Write It Sideways

Debut Author JM Tohline and “The Great Lenore”

Please welcome author JM Tohline who was interviewed here at Write It Sideways back in March 2010. Tohline signed with Atticus Books last year, and his debut novel ,”The Great Lenore,” is now available for pre-order from Atticus Books and Amazon.

You can read a sample of The Great Lenore here.

Welcome JM, and congratulations on your new book! Love, love, love the cover.

1. At the time of our last interview, you had parted ways with your agent. Did you use an agent when you signed with Atticus Books?

Ah, yes. The last time you and I hung out on this page together, I was in quite a strange place—having become an Agent Orphan, and having begun the query process all over again.

When I began to re-query, I had 27 agents request the manuscript. This is amazing, I thought. I’ll have a new agent within a week!

As the responses from agents began to trickle in, however, they all echoed the same sentiments: “It’s great writing, and it’s a great story, but it’s just missing something.” The problem was, many of these agents suggested changes to give it that something…and many of these suggested changes directly contradicted suggested changes other agents had made!

At this point, I realized that the “something missing” was more abstract than anything that had been mentioned. There was some problem at the root that was causing so many contradictory pieces of advice to arrive at the same place—this notion that something was missing.

As I set about searching for this something, I also—on an absolute whim—decided to set about querying a small number of independent publishing houses. Of the publishing houses I queried, there were really only two I was interested in. One of them responded within a day, informing me that they were closed to submissions until 2012. The other was Atticus Books.

Right around the time when I finally identified and fixed that elusive something—when I was just about to send the revised manuscript to all the agents who had asked me to do so—Atticus returned to me with interest. After a few conversations with them, it became a no-brainer that Atticus was where I wanted to be!

2. How far along are you in the publishing process? What’s the next step in your publishing journey?

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind! Things were sort of stagnant for a while, and then all of a sudden, everything happened at once.

We got the book cover comps back from Jamie Keenan (Jamie is a UK book designer who we at Atticus are extremely fortunate to work with; chances are, you probably have a number of Keenan covers on your own bookshelf, as he has designed for everyone from Stephen King and A.M. Homes to David Foster Wallace and Irvine Welsh to Junot Diaz and Garrison Keillor; in fact, he has even designed re-releases for books by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, H.G. Wells, and others!).

For the next few days, we made minor adjustments to the book cover until we had it exactly how we wanted it. Then I received the digital Advance Reading Copy. Then we worked on the description of the book that is now on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. Then Jamie sent us the design for the back cover, the Advance Reading Copies were mailed out to reviewers, and the book became available for pre-order!

That’s where we are now: the book is available for pre-order— at Atticus Books and Amazon (and soon to be available on Indiebound, Barnes & Noble, etc.)—and other than that, we are in another lull.

On June 15, the book will be in stores at last!

3. Are you still working on your second novel, “Blue The Person”?

I am extremely fortunate, in that I write for a living—freelance writing and editing—which means that I can set my own hours and work as much or as little as I want. This gives me a more flexible writing schedule than most people have.

I set my mornings aside for about three hours of writing and two hours of reading. The biggest difficulty in working on Blue The Person (the story about a man who conquered life) has not actually been finding the time, but has been the shifts in focus. Every time I jump back into The Great Lenore, it is difficult to switch back over to Blue The Person.

The constant need to revisit The Great Lenore—for this or for that—during my search for an agent, and then during my work with Atticus, has been the biggest hurdle to clear in working on Blue The Person.

4. What factors helped you decide to sign a publishing contract with Atticus Books?

There are advantages and disadvantages to working with an independent publishing house.

Among the advantages, of course, is that everything is far more personable. For instance, I can email my publisher anytime, with any questions, and I will always receive a rapid and detailed response. Also, independent houses can move things along much more quickly, and as the author you have a much greater say in all stages of the publishing process. With an independent house, it is unlikely that you will ever feel like a number, or like “just another author.”

Negatives, of course, are the obvious: most indie houses have a smaller range of distribution, and (with a lot of independent houses) there can be a significant drop-off in quality of editing, design, and so on.

For years, I told myself that I did not want to ever sign with an independent publishing house “out of necessity.” But I also said that if I found an indie house I truly loved—one about which I could genuinely say, “You know what? If I signed with them—even if I became hugely successful—I might never move over to a major publishing house; I might just stay with them the rest of the way”—then I would love to go indie. I felt this way with Atticus—and so far, they have been everything I imagined they might be (and trust me when I say, I probably had unrealistically high expectations!).

5. What are you doing to promote “The Great Lenore”?

I think one of the benefits of being a young writer publishing a debut novel is that my mind travels to unusual places that other writers might not visit.

Most of my fellow Atticus authors are Creative Writing professors (several of them at prestigious universities), but although these fine men have been in the writing game for far longer than I have, I feel that my relative newness has been beneficial in helping me come up with unique ways to promote the book.

I held a few Advance Reading Copy contests on the website over the last few months. And I also took the time to email about 100 literary agents, asking them “What is the biggest mistake writers make when querying you?” I received over 50 (extremely gracious and detailed) responses from agents, and I compiled all this information into a post on my website that has been hugely popular among writers all across the world. While I created this post to help aspiring authors, I also did it with the idea that it might cause traffic on my website to skyrocket—which it did.

My most recent idea has been the “Index Card” idea. I have a new tab on my website that invites readers to email me their address if they would like me to send them 20 index cards. On each of these cards I have written “JMTohline.com” and “The Great Lenore,” and I have added a random sketch, doodle, or drawing. Those who I have sent the index cards to are leaving them around town in bookstores and coffee shops, etc. Basically, it’s a fun way to “litter,” and it’s a fun way to help me promote the book.

Most exciting of all right now: I am in talks with Out Of Print Clothing Company about the possibility of them using The Great Lenore’s book cover for a shirt (if you don’t know who Out Of Print is, check them out!—they work with Books For Africa, and they sell high-quality t-shirts with classic or iconic book covers on them; really cool shirts, for a really good cause). They have never done a modern book cover before, but I contacted them on the off chance that they might be interested, and after they saw Jamie’s cover we started talking about the possibility of teaming up together!

Of course, I am also promoting in all the traditional manners, and I hope to do some book tour stuff this summer and this fall, but it is especially fun to think outside the box like this; I encourage all aspiring authors to stretch their brains for creative marketing and promotional ideas when the time for their first novel comes!

6. Are there any aspects of the publishing process that have surprised you?

Actually…to give a perfectly boring answer: No. Not really.

Part of this is because I have gradually educated myself in all the ways of the publishing industry over the years, but another part of this is because of the beauty of working with a press like Atticus. I have a lot of say in a lot of areas. In fact, generally speaking, I have the choice to have as much or as little say as I want in most every area. This has been one really cool part about working with Atticus.

I guess I could say the one thing that has truly surprised me (especially after how rocky my road was to reach this point!) is how smooth everything has been.

7. Did you have to do an intensive round of edits with Atticus Books?

When my publisher sent me the edited version of the manuscript, he included a note commending me for providing them with such a clean manuscript. This is not because I am some wunderkind who writes flawless stories! It is simply because my “intensive round(s) of edits” occurred long before I ever reached Atticus.

I am a perfectionist, which means that I spent hundreds of hours editing The Great Lenore on my own. And then, my agent and I got our hands dirty together. And as I mentioned, my second go-around with agents included a few minor (but hugely impactful) final edits.

Of course, Atticus still had a number of suggestions. And as I have found while going through this process now a number of different ways: It is absolutely amazing how even minor changes suggested by a fresh pair of professional eyes can make a massive difference.

8. What do you see in store for yourself over the next five years?

Writing. And reading. And writing.

As with anyone who writes all the time, I have more story ideas than I will ever be able to use. So we will see what happens, or where I go. I can, however, say this: Blue The Person is coming together beautifully. Slowly, but beautifully. And it is the first of what will be three entirely different, but thematically similar, books…

And more writing.

And more writing…

Visit JM’s website and pre-order The Great Lenore from Atticus Books and Amazon.