Thursday, May 15, 2008

Debut Author of the Month: Debbie Reed Fischer...

Debut YA novelist Debbie Reed Fischer originally planned to write screenplays, but instead she fell into the business side of the industry, becoming a talent agent for TV and film. "It's probably just as well," she says, being that her first screen play—"about sorority girls who were perky Susie Chapsticks by day and axe-wielding serial killers my night"—wasn't exactly Oscar-worthy. "Now I would let my neighbor's dog use it as a chew toy if I could find it."

Fischer moved from talent agenting to model brokering in Miami, an experience that offered her a treasure trove of characters and the backdrop for her debut Braless in Wonderland released in April by Dutton. She eventually left the world of modeling behind, got married, went back to college and became an English teacher. After five years of teaching, she quit to "have two babies and focus on writing." She got involved in SCBWI, found a mentor, and started attending conferences—which all helped lead her to her first book contract. Here's her story.

Do you have an agent? How did you get your book contract with Dutton for Braless in Wonderland?
I was fortunate enough to meet my agent Steven Chudney at a Florida SCBWI conference. Within five minutes of my “pitch,” he kindly told me I talked too much, which shows he is a very perceptive man. We hit it off immediately. Steven really ‘gets’ my humor and what I’m going for. He sent out Braless in Wonderland to a handful of editors, and we received some positive responses within a few weeks, but it was Dutton who responded first. It was another several weeks of nervous waiting as it went up the editorial ladder until I got The Phone Call that an official offer had been made. The date was June 14, 2006, one of the happiest days of my life. My kids and I released a gaggle of balloons in the sky and I told them they could be anything they wanted. We celebrate June 14th every year now as our own wacky “dream day” holiday.

Your website refers to Braless in Wonderland as “a funny, honest peek at the crazy and glamorous world of professional modeling.” Tell us more about your debut novel.
Braless in Wonderland is about a small-town girl named Allee who falls into the world of modeling. She considers herself a brainiac and a feminist, but definitely not model material. She leaves that to pretty people like her little sister (a.k.a. “The Fluff”). That’s why it’s a complete shock when Allee, not her sister, is the one spotted by modeling scouts at the mall and signed by a major modeling agency in Miami. The book gets inside the mind a new model, especially her insecurities and her misconceptions about what the modeling industry is like. It’s also about holding on to the core of who you are, but being willing to grow and change.

You worked as a model booking agent for years—at the time did it occur to you that that world would make a great backdrop for a YA novel? Did anything in particular spark your idea?
It occurred to me from my very first day on the job, as I videotaped teen models dancing in prom dresses for a casting. The environment is so surreal, you really feel like you’re in a kind of modern Wonderland, which is one of the reasons elements of Alice in Wonderland are woven throughout the story. Many scenes in the book are based on my experiences as a booker. I repped a model who always carried a stuffed animal she called Jupiter. She made us talk to it. That weirdness made it into the book. The agency provided lots of inspiration.

I was especially intrigued by the fact that so many stereotypes I’d held dear were wrong, namely the “models are shallow and dumb” belief. That is definitely untrue. It’s just that models often have to choose between college or their career, which leaves them uneducated. Some manage to do both, but for most, the demands of the modeling industry and the travel required make it a tough call. That issue is addressed in Braless, as is the issue of stereotyping.

I was also fascinated by the transformation that took place after a new model arrived in South Beach. Every season there was some shy, quiet Susie from Osh Kosh who would suddenly become confident, loud Suzette by season’s end. That screamed, “YA novel!” to me. The teen years are a time of self-discovery, and the modeling industry is a world where you get to “try on different shoes,” both literally and figuratively speaking.

At one point, you decided to quit teaching and get and serious about writing. How long did it take you to get from that point to being a published YA novelist? What did you do along the way to learn about the world of books for young readers?
It took me about four years. The first year I attempted to write a novel without taking workshops or joining a critique group, because I just didn’t know any better. Plus, since I’d studied screenwriting, I actually thought I was ready to be published. HAHAHAHAHA! Never have I been so painfully wrong. That manuscript is now where it belongs. Six feet under. Just kidding, it’s in my closet. But I should probably bury it.

After about a year of toiling away, I realized A) that I was stuck, and B) it was terrible, so I took a workshop at a local library led by a YA author. It was then that I realized how much I still had to learn. I joined a wonderful critique group, started attending conferences, met fellow YA writers and really dedicated myself to my goal. As far as learning about the world of books for young readers, I’ve been an avid reader of middle grade and young adult fiction since I was a middle grader myself. I’ve never stopped reading books for kids. That’s actually why I had kids, to give me an excuse to read children’s books.

On your website bio, you mention a mentor. Can you tell me about that person?
With pleasure. Her name is Joyce Sweeney and she’s an award-winning YA author, a teacher, and a tremendous source of strength and guidance for many writers in South Florida. It was her workshop that inspired me to go after my dream. Under her mentorship, many local writers have become published. She also worked with my agent Steven many years ago when he was a publicist. I’m a big believer in synchronicity. People definitely come into your life for a reason.

On your site, you give ten tips for writers. Your #1 tip: “Be fearless.” Are there any fears you had to overcome as you embarked on a writing career? Any fears you’re still working on?
My fears mostly deal with revealing truth in my writing. Even though I write humor, I also draw from my own personal mistakes, my insecurity and awkwardness; all of that takes courage. I really try not to pull punches when it comes to depicting the under belly of high school politics, family relationships, or in the case of Braless, the modeling industry. Someone who read my book said to me, “Why do you have to write about models who take diet pills?” I answered that while it’s true that not all models pop pills, it would be dishonest to write a book about the modeling industry and not include a model who takes appetite suppressants. There are models in my book who starve themselves, models who eat healthfully, as well as some who eat tons of pizza and fast food, yet remain wasp-waisted goddesses. All types exist in the modeling world. The truth is the truth.

A scene in Swimming with the Sharks, involves a first-time make-out session that goes horribly wrong. It’s based on an experience I had in high school, and it was incredibly difficult (read embarrassing) to write, and even more difficult to read to my critique group. But it was a turning point for me as a writer. Every single person in the group recounted an experience similar to the one I’d written. It was clear I’d struck a chord, and now I’m glad I wrote that scene. But that’s where the fear comes in, those pesky thoughts of "What will my mother-in-law or my son’s teacher think?" It takes bravery to be honest and I’m a total chicken about most things. But I really can’t write any other way.

I love that you’ve got a dream cast picked out for a movie version of Braless in Wonderland—that’s something I do a lot when I read novels. Has the book been optioned? Maybe it could turn into the next big CW show. (Gossip Girl will be cancelled eventually, although I hope not any time soon.)
CW, Lifetime, the big screen, the Weather Channel, bring it! It hasn’t been optioned . . . yet. Would you like to join me in a little visualization exercise so we can make this happen? That whole law of attraction thing? Come on . . . concentrate . . .

I also love that you’re giving away accessories (hoop earring like ones your main character wears, for instance) along with books as you promote Braless. What else have you been doing to create buzz?
Fun interviews like this one! The most rewarding thing I’ve done to promote is join the author class of 2k8. It’s a wonderful network and I’ve learned so much from other members. I also love communicating with readers via the Internet. I’m active on Myspace, Facebook, and I have a blog. Write to me! My video trailer is my favorite part of promotion so far. It feeds that whole “movie option” fantasy . . .

In a blog post you expressed some frustration in regards to promotion—the MySpacing, Facebooking, blogging, Listserving, chatrooming, etc.—in that it takes time away from writing. As a debut author, how do you reconcile that?
I’m getting all tough love now with my promo activities. Ultimately, time for writing has to be a priority. Everything else has to come second. If it means I have to neglect my blog for a few days to finish a chapter, then so be it.

Tell me more about your second novel, Swimming with the Sharks which comes out in September from Flux.
The main character is Peyton, who has finally earned a coveted spot on the varsity cheerleading squad. For her, it’s the end of standing on the social sidelines and the beginning of being in the Alpha Clique. The problems start when Lexie, the charismatic and powerful squad captain, orders Peyton and her team mates to drive another girl off the squad by bullying her. As the cruel hazing spirals out of control, Peyton is torn by her conscience, yet seduced by the chance to have everything she wants.

What’s your advice for aspiring YA novelists, particularly anyone thinking about giving writing full time a go?
My motto is: “Write what blows your skirt up!” Write whatever it is that you like to write. Enjoy yourself. Don’t get caught up in the angst, the neigh-sayers, the statistic-quoters. Just write. Find your own voice. Most of all, take workshops, join writing organizations, and make friends with other writers. It can change the trajectory of your life. Trust me. Oh, and check out my website for more writing tips at www.debbiereedfischer.com.

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