Howard Tayler is the writer and illustrator behind Schlock Mercenary, the Hugo-nominated science fiction comic strip. Heading into WXR at SiWC, we asked him a few questions to learn more about him and his creative works.
Can you tell us about the first story you ever wrote? What was it inspired by?
Lost to the sands of time—or maybe washed away by time flowing like a river—is the short story I wrote in fifth grade about my school friends and I on the Moon.
It was, like most first things, not very good.
But I enjoyed writing it, and I believe I would have become a writer much, much earlier in life had I enjoyed having people read it. Like most first, not-very-good things, it was almost immediately embarrassing to me, so I have zero regrets about time’s river and/or sand (perhaps the mudslide of time?) saving us all the trouble of reading it, rather than reading very briefly about it.
What’s the most helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I want the answer here to be “the encouragement to keep writing which my fifth-grade teacher gave me,” but as kind as she was, that wasn’t a thing she gave me. Oh well. I can pay that forward by kindly giving encouragement to the writers who cross my path.
Most helpful REAL advice? When Mary Robinette told me that I could have a super-competent protagonist in a horror story, provided the protagonist’s competence was either useless, or made matters worse. I applied that immediately in “Fall of the Runewrought,” a novelette in which an extremely bad-ass special-forces mage with a wand made from her own femur went up against things that were actually POWERFUL.
I’ve since applied it, by degrees, in everything else I write. Schlock Mercenary is humor (social satire masquerading as mil-sci-fi), and yes, incompetent people are often the POV characters in humorous stories. It’s a familiar formula. But with Mary Robinette’s advice, I’ve been able to defy some of the genre’s expectations by letting COMPETENT people discover their limits.
How has your sabbatical helped you shift the balance between productivity and health more toward health?
In the two-and-a-half months since ending daily Schlock Mercenary updates, my biggest accomplishment in the health category was getting my lungs to work correctly again. That may have been due to some dietary shifts, but it’s also possible that my body simply decided to be done with whatever I was afflicted with, in which case I can’t really claim it as an accomplishment.
Regardless, being able to breathe is nice, and in the last month or so I’ve been able to exercise with actual intent. But that’s not the answer to the question.
The answer, I think, is still pending. This sabbatical is about removing continuous pressure of daily deadlines in order to see what happens. It would be a much more interesting experiment if we’d scheduled it to coincide with something other than a global pandemic.
What excites you most about your current project?
Currently I have THREE projects. One is pure professional development, and involves learning to create complete comic book pages digitally. One is weighing heavily on me, and involves finishing a book for print (one which is a year behind schedule.)
The exciting one is the third one, and it’s something the sabbatical has let me really pour myself into.
I’m role-playing at twitch.tv/typecastrpg with Dan Wells, Mari Murdock, Brian McClellan, Ethan Sproat, and Courtney Alameda, and I’m drawing while we play. Free-hand, straight to inks and markers, while the art-cam looks over my shoulder.
It’s exciting because it’s forcing me to discard all the filters that slow me down (and which make for better art, but let’s not focus on THAT) and simply go as fast as I can. And it’s fun because I’m playing D&D at the same time. If you want to watch, join us on a Tuesday night at the URL above, or look for TypecastRPG on YouTube. The live show has a chat room in which you can heckle the artist.