Writing Excuses 12.3: Project In Depth, “Risk Assessment,” by Sandra Tayler
Key points: Doing the bonus story was a surprise because it meant crossing the roles, stepping into Howard’s space. Also, Sandra had never written comics. The story? How did the grandparents of Captain Kaff Tagon meet, as told by Bristlecone, the gunship AI. A mil sci-fi meet cute! Adorable with explosions! Doing the collaboration, Howard tried to stay hands-off, and let Sandra do it. Mostly helping to pare the story down to seven pages of comic, leaving dead darlings everywhere, but keeping the core story of a cautious person doing something brave because it was needed. One of the keys to this collaboration was Sandra spending a weekend with Mary, where Mary talked about MICE quotient and other ways to get a handle on a story. Another part was Howard pointing out that you can write the story with all the normal narrative bits, then prune it to a comic script (dialogue plus side notes for the artist). Working with the artist meant Howard tutoring on terminology to use. The biggest lesson in doing it is comics are hard. And Howard deserves a big round of applause for being willing to take the risk of letting someone else step into his space and do something without interfering.
[Mary] Season 12, Episode Three.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Project In Depth, “Risk Assessment,” with Sandra Tayler.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And I can’t say risk assessment, apparently…
[Brandon] But we have special guest sar… star… I can’t say any of this. Starring Sandra Tayler.
[Sandra] Hi, Brandon.
[Brandon] Save me!
[Sandra] Glad to be here.
[Brandon] Can you introduce yourself?
[Sandra] I am Sandra Tayler. I’m a writer of picture books, a blog, I’ve done some speculative fiction, and I have written a script that was used as a bonus story for a Schlock Mercenary book. I also happen to be married to Howard, which is kind of how I got that last gig there.
[Brandon] So, spoiler warning. We are going to be talking about the bonus story, Risk Assessment, which is found in the book Force Multiplication. Though Sandra has mentioned before that this isn’t a story that the spoilers matter terribly much for. We will have given you a warning about this ahead of time. But if this really bothers you, go buy it right now. Pause this. And then, you can come back and we’ll talk about it later. For the rest of you, I want to talk about this story. Sandra, this story was delightful. I loved it.
[Sandra] Good. I like to hear that.
[Brandon] Tell me a little bit about how you guys decided that you would be writing the bonus story?
[Sandra] I actually have kind of a vivid memory of this because… We were standing in the kitchen, and Howard and I were talking about who does the bonus story, because we try and get guest writers to do the bonus story for several reasons, one of which is Howard has very, very little time, and we like having different people with different voices tell stories in the Schlock Mercenary universe. We’re standing there trying to figure out who should tell this bonus story, and Howard says, “Maybe we should have you write it.” I remember this so vividly because my brain did one of those like jitter to a stop, like “Surely I can’t have heard those words correctly. What on earth do you mean?” The reason my brain did that is because we work… Because we work so closely together. Because we’re in each other’s stuff all the time. I do the shipping and the business and the accounting, and Howard does the comic drawing and the writing and things like that. He hands me scripts and has me read things and then I hand them back. But we have some very clearly defined roles. Actually creating in the Schlock Mercenary universe was a line I have never even pictured myself crossing. That was his space. Suddenly he was saying, “Hey, come step in my space.” It was actually a little bit terrifying because… For… Because… It’s not because I’m not familiar with the characters. I am talking and brainstorming with him all the time about these characters.
[Howard] Sandra is probably more familiar with the characters than anybody besides me.
[Sandra] I frequently… He’ll come and talk to me, and I’ll be like, “What about this?” And he’s like, “Oh…” Then he walks out of the room and goes and does something. Without even saying goodbye.
[Sandra] But we’ve had experiences where Howard and I were on a… Did a presentation together. We failed to talk to each other in advance and figure out… We assumed we work together so well. But when we got on the presentation, we were stepping on each other’s toes all the time. We both came out of that presentation going, “Wow. That did not go well.” That was very frustrating. I was worried that that would happen with this story. That was very scary to me, because here I am stepping into his space and trying to do this thing that he does. Then there’s the whole part where I’ve never written comics ever. It was just very scary.
[Brandon] So, tell me, was… Did you guys intentionally choose Grandpa Tagon’s parents… Or father Tagon’s parents on purpose because they had had a lesser role and they were people you could give voices to directly?
[Sandra] We knew we wanted to tell a story not with the major characters. We wanted to go with something very, very different. I was intrigued with the idea. We have Karl Tagon, who’s the father, and we have Kaff Tagon, who’s the son. They’re both very, very military. I thought it would be very kind of fun if we said, “Okay, yeah. But this is not a male thing. You know, the father of them. The grandfather of our Captain Tagon was not military.” I was like, “Okay. He used to not be military. And he needs to have a name that doesn’t start with K.”
[Sandra] I wanted something that sounded soft and multisyllabic. Rather than Karl. Kaff. We ended up actually giving the military K name to the mother. So we have Karla who was in military service. So it was kind of fun to swap that around. Beyond that, we wanted to tell that story… Tell a story about them. Because their story informs these characters that people have been loving forever. The beginnings of things matter. Where we come from shapes who we are. We thought it would be very interesting to see who were the parents that raised Karl who then raised Kaff, and you get this multi-generational thing going on. It’s a fascinating idea.
[Howard] We also had hooks built in… Bristlecone, the gunship that they had acquired, had a quirk which was she liked to keep up with former crewmembers. Karl Tagon’s mother, Karla Klingbo, had been a machinist aboard her. I realized, I bet she knows how his parents met. Wouldn’t it be fun if she knows a story that they couldn’t tell him? Hum? So I handed that off to Sandra. Let’s do a… Essentially, let’s do a mil sci-fi meet cute with a framing story where the AI is telling an old man how his parents really met.
[Mary] Which is adorable.
[Brandon] Yes. It was absolutely adorable. It was adorable with explosions, which is kind of what I hope for…
[Brandon] From Schlock Mercenary.
[Dan] From Schlock Mercenary.
[Sandra] Yeah, things have to blow up.
[Mary] So, I’m curious. Like, one of the things that I’m always curious about with collaborative processes is how much of the idea is generated by the person coming in and how much of it… Like, how much of their backstory did Howard have in his head and how much of it was Sandra going, “I think… I think, given the tiny framework you have given me, it would look like this?”
[Sandra] Howard really… Once he convinced me to do it, he tried to stay hands-off. Very, very much. Because he wanted the story to have a different voice. He wanted it to be my story, not his story with this thin layer of Sandra over the top. So that was actually kind of actively frustrating to me at points.
[Sandra] I’m like, “I don’t even know what to do.” He’s like, “Well. Figure it out.”
[Howard] I was nicer than that!
[Sandra] Oh, yeah. You used much nicer words and lots of hugs.
[Sandra] Which I don’t know is necessarily part of a collaborative process for most people, but…
[Sounds like a good idea]
[Sandra] It was a good idea. At that point. But… So what I would do is, I would come up with a pack of ideas, and say, “Okay, we could do this.” Then I would go to him and say, “Okay, what about this?” He would say, “Yes, that sounds cool. This is cool, this is cool. That won’t work in the universe because of this and this and this.” Then I would be like, “Okay. Yeah, you’re right.” The actual early versions of the story involved spies and smugglers and gatekeepers in the arrival of a wormgate. It was this giant story. The actual story that we get is much, much smaller. Which in part happens because I only had like seven pages of comics to write. So you can’t tell the whole grand sweep of anything. You have to tell a moment. Trying to get all the cool explosions and meet cute into that small space was… Meant paring a lot of things away.
[Howard] A lot of that was my shepherding, where I took, “Okay, we’ve got all these big ideas, but I know what seven pages of comic look like. I’ve done that over and over and over again. What are the special bits? What are the bits that Sandra loves the most about this story? What are the bits that I think my readers are going to love the most? How can I make as much room for them as possible?” Then we began pruning away the darlings. So very, very many dead darlings…
[Howard] Scattered across the dock. My goodness.
[Sandra] But we kept the core elements. I kept the fact that I wanted the father… Allen Tagon to be a very different sort of person. I wanted him to be a cautious person, rather than a daring person. But I also really wanted to show a cautious… A person who is genetic… er, not… Inherently cautious doing something very brave. Because it was needed. Because, in my experience, there are a lot of people who are very conflict shy, but then they step up. I love that moment. I wanted to be able to show that.
[Dan] All right. I actually have two questions for you, but I want to start with this one, because you talked about how your first reaction was fear of toe stepping and of problems like that arising. So, in addition to him trying to stay hands-off, what other steps did you take to make sure that this collaboration worked and, perhaps more salaciously, what… Did that ever fail? Were there problems that arose that you were like, “Ah, this is not going to work!”
[Mary] That is so not where I thought he was going with salacious.
[Sandra] Yeah, I was… He used… That word was making me nervous about the rest of the question.
[Sandra] One of… It’s kind of funny, the timing on this. Howard and I had the conversation about me doing the bonus story about a week and a half before I was scheduled to go visit Mary for a weekend. So one of the first things I did was run off with this idea and hang out with Mary for a weekend. Mary helped me wrap my head around some of this. I don’t even know if you remember doing that, but you totally did.
[Mary] I remember…
[Sandra] You remember me visiting.
[Mary] I remember you visiting, and I remember having… I remember us talking through the MICE quotient and some other things like that as ways to get a handle on stuff.
[Mary] But I had forgotten it until right now.
[Sandra] I remembered. Because it was very, very helpful.
[Sandra] So, at first, I was totally going to… Howard was going to be completely hands-off, and I was going to be just do this. Then we realized that I literally had no clue how to write a comic strip. I would sit down and try… Because when you’re writing prose, you have to set the scene, and you have to describe the location. Not a lot, but you have to do that. With the comic strip, you are literally just writing the words and saying, “There’s a spaceship here” as a side note for your artist. I realized that my brain actually couldn’t process writing that way. I kept stopping. I kept breaking. I went to Howard and I’m like, “I can’t do this.” He said, “Well, just write those bits.” I was like, “Oh. Yeah.” So I wrote it completely as if I was writing prose. Then I went back through and took out the bits that didn’t need to be there.
[Brandon] Wow. That would be a great bonus story for something else. That would be the bonus story of the bonus story.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. You, actually, Sandra, were going to tell us about a book you’ve been reading.
[Sandra] I am. I am currently re-reading In the Cube by David Alexander Smith. It’s a story of future Boston, and it’s a Boston in which… Which has seceded from the United States because the aliens landed there, and now it is basically a spaceport, key to the galaxy for Earth. They’ve taken Boston and actually filled in all the gaps between buildings with this alien material so it’s a giant cube city. That’s just the setting. The really cool story is it’s a detective story with a woman who is best friends with an alien. The alien I love. I really love this alien because he’s cute and sweet, and then partway through the story, we realize, “Yeah, cute and sweet and really, really alien,” because the character has to recognize the fact that her friend really fundamentally conceptualizes the world in very different ways. I love seeing that truly alien viewpoint, that is still yet relatable. It’s fascinating. This is a much older book. We’ve had it in paperback for years. My pages are yellow. But I am again re-reading it for the third or fourth time because I love it so much.
[Brandon] Excellent. All right. Getting back to it. I wanted to shoot a question that you guys. Sandra, did you work directly with the artist, or how did you find this artist? Because I know you guys use different artists for each bonus story.
[Sandra] Yes. Howard… We worked with Natalie Barahona, whose work is beautiful. I… Howard was the one who actually found her.
[Howard] I didn’t find Natalie. Ben McSweeney found Natalie. Ben had done a bonus story before, and I said, “Hey, Ben, we’re doing another bonus story. Do you know anybody who would be good as an artist for something that’s got kind of a romance meet cute sort of feel to it?” Telling an artist I don’t actually want your work, I want somebody else’s work…
[Howard] Means you already have to have a really good relationship with that artist, which I did. Ben said, “Oh, well, Natalie right here in my studio would be awesome.”
[Brandon] She was great. This was a perfect match.
[Howard] Oh, my goodness. So much beautiful.
[Sandra] Beautiful pictures.
[Howard] So many thumbnail sketches that were on the cutting room floor that I loved, but I could tell we don’t have room to tell the story using that picture. We have to compress a little bit. [Garbled It’s very sad]
[Brandon] What I liked is it actually… Maybe it’s because I was looking for it, but it actually has a weird jive with your own art, that it matches, but is somehow like fuzzier.
[Howard] This is because Natalie is a better artist than I am.
[Sandra] Natalie is brilliant.
[Howard] And is able to ape the portions of my style that sell storytelling while discarding the pieces of my style that are ham-handed and stupid.
[Brandon] I really liked it. I love this story.
[Sandra] Well, working with Natalie, once we found her, Howard again was trying to keep his hands off. I did most of the talking back-and-forth with her, saying, “Okay, what do you need from me? What words do you need me to write down so that you know what to write?” Then I would interface with Natalie, and then she would give me something back, and I would go to Howard and say, “Okay, this is what I’ve got. What should I say to her next?” So he was kind of tutoring me on how to interact with an artist, because there are different words that they use. That if you know the terminology, it’s very, very helpful. So Howard helped me with a lot of terminology things as I was interfacing with her.
[Dan] Okay. That actually leads into the next question I wanted to ask. I’m curious to know, because this whole collaboration is just fascinating to me. I want to know, because you’ve been working with Schlock Mercenary for so long, and yet this is the first time you’ve kind of stepped into this exclusively Howard space. What else, I mean aside from just vocabulary, what did you learn about Howard’s job that you never knew before?
[Howard] That’s a great question. I want to know the answer to that.
[Sandra] I’m pretty sure I cried a couple times. Comics are hard. I’d witnessed that, but seeing it from the inside is different from seeing it from the outside. It’s a little hard for me to answer beyond that. Because the lessons I’ve learned have been internalized at this point, so that I’ve forgotten them as coming from there. But I’ve always respected the amount of work that goes into what Howard does. Because I see it. I see the struggles that he has, and I see the ways that he overcomes them. I’ve seen that not only does he just have the core struggles of writing a comic, but then there’s mental health issues and stuff that he’s talked about before that also play into it. I guess an extra layer of respect, not just for the work that he does, but for the way that he so very much wanted to let me have this space and not step on my toes. That is a risk. I actually talked about this in the family class last year on the cruise. Because when you have two people who are both in a partnership and they are both in creative careers, it is very easy for one to overshadow the other, if they are more famous or if their work brings in more money. Howard was so very careful to make sure that he didn’t take this story over, that he didn’t run off with it, once he handed it to me. That was a brilliant and wonderful, loving thing that he did, and I was very appreciative [garbled for it.]
[Howard] So difficult to just shut up sometimes.
[Mary] And so valuable.
[Mary] One of the things that occurred to me, when I was reading it and then talking to you, was that in some ways, essentially what we have here is that you have written fanfiction in your husband’s universe.
[Mary] So, with fanfiction, and we’ve talked about the darlings that had to go on the cutting room floor. But with fanfiction, there’s always something that you have secretly wanted to see happen. What is the secret thing that you have wanted to see happen that hasn’t been able to fit into another story? Because I know he gets your ideas all the time, and he claims them as his own.
[Sandra] It’s not actually related to this story in particular, but way back in the beginning of the strip, there was a whole gate cloning controversy where the gatekeepers have these giant wormgates that everybody goes through, and they had a monopoly on interstellar travel because the only way to get from one solar system to another was to go through a wormgate. Only, and this is kind of a spoiler for the Schlock Mercenary universe, only it’s 12 years old now, so not so much. They were copying everyone who goes through. They were copying, then taking the copies and interrogating them for information and then selling the information. And then throwing the copies…
[Howard] Then murdering the copy.
[Sandra] Yeah, then murdering the copy. It was very evil. When this was discovered, there was a giant galactic war over this issue, because maybe we shouldn’t do that to people. They then had a set of people who had been duplicated but not yet destroyed. So you had all of these people with duplicates. Howard, in one strip, kind of made a nod, ha ha, funny joke, and went off. My brain sat there and was like, “Oh, my gosh. How do you tell a story of now there are two of you?” It was actually quite appealing to me at that time, because I was headdown in mothering four small children with a full desire to have this huge creative career. So there was a part of me that wanted to just dive into motherhood, and a part of me that wanted to go full bore career. Then there was this gate clone story. I thought, “Oh. What if there were two of me?”
[Sandra] What if one of me could have this, and one of me could have that? I actually ended up writing a story which nobody… Now you know. It’s called Doppelgänger. About a situation pretty much exactly like that, with these two women got duplicated on accident, and they each had one life and they come back together to meet once a year, and how incredibly painful that meeting is. Because it’s not that one person gets to have both lives. It’s that you meet up periodically with the life you didn’t pick. That’s not actually an easy thing.
[Mary] That’s great.
[Sandra] So that story… I’ll drop that story in the pie safe for you, though.
[Mary] The pie safe, for those of you who are not on the cruise, is a secret bonus thing for people who are on the cruise, which is why you should come on the cruise.
[Brandon] I think we are going to call it here. Sandra, you had a writing prompt for us?
[Sandra] I do. One of these that really appealed to me, about this writing story was the beginnings of things. The beginnings of things really, really matter to people. The beginnings of relationships, in particular, which is why we have the meet cute as a thing that happens in so much fiction. Because how people meet and how they become friends or lovers or spouses matters. It informs the entire rest of the relationship. So what I would like you to do is take a pair of characters that you are working with who have a long-standing relationship, and I want you to write, not necessarily the moment that they met, but that foundational meeting. Because I met Howard before I actually… Before we really connected. A couple of times. But there’s this… Always this moment that is the foundational moment in a relationship. I want you to write that up. I want you to think about how that moment influences the stuff that actually is in your story.
[Brandon] All right. I want to thank the people on the Writing Excuses cruise this year.
[Brandon] I want to thank Sandra for joining us on the podcast.
[Sandra] You’re welcome. This is fun.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.