Hey 12 x 12ers! Tim here.
I started writing picture books way back in 2009. I flailed around for 3 years, studying the industry and practicing my craft. By the time I joined 12 x 12 in January of 2012, I was a hungry, handsome, unpublished writer with a big binder full of rejection letters. Five years later, I now have an agent, I’ve sold nine picture book manuscripts, and I drive a Lamborghini. (Okay, I drive a Honda Odyssey. A guy can dream though.) The point is, I want anyone out there in 12 x 12 Land who is just getting started, or has been at it for a while and feels like they’re not making headway to know that you can go from NO books published to SOME books published with time and persistence. If you want it, it can happen.
Let me share five tips to help you get closer to your goal…
Slush piles? Form rejection letters? Silence means a ‘no’? This industry can be really cruel and frustrating sometimes. Especially when you’re anxiously hoping for good news day after day. There are certainly things you can do to take control of your destiny, but there’s also a bit of accepting the realities of the system and going with the flow. Publishing takes time. Agents and editors are constantly inundated with submissions, and the cream invariably rises to the top. If you can reach a Zen place with how the business works and just focus on being the best writer you can be, you’ll save yourself a lot of heartache. Try to forget about how much time it takes. Let’s all agree: IT TAKES A LONG TIME. Concentrate on DOING stuff. Write, revise, research, and read. These are the fun things writers do.
WRITE 1000 STORIES
Seriously. Never stop writing new stories. Forget about that last one you just wrote. I don’t care how special you think it is. Write the next one. The book you haven’t written yet is about to be the best book you’ve ever written. Isn’t that exciting? By writing and writing all kinds of stories, you’re building up those muscles and gaining the experience to know what it feels like to write a ton of duds. Then, you’ll be able to recognize what it feels like the moment you finally pop out a sellable story that actually clicks. Good news: Failure IS an option. You have to write the bad ones to get to the good ones. I know this from experience. Besides, an agent doesn’t want to sign you if you’ve only got one picture book to offer. They want to see that you’re serious and that you’ve got the potential for more sellable work. Allow yourself years (and I mean YEARS) to experiment and play with voice and style and subject matter. Let go of any notions of how quickly you want to get published, and just practice the art of writing. I guarantee if you put in a substantial amount of effort, a wide range of rewards will come when the time is right.
FORMAT LIKE YOU MEAN IT
I am obsessive about manuscript formatting. You should be too. It matters. It’s the difference between showing up to a job interview in a suit or sweatpants. Take pride in how your manuscripts look. No fancy fonts. No glitter in the mailing envelope. It’s simple and boring: Name and contact info at top left and word count at top right of the first page; Title halfway down in all caps with ‘by your name’ under it; Start your story text in the bottom third of page one; Font = Times New Roman, 12pt. double spaced; Header at the top of pages 2 through the end with your name, story title and page number; italicize art notes and put them in brackets. DONE! (And no, don’t put a copyright line on your manuscript. That’s a rookie move. Look it up.) Sometimes you might be asked to paste your manuscript into the body of an email or an online submission field. In that case, formatting kinda goes out the window. Just keep it clean and flush left to avoid irregular spacing as best you can. Oh yeah, and quadruple-check your spelling, typos, and punctuation, please.
PUT THAT RHYMER THROUGH THE WRINGER
Don’t you dare submit a rhymer to an agent or editor if the meter is lazy. I mean it. I’m watching you. Meter is what separates successful rhymers from the wanabees. Every line, every stanza, every beat must be consistently PERFECT. Settle for nothing less. If you’re slipping in extra syllables, twisting phrases, or using wonky words to satisfy a rhyming couplet, you’re forcing it. Go read Julia Donaldson’s The Snail and the Whale, Chris Van Dusen’s Circus Ship, Angela DiTerlizzi’s Some Bugs, and Sue Fliess’ A Fairy Friend. Study the flow of their text. Admire how the lines end on unique, satisfying rhyming words. Marvel at how fun and easy it is to get into the rhythm of their phrases. This stuff is not easy, but that’s the bar that has been set. With practice, you can develop your own filter for quality control. In the meantime, have a reliable writing colleague read your work OUT LOUD back to you without you coaching them. You might be surprised what you hear. If it doesn’t quite work, fix it, or cut it, or rewrite it completely. Rhyming manuscripts get a bad rap because the stinkers really stink, and the sharp ones are few and far between. Don’t waste your time submitting a rhymer that hasn’t gotten the thumbs up from your trusted peers.
GET OUT OF THE HOUSE
This writing stuff is a lonely business. You can only rattle around in your own head for so long. We all need information and feedback and moral support sometimes. SCBWI conferences and regional events are great for that. But, I’ve never liked the word “networking.” It feels counterintuitive to an introvert like me. It sounds like you’re out to get something from somebody. Let’s not think of it like that. Let’s just call it “meeting people.” Go meet people. Writers, illustrators, librarians, teachers, bookstore managers, and yes, agents and editors. Don’t go in thinking you’re adding them to some little black book of contacts that will help you climb the publication ladder of success. Don’t approach an editor at a conference with the mindset that if you can squeeze in a quick elevator pitch it could be your big break. Yuck. Just meet people. Talk to them. Ask them about themselves. Make a couple friends. Form a critique group. Lucky for us, children’s book people are super nice and supportive. We need each other to survive!
Tim McCanna is the author of Bitty Bot, Watersong, Barnyard Boogie, and Teeny Tiny Trucks. His upcoming picture books include Jack B. Ninja, Bitty Bot’s Big Beach Getaway, and Boing! Tim also serves as assistant regional advisor of the SCBWI San Francisco/South chapter. He lives in San Jose, CA with his wife, two kids, and their dog, Millie. Visit him at. You can watch Tim’s 12×12 Success Story video here: .
Tim is giving away a free personally signed copy of Bitty Bot, Watersong, and Barnyard Boogie to three randomly selected 12 x 12 members who leave a comment below and check-in at the end of June.