Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Truth in Advertising - er - in CHILDREN'S BOOKS

Truth in Advertising Children’s Books

Truth is the thing children’s books need above everything else. You could also call it integrity. Here are the five points in integrity as I see them.
1.   A children’s book should deliver what it promises.
We have all seen film trailers that promise non-stop action, romance or humour. Sometimes when we see the films themselves we realise the action, romance or humour in the trailer was all there was. The film itself is a disappointment. Children’s books should not be like that. If the title, cover, blurb and premise promise an adventure, a romance, a fantasy, a ghost story or some serious scares, laughs or wish-fulfilment, then the book had better deliver. If it doesn’t, then why should the young readers trust authors or books?
How can a book fail to deliver? Just like the film, it can have a few good bits with a lot of dull stuff in between. Or maybe it’s a lesson wrapped up in the thin rags of a story. Or maybe the wonderful adventure turns out to be a dream…
Children’s books should deliver what they promise.
2.   A children’s book should be faithful to its genre.

Understanding the way genres work is the thing that brings readers to their favourite kinds of books. Adult readers who enjoy a sweet romance will not be happy if the hero cheats on the heroine in Chapter Six and the heroine never finds out.  That is not what ought to happen in a sweet romance. Fantasy readers do not want to discover the fantasy elements in the story were all a dream, or a trick.

Young child readers are learning about genres, and so should be able to rely on what they learn. This doesn’t mean a book can’t or shouldn’t transcend genre. It can be bigger, better and more. What it shouldn’t be is false and less.

3.   A children’s book should be truthful about consequences.

Fiction is often escapist and written and read for entertainment. This is fine. However, I believe children’s books should be truthful about the consequences of action.

Adults reading the aforementioned sweet romance know perfectly well these stories are not realistic and that they’re not meant to be. Adult readers of murder mysteries know most crimes are not so clever, or so complex. Adult readers of Utopian science fiction know we cannot “fix” the human condition by removing this or that barrier or attitude. Adult readers of adventure romance know perfectly well the hero who got shot in the shoulder this morning will not be carrying the heroine out of a burning building (or anywhere else) tonight. In other words, adults realise the consequences in books are not what they will be in real life. And if they don’t they ought to.

Children, though, don’t have that much experience. If a child reads a book where a bully is “cured” by Little Tina explaining how her sister felt when the bully stole her lunch and expects that to happen in real life, then that child is set up for ridicule or worse. If a child reads books in which every child who confesses to doing something wrong is praised for being truthful, then what happens when s/he confesses and is punished?

Life is a variable experience, and what should happen doesn’t always, or even often, so remember that when writing for children. By all means use clever plotting and character development, but show what really would happen in these circumstances to these characters.

4.   A children’s book should show a balance of characters with a wide variety of abilities, attitudes and beliefs. Avoid the obvious. Let there be some nerds who do not wear thick glasses. Let there be grandparents who are not old and retired. Let there be mothers who are sometimes busy, dads who ride bikes to work, teachers who occasionally don’t know something, and doctors who do not have an appointment as soon as you need one. Let the occasional standoffish new kid continue to be standoffish and the one who claims to be good at singing really win that competition.

This may appear to run counter to the advice about genre, but in fact it helps bust those stereotypes and lets a genre book transcend that genre.


5.   A children’s book should be the best book you can write.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Don't Do That!

Don't do that!
Don't do what?
Don't send your manuscript, book, request, entry anywhere before you have read the guidelines, rules or requests at the recipients' websites.

If picture book contest rules ask for texts of under 500 words without illustrations, then don't send a text that is 520, 780 or 1900 words. And don't send illustrations.

If a manuscript assessor asks for manuscripts in 12 pt TNR, double spacing and without extra blank lines between paragraphs, don't send your ms in 11 pt Calibri Body, 1.15 spacing with blank lines between paragraphs.

If a market asks for mss in MS Word .doc or .docx, don't send a PDF.

If a contest is for a fantasy story, don't send sf.

If a review site is listed on a third-party website, check the site before you send your review request. Some review sites accept only one specific genre. Some don't accept unsolicited review copies at all. 

If a market asks for mss in plain text, without fancy formatting, don't send it with text boxes, drop caps and large fonts.

OK. Rant over.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

New Writing For Children Course

Affordable Manuscript Assessments and Workshops announces a new virtual course on writing for children. The cost is $50.00.. which is paid upfront and access is via a private invitation-only blog. Some lesson material will be available at the blog, which is where students may interact with others taking the course via the comment form. Access will last for six weeks from the beginning of each course. Other materials will be e-mailed directly. 

To take part, you will need internet access, a google account/password (which is free) a printer, and scissors or a paper cutter. The fee may be tax deductible to people in the writing and related businesses. The first run of the course begins on the last Monday in May 2012.

To join up, or to ask questions,  send me an email at mail AT affordablemanuscriptassessments DOT com. This course is meant for adults writing for children.  At the end of the course you should have several viable ideas plus one manuscript either finished in rough draft or well on the way.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Contest Winners

The Sixth Paperback in Your Hand contest has been won by Ian Harrison for his black comedy/satire, DON'T YOU KNOW WHO I AM?

The First Writing FOR Kids contest has been won by Catherine Pelosi for A Fizzle Plop Day.
Runner up was Helen Nolan, for Crumbs!

The new contests are now under way. Visit and click on CONTESTS AND OPPORTUNITIES for details.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Why they Won: Legacy of the Skywasp

The sixth Paperback in Your Hand contest, run by Affordable Manuscript Assessments  has just closed and judging is underway. Now is a good time to look back over previous winners and explain, from the judge's point of view, why they won.

First, what does the judge (or judges... we're flexible) look for in this contest? Since the prize is a full edit and a paperback copy of the winner, we look for a manuscript with wide appeal. We look for an engaging story that has originality and charm. We especially look for that difficult-to-classify attribute; "sparkle". We also, obviously, prefer a manuscript that is well-presented and self-edited.

The winner of the second contest (pictured) was Legacy of the Skywasp, a glorious science fiction novel by Margaret Watts. You can read the blurb below.

Skywasp! Despite the heat, a shiver shoots
down my spine.

Nick lives in a futuristic Terra where everything is
regulated. He and his girlfriend Zandara know exactly
how their lives will progress. But then Nick meets
someone he thought dead and is sent much against
his inclination to the distant and dangerous world of
There, he will relive Jethroy Blake’s experiences with
the wasp cult and become embroiled in a power
struggle as he seeks to solve the mystery of his
father’s relationship with Doriana, the Maiden of the

The characters (a generation apart), the settings (an ultra-civilised dome and a dangerous planet) and the premise (a reluctant son carries out the last wishes of a father he barely knew and had cause to resent) were all immediately captivating. The manuscript needed a bit of tightening and some extra explanation and clarification of the more complex passages, but the finished product was judged easily as good as many well-loved science fiction novels. This is a very human story, with flawed characters and no easy answers. The author was pleased with her prize and ordered some extra copies for gifts and for sale. Perhaps if you live somewhere in the Hunter Valley region of NSW you might have seen this book.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Problem with Picture Books... Part 2

I think the problems with picture books generally stem from three misconceptions.
1. Picture books are short, and therefore, must be simple.
2. Picture books are for very young readers or listeners, and therefore, must be simple and may be slight.
3. Picture books are timeless.

These misconceptions are particularly dangerous because they are partly true. Here are the more accurate versions of the statements above.

Picture books are short. In fact, one problem we see a lot at Affordable Manuscript Assessments is texts that are too long and wordy. They may certainly be simple, but they don't need to be.  As mentioned in part 1 of this post, picture books should be layered stories.

Picture books are often for very young readers or listeners, and therefore, may be simple and occasionally slight. Most slight texts are rejected these days, simply because of the requirement for layered stories. Picture books can also be meant for (or at least accessible by) readers of ten or so. The fashion for "older" picture books comes and goes and the market for these is probably smaller than that for younger readers.

Some picture books are timeless. There are stories around now (in print) that were published when I was a little girl in the early 1960s. Some are older still. These are generally stand-out texts that have dated, if at all, charmingly. Most don't have have human protagonists. For every The Story About Ping and The Cow that Fell in the Canal there are hundreds of stories that are permanently out of print because they are felt to be dated, trite, sexist, ageist, or just plain out of step with modern literature.

Thanks for visiting our blog.  Everyone who comments on this post will be issued with a password which allows 20% off the purchase of any of the PDF workshops below.  To purchase, send an email to


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Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Problem with Picture Books... Part 1

Picture Books are favourites among many readers and writers, but what IS a picture book?

A picture book is a story intended for young readers and pre-readers. It is short (generally around 700 words placed over 32 pages) and the illustrations and text combine to create a satisfying whole. Picture books are layered stories. They have to be, since, unlike a lot of other literature, they are designed to be read or heard several times over. They come to a satisfying ending which may have a twist, but the story cannot depend entirely on the twist since it has to stand up to repeated readings.

Picture books differ from one another just as books at other levels differ, but the brevity of the texts generally keeps them to single thread narratives and to strong, single themes.

Let's look at a few different types of picture book text.

Retellings are traditional stories, sometimes from different cultures, told by modern writers. Sometimes they follow the original texts, but they might reinterpret them or change the slant or point of view. The change might be radical enough to make the story change completely, or it might be so far from the original that only the theme remains. Retellings have several avenues of appeal. Some people like them because of the familiarity factor. Others like the radical retellings which generally give a nod and a wink to modern taste. Some retellings take well-known rhymes or traditional songs and change the words a bit.

Empowerment stories take small, shy, timid main characters and place them in a position where they display courage or intelligence to solve the central problem.

Domestic Problem and New Situation stories set up a common situation such as moving house, the arrival of a new sibling, or the loss of an older relative or a pet and carry the story to a believable but satisfactory conclusion.

Imaginative Play stories bring the protagonist's imagination into the story to create excitement, action and (occasionally) fear and peril.

Act and Consequences stories present a protagonist whose actions bring consequences which must be worked through.

Friendship stories set up friendships and explore the challenges.

The list above defines just a handful of the picture book types, but each has its own balance and unwritten rules. The problems with picture books begin when writers fail to understand these and present the situations without the depth of theme and follow-through.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Antagonists vs Enemies

Today's post is an excerpt from the Characters and Characterisation workshop, available from

Antagonists vs Enemies.

Creating an antagonist or enemy for your protagonist is a challenge. Both are strong relationships, and can be set up in much the same way as friendships and romances.

Antagonists can both be sympathetic characters. They won’t necessarily dislike one another, but they have opposing viewpoints or goals. If one wins, the other loses, and even if compatible as characters they (and you) shouldn’t lose sight of this.

Set up your antagonists as carefully as you would a pair of friends. Give them enough compatible characteristics to make them believable equals (or near equals). Make their opposing goals strong ones. It must matter who wins. Make your readers want both to win by making the characters equally interesting or admirable. If it seems likely the antagonist character would win, consider letting it happen.

Decide if the relationship between the two exists only in the context of the goal or if it could carry on afterwards. If so, will it warm to become friendship or sour into enmity? Will pity, triumph, regret and pride play a part?

An enemy is similar to an antagonist in that his/her goals conflict with those of the protagonist, but different in that there is an element of personal dislike or hatred. An enemy needs to have motivation as strong as the protagonist's, but need not be sympathetically portrayed. Enemies can be motivated by revenge, lust for power, bitter rivalry, envy, sadism, greed, desire, obsession or just plain evil. You should always know how enemies view themselves. Do they feel justified in their persecution of the protagonist, or do they know they're out of line? Why does the enemy hate the protagonist? Personality clash? Inherited feud? Envy?

Avoid making the enemy stereotypically ugly without good reason. Even if s/he is wholly evil try to give a glimpse of some human emotion or failing. Try to make this enemy an opponent of worthy stature.

Excerpt from Pp 53/54 Characters and Characterisation

Lesson 3 – More Human Characters.

What subjects would you like to see covered in the Affordable Manuscript Assessments blog? Let us know in the comments section below and we'll do our best to cover them.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Problem with Chapter Books...

Chapter books are difficult to write with that elusive sparkle/shine/punch/impact or whatever you choose to call that quality. It’s not easy to define, but most readers and writers know it instinctively. It’s that thing that makes a book either grip you from Page 1 and hang onto you thereafter or else the thing that keeps the book with you… possibly for life.

Think about your favourite books of all time (and tell us about them in the comments area below)- those are probably the ones with sparkle.

Sparkle is the thing that makes that one book stand out from the fifty or so you read in a year. It can show up in books that are not necessarily brilliant in other ways, but it is always persuasive. Sparkle in a book might be equated with charm in humans.

It seems from my experience that this sparkle is more likely to crop up in picture books or in YA or primary school novels than in chapter books. I think that’s because picture books are lean, and powerful; they rely on a kill’em premise, a classic shape, clear theme and a pared down but musical style.

YA books also benefit from the strong premise and clear (sometimes multiple) theme(s), and also from a more varied style option and, importantly, from characterisation that has depth and density. Of course some YA literature is light and fluffy, but it usually gets by with a very strong narrative voice that becomes the sparkle. I'm thinking here of the Georgia Nicolson books, a British YA series by Louise Rennison. Georgia tells the stories in the first person and her mode of narration is startling. The nearest I can get to it is some of the dialogue in the 1980s Black Adder television series. Whether you take to Georgia and her experiences or not, those books have sparkle by the truckload.

Books for “older children” (Primary School novels) benefit from the same things as YA and can even find a strength in the very area they lack; boy/girl romance. Because the primary school book characters are not concerned primarily (or even at all in many cases) with the opposite sex, (beyond avoiding girl germs and boy germs, perhaps) the other strong themes of friendship, family, independence, responsibility etc can be explored fully. This is also the perfect age for adventures taking place at a remove from the family circle.

If you look at chapter books in this light, you can see why they are so difficult to imbue with sparkle. They are never as clear and sharp as a picture book because they're not so pared-down. They cannot handle the depth of characterisation or theme that a YA can carry. Many of the strong themes and complex ideas the Primary School books manage are “out” for chapter books because they’re not long enough to hold them and a plot. One of the major problems is in the vocabulary limitations. Even picture books have a strong vocabulary base, because they are designed to be read by adults to children.

Does this mean chapter books are doomed to be bland, homogenous and forgettable? I don't believe so, but I think they do need extra care and feeding to make the grade.

For a chapter book to sparkle, authors have to go out a long way on a storytelling limb and trawl for that “something extra”, and it will generally be just one thing, because there’s no room for anything else.

Some sparkling chapter books are actually fables, using folk-tale-style themes or characters. This gives them a layered feel that allows children to read them at face value while adults appreciate the underlying story-heritage.

Some are really short stories (in the literary sense) in that they develop a single incident or theme. The chapter demarcations are more or less arbitrary.

Some rely on crackling humour and mad puns. A lot of these appeal more the kids than to adults, but anything that has eight-year-olds tying themselves in knots of laughter and quoting choice excerpts will probably commend itself to the book buying adults. A related kind relies on scatological humour, with bum and fart repeated ad nauseum.

Others rely on one or more out-of-the-box character or, like picture books, on a strong and specific premise. A few rely on beautiful and poetic language. (Pick up Annie Dalton’s The Witch Rose for an example.)

Then there are the one-joke premise series, which present one oddity, treat it absolutely straight, and build the whole story on that. (Think Duncan Ball’s Selby books, or Michael Bond’s old Paddington series.)

As with picture books, a high concept/log line for a manuscript helps show you how strong the story is. If the 25-word-or-fewer high concept is pedestrian, then the book probably is as well.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Review or Assessment?

Recently I've been offered a lot of books to review. I thought this a little odd, as my little review blog is very low profile. Finally it dawned upon me that some people might be coming in through Affordable Manuscript Assessments. Could visitors to this service be mistaking it for a review site?

So, what IS the difference between an assessment and a review? It's true that some publishers say "we'll be back in touch when we've had a chance to review your manuscript", but what they mean is "we will read this and consider it for possible publication".

Generally, a review is understood to mean a reader's reaction to a published book (or film, or album). A reader, who may or may not be an industry professional, reads the book and then writes a response which might include a blurb or synopsis, a few comments on how or whether the book fits its genre and the reviewer's expectations, and a run down of the strengths and weaknesses perceived in the story. Reviews can be 95% blurb and 5% comment. They can even be nothing but the book's blurb or publisher's publicity material reproduced. Some are puff pieces, and others, unfortunately, qualify as hatchet jobs. The best reviews, in my opinion, come from someone knowledgeable enough to review the book in context and also fair enough to mix disinterested or objective comment with personal response. It is generally agreed that reviews should not reveal too much of the plot and certainly not the denouement, and that they should be written grammatically. Most reviewers are not paid for their work. The complimentary copy of the book is considered enough. And of course, some readers buy a book in the usual way and choose to review it in the spirit of sharing opinion with others.

An assessment, on the other hand, is an over view of a manuscript in relation to both its impact as a book of the appropriate genre and to its potential as a publishable work. After some broad comment on what is working well in the ms, the assessor will concentrate on the weaknesses and possible problems along with specific advice on how to fix these. Manuscript assessors are paid for the job by the author, unless they are employees of a publishing company, in which case the assessment will be part of their job description.

So - assessment or review? They are different, and if you approach you are (or should be) after an assessment rather than a review.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Welcome to the official blog of Affordable Manuscript Assessments and Workshops.

Some of you will be already familiar with our website and services, but for those who are not, here's a short introduction.

The roots of AffMssAss lie way back in the 1980s, when Sally Odgers, a multi-published author, began reading manuscripts for a small literary agency. Her brief was to recommend the manuscripts to the agent, or else to suggest a pass. Having been on the receiving end of a lot of thanks-but-no-thanks or your-ms-doesn't-quite-fit-our-list notes in the past, she asked if she could give some general feedback to the authors whose mss went into the "suggest a pass" bag. After a while the agency head moved on, but by then the author was fielding phone calls from local and not-so-local writers whose mss had been passed on by publishers or agents and who wanted to know why.

Slowly, a service called Send-it-to-Sally was born. This proved popular, and evolved into Affordable Assessments, so called because the service was, well, affordable. When it was deemed time to make a specific website for the service, it was discovered that googling "Affordable Assessments" turned up a lot of real estate sites. Therefore, the rather long but more clearly descriptive name of Affordable Manuscript Assessments was chosen. has now been running for several years. It still offers the original service of a manuscript assessment with attention to the strengths and weaknesses of a manuscript, coupled with specific advice for improvement. It has also branched into on-line workshops, offered as PDF ebooks or hard copy Lulu-print editions. These workshops cover just about every aspect of writing fiction. They also cover the unwritten rules and the most common errors writers make. The idea was that if a would-be author took a selection of workshops, and then used the knowledge thus gained to write a new manuscript, s/he would have a much better chance of avoiding major rewriting. Indeed some writers do use the workshops as intended, but the majority of clients still approach AffMssAss with manuscripts they have already completed.

AffMssAss clients include first-time writers, published writers, established writers, groups, and the occasional small press editor or agent. Our youngest client to date was twelve, and the eldest well into her eighties. We advertise via Facebook and Twitter and in various websites, but most clients come to us via word of mouth or web-search.

So, how affordable is "affordable"? Our rates are clearly marked on the website. The cheapest assessment costs $25.00. This pays for a complete assessment of a picture book text, or a full or partial manuscript of up to 5000 words. We will also edit around ten pages for the same cost. Longer assessments or edits cost $25.00 for the first hour or 5000 words and $15.00 for each hour or 10,000 words (or part thereof) thereafter.

Comments are welcome.