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Meet Mentor Tim McCanna

We are very grateful to have Tim McCanna join Writing the Stars this year. Tim is the author of Bitty Bot, Bitty Bot’s Big Beach Getaway (both illustrated by Tad Carpenter), Barnyard Boogie (illustrated by Allison Black), Teeny Tiny Trucks (illustrated by Keith Frawley), Watersong (illustrated by Richard Smythe), Jack B. Ninja (illustrated by Stephen Savage), Boing! (illustrated by Jorge Martin), and So Many Sounds (illustrated by Andy J. Miller). He’s also been an actor, musician, musical theatre writer, graphic designer, and played accordion in a folk band—so of course the next natural step was picture books. Seriously though, Tim’s books reflect a keen knowledge of both musicality and visual appeal.

You sold your first book, Teeny Tiny Trucks, before you had an agent. How did that all happen?

I started writing picture books in 2009. In early 2012, I joined author Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 challenge. After six months, I was enjoying 12×12 so much, I wrote and recorded a little song about the experience and sent it to Julie. It just so happened that her book, A Troop is a Group of Monkeys, was in the process of being published in hard cover and as an interactive iPad app. Julie asked if I’d write a sing-along version of her text for the app and connected me with the editor at Little Bahalia Publishing. After that job, I submitted my manuscript to them and a year later Teeny Tiny Trucks came out! Unfortunately,the publisher eventually closed shop and my book went out of print. I was in it for the long haul, though. So I kept writing and submitting to editors and agents. In 2014 I signed with Caryn Wiseman at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

How did your writing career change once you got your agent?

By the time I signed with Caryn, I had a portfolio of polished manuscripts. Over the next two years she sold nine of my stories to houses like Simon & Schuster, Abrams, and Scholastic. Does everything I write now automatically sell? No way. But a good agent like Caryn knows the best editors to match your work to, handles the contracts, improves offers, gives creative feedback, and is a friend who listens.

You write successfully in rhyme. What is it about rhyme that attracts you? How have you learned to do it so well?

Thanks! Rhyming is a real challenge, but is so fun when it works. I just love playing with words. I have a background in musical theatre and songwriting, so I approach my picture book texts with performance in mind. After all, the reader is performing for the listener. Becoming a strong rhymer takes practice, reading lots of rhyming books, and developing an ear for language that sparkles.

Watersong, which you won some pretty cool awards for, is fascinating for its sparse text and the manner in which the illustrator took that text and made it such a dramatic picture book. Did you know when you wrote it that it would come to life like that?

NO! I had a fun time stringing that spare text together, but I really wasn’t sure if it was book-worthy. I added some art notes about fairies and water sprites to give it a story arc. But the illustrator, Richard Smythe, took it in a more naturalistic direction and I couldn’t be happier. We added some non-fiction back matter, and now there’s a sequel in the works!

What are some of your writing rituals?

I will often blast through the first draft of a manuscript using no formatting and a san serif font like Arial. Then, as I start editing and shaping, I duplicate the file, convert the text to Times New Roman, put in my standard title page,and get persnickety about tabs and spacing. Then I read the story out loud to myself like a hundred times, making changes here and there. I also try to regularly visit my local independent bookstores to read the latest releases and buy some books.

Who are some authors who have influenced your style?

I could list a bunch, but I have to mention my critique partner, Sue Fliess, who is an amazing rhymer and a superb author. We’ve critiqued each other’s work for over seven years, and her feedback and encouragement have made me a better writer. And, we both have truck books, robot books, and ninja books!

What stories do you have in the works that you can tell us about?

I mentioned a follow-up to Watersong … that one is going to have DINOSAURS! I can’t wait. I also just saw a couple spreads of a book called In a Garden with beautiful art by Aimee Sicuro. Both are coming in 2020.

Which of your books is the favorite of your children?

They’d probably say Bitty Bot. When the first Bitty Bot book came out, I made a big cardboard robot costume. At my bookstore events, the robot would bring a copy of the book to me to read aloud. Both of my kids were good sports and occasionally played the part of the robot. Those are fun memories they’ll always have.

You mention that you wanted to start writing picture books after becoming a dad and reading to your own kids. Were there any particular books that inspired you the most?

Back in those days I was reading everything coming out by Dan Santat, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Peter Brown, Adam Rex, Tammi Sauer, Oliver Jeffers, and Mo Willems. As a rhymer, I was also studying the works of Julia Donaldson and Chris Van Dusen.

You have some pretty fun videos on your site. Did you make them yourself? How important has your platform been in marketing your books?

Thanks! Yeah, I made all those. I’m especially proud of the 12×12 jingle video. People still come up to me at conferences and start singing that song to me. Making videos is time-intensive, though, so I only do the occasional book trailer nowadays. But as I’ve developed my career, having an online presence has been essential. Even if you’re not published yet, it’s good to get a head start on your social media platform.

Thank you, Tim, for your time and for mentoring one lucky writer in 2019. All information about how to apply to Writing with the Stars is on the WWTS Contest tab. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your local librarians how awesome they are.