Saturday, October 25, 2008

Let's hear it for the teachers!

 I have been doing an unusual amount of school and bookstore visits these days.   (Which of course means I've been doing an unusually small amount of writing, but don't tell the editors, okay?)  I like doing the visits because it means I get to connect with the readers, and hear what they like and don't like about the books.  (And no one tells you what they don't like quite like kids do!) But last week I visited a Barnes and Noble in my old hometown of Cherry Hill, NJ, and spent the evening being the guest speaker at an Educator's Reception.  What an interesting night!
First of all, let me say that it is humbling being in a room of teachers.  These are the folks in the trenches, working with kids every day. Teachers have it hard these days.  The whole No Child Left Behind thing, with its endless tests, has made it hard for the teachers to impart any real knowledge. They have to teach for the tests, and that makes it hard to keep the learning fun.  And yet, they keep on trying, searching for new ways to reach students, particularly those who don't ordinarily want to read.  Teachers really deserve to be making a whole lot more than they do.  What's up with a world where a single baseball player earns more than a whole school system's worth of teachers, anyway?
My job at the Barnes and Noble that night was to explain to these teachers how they could use my books in their classrooms.  That was a tough one for me, since I don't exactly write "message books."  My stories have very few morals at the end. I just want kids to learn to read for the fun of it.  So I keep the humor flowing, throw in a few personality and romance quizzes (in the How I Survived Middle School series) and try to make the characters as fresh and realistic as I can.  And that's what I told the teachers.  I just want kids to feel like the characters in the books are people they know, and want to keep in touch with.  For some reason, the teachers seemed to feel those were the kinds of the books kids needed these days.  Like all the rocom writers who blog on this site, they wanted kids to know that reading was something that could be fun, not just something you had to get really good at for the  statewide tests.
So, while you are sitting there at your computers, wondering if anyone really appreciates the fact that you can give a kid a good laugh, or a good cry, or an afternoon where she feels a little less lonely, know that the teachers do appreciate what you do.  And take a little time to appreciate them, too.  Okay?



Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Sometimes I think my brother is a genius. On his Facebook profile, under interests, he lists "Halloween."
Maybe it's an Ostow thing.
My mother grew up with thirteen brothers and sisters (total, not each--BUT STILL!), and learned very very very quickly how to bury herself in her schoolwork while distractions raged in the background. It's a habit that stuck, and while *I* was growing up and she was in grad school, I'd often wander into the den to find her finishing up her schoolwork while the tv flickered silently in the background.
Her backdrop of choice? Horror movies.
I was raised against images of old 50's monster movies and 70's slasher films, and when my mother took me to the local library, I eschewed the children's room (Sweet Valley High notwithstanding) for Stephen King.
While most of the stuff I write is cheerful and girlie, I definitely have a dark side. Whenever N goes out of town, I curl up with a glass of wine, the doggie, and a horror movie. And like my brother, Halloween is my favorite time of year.
This year, we're hosting our annual bash, and I've got my costume ready--zombie bride (perfect for someone recently engaged, no?). And in the spirit of the spookiest season, here's a list of creepy books I've been reading lately that I totally recommend. They are screamingly good:

1) BLISS, Lauren Myracle: Bliss moves from a hippie commune to a wealthy suburb and quickly discovers that evil spirits haunt her idyllic private school.
2) RHYMES WITH WITCHES, Lauren Myracle: the dark underside of popularity.
3) BOY HEAVEN, Laura Kasischke: three girls ditch cheer camp for the day with dark consequences
4) GENERATION DEAD, Daniel Waters: the arrival of a zombie population divides a small-town high school community.
5) ZOMBIE BLONDES, Brian James: the truth about the cheerleading team.

Hope that list helps to get you in the holiday spirit. And happy reading!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Lions & Tigers & Public Speaking...Oh My!

In the spooky spirit of Halloween, I thought I’d share my terrifying tale.

Okay, so thrillers like “Sixth Sense” and “The Others” creep me out. And there’s a 99% chance I’ll get super startled if you sneak up behind me and shout, “Boo!” But what really scares the bejeezus out of me is public speaking. I admit it, I get terrified. I mean, Shaggy-and-Scooby scared. It’s not even fun fright like a Ouija board séance. There’s nothing amusing about butterflies with tin wings flapping around in your tummy! (Here I am speaking at a high school a few months ago--cue eerie "door creak" or "cat screeching" sound effect.)

I’ve had this fear issue for as long as I can remember. Getting picked to read aloud in the 5th grade? Gulp. Holding the floor in weekly ideas meetings at my old magazine editing job? Redrum! But over the years, I’ve found ways to work around my condition. For example, back in 2004, a few magazine writers and I were invited to read our contributed essays (from “Transculturalism”) at Barnes & Nobles in Manhattan. I asked Claude the editor if I can be the first reader. Defense #1 in this fright fight: Go first to get it over with, otherwise the torture of the wait could be spine-tingling. Thankfully, he obliged.

And then there’s always inspiration from stage fright role model Beyonce. To combat her notorious nerves, the fierce entertainer becomes “Sasha,” the fearless alter ego. Nice strategy—but I’m more likely to take a page from author Alison Larkin’s book. Alison is both a writer (of novel “The English American”) and a performance artist (She had a one-woman show!), so her author appearances are like mini performances. Oddly enough, I loove performing. I've been in local theater musicals, and I used to be a dance troupe member. So, I’ve patterned my talks after Alison. This has worked for me. One surprising result is that people have told me how fun and funny I am in front of groups/audiences.

But my real breakthrough came a few years ago when I was asked to speak at my cousin Malou's wedding. Throughout the church ceremony, I couldn’t concentrate on anything but my nerves. When it was time to stand before the congregation and read the selected passage, that familiar anxiety attack took hold—shortness of breath, quivering voice, dry mouth. The fear was rapidly escalating until I took one look at the bride and groom. They were kneeling side by side, and seemed to me to be listening with their hearts. That’s when I had the sobering thought that instantly halted the anxiety attack: This isn’t about me. I’m just the messenger and mouthpiece. The message is what’s important.

Today I remember that moment every time I face a group. Sure, I still go into every talk feeling like an extra in “The Invasion of the Nerve Snatchers” or something. But I stay mindful of the important fact that I'm there to connect with readers.

That thought alone is strong enough to turn any "Boo!" into "Boo-yah!"

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Leavin' the Laptop Behind!

As promised, Korea pics! I left the laptop behind for the first time ever, but apparently I did not leave the guilt. I THOUGHT I had, since I made a conscious decision to make the Korea trip a total writing vacation. But then, as I was window shopping in Insadong, Seoul, I saw this:

I'm sure it says "Starbucks", but the instant I saw it, a little voice in my head translated it to, "Why are you shopping when you should be writing? In here? With a venti nonfat latte nearby and oodles of words flying onto the page?"

But since I refuse to write by hand (it's completely illegible, even to me), and the laptop was a few thousand miles away, I marched right down the street and plunked down some Korean Won for a funky green pot to put on my desk. Then the next day, I visited the DMZ, which I highly recommend doing if you're ever in South Korea. It is the ultimate way to NOT think about whatever writing/cleaning/other project you should be doing.

Other trip highlights: Visiting three different Buddhist temples (one at 4 am so I could be there when the monks rang the morning bells), three different palaces, and two local markets (mostly so I could check out the food, which is sold by friendly people like this):

The highlight of the trip, however, was completely unexpected. While walking in Namdaemun Market, I was approached by a group of teenage boys who begged me to take a picture with them. So I did!

Yep, I'm the blonde one. Also, the only one not wearing Converse. Go figure!

Friday, October 10, 2008

And now for something completely different.

You can't judge a book by its cover, but you can make an educated guess. You can tell by looking at the cover of Going Too Far, my new novel coming from MTV Books in March, that it's a lot darker than my Simon Pulse Romantic Comedies. If you're only interested in reading my ro-coms, you're in luck--The Ex-Games will be published by Simon Pulse about a year from now. But I hope you'll follow me over to the dark side just for a visit. Every once in a while I like to shake up my writing by trying something new.

And that's why I'm participating in National Novel Writing Month during November. You can participate too by signing up at It's free--all you need is an e-mail address. If you're under 13, there's a children's division where you can set your own writing goals for the month. If you're an adult, you must pledge to write a 50,000-word novel in November. (To put this in perspective, Major Crush is about 55,000 words, and The Boys Next Door is about 62,000.) If you're between 13 and 17, you can choose whether to be a child or an adult (for once!).

Some people participating in NaNoWriMo have actually had their novels published. Recently I read a wonderful book called No Plot? No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo. I was surprised to find a testimonial by one of my favorite writers of adult romantic comedy, Lani Diane Rich. She says she wrote her first book during NaNoWriMo and sold it to a major publishing house! If I recall correctly, this is the same book that won the highest award for a romance novel, the Rita (which our own Niki Burnham has also won!), and Lani wrote the entire thing on Post-It notes. Hey, whatever works.

Most people writing a novel for the first time won't get it published. But they will gain the satisfaction of having written a novel. It's one thing to take creative writing classes and write short stories and poetry and talk about writing a lot. It's quite another thing to sit down and write this tome, and a lot of us will never do it unless we're given a little push. My push was taking a creative writing class in which we had to write part of a novel, and after the class was over, I just kept going. This could be your push.

For those of us who have written novels before, NaNoWriMo can be an opportunity to clear our minds of our usual plot patterns and write something completely different. This worked for my friend Christy Reece. She'd written novels before, but she hadn't gotten one published. Then she wrote a novel very quickly--not for NaNoWriMo but for an even shorter, two-week program--and was surprised to come up with an adult romantic suspense novel, a genre she hadn't considered writing before. That novel and its two sequels will be published by Ballantine next spring.

I hope you'll give NaNoWriMo it a try. If you finish a novel in November, (1) congratulations!!! and (2) please don't send it to Simon Pulse on December 1! Mike the Romantic Comedies Czar will come find me! Just because you can write a novel in a month does not mean that you can write a good novel in a month. NaNoWriMo works because you have to turn off your internal editor, the nagging voice telling you that your writing isn't good enough and you should just give up now--or that you should keep rewriting the first paragraph over and over until it is perfect and then move on to the second paragraph five years from now. You simply can't write a novel in a month with your internal editor on because you don't have time. You turn the editor off and let the words flow, and that's what allows you to finally get the novel out, or to free yourself from your usual rut. BUT, it's very important that when you've finished your novel, you turn your internal editor back ON and let her run rampant across your manuscript with her red pen and her fairy-dust of self-doubt. That's the only way to shape these 50,000 words into something worth showing to other people. And if you can survive writing a novel in a month, you can definitely survive your own internal editor.

Are you with me? Sign up and then feel free to add me as a writing buddy. My user name is "jenniferechols." My critique partners Catherine Chant and Victoria Dahl are also participating, so I look forward to a fun-filled month of moral support and, you know, taunting.

Tell us about your writing experience. Have you finished a novel? Do you want to? Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? Leave a comment here before October 17 and you're automatically registered to win a copy of No Plot? No Problem!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Vacation ... All I Ever Wanted

I just had a nearly unprecedented experience. I went on vacation. An actual lock-up-the-house, head-out-of-town-for-more-than-a-weekend, leave-the-computer-behind vacation.

Did you notice the “leave the computer behind” part? I know!

When your family lives all the way across the country, you tend to spend your free time going to the exotic destination known as home. And though I grew up in a historical tourist destination, I lived there for the first twenty-one years of my life. It’s not like I get some kick out of visiting the Liberty Bell for the umpteenth time. Seriously. There’s a bell. It’s got a crack. Wheee! So previous "vacations" always turned into working vacations in what I fondly refer to as the East Coast Office.

For my first actual vacation in forever I started out in Seattle where I visited the birthplace of a true American institution: Starbucks. For some writers, going to the very first Starbucks is like visiting the motherland. Sad, I know. But oddly thrilling. I also checked out the coolest independent bookstore you ever did see. The Elliot Bay Book Company has more nooks and crannies to explore than a Thomas’ English Muffin (not that I go around exploring breakfast pastry, but you know what I mean). But the highlight of the trip was a tour of the Seattle underground. I’ve wanted to do that ever since I saw the episode of Scooby Doo where those meddling kids unmasked the scary red demon terrorizing the city. There were no demons in the underground, but the comic tour guides made up for the lack of costumed villainy.

From Seattle I went further north to Vancouver and Victoria. There were many touristy highlights in Canada, but my trip will be remembered mainly for one thing. As I’m sure the other writers here will attest, there’s nothing cooler than seeing your book in your local bookstore. You’ve been going there for years, dreaming of the day your own work would be on the shelves. Suddenly, it’s there! I assume it’s kind of like singers hearing their songs on their favorite radio station.

Do you know what’s almost as cool? Seeing your book on the shelf at a bookstore in a foreign country. (If it hasn't already been clear, Canada is about as foreign as I've traveled, but someday I hope to cross an ocean.) The Chapters bookstore in downtown Vancouver has a very nice representation of the Romantic Comedies. All of them front-faced! (Before I even got there! I had nothing to do with it … though I would have, had they not already been that way.)

But now that I’m back on my computer I should really get to work.

Have to make some money if I ever want to cross that ocean.