Turning Points: My Eighth Anniversary of Not Being Stupid by Jennifer Echols

This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Jennifer Echols reveals how she went through her turning point on February 14, eight years ago…

In 2001, I received a “good rejection” from a major YA publisher for my seventh manuscript. A good rejection is one in which the editor writes you a personal letter rather than sending you a form letter and praises your work before dashing your hopes into tiny, sharp pieces. This particular good rejection said that the YA market was abysmal, but if the market had been better, the publisher would have bought my novel. The manuscript had made it all the way to the editorial board meeting, the last step in saying yes, before they said no.

A good rejection hurts because a real person is turning you down, not an uninhabited address in New York. A near miss hurts because you were almost there, but now, you’re not. Again. And everything hurts a million times worse when you’re pregnant. Normally I would have taken a deep breath, rewritten my query letter, and sent manuscripts out again—or started a new book. Not this time. I didn’t think I could take this heartache anymore on top of starting a new job as a freelance copyeditor, buying and renovating my first house, and most importantly, taking care of the baby.

So I quit writing, cold turkey. Not for good. I never thought I was walking away permanently. But after so many years of trying (I’d finished my first manuscript and sent it to agents and publishers in 1990, when I was twenty years old) and so many near misses (I’d had two agents in the ensuing years who had almost sold my books) and so many words written and mostly unread, I needed a break.

I got one. I copyedited. I bought my house and renovated it. I had my beautiful baby. My husband was laid off in the recession after 9/11. I became the sole breadwinner for our new family. We sold the house, moved to Atlanta where my husband finally found another job, and bought another house. The baby grew. He wouldn’t take a bottle at night unless he was distracted by music, so we started watching a new sort of TV show called a “reality show”—specifically, a brand-new hit called American Idol.

I loved this show. I had been a music major in college before I was an English major, and I had expected this show to be a joke of bad singers publicly exposing themselves, but I was wrong. The singers were great, and I was astonished at their grace under the pressure of competition on national television, especially when many of them were so young. I was especially taken with the story of winner Kelly Clarkson and runner-up Justin Guarini. They were not lovers, but in my mind, they should have been. Their movie together bombed, but huge success for the two of them, with lots of drama along the way, would have made a better story. I couldn’t get this idea out of my head. It dogged me every day on the long drive to my son’s Montessori school.

So I wrote this story down. Before I finished, I had a great idea for another novel. But the stakes were so much higher now. I had a great job and the responsibility of motherhood, and I couldn’t invest time in my own personal dream if success was so unlikely and the consequences were so emotionally devastating. I made myself a promise. I would finish this reality show book and send it off. And after that, I would make a change in my wanna-be writing career.

The definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. For fourteen years I had written manuscripts by myself, revised them by myself, looked up agents and publishers in a huge reference book in the library, and sent my novels into the abyss. But now there was a wonderful invention called the internet. There still was no Facebook, no Twitter, and I had never heard of a blog. But there were websites with great information, and there were e-mail listserves. I vowed that the day I sent this manuscript off, I would go straight to the computer, join Romance Writers of America, interact with people, and network. I would make friends, even if they were only internet friends. I would figure out how the baffling publishing industry worked and get the business end of my career off the ground.

Major Crush

February 14, 2004.

It turns out that great minds think alike, and publishers had been flooded with reality show novels, most of which were rejected, including mine. But through RWA, I found my two critique partners, Catherine Chant and Victoria Dahl, who have helped me improve every one of my subsequent novels. I learned how to watch the sales reports and target the literary agents who were most likely to represent—and sell—my manuscripts. One year later, in February 2005, I had a new agent with a high-powered literary agency. Six months after that, she sold Major Crush to Simon & Schuster.

Today, Catherine Chant has been a finalist in the Golden Heart, RWA’s most prestigious award for unpublished writers, which means she’s getting very close to selling. Victoria Dahl is a three-time USA Today bestseller and my best friend, even though we live two thousand miles apart. I have sold a total of twelve books to Simon & Schuster, including The One That I Want in stores February 7, my hardcover debut Such a Rush in stores July 10, and my first two adult novels coming in 2013. Finding friends in other writers has made all the difference in my career, and knowing that they have the same aspirations and doubts as me makes me feel at least fifty percent less insane. I am living my dream—making a living as a novelist—because eight years ago, I decided not to do this alone.

The One That I WantSuch a Rush

—Jennifer Echols

Jennifer Echols

Jennifer Echols was born in Atlanta and grew up in a small town on a beautiful lake in Alabama—a setting that has inspired many of her books. She has written eight romantic novels for young adults, including the comedy Major Crush, which won the National Readers’ Choice Award, and the drama Going Too Far, which was a finalist in the RITA, the National Readers’ Choice Award, and the Book Buyer’s Best, and was nominated by the American Library Association as a Best Book for Young Adults. Her next two teen dramas, including Such a Rush, will appear in 2012 and 2013, with her adult romance novels debuting in 2013, all published by Simon & Schuster. She lives in Birmingham with her husband and her son.

Visit Jennifer at jennifer-echols.com.

Follow @JenniferEchols on Twitter.

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