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.

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Flunking Art


By Julie Wu

In Junior High, we took a test for artistic aptitude. The top scorers would be in “Art Band,” excused from classes once a week to be apprenticed to working artists. We took a standardized, timed test, made a sculpture, drew a picture.  Our art teacher would score us.

Art Band sounded fabulous and I wanted very much to meet a real artist.  I loved to draw, thought of myself as artistic, and believed I would qualify.  I was used to doing well on tests, and when we got our standardized test, I dove right in.  The first section presented pages of parallel lines, and we were supposed to incorporate them into drawings.  I raced through as I always did on tests, trying to finish all the pages.  When the time was up, I asked my friend, Rosemarie, “How many did you do?”

She smiled a little and shrugged.  “Just a couple.  I connected them into one big drawing.  It was pretty crazy.”

Next, we had to sculpt a human head out of clay.  I molded a girl’s head and smoothed her cheeks to make her as pretty and realistic as possible.  Rosemarie made an old man with a scrunched up face, his chin protruding comically so it almost touched his nose.  The art teacher, who barely glanced at my pretty girl, lit up with delight at the old man.

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Give Me Plot, or Bore Me To Death



By Julie Wu

The summer before I started college, I went to a concert by John Cage, an avant-garde American composer.  I had read his book and was captivated by his brilliance—his attempts to explode the boundaries of music by incorporating ambient noise and the element of chance into musical performance.  He stepped onstage at the Decordova Museum’s outdoor amphitheater, and I leaned forward in the audience, ready to be awed by this iconoclast.

He began his performance, showing random slides and playing equally random notes according to the I Ching.  I was excited–I’d never seen anything like it.  But after a few minutes, a funny thing happened: I got bored.  Really bored.  [Read more...]

Being Harry Potter

By Julie Wu

I was pretty sure Harry would survive his encounter with the Hungarian Horntail; I was on book four of seven.  But as I lay next to my then first grader and read aloud Harry Potter: The Goblet of Fire, my arms trembled and I could feel my heart racing.  I was amazed that a book—a children’s fantasy!—could have this physiological effect on me.

In my own writing, I want to move people just that way: I want to make them gasp, tremble, and weep.  To this end, I think of emotion as another sense to immerse the reader in.  It is my job to convey a character’s emotion in every scene, at least as much as what that character sees or hears.  But I have found moving a reader to feel fear or sadness to be far more complex and difficult than helping him or her imagine the shininess of a waxed apple or the smell of diesel exhaust.  Writing, “He felt scared,” or, “She was elated,” just doesn’t do it.  How exactly is it done?  [Read more...]

Fear of Revision

By Julie Wu

My roommate once made a clay pot in art school.  Threw it on the wheel, drew up its walls between the tips of her fingers, fired it, glazed it.  When she and her classmates held up their finished pots, gleaming and beautiful, the instructor led the students to a pit and ordered them to throw down their pots.  The point was, he said, not to become attached to a particular piece of work.  You can always make more.

Some students cried.  My roommate was traumatized, still bitter about the experience years later when she told me about it.

Hearing her story made my stomach twist.  I had written a few short stories, and they were my precious babies, conjured up as I sat cross-legged in the dark in an apartment overlooking the Hudson River.  My stories were praised in student workshops, but their strengths were no more robust or reproducible than the street lights’ glinting on the water’s surface.  Even after the literary magazine rejections came in, I revised only a sentence here or there, hoping that would be enough.  Because I was afraid that if I revised more, I would ruin what was good and never get it back again.

I was one of those art students, crying and clutching my pot at the edge of the pit.

Here’s the thing: that instructor was right.  It has taken me ten years to understand that.  Make one beautiful pot–maybe you were lucky.  Make another from the ground up, and another, still more beautiful, and you are an artist.  It takes practice, study, the making and smashing of many pots beautiful, average, and ugly, to really know that clay, to know exactly how to push your hands into it to get what you want. [Read more...]