Interview with Howard Tayler

Here’s another of my WorldCon interview, this time with writer and cartoonist Howard Tayler. Enjoy!

Gama Ray Martinez: I’m here with Howard Tayler, cartoonist, writer, and part of the Hugo award winning podcast Writing Excuses. Thank you for doing this Howard. Let’s get started. You’ve been creating the Schlock Mercenary web comic for a number of years, you’ve written a number of novels for privateer press and have had several short stories in various publications so it’s fair to say a lot people know who you are, but can you tell us a story about yourself that our listeners may not know.


Howard Tayler: Ok, a story about myself that the listeners may not know. I was 25 years old and engaged to be married, and realized that I needed a job. I got a job at a telephone sales place and worked for half a day and then came home and called my fiancée who is no now my wife, Sandra Tayler. I called Sandra in tears and said, “I just can’t do this.” I don’t know that that is the last time in life where I completely gave up on something never to return to it, but it’s certainly one of the most memorable moments.


GM: When you’re working with Privateer Press, you’re working with a universe that’s not your own. Can you tell us some of the challenges you encountered because of that?


HT: Sure. I’ve talked about this before. I believe that one of the experts in this field is Kevin J Anderson. He said that when you’re writing in someone else’s universe, you are like Lando Calrissian in Return of the Jedi. You have been loaned the Millennium Falcon and Han Solo has just told you “Don’t scratch it.” Your job is to go out and blow up a Death Star with it. You are taking somebody else’s intellectual property. You need to do something awesome with it, and you need to return it to them intact. Those objectives are paramount. The secondary objective is to enjoy what you are doing, to be engaged enough in it that you are excited, and for many people, those two are contradictory because for many people, they’re only excited when they’re adding something, adding world building to somebody else’s universe, and that’s not something you typically get to do with someone else’s intellectual property. For the folks who are able to reconcile that, when you can get enthusiastic about it without having to worldbuild, it becomes, to my mind anyway, unmitigated delight because you get to inside the heads of characters who are in a space that you love and you get to make them do things for money. You have keep that first objective in mind, and you have to keep that second point, that second obstacle clear.


GM: How did you get connected with Privateer Press?


HT: I’ve been playing their games since 2006, and a writer/editor named Scott Taylor had been contracted by them to build the skull islands expedition imprint. Scott was familiar with Larry Correia’s work and knew that Larry Correia was a Privateer Press fan, and he asked Larry, “Are there any other privateer press fans in your friends group of writers” and he said, “Why yes, there are”, and Dan Wells, Rob Wells, me, Steve Diamond, and several other people were reached out to by Scott as a result of that. That was how I first got connected by them. Once they pulled Skull Islands expeditions back in house, Aeryn Rudel and I kept in touch, and he threw new projects at me, and I kept writing them because I really like their setting.


GM: Switching gears a little. You recently started working on an RPG. Can you tell us a little about that?


HT: Sure. The Planet Mercenary Role Playing Game is a role playing game set in the Schlock Mercenary universe. The central conceit of the role playing book is that this book is published by the Planet Mercenary retail company for the use of grunts in mercenary companies. It’s an old timey pencil and paper RPG built just like they used to build them in the early 21st century designed to trick grunts into reading about the places they might go, the aliens the might face, the weapons they might use and the circumstances under which they’ll probably die. With that conceit in mind, the book functions both as a really good role playing system core book and a source book for people who just want to learn more about the Schlock Mercenary universe.


GM: What unexpected changelings have you encountered in working with the role playing game?


HT: What unexpected challenges. Wow. The biggest challenges we have face are that I am still bottleneck. We tried to build this so I wouldn’t be, but because I am doing most of the fluff writing and I am being the art director, I am a bottleneck because until I have written certain pieces, I can’t actually ask for art describing those pieces, but at a high level, everything that we’ve seen as challenges with that project has been stuff that we expected to see as challenges and we had plans in place.


GM: Is it at all similar to what you did with XDM?


HT: It is a little bit similar to Xtreme Dungeon Mastery which is a role playing supplement by Tracy Hickman which I illustrated and which Sandra and I under the imprint named Hypernode Medea published. It is similar in that it is much lighter weight than heavy physics simulation role playing games like Pathfinder and like Gurps. We wanted to build a role playing game that was more about joint storytelling and role playing and so we used some mechanics that we’ve seen in other games an chained them together in new ways so that players are encouraged to enjoy failing during the course of the adventure they’re having, and their failures will help them learn and help them grow not just as player characters but also as players. The players learn to play together effective daring the game, and it’s kind of beautiful to behold after game session two, game session tree and your players, instead of sitting around the table and staring at the map and staring at the dice and staring at their character sheets will start snapping instructions at each other quickly almost as if they are a well-oiled company of mercenaries. Almost. It’s a lot of fun. We’ve played it a lot of times, and putting that together building it so it was playable and enjoyable, so that it has a reason to exist beyond just the fact that it’s a thing set in my universe. That was a huge challenge, and I’m happy to report that, according to the players we’ve tested with, we’ve passed that test. We’ve met that challenge.


GM: That’s good to hear. Have you given any thoughts to making a Shclock novel length work?


HT: I have. I’ve tried a little bit of it seven or eight years ago, and was told by my alpha readers that, “Wow, this just sounds like a footnote.” I realized it did just sounds like a footnote. I didn’t know how to write prose at the time. I certainly will write something. I will tell some Schlock Mercenary stories in prose form, but I want to write other prose first so that I know that I have established a skillset that works for prose before I start trying to deploy those skills on a property that has comic based for so long.


GM: When you first started Schlock Mercenary, it was basically a one man operation. You still do all the art and script, but you hire other people do some of the other things. Can you talk a little bit about that?


HT: Absolutely. Well, for starters, its’ never been truly a one man operation because from the very beginning, I had the encouragement and support and the alpha reading help from Sandra Tayler, my wife. Today, she is the biggest single partner in the project. Her alpha reading is critical. If she has left the house, and I am writing, I cannot start drawing until she has come back and she has gone through the scripts and we have looked at them together, and we know that they are right. Slot number two in terms of critical importance is Travis Walton who actually gets higher billing than Sandra does. He handles the coloring. When we’ve been nominated for Hugo awards, it was my name and Travis’s name on the ballot. Not quite fair to Sandra, and in retrospect, we should be including her as more than just the editor in these projects, but Travis handles all of the coloring. Gary…I only know him as Tarlum online. Gary Henson of Plus 14 has handled a lot of back end coding and web design for us as has the folks at Sequential Grid. I do not do any of the web design, web coding things. I could. That’s a thing I could learn to do. It’s a thing I originally thought I would be learning to do, but I would much rather write and illustrate. Then, when we do big book shippings, Sandra has the Hypernode Media core of volunteers who will come and help us put books in boxes and put address labels in boxes and ship out two thousand packages in the course of one day in order to fulfill orders.


GM: You studied music in school. Does that have any affect in your art and writing?


HT: Yes, but probably not in the way most people would think. Definitely not in the way that I originally thought. When I was studying music, I saw music in everything. The patterns of all kind of things were, to me, musical or at least suggested music. What I learned in studying music, the most important things that I learned were that the medium that I was in love with at the time was something that I could learn to be better at, and it was an iterative process. The things that I created even though I was in love with them were not done until they themselves had been through an iterative process. I never spent as much time refining my music as I spent refining my art, refining my writing but the act of refining things, the understanding of how the refinement process works was something I first learned as a musician, and that skill has served me well.


GM: As someone who creates a funny webcomic, people might’ve expecting your writing to go into a similar direction, maybe something in the Terry Pratchet/Douglass Adams sort of way. Was that ever a consideration?


HT: Well yeah. I like to write humorously, and if you’ve read my Space Eldritch work, which is horror, if you’ve read my Privateer Press work which is fantasy adventure fiction, you will find that there’s humor in it. The clever wordplay, the things that characters think that are surprising or at odds with the circumstances that there in. That sense of humor, if you will, is a constant piece throughout my work. Humor at its core is an exercise in causing other people in having other people to have a metabolic reaction that we know as laughter. That goal to cause a metabolic reaction to cause a metabolic reaction in other people is similar in other sorts of work. If you writing horror, you want people to get chills. If you’re writing romance, you want people to get different kinds of chills. If you want people to react to what you have written, to what you have created, you have to know that that is what you are trying to do, and being good at humor has shown me, similar to what I said about music earlier, the act of writing something and creating something so that someone else will have a reaction is something that I can improve on that I can polish. It’s something that possible. It’s something where great examples of it can be found for me to learn from. So while I’m not writing comedic novels, the comedy training I’ve had underscores everything that I create.


GM: As I mentioned earlier. You, along with Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, and Mary Robinette Kowal are part of the Hugo award winning podcast Writing Excuses. This year, you’re doing something a little different with that. You’re doing the master courses. Can you talk a little bit about that?


HT: Sure. Season 10 of Writing Excuses, we wanted to do something special, and we wanted to…well, I say “and”. We did not want it to be just another season. We talked at great length about what we could do to make season 10 different, and because Brandon is a professional educator. He works at Brigham Young University teaching creative writing class. Mary has taught, has done school visits and taught. Dan and I have both been to school. We decided we would create something that could actually be described in a syllabus as a year long master class that walks our listeners through the process of creating their novel. We broke each of the twelve months down into a specific topic as of, well I don’t know when this recording will air, but the last three months of the year are endings, revisions, and then showing your work around. We have episode queued up and recorded for each of those so that we are on topic for a couple of episodes each month on say endings, how to write good endings. How to know when your ending isn’t’ working. That kind of things. We also did some Q&A episodes on those subjects, and then, just to keep things fresh and mixed up a little bit, we have wild card episodes each month. The fourth, one of the four weeks of the month is a wildcard episode which might be a guest episode. I might be rambling about something completely different. It’s been lots of fun for us and the response we’ve seen online has been overwhelming positive. People are really really liking it.


GM: Two years ago, the podcasters started the out of excuses retreat which went on at Mary Robinette Kowal’s family’s property for two years, but this year, it’s being moved to a cruise ship. Can you talk a little bit about that?


HT: Sure. At a high level, we knew we wanted to have a retreat that allowed us to hang out and write and talk in person in a less formal setting. Mary is good at organizing these kinds of things. That’s a terrible terrible understatement. Mary is a fantastic event organizer. She’s brilliant in this regard, and she put this together on her parent’s property, and it ended up, with the expenses and what we needed to take home and what we needed to pay for the upkeep on the property and so on and so forth, the cost per student ended being right around $1100, $1200, but we couldn’t keep the property locked down for that during the months we wanted it because it’s not Mary’s property. It’s her parent’s property. She shares access to it with her siblings and other family members so we talked about what other venues might be available, and Mary said “We should try a cruise ship,” and Brandon, Dan and I all responded with “There’s no way we could afford to do a cruise ship.” Which is the wrong answer always. The right answer to that sort of question  is “How much would it cost to do on a cruise ship.” We assumed it was not possible. Mary assumed we should go get an answer so she went and got an answer, and the answer was $1200 per person would make this function the same way the retreat function and allow us to have more people there. So writing excuses is going to be on a cruise ship and I’m really looking forward to that.


GM: What are you working on now?


HT: This moment, I’m working on a podcast interview with my friend Gama Martinez. Following that, I’m probably going to go get something to eat. That was not the question you asked. I’m sorry. I’m just being a wise guy. Right now, I’m working on the Planet Mercenary Role Playing Game. I’m writing and writing and writing and writing and writing and writing and doing art direction and writing some more, and refining rules with Alan who’s our game designer. That project is something I’m being paid very very well for because we ran a successful Kickstarter for it and I absolutely need to deliver, so that is priority number one. I’m also always working on the comic strip which updates online, and any other projects that you may or may not heard me being involved with are taking a back seat, probably a distant back seat to those two.


GM: Thank you. That was all I had for you Howard so thank you for doing this interview.


HT: Thank you for having me, Gama.


About the author


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GamaRayMartinez has slowly been developing a reputation for being able to take any concept and write a viable story out of it, most notably, there was a story about a potato unicorn that was published in the anthology One Horn to Rule Them All. He reads mainly fantasy as well as the occasional scifi with a preference toward middle grade and YA. He currently lives in Salt Lake City, UT. Unlike the other reviewers, he has no pets, and that makes him a little sad.

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