Advice from a Children’s Editor: MacKenzie Howard @Thomas Nelson

Today we get to hear from the editorial side of children’s publishing. A huge thank you to Thomas Nelson who so willingly offered interviews and advice for aspiring children’s writers!!

Tell us a little about yourself!

My name is MacKenzie Howard, and I’ve been with Thomas Nelson for just over three years. I’ve got a wonderful husband who is a high school teacher and basketball coach and two crazy little dogs.

I love acquiring and dreaming up book ideas for children as well as working with authors and delving into manuscripts. The best thing about the children’s division is the variety of projects we get to handle—fiction, non-fiction, Bible storybooks, picture books, board books, and others.

Even though I’m sure no day is “typical”, can you tell us about what your “day at work” is like as a children’s book editor?

You are definitely right that no day is typical! 🙂 It really depends where my projects are and what my priorities are for a given day or week. When I’m close to printer dates, it can be hectic getting proofs finalized and off to the printer—especially if projects overlap. Those days involve a lot of shuffling proofs off to freelancers, checking, working with design, and rechecking. Other times I’m working on the front end of manuscripts and early edits, managing freelancers, working up proposals for new products, researching the market to find new products, or handling our submissions. Some days I’m doing just one thing, but others I may be doing all of it.

On the website, you list Kids Fiction and Tween Fiction. For you, what is the distinction between those two?

Kids’ fiction could be anything from a board book story to an early reader chapter book. Tween fiction is for the nine to twelve age group. For example, in the secular market, Junie B. Jones would be for kids, but something like Harry Potter is geared for nine to twelve year olds.

What makes a picture book manuscript stand out to you? What do you look for?

Picture books are an extremely tough market these days. They don’t just don’t sell like they used to, and because they’re sold at a higher price, we have to be extremely selective. We see a lot of very sweet stories, but the market is so competitive, that just doesn’t cut it anymore. Things that would make a picture book stand out in addition to a great story line would be an author platform or a subject matter platform. And unless you’re a professional illustrator, never include artwork.

What about kids/tween novels? What do you look for in those stories?

Right now, I’m specifically interested in action/adventure novels for the nine to twelve market. In any genre, I look for a strong, engaging plot and well-developed characters. Characters are particularly big for me as an editor but also as a consumer. I can stick with a great character even if I’m not in a fast-paced part of the story. Another thing that is important for us is Christian content. That can work on several levels. The plot doesn’t necessarily have to revolve around an explicitly Christian theme, such as a young boy’s search for Christ, but we need the stories to be from a Christian worldview and have some sort of edifying, redemptive message. It may be about a boy’s search for treasure, but through that he learns about God, prays for safety, etc.

We also do allegory, although at the moment, I’m not really seeking out fantasy. It looks to be trending down right now. One thing that is hugely popular is dark fiction. This can be tricky for kids, but if I see something that works with our values, I’m open to exploring it.

Tell us a little about YA Non-fiction. What do you look for in those submissions? Any particular needs in this area?

Right now we’ve got a strong line of YA non-fiction from our Revolve team that covers a good breadth of topics. But I’m always open to a great idea. Girls read much more than guys, so that’s good to keep in mind. But, if you’ve got a great message that will reach teen guys and get them reading, I’d love to find it. Two important questions I’d ask are: 1. Is your topic relevant to teens today? 2. Do you have a platform to reach them?

What’s on your wish list as far as books go?

Like I said, I’d love to find a great action/adventure series that would appeal to both boys and girls. Thirty-nine Clues is a very fun series in the secular market right now. I love that it’s a grand, fast-paced adventure tied to a very intricate mystery, but I also love that it’s fun and educational.

My goal is always to first reach children for Christ. I believe there’s a statistic that 80% of conversions happen before the age of twelve, so that’s a huge mission for us. Secondly, I want to educate them and make them more well-rounded individuals so they have an awareness of culture, history, science, and society. And finally, I want to inspire them and entertain them.

Is there anything you see way too much of?

We see a lot of picture book or storybook submissions, which like I said, is a tough market. Today, it takes more than a good story to reach consumers.

Are there any common problems/mistakes that you see in the manuscripts you read?

We don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, but in anything, it’s important to make sure it is clean! Typos happen to everyone, even editors, but the cleaner your manuscript looks, the better.

What percentage of your children’s books are written by authors that you’ve already been working with? Are there areas you’d be open to submissions from “new to Thomas Nelson” writers?

Probably ninety percent or more of our titles come from authors who have worked for us before or who have worked in other Nelson divisions, but we’re always open to new talent.

Many agents will not consider children’s writers, so are there agents that Tommy Nelson does work with that you might recommend writers to look into? Any other ways to be considered?

Mike (Hyatt) has also done a post on agents, and several of these do work with children’s authors:

Describe your dream author:-)

My dream author works hard, is responsive, meets deadlines, and is open to feedback. It’s really like any relationship; you want it to be healthy with lots of communication and mutual willingness to work together for the best possible outcome. You have to be, as one of my college professors used say, willing to sometimes “kill your darlings.” You may think you’ve written the best scene, but if your publisher or your editor is telling you  it isn’t working, you’ve got to be open to change.

I’m really blessed to work with a lot of great authors. I’ve built some great relationships, and we have a lot of fun working on books.

Any other advice you’d like to share with authors who write for children?

Study the masters! Study all-time best-sellers like Margaret Wise Brown and Dr. Seuss and study what is currently popular. Know what works and why. Read bestseller lists like the New York Times and the ECPA lists. Read books on writing and attend conferences if you are able. Read blogs like Michael Hyatt’s and other industry leaders. Spend time with children and research the market. Commit to finding an agent or research which houses accept unsolicited manuscripts. Here are a few more resources that may be helpful:

If you are interested in having your stories published by another Christian publisher, we recommend a book called The Christian Writers’ Market Guide 2009 by Sally Stuart. This book includes writer’s guidelines and submission procedures for all Christian publishing houses that do accept unsolicited manuscripts. You can find it on Amazon here:

You can also visit Sally’s Website here:

If you need help writing a book proposal, we recommend Mike Hyatt’s article, “Writing a Winning Book Proposal.” You can download it here:

And whether you’re pitching to a house or an agent, have a healthy confidence in yourself and in your work. Never tell them you have the next Twilight or Harry Potter but know you’ve done your homework and have produced a quality writing worthy of review.

Thank you MacKenzie!

Keep the questions coming! We’ll do some more focus on Children’s/YA later on:-) Don’t forget – you can also join the “Writing for Kids & Teens” Group at My Book Therapy where we can delve deeper into this special area of publishing. See you there! ~Sarah

More YA Editorial Insight

Today we hear from Natalie Hanemann, a senior editor who works with some of Thomas Nelson’s YA projects.

Tell us a little about yourself!

I’m married and have two small children—five and one. I’m a Food Network junkie and torture my family by watching Iron Chef re-runs. The kids just want to watch Playhouse Disney. I’ve worked in publishing for almost 10 years, five years here at Thomas Nelson. I love fiction. I love God. I pinch myself sometimes on days where I’ve been able to dive deeply into both. And the art and science to storytelling is endlessly interesting to me. Specifically, I’m passionate about Romances and Historicals.

Even though I’m sure no day is “typical”, can you tell us about what your “day at work” is like as a fiction editor?

I spend two days every week working from home. On those days, I editing manuscripts. I read from a bound printout and make notes in the margin. And once or twice a month I’ll take proposals home and go through a handful at a time.  The other three days, I’m in the office checking email, writing copy, reviewing covers, attending meetings, and talking with authors on the phone.

Are you actively acquiring YA? What’s on your wish list as far as YA Novels go?

Yes. I’d love to acquire a YA project (or two!) for young girls that accurately reflects what today’s teen life feels like, especially for a Christian. Next weekend I’m going to Atlanta to for the Revolve conference in the hopes that I’ll be able to see first-hand what struggles our young Christian girls are facing today.

What do you see way too much of?


Are there any common problems/mistakes that you see in YA manuscripts?

Two things to keep in mind when writing YA: authenticity and remembering your end reader.

As far as Christian content goes, what do you look for?

I love reading stories where the protagonist goes through a spiritual journey. The journey has starts and stops and takes you to unexpected places. By the end, she’s no longer in the same place spiritually that she was at the beginning. She’s evolved and matured. When the protagonist stops to listen to what God is saying to her – that’s so inspiring and can reach the reader in a personal way.

Your website states that Tommy Nelson is not open to unsolicited submissions. Do you participate in any conferences where writers can meet you face to face?

Thomas Nelson annually attends ACFW. And if the writer has an agent—and every writer should!–that agent can submit your proposal as soon as it’s ready.

Many agents will not consider writers who write only YA, so are there agents (who enthusiastically represent YA) that Tommy Nelson does work with that you might recommend writers to look into? Other ways to be considered?

There are agents who represent YA authors. I can’t disclose names, but they are out there. My suggestion to the writers is to know your brand. That is, be able to say, no matter how many novels I write, they’ll always have these same elements – or more accurately be able to say to the reader, no matter how many novels you buy, you’ll consistently have this same emotional experience. Once you know your brand, compile a list of three comparable authors in the marketplace WHO ARE SUCCESSFUL (don’t say Stephanie Meyer or J.K. Rowling). Be able to name what makes you distinct from them. Come to your agent meeting prepared with this information. The YA genre is growing and has never been so popular. Agents know this and if they’re smart, will take the time to give you a fair shot.

Describe your dream author.

It’s a balance between having confidence but not arrogance.  Between knowing you have talent but always being willing to listen to other people’s suggestions. I love authors who see the relationship with the publishing company as a partnership. We have so much to offer each other and hand in hand, the sky is the limit. As in all relationships, so much comes back to love, respect, and hard work.

Any other bits of advice you’d like to share with YA writers?

As Bobby Flay says, “Just keep doing what you’re doing.” And remember, you’re offering hope to a group that desperately needs it.

Thanks Natalie! We so appreciate you taking the time to share your insight and expertise with us! Great stuff!

YA Advice – From the editors!

First up, we have an interview with the incomparable Jessica Barnes, of Waterbrook/Multnomah. I’ve actually met Jessica and she’s fun to talk to about YA – she’s a true fan of the genre which makes her ideas something to really listen to.

Tell us a little about yourself!

Well, I’m an associate editor with the WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group, and I work mostly with our fiction line. If I wasn’t doing this, I’d probably be a veterinarian. (My college career took a very sharp turn about halfway through.) My only claim to fame is that Edward James Olmos once hugged me.

Are you actively acquiring YA? What’s on your wish list as far as YA Novels go?

I, personally, am very interested in YA (if you look at an average list of the books I read per year, probably 65% of them are meant for twelve-year-olds). We’ve got a good bit of fantasy at the moment, so I’d really like to see a quirky, humorous contemporary novel. Something like Carl Hiaasen or The Diary of Adrian Mole, Age 13 3/4.

Are there any common problems/mistakes that you see in YA manuscripts?

The writing is aimed too young. Kids are smart, and if you’re talking down to them in your book, they can tell. Even if you’re writing a middle-grade novel, for 8-12-year-olds, the writing isn’t that much behind a teen novel or your average adult novel. Yes, some titles in this age range are on the simpler side when it comes to writing (those aimed toward the 8 end of 8-12), but plenty of them can be picked up and enjoyed by an adult (say, an associate editor at your friendly neighborhood publishing house) with the only major clue that it’s a “children’s book” being the protagonist’s age.

Basically, don’t try to “dumb down” the writing. Just tell the story.

As far as Christian content goes, what do you look for?

Personally, I like my Christian content on the subtle, organic side, which means the faith element

stems naturally from the characters and who they are. In other words, don’t force a character to stop in the middle of the climax to pray because you think you need more Christian content in your Christian novel. It will inevitably feel like you were trying hit your Christian quota. Let it the story flow and the faith come where and how it may. It’ll be there.

Do you participate in any conferences where writers can meet you face to face?

We do. We usually have a representative at the Writing for the Soul conference, the Colorado Christian Writers Conference, Mount Hermon, and ACFW. Occasionally, someone attends the Philadelphia or Oregon Christian Writers conferences, as well.

Any other bits of advice you’d like to share with YA writers?

It has to be about the story. If you’re writing your book because you want to teach kids something, then your agenda is going to overshadow the characters and storyline, and that undefinable spark that accompanies a good story will be missing. And without that spark, the story won’t stick with your reader. Just tell us a story. The rest—themes and meaning—will come.

Thanks Jessica!!

Meet Nancy Rue!

Today I’d like to introduce a dear friend Nancy Rue. Nancy is the author of more than 100 books that span from tween to YA to adult. Finding out how successful authors tackle books for children can help you grow as well!

6a00e553baf6ba883400e554013b578833-150wi1Q. You have several series that are geared for girls in the 8-12 age range. What draws you to that age group?

What draws me to the 8 to 12 age group is the fact that they are no longer those sweet little baby girlfriends, but they haven’t lost their minds yet and become teenagers. This is the time to lay a foundation for them – a basis for making their own decisions and standing up for themselves and others and Jesus as they get older. They still love to play and be ridiculous (two of my favorite things to do), but they can also understand the importance of their choices in things like relationships. If we wait until they’re teens to do all this stuff, it’s almost too late.

Q. Where did you get your start in writing for kids?

I got started writing for kids probably because I was a high school teacher for 16 years. When I was called to write, they seemed like the natural audience, though as I got more into it, I discovered the above and took on writing for tweens as well

Q. What do you see as some of the key elements that distinguish middle-grade fiction?

The key elements in middle-grade fiction are REAL characters readers can totally relate to emotionally, REAL plots that involve the kinds of problems they themselves are facing, and the opportunity for them to learn some life basics from the story without being preached at. Plus, it has to be fun and written with a certain rich literary quality – no talking down to them

Q. What are the best kinds of protagonists for 8-12 readers?

The best kinds of protagonists – kids at the upper end of the age range who are not too perfect, who are trying to be better and having a hard time with it! They need to be REAL – not how we wish kids were but how they really are.

Q. What are the struggles of this age group that you try to tap into as you create plots?

The struggles of this age group – for girls at least – always involve girl politics; relationships are HUGE for them right now, and the BFF is, like, the prophet Isaiah or something! They’re also concerned about fitting in without having to be something they’re not – and the changes in their bodies also cause them some concern. With those general things in mind, I’ve written about jealousy, competition, boys (also known as absurd little creeps), family issues, conflicts with teachers, peer pressure – all that stuff.

Q. How do you approach dialogue for your tween books?

When it comes to dialogue, I listen a lot to the way kids talk and I’m constantly making notes. Then I get to know my own characters individually by having them write in a journal in their own voice (I know – it sounds crazy). Once I have that voice in my head, it isn’t that hard to write dialogue. Again, I don’t try to make it sound the way we wished kids talked; I go for how they really do talk, only leaving out a lot of the “likes” and “ums” and random thoughts.

Q. What do you hope your readers take-away from your books?

I hope my readers finish reading my books and see some way that they can be closer to God, and thus closer to who they really are, and as a result closer to the people they love. That’s the theme of every one of my books in some way.

Q. What do you see as the biggest difference between writing for teens and writing for the 8-12 set?

The biggest difference between writing for tweens and writing for teens is probably depth. The problems of teens are tougher, potentially more life-changing, and lonelier. They require more research before I try to put them on the page. My soon to be released RL books, for example, deal with such issues as ADHD in adolescent girls, relationship abuse, steroid use among athletes, and racial conflict. I obviously don’t go there with tweens, though I have written about parental abuse (a friend whose dad hits her), a friend suffering from leukemia, a mom dying, a dad who’s blind. But I treat all of those things the way I would treat a tween girl who came to me personally with that problem.

Q. Any common mistakes you see new writers making when trying to write for this age group?

I think a lot of new writers trying to write for the tween age group tend to either write down to the audience, thinking they have to spell everything out and then hit them over the head with it, or writing in a style that’s too adult. If a novice knows the audience, he or she can hit a homerun, but without a deep understanding of who they are and what they care about, it’s practically impossible to write for them.

Q. Would you like to share with us about your latest work?

My latest work. For tweens that is the Lucy series of novels, in which 11 (and later 12) year old Lucy Rooney wrestles with some tough stuff. She lives with her blind father, her mother having been killed in the same explosion that took his sight. They reside in a tiny town in rural New Mexico, where there is no soccer program – and Lucy LOVES soccer (because her mom played). She doesn’t do well in school – her best friend is a boy because she doesn’t relate well to girly-girls, and her aunt visits periodically and tries to turn Lucy into one. She’s one of my favorite characters ever. I have a year-long devotional book coming out this summer for the girls, too. For teens, the first in my four-book series called RL (Real Life) will be out in the spring. It’s exciting!

Q. What are your hopes for your future writing? Anything on your “dream list”?

I always have a dream list! I would love to add to the Lucy series, and have devotional books to go with them. We need to sell a lot more of the current titles before that can happen, though. I want the RL books to be a success, because I would also love to do a devotional program to go along with them which I can’t exactly describe because I don’t want to give away the secret inherent in the series. I also want to do a book on boys for young teens. I just finished the Moms Ultimate Guide to the Tween Girl World, which will have an accompanying book for dads, and I dream of that being a big enough success to warrant some teaching packages.

Q. Any other advice you’d like to share with aspiring writers who want to write for kids and/or teens?

I would tell aspiring kids’ writers that they’d better absolutely love their audience and know exactly what kind of difference they want to make in their lives, because they aren’t going to make a ton of money or land on the New York Times Bestseller List writing for this audience. They have to do it for the joy of it, and because they’re called and feel committed. It’s hard work, but in my view, it’s the best job out there.

Thanks for being with us Nancy! You can find out more about Nancy and her books at her website.

On Thursday: A Marketing Perspective on Children’s Books from Tommy Nelson