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

18.38: How Do You Write A Series With Books That Stand Alone?

Deep Dive: A Function of Firepower

How do you write the middle of a book? How do you write an ending to a story? For this week’s episode about writing, we focus on Book 19 of Schlock Mercenary, the penultimate book in Howard Tayler’s series. We discuss ways to make a book feel self-contained, rather than just something to keep the beginning and the ending further apart. 

For reference, A Function of Firepower is the 19th Schlock Mercenary Book. We highly recommend you read this first, because this episode contains spoilers and in-depth conversations about the book. 


Writing prompt: try to work these three words into your WIP (work in progress): expeditious, sock, and dragonfly. 

Thing of the Week: 

Kickstarter for Schlock Mercenary Book 18:

(It’s what Howard said, but “profile” is singular, not plural!)

Liner Notes: 

Fermi paradox

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.

Join Our Writing Community! 






Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Deep Dive into A Function of Firepower. The title comes from a maxim, “Sometimes rank is a function of firepower.” AI, Oafans, Petey, all these guns versus “The pen is mightier than the sword.” I.e., an academic conference. Mutual assured destruction. Fermi’s Paradox. Comedy depends a lot on subversion. Petey is an antagonist, but not villainous. Being a villain and being sympathetic are not necessarily separate. Sympathetic and monstrous at the same time. Sometimes you need a new tool. 

[Season 18, Episode 38]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Deep Dive, A Function of Firepower.

[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 in charge for this episode, and I have been for some of the other ones. Kind of in charge. Mostly, the questions from my friends here are going to steer what happens…


[Howard] The title of this book, A Function of Firepower, title comes from one of the 70 maxims. The maxim is “Sometimes rank is a function of firepower.” Which obviously means sometimes who is in charge is not a question of who was elected to be in charge, who is most qualified to be in charge, it is who is the best armed. Which is, as I think we can all agree, a terrible way to decide who gets to run things. The story here begins with a crazy AI who has lots and lots of big guns and who is bound and determined to blow up anything that could cause the sort of mess that she’s upset about. Then we have the return of the Oafan race, who own a whole bunch of spaceships that our heroes took because they didn’t think the Oafans were still alive. But, hey, surprise, they are. Now we want our stuff back. Now, instantly, they are the largest armed force in the galaxy. Then, of course, throughout Schlock Mercenary, there’s been Petey, where I always imagined as the sci-fi equivalent of an enlightened desperate. A benign god-king. Who is not as powerful as he used to be. Then I balanced those questions, all of those guns against the old saw… I say the old saw. It’s Shakespeare, isn’t it? The pen is mightier than the sword? That’s Shakespeare?

[Mary Robinette] I’m going to say yes. I don’t actually know.

[Howard] It’s probably Shakespeare.

[DongWon] Odds are high, let’s say.


[Howard] [garbled ballad] is Shakespeare. So, yeah. The pen is mightier than the sword. I wanted to drive some of the actual solutions from an academic conference where people are trying to answer the question, where did all of the civilizations go that came before this galactic civilization? Are we doomed to wipe ourselves out? Is there a great filter? What is it that’s going on? I really enjoyed writing it, but it was a challenge, because I knew it had to be more than just a thing that keeps the conclusion from sitting right next to the beginning. It needed to be more than a spacer.

[DongWon] You managed to create in the way that middle volumes are kind of a really dark chapter of this story. Right? I mean, the thematics as you just laid them out, tapping into Cold War era of mutual assured destruction. There’s, like, overtones of almost, like, indigenous reparations. Then, answering this big question about like Fermi’s Paradox in certain ways. Right? I’m… I know you grew up sort of child of the Cold War in some ways. How much was that weapons of mass destruction, mutual assured destruction, finding other answers to that and asking that question in a slightly different way… How much was that [garbled driving]

[Howard] That’s been… I mean… Sigh. People use the word DNA wrong in this way all the time. That’s been part of my DNA my whole life. I grew up… Yes, child of the Cold War. Parents telling me how incredibly scary the Cuban missile crisis was. And I think it was Korean Airlines flight something or other… Seven… KLA… I want to say 007, but it couldn’t have been that because nobody would name their plane, their flight, 007. Korean Airlines flight shot down by the Russians in the early 80’s.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I remember that.

[Howard] I remember everybody at school thinking this is it. This is the thing that sets it all off. So, yeah, there… That’s in my blood, that’s the thing that my brain grew up with and grew out of… Not in the same way that you grow out of a pair of clothes, but in the way that a tree grows out of a given patch of dirt. So, yeah, I had to explore those themes. Also, those themes are… When you look at the various solution sets for Fermi’s Paradox, one of them is the set that says intelligence always gets greedy and destroys itself in a way that leaves no traces. Which is a horribly negative thought to have, but it’s fun to ask the question.

[DongWon] I think, because you’ve kind of created inverted war games here in certain ways. Right? Like, Chinook has decided that the long guns are bad, we need to get rid of the long guns, and she’s going to do everything in her power to make that happen. Unfortunately, that also means the Cold War is now a shooting war.

[Howard] Yep.

[DongWon] And a lot of people are going to die as a result. Also, the actual problem is completely external to whatever is happening here. This is a misinterpretation of the data. But I guess I’m kind of curious, like, how did you get to that iteration of this? It seems like you took the basis… The base narrative that we see a lot, of the AI goes amok, decides humanity is the problem, but pushed it one step further in this way that she really is trying to save civilization in a certain way. Right? She believes she’s doing the right thing. In a way that I found to be very relatable and kind of fascinating, watching her kind of go off the rails, even as she’s editing herself and coming to some erroneous conclusions. But what was… I don’t exactly know what I’m asking, but there’s something very interesting in how your thinking about mutually assured destruction that I don’t feel like I’ve ever quite seen in this way before.

[Howard] I’m so glad you noticed.


[Howard] Because at some level, everything Schlock Mercenary is, is derivative of things that I’ve consumed. I named a book Big Dumb Objects because there’s this whole sci-fi trope about big dumb objects. Better authors than I have gotten to many of these questions long before I did. So when I addressed them, I wanted to subvert or distort… Because comedy depends a lot on subversion, and maybe that’s just… Maybe that accidentally resulted in something that from a philosophical standpoint is interesting rather than comedic. I’m so glad you noticed.


[Mary Robinette] Well, I mean, like… Circling back to Chinook when we’re talking about the goals. Like, there’s the authorial goal of these are the things, the questions that I need her to take. Then there’s the character goals of this is why she’s doing that. When you were mapping it out, when you were doing that outline, how aware of her internal motivations were you, and how much of that did you discover in the process of writing it?

[Howard] Ah. I knew pretty much all of what was driving her from the word go. There were the overt motives which is that her creator, her jailer, and her savior were all killed at the same time. It was very emotional for her. She suddenly had no way to process it. But also, the event triggered or set off a trigger like a timebomb in the system that she was now inhabiting, because the intelligence that had all of the Oafans trapped was so unhappy with themselves for what they’d done that they built this thing that would let them rewrite themselves so they could forget having committed the crime so that they could continue to keep the Oafans trapped. Well, now Chinook was there, the AI that used to live there moved out because they were ready for a new life, and she has this horrible emotional event and trips a system that begins rewriting her psyche in ways that she doesn’t know she’s doing. I got… I mean, when I first described that to myself in the outline, I got chills. I was like, “Oh, my goodness. Oh, what a landmine you’ve created for this character.”

[Mary Robinette] Yes.

[Howard] “This is going to be fun.” Then, everything after that…

[DongWon] Well, the core metaphor…

[Howard] Everything after that was just exploring the outgrowths of it.

[DongWon] I love the core metaphor of for these cycles of violence to perpetuate, for us to continue these wars, to continue these oppressions and genocides, we have to erase our own memory of what happened and rewrite our memory so we don’t remember what we did a generation ago.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[DongWon] And then we will repeat the same error, which keeps people oppressed, which keeps people in these positions, which perpetuates this long Cold War and all of that.

[Howard] Yeah, that when I did do on purpose. But… And I can’t remember when, but I recall at one point deciding, “Oo. You know what? I don’t want to say that part out loud. I want to just leave that at that level as a discovery exercise for the reader.” Speaking of discovery exercises, we’re going to go discover something and come right back after the break.

[Howard] Hey, everybody. It’s Howard. If you go to spelled T.A.Y.L.E.R. all one word, you will find that we are getting ready to put Mandatory Failure, Schlock Mercenary book 18 into print, and you can get a copy for your very own self. We are super excited about this. I’ve done a bonus story for it that [Ethan Kozak] is illustrating. The book is glorious and wonderful. It’s one of my very favorites. It’s one of Sandra’s very favorites. I’m sure that the moment we’re able to put it into your hands, it will be one of your very favorites. all one word except not with the all one word part, I didn’t need to tell you that, you knew that. Just spell it with the ER and you’ll be fine. Thanks.

[Howard] And we’re back. What are we going to discover next?

[Mary Robinette] So, let’s talk a little bit about Petey and what Petey is going through here.

[Howard] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Again, like, by this point, we really like these characters. You’re doing stuff to them that I have feelings about. Why? Why?


[Howard] For a long time, when I created the character of Petey, the trope that everyone expected and they been waiting for this shoe to drop for a decade or more, was, “Oh, yeah, he runs a galaxy. He’s going to turn out to be awful. We’re going to have to kill him, we’re going to have to fight him. He’s going to be a bad guy.” I needed to set things up so that that didn’t happen. The easiest way to do that was to put pressure on him where he has to do violent and unpleasant things, and he always manages to do it in as nonintrusive a way as possible, and actually to back away from the options that a true tyrant would have taken.

[DongWon] Do you consider Petey a villain?

[Howard] I don’t, but I consider him frightening.

[Mary Robinette] I mean, he definitely serves an antagonist purpose, but…

[DongWon] Yeah, he fits the antagonist role, especially in volume 3, which will talk about in [garbled episode]

[Howard] He’s an antagonist, but I don’t see him as villainous. Does that make sense?

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Which is, I think, why I’m like these are characters that I wind up caring about because it’s not just the… It’s like all of them.

[DongWon] I mean, Chinook is like the primary villain of this book. Right? I also find her probably to be the most sympathetic character in this book as well. Right? Those things aren’t necessarily separate. There are ways in which I really like Petey. Also, I find Petey to be the scariest thing in these books. I consider the arc of all of this is… Or the fundamental arc really is as much what do we do about Petey as it is what do we do about these dark matter intelligences that are determined to destroy the universe.

[Howard] Well, the fact that… There’s that… The UNS, they’re having some High Admirality meeting and somebody mentions Petey and somebody else says, “What are you doing? You might as well just invite him in.” Then he shows up and says, “I don’t actually need to be invited.”

[DongWon] I was already here.

[Howard] “I’ve been here the whole time.” One, that’s a fun joke to tell. Two, that’s yet another cementing of, guys, when something is super intelligent and superpowerful whether or not it is super benign, it’s scary.

[DongWon] Yeah. Exactly.

[Howard] That’s actually echoed by something that happened very early in Schlock Mercenary, which is my discovery that from any perspective other than Schlock’s, Schlock is a monster. So, placing a character we like in a way that you don’t have to turn the book very much to one side or the other to realize, “Oh. You’re really scary.” That was very fun for me.


[DongWon] Well, I mean, you do such a good job of that, of so many of your heroes are also quite monstrous in certain ways and capable of truly mind-boggling acts of violence. Right? Like, even your human scale protagonists are often capable of truly astonishing acts of violence. Right? Whether that’s pulling the arms off the enemy ship’s captain or…

[Mary Robinette] I was thinking that that…


[Mary Robinette] When you were talking, it was like…

[DongWon] Or one person in power armor just destroying an armada.

[Erin] It seems like it’s really on cue with the theme… Like, getting back to that kind of mutual assured destruction, like, I think there’s something really… Wholesome is not the right word, but in realizing that monster… Like, everyone is… People are both sympathetic and monstrous at the same time, and that’s what makes the whole situation so terrifying.

[Howard] Yeah. The… Again, coming back to the question of Fermi’s Paradox, the idea that as civilizations developed technologically, their ability to destroy themselves permanently… Not just a portion of themselves, but to just wipe themselves out of existence, increases. That’s an important theme here, and I wanted to illustrate it in a way that lets us explore a possible alternative. Which is what that whole scholarly convention was, and is… Elizabeth, who ends up running the scholarly convention, she was roped into traveling with the Toughs because her boyfriend was one of the mercenaries and she just followed him onto the ship and suddenly realized she was cooking for a group of professional sociopaths and wasn’t sure she fit in. In this book, I wanted to put her in a position to steer things, to guide things away from all of the violence and disaster.

[DongWon] Well, she’s really the antidote to the title. Right? Like, rank is a function of firepower, but also, we see her get promoted out of being a cook, just for being smart and competent and willing to say the thing that no one else is willing to say. Right? It’s almost like your… In creating this hero organization of these mercenaries, the antidote to just taking power at the end of a long gun really is recognizing and rewarding competence and forthrightness. It’s in a world where not only rank is a function of power, firepower, but ethics is a function of firepower, to have an antidote to that, I think, really essential to making this book work.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. So, along the lines of making this book work, it also had to function as setting up in the launchpad for the final book. So when you were… So let’s talk about, since this is a deep dive and we’re full of spoilers, let’s talk about the ending.

[Howard] In the end of the previous book, the end of Mandatory Failure, the Pa’anuri, the bad guys, blow up one of Petey’s cities. It was during this book that someone figures out, “Oh, I think I know how the Pa’anuri long gun works. They don’t have a targeting mechanism… Their targeting mechanism… They can see certain kinds of power sources, and they are walking their shots. What are they aiming at? They’re aiming at Petey. They’re trying to destroy his core power generator, which, by the time we get to the end of the book, we realize that’s the tool that he needs in order to fight back. They blow a piece of it up. I knew that was… That was part of the original outline, is that we blow up something that creates a puzzle in book 18, we blow up something that creates a disaster in book 19. Cueing that up was a lot of fun. Honestly, one of the things that was the most fun about it was… And this is going to sound silly, I’m sure. Using brush pens and circle templates to create some of the energy effect shapes that I wanted to create, and then sending them to the colorist and saying, “Look. There is no actual astronomical or physics analog for the colors that these things should be. Just make it look scary and dangerous and loud and hot and big and whatever.” Travis ran with it.

[DongWon] Yeah. I was going to say, we… We’re a writing podcast, so obviously we’re talking about the narrative structure and the writing, but on the art front, you really pushed yourself to a different level it feels like here. You got on… I don’t know, you kind of got on your Jack Kirby bull shit in the best way.


[DongWon] It was really fun to see some of these bigger scope, bigger scale intergalactic war things happening. You really start pulling out these big guns, no pun intended, by the end of this one.

[Howard] I leveled up the writing earlier in my career than I leveled up the art. That might be because I joined the Writing Excuses podcast…


[Howard] In 08, and have never been part of an art podcast. Never. But I remember, it was a convention, it was at GenCon, I was talking to Lar deSouza and complaining about how much my hand hurt using this one pan trying to create lines. He looked at what I was doing and said, “Here. Take this.” A [fidona suke] polymer nib short brush pen. I grabbed it and was like, “Oh, my gosh. A light touch makes a skinny line, and a hard touch makes a fat line, but it doesn’t splay like a brush. Oh, this is amazing. This is so cool.” Took it back to my booth. He gave it to me because he’s a hero. Took it back to my booth, and drew a book cover with it. I think that was 2015. Just started to learn to use those tools and that piece of the toolbox was critically important for the finale, because now I could render some of these pictures that I just didn’t have the skill set for earlier. Weird to talk about that on a writing podcast.

[Mary Robinette] But it’s I think it’s very much to the point, that there are… There is a tool that you don’t know that you need to add to your toolbox. Like, that’s… We talk about it as a metaphor all the time, and you’re talking about it is a very literal real thing.


[Mary Robinette] It’s like, “Oh, here’s a new tool. Physical tool.” I think that that’s something that everyone can take away. It’s like you… Just getting the tool is not enough, it’s learning how to use the tool that’s really where the magic is.

[Howard] I think one of the things that Lar said was “When the student is ready, the master will appear.” I had tried to use brush pens before and just couldn’t. I tried several. Simply could not make them work. Then I sat down with him, and in 30 seconds, the lines were coming off my hand the way they needed to. I was like, “This pen is magical. I never…” Then he said, “When the student is ready, the master will appear. You are now ready for this tool. Congratulations.” We are just about out of time. The conclusion of this book needed to set up the final story. That involved what I call like character arc blocking. Where I had to put chunks of the cast in different places. I had to scatter them because I knew that the final act, the next book, was going to come together with them in the very end coming together. I know that sounds shallow and silly and obvious, but shallow and silly and obvious… I’ve made the Schlock Mercenary joke already. Which of those words suggested that I would not do this? But sometimes those simple tools are the best. We work with those forms, and then, as you drill down on them and make them your own, they actually work. Hey, work. Homework. Who’s got that?

[Erin] Yeah. I do. Speaking of tools you can make your own,what we’re going to ask you to do for the homework this time is to work three words into your work in progress. They are expeditious, sock, and dragonfly. The best words. So, enjoy those and set them right into your work.

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

[DongWon] Do you have a book or a short story that you need help with? We are now offering an interactive tier on Patreon called Office Hours. Once a month, you can join a group of your peers and us, the hosts of Writing Excuses, to ask any questions that are on your mind.