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The Many Paths to Publication Part 6: An Interview with Tim McCanna

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I first met Tim McCanna at an SCBWI conference in 2011. Back then he was an aspiring children's book author and a heck of a nice guy. Now he's still a heck of a nice guy but he's graduated from aspiring to published children's book author. How'd he do it? I was about to say "not in the usual way" but if you've been following these posts, you've probably gathered that there isn't a usual way. What I like about Tim's story is that he took pointers, tips and tidbits he gathered at conferences and combined them with some publicly-available tools and a few personal connections to forge a unique path to publication. It doesn't hurt that he, like Tim Myers from our last Paths to Publication Interview, is a multi-talented guy who writes songs, does voice-overs, and writes stories. Read on to learn about his just-released new book, Teeny Tiny Trucks, and how it developed from an idea to an app and a book.

Dashka: Tell me about Teeny Tiny Trucks! What was the inspiration?
Tim: Well, in late 2010 I attended an event hosted by SCBWI's San Francisco/South chapter. One of the speakers was Christy Ottaviano and she talked about how much her kids loved trucks and how she had unexpectedly ended up publishing a handful of "truck books." I had never really thought about it before, but there are a LOT of truck books out there. It's a whole category of its own. On the way home, I started brainstorming truck book ideas. Of course, most truck books celebrate how big and tough and loud they are. I knew right away I wanted to take it in a different direction and explore a world where trucks were super small. I also tapped into my childhood love of little truck toys, like Micro Machines and Tiny Mighty Mos.

Dashka: It sounds like you did some market research before you even started writing. Were there other things you learned from SCBWI or other sources that helped you hone your strategy?
Tim: As it turned out, the next regional SCBWI event I attended was the 2011 Golden Gate Conference at Asilomar near Monterey. One of the speakers was Rick Richter of Ruckus Media Group. Rick gave a great talk on apps and digital media and where the industry was headed. He assured us that apps and ebooks and printed books could all live together in harmony. But he also really encouraged us to jump on the app bandwagon. I had no idea how to do that, but I was excited to try. While considering ideas, I thought, "Hey, that Teeny Tiny Trucks picture book manuscript I wrote would make a cool app."

TTTrucks Cover

Dashka: How did you go about making an app proposal? How did you even know where to begin?
Tim: It's intimidating, right? For the first couple submissions, I just winged it. Cover letter, the manuscript, and very rough storyboard sketches with little notes on potential interactive elements. Uh, nothing came of those. Then last year, Julie Hedlund, who's a writer and creator of the 12x12 challenge, published an App Proposal Template based on the submission that landed her first story app contract. I would recommend it to anyone wanting to break into story apps. The template helped me create a much more robust and organized proposal with marketing strategies, a detailed app brief, and curriculum tie-ins.

Dashka: As an old-school, words-on-paper person, I sometimes find it hard to embrace the digital side of publishing. Were you pro-technology before you started? Anti-technology? Neutral?
Tim: Ah, well. I love a nice solid printed picture book as much as the next person. My wife and I read tons of traditional picture books with our kids and we have pretty strict "screen time" rules. But I've never shied from technology. If anything, my iPad has made me a reader again. I love the ease of downloading samples from the iBooks store to find new purchases, and being able to quickly look up big words I don't know! I read novels almost exclusively on my iPad. As far as the publishing industry goes, I can only hope that the future will bring lots of quality story apps for people to enjoy and lots of beautiful hardbound books, too.

Dashka: OK, so you've told us how you got the idea for Teeny Tiny Trucks. How did the book get its big break?
Tim: Gosh, everything is intertwined. So, I had my Trucks story and my first shabby proposal sitting in my Dropbox going nowhere. As I was participating in the 2011 Picture Book Idea Month, I heard about Julie Hedlund who was launching her 12x12 writing challenge, which I joined. I wrote this silly song for the mid-year celebration of 12x12 and had also written the opening show theme for Katie Davis' kidlit podcast, Brain Burps About Books. Meanwhile, Julie's publisher at Little Bahalia was considering adding a sing-a-long song version for the app they were developing for her book A Troop is a Group of Monkeys. My name came up and I ended up writing the song and narrating the app! Totally fun. Building that working relationship with Stacey at Little Bahalia gave me the confidence to revive my Trucks app proposal using Julie's template. I submitted it and had a contract in two weeks.

Dashka: Talk to me a bit about how personal relationships helped you along the way. You and I met at a conference for the first time and you've clearly met lots of other, more helpful, people too. Do you think writers need to get out more?
Tim: Oh yeah. Every bit of momentum I've gained since starting out four and a half years ago can be directly attributed to the people I've met by attending SCBWI events and participating in online writing challenges. My number one bit of advice to anyone--especially newcomers to the industry--wanting to make kidlit friends and expand their network is to volunteer at their local SCBWI chapter.

Dashka: Another thing that strikes me about you is that you bring some extra talents to the table. How has being a songwriter helped you as a writer? And now it seems you can add voice actor to your resume.
Tim: Oddly enough, it took me a long time to figure out how to integrate my music and performance backgrounds into children's book publishing. I've recently done some book trailers, and I write goofy little jingles for my kidlit video series. And yes, I've gotten to narrate a handful of story apps, too. All these things I've done in my little home studio with a laptop, a keyboard and a microphone. When I decided to take Trucks in the app direction, I set my stanzas to a tune and added a catchy chorus. And considering the subject matter, I took another cue from my childhood and gave it a 1970's trucker song kind of vibe (i.e. Willy Nelson's "On the Road Again"). I included an mp3 of the Teeny Tiny Trucks song along with my app proposal and I'm told it pushed my submission over the top.

TTT Spread Weight

Dashka: TTT was originally going to be an app only, but now it's been released as a book too. How did that come about?
Tim: I'm so excited about that. The original plan was: app first, then maybe a book. I'm not a publisher, and I don't know all the numbers, but I think between having such a great looking product thanks to Keith Frawley's illustrations, plus the timing of publishing before the holidays, it just kinda made sense for Little Bahalia, our publisher. And we're making history in the process! A title releasing simultaneously in print and interactive app form. Gives consumers some fun choices.

Dashka: Did you ever think your first book would come via an app?
Tim: Nope. Never. I just followed the opportunities and my instincts. In my case, I wrote the story first, not even thinking of it as an app. I would recommend that process! Teeny Tiny Trucks was just one of many manuscripts in my portfolio, but due to its style and subject, it naturally lent itself to an interactive format.

Dashka: What are the advantages of entering the publishing world via an app?
Tim: Traditional publishing can be a notoriously slow process. My app, on the other hand is coming out roughly eight months after I sold the manuscript. And, in theory, an app will never go out of print! Plus, the interactive elements, when done well, can be amazing. The sky's the limit, really. An app format offers all kinds of special features like puzzles, music, and animation.

Dashka: Are there disadvantages?
Tim: Well, if someone doesn't have access to an iPad or an iPhone, then they ain't gettin' the app. That's a bummer. New apps are also at the mercy of "discoverability." Meaning, unless you're Angry Birds, you have to claw your way through the glut of apps flooding the market to reach the top charts. We're all competing against very sophisticated video game apps, many of which are free.

Dashka: What have you learned along the way that you wish you knew at the beginning?
Tim: There is no single path to publication, you have to be the driving force behind your success, and it will all play out quite differently than how you imagined.

Dashka: Yes! That's exactly what I've hoped to communicate with this series of blog posts. Do you have words of advice for somebody interested in following a similar path?
Tim: Anyone who is writing for children strives for strong characters, unique voice, interesting conflicts, and readability. Whether aiming for story apps or printed books, put your writing craft first. Have a great story be the foundation for whatever medium you want to work in. Bells and buttons come later.

Dashka: Last month I did some critique group matchmaking on my blog. Do you think it's important for writers to have critique partners?
Tim: Oh gosh, don't get me started on critique groups. To me, they are as essential as pen and paper. Seriously. I've had two groups and found both by meeting people at regional SCBWI conferences. My current group meets once a month. Writing is such a solitary art. Being in a critique group gives you a community to check in with, get support, and test material. If you can find folks that give quality feedback and not just "This is cute!" or "This isn't working for me." grab on to them and never let go. Being in a crit group can keep you motivated, but it also means you're ready and willing to hear the hard truth about your work and be open to cutting material and rewriting.

Dashka: What else do you have in the works? More apps? More books? More songs?
Tim: Yes, yes, and yes. I'd love an excuse to follow up Teeny Tiny Trucks with some other teeny tiny modes of transportation! We'll see... I switched gears this summer and started writing my first middle grade novel, which has been a fun new challenge.

Dashka: Thanks for coming by the blog, Tim! I hope you'll come back to tell us about it when it's done! In the meantime, Tim has graciously offered to send a signed copy of Teeny Tiny Trucks to one lucky commenter. He'll do the signing. I'll be responsible for picking a lucky winner. To enter the contest, make sure to leave a comment telling us why you need your own teeny tiny truck. I'll pick a winner on November 7. And for all you tiny truck fans, the book is available through Amazon or can be ordered through your local bookstore. The app will be out soon as well. 

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