Interview: Guest Lecturer Joshua Bilmes

bilmesLiterary agent Joshua Bilmes will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop. He is the founder and president of JABberwocky Literary Agency, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary this fall. Prior to founding his own agency, he spent a chunk of his high school years writing monthly critiques of Analog magazine to its editor, Stan Schmidt. He spent summers in college doing freelance work at Baen Books; his letters to Analog caught the eye of Betsy Mitchell, who was lured from the #2 spot at Analog to be Jim Baen’s deputy. And ten weeks after graduating college, he was hired at the Scott Meredith Agency, which launched the careers of at least a half dozen leading agents in science fiction and fantasy.

Top JABberwocky clients include #1 bestselling authors Brandon Sanderson and Charlaine Harris. The agency’s other NY Times bestselling and/or award-winning clients include Peter V. Brett, Jack Campbell, Elizabeth Moon, Walter Jon Williams, Simon R. Green, Suzanne Palmer, Marie Brennan, and Daniel José Older.

Bilmes is known for his hands-on editorial work with his clients. In recent years, he’s been leading a quixotic charge against inappropriate use of smiles, shrugs, sighs, grimaces, nods, winces, blanching, quirking, eye-rolling, gritting of teeth, smirks, snorts and other “head and shoulders” gestures. For the avoidance of doubt, by “inappropriate” Bilmes means “almost all.”

Joshua Bilmes spends a good chunk of his spare time watching movies and watching tennis.

At this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be interacting with students as a virtual guest lecturer via Skype. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?

You have to be prepared to put in the “hard yards.” There are lots of authors and agents in the world, and some of them have paired up when the author put the perfect manuscript on the agent’s desk the agent’s very first day on the job. That hasn’t happened very often with me! Most of the first novels I’ve sold, they’re on a third or fifth or sometimes close to a tenth draft before they go out on submission. And then for all the work done on those earlier drafts, when the book is sold the editors still have more suggestions to make. An author should never be a weather vane, blowing every which way with each passing editorial comment, but you need to be prepared to work.

You founded JABberwocky Literary Agency in 1994, and your agency has grown since, adding several agents and assistants. What are the most common problems in the manuscript submissions you receive?

Make every word count! No excess description. No tossing facial gestures like smiles and smirks onto the page for no good reason. Never stopping to give a three-line description of every character when they come on stage. Quoting two of Bradbury’s 8 Rules:

• Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

• Start as close to the end as possible.

Which subgenres do you see way too much of? Which subgenres do you not see enough of?

I’ll skip this one. Give me a book I love; I generally don’t care about its subgenre.

Many authors struggle to write synopses of their novels to submit to agents and publishers. What do you want to see in a synopsis? How long do you like it to be?

I don’t pay much attention to synopses, personally. The percentage of manuscripts I get which are into the gray area or tiebreaker zone where I’m looking to the synopsis as part of my decision-making process is really, really slender. I’ve seen them at lots of different lengths, and knowing that even very successful authors can struggle to write them, I don’t sweat details too much. I’m just looking to find out, some or another way, what happens.

Most writers don’t understand that an agent can only represent a limited number of authors, and that agents specialize in particular types of fiction. Can you discuss how many authors you represent and why you’ve settled on that number? Can you describe the areas that you specialize in and why you’ve chosen those areas?

In an alternate universe, the initial crop of mysteries I sold (my very first sale as an agent was a mystery) would have taken off and the sf/fantasy not done as well! I never consciously set out to be a specialist. I don’t count clients; I have “clients” who haven’t written a book in 20 years, so do I count them? And some I’m working with but haven’t yet sold. I don’t target a particular number of clients. I’d say it’s my ability to get through my reading pile that says if I can take on more or fewer; that’s the pressure valve that says if the apparatus can safely support more.

In your bio, you mention that you enjoy good movies. What do you think writers can learn from analyzing their favorite movies?

Our favorite movies aren’t always objects of universal admiration, but just in general, I think a good movie has a really efficient script. Scenes multi-task. They lead someplace. They take seriously the “make every word count” idea. There’s a bar scene in Three Billboards—on my third viewing I realized the extent to which it seems to be doing nothing, but in actual fact is revealing multitudes about each character, and every one of those things has a direct payoff later.

One of the most common pieces of advice for writers is to read a lot. You’re known to read newspapers as well as magazines such as The New Yorker and Rolling Stone. What can writers learn from reading about the news and popular culture, and how can they transfer this to their fiction?

This is a tougher question to answer than you might think! But cogitating, pretend that your readers are really well read and really knowledgeable about the world, which you can’t yourself do without actually being. And then pretend your characters are sometimes very stupid. How do you make the smartest guy in the room empathize with the dumbest? Because if you can do that, you can make pretty much any action your characters take seem logical to the reader, and be better able to figure out and then fix the moments when the readers are going to be too far ahead of your characters.

What are some projects coming out in 2019 that you’re excited about?

Suzanne Palmer’s Finder. Debut novel from a Hugo Award-winning writer. Out from DAW in April 2019. And getting to an earlier point of mine, many drafts removed from the first one I saw.


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