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Monday, November 14, 2011

Interview with Brian Justin Shier (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

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(Photo Credit: B. Justin Shier)

Brian Justin Shier’s debut Zero Sight was a surprise for me in terms of its ingenuity, character charm and plot pace. The book completely won me over and made me a fan through and through. I was intrigued by Brian’s background as a medical student who managed to write a book amidst his hectic schedule and with almost no formal background in writing. Read on to find out more about Brian’s roots, his decision to go Indie, long term plans for the Zero Sight series and his future.

Q: Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. To start with, could you tell us what led you to be a writer in the first place? Also could give us a brief bio?

Brian: Sure, Mihir and thanks for inviting me. I guess my background is a bit odd. I didn’t major in English, and I’ve never even written a short story. I’m a medical student. I spend most of my time memorizing body parts.

I grew up in Las Vegas and studied psychology and marketing at Washington University in St. Louis. It was there that I got my first taste of medicine (working in a lab that revolved around the hormone pathways that influence the stress response). But medicine didn’t snare me then. The long hours scared me, and the idea that random people would let me cut into their bodies kinda freaked me out. But it wasn’t long after I left college that I realized a career in business wasn't right for me. I missed the science and cutting deals wasn’t for me. Deciding I needed to change, I started taking science courses and volunteering at a hospital in my spare time. Medical school applications were soon to follow.

The whole novel writing thing started back in 2009. At the time, I was living in Sacramento doing a research internship in burn surgery. The research was going great, but I went home to a lonely studio every night. The bar scene wasn’t for me, and I could only bear to listen to so much NPR. Worse still, I’d just finished Jim Butcher’s latest novel, and the next one wasn’t going to be released for months. It was a veritable Dresden drought.

Bored out of my cell culture-addled brain, I started thinking about the contemporary fantasy genre in general. I knew what I liked: the grimy realism, the magic crashing headlong into reality, and the crazed unpredictability that a few tweaks to physics grant an author. I also knew what frustrated me about the genre: the contrived romances, the all too peachy wrap-ups, and those oft-infallible heroes that always manage to simultaneously power-up and moralize their way to victory. Then I had a crazy thought: I wondered if I could do any better.

I decided to take a stab at it. Not write, mind you. Just plot. I started each night with a blank sheet of paper and my daydreams. It was bizarre. I’d never been a big fan of creative writing, the longest paper I’d ever written was an academic paper on insulin intolerance, and I was having a blast scheming out dwarven mating rituals. I approached the process like a giddy scientist. I would propose a plot and then try to tear it all down. But I didn’t dare write any prose. While I was confident I could describe the mechanics of DNA to a pack of high school students, pretending to be a real writer felt like a tremendous act of hubris. The actual urge to write didn’t come until Rei and Dieter’s characters popped into my mind.

Q: What was the precise spark of inspiration which lead to the creation of Dieter & the Zero Sight series?

Brian: A long winter walk in Sacramento! I was listening to “Disarm” by the Smashing Pumpkins when a battered Greyhound bus roared past me. The bus was almost empty, but a teenager with rough-cut hair was sitting in the third row. He had this huge green duffel bag in his lap. I wondered where he was off to. I wondered what was in the bag. Then Billy Corgan sang the wonderful line: “Disarm you with a smile. And cut you like you want me to.” Rei Acerba’s character appeared like a thunderclap. The first version of Zero Sight’s bus sequence was on paper by 4AM the next morning. It was my first attempt at writing fiction. It was love at first sight!

Q: So for someone who hasn't read any of your novels, how would you describe the type of stories that you write, what would be your pitch for the Zero Sight Series?

Brian: An early fan of the series wrote that Zero Sight is like “Harry Potter on crack.” I set out to write a fantasy novel that you wouldn't be ashamed to hold hands with at prom. Zero Sight may deliver a ton of violence and hilarity, but none of the fun is free of cost. I’m more than willing to let my characters make foolish decisions, but they are always going to have to pay the bill at the end of the evening.

Q: I believe both your book covers have been done by the same artist, how did you approach her. Or was it the other way around? What was the clinching factor in this partnership? Could you give the readers a brief overview in to the process of making one of the covers?

Brian: A good friend of mine, Sarah Pedersen, did the photography for Zero Sight’s cover. Sarah is a real pro. She’s done photography for a number of commercial projects, and she taught me a lot about how communicate with artists. We shot the cover images the day before my wedding. (I was mixing fake blood next to the lady preparing my wife’s henna.)

Finding a good graphic artist was more of a struggle. There is plenty of talent out there, but only a few individuals are willing to take input and execute tasks on a reasonable timetable. I had two separate efforts fall through before my editor, Jon Steller, introduced me to Jordan Kimura. We spent a good two hours going over the initial concepts, and she offered to create some drafts free of charge. I went home expecting turn around would be around a month, but she had the drafts back to me in less than two days. The whole project was wrapped in under two weeks. I think the key was that initial discussion. Jordan spends a lot of time listening to what I wanted. I think that helped her get close to the mark on the first try.

E-covers are finicky creatures. You have very little control over how they will be displayed. You have to worry about how they will look in both color and black and white. You have to worry about if they will big or small. I’m sure we’ve all seen some marvelous hardcover artwork that turns to sludge when viewed on a monitor. To reduce some of the variables, I shoot for minimalist designs. I make sure that the covers can catch a reader’s interest even at thumbnail size, and that the book titles are always legible.

Q: Nowadays there has been a heady discussion involving self-publishing and many authors such as J.A. Konrath, Barry Eisler and John Rector have also espoused e-books and self releases, what was your reasoning in going the Kindle way for your Zero sight series, did you make an attempt for the traditional publishing route?

Brian: I didn’t attempt traditional. Heck, at first, I didn’t think that Zero Sight was good enough to be published at all. That all changed when a friend (that also happens to be a noted author) gave Zero Sight a read. He urged me to submit the manuscript to some agents. That both shocked and excited me. I read up on all the different publishing houses, collected a list of possible agents, and even wrote up a few of those dreaded query letters. But in the process of learning how to submit a novel for publication, I began to hear rumors that traditional publishing wasn’t the only way. It was the sort of stuff that was only whispered in the dark alleyways behind bookstores, and the only real source of information I could find was an industry blog with the unassuming name “A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing.” The man behind that blog was J.A. Konrath.

J.A. Konrath is a divisive figure. Some authors think he is an entrepreneurial genius, others think he is nothing but a bitter turncoat. But everyone in the industry reads him. Everyone!

A good example of his advocacy is “Are You Dense?”. As you can see, he really didn’t hold back any punches. Also, note the number of comments. There are over 600. Konrath can be crude, Konrath can be abrasive, but he always backs up his arguments with numbers. Some are turned off by his tone, but I spent my whole childhood around gruff men like Konrath. They built a city out of sand.

I think I can sum up Konrath’s philosophy in three simple words: Do. The. Math. (Although, he’d probably add an expletive.)

I did the math myself, and I was rather unsettled by the results. The number of novels a traditionally published author must sell to make any sort of money is astounding. Traditionally published authors only get about 5-15% of the cover price of a book, the rest goes to the publisher. Independent authors on Amazon get 70% of the cover price of an e-book. That means they can sell fewer books at lower prices and still earn a decent living.

I decided to go the indie route for the following reasons:
- The traditional publishing process can take over 3 years
- You only get a small percentage of the sales price
- You surrender creative control to outside parties
- And you still have to spend your own time and money promoting your work.

As a busy medical student just hoping a few people might read my novel, none of this sounded very appealing. But I’m not everyone. I think each author needs to assess their own situation. The needs and wants of a Stephen King are going to be different than those of a mid-list romance author. Blanket statements are dangerous. But you really do need to go through the process. In the end, authors have to be responsible for their own careers.

Q: When you started out did you have an overall plan for the series, was the entire story mapped book by book? How much of the plot do you plan out earlier, or to quote George R.R. Martinare you a Gardner or an Architect” when it comes to your writing?

Brian: At first I just had a guy and a girl on a bus. Now I know how it all ends, I know vaguely how to get there, and if the car breaks down, I’m prepared to push.

Q: Speaking of the series, how many volumes do you think will be required for Dieter's saga? How far along are you in the next book, and is there anything you can tell us about books two, three and the series beyond?

Brian: I’ll need at least 8 volumes. Book 2, Zero Sum, is being beta read as we speak. Book 3 is half-written. The working title is Zero Tango. I’ve finished plotting through the 4th. But, Mihir, who says that it is Dieter’s saga? Maybe there is another narrator…

Q: Zero Sight is written in the first-person which is very common for urban fantasy novels. Why do you think this is and what do you feel are the differences between first-person and third-person narratives?

Brian: I think there is a general trend towards more personal stories and that first-person narration makes this easier. Why we now like to roost inside a character’s head is unclear to me. Some argue that fantasy writing is escapist. Maybe the real world has gotten big enough. Maybe a more personal perspective is somehow soothing.

Q: Zero Sight opens up in Las Vegas and goes cross country to end in New Haven. Why New Haven? And will you be exploring the world beyond the in future volumes?

Brian: I really wanted to go to the Yale School of Medicine. I figured that if I wrote a novel set in New Haven that they would accept me for sure. I received a rejection letter instead. Now I’ve decided to unleash a midget army on the city during book 4…maybe.

Q: Even though your series embraces a number of fantasy tropes, you also have made a rather strong effort to twist reader expectations and keep them entertained. What are your thoughts on fantasy tropes in general and how did you decide what tropes you wanted to utilize and which ones not to?

Brian: I love some tropes. For instance, if the trope is featured in The Power of Myth with Joseph Campbell, I try to respect and adopt it. But if a trope has left a bitter taste in my mouth, I tend to get a bit reactionary. One example is the concept of Dark Lords. I hate Dark Lords. Despise them. I reject any and all personifications of Evil. Even the most wretched of us are born to mortal mothers. Every last one of us played with blocks as children. What’s so interesting is why some of us go on to rot. I loved Khan Noonien Singh for that reason. I understood why he wanted to stab at Captain Kirk from the heart of hell. The man cut him too deep. He just couldn’t let go. Explaining away all of a villain’s vices with the “they be evil” trope kills all the fun. So, there will be no Emperor Palpatines or Saurons in my novels, but there will most definitely be heinous acts.

Q: Is there a particular process you follow which goes in the naming of your books? Following on that train of thought why did you pick the title “Zero Sight”?

Brian: Absolutely. The process involves me, a dictionary, and a dartboard. It earns me concerned glances from my wife and sometimes ends with sutures…all joking aside, the books will be ordered alphabetically, and each will serve as a two-word hint as to the plot.

Q: What types of books do you like to read, and who are your favorite authors in the genres which you read? Lastly amongst the current crop of writers who do you feel deserves more recognition?

Brian: I read a lot of medical textbooks. Very few are well written, so the gems tend to stand out. My all-time favorite is William JamesPrinciples of Psychology, which the author touted as “a loathsome, distended, tumefied, bloated, dropsical mass, testifying to nothing but two facts: 1st, that there is no such thing as a science of psychology, and 2nd, that W. J. is an incapable.” The book is none of those things, and is in fact fascinating reading. I’m also the proud owner of an original 1887 copy of Lippincott’s Intermediate Anatomy, Physiology, and Hygiene. The now moldy textbook was the sum total of medical knowledge at the time. It totals 221 pages and remains surprisingly accurate.

When I am not gargling medicine, I love to read fantasy. Aside from the obvious shout-out to Jim Butcher, I’ve been influenced by the work of Charlie Huston, John Lindqvist, and the ever-baffling Martin Millar. I prefer Diana Wynne Jones to J.K. Rowling. I prefer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu to Bram Stoker. My favorite book is Of Mice and Men. My second favorite is To Kill a Mockingbird. Edgar Allen Poe is a god to me, I don’t understand the appeal of Atlas Shrugged, and I am too much of a coward to ever re-read Where the Red Fern Grows.

Who do I think deserves more recognition?
Trad-published: Stacia Kane and her Downside Ghosts Series.
Indie-published: Moses Siregar, author of The Black God’s War.

Q: What's the best writing advice you've ever received? Conversely, what's the dumbest you have encountered?

Brian:Write only what you know.” It’s both the best and worst advice I’ve ever heard.

Q: What are your plans for the future? What’s next for you in terms of other new projects?

Brian: Become a doctor. I’m leaning towards hematology-oncology as a specialty. I only have two years of medical school, three years of residency, and two years of fellowship training to go.

Q: Lastly as a writer, what are your aspirations? Where do you see yourself in a decade from now?

Brian: I want to finish up the third novel in the Zero Sight Series and get the first two novels out as trade paperbacks. I also have a stand-alone sci-fi novel burrowing a hole in my head, but I need at least three free weeks to write it. (Sad thing about medical school: we use “free” weeks to study.) I can’t see where I’ll be in a decade. I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to get this second novel right; I’m terrified that my initial success might have been a fluke. I guess I’ll just keep writing. The readers can decided where I end up.


Nayan said...

Thanks for the wonderful interview Mihir. @B. Your thoughts on DRM are truly and well appreciated.

MrGiftProfessor said...

Great interview and such an interesting story Brian! Pretty inspiring stuff.

The Reader said...

@Nayan & Mr.GiftProfessor

Thanks & hope you enjoy Zero Sum which will be out soon as well.


B. Justin Shier said...

@Nayan: DRM is a really interesting topic. I don't think it helps reduce piracy, and it certainly adds an annoyance for reader wanting to change platforms. Those reasons are good enough to keep it off my books. I've heard other anti-DRM arguments like torrents increase your reach. I have no way of knowing if this is true or not, though I have gotten fan mail from folks who told me they discovered Zero Sight via a torrent site. Maybe the benefit of all the resultant word of mouth outweighs the "lost" sales.

@MGP: Thanks. Mihir asks good questions.


Tyler said...

Thanks for bringing this book to my attention Mihir. I picked it up off Amazon last week after reading your review and absolutely loved it! Great job on your first novel Justin, I'm really looking forward to Zero Sum, I hope it's not a long wait!

Pabkins said...

OH blogger ate my first comment *grumbles* great interview - actually read the whole thing too haha. I love the idea of medical student turned author. Plus he started his first book in Sacramento where I live!

I'll definitely be checking out the first book as I get the feeling I will really enjoy it.

*big Jim Butcher fan as well!*

It's Indie Author week on my blog! I think you chose the right path grasshopper!!

Pabkins @ Mission to Read

The Reader said...

Hi Tyler

That's great to hear :) As far as I know Zero Sum is on track for its release in December.

@ Pabkins

Yeah blogger does act weird from time to time. The Indie week is a great idea and I hope you do feature Zero Sight on your blog as its one of the best debuts of the year IMHO :)


B. Justin Shier said...

@Mihir. Yep, Zero Sum is still on track. Final beta drafts should be back to me this weekend. And I'm going to have to use that "best debuts" quote of yours at some point...muahaha.

The Reader said...

@ Brian

Glad to hear it, I hope to read it soon :)

You're welcome to it and I believe its most properly used in the review ;)


Anonymous said...

Wow I absolutely love the first two books of Zero Sight! When this article was posted in 2011 you said you were half way done with the third book, when do you think Zero Tengo will be released?


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