Today I have the great pleasure of introducing someone to the How I Got My Agent series who is not only a mind-blowingly (that is totally a word) talented writer and musician, but also someone I’m fortunate to call a friend. Tim McCanna tells the story of how we first met and came to collaborate on a couple of my projects, so I won’t steal his thunder, but let’s just say that the first time you encounter Tim’s work – whether his writing, music, or blockbuster videos – the only viable response is, “Wow!” Add to that the fact that he is just about the nicest person on the planet, and Tim becomes a “quadruple threat” on his way to sure stardom in the children’s writing world. It’s been an honor in every way to work with him and to have him “in my corner” on this crazy publishing journey. Please welcome Tim!
How long had you been writing before seeking an agent, and what made you decide it was time to look for one?
Thanks for having me, Julie! You know, I had zero strategy when I started out writing picture books in 2009. Within months I was submitting to slush piles and I have a binder full of form rejection letters to prove it. I eventually mixed in some agent submissions here and there, but I really didn’t know what I wanted or needed in an agent.
In 2010, Caryn Wiseman from Andrea Brown Literary spoke at a local SCBWI conference. I liked her right away (as everyone in the session did) and submitted to her after the event. Alas, my story didn’t resonate with her, so she kindly passed.
At some point I dialed down the submitting and focused on improving my craft and building my network. I participated in Picture Book Idea Month and 12×12, kept attending conferences, joined a critique group, and wrote lots of new stories. Three years later, I had a much more robust portfolio of polished manuscripts. Plus, I became an Assistant Regional Advisor for my local SCBWI chapter, and I even sold my picture book Teeny Tiny Trucks on my own. At that point, I felt like my work was strong enough and I understood the industry so much better that I started to think about who might be the perfect agent for me.
What kind of research did you do before submitting?
In the early days, all I had was my copy of The Children’s Book Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market. I occasionally queried agents who were spotlighted on LiteraryRambles.com. Of course, meeting folks (or at least sitting in on their sessions) at conferences to get a sense of who they are is always a good thing. I’m a total introvert at events with lots of people. But volunteering for my SCBWI chapter created great icebreakers and gave me opportunities to just talk to editors and agents without trying to wow them in sixty seconds with an elevator pitch.
The dreaded questions: How many queries? How many rejections?
Oh gosh. Lots of both. In the first three years before I made my first sale, I submitted around 15 manuscripts of various length and style to twenty or thirty different publishers and at least a dozen different agents. I never once got one of those personal, magical, uplifting, hand-written rejection letters of encouragement from editors you hear about. I wonder if they’re just urban legends.
For a while there, I was completely flummoxed. What was I doing wrong? Why didn’t anyone other than my critique group partners like my stories!? Granted, 2009 to 2011 were especially tight years in the publishing world, but I began to slip into a resentful dark place. I pulled myself out of that self-inflicted slump by focusing on writing shorter, snappier, more commercial stories while getting out and volunteering and joining online communities. A positive attitude and persistence is key. We’re very lucky that the kidlit industry is so friendly and supportive.
Was it difficult to find an agent who wanted to represent an author focusing solely on picture books?
Not really. That never came up. I had an early chapter reader to show a slightly longer work, and I’m currently writing a middle grade novel that I mentioned in my follow-up emails, so perhaps having a little variety helped. All I knew was I didn’t want to beg for representation. I was going to wait for an agent who loved my work and was enthusiastic about partnering with me.
How did you know your agent was “the one”?
So, nearly four years after first seeing Caryn at that regional conference, she participated in an Agent’s Day event in San Francisco in early Fall 2014. I submitted my rhyming picture book Bitty Bot! for critique and she immediately connected with it. After a couple weeks of sharing additional pieces with her and talking some more, she officially offered and I officially accepted! That just goes to show that “no thanks” doesn’t necessarily mean “not ever.”
Caryn has a great business sense—and I really kinda don’t. She also offers editorial feedback, which I knew I wanted in an agent. And she didn’t shy away from my rhymers. That was crucial. I write both rhyme and prose, but I knew if an agent said, “Gee, rhyming books are tough to sell,” that we weren’t a good match.
If 12 x 12 helped you in any way during your agent search/development of craft, can you tell us how? (P.S. It is TOTALLY okay if the answer is no. I am not trying to “lead” you )
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. 12×12 has done a lot for me. At its core, 12×12 is about writing. Getting those first drafts down. I love the simple goal-setting aspect of it. But of course, there’s much more. The community, the support, the people, the networking, the knowledge you gain from the blog and forums. It’s a great resource that became a lovely part of my journey as a children’s writer.
Has your writing process changed at all since signing with an agent?
Good question. Well, first let me say that life goes on. I’m totally thrilled to have an agent. It was one of my big goals that had eluded me for what felt like a long time. And having achieved that goal certainly gives me a sense of pride and maybe a little confidence as I move forward.
But brainstorming ideas doesn’t get any easier. Finding those perfect rhymes is always a “fun” challenge. Rewrites never go away, and my discerning critique group partners still hold my work to a high standard.
I recently completed the first draft for a brand new picture book idea that I had jotted down during PiBoIdMo. I think I like it. I can visualize the illustrations and the page turns. There would be plenty of space on the cover for one of those shiny Caldecott stickers. But whether or not I ultimately show it to Caryn will remain to be seen!
What advice would you give to picture book writers looking for agents today?
Don’t try to get an agent for the sake of having an agent. Especially if you’re just starting out. If you put the time and effort into becoming a dedicated, consistent writer who is willing, expecting, and intending to cut, slash, and rewrite your work again and again, things like landing agents and selling manuscripts will happen when they’re supposed to happen. I had to constantly remind myself of that along the way. I wrote the first draft of Bitty Bot! in 2011, rewriting and tweaking it many, many times before it finally found a home almost four years later.
Do you think your platform (blog, social media) helped you find your agent?
I wouldn’t say that any of my blogging or tweeting directly helped per se. But what I do think is, every bit of proactive participation in the industry counts. It all adds up and contributes to your whole package and potentially makes you a richer, more professional writer. Maybe having a voice in social media puts you on the map at least, and keeps you engaged. It did for me.
If you have a special angle that you can add to the dialogue, even better. For instance, I’m a musician, so one day I started writing silly songs for people that I liked in the industry. That led to writing a song for Katie Davis’s kidlit podcast, which led to writing a song for 12×12, which led to writing a song for Julie’s A Troop is a Group of Monkeys app, which led to my selling Teeny Tiny Trucks to the same publisher. It was a 2-year domino effect that I never planned!
Tell us something that is on your “bucket list.” Something you’ve dreamed of doing all your life but have yet to accomplish (besides publishing a book, which you’ve already checked off! )
Two words: Dog Dancing. It’s totally a thing.
What’s up next/what are you working on now?
Well, after signing with Caryn, we sold Bitty Bot! a month or so later in a 2-book deal to Paula Wiseman Books at Simon & Schuster. Woo! The first book comes out Fall 2016, and I’m tossing around ideas for a sequel right now. My working title is Bitty Bot 2: Bitty Does Something Else In a New Location, Perhaps During a Holiday, Or Not.
Tim McCanna played accordion in a punk rock band and composed very silly sci-fi musicals in New York City before he finally got a real job as a children’s book author. When he’s not daydreaming about dancing with dogs, Tim serves as Assistant Regional Advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators San Francisco/South chapter. He lives in Mountain View, CA with his wife and two kids. Find Tim online at www.timmccanna.com.
Categories: 12 x 12
, A Troop is a Group of Monkeys
, Children's Books
, How I Got My Agent
, Picture Books
, Storybook Apps
· Tags: 12 x 12
, A Troop is a Group of Monkeys
, Caryn Wiseman
, Children's Books
, Picture Books
, Teeny Tiny Trucks
, Tim McCanna