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An Interview with Joshua Essoe: Transcript

This is a rough transcript of an interview between Mignon Fogarty and Joshua Essoe. You can listen to the interview here.

Mignon: Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and cool stuff. Today, I have an interview with Joshua Essoe, a fiction editor and author of the new book “Essoe’s Guides to Writing: Action Sequences.” We talked about both how to write action sequences and how Joshua got his first editing gig, which has led to more than 10-years making a living as a freelance editor. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Mignon: Joshua Essoe, thank you so much for being here with me.

Joshua: Thanks for inviting me.

Mignon: Yeah, well, I'm excited to tell people about your book because I think it just puts a lot of useful information out there in the world for writers. So today we're just going to talk about the first half, which is about how to write great action sequences. And I loved at the beginning of the book, you talked about how your wife always skips action sequences in books if they feel too long. And I do the same thing. I'm just like her. So I see an action sequence, and I was flipping forward through the pages. So you are going to help writers make better books so she and I don't have to do that anymore.

Mignon: So I think I've wanted to talk first about the emotional aspect of fight scenes because it's not all just who punched who when and stuff like that. And I appreciate your insights into why the emotion matters. So if you can explain how writers can do that, I think it would be especially helpful.

Joshua: Yeah, the the physical back and forth is important, obviously, because that's what they're doing. And I think that most action scenes that I see that I edit really focus on that.

Joshua: And that can lead to some really exciting action scenes. It's true, but I think it leaves a huge portion of the background and the emotional landscape of the characters and the setup of what makes the action work in the first place off the table.

Joshua: If you don't include a lot of emotionally penetration into the characters, if you have a couple of characters who are just, you know, you can tell that something is about to go down. They have a confrontation. There's a fight inclement. It's interesting, if you put them to the right situation, you're going to draw some people just because, you know, the act of violence is is interesting and eye catching. But as a reader, you don't get that second layer of what's going on behind them, why they're doing these actions. And that's more important, I think, to find out why exactly is this person so upset? What is it that they're trying to achieve in this conflict, in this confrontation? What are they afraid of? What? What are they trying to seek vengeance?

Joshua: Are they trying to seek justice? Are they doing it out of a sense of pride or honor? Are they doing it to show off? All of these things are going to provide gateways into who your character is. And that's what we want to know. We want to know who the character is that we're paying attention to, who we're focusing on, whose eyes we're seeing out of it matters. Who they are and why they do the things that we do.

Joshua: So just having them through a couple of punches and a karate chop and knocking down the their nemesis? It's all well and good, but you are missing a huge secondary dimension to what's going on. And that's the dimension that's going to pull readers in and connect them and make them emotionally engaged in the story. And that's what you want. You want all your readers to be emotionally engaged in your story, no matter what kind of scene that you're writing. So action is absolutely no different than any other.

Mignon: Right, and so it seems like it's important to develop your characters first before you put them into a fight scene, because the reader has to understand why they're doing what they're doing and care about why they're doing what they're doing. Right? You don't want to introduce a new character and have the first thing that character does be a fight, right?

Joshua: Yeah. Absolutely. It's a really good point because starting--and I've seen it done and I've seen it done well--but generally, rule of thumb, you want to stay away from starting a story with action simply because there's nothing to connect to. Now, it's possible that you come up with a really intriguing, really interesting, really captivating new way to write an action scene to start your story. And just by dint of it being new and unusual or especially terrifying, you'll hold people's attention for a while. However, that is the outside. Normally, people won't have, you know, any connection. So they're not going to stay interested and keep reading unless they know who the character is. You've got to care about the character.

Mignon: Right. And actually, speaking of caring about the character and knowing who the character is, I know you. We have known you for 10 years. But I should probably ask you to talk about your background for the audience so the listeners understand why you are such a great person to talk about writing fiction and how long you've been editing novels and things like that.

Joshua: Yeah. We met at the first Superstars seminar in Pasadena, California, and that's where I got my start. I guess I'm on my 11th year of editing now.

Joshua: And so in 2010, when they had the Superstars, I sort of just accidented into editing. I went as a writer, fully intent on being a writer.

Mignon: And Superstars is a conference for aspiring writers that focuses a little bit more on the business side of writing than other conferences. Just to give people an idea of what that conference. 

Joshua: Yeah, yeah. It's Superstars Writing Seminars. It's now held every year in Colorado Springs, Colorado. And it is about the business of being a writer. About being an entrepreneur. Being a small business owner, not about how to write better.

Joshua: There are, they include, in the last few years, a single craft day ahead of the seminar. So now there is a little bit of teaching on craft. One really solid day of immersive craft teaching by people like Kevin Anderson, Jim Butcher, Jonathan Mayberry, Tom McCaffrey, those types of very well known authors. Anyway. So 2010 was the was the first one of these conferences and I was attending as a hopeful writer.

Joshua: But as it turns out, I was in a little meeting at the end of the seminar with Brandon Sanderson because I asked him actually had the temerity to go to Brandon and ask him to read my writing. I understand that only one other dude had the gumption to try that while we were at the seminar. So he sat down with us at the very end after having a chance to look at our writing. And we had just a little critique session. And based on the feedback, and based on the attendance of a third guy, Moses Siregar, he, Moses, that is, decided to ask me to edit his book.

Joshua: He liked what Brandon had to say about my writing, and I guess he liked what I had to say about his writing when we were talking about it and he asked me to edit his book. It was really fantastic epic fantasy called "Black God's War." You should definitely check it out because it's just it's so well done. But he had me edit it. I thought that it was going to suck. I didn't want to be an editor. But at the seminar they taught us to say yes to things so that you have a broader range of experiences so that you can be a better writer. So I you know, eventually I said, OK, let's do this. I will edit this big epic fantasy and then wonder of wonders, I really enjoyed doing it.

Joshua: So after I edited that book for Moses, I said I thought, how am I going to get clients? How do I...How do I be an editor? And I landed on talking to David Farland.

Joshua: Now he is a writing instructor himself. He teaches workshops usually in Utah, but often travels around. He teaches.I've seen him teach in Ireland, Australia, Texas. So he does move around a little bit. But usually you're going to find him in Utah.

Joshua: And he was one of the primary instructors at Superstars as well. So I decided that I would go to one of David's workshops and I would seek to get him to agree to let me edit one of his books. Yeah, no problem. Just some dude that he's met at a workshop editing a New York Times best-seller's books. No big deal. But he said, yes. I managed to convince him. He said yes. And he sent me 110 pages of his latest novel, called "Nightingale" at the time.

Joshua: And asked me to go through...Well, he asked me to turn in the edit, and I asked how long. I expected, you know, a week or two, you know, not no big rush. But he said, how about tomorrow night? I'm like, oh, wow. You know, I kept all my misgivings to myself and said, "Absolutely, Dave, no problem."

Mignon: Say yes to everything.

Joshua: So I spent a good few hours there without sleeping and making sure that those 110 pages were done and done well. And we ended up doing the entire book like that in just little segment because he liked what he saw on the first 110 pages. And in fact, here's another three chapters. And that's the three chapters. And we finished the book that way. So that's how I started.

Joshua: Like I said, I just sort of accidentally fell into it, found that I loved it. And David was kind enough after that edit to give me a testimonial and to tell other writers about me. And that's how I sort of fell into this thing, into this thing that's lasted the last decade.

Mignon: Yeah, I know David Farland is great. After the Superstars conference, which I actually won a seat at in a raffle, I actually went to one of. Yeah. Yeah. I won my space there. And then I went to one of David's individual workshops in Utah. So, yeah, after that. He's so nice and really great. And I think it's a good example to your story of how to get started in business. You really only need one or two clients for whom you've done a good job, and then they will start giving you recommendations and telling their friends about you. And you just need to get that little little foot in the door. And then that opens a lot of other doors.

Joshua: Yes, absolutely, the best advertising is good word of mouth from the people who are going to use your services.

Mignon: Yeah, and so that was 10 or 11 years ago. And you've been editing novels ever since. Usually I see that you're booked months out.

Joshua: Yeah, definitely. I mean, last year was a weird year, like there were...I had so many bookings last year and so many cancellations last year. I don't know what was in the water, but last year was a weird one. But usually I booked out about six months.

Joshua: See, right now, I think my next opening, because this year I had a big client pull out because of the COVID crisis and she had booked something like I think it was twenty-four books, I think. Yeah, it was three-series of books that she wanted to have edited, and her husband, unfortunately, was cut back to part time, and there just no way to afford to do all of that. So my schedule was just like blown. And I think that I'm just about to refill almost everything that I had to cancel. So I think my next opening is probably January.

Mignon: January. That's great. So you can make a living as a fiction editor!

Joshua: Oh yeah, Absolutely. You definitely can. It's just, it's a lot of work. If you're gonna be a freelancer, if you're gonna be an entrepreneur, you're your own boss, then you have to be able to listen to your taskmaster, and do your work and do it timely. I mean, there's the triangle of success, right? You are a nice guy--a nice person. You are very good at what you do, and you're timely. And you have to hit at least two of those points to be successful. And if you want to be really successful, you hit all three.

Mignon: Right. So since people might have a hard time getting into your busy schedule it's great that you've put together these books to give some guidance, and I'm sure they serve also as great marketing for your work. They really showed me that you have such a deep understanding of how to write these scenes.

Mignon: We’re going to take a quick break for our advertisers, and then when we come back, we’ll talk more about fight scenes, like how much you should really describe the actual blows or action and how to handle dialogue. We’ll be right back.

Mignon: So let's get back to writing fight scenes. So the emotional engagement in having readers care about what your characters are doing is essential. That's number one. But then there is this element of who hit who, when and where. So can you talk a little bit about how to do that and still keep it in?

Joshua: Yeah, yeah, totally. There is a limit as to how many judo throws and karate kicks a reader can take before they're exhausted and they don't want to read anymore. As you well know, right?

Joshua: So giving an exhaustive account of every single move that a character makes is going to bore your readers. This is going to be too much. And we, this is very intertwined with the emotional penetration, because if you can't show every single move that's going on in your fight, then what do you show? Well, instead, you show how they're feeling.You portray that emotional landscape just as strongly as you portray the physical one. So I would argue that writing that kind of fight scene will be boring unless you can go deeply into the characters and make readers sympathize with, you know, with their viewpoints.

Mignon: Can you maybe give a quick example of how you how you would do that?

Joshua: Sure. Let's see. There was a really good example in the book, but I don't want to use the same one here. So if you had a couple of characters and a sort of a James Bond style airplane fight, you know, they're high up in the air, and the cargo door or the cargo bay door has been blown open or is opened on purpose because they're one of them is trying to shove the other out of the airplane. Right? That's an exciting, intriguing, intriguing setting. Like, that's really interesting. It's unusual to see characters fighting high up in the sky. Perhaps the bad guy or maybe the good guy has a parachute on. Maybe neither of them have parachutes on. So all of that is going to be interesting and stimulating up to a point like you don't need a ton of emotional penetration into that scene. Until you do. That's always the way it is. You don't need it until you do.

Joshua: So how would that whole scene change after you've been at it for a couple of pages? People have already seen your tricks. They've already seen the hype. They've already seen the wind, the pull out the door. They've seen the throws that nearly knocked the opponents out of the door or the hero out of the door. Then what? Then you have to show, Why are they fighting? Why? What is the hero there have to gain. Or what do they have to lose? Both. What is motivating them? What goal are they trying to achieve? Are they trying to get some sort of item from the bad guy before he can escape? Maybe he's got the parachute, and he was hiding away on the plane to steal it away from the good guy. And it was like it was the MacGuffin that was going to save the world. But that guy's got a hold of it. He's jumping out.

Joshua: What does the good guy do? Well, they fight, and we find out why the good guy is invested in this bad guy not getting away with the McGuffin. Why is that important? What does he have at stake emotionally, personally? Not just the world? Because it's good to have a societal goal. It's good to have high morals and want to save others besides yourself. But it's not as personal. It's not as emotionally engaging. So what is going on with that character personally? What does he stand to lose?Maybe it's because when the bad guy jumps out with this with this item, he is going to lose the love of his life forever.

Joshua: You'll have to figure out the circumstances under which this makes sense. Let's say it's true. That is far more interesting-- him fighting for the love of his life, and as a backdrop to save the world--than it is just two dudes fighting in a plane, and one's going to get thrown out.

Mignon: Mm hmm. And what about dialogue? It always bugs me when there's a long speech in the middle of a fight scene. And I think, "Why doesn't the...why did they just stop fighting? To listen to this guy say what his entire view on the world is. You see that far too often.

Joshua: So I know that mental monologuing. Yeah.

Mignon: How can you work good dialogue into a fight scene? When when do you need it? When do you not need it? When is it too much? 

Joshua: You have to be circumspect because that's definitely a subtle point. You don't want to overwhelm your readers. When you have the bad guy sitting there, I mean, how trope-y is it for all for all action movies and stories and books, cartoons, having the bad guy stop and explaining everything? I mean, James Bond is like so guilty of this.

Joshua: Having the conversation in the battle I think is good. I think that you want to include a few lines of dialogue, but you have to be really careful about where you put them, if they align with the mood that you're trying to set. Now, if you're going if you're having a really dramatic fight scene like the one I was just talking about an airplane, then you're not going to want a lot of one-liners. You know, it's not an Arnold Schwarzenegger fight.

Joshua: You want there to be dramatas. You want there to be emotional dialogue. You want it to be driven by what they're feeling and the desperation that's going on in those circumstances for that particular scene.

Joshua: Now, if it's a lot more fun and you have a character who is prone to witticisms, then having them includes some one-liners, some puns, some even jokes at their opponents expense is going to be a lot of fun. Funny. But you have to really...it's going to be guided by the tone and the mood that you're setting in the story, because you can hit a really flat note. You can throw your readers right out of the story. If you have something dramatic and emotional and you have somebody make a joke or you have somebody just say a line that goes on a bit too long, you'll ruin the moment. And that's the last thing that you ever want to do. You never want to pull your readers out of the story.

Mignon: And I think that I think that in your book, you said that cutting is something you can often do to make make your fight scenes better. Cut. Cut. Cut. Like, what are the things that when you're editing that you're always find yourself cutting?

Joshua: What are things that I always find myself cutting? I find myself asking readers to cut a lot of turning and looking. I think those are the primary culprits. And there's a lot of turning and looking throughout books. But it can become especially prevalent in action scenes. You don't have to tell us every time they turn and look. And sometimes I have characters turning and looking when all they're really doing is interacting with one thing and then interacting with another. Even if they're facing the same direction, they turn and look, it's like it's just writing to fill space.

Joshua: They're not exactly positive what to put there. They're not sure how to describe yet another action from the character. So they turn to look, you have to make sure that your flight scenes are really tight. You have to go through...I would say your editing should be more encompassing. And there should be more passes of editing on fight scenes, on action sequences. Because I think you have a lot more to work on there. The tighter it is, the fewer words that you use. The faster it's going to feel you short, tight sentences for punctuation.

Joshua: You don't just have a short sentence after short sentence after short sentence because, again, you're going to be repeating beats, and it's going to it's going to start exhausting your reader.

Joshua: So you want to use those short sentences in action scenes, but you want to use them. You want to use them well. You want to use them thoughtfully. You want to make sure that all the extraneous details are gone. So I recommend taking that fight, that action scene out of your book, place it into a new document and really take a hard look at it, find out what words you need to keep and what words you don't. So go through. Cut everything that you think is extraneous to what readers absolutely have to know.

Joshua: Now, I know this this feels probably this advice feels a little bit against what I was saying about the emotional landscape and everything, because that's adding a lot of words like that. But I would say that the emotional landscape is integral. And so you you should have that. You should include that as much as possible. And you're going to have to make allowances on your cutting to include that.So everything in writing is a fine balancing act. And this is no different.

Joshua: Just make sure that when you've finished cutting, read through it again a couple of times. And if it starts to feel kind of choppy, it starts to feel like it jumps around too much. Then you've cut too deep and you need to backtrack a little bit.

So, yeah, so. Those are the two things that I would do. If you're having trouble, take it out of the story, put it on different in a different document. Cut every word that is not necessary, like "very" is is a very good example. You don't need "very." I guarantee you can cut every "very" out of your story, and you'll be fine.

Mignon: And every "really" too probably. 

Joshua: Except for in your dialogue because your dialogue is always a completely separate case. That is how our readers...that is how a character sounds. That is their voicing. So, yeah, they can say "very" and "really" to their heart's content. They can turn and look if they're speaking it. "Stop turning and looking. I'm turning and looking too much." They can say that. That's fine, but don't have them engage in those actions too many times. You have a finite amount of times that you can use certain actions and words in your story, not just in an individual scene.

Joshua: You can, for example, use oh, OK. This is a really good example that I see all the time: "charged" or "roared." And I see charging and roaring characters all the time because they're big, heavy, strong action words. Save these things, save them for when they're most important, when they can be most valuable and then eradicate the rest because you can't have a story full of charging roaring characters.

Mignon: That one, your best and your most climactic scene.

Joshua: Exactly. I want to see a good 50 to 100 pages, depending on how good a writer you are, between the one charge to another charge from one "he roared" to "she roared." Like there has to be a big gap between those or one of them has to be cut.

Mignon: That makes absolute sense because those words stand out. They're so powerful. I remember them.

Mignon: Yeah. So this is the first half of your...or the first of two parts of your ongoing series, which I imagine it will be: "Essoe's Guides to Writing." And this was "Action Sequences." There's a second one called "Sex Scenes," which we aren't going to talk about too much today because this is a family friendly show. But I will say that I found it really helpful. I enjoyed it. I laughed a lot because you used pretty much every euphemism in the world. I was laughing out loud the whole time I was reading that that part, that section of the book. But the one thing that I thought was really insightful is that you said that sex scenes are just another kind of action sequence. And can you talk about that a little bit? I thought that was really interesting.

Joshua: Yeah. I mean, well, they are. What is sex, other than just another action that characters are taking? And it involves all of the same rules as you would employ when writing any other action scene.

Joshua: You don't want to be too wordy. You don't want to go into too much detail unless you're writing erotica or certain romance. That is not what your readers expect. That is not what they want. The promises that you make at the beginning of your book, what kind of genre you are, what tone and what explicit level of writing you're going to employ. All of those things are set up in the first few pages, maybe on the outside the first chapter of your book. So when you're writing a sex scene, you have to abide all of those rules that you set for yourself, all those promises that you made to your readers. So writing a sex scene will be dictated by all of those things for that particular story. But everything else that involves action you don't want to have, you're just turning and looking too much or roaring.

Mignon: You have to care about why they're doing what they're doing and not get overly descriptive. And yet I thought that was insightful. And I knew you would go on to have a lot of helpful, specific pieces of advice too. 

Joshua: I'm glad that you brought that up because it is true. If you run into the same problem, like I'm explaining the actions of the characters here, I kind of reached the end of the line for what my audience can tolerate for that. What do I do? Well, just like action switch into an emotional landscape. Don't talk about what the what is happening physically. Talk about what's happening emotionally.That's just as important, especially with sex.

Mignon: Right. Yeah, absolutely. Wonderful. Well, thank you, Joshua. So if listeners, if you're listening to this right after it came out, these books are available probably for another four or five days through Joshua's Kickstarter. It's already fully funded. So but you can you can get it through that and get it right away. But once the Kickstarter is over, you know, some people will be listening to this later. How can they get the books after the Kickstarter is has ended?

Joshua: The best way is going to be off of my website. And that is JoshuaEssoe.com. Yes. Oh, yeah. And otherwise, I when I go to a convention or when I'm back at school because I, I teach at Superstars now. So when I'm back there every year, I will always have copies of books with the other at the back tables.

Mignon: Excellent. Yeah, it's a great conference. I met you and so many other wonderful people there, too, and we've done...a lot of us have kept in touch. It's been really great. So congratulations on the successful launch "Essoe's Guides to Writing." And thanks for being here today.

Joshua: A lot of fun.

Mignon: Bye.

Mignon: I hope you enjoyed that chat with Joshua Essoe as much as I did. I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. And you can find a transcript of the interview and all the other Grammar Girl articles at QuickandDirtyTips.com. And if you’re looking to work some microlearning into your day, check out my Better Writing course on LinkedIn Learning. It’s made up of 17 short videos, so you can learn about active voice, strong conclusions, and commas in the time it takes to drink your morning coffee.

Mignon: Thanks to my producer Nathan Semes, and that’s all. Thanks for listening.