Lake Martin native Jennifer Echols has written six young adult novels
Jennifer Echols was a 20-year-old journalist when she began writing her first novel on the steps of a government building in the capital city of Montgomery.
But it would take 15 years and nine rejections before the Lake Martin native saw her name on the cover of a book. In the five years that have passed since then, Echols has authored six young adult novels, including two that are set on a fictional Alabama lake that will seem familiar to local readers.
Echols was raised in Alexander City and spent her childhood summers skiing and swimming at her parents’ lake house at River Bend. Former Benjamin Russell High School students will remember the author, who was the drum major of the marching band, even if they don’t recognize her name. Echols is a pen name she adopted to protect her privacy when she was published.
She attended Auburn University and majored in English. After graduating in 1990, she accepted a position as a copy editor at the Montgomery Advertiser and worked the late shift.
During her dinner breaks, she would sit on the steps of different government buildings and write longhand, transcribing her work the next day on a typewriter. It was on the steps of the Alabama Forestry Commission building that she finished her first novel.
“I remember that I wrote the end and I turned the page and I started novel number two,” Echols said. “That’s when I knew that I was hooked and that I wanted to do this as a career. But it took me about 15 years to get published.”
Echols, who uses a pen name, continued writing as she passed through a series of jobs – newspaper editor, business publications writer and college writing teacher.
She was protective of her writing and refused to let others read it. But she did try to get published. She used Literary Marketplace, a guide to the publishing industry, to find listings of agents and publishers and submitted novel after novel.
After receiving a rejection for novel number seven in 2000, she decided to take a break from writing. By that time, Echols, who had settled in Birmingham with her husband, was “pregnant and hormonal” with her first and only child.
She received what she calls a “good rejection,” which was a personal letter from an editor as opposed to a generic form letter. The editor, who worked for a large New York City company, told Echols she fought for the novel, but the young adult literature market just wasn’t strong enough to justify the purchase.
“I was so devastated and frustrated that I stopped writing for two years,” she recalled.
Instead, she focused on her son and when she began writing again in 2003, it was with a new mindset. She decided to be more aggressive in the process. She joined the local chapter of Romance Writers of America, which she says is the largest writer’s organization in the country.
Through the group, she found two critique partners who offered her encouragement and advice on her eighth novel and ninth novels.
“Sometimes even the introvert has to get some help,” she said. “It is a social process and you have to understand that.”
She found a new agent for her ninth novel, but it was her next novel that sold in 2005 to Simon Pulse, a division of Simon and Schuster.
Published in 2006 and the winner of the National Readers Choice Award, Major Crush is the story of a high school beauty queen who trades pageants for a role as drum major of the high school marching band.
Echols had signed a two-book contract and she intended to follow Major Crush with Going Too Far, a romantic drama for teens.
However, her editor wanted another romantic comedy, so they began brainstorming.
“We went back and forth for months and I may have sent her 30 different ideas for novels,” she said.
Two of her ideas included a love triangle in a rock band and a treasure hunt on a Lake Martin-like lake.
Her editor vetoed both ideas and many more. After a while, her editor called and told her to combine the ideas: a love triangle on the lake.
Echols was surprised and nervous about capturing her readers’ attention with idyllic but slow-paced lake life.
A conversation with one of her critique partners changed her mind. The friend told her she grew up in a trailer park in Texas where the temperature would reach triple digits and there was no charming lake nearby to escape the hot summer days.
“She said that girls across America would love this,” Echols said. “That was really all I needed to get started. I filled the book with everything I loved about Lake Martin.”
The Boys Next Door features a girl named Lori, who spends the summer living in the lake house near her parents’ marina and finds herself in a love triangle with brothers who live in the adjacent cabin.
Although the setting was inspired by Lake Martin, Echols said there are many differences.
“It’s going to seem very familiar to people, but it’s not anatomically correct,” she said.
In fact, the book wasn’t even set in the South originally. Echols decided the lake was located in Alabama after her editors had trouble understanding her some of her unintentional Southern references. Passages about the warm lake water and girls dressed in shorts and tank tops at night puzzled her editors, who grew up in places where the temperature actually drops when the sun sets.
Echols changed the setting and the book was published in 2007.
Echols has been published four more times since then. Simon Pulse released The Ex Games in 2009 and Endless Summer, a follow-up to The Boys Next Door, in 2010. MTV Books, another Simon and Schuster division, published two of her young adult romantic dramas in the last two years: Going Too Far and Forget You.
Echols said her books have been well received by fans across the world. The books are selling well in England and Nova Scotia and they’ve been translated into different languages, including Spanish and Vietnamese.
Echols still visits Lake Martin about once a month with her family. While she has found success, she hasn’t forgotten those decades of writing and rejection.
“When I think about it, I really can’t separate it from the 15 years of heartache,” she said. “I really thank my lucky stars that I’m published and I’m able to do what I love as a job.”