Substance vs. Style: Fanfare for the Common Word

By Julie Wu

There was a flurry of rustling as we all took out our Graham Greene essays for Freshman English.

“Now,” Mrs. B said, “Look through your paper and circle your favorite word.”

I scanned my words, hand written on blue-lined paper. The best I could come up with was “seldom.”

Mrs. B clicked back and forth in bright red pumps that matched her lipstick, nails, and sweater set.  She had no notes, and I wondered whether she was doing this exercise with us because she hadn’t prepared for class.

“What if I can’t find a favorite word?” a girl asked.

“Well, then that should tell you something,” said Mrs. B.

We took turns reading our words out loud.  I was embarrassed about “seldom,” especially once we got to my friend Margaret,* whom I’d known since we were seven and seemed to have been born with a preternatural facility for language.

“Actually, I have two favorite words,” Margaret said.  “They’re together in a phrase—‘uncompromising enmity.’”

We all stared at Margaret.  Mrs. B looked off into the distance, stunned.

Next, Mrs. B asked us to read our favorite sentences.  I don’t remember anything about mine, but Margaret’s not only included her favorite words, it also had an incredible structure—long, complex, ending with rhythmic dependent clauses: “. . . uncompromising enmity between blah and blah, blah and blah, and blah and blah.”

Holy smokes.  No wonder I didn’t consider myself a writer.

[Read more...]

Don’t Scoff at Sonata Form: the Human Structure of Song and Narrative

By Julie Wu

Ever been to a live performance of a Beethoven symphony?  What happened when it ended?  Did the audience A) Look around at each other, scratching their heads and wondering whether the piece was over, B) Fling their programs at the stage, demanding their money back and yelling, “I can’t believe I listened to that whole thing and it just petered out at the end and made no sense at all”, or C) Burst immediately into applause, even if they hate classical music and can’t wait to get to the rest room.

I’m going to guess you answered C.

Why is that?  Why is it that when you listen to a piece by Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, and Haydn, even if you know little or nothing about music or music theory, you can tell when the ending is coming, and you feel, when the piece is over, that it is complete?

I’ll tell you why—these composers used predetermined structures.  They used structures a bit more complicated than the structures used by popular songwriters, but based on the same principles.  For those of you who have ever read a novel only to find yourself examining the binding to see whether the final pages are missing, as well as those of you who have ever struggled with writing an ending yourself, revising it endlessly, why not see what musical form has to teach us?

[Read more...]

What It Means When Your Reviewer is Mean, Unfair, and Totally Doesn’t Get It


By Julie Wu

You’ve been hit over the head: the totally unfair review.  On Goodreads, on Amazon, at a job performance evaluation.  It’s hard to feel that the fault is really the reviewer’s, but it is.  Believe me, I know:  I once gave the worst review in the world.

It was 1995, and I wasn’t reviewing a piece of fiction.  I reviewed, at a medical department conference, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine.  The article that introduced metformin, now one of the medications most widely used for Type II Diabetes, to the United States.  And yes, I trashed it.  In an oral presentation, for about thirty or forty minutes.  Oy.

So I am well qualified to represent the baselessly unjust reviewers of the world.  Ask me a question, any question.

You:  How could the reviewer trash my baby, my so obviously beautiful work?

Me:   Excuse me, the actual piece of work is irrelevant.  The reviewer is coming from a place of deep insecurity.  [Read more...]

How to Fix a Flat (Novel Scene) in Three Easy Steps



By Julie Wu

So, there’s Tolstoy, and then there’s you.  And you have a problem.  You have that scene that doesn’t work, the one you keep tweaking.  That scene where your heroine, Marge, wanders through the fields and forests, reminiscing about the lover she lost in the Crimean War.*  Your mother thinks it’s beautiful, heartbreaking.  But your reader fell asleep reading it, your agent says it’s slow, and your editor says to condense it.  Dutifully, you cut the paragraph in which Marge, reaching the edge of a duck pond, tearfully unfolds an old newspaper.  But the cut doesn’t help, because now Marge has nothing to do and you needed the newspaper to describe the history of the war and its effects on the nearby city.

You undelete the paragraph and give Marge a gun. She shoots a duck and wraps it in the newspaper.  There: action and historical background combined.  Plus, now she’s outdoorsy and self-sufficient.  She gets to reflect on the tragedy of feeling liberated and yet having simultaneously killed an animal in the way an officer killed her lover.  And the past, symbolized by the newspaper, is being bloodied by the presently dead duck.  O Magazine will declare this scene, “Lyrical, gorgeously written, rich with metaphor,” and list your book as a top summer pick.

You have a vague sense that your scene is still pointless, is now ridiculous, and actually O Magazine would not even accept a copy for review.  But you can’t cut the whole scene because it has such important backstory, such beautiful writing, and incredible insight into war, womanhood, and the human condition.

Uh-oh.  You’ve got a flat.

Take it from me:  I’ve had plenty.

[Read more...]

How to Write a Great Novel Scene, or How Tolstoy Broke My Eyes


By Julie Wu

Writing a great scene is hard.  Writing a great novel scene is even harder.   It has to be effective in itself, and it also has to propel forward the plot and narrative arc of the book.

When I was a graduate student in music, I wandered into a used bookstore, opened a copy of Anna Karenina, and couldn’t put it down.  I read all day and night for five days and got such terrible eye strain that for weeks I needed sunglasses even indoors to protect my eyes from the light.  The optometrist told me to remember to blink while I read, and to look away from the book once in a while.

What had made me forget to blink, look away, eat, and sleep?  Great, great scenes.  Twenty years later, I still remember them unfolding in my mind for the first time.

I thought I’d take a look at a scene from Anna Karenina to figure out what makes it so effective.

[Read more...]