Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.37: Mandatory Failure

We talk with Howard Tayler about the story structure of a story with a BIG disaster in the middle – one which we don’t recover from until the next book. We also talk about the weight of world-building, how to write for your ideal reader. And Howard considers the question, what is the cost of death if immortality exists? 

For reference, Mandatory Failure is the 18th Schlock Mercenary Book; 1st in the 3-book finale to the 20 book mega-arc. We highly recommend you read this first, because this episode contains spoilers and in-depth conversations about the book. 


Writing prompt: a major disaster has just occurred, write a scene in the aftermath. 

Thing of the Week: 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi 

Liner Notes: 

Book 18 Schlock Mercenary: Mandatory Failure 

Sandra Tayler

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Deep dive into Mandatory Failure, book 18 of the Schlock Mercenary mega-arc. Book 1 of the three-book finale! Start with an explosion, due to enemy action that continues through the last three books. This book focuses on a refugee crisis that the mercenaries are dragged into help resolve. Setting up a big galaxy event, with a logistics problem? Big problems matter when you see the effect in small places. People growing up and stepping up. How should we behave in a crisis? The world’s worst apology. A comedic tool, cascading failure. Emotional for you, the writer, versus emotional for the reader? Check your alpha reader, crit partner, or reasonable facsimile. Do figure out what level of feedback you need. Authentic emotion versus manufactured emotion? Balance emotion and craft. Mandatory failure — you are going to fail. But don’t let that stop you.

[Season 18, Episode 37]

[1:30 minutes inaudible advertising Hello Fresh]


[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Deep Dive, Mandatory Failure.

[DongWon] 15 minutes long.

[Erin] 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.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Howard] We have reached that point in this eight episode miniseries where we’re actually doing the deep dive part and diving into the books. Mandatory Failure is the 18th Schlock Mercenary story and is book 1 of what I structured as a sort of a three book finale to the 20 book mega-arc. So that’s really the way I think of it, or the way I thought of it. Yes, it’s the 18th book in a thing, but it is the first book in a trilogy that will end in a big way the fellow cast members here have just read it, and I’m sure have bazillions of questions for me. I’m anxious to not be able to answer them.


[Erin] I’ll just start. The question that I have actually comes from what you just said, which is knowing that this… You meant this to be its own sort of self-contained thing within the larger. How did you decide where to start? To make it a satisfying beginning for the trilogy?

[Howard] I gave it a prologue with an explosion, and the explosion in the prologue was an explosion… It was enemy action, and it is enemy action that continues throughout the trilogy. But in this case, it sets off a very specific local series of events that this book focuses on. So the fact that the enemy action… We have non-baryonic entities, the Pa’anuri in the Andromeda galaxy, and, oh, no, they have actually developed a weapon that lets them fire plasma through hyperspace and destroy targets kind of at will, and there’s nothing we can do about it. That drives the next three books. That is… They have a plan, and that drives the next three books. But for this book, the first thing that they hit creates a disaster, creates a refugee crisis, and our heroes, the mercenaries, get dragged in to… It’s not very mercenary-ish, they get dragged into help the refugees.

[Mary Robinette] They were voluntold, I mean, really.


[Howard] They were voluntold.


[Howard] Well, I mean, they were voluntold, and the way… It was fun to create it that way. One of the mercenaries is related to someone who’s there on the scene, and because of the weird and very very racist laws in place in that system, they couldn’t hire outside help unless they were related to somebody who lived there. So she makes a call to her sister, and her sister talks to the CO, and off we go, as mercenaries that nobody wants to have.

[DongWon] It’s such an interesting, almost counter-intuitive plot decision that you made because you know that you’re setting up this big galaxy event. Where you start is an entire volume that’s really focused on a logistics problem in a very specific area of how do we deal with all of these corpses, I guess. They’re kind of corpses.

[Howard] Yeah.

[DongWon] So much of that initial section is taken up with the mechanical logistics. How do we harvest them? How do we bring them back? How do we feed them? Then, also the political problem of how do we make this… How do we not start three wars or whatever it is, by doing this thing? You know you want to get to point C. What made you decide to spend so much time in this very narrow slice? That is not a critique, I think it works beautifully, but…

[Howard] It was a lesson that I learned early on, which is big problems don’t matter until you see the effect in small places. Famine? Yes, that’s a disaster. Me being hungry? Is an F-ing catastrophe. So that’s… I wanted to drill as far down as I could. Having refugees begin waking up before we’re ready for them and wonder where their family members are. That is extremely poignant, extremely relevant to millions of people on the planet Earth right now. It was difficult for me to write because it was so raw. But by doing it that way, when I blow up more and more things later on, you can extrapolate. People have already felt it in the small space, and now they can project it on the big screen, and I make you feel even worse. As an author, that’s kind of how we think. What can I do to make you feel worse than you feel right now.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. You did a good job of that.

[Howard] Thank you.

[Mary Robinette] Really, I like that… Like, one of the things that I want to just draw attention to is that… DongWon, you mentioned a number of different things that you’re doing with that, but you’re also doing like you’ve got these character arcs that are also happening for multiple different characters. So you set up this thing with Peri where she is pretending to be in charge and is like trying to figure out the balance of where power is. What is too much, what is comfortable? That’s again reflecting like this larger power struggle that’s going on.

[Howard] Well, it’s one of the themes, one of the quiet themes which were actually going to try and reflect in the cover art. These books aren’t in print yet. Book 17 features Capt. Tagon on the front cover, front and center, there really aren’t any other characters there. Books 18, 19, and 20 will feature other characters in the center positions, and Capt. Tagon’s picture gets smaller with each volume. Because part of what is happening here, and maybe this is the parent in me, is that his company is… These people are growing up. These people are stepping up. Having a corporal need to take charge and actually boss people around as if she is a flag officer, that’s kind of huge.

[DongWon] It really effectively set up the narrative rhyming, or the thematic rhyming we’re going to see over the next three volumes of who gets to have power, who should have power, and who takes power. Right? Over and over again, we see entities, people, taking control who shouldn’t, people trying to resist that, people getting control when they deserve it. I don’t know. You keep asking this question from all these different angles in each of these different scenarios. What I love about this disaster and the logistics is A, it sets up sort of the moral stakes in a certain way, of like this is how people should behave, this trying to care for each other in this type of crisis, which then when things go off the rails in the future, it gives us that grounding. But also really sets up this understanding of thinking about power, thinking about authority, in these ways, because we get to see the characters thinking about it in a very explicit on page way.

[Mary Robinette] One of the other things along these lines that I also thought was really lovely in the first book is how that question of power dynamics is playing out, not just in the hierarchical nature of the ship, but also in the marriage, the Foxworthy. Like, the scene where he realizes that he has… Where he’s trying to apologize to his wife for casting a shadow, and then he’s like, “No, wait. That’s wrong because that’s still centering me.”

[DongWon] The world’s worst apology.


[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Such a bad apology. So bad. But it’s also the kind of thing that you encounter in real life, and again, it’s that becoming aware that you have power, that you have been exercising in ways that you really should not have.

[Howard] When we come back from the break, I want to talk about why that apology was so important. Why that was one of the most difficult scenes I’ve ever written.

[Erin] I am so excited to talk about Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Which is one of those novels that I think lots of people are talking about and I came to it late. My main question was why did I not read this sooner. So, it’s a book, it’s a historical fiction novel, that follows the descendents of one woman who has two children, one of whom marries the governor in Ghana, in present-day Ghana, and basically helps to oversee a slave castle, and the other one who is one of the slaves sent over to America. It basically continues to track their families. So each chapter, you go one generation down as you see what happens to the half of the family that remained in Africa and the half of the family that went through slavery all the way down to the present day. I’ll warn you, it’s a bit brutal at times, it does not shrink away from its subject matter. But it’s beautifully written, and each individual descendents story is just this wonderful sort of short story life experience that really puts you in the mindset of the character as she tells this amazing historical fiction tale. So, again, that’s Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

[Howard] So. I’m going to go ahead and confess, full confession here. When Kevin apologizes to Elf, I wrote and rewrote and rewrote that. I must have broken down into tears half a dozen times while doing it. Because I kept trying to tap into that relationship and into the experiences of someone who knows he has unjustly but accidentally exercised power over someone else, is preventing them from becoming what they could be, and wants to fix it, but the very act of trying to fix it is itself an exercise of power. Wading through that… It was fun to write, in that… DongWon, you said worst apology ever. Clumsiest apology ever.

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Howard] But the whole time I was writing it, I could tell that for Elf, it was the most beautiful thing she’d ever received because it was so genuine.

[DongWon] Well, that’s a wonderful end to the scene, [garbled] of the scene of her tearing up. It just shows how much it landed, even though we, as the reader, have that… The comedy in the scene is him trying to explain this thing that is so… He keeps, like, apologizing for the thing he just said in the scene. Right?

[Howard] It’s… That is a comedic tool, the cascading failure… The cascading failure where it’s…

[DongWon] The mandatory failure.


[Howard] I love that tool. But here’s the thing. When I was writing it, I knew that part of what I was creating was a character moment that made this Kevin precious, and I was about to kill him, and he would never come back. Elf would forever have this memory of something her husband had done for her, and even if we are able to restore her husband from a backup, that backup doesn’t include this data. As she says later in the story… Schlock says, “The doctor can bring him back.” She says, “I want the one who apologized.”

[DongWon] It’s a heartbreaking moment.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. It’s so… Yeah. It’s like…

[Howard] I had been waiting… No lie. I had been waiting five books for the opportunity to put paid on that… This promise that, hey, just because I’ve introduced a form of immortality doesn’t mean death is cheap.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] Doesn’t mean there’s no cost to it. I think it was book 13 where Schlock dies and they try and bring him back from bits they can find and end up having to restore him from backup. We actually had a conversation in a Writing Excuses retreat, and I remember the cast staring at me kind of wide-eyed like, “You know what you’ve done?” My response then was, “I think I know what I’ve done. I… You’re making it sound worse than I thought it really was. Maybe I should pay more attention.”


[Howard] Yeah, it took me five books to find the point where I could really turn the screws on the poor reader.

[Erin] I was thinking about what you just said about writing the apology itself and how it made you feel. I often hear people talk about I was crying… I know I wrote this, and it was working because I was crying while I was writing it. It never happens to me because I’m cold inside.


[Erin] But I’m wondering…

[Howard] Yeah, just dead inside.

[Erin] Chaotic dead inside. But I’m wondering, how do you know in that situation, like, if what you are writing is emotionally landing for you versus emotionally landing for the reader? Because I think you got in the place you needed to in the end, but, like, how do you separate the you who’s experiencing it from the you who’s trying to craft it?

[Howard] I have a cheat that is not available to anyone else. I’d been using it for a decade by the time I got there. I would write the scripts, and then I would hand them to Sandra, and I would watch Sandra read. I could see… I mean, I learned… I mean, I already knew a lot of the body language and the things… Micro expressions and whatever else. We’ve been married now, as of this recording session, we are coming up on 30 years of marriage. This is someone I’m very, very close to. I would watch her read. I watched her read this scene, and she teared up and she giggled, and she teared up and she giggled. Then she handed it back to me and said, “I want pictures.” I knew, okay, this one’s right. This one is right. I could not have created the Schlock Mercenary that I did without Sandra as the pre-alpha feedback loop. Because many times I would hand her a script and should look at it and she’d say, “Okay. Yeah, no, I think with a picture…” I would snatch it from her and say, “Stop! Just stop talking. I can tell it’s wrong because you have confusion and there should be no confusion at this point. The words should be enough.” I’d storm off to my office and I’d make it better. Then I’d bring it back, and she would look at it and say, “Oh, yeah. Okay. Yes. Now I…” So…

[DongWon] I will say, you say this is not available to other people. But it is, maybe not in the exact form like…

[Mary Robinette] Sandra is not available.

[DongWon] [garbled a third of your marriage is not available]

[Howard] You can’t have my Sandra. No.

[DongWon] But people… You can have a beta reader. You can have a crit partner. You can have a collaborator in some ways. I think having those people in your life that you can rely on to be early readers or even people just to bounce ideas off of. That… I mean, that is available to people in certain ways.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I’ve heard it called an ideal reader, which is that you think about the person that you want, that you are writing for. So, like, I with the Lady Astronaut books in particular in writing for [Alessandra?] and I’m looking for the moment where she is like… Where I’m like, “Oh, she’s going to hate this so much. She’s going to be so mad at me.” I’m like, “Yes!” That’s what I’m writing for is a lot of times is will it provoke that? It gives me a way to kind of AB test things in my own brain even before I commit them to the page by thinking about how the person is likely to react to it.

[Howard] I actually struggle when I’m submitting things to writing groups because when I get their responses, it’s already been filtered. No. I wanted to watch your eyes while you read. I wanted to watch everything happen so that I knew… So that’s… It’s difficult to find.

[DongWon] That is too much feedback for some people. Right? For some people that is to intensive of a process to feel that disappointment immediately in that way, to filter is necessary. So, no for yourself, as you’re figuring out who your crit partner is, who to work with, what writing groups to work with, what level of feedback you need.

[Howard] But coming back to Erin’s question, I could not know that I got things right until I checked it with Sandra. That one especially, because it’s a relationship between a man and a woman, and he’s famous and she’s not, and draw whatever parallels there you care to, I really needed to make sure that it worked. Once I had her approval, I knew that it did.

[DongWon] It felt like a very personal authentic moment. I felt a realness in that scene as I read it, but I think that comes through very well.

[Erin] Yeah. I think… A secondary question, I think, that was lurking beneath my question, is authentic emotion versus manufactured emotion. Because I think sometimes… Like, for example, when I’m not being cold and dead inside, I might cry at like a Hallmark movie when the music swells, but I don’t think that’s… That’s just like I can feel the thing working on me. You know what I mean? It doesn’t feel like it comes from a genuine place, it comes from like all the things that are happening around it that are telling me to react in a specific way. Like, when the music changes in a horror movie, it might not be scary, but the thing is telling you is scary. There’s a difference between that and when the emotion is genuine and it’s coming from a real place. Being able to tell the difference between when you’re writing a more surface, and there’s room for all levels… But when you’re writing a more surface level emotion, and when you’re really getting to the heart of things, I think can be really difficult because they both feel emotional.

[Mary Robinette] So the… I hear what you’re saying, and the reason I’m over here making faces that if we had a video feed, the viewers would be like, “Ooo, what’s going on there?” is because i think that when… I think that… For a long time, I would say, “Oh, yes, you can feel it.” That there’s this idea, but there are some people who don’t have those reactions. Like, when I’m writing with depression, I am strictly crafting my way through that, and I know from experience that the reader cannot tell. Then, people with varying forms of autism often don’t have the same kinds of reactions, so it’s much like telling someone that you have to read your work aloud in order to know whether or not it flows, which is not a process that’s going to work for a deaf writer.

[DongWon] It’s just another tool in the set. Right?

[Mary Robinette] It’s another tool.

[DongWon] Being able…

[Mary Robinette] It’s a tool that can’t… I understand what you’re…

[Erin] Let me just… My question is actually less about the emotion and more about the craft, though. What I’m saying is you can fool yourself into thinking you are writing something because you are putting all the emotions into it on a surface level. How do you ensure that the craft under it is doing the emotional work needed so that you may be making yourself cry on a surface level, but in fact, you’re not getting to something else because you are… It sounds right, if that makes sense…

[DongWon] Right.

[Erin] But it is not right. So it’s actually the opposite.

[DongWon] That is tricky. Especially the things that are so raw in a way that’s… It’s so intense of an emotional place that there’s not enough craft on it to make it legible to me or connect to me. Sometimes it just feels… I’m so inside someone else’s experience that I’m like, “I don’t know how to take this in or respond to it.” So you always need that balance. Right? You always need to… The score has to be right, the lighting has to be right, all these different things. Right? I think what’s so interesting about this conversation is we’re seeing that it really is finding that balance point between something that feels very true to you, and something that is rooted in however many years of craft you apply to it. You’ve got to that moment, Howard, not just by tapping into the emotion of it, but also you’ve been drawing these characters for years and years and years.

[Howard] Oh. So much, so much craft.

[DongWon] You know how to hone a joke. You know how to do this. And you edit it and reworked it and all those things.

[Howard] So much craft. There was… Gosh, eight years ago, I don’t know exactly. I was asked to narrate a Christmas program. The way it had been written was very we are going to tell the congregation how they should feel. I objected to that on several levels. But the uppermost level was my writer brain. It was like, “No. No. We can do this so much better.” So I asked them permission. I said, “Can I rework some of this? I think I can trim it a little bit and make it a little smoother. Do you mind?” “Okay, fine.” I took all of the tell statements out of it and reframed everything in ways that encourage people to begin imagining feelings for themselves without telling them to do that. The response from the person who created it was, “Ah! Can I have this? Can this be the new edition of… Can I just use these?” I’m like, “Fine. It is my gift to you.” It was all craft. It was all craft. It was very much the toolbox of I’m just going to remove all of the statements that tell you how you should feel, and include characters feelings.

[DongWon] Can we talk about the title real quick? This idea of mandatory failure. The reason it… Your comments made me think of it was, so much of learning craft, so much of learning how to do all these things, is simply like doing it over and over again. Right? You have to learn by doing. Now, the reason I love this title and I love this idea is inherently you are going to be failing, especially at the early stages, to do the thing that you’re trying to do. To access that emotional state, to set the stage properly to execute on all these different emotional levels. Failure is not just part of the process. It is a mandatory piece for success. Or at least that’s how I’m interpreting what you said.

[Howard] No, that’s exactly right. The quote… And the quote grew out of a subversion of the NASA statement. Failure is not an option. Which is a way of saying this is too important to make any mistakes on. This is the piece we absolutely have to get right. But so many people misuse that and say failure is not an option all the time. I subverted it. Failure is not an option, it’s mandatory. The option is whether or not to let failure be the last thing you do.

[DongWon] Exactly.

[Howard] That is my favorite of the 70 maxims. It is maxim 70. It’s where the series ends. Putting in here nicely set up for me… I mean, it’s sort of a theme in my own life. I’m going to have to fail at stuff over and over and over again in order to get it right. These characters are going to have to fail at stuff over and over and over again before they get it right. In this book, in the next book, and in the trilogy that wraps things up. Speaking of wrapping things up, we should homework.

[DongWon] Our homework this week is going to be a writing prompt for you. So what we would like you to do is imagine a major disaster has just occurred. Write a scene directly in the aftermath of this incident.

[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.

[Howard] This episode was made possible by our amazing Patreon supporters. To support this podcast and get exclusive access to Q&A’s, livestreams, and bonus content, visit the link in our show notes or go to