Yesterday got away from me, but it’s been a good week. We’re mostly decorated for Christmas, I made progress on None Call Me Mother, and I made progress on another short story.
Plus, I’ve been running a bunch of interviews as we lead up to the release of the third Phases of Mars military alternate history anthologies, Trouble in the Wind. My story in it is Here Must We Hold, and it’s the first time I’ve really written in my area of research. That was fun.
I also made progress on the secret project. I’ll let you know all the details early in 2020, but for now, you’re just going to have to be patient.
What I haven’t done is my next Magazine Review. I may do it next week, but this is a really busy time and those take a while.
I’m going to add to None Call Me Mother tonight as I clean house here and there and watch NCAA playoff games. It’s going to be a great night.
What I’m Listening To
LSU v. Georgia. LSU is really, really good, in case you didn’t know.
Quote of the Week
You already know that today is a day that will live in infamy. The whole speech is powerful, though, not just the opening lines. Here’s another quote from Franklin Roosevelt about 7 December, 78 years ago.
“Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger. With confidence in our armed forces – with the unbounded determination of our people – we will gain the inevitable triumph – so help us God.”
– Franklin D. Roosevelt
Justin is another author in Trouble in the Wind, the third of the Phases of Mars series of alternate military history.
Interview: Justin Watson
What is your quest?
The answer to that is maybe a little heavy to lead off, but here goes. When I first started writing some years ago I would’ve said that my quest was to write stories that made readers feel the way writers like Heinlein, Dickson, Weis & Hickman and Claremont made me feel when I first read them, and do so consistently enough that my readers would pay me enough to make it my full time job someday.
That’s still part of what puts me in front of the computer, of course. More than that, though, I find myself drawn, unsurprisingly, to soldiers’ stories. I served as an US Army Field Artillery officer for ten years, including time in Iraq and Afghanistan. What I saw there was a bunch of great people stuck in a crappy, ambiguous situation, still trying to serve with honor and be true to their principles. If there’s a uniting theme to my fiction so far, it’s that—good people doing the best they can when their options are all excruciating.
What is your favorite color?
Green, Black and Red remain tied.
I like the vibrancy of green both in the environment and in art. One of my favorite memories from the Army is the days I stepped off the plane in Germany or Colorado upon returning from the sandbox and seeing all the life around me, even in urban areas.
I enjoy the simplicity, and okay, sometimes the morbidity of black. From Raistlin Majere to Darth Vader to Johnny Cash, the best characters wear black. Yes, I know Johnny Cash was real, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t also a character.
And I like the boldness, heat and the implied violence of Red. Plus, it is the color of the United States Field Artillery, King of Battle.
What is the average flying speed of an unladen paint brush?
The very first time I remember writing fiction was when I was nine years old—it was an absolutely flagrant knock off of the first chapter of Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. The next thing I worked on through middle school and high school was a pastiche of WEB Griffin’s The Brotherhood of War. Then at West Point I pecked out a lengthier, more sophisticated but still awful imitation of a DragonLance novel. In between those big projects I peppered attempts at Heinleinesque science fiction short stories, complete with my own The Past Through Tomorrow chart.
It was all terrible, and at one point I looked back on all that junk I wrote as time wasted. Like many writers, though, I’ve come to realize that every hackneyed, boringly derivative word I put onto the screen was absolutely vital. Without writing all that garbage I never would’ve developed the skills to write the good stuff, to borrow and steal from my influences in a fun and creative manner rather than writing the crappy rip-off.
What are the powers of your personal Holy Hand Grenade?
I’d say there are three things I’ve learned that really helped me turn the corner from, “man, I wish I could be a published author someday,” to, “oh, holy crap, I have deadlines to meet.”
Michael Stackpole, of Battletech and Rogue Squadron fame, used to have a podcast called Dragon Pages. It was a good podcast overall, but especially helpful to me was a series of episodes he did on outlining. Sadly, the podcast is no longer available online, but the basic idea was you take a base figure of 100,000 words, divide it by 40 into 2,500 word chapters (one long scene or two-three short ones) and that helps you put a novel into bite-size chunks. That technique helped me finish my first (as of yet unsold) novel manuscript. That novel was not ready for the big time, BUT in the writing and finishing of it I gained both a lot of skill and a lot confidence in my ability to simply keep my ass in the chair and produce words.
A couple years back I took David Farland’s Enchanting Prose course when he was holding a seminar in Dallas. His teaching on how to properly craft and seed appeals to all five senses throughout action and description in prose was pivotal to me. It raised both the quality of my writing and helped serve as a way to get past writers’ block. Now when I am stuck, I’m usually able to work my way through the blockage by asking, “what is this character actually seeing, hearing, feeling and smelling right this instant?”
But the most important thing I learned was actually from my wife, who read most of those million words of dreck I mentioned earlier. Michele was unfailingly encouraging, but even more importantly, as I took my writing more seriously, she was my most honest and unflinching critic. Michele would never, ever knowingly let me write one of my characters doing something out of left field, “because I need it to happen that way,” without remarking on it. She wouldn’t let me get away with being too indulgent, or cheap, or purple in my prose.
And I responded to her loving, kind, unyielding criticism with the poutiest of boo boo lips… at first. Then I learned to listen to her, and to make the writing better rather than getting hurt. And by the time I was actually putting my writing in front of editors, I was practiced at receiving, evaluating and incorporating criticism like an adult.
I say that the ability to take criticism is the most important, because that’s how we get better. For most people it’s damned difficult to hear what’s wrong with your writing, especially since almost everyone starts out a terrible writer. It feels amazing to hear someone tell you what a brilliant, insightful and evocative writer you are, but if you can’t take criticism professionally and get better, you’re probably in for a hell of a time just getting in the door as a writer.
Best Thing From the 80s? The Empire Strikes Back. Or Back to the Future, or Jefferson Starship, no Whitesnake, or maybe Eddie Murphy Raw…The 80s were just awesome.
Your Wrestler Name? Short Fuse, which is also the name my daughter gave my character in the My Little Pony RPG she DMs for me, her mom, and her siblings.
And Signature Wrestling Move? The Mozambique. Engaging in hand to hand combat indicates you may have incorrectly assessed a threat.
Favorite Weird Color? Neon blue or green like Tron. I love that retro-futurist look.
How Will You Conquer the World? With a unique blend of the Iron Fist and the Power of Friendship.
What Cartoon Character Are You? Donald Duck.
Best Present You’ve Ever Received? My wife converted my Dad’s VHS tapes of Discovery Channel Wings (the documentary series, not the sitcom) into digital files so I could watch them again.
What Do You Secretly Plot? “Anarchy—That I run!”
Favorite Sports Team? Go Army. Beat Navy.
Cake or Pie? Pecan Pie. I’m only tenuously a Southerner, but the correct answer is always Pecan Pie.
Lime or Lemon? Lime in a Modello or Dos Equis.
Favorite Chip Dip? Sour cream with a good hot salsa, muy delicioso.
Favorite Musical Performer We’ve Never Heard Of? Norbert Leo Butts or Sherrie Rene Scott. Listen to the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels Original Broadway Recording or The Last Five Years, but if you get the Last Five Years, I only recommend the happy half of it. And make sure it’s the Broadway recording, not the Anna Kendrick version.
Whisky or Whiskey? Well the bottles of Balvenie and Oban I love so much say Whisky, but this here is America, and it’s spelled Whiskey in the Land of the Free, by God.
Favorite Superhero? What Chris Claremont did with Logan in his run on Uncanny X-Men, and in the graphic novel he wrote with Frank Miller was phenomenal. The Barry Windsor Smith Weapon X series was also legit and Wolverine’s solo comic was entertaining to me well into its 100th issue. It’s a damn shame the character became a victim of his own success both in the comics and movies. Even though he’s my favorite, and Hugh Jackman is amazing, the franchise really did shortchange all the other fascinating X-Men in favor of their lead. It’s a mistake the MCU was wise to avoid with the Avengers and other heroes in their universe.
Steak Temperature? Medium or Medium Rare.
Favorite 1970s TV show? Mork & Mindy. Good Lord, do I miss Robin Williams.
Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall? The five minutes of fall we get here in Houston between, “Oh, my God, how can my underwear hold that much sweat Summer,” and, “Forty degrees doesn’t sound cold until you pair it with 302% humidity Winter.”
Favorite Pet? Chokydar J. Pullibear von Pullingham, of the West Von Pullinghams. Michele’s and my first dog, a Hungarian pulli we got in 2006 (before Mark Zukerberg had ever heard of the breed). Choky was a loon, and not fond of strangers, but she was a loving, adorable ball of energy to us and just look at that furry mug:
Best Game Ever? D&D and its offshoot cousins, Pathfinder and Starfinder.
Coffee or Tea? Coffee, black if it’s quality, loaded down with five pounds of cream if it’s not.
Sci-Fi or Fantasy? Love them both, and it’s close, but Science Fiction comes first with me.
What question(s) would you like to ask me?
Marvel or DC?
Rob’s Answer: I’m not a big comic book guy so my answer has to come from the movies. Generally, I would say Marvel. I think the heroes are stronger and have more depth. I have problems with Superman as a character because he’s too much a Mary Sue.
My favorite of all of it are the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, by the way. If you can keep a secret, I’ll also admit I haven’t seen all the recent Marvel movies. I will eventually, but I don’t go to movies at the theater often and then I forget about them until I end up binging things like this.
Star Wars Legends EU or Sequel Movie Canon?
Rob’s Answer: I am not an expert enough on either to really know the differences. I loved Star Wars, saw it 20 times or so the first week it was released. The Empire Strikes Back is one of my favorite movies. Return of the Jedi has some issues, but overall it completed the arc.
However, I’m always frustrated by the wasted potential of the other movies. I really enjoyed Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars novels, but that universe sort of lost its way somewhere in there, as I drifted away.
So, ummm, how about a Star Wars universe that I manage and arrange to my own personal benefit 🙂
Daredevil or Agents of Shield?
Rob’s Answer: Haven’t seen either, so I’m going to have to go Kevin Smith talking about Ben Affleck taking the role of Daredevil in his first Evening with Kevin Smith. The phrase “shark from Jaws” is never the same for me since I saw that.
If you picked the second choice on any of the above, who hurt you?
Rob’s Answer: Honestly I’m too much of a little of this, little of that guy to really take sides in these sorts of things. I’m a quirky guy and I tend to have things I’d change about everything, which means in this sort of context I’ll appreciate some of the ways things are done on each side.
This has increased, by the way, ever since I became a writer. It is almost routine for me to break down story structure and character creation in just about anything I watch anymore. I’m not perfect at such things, but I am always trying to figure out what I like and didn’t like so I can incorporate or exclude from my writing.
I am at LibertyCon in Chattanooga every year, I may start including some more cons, but for the moment that’s my home con.
Do you have a creator biography?
Justin grew up an Army brat, living in Germany, Alabama, Texas, Korea, Colorado and Alaska, and fed on a steady diet of X-Men, Star Trek, Robert Heinlein, DragonLance, and Babylon 5. While attending West Point, he met his future wife, Michele, on an airplane, and soon began writing in earnest with her encouragement. In 2005 he graduated from West Point and served as a field artillery officer, completing combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and earning the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and the Combat Action Badge.
Medically retired from the Army in 2015, Justin settled in Houston with Michele, their four children and an excessively friendly Old English Sheepdog.
Final question for you: What should I have asked but did not?
Well, not so much a question, and not to make it an Oscar speech, but I have to mention how fortunate I was that my parents, Ray and Dee Watson, instilled a deep love of books in me from as early as I can remember. Dad, in particular, read every single Heinlein juvenile to me growing up. I also have to thank Tom Kratman, who has been a pivotal mentor as both an Army officer and as a writer. And naturally and foremost, I have to thank Michele and our kids for putting up with many and varied vagaries of living with a writer.
Thanks to Justin for taking the time to answer my questions.
If you have any suggestions or comments about this interview format, let me know so I can keep tweaking it.
Also, thanks to you for reading. If you’re interested in any of the other interviews I’ve done, you can find them all here: http://robhowell.org/blog/?cat=326. If you are a creator, especially an independent creator, and you want to be spotlighted in a future interview, email me at email@example.com.
Finally, if you want to join my mailing list, where I’ll announce every interview, as well as what’s going on in my life, go to www.robhowell.org and fill out the form (Name and Email Address) or drop me an email and I’ll add you.