting D&D campaigns, creating technical documentation at work, online roleplaying, or anything else on the wide creative spectrum of the craft. So, I imagine many of you have struggled at one time or another to keep a straight face while listening to someone else explain how "writing is easy," as referenced here by writer May Carlén.
In response to Carlén's question, many writers responded with perspective on why their craft is often undervalued compared to similar skills like music or visual arts.
This is something I've constantly run into throughout my day job as a web developer. I've worked with a lot of smart, articulate people, and, being in the business of creating content, quickly discovered that a) good writing is severely misunderstood, and b) everyone thinks they've got the chops to write good content. It's enough to make any writer's skin crawl—and feel undervalued for the work they bring to the table.
Writer Lincoln Michel (who just published his first novel, The Body Scout, which you should check out, and who also has a great newsletter worth space in your busy inbox) contributed an excellent point about our society's tendency to undervalue creativity in general, and writing specifically. He said this is because many people dismiss (or are unaware) of the technical elements of good writing.
It's commonly accepted that ideas are cheap, and that execution is what really separates the grain from the chaff, but Michel's point is broadly great at exposing the necessity of recognizing creativity as an achievement itself. As he points out, people largely respect the craft and technical skill/experience behind things like playing music, painting a picture, or even more modern mediums like photography. So why's writing different?
Because we're all great writers in our own heads.
Unlike many of my family members, I don't have a musical bone in my body. If you sat me in front of a piano, we'd both regret it almost immediately. I can hear music in my head, and compose a melody if pressed, but music isn't an innate skill I've been immersed in since literally the moment I was born. Language and communication, on the other hand, is one of the foundational functions of humanity.
As I mention in my tweet, nearly everyone has the basic tools to communicate and write. (According to Our World In Data, worldwide literacy of those 15yo+ is 85%, with fluctuations based on region, community, resources, etc.) From birth, we're taught the mechanics of language—spoken, written, non-verbal, and everything inbetween. We intuitively understand each other as we speak and have a conversation.
Over the past couple of years, I've conducted a lot of Zoom and telephone interviews as I've reported on gaming and SFF. Those interviews are fascinating in the moment, but when I transcribe them, they're full of half-formed ideas, ums, ahs, tangents, sentences that trail off into nowhere, and everything else that's inherent to conversational English. Reading it is a vastly different experience than being there in the moment speaking to those people.
Unlike musical ability, we all have an innate and experienced voice in our head, and, most of the time, we think we sound pretty great. This biases us towards our writing in a way that non-writers have difficulty evaluating.
In my experience, those who undervalue writing the most are often the most likely to misevaluate their own writing. It's "easy" to them because we can all speak and communicate, and their writing often comes across as conversational, unstructured, and exceptionally "voice-y" because they're mimicking the way they talk. This creates a positive feedback loop when they're evaluating their writing. It's writing that centres the writer, not the reader. They could read it back a hundred times and think it sounds great, because it's authentic to the voice in their head. This causes the majority of people to undervalue writing, and supports their belief that "anyone can write."
It was a common refrain when I worked at a creative agency. Budgets almost never accounted for copy—it was usually written by some random person along the client chain of command, never proofed, and almost certainly of much lower quality than the rest of the website. At almost all of my jobs, my experience as a writer has been discovered, and, despite my official role as a technical web developer, I often end up writing reports, magazine articles, client communications, copy, etc., without the appropriate job title or compensation, because (though nobody wants to pay for it) good writing makes a huge difference.
To Michel's point, good writing's valuable because the writer has experience turning the thoughts in our heads into literate, finely crafted non-verbal communication. Good writers excel at executing on great ideas. It's a skill that writers develop by stepping away from the conversational voice in their head, which typically dominates the communication methods of non-writers, and focusing on the technical craft inherent to written communication.
"Anyone can write" is vastly different than "Anyone can write well," and we need to change the perception of writing's value by recognizing that verbal and written communication (and all forms of non-verbal communication) operate by vastly different rules, and that good writing is the result of rigorous experience, training, practice, and talent.
Out & About
(Out & About is where I highlight my work—some recent and some old favourites.)
Dungeons & Dragons: Beholder Figurine by Aidan Moher | Hachette Book Group — www.hachettebookgroup.com Beauty is in the eye of the Beholder with this officially licensed miniature figurine.FIGURINE WITH LIGHT: A one-of-a-kind 3-inch figurine of ...
Last week, I finally got to spill the beans: I wrote a Dungeons & Dragons tie-in! Dame Beatrice J. Delacroix's Guide For Training Your New Beholder takes you through your early (and likely last...) days as the new owner of a very angry pet Beholder.
Here's the official blurb:
Beauty is in the eye of the Beholder with this officially licensed miniature figurine.
FIGURINE WITH LIGHT: A one-of-a-kind 3-inch figurine of the popular monster: the Beholder with a glowing eye
BOOK INCLUDED: Learn more about this iconic monster in this fully illustrated 32-page miniature book
PERFECT GIFT FOR D&D FANS: Display on a shelf, desk, or bookcase and show off your love of Dungeons & Dragons
OFFICIALLY LICENSED: Authentic Dungeons & Dragons collectible
Working on Dungeons & Dragons was a dream come true for me, and this was one of the most hilarious and fun projects I've ever worked on. It comes out April, 2022, and is available now for preorder.
A Fine Adventure: Grandia (Insert Cartridge)
LTTP—Super Metroid (Super NES, 1994)
( LTTP stands for “Late to the Party” and is a regular column where I let Twitter decide which retro game I’ll play for an hour. Do your worst, Twitter!)
So, recently I've been playing Metroid Dread—the latest in Nintendo's long-running, but oft-neglected, sidescrolling action adventure series. It's the first new 2D game in the series since 2002's Metroid Fusion on the Game Boy Advance, and the first game in the series period since Mercury Steam's Metroid: Samus Returns, which was a remake of the Game Boy's Metroid II: Retrun of Samus.
I've been a longtime fan of the series, and have played/beat most of the previous games—and been delighted all the way through. I love Metroid's emphasis on slow-paced exploration, its perfectly paced progression system that doles out new abilities and opens the world up to the player in a way that makes the games almost impossible to put down, and the rich environments that nail the overriding melancholy of Samus's complete isolation as she explores aliens planets by her lonesome.
But, I haven't been enjoying Metroid Dread. Just like I didn't enjoy Mercury Steam's previous Metroid title. So, for this LTTP, I wanted to go back to one of the previous games in the series to see it's really the children who are wrong, or if, in fact, I'm the one who's changed.
(Spoilers: It's the kids.)
Super Metroid handily won the Twitter poll over Metroid (NES), Metroid: Zero Mission (GBA), and Metroid Fusion (GBA)—and for good reason: it's one of the indisputable 10/10 perfect games ever released.
And... whoops! I've accidentally put 4.5 hours into the game and I'm well past the halfway point. More importantly, my disappointment with Metroid Dread—and Mercury Steam's general direction for the series—is even more clear.
Usually when I'm playing a game for LTTP, I play for an hour and write up impressions after that. But that's the thing about Super Metroid, and one of the reasons it's rightfully earned its reputation as a genuine classic video game: You just never want to put it down. So, here I am, halfway through the game, and itching to get back to a playthrough.
Like many players and critics, my biggest source of frustration in Metroid Dread are the boss battles, which represent a significant difficulty spike compared to all other parts of the game. Each time I've hit a boss, I've died multiple times, tossed the controller aside and turned off my Switch in favour of doing something actually fun. Friction in games is important—it's what makes the experiences memorable, even if it's just the time it takes you to clear out the weeds for your new beachfront bungalow in Animal Crossing—but I don't come to Metroid for trial-and-error boss battles or an increasing emphasis on combat. It's not a SHMUP and it's not Dark Souls.
The best way I can describe my disappointment in the changes present in Metroid Dread is to pull terminology from TTRPGs and MMORPGs. Previously, progression through Metroid games has revolved around a powerless Samus navigating a challenging environment with limited mobility and skillset. While this is predominantly true in Metroid Dread, playing Super Metroid helped me pinpoint the difference with Mercury Steam's games: They've changed Samus from a tank-y fighter to a glass-cannon mage.
Metroid Dread is fast. Ripping around the world, Samus is agile and quick, and the game encourages speed in the EMMI sections, where the player has to quickly and lithely avoid instant game overs (if the EMMI robot catches the player, it's game over unless they react with a literal split-second button press), and boss battles are a practice in learning patterns and dodging attacks without any margin for error or room to breathe. Samus dishes damage through small attack windows, but otherwise the name of the game is avoiding damage—because even as Samus grows stronger, it never takes more than 3-4 hits from a boss before you're toast. Samus is the very definition of a glass cannon.
Super Metroid, on the other hand, is much slower in its pacing as it encourages the player to wander and explore. Movement is more methodical, even as Samus gains new abilities that let her reach previously blocked-off areas, and boss fights are a war of attrition as the player learns and adapts on the fly—rather than through trial and error deaths. You can make a mistake in battle and recover, edging out a victory on your first or second try by paying attention in-battle. Samus is a tank, and as you get further in the game you feel more and more powerful.
This is what Metroid will always be for me: an exploration-focused experience where curiousity is rewarded, and obstacles are overcome by searching the environment for more resources. Mercury Steam—and Nintendo by proxy—has decided to make Metroid a series that focuses on combat-mastery. It's appealing to a core audience that loves speedruns, multiple playthroughs, and the thrill of beating a boss after dying 15 times, but it's not for me.
Needless to say, replaying Super Metroid reminded me why I fell in love with the series in the first place, and reaffirmed my opinion that Mercury Steam has taken the wrong lessons away from the series's past success as it steers the series towards combat mastery over exploration.
Most frustratingly, a lot of my issues in Metroid Dread (and Samus Returns before it) could have been alleviated with the addition of an easy mode that reduced damage to Samus, lowered boss hit points so they weren't so bullet sponge-y, and made the QTE-style melee counter system more forgiving. Players like me could enjoy the exploration without the frustration of combat, while normal and hard modes could tweak the challenge for those that want something with more teeth. All games should have accessibility options available to players to help them complete the game in the way that suits their play style.
Super Metroid, on the other hand, remains a classic, even if the controls are a bit stodgy a few decades later (Shoot on X? Toggling through special weapons? Yikes. Thank goodness for control remapping and fan mods.) The atmosphere remains unparalleled, the map design is endlessly clever, and the pacing is literally perfect.
Now, off I go to Zebes. There's a Metroid on the loose.
Super Metroid was released by Nintendo in 1994 for the Super NES. It's available on many different consoles via Nintendo's Virtual Console and Nintendo Switch Online services.
Child of Light by Terry Brooks
Terry Brooks's long-running Shannara series is the focal point of my SFF fandom. As long as I've been a fan, Brooks has been writing Shannara books, and I've enjoyed my yearly forays into his Four Lands.
Child of Light marks a new journey for the 77 year old, who concluded Shannara last year in favour of new adventures. One of my big gripes about latter Shannara books is that Brooks had a tendency to reuse plot devices, character archetypes, and magic relics without remixing them in new and interesting ways, Child of Light shows that when let off the leash, Brooks still has the ability to dream up fantastic new fantasy lands, vibrant cultures, settings, and characters, and write stories that remind me why I fell in love with his work—and epic fantasy—in the first place. A wonderful treat for longtime fans and newcomers alike.
(Quest Markers is a collection of the coolest stuff I’ve read around the web lately.)
Guy Gavriel Kay: 'We all write the books we would like to read' (The Bookseller)
Meet my book, Cosplay: A History (Transfer Orbit)
'Dune' Review: Enter Sandman. (It's The Pictures)
For His Next Series, Daniel Abraham Flies Solo Again (Publishers Weekly)
Why Dune endures (Vox)
How Writers Map Their Imaginary Worlds (Atlas Obscura)
The Commodore Story: Gone But Not Forgotten (TechSpot)
The Story Behind Richard Bachman (Jeff Swystun)
Is writing easy? Nah. Is it rewarding? Hell yeah. This issue marked a personal return to an old favourite, and new adventures for me and someone I greatly admire—all of which makes me grateful for the creative folk who put in the hard work to make their art and craft shine.
There are lots of ways to support Astrolabe and my other work. Check ‘em out!