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Ellie Is Cool Now
By Faith McClaren
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TV writer Ellie Jenkins worked her butt off to put her nerdy, outcast teen years behind her. So there’s a certain delicious irony in that she works for a hit show about popular high school kids when she was So. Not. Cool. And now she’s been offered the promotion of a lifetime—if she attends her reunion. But Ellie’s memory of High School Hell isn’t nearly as traumatic as the reality . . .
No one at the reunion is what Ellie expected. Not her ex-best friend, who still has the ability to see right through Ellie. And not her secret crush, who has only gotten hotter, sexier, and way more complicated. The only way she’s going to survive this whole weird ordeal is by fixing her bad high school karma, kissing the boy who got away, and getting the hell out of Ohio for good. But Ellie’s discovering that in real life, she can’t just rewrite the script.
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I hated high school.
I hated the annoying pep rallies and the rowdy football games, the dumb jocks and the ditzy cheerleaders, the goth misfits and the dorky band geeks. I hated the overhyped importance of the honor society and the pretend power of the student council. I hated that high school was everything Hollywood said it would be but worse, because there were no flash mobs at prom or twist happy endings where the bullied nerd gets to be homecoming queen. I hated that it felt so important at the time, but the resale value on a class ring is basically zilch.
Yep, high school sucked. And so does this fictional one I write about for TV.
Cooler Than You is about a group of teens at a ritzy private high school. Rich seventeen-year-olds played by hot twentysomethings who look almost thirty-five and drink, smoke, and fuck like stockbrokers on Wall Street.
It’s a random Thursday in October, and we’re sitting around the writers’ room, twiddling our thumbs, waiting for the Boss Man to finish reading the latest draft of the script.
He chews little bite marks into the pen cap between red marks on the script, and we’re all supposed to sit there and watch him do it. The whole process so far has taken an excruciating two hours and twenty-five minutes.
I should be grateful for this job. Some people take ten or more years just to break into their first TV job. It’s a long, hard road for many, but it happened fairly quickly for me. I’m one of the lucky ones. I wrote a pilot right out of college that caught the eye of a swanky Hollywood producer. I drove out to LA with an agent and job interviews. The struggle didn’t come until later, when I had to turn the job I got into the career I dreamed about.
The TV pilot I wrote was a dystopian drama with political power plays, war commentary, and a strong feminist leading lady. So, naturally, my new agent got me staffed on a teen drama set at a high school in Los Angeles, with scantily clad girls and the testosterone-fueled boys who objectify them.
Did I mention I fucking hated high school?
As for that TV pilot with producer interest that started it all…
It went exactly nowhere.
But you go with it. Because it’s your big break!
You’re disappointed, but you shouldn’t be. This is the dream! You should be grateful. But every day you watch a graying middle-aged man in a Dodgers baseball cap approve a script written for sixteen-year-old girls. Because he gets it. It’s a lot of fun, and I’m super grateful for the opportunity and not jaded at all by the years I’ve spent in this writers’ room, working out plots that do nothing but remind me how very not cool I was in high school.
I’ve always dreamed of writing for TV shows that shift paradigms and change the world. I believe that the stories we consume on TV and in film and in books can truly change the way we think. Stories bring people together and shape the culture. I started telling stories a long time ago because I wanted to be a part of that, to contribute something that people could point to and say That TV show changed my life. Just like all my favorite stories have done for me.
But from where I’m sitting, the only thing Cooler Than You is doing for the world is causing an uptick in teen drug use.
This gig was always meant to be a stepping stone. Unfortunately, five years in, I think my shoe is stuck.
Finally, Andy looks up. He pulls his glasses off his face and leans back in his leather swivel chair just like you would expect a bearded middle-aged showrunner named Andy Biermann to do (did I mention it’s basically a requirement for showrunners to have unkempt Spielberg beards?). I click my pen absentmindedly, waiting for his response. He does the same thing whether he likes it or hates it.
“It’s just…” He touches steepled hands to his mouth. We all wait. I wish I could say I’m on pins and needles, but it’s always a pig roast in his writers’ room.
“It’s a tad cynical,” he says. He rubs his beard with his thumb and forefinger and locks eyes with me. I raise my eyebrows, trying to look stunned. It’s the first time he’s ever given me a midseason finale. It’s a huge honor. I am trying so hard to feel honored.
This is supposed to be the Dream. Writing this episode puts me closer to a snazzy new producer title, which makes pitching my pilot or jumping to a show more aligned with my interests feel almost within reach.
But no matter how good I make the plotlines, no matter how polished the dialogue is, I can’t do anything about my contempt for the subject matter.
And it shows—and puts the Dream, with a capital D, in jeopardy.
“Cynical?” I ask. I cock my head to one side for an innocent golden retriever effect.
He puts his glasses back on and reads a highlighted line. “Getting ‘Most Likely to Brighten Your Day’ in the yearbook is like getting ‘Most Likely to Drop Out of College and Strip for Hair-Plugged Pervs at Cheekies.’”
The other writers in the room chuckle, and my friends Vic Musa and Tina Fitz—the only two writers in this cutthroat room I would call friends—give me I-told-you-so looks from across the table. They both gave me shit for that line over the weekend when I had them read the script over a ramen takeout bribe.
I told them I would take it out.
I did not take it out.
Egg on my face.
“Or what about this one?” Andy holds up the script and balances his reading glasses on the edge of his nose. “Once I’m outta here, I’m never gonna look back. The rest of these fuckers can drop dead of ass cancer, and I wouldn’t even send flowers.”
Shocked gasps followed by a few sadistic snickers. I funnel my frustration into tiny inked tornadoes that wreak havoc on my already-wrecked script. I know it’s not a bad script. It’s impossible for me to write a bad script for Cooler Than You. I’m a good writer, and I’ve been here long enough and written enough episodes to know the rules of this tiny, stuffy room. The beats are solid, the dialogue on point, but my underlying disdain for being a teenager in high school? That, I can’t hide. At least, not anymore.
Not since a certain dreaded red and gold invitation landed on my desk last week.
Andy sets his glasses down on the table and waits for my response. I look around the room at the other writers. They’re all nodding like mass-produced bobbleheads, and I want to pop them right off.
“I meant to take that f-bomb out.” I clear my throat. “Before I turned it in.”
“You know, Ellie, it seems to me like you didn’t enjoy high school very much.”
“Oh!” I say, relieved to say it out loud—finally. “That’s because I didn’t.”
Everyone’s heads turn Exorcist-style to look at me.
“I mean, no one does, right?” I ask. “Not really. Nobody wants to peak in high school.”
The writers exchange worried looks. It’s like I’ve just told the king that I will no longer bow to him.
“Everyone wants that,” he says. “Everyone wants to fit in during high school. The kids at the bottom of the food chain want to be at the top, the kids at the top fight to stay there. It’s the vicious circle of adolescence, and no one wants to get eaten alive.”
I cross my arms and pretend to think about this, knowing full well that he is wrong.
Well, maybe I did at first. But then reality set in, and for the rest of high school, it was head down, nose to the grindstone, get to graduation so my real life can finally begin.
“Something tells me I’m not going to convince you,” he says before he reaches into his writerly leather satchel and pulls out something familiar. “I think this might help.”
Slowly, I take the all-too-familiar red and gold card from him.
No, no, no.
REUNITED AND IT FEELS SO GOOD!
Oh, for fuck’s sake.
STONYBROOK HIGH SCHOOL
CLASS OF ’10
I look up at him, eyes wide with horror.
“I threw this away. In the trash. Where it belongs.”
There’s a tiny smear of lunchtime ketchup in one corner. I grimace and hold the invitation away from myself like it’s garbage, because it is.
“It’s this weekend,” he says with a grin. “And you’re going.”
My jaw drops.
“Class dismissed,” he says with a curt wave. He never lingers. He’s out the door before my brain can process what the hell just happened. I throw an amused Vic a horrified look of confusion before shouldering my way through a group of buddy-buddy staff writers to dash across the room to catch up with Andy.
“Did you go through my freaking trash?” I ask him. All professionalism goes out the window.
“Of course not,” he says. He motions to his left, where his mousy-haired assistant shuffles to keep up with him, her cheeks turning beet red. “Susie did. We got a tip that we might find something interesting in there. Lo and behold, it’s just what you needed.”
“What I needed?” My voice is incredulous. “A high school reunion is the last thing anyone needs.”
He stops at the coffee station to refill his paper cup. His early-twentysomething assistant appears flustered, her fingers twitching at her sides, itching with obligation to pour it for him. I want to pat her on the back and tell her, It’s okay—he’s pouring his own coffee right now as a power play against me.
“The main character never knows that what she needs is exactly what she fears most.” He shakes creamer into his coffee.
I hate him. Hate, hate, hate him.
“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek.” I quote Joseph Campbell’s famous Jung-inspired line about the hero’s journey in mythology. “Don’t use patriarchal plot devices against me.”
“You need perspective.”
“I’m a woman and I went to high school,” I say. “How much more perspective do I need?”
He sighs and stirs his coffee with one hand. “You’re talented, Ellie. The best writer we have on staff—this disaster notwithstanding.” He shakes my rolled-up, red-inked script at me with his other hand to make his point. “But you hate people, and that will never work for a co-EP.”
“Co-EP?” I ask, stunned (and ignoring the part about me hating people). My heart drops into my butt. Even poor Susie looks stunned. “Who said anything about co-EP?”
“Me, just now,” Andy says, his smile spreading slowly. He loves a surprising, satisfying reveal. I would know; he brings up the one in my pilot all the time.
God, co-EP. Co-executive producer is one of the highest-ranking jobs in television. I get co-EP, and I am one hop, skip, and jump away from being a showrunner on my own show. I would be an idiot not to do whatever I have to do (short of sexual favors) to get that job. There’s only one thing in the world I can think of that could be a possible dealbreaker.
“Let me get this straight,” I say, my head tilting to one side. “You’re going to make me co-executive producer if I go to my high school reunion because somehow reuniting with people from high school is going to make me like people more?”
“I’ve had you in mind for co-EP for months; however, I do have some concerns…”
“That I hate people.” I grunt. “Which is…mostly not true.”
His thick caterpillar brows shoot up.
“Ellie…” He lets a long pause linger after my name for dramatic effect. “You can’t be in a leadership position if you’re constantly judging every single person around you.”
“I don’t care what people do,” I scoff, crossing my arms in indignation.
His sigh is deep; his patience, endless. It’s the reason he has this job.
He’s not getting through to me. Neither of us is surprised.
He lifts his mug at me. “Just go to the high school reunion, Ellie. Have a few drinks, mingle, see some old familiar faces…gain a fresh perspective.”
“A fresh perspective.” Clearly, he’s being purposely obscure, so I have to decipher his meaning on my own, and I don’t have time for that crap. I pout like a petulant child. “What does that mean?”
“Workshop it.” Andy finally sips his coffee and makes a face. “This is trash.” He tosses the filled cup into the tiny garbage can.
“So was my reunion invitation, but that didn’t stop you, did it?”
“Go Wildcats!” He punches the air with a mock spirited salute before he disappears into his office. Susie furiously gets to work making a fresh pot of Andy’s nightmare fuel.
I don’t want to go. Every cell of my body is screaming no! But co-EP is my one-way ticket out of here. It’s everything I’ve been working on for the last five years. To blow this opportunity just because of one (miserable) weekend in Ohio? Am I really that big of a wimp?
No. I can do this. I can get in, get Andy’s stupid fresh perspective, get out, and get that promotion. I can suck it up. I’ve sucked it up for five years—what’s four more days?
I pivot-turn away from Susie, who I just realized I’m staring down as I engage in this civil war with myself. I beeline for my desk to grab my computer and my purse so I can blow this Popsicle stand early. Apparently, I have packing to do.
Because damn it all, I am going to my high school reunion.
I shove a handful of underwear into a suitcase and then call an emergency happy hour with the LA fam, which consists of my best friends (and coworkers) Vic and Tina. We meet at our favorite post-work bar, the Salty Dog. It’s dog-friendly, hence the name, so Tina usually brings her tiny shivery Chihuahua named Greta that she dresses in pink doll-sized clothes and keeps in her purse.
Tina is running late again, and Vic and I don’t wait for her before ordering. Beer for him, rum and Coke for me. I don’t like the taste of beer—never have. While everyone assures me I could acquire a taste for it, I’ve never felt the desire to dedicate any time to that process. My lack of enthusiasm for beer made college almost as fun as high school until I could legally purchase hard liquor.
Vic sets our drinks on a high table that looks clean just as Tina runs up, waving.
“I’m late, sorry.” She cringes apologetically. Tina is always late and always super sorry about it. She hands Vic her purse, performing her signature pee dance. “Get me a chardonnay!” she calls over her shoulder as she skitters in the direction of the toilets.
“You still owe me a drink, bitch,” he yells after her. “She never pays me back.”
Greta pops her tiny tan and white head out of Tina’s Louis Vuitton, her big watery brown eyes wide with angst. You and me both, girl.
“Get her to cover this round,” I reply to his frown, which turns it partially upside down, and he promptly flags down the waiter to order her wine despite his protests. His focus drops to Greta, his god-dog, and I watch as he sings “You Are My Sunshine” to her in a baby voice until Tina returns.
Tina plops down on her seat, gesturing for Vic to return the pooch, just as her wine arrives in a chilled glass.
“Okay, I’m here—spill the tea.” She strokes Greta’s head, taking a generous sip.
“Andy’s making me go to my ten-year high school reunion,” I say, slumping forward. They gasp. “He’s dangling co-EP as bait.”
“Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. Co-EP? What the actual fuck? Ellie, that’s amazing!” Vic starts to clap his hands together and then stops. “Wait, why are we not celebrating?”
“I have to pass through nine circles of hell to get there,” I say, burying my head in my arms.
“Okay, Dante’s Inferno aside—it’s just one boring party and then voilà! Six-figure salary. Pop champagne!”
Vic adds, “Dom Perignon, Ellie’s buying!” They clink glasses, and Vic forgets all about his intention to hook Tina with this bar bill.
Vic and Tina are a few years older, and have both lived and worked in LA longer than I have, starting out as writers’ assistants and working their way up.
At our first family brunch—after the three of us decided to band together as besties in order to survive Andy’s writers’ room—Tina leaned over a pitcher of bottomless mimosas and told me she’d rather have the life she wants and the job she settles for than the other way around. A good philosophy, but I was convinced she could have both the life she wants and the job she wants. Especially because she’s one of the funniest writers in the room and has a knack for nailing her third act in one draft.
Vic, too, except he loves his job on Cooler Than You and wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“I was not me in high school,” I tell them, looking up from the cradle of my own arms.
“Oh my God, we get it. You hated high school.” Vic makes a blah, blah, blah gesture with his hand.
“No, you don’t get it. You both were hot and popular.”
“Hello!” Vic waves at me ironically and points at himself. “Gay.”
“Gay at an art school in hipster Portland. Please.” None of us is originally from LA, but we all got here as fast as we could.
Vic shrugs because he knows I’m right. Tina says nothing because she was homecoming royalty four years in a row and basically came out of the womb model perfect and loved by everyone.
“You don’t understand,” I start. “When you’re growing up and learning how to be a human in the world, and the people around you are constantly reminding you that you’re not good enough—to hang out with them, to go to their parties, to talk to them, to even say hi to them in the hallways? When you feel like you have something big inside of you, someone you want to be, and every day you have to go to this place where you’re reminded that not only are you not special, you’re a nobody—”
I choke back a knot of feelings in my throat. It’s embarrassing as hell, so I try to cover it up with a cough and a deep swig of my drink. I blink back tears that are on the brink, because big girls and all that. I will not wander into introspective, self-pity territory. High school is behind me. Even though I’m going back, it remains behind me. This reunion is just a stupid party, just like all the stupid parties in high school, and I have much cuter clothes now.
“Oh, Ellie,” Tina says with a soft sweetness that makes me just one percent want to punch her in her perfect little button nose. “You’ve never been a nobody.”
“You write for one of the most popular shows on television,” Vic says, pressing his hand on top of mine. “You’re fucking cool now.”
“Right,” I say. “I’ll steal one of the Kids’ Choice Awards from the office and bring it. Everyone will be so impressed by my tiny orange blimp.”
“You’re from, like, Ohio, right?” Tina asks. She could teach a class at a community college called Valley Girl 101. It’s endearing. “You’re a head writer on a show that people actually watch. People say the words you write. Out loud. They’re gonna think it’s, like, the most impressive thing ever.”
“I don’t know, you guys,” I say. “My school was mostly concerned with sports. A guy in my class has a Super Bowl ring. You really think they’re going to be impressed that I write for Cooler Than You?”
“Damn, a Super Bowl ring?” Vic’s eyebrows shoot up.
I groan. “See?”
“Whatever. The point is, you live in and write for a hit show in Hollywood. Your popularity quotient has gone way up,” Tina says.
I drop my head into my hands. “I don’t want to care about that shit anymore.”
I never really did want to care. That was kind of my major problem.
“Newsflash,” Vic says. “You work in Hollywood. Hollywood is just a gilded high school. With more cocaine and fake boobs.”
“Yeah, but at least what I have now is more based on the merit of my work than on whether or not I can wave pom-poms and shout rah-rah sis boom bah.”
“Still have to be hot,” Tina points out. Easy for her to say: she’s tall and tan with long flowing dark hair highlighted by the sun. She goes horseback riding every weekend, which is her only workout—although she is vegan, and being vegan is a workout all on its own. She’s perfect, and if I didn’t love her as much as I do, I’d secretly hate her.
As for me, I’m not not-hot, but I’ve never considered myself hot either. When I was in middle school, my cheeks looked permanently stuffed with marshmallows. In high school, I unearthed an ancient aerobics workout video in my parents’ basement and lost enough weight to land a spot on the Top Three Hottest in the Room list by second-string football players who sat behind me in art class. That weight promptly returned, thanks to a four-year love affair with chicken parmigiana in college. Now, at the ripe old age of twenty-eight, too many late nights at the computer have rendered me with permanent under-eye bags, though the baby face saves me from looking a decade older than I am.
“I’m not hot, but I love you for implying that I am,” I say.
“I would totally date you if I was into women.” Tina grins.
“Me too,” Vic adds.
“My hot-or-not-ness is not the real issue. High school was a tiny blip on the radar of my life, mostly focused on straight A’s and unrequited love.” I shrug my shoulders as my friends’ eyeballs nearly pop out of their heads. Damn it all, I just dropped the L-bomb on two die-hard romantics.
“Unrequited love!” Vic fans himself, as though he’s about to faint. “Ellie, you need to tell us everything. Right now.”
Tina leans forward in agreement, like she’s about to read a scandalous story on TMZ.
“There’s nothing to tell. I talked to him a handful of times in four years, so unrequited is the key word here. Perpetual loser in love, remember?” I hit the bottom of my drink, and my straw makes a horrible slurping sound that somehow matches how I feel.
“That’s because you’re mean to every guy you like,” Vic points out. Tina nods in agreement.
“Apparently, I’m mean to everyone and need to ‘gain a fresh perspective.’ Which is why Andy is making me go on this stupid quest that will probably set me back another decade in the self-confidence department, promotion or not. I need another drink.” I attempt to make eye contact with the server and fail.
“A fresh perspective?” Tina raises an eyebrow.
“That’s literally what he said.” I shrug. “God, why does he have to be so…him?”
Vic takes a long drink from his beer, lost in thought. Suddenly, he slams it down, grinning ear to ear. “Let’s make it a game.”
Tina nods in agreement. “We need a reframe.”
“You guys aren’t going to sign me up for online therapy, are you?” I shudder.
- “Fulton and McClaren bring the banter in this hilarious second-chance romance.”—Publishers Weekly
- “A witty, sardonic visit with the ghosts of high school past.”—Abby Jimenez, bestselling author
- “Readers will enjoy Ellie’s cynical sense of humor and the well-drawn supporting characters…in this second chance romance with shades of Never Been Kissed.”—Library Journal
- “Ellie is Cool Now is just the breezy, feel-good book you need when your mood could use a little boost.”—Reader’s Digest
- “Fulton and McClaren’s voice sparkles in this iconic story of reunions, romance, and rewriting first impressions into new possibilities. Like a high-school yearbook in rom-com form, Ellie is Cool Now is frothy, fun and unforgettable.” —Emily Wibberley & Austin Siegemund-Broka, authors of Do I Know You?
- "Romy and Michele, make room for Ellie! Top notch banter, high personal stakes, and all the swoons make ELLIE IS COOL NOW an unputdownable joy of a romcom! Victoria Fulton and Faith McClaren dazzle in their range, and inspire through their thoughtful portrayal of what a second chance can do for the soul. Be prepared to have your best friend on speed dial."—Courtney Kae, author of In the Event of Love
- "From poignant friendships to all-consuming crushes, this story has it all! Ellie's journey had me hooked from the very first page and I loved experiencing the high and lows of returning home with her. Fans of Never Been Kissed are sure to love this book!"—Falon Ballard, author of Just My Type
- “Sarcasm meets nostalgia in this sardonic second-chance romance. At once wry and heart warming, ELLIE IS COOL NOW will make even the most school-spirit-averse reader consider a trip back to their home town for a chance at rekindling both love and friendship, as it reminds us that even cynics deserve a happily-ever-after.”—Liz Parker, author of In the Shadow Garden
- On Sale
- Mar 21, 2023
- Page Count
- 352 pages