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SCBWI New York 2000

The Alphabetics of Story

by Jane Yolen

This entire conference has not been about publishing. Not really. That's the end product of all our work. But at its very core, the weekend has been about story. So I want to spend some of our last time together talking about story, because we are all story lovers here. I have strung my remarks, like beads, on the accessible wire of the alphabet. It makes taking notes remarkably easier.

A is for architecture
A few years ago my youngest son, Jason, built a house in the mountains of Colorado. He was ready to start in late summer, but because of the paper work involved, as well as permission from the town's zoning committee, the building inspector, the planning board and a dozen others, he could not begin building until November. By then the ground was frozen hard and in order to dig a foundation, Jason had to rent heaters and blowers to warm it up enough so that the bulldozer could do its work properly. And by then, of course, it had begun to snow.

Writing a story is a great deal like building a house. There is all that paper work before you even begin, which is akin to the architect's plans. Notes. Research. The jotting down of ideas. The puzzling through the wastebasket of the mind. But the most important beginning step is still warming things up at ground level so you can erect your story over that important foundation--the theme. For that is what theme really is--the sub-basement of whatever tale the author planning to tell.

Of course a story does not necessarily begin with the impulse to basement! But then, neither does building a house. Jason didn't say "I have a desire for a basement." First he fell in love with a part of Colorado: the way the mountains embraced the valley, the clarity of the mountain air, the spread of stars on a winter's night, the snow-capped peaks, the ski runs down Crested Butte, the high meadows where big horn sheep graze. He wasn't thinking basement. He was thinking home.

But just as his modern wood and glass house does not look like his sister's cozy Cape Cod style Myrtle Beach house or his brother's 1930s Minneapolis three story house, or his parents' rambling Victorian farmhouse, so too there are many architectures in story.
As Karen Cusham has said: "I want to remake the world; anything less is not worth the trouble." She is a story architect of note, so listen to her words if not to mine.

B is for Beginnings
Call me Ishmael.

That is considered one of the world's greatest opening lines. It starts with a mystery: not "My name is Ishmael." Or "The fellows call me Ishmael." But a request, or perhaps an order, that the narrator shall be known henceforth as Ishmael. An odd name that, but for a nineteenth century readership, one that would have immediately recalled the Biblical Ishmael--the child driven into the wilderness with his slave mother. The unwanted, forgotten, once beloved child who threatens a dynasty. The foresaken hero. The dark brother. The other side of the Semitic coin.

But what if Dorothy Parker had written that line, instead of Herman Melville? Call me, Ishmael. The story of a woman in love with a man who promises to phone but doesn't.

Or if Edgar Rice Burrows had written it? Me Ishmael, you Jane. A story about a feral child brought up by whales.

Or if James Joyce had written it? Ishmael. Ishmael. Yes. And Ishmael. Yes. Ishmael. Call. And yes, yes, call.

Or Tama Janowitz: Call me a cab, Ishy.

Or Isaac Asimov? Call me Ishmael-4000B.

Or Maurice Sendak? Ishy, once, Ishy, twice, Ishy eats fish soup with rice.

Or Ogden Nash: Call me fishmeal.

In other words, it's not the opening line itself, but what it portends and what it pretends to be about. Where it leads. Where it points; what it signifies; what it sets up. The opening sentence is the DNA of fiction, carrying all the genetic material for the story. Or as Jay Atkinson says "When a writer opens a story, rolls down the white space and hits the first line, for better or worse, the narrative course has been fixed."
Remember this when we get to Z.

C is for Clarity
I know that in adult books, ever since James Joyce, clarity has not been prized in story. In fact I belong to a group of writers who call ourselves the Pre-Joycean Fellowship, much the way Rosetti and Holman-Hunt and John Everett Millais began the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

By clarity I mean that there is the same lovely limpid quality in a good story that you find in a well-kept fish pond. Yes, there are depths in the pond and occasionally the goldfish hide there, surfacing only for food or to flash an orange tail at that flat light sky. But when the fish rises and swims across the pool, it is somehow illumined by the water, made bigger, clearer, sweeter, more important.

Perhaps I should skip directly to M for metaphor!

D is for Danger
Good stories are dangerous. Dangerous, anarchic, seductive. They change you, often forever.

I don't mean stories should splatter you with gore. Or the aftermath of sexual desire. We write children's books, folks! But as my good friend Bruce Coville likes to say, "Children's books should be subversive."

A great book is, by definition, challenging. Take that, book banners!

Sometimes, like T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone, it challenges our vocabularies and our history. Sometimes, like Randall Jarrell's The Animal Family or Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War or William Golding's The Lord of the Flies, it challenges our comfortable morality. And sometimes, like Ursula Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness, it challenges our most basic gender assumptions.

Even the great books unknowing critics dismiss as "easy" are not. Goodnight Moon has an odd scansion and a bunch of unpretentious rhymes and a peculiar rhyme scheme yet it still manages to encapsulate the going-to-bed process of a young child. Frog and Toad, billed specifically as an "easy reader" is a sophisticated paen to special friends. And PhD theses have been written about the pyschological rightness of Where the Wild Things Are.
Reading a good story is like wrestling with angels--you do not expect to win, but you should expect to come away from the experience changed.

E is for Elevation
And here I have two different kinds of elevation in mind.

The first is that which lifts. A good story lifts the reader above the mundane world.

Secondly a good story is something that is itself lifted above real life. Let me give you an example.

Several Christmases ago, when we were home in the States, there was a robbery in our Scottish house. One of the burglars was caught because he was seen carrying a very singular statue of a sphinx which a passing jogger recognized as belonging to us. The jogger, an electrician, had just rewired our house and was quite familiar with the sphinx, which he found extraordinarily spooky. Two other men involved in the robbery got away. While most of what they had taken was recovered, three things were not: a CD player, a 19th century barometer, and an oil by a minor Scottish Victorian painter, William Pratt.
In June, when we were back in Scotland, on the third day of our visit, we went into Edinburgh and stopped at the gallery where we had purchased the Pratt two years previously. We wanted to warn the owner about art thieves. And there--I see you are ahead of me--was the William Pratt painting on the wall in the very same place it had been two years before.

A Scottish friend of mine, a novelist and poet, has leaped onto this story with the idea that the sphinx engineered the downfall of the thieves. But much more needs to be explored in order to make this anecdote work--as a story.

Interesting anecdotes are not fiction by themselves. They need the sandpaper touch of art . We do not revise reality. Or at least we do not revise it enough, though my children tend to stand behind me and waggle their fingers when I discourse about things in their childhood, citing "Author embellishments."

Fiction is more than a recitation of facts or author embellishments. It is reality surprised. It shakes us up,lifts us up, elevates us above the fray, and therefore lets us--no, makes us--see familiar things in new ways.

F is for Furniture
A good story, someone once said, is furniture for the mind. I have to think about this some more.

G is for Grab bag
Most of us have minds that are grab bags. Or compost heaps. Or in some cases, sewer lines. But a good story focuses all that that messiness into bit sized portions.

Awful metaphor?


But we haven't reached M yet.

Where do stories come from? It is a simple and yet infinitely tricky question. How much easier it would be if there were some central warehouse where ideas were stored, waiting to be claimed. A lost-and-found of usable motifs. A clearinghouse for plot ideas. A place where writers could send away for story starters.

But the truth is that even if such storage areas existed, what the ordinary visitor would find there would be only bits of rags and bone shanks and hanks of hair. As writers, we are peculiar archeologists. We gather the backward and forward remnants of our own and others' histories, mining the final part of that word: Histories.

What we find there is always a surprise.

As writers we must be ready for those surprises. The way to do that is to organize your luck. In other words: be prepared for whatever happy accidents may occur along the route of story. It means clipping articles that interest you, even when you have not a clue what to do with them. It means buying odd books on the offchance that you may some day have need of them. It means being open to a universe of possibilities long before a story has arrived. As Louis Pasteur noted: "Chance favors the mind that is prepared."

H is for Hope
I truly believe that a great story for young readers must leave them with hope. Some critics might say love or joy, but I love a good cry.

Charlotte's Web certainly doesn't end with joy. But it does end with hope.

I is for Irritation
By this I am not talking about those every day irritations we all suffer. Why just a few months ago my furnace died a horrible death, spewing carbon monoxide (and a whole lot of soot) into the bedrooms, bathrooms, and my husband's workroom. We are still working on the clean-up.

But that's an annoyance. I learned nothing from it. I gained nothing, except--perhaps--a very expensive new heating system.

By irritation, I mean the kind of sand in the oyster that produces a pearl. A good story is that kind of irritant. You read it, then you cannot stop thinking about it. Eventually, your mind and heart encyst about it and what occurs is a pearl of the soul.

J is for Juggler
I love to watch the Flying Karamazov Brothers, the world's funniest, zaniest jugglers who can fling an amazingly odd assortment of items into the air and keep them moving in rhythm. Once I watched in a tent at Fort Worden State Park in Washington as they juggled a wet sponge, a baseball bat, a twist of hair ribbons, an orange, and a bowl of something (members of the the audience were invited to throw anything into the mix--and did.)

A good story should be able to do that, too. Take a grieving and lonely widower, a somewhat homely but feisty spinster, a boy who wants a mother, a girl who is afraid to want a mother, a cat, a sea shell, a letter. Throw them into the air. And if you are lucky, they come down as Sarah Plain and Tall.

K is for Kalliope
There is no good reason why a kalliope should make music. Sound maybe. Noise definitely. But not music.

However, when you are in the right mood for it, a good kalliope can pump out a song that gets you smiling. That makes you remember summer and county fairs and cotton candy and being young.

Or it can just hurt your ears.

Some stories are like that.

You may adore Love You Forever, but I hear it as a story about an overbearing and smothering mother who infantilizes her son and can only tell him she loves him when he is fast asleep. I also contend that she drugs his cocoa. And that when the man's baby daughter wakes up sixteen years later and finds him fondling her in her room, she will be calling 911 and going into therapy.

You may love The Giving Tree and hand it out like bon-bons to all your special friends, but I only hear noise. To me it's not about giving but about taking, about a boy who takes and takes and takes from the only female figure in his life, but never learns the gift of returning that giving. And it is about the Old Stump, as she is known at the end, the tree as enabler.
We write stories we hope have music at the heart. Sometimes it's only noise. And sometimes it's a kalliope pumping out pain for some, pleasure for others.

L is for Lap
Which is where--if you're lucky enough--you first heard good stories.
But just as laps disappear when the storyteller stands up, so too a story can disappear if it is only a function of the teller and not the tale.

A child who wants to be cuddled can listen to a spirited rendition of the Brooklyn telephone book. That doesn't make the Brooklyn telephone book a good story, though it is certainly full of strange and interesting characters.

M is for Metaphor
I am tempted to ask "What's a meta-phor?"

The answer is another M. Mis-direction. We say one thing, one important and perhaps even deep thing, in terms of something else.

That's what a metaphor is. The word actually comes from the Greek, which means a moving van or cart. Go to Greece and you will surprised at how many trucks have the word "metafora" on the side panel.

Consider how much furniture a van can move in a day.

Don't move that much in your story or you'll have a breakdown on the highway.

Of course I once got a letter from a child who said "I love the meddlefurs in Owl Moon." Another M. I think the meddler in this case was the teacher. Besides, Owl Moon mostly has similes, not metaphors. We must be ever pedagogically correct.

Several years ago, my husband and I lived through a lifetime in ten days when we found ourselves in the middle of every parent's nightmare: the possibility of a beloved child dying. To make a long and scary story short, all the tests came back negative, but we felt at the moment that a black line had been ruled thorugh our lives, separating what we were before the possibility of illness, and what we were afterwards.

I found myself understanding for the first time that as humans we live our lives through metaphor. Everything I felt during those dark days, the way I approached mortality, the way I prayed, the way I had to view the world, was in terms of metaphor. From the black line--which of course is not literal--to the dark days (we were actually in the middle of a light blush of Indian Summer) to my ideas about death, to my instant- replay memories of the child who had twenty-six years earlier been in my womb, to my conversations and prayers and meditations and bargains with God. All were made up of metaphor, which

John Ciardi has so wisely called "an exactly felt error."

So slowly, agonizingly, I came to understand that metaphor and its sisters--poetry and story--are as natural to humans as breathing.

The idea that metaphor is important to human thinking is not new. It was old when Aristotle said "To make metaphors implies an eye for resemblances." And, I suppose, one might add it implies an eye for differences as well.

To make a good metaphor a writer has to be a good observer first which, in some senses, is the measure of an educated person, whether that education took place in a school room, the workroom, the trenches, or the great outdoors. In Philip Wheelwright's telling phrase: "metaphor is a medium of fuller, riper knowing."

N is for Neverland
That's the place where Peter Pan and the Lost boys live. And one lost girl who gets to do all the washing up.

Let me suggest that in your stories you divide the chores a bit more evenly. Sometimes let the girls be the heroes, sometimes the boys. And sometimes--heaven forfend!--let a parent in on the action. It's always been a truism in children's books that kids have to solve the problem and have the adventure. Some of us still feel like kids, and lacking adventurous lives, read children's books. But this doesn't have to mean that--Roald Dahl-like--the adults in your story are all idiots, meanies, madmen, or old.

You are constructing the Neverland of your choice, whether your setting looks like Hogworth's School for Wizards or New York City. Set the parameters to match the boundries of your heart.

O is for Opinion
Keep it to yourself.

Stories--unlike politics--do not thrive on opinions. As Samuel Goldwyn once said of making movies, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union."

Whether we like it or not, literature always carries in it the seeds of didacticism. All literature. It teaches, it preaches, it contains the moral precepts (or works hard at violating the moral precepts) of the generation in which it is written.

To put it bluntly: Authors are mired in their society.

Children's literature especially is a didactic art form. That is--it's used as a teaching tool. Even when it's not being taught in the classroom, a children's book is teaching its young reader something. Ursula Nordstrom, the late great editor at Harper, said this to a new writer who was worried about writing what had already been written. "The children," she said, "are new, though we are not."

Everything in a good book (perhaps even in a bad book) is a new truth, a new revelation to a child whose experiences are, as yet, so limited. Therefore writers for children need to be extra careful about preaching, about filling in those empty spaces for the child.

As writers we may believe we are ahead of our times. But we have all been formed by our times. Louisa May Alcott may have been a feminist to her neighbors, but her Jo March is, by 1990s standards, a bit of a disappointment in the end. Mark Twain may have been way ahead of his contemporaries on matters of race, but many an African-American critic today finds moral fault with his presumption of a certain childishness on Jim's part.

Still, there is a big difference between the author laboring to put a moral in a book, and having a moral sense emerge organically from the plot situation and characters reacting to it.

Remember this about what you write: what you preach to one listener may make another listener guffaw. W. C. Field's once remarked: "It would take a heart of stone not to read about the death of Little Nell without laughing."

P is for Pissoir
I know that Bruce Coville insists that if you want to get a kid's attention, be sure to have boogers, farts, or underwear at the beginning of your story. I, on the other hand, am more mature. I think that certain bodily functions should function outside of the story, not inside. A story is not a pissoir after all. Unless, of course, the point of your story is the bodily function.

And while you're at it, why not educate the little pissers. A toilet aboard ship used to be called "the jakes," as far back as 1538. Then there's john, water closet, latrine, convenience, crapper, lavatory, rest room, comfort station, outhouse, closet stool, throne, privy, loo, chamberpot, and jordan. Bet you didn't know all that. Bet your readers didn't know all that!

Q is for question
There are closed question stories and open question stories.

Closed question stories permit only one kind of reading. Teachers love closed question stories. They are easy to catachise. Student responses can be graded.
Open question stories, though, are the great ones. They are the stories that are so rich and puzzling, they leave the reader with different responses each time he or she goes back and re-reads the tale.

R is for Relief
Every story--whether funny or serious--needs a place where the reader can rest, take a breath, relax, sigh, put a hand to the chest, get a drink of water, use the P word.
That place may be a short stopover, an eye blink, a paragraph or a chapter. However, don't let the reader rest too long or they'll be picking up someone else's story instead.

S is for Sacred
The greatest stories touch on the sacred, that moment when head and heart and soul combine.

My "sacred" may not be yours. We may worship at different altars. My sacred story moments include Charlotte dying in Charlotte's Web, the ending of Barbara Berger's Grandfather Twilight when the old man lets go of the pearl that has grown into the moon, the section of Tuck Everlasting when Winnie makes up her mind about living forever, the last sentence of Where the Wild Things Are because you know how much Max's mother really loves him, or when Plain and Tall Sarah talks about the sea. It is also--I believe--in my own book "The Devil's Arithmetic" when Rifka says to Chaya in the concentration camp "We are all heroes here."

Sacred in story has nothing to do with organized religion or disorganized religion. I have been a member of both. It has to do with that moment you are reading and suddenly the hairs on your arms and the back of your neck rise up. The moment when you and the story ascend a level of humanity and touch the very hem of heaven.

T is for Truth
Because telling a story truthfully is the only way to write. Truly.

U is for Unctious

Okay--a definition. "Unctious" means oily.

It means someone characterized by a smug, smooth pretense of spiritual feeling, especially in an attempt to influence or persuade. Think Uriah Heep, his hands wrangling together. Think of a politician at a prayer meeting. Think of Jimmy Swaggart before he was caught or Bill Clinton after. Think of Nancy Reagan just saying no or Linda Tripp just saying yes.
Think of children's book authors trying to write in the voice of children. Trying to warn. Trying to convince.

Be careful.

Use good soap.

V is for Velvet
A velvet voice in writing is smooth and rich in feel. It carries weight. It is luxuorious, the voice of royalty, orotund, bardic, vatic. It has a fine nap. It does not cling.
It can also disguise the form below, lend regalness to poverty. One can fall into its thick nap and drown there, like a mastodon in the La Brea tar pits.

Be careful.

Sometimes good, steady flannel is better.

Or silk.

You wouldn't want to go to bed in velvet, would you?

W is for Wisdom
I contend that good children's stories are always about the Getting of Wisdom. That's another way of saying, "Let your characters grow. Up."

X is for eXciting, eXiting, eXistence, eXact
In other words approXimations of the letter X.

All stories are approXimations of life. Not real, but realer.

Writing takes us into another, brighter, deeper, more engaging world than the world we actually live in. Literary worlds are never as messy as real life, which is full of loose ends and untidy relationships and mysteries that cannot be solved.

Still, much more may actually happen in a literary world than in one's own real one. When did you last converse with a large egg sitting on a wall or pull a sword from a stone? When did you last help a slave escape on a raft or ride with a toad in a motor car? These stories grace our actual lives with their fictional approXimations. Like angels, they lift us above the hurrying world and carry us in their pockets of light.

Y is for Young
Do you believe that writing stories for children keeps you young?

Believe it.

Z is for Ziplock Bag, Zoo, Zebra, Zigzag, Zounds! Zero
Whatever you think Z stands for, Z is at the end of the apphabet.

And endings are important to stories.

The story's ending has to be both inevitable and surprising. Not just a happy-ever-after tacked on higgelty-piggelty. The ending of a story must be about consequence, considerations paid, and eucatastrophe.

If the opening line is a promise, the ending is payoff to that promise. It should leave you breathless and eager to check out the opening again to see if you understand the beginning even better this time.

Some writers cheat and begin at the back. Toni Morrison says: "I always know the ending. That's where I start."

Some writer sneak up on it.

And some writers rush to an ending like a young girl to her first lover, arms wide, lips slightly parted, the heart a drum somewhere beneath the breastbone beating out its own rhythm.

However one gets to the end, though, you must know this: it is the delivery of that DNA promise made in the very first sentence. Better be sure we are all satisfied when we count the story's fingers and toes.

Now I am done with my alphabetics. A to Z. Surely it's not all you need to know about story.

What have I left out? M for Middles. C for Characterization. P for Publication. A for Awards. D for Dollar Amount. E for Editor. K for Kirkus. OP for out of print.

But my alphabet is only a beginning.

And mine own.

It's your turn now to write yours. Like writing a story, you may be surprised at what you find there. You might also be illuminated, changed, and charged by what you discover. We write not just to show off, to tell, or only to have written.

We write to know ourselves.

© 2000 Jane Yolen


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