18.06: An Interview With Howard Tayler
Your Hosts: Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler
In this episode we interview Howard Tayler, one of the founding members of the podcast, and the creator of Schlock Mercenary. The first question: how did this twenty-year ride change you? And a later question: what comes next?
Liner Notes: We’ll eventually do a deep dive on the final three books of the Schlock Mercenary saga. You can read for free starting here.
Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.
Homework: Take an index card for each key beat in a scene you’ve written. Illustrate each beat with stick figures and smiley/frowny/angry faces.
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Key points: Changing as a creator over the 20 year span of Schlock Mercenary? Three parts. First part: Better as a storyteller in terms of craft, better artist in terms of composition, and better humorist. Second part: I learned I was writing social satire. Third part: What I am doing matters. People have changed as a result of my work. Transition from joke-a-day to long form? I had an idea that I needed to lay down parts for that took longer. By working several weeks ahead, I had time to mull new ideas and mash them together. What’s next? I’m working on it. Are you looking for a new tool or challenge? Yes, but chronic fatigue means I can’t afford a long learning curve. I have so many stories I want to tell that I’m prioritizing using a medium and techniques that I already know so I can tell as many as possible. Low bar, but I cleared it.
[Season 18, Episode 6]
[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.
[DongWon] An Interview With Howard Tayler.
[Erin] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[DongWon] I’m DongWon.
[Erin] I’m Erin.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And I’m the guy with his feet in the fire.
[Dan] Howard, I’ve been looking forward to this one, I’m going to ask you the hardest questions. So… I actually am not. I’m going to ask you some things about stuff that I assume you’ve been thinking about a lot, because I’ve been thinking about it a lot. You, as you’ve said several times, you’ve just finished your magnum opus. 20 years of daily web cartoons and all of these wonderful books and stories that have come from them. I would love, if you could condense into just a little nugget for us. How do you feel like you changed as a creator from the beginning of that to the end of that long process?
[Howard] Ooo. Three-part answer. Part one, I very quickly got better at all of the pieces that were involved. I became a better storyteller… Just the craft. Better storyteller in terms of craft, better artist in terms of composition, better humorist… I treat that is a different skill than the other two because it’s such a specific mechanic. I got better at all of that. So that’s part one. Part two is I realized, and it was when we first started recording Writing Excuses… I say first started. 2009 we had an episode, or maybe it was late 2008, where the question was, “What have you learned from Writing Excuses this year?” My answer was I have learned that I’m writing social satire. Which I had been doing for eight years now but didn’t know it. Once I knew it, I got a lot better at it, because I recognized which jokes didn’t fit, which jokes did fit, which scenarios did fit, which scenarios didn’t fit. That was actually a huge change for me. Similar types of changes have happened since then where I have realized, “Oh, this is what I doing. This is the name for the thing that I’m doing.” So that’s answer number two. Answer number three is the squishy one. It is I have learned that what I’m doing matters. There have been people who have emailed me and said, and I’m paraphrasing, “I would wake up every morning and just not think I could go on and was ready to end it and then realized but then I will miss tomorrow’s Schlock Mercenary update.” I realized, “Okay. That’s way too much for me to carry. Please don’t put that on me.” But… I’m carrying it, and I will. Thank you for staying with us. On less life-threatening sorts of notes, people have described things that I’ve written that have woken them up in some way or another, that have changed the way they think about things. Even though I write silly stuff, it matters. Yeah, I mean, it’s social satire, so at some level, you step back and say, “Well, of course, social satire matters. That’s how we understand where society is broken. Blah blah blah.” I don’t go around thinking that that’s my job, but… At some level, it is.
[Dan] That’s great. So I think that there is a phenomenon that I see in web comics a lot, but I think it’s more fair to say that every creator, every writer goes through this, where they decide that they have a really big idea, and they want to get it out there into the world. The reason this stands out to me in web comics is because in that particular medium and art form, you’re kind of tap dancing live in front of everybody. Right? So, comics that started as joke a day kind of stuff or very small stories eventually hit this point, and I’ve seen this dozens and dozens of times, where they decide they want to tell a very long, very epic, very involved story. I have never seen any of them pull it off as successfully as you can. I wonder if you can point to any particular decisions or tools that helped you make that transition from joke a day into what was by the end of it an incredibly powerful and epic science fiction story time?
[Howard] Um. Pfoo, Pfah. I remember picking up my sister-in-law, Nancy Fulda, from the airport, and being in the airport, and just thinking about sci-fi and travel, and had this whole idea of what if the worm gate network, the reason they want that as a monopoly, is not because of money, but it’s because of information, because they are able to gate clone people and quietly interrogate them and find out all of the stuff, and then just quietly murder the gate clones and nobody knows anything else. So that idea came to me, waiting in an airport. In order to tell that story, I knew that I needed to lay down some pieces that were going to take longer. Up until that point, I’d had this idea that I was going to do it a little bit more like Bloom County did it in the newspapers back in the 80s. 80s, early 90s, which was Berke Breathed would run a story… He was also doing social satire… He would run a story that ran for a week. Or maybe two weeks. With Opus as interludes on Sundays. So I had this idea that in terms of framework, yeah, I can keep people’s attention with a story for a week or two. But, the fact is that on the Internet, people could page back. Start from comic one and could just read it straight through. I thought, “Hey, you know what, I can go for more than a week or two. I can go for maybe a month. But a month really needs to be the limit.”
[Howard] Then I had this idea about the Teraport breaking the monopoly and the worm gate and the cloning and all that. By that time, I had five or 10,000 regular readers who had stuck with me, and I decided, “All right, I’ll try making it a little longer.” As I’m sure most of you have experienced, when you’re writing something that takes several months to write, during the course of writing it… Maybe I should ask it as a question. Do you ever have ideas for other things to write?
[Howard] Because that is exactly how it went, is that I would ask, “But then what happens? But then what happens? Oh, wait, there’s this thing out in pop culture that I want to talk about because it’s so much fun…” And, “Ooo, and then what happens if I mash these things together?” Because I worked ahead… Because I typically worked three weeks, minimum of three weeks, sometimes as much is 6 to 8 weeks ahead, I had time to mull these ideas over before I started throwing them down on the page. I was never drawing comics the day before they aired. That way lies madness.
[Dan] We… I have a lot of questions to ask about what is next. But first, we’re going to pause for our thing of the week.
[Howard] Schlock Mercenary ends with a trilogy of books, called Mandatory Failure, A Function of Firepower, and A Sergeant In Motion. The thing of the week is these three books. Because coming up with the ending for the twenty-year mega arc of Schlock Mercenary was super fun for me, but those three books online will really only take you about a day to read. If you read them, we’ll do… Or even if you don’t read them, we’ll do a deep dive on that sometime later this year. So, three books. Mandatory Failure, A Function of Firepower, and A Sergeant In Motion, found at schlockmercenary.com, and the URL at the end of schlockmercenary.com is 2017-09-18. Because it started on September 18 of 2017.
[Dan] So, Howard, I would love for you to tell us a little bit about what comes next. You’ve finished a lifetime worth of web comic, science fiction, but you’re still creating an you’re still working and you’re still doing new things. What comes next?
[Howard] I was going to ask you guys that.
[Howard] Because I… Oh, boy. Yeah, sometimes… Honestly, sometimes, I just don’t know. In the tag cloud, the career and lifestyle episodes… I could talk about this for a whole 15 minutes, which is waking up in the morning and just not being sure what comes next. Because for a solid 18 years, 18 of the 20, I would lie down in bed and as I drifted off to sleep, the voices in my head were talking about what happens next. The story was unfolding for me all the time. They’re quiet now. I know that sounds kind of sad. They’ve stopped talking. But… I left them in a good place. I hope. I’ve done some prose writing. It’s gone well. But it got interrupted… It got interrupted by stuff. There’s lots of interruptions. For the next year, we are spending most of our time getting the final Schlock Mercenary books, 18, 19, and 20, getting them into print. That’s what’s going to pay the bills for 2023 and most of 2024. By the end of 2023, Dan, I need to have an answer to your question and it needs to be a good answer that’s already generating revenue. So, um, yeah.
[Dan] Sounds to me like you might need that answer a lot sooner than the end of 23.
[Mary Robinette] So one of the things that I remember you talking about in a previous episode, Howard, is that when you started Schlock that you kind of didn’t actually know how to draw. That you had this idea, you wanted to do it, and that you taught yourself the tools that you needed to, in order to move forward with the story. I guess when you’re thinking about what is next, you’re playing with prose, but that’s a tool you already know. Is there a tool that you’re looking at and going, “Hum, that’s a really interesting tool. I would like to know more about that, please.”
[Howard] Um… Short answer, yes. Longer answer, long Covid and chronic fatigue have constricted my energy envelope to the point that if the learning curve is steep enough, I can’t afford to do it. I don’t have… I can’t put in a 12 hour workday anymore. I can barely put in a four hour workday, a six hour workday, of just sitting and getting this stuff done. It’s difficult. I mean, one of the things that I’ve loved is when we were doing the role-playing games streams for Typecast RPG. I loved creating Twitch overlays and the idea of streaming and having video conversations that mixed… I’ve got all the gear, I’ve got all the tools to do the pushing of buttons and having pictures change. I had this great idea for a Twitch stream that’s Howard and his artist friends. Dual cameras, switching between various… I’m waving my hands around, and the audio is just not going to pick that up.
[Howard] Swapping the camera pictures. The whole show would be titled Everybody Draws Better Than Howard Does. I would have other artists on and we would talk about what we were each working on and I would shower them with praise and we’d plug their work and it would be silly fun. I don’t have the energy for that. That’s… I just don’t have the energy for that. But I have had the energy for sitting down and writing. I’ve got so many stories I want to tell that it is fair for me, I think, to prioritize and say I would rather pick the medium, pick the techniques that I already know so that I can tell as many stories as I can. I can say as much of what I’ve got to say before my timeline eventually runs out, then for me to try and learn something new and slow all that down. I know that sounds kind of morbid and whatever, but… Um… Hey, maybe the CFS will get better and I’ll be putting in 12 hour days when I’m 70. I’d love that.
[Mary Robinette] I really like that, though, the idea of picking… We do, I think, tend to go for a hard setting all the time. The number of writers, and I know… Hello, listener, I’m speaking directly to you, the one that listens to the homework assignment and says , “Humpf, I’m going to do something different. I’m going to make it harder.” Or, “They told me that you can’t possibly do a story about zombie unicorns? I’m going to do a story about zombie unicorns, and submit it to the editor who told me they don’t like it.”
[Mary Robinette] I know that that is a temptation, that happens to a lot of people. But I think there is something really beautiful about saying I’m going to use this tool that I love, that is familiar and comfortable, and I’m going to tell the best stories I can with tools I already know how to use, and I’m just going to refine them.
[Howard] Yeah. That’s… Um… I think it was 2008, 2009, about the same time the podcast started, I really got on this kick of the focused practice, the whole concept of focused practice. The idea that you practice the things that you’re bad at so that you stop taking shortcuts and going around them. For me, it was I didn’t know how to draw hands. So I practiced drawing hands. Ended up drawing Curtis Hickman’s hands doing magic tricks in the first Xtreme Dungeon Mastery book. Curtis came back to me and said, “Howard, these are the best illustrations of these tricks that exist anywhere. Because all of the others are grainy photographs in black and white of an old man’s hands and you can’t tell what’s going on.” So, low bar, but I cleared it.
[Howard] So I was on this kick. Now I look at things and I say, “Yeah. There are things that I am not good at. But there are a lot of things where I’ve spent years refining my skills, and, yes, I could develop the skills further. Obviously. But I’m good enough at it that maybe I can just focus on that, and now that path is the easy path, but it’s not the shortcut. It’s falling back on the craft that I’ve spent 20 years learning.
[Dan] I… This is going to sound like a joke, but I mean it sincerely. I’m going to make “low bar, but I cleared it” my mantra for goal setting for the year.
[Dan] Like, simple things that I can finish and feel good about myself. That’s fantastic.
[DongWon] Under promise and over deliver.
[Mary Robinette] Yes.
[Dan] Howard? What’s our homework today?
[Howard] Okay. I want you, fair listener, who you are probably heavily focused on prose. I want you to take a moment and explore some of the tools in my toolbox. Take an index card. For each key beat, each key moment, in a scene that you’ve written, and illustrate that beat. Just using stick figures and smiley frowny angry faces, just whatever skills you’ve got, so that you have a camera aimed at a very scribbley blurry version of that scene. Do that for the whole scene and see how that changes the way you eventually edit it or rewrite it or write what comes next.
[Mary Robinette] All right. You have your homework assignment. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.