Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Also Known As

Here's a short experiment, no eye protection or heat-resistant gloves needed. Some of you may have seen this one before, but please bear with me anyway.

Take a sheet of paper (or a Post-it or an index card, or whatever). Write your name on the paper. Turn the paper over and, on the other side, write an alias for yourself. It has to be a brand-new pseudonym, not a childhood nickname or anything anyone else has ever called you. Take as long as you need; I'll wait right here for you to finish. But try to do it in less than a minute, just because I know that you haven't got all day. And, you know, this assignment isn't part of your grade.

Done? I chose "Asimov Eric Crane." I have no idea why, and that's not the point.

Do you remember the moment when you turned over the paper and stared off into space and there was nothing but a blank gray wall before your mind's eye and you didn't know the answer to the question yet? You were sitting in a sort of undefined space where there was only one wrong answer, and it was written on the down-facing side of your paper. That moment was a real, palpable moment of creativity and, more importantly, an example of writing what you don't know.

When I did this exercise, I felt--though just for a few seconds--disoriented and off-balance and, honestly, a bit afraid and verging on nausea. Call me a wimp; I've been called worse, trust me. One thing that was going on in my mind during that moment of off-balance creativity was a battle between conflicting forces: You are this alias. No, you are this one instead. No, over here is your real alias. There were several directions I could've gone, and in that brief moment I was aware of, if not every possibile outcome to my creative problem, at least many of them. The more complex the creative problem and the more time we allow ourselves to think about the solutions, the more possibilities we'll see. Most of those possibilities will conflict with each other, and we will attempt to choose one of them and let the others go.

Some of the most interesting and useful things we can discover about our story elements (characters, scenes, plots, themes) are the conflicting versions of them that are possible. One of the things I've tried to do in my own fiction is to present many of the conflicting versions of story elements in the same story. It has only been recently that I realized I was doing this, or perhaps it's more accurate to say that it's only been recently that I started trying to give a name to what I've been doing in stories. But as I say, if there is more than one way to think about some story element, I am pretty strongly inclined to include more than one of those ways in my stories. I'll give an easy example, using something I did in a chapter of my WIP "Cocke & Bull."

Suppose you have a group of characters who've all traveled to a city together. Suppose there is some kind of emotional turmoil or conflict within the group. Suppose you want to have your characters walk through the city from one setting to another, and you want to point out locations in the city. Suppose you also want to show the emotional turmoil, but you don't just want them to argue their way across town.

What I did was split the group in two, and the first group walks through the city and I give their impressions of the various locations within it, and I show certain interactions they have with the city's inhabitants. I use a certain type of images and descriptive language, to paint things as colorful and fun and light-hearted. Then I have the second group walk through the city, following the same path as the first group, and I show their interactions with the city's inhabitants. I use a different set of images and type of descriptive language for this trip, painting the city as dark, shabby, dangerous. It is the same city, but viewed from a different emotional angle, as it were.

This is one of my current favorite tricks, and in "Cocke & Bull" and my last book, I've played scenes twice in a row and shown how the scene can have radically different meanings depending on how you interpret the actions within the scene.

A sort of inverse to this is to figure out what the your characters' best and worst traits are, and to dramatize them behaving at their best and their worst in scenes that are as similar as you can make them. Show us your hero, and then show us his alias, as it were. Think, for example, of the protagonist's thoughtless insult during the garden party in Jane Austen's Emma. Shocking, embarrassing, and totally believable. Let the reader enter that moment of off-balance creativity you had, and let the reader be caught up in the battle between conflicting forces inside the story and the characters. You can ask youself "What are the possibilities here?" and you can use more than one answer. You can stay in that off-balance moment of creativity and write down as many aliases as you like and call them all the right answers.

My point, if I have one and possibly I really don't, is that rather than choose The One True Way for your characters and stories, you can create a multiplicity of meanings for events and people and places that are all true and all overlap and all conflict with one another and the story will be, in my opinion, much deeper and richer and satisfying. You can show, with certainty, that the world is uncertain. You can define how things are not definite. You can give your characters and your story not one alias, but many.


  1. Brilliantly inspiring and very well-said.

  2. I came up with the name instantaneously-- I'm pretty good coming up with names. But the real point of what you were getting at is often a stumbling block for me. I think I might try that in my current novelling dilemma.

  3. 'Sabout time, Asimov. Ivana and Uncle Domey have surfaced and you were still scott.

    You brought up a point I'd never really considered and I'm glad you used your Cock and Bull story because it made it clearer to me. I have been, at least consciously, turning scenes around and giving them alternatives primarily to find, The One True Way.

    Hm, now I'll have to look at the process with this new thought.

    Very cool, new thoughts. Love 'em.

  4. Actually, I don't mean your cock and bull story. I meant your "Cocke and Bull" story.

  5. Interesting. I haven't started thinking this way yet, perhaps because I'm still too new to the game. Thus far, stories have presented themselves to my brain in small chunks that turn into paragraphs and scenes and work together to create the whole.

    However, as I embark on the novel-writing process, I may understand your point more. The flurry of scenes and potentialities in my head and my notes can't possibly all coexist in the same story. It'll be a winnowing process, I think.

    I might be back to reread this at that point. Thanks!

  6. Excellent. You offer another great tool. I can see clearly your point in sending two groups through the city at different times and getting an opposing perspective. Our world isn't one-dimensional.

    As for the name game, I have such a widespread name that I searched for lesser-used variations before starting my blog. So the people who know me face-to-face call me Pat and the people I've met online call me Tricia. It's an odd feeling, like I've become two or at least added another layer.

  7. Okay, so this is brilliant and awesome. I think I do this on a small scale in my writing, but perhaps not. I certainly love the idea of multiple alias threads running through the characters like that, and all through how I write the prose. Very nice. It doesn't change the plot, but it adds texture - so much texture. I'm in love with that idea. Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Scott!

    Funny thing is, I just barely did this exercise with your last post as I thought up a name for my romance-writing alias. Call me Fox. Ivana Fox.

  8. That was very cool.

    I try to do similar things with layers and using two points of view for the same scene. I also try to have independent themes for select scenes that, when strung together in the full context of the novel, have a different meaning- i.e. the sum is different the the individual parts. What is tragic on a micro level can be liberating from a holistic perspective.

    Great post!

    PS my alias was Art Philmore.

  9. I forgot to post my alias:

    Jonathon I.S. Blunt

  10. This is like those old "Choose your own Adventure" books, but in reverse, as you're writing and overlapping them rather than reading them. Now I'm wondering whether the authors of those books just put all their possible paths in the same novel.

    We still have those at the library, and kids still check them out.

  11. Thanks for the post Mr. Bailey. I have recently done this in my own WIP, without really meaning to and it has definately put a whole other spin on the story.

    Incidentally, I have a real alias, a name that was given to me when I was a serving wench in another life and it has stuck. Twenty years later, people still call me Trudy.

  12. Anne, can I call you Trudy from now on?

  13. This is an interesting and thought provoking post, Scott. I don't think I consciously do this in my writing, but (since I write by the seat of my pants at all times) I probably do something like it without realizing it. This is definitely a worthwhile exercise though, to examine your world and characters through many different eyes. I may have to adjust my conscious process to include this.

    Oh, and I got so caught up in reading your post that I really didn't do the assignment. Sorry. Feel free to place the dunce cap on my head and send me to the corner.

  14. So glad I wasn't graded on this ... I broke out into a cold sweat trying to choose the 'right' alias. That says something about my wierdness, I think.

    But, I really really appreciate this post and the concept of having your bad characters have moments of good behavior and your good characters have moments of bad behavior. It's a great reminder for me to bring this type of depth and complexity of person to my writing.


    and - my alias? Seymour Butts.

    no, jk.

    It was Sydney Wailfly

  15. Yes Michelle you may call me Trudy any time you like, it's funny, because I still do answer to it.

  16. Well, I must admit that Anne sounds more elegant. I guess if I happen to call you Trudy you'll know I'm talking to you. :D

  17. @Tricia O'Brien: "Our world isn't one-dimensional" is exactly the point. This technique of embracing multiplicity of meaning certainly makes stories that are more crashing, messy things than stories that exclude and narrow the focus. I think excluding alternates and narrowing focus is important in short stories, but I don't think that translates well to novels.

    The danger here is that the writing--and therefore any sort of meaning--will become vague, so we still have to write with exactness, with specificity, about all of the variations we include in the tale. You can't just pile a bunch of contradictory adjectives into each descriptive sentence and let the reader figure it out; you still have to carefully construct each element, making it sensible on its own, before sending it crashing into opposing well-constructed elements.

    Goodness, I sound like a boring old man who's swallowed a textbook, don't I?

  18. Scott, this is very fascinating to me. I've mentioned before the idea of having counter melodies in writing--something I've always wanted but was never able to achieve. I think what you describe here is one way to get the counter-melody effect, of having two things happen in a given time and place. I really like that! I've never tried it on my own, at least not intentionally. These big leaps are so exciting!

    My name was Colgate Spears. Don't ask. I was under pressure.

  19. And I wanted to be cool. You know, like Spearmint Toothpaste.

  20. You were already cool, Big Daddy. But now you're also minty fresh and fight tooth decay!

  21. The depth of your thought blows me away sometimes. Such an interesting concept. I love the idea of having "aliases" for the characters. I'll have to think about that. It may be too late for the current WIP, but I'll definitely have to try it in future endeavors.

    It's funny that you mention panicky blankness. That's what it was. I totally felt on the spot. I was going to graded and judged. Weird. The name I came up with? Tara Featherstone.


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