I wrote my first picture book manuscript in March of 2009. I still have the file in a Dropbox folder where I keep all of my story drafts. Seeing the file’s creation date made me realize that I’m approaching the ten year marker of when I decided to leap into children’s literature.
Ten years is a long time to commit to anything. It’s plenty of time to experience failures and a few successes. You can surprise yourself one day and feel like you’re spinning your wheels the next. Is the 46-year-old me any wiser than the 36-year-old me? Maybe a little. I definitely have more gray hair. If I could give that young whippersnapper some friendly advice, here’s what I’d tell him…
STEER CLEAR OF THE SLUSH PILE
Let me save you some time and heartbreak, pal. Resist the slush pile submissions. You might as well go buy a lottery ticket or hunt for diamond rings at the beach. Yes, it can be tempting. And sure, lighting can strike. But especially when you’re starting out, the odds are not in your favor. You’ve got more productive things to do:
NUMBER ONE: Embrace the industry.Participate! Join SCBWI, volunteer, read blogs and reviews, listen to kid lit podcasts, and attend conferences and workshops so you can gain a pro-level understanding of how all the pieces of this business fit together.
NUMBER TWO: Make friends.Do anything it takes to join or form a critique group. Share your work and your experiences with these people. They will be your life raft in the turbulent kid lit seas. When you’re at a conference, turn to the people beside you and introduce yourself. Then ask them what they do. It really works.
NUMBER THREE: When all else fails, stick to your craft.If you’re feeling lonely or unsuccessful or unsure what to do to move forward, allow yourself some quality time to pursue creativity. Write, sketch, brainstorm titles, whatever.
Do all that and you’ll be too busy for the slush pile! Eventually, exciting opportunities will organically present themselves and propel your career forward in meaningful ways.
CUT IT OUT WITH THOSE 700 WORD MANUSCRIPTS
Hey man, a lot of your early manuscripts were too long. That’s okay. Don’t judge your work in those formative writing days. You have to put in the time to develop a sense of pacing and rhythm and structure. Get that first story out of your system and move on to the next one. While you write, read current published books and figure out why those manuscripts sold. Count the words on each spread, consider the passage of time between page turns, read out loud to a kid. At some point—after years of study and practice—something will click. You’ll see the difference between writing a story and crafting a picture book. You’ll actually treasure the editing and rewriting process. And when you figure out how to tell the same 700 word story in 285 words… that’s when the magic happens, buddy.
PLAY WITH WORDS
Your stories aren’t “leaping off the page” yet? Stretch those writing muscles. Trust your gut! Try something new! Be daring and innovative with letters, words, and phrases. You might discover a voice you didn’t know you had. You might even catch the attention of an editor with a fresh meter or distinctive grammatical style. Watersong started out as an experimental list of onomatopoeia strung together in rhyme. BOING! A Very Noisy ABC is a story told completely in alphabetical order. Recommended reading: Making the Alphabet Dance by Ross Eckler is an incredible book on wordplay. Could you write a novel without using the letter E? Somebody did!
Good luck, you handsome thirty-something aspiring author. Making picture books is a slow process. The industry is slow. It just is. Don’t try to rush your craft or your career. Every day offers an opportunity to practice and learn, so focus on that. Getting published is a great goal, but the journey is where the real achievement happens.
Tim McCanna is the author of Bitty Bot, Barnyard Boogie, Bitty Bot’s Big Beach Getaway, and Watersong, which is a New York Public Library Best Book for Kids and a National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Notable Poetry Book. His upcoming 2018 picture books include Jack B. Ninja, So Many Sounds, and BOING! A Very Noisy ABC. He lives in San Jose, California with his wife and two kids. Find Tim online at www.timmccanna.com.