Week of July 8, 2012—An Interview with Frances Gilbert
Monday, July 9—Characteristics of Successful Picture Books
This is the first installment in a four-part interview with Frances Gilbert, Editorial Director at Doubleday Children’s Books, Random House.
Rob: Frances, I am so happy that you are joining us on Picture This! Let me begin with a big-picture picture book question: What ingredients combine to make a well-written picture book?
Frances: So much of it is about pacing – knowing the rhythms of a well-told story and the dramatic and/or humorous opportunities of a nicely-placed page-turn.
Rob: Let’s talk plot. Three-act structure, Freytag’s pyramid, the clock plot—what do you look for in the plot of a picture book?
Frances: All I’ll say is search on Youtube for a video of Kurt Vonnegut lecturing on plot, and enjoy.
Rob: Event-driven or character-driven, which do you prefer and why?
Frances: Can I be greedy and ask for both? I frequently find myself writing rejection letters that say, “What you’ve sent me is less of a story and more of a list.” I like the idea of the lost princess who arrives at the castle in the rain and sleeps on a pile of mattresses with a pea underneath. But I also want to know what makes the princess tick.
Rob: Writers are often told that their writing is too quiet. What does “too quiet” mean to you?
Frances: “Too quiet” is a nice way of saying “No one is going to buy your book because it’s not very interesting.” There are quiet books that are very successful, such as, well, The Quiet Book and the quietly genius Voyage to the Bunny Planet trilogy. Good quiet books have their own inner strengths that speak loudly to readers.
Rob: If you could give picture book writers three key words of advice, what would you say?
Frances: 1.) Know and respect the genre. Read and study picture books and understand how they work and what makes them successful.
2.) Write and write and edit and edit and spend years if you must on your 32-page manuscript before you send it out to an editor. I’m a huge fan of mystery novels, and if I ever got an urge to write one I’d first make sure I’d read hundreds of novels and I’d slave over my manuscript and ask lots of writer friends wiser than me to critique it and when I finally got ready to submit it, I’d ask myself if my writing is as good as P. D. James or Henning Mankell, and if the answer to that is “No” I’d keep working until the answer is “Yes”. And if the answer is never “Yes” I’d go back to enjoying reading mysteries. It’s more important to be talented at writing a picture book than to be interested in writing a picture book.
3.) Leave room in your story for the illustrations. You don’t have to say everything. Let the story breathe.