Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

Week of July 8, 2012—An Interview with Frances Gilbert
Wednesday, July 11—Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

This is the third installment in a four-part interview with Frances Gilbert, Editorial Director at Doubleday Children’s Books, Random House.

Rob: People always ask editors, “What are you looking for?” What’s your answer, Frances?

Frances: My answer is infuriatingly inadequate: I’m looking for something I love. I really don’t know until that magical moment when I start into a manuscript and think, “Uh-oh, this is really good.” I worked my way through college planting trees in the summer for a pulp and paper company. When I’m deciding whether to acquire a book I ask myself if it’s worth cutting down one of those trees in order to print it. I will add, however, that I have a particular love for funny stories. If you can make me laugh from my belly like a 5-year-old, that’ll always gets my attention.

Rob: Picture book writers are consumed with word count and everyone is revising to get their manuscripts down to 500 words or less. What is your opinion of word count and what guidance can you give us? 

Frances: I like an economy of words. It’s hard to do but ultimately makes for a better reading experience. It trusts the illustrator to fill in the blanks, which results in a richer book over all. Using fewer words makes funny books funnier, sad books sadder, lyrical books more lyrical. Picture book submissions are frequently full of gabby dialogue that does nothing to move along the story. I reject “chatty” picture books outright. Always go back to George Orwell’s third rule for writers: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” More children’s picture books should be influenced by Orwell!

Rob: Writers work so hard to craft a cover letter, deliver the perfect pitch, format a manuscript, and so on. We are concerned that the smallest thing might get our manuscript “disqualified.” What (if anything) turns you off about a submission or makes you stop reading?

Frances: I don’t read cover letters. I go straight to the story and decide based on the writing itself. An editor who would “disqualify” someone for an incorrectly formatted pitch is uptight, but that person is no doubt out there. Seeing as we are hard-wired to enjoy grammar and rules, I’d just say to keep it brief and use your spell-check.

Rob: What in a submission would really light your fire and get you excited?

Frances: A strong, sharp opening line. Something that makes me want to get to page two.

Rob: What makes a picture book fit into your Doubleday Children’s Book list?

Frances: Tell me a story I’ve never heard before. Make me want to read every single word – which is to say that every word in the story is there because it needs to be. 

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