A Rose by Any Other Name
by MF Wahl Views: 1487
The Ups and Downs of Using a Pen Name
Nom de plume, haigō, takhallus… Maybe you know it simply as a pen name. Call it what you will, it is a time-honoured tradition within the writing world. In fact, not only writers, but artists and even actors use pseudonyms in their craft. This is no secret. Many famous authors, from J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, to Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (“Lewis Carroll”) and even Pauline Phillips (“Abigail Van Buren” of Dear Abby), have used a pen name.
Critically acclaimed authors have been known to use a nom de plume to disguise their fame. They often wish to know if people will still enjoy their writing if they’re a “nobody”. Stephen King, one of my personal favourites, was outed as Richard Bachman in 1985 when a suspicious bookstore employee began snooping at the Library of Congress. All told, King wrote five books as Bachman (Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, The Running Man, and Thinner).
Of course, if you aren’t yet lucky enough to be swimming in a bathtub of your writing-related earnings and dodging autograph seekers day and night, you might wonder if a pen name is something you should consider.
The short answer is: Yes.
PROTECTION & PRIVACY
One big reason authors choose a pen name is to protect their identity. Maybe you’re writing politically charged satire, hard-core BDSM erotica, or you’re just a heart surgeon writing Harry Potter fan fiction. You may not want the public, your boss, your neighbours, or your family knowing who you are. There are many writers out there whose real names are shrouded in darkness and only known by their publishers, their bankers, and their lawyers.
For some authors using a pen name is necessary to avoid shame and stigma, or even to avoid jailing and death. For instance, many Arab women, particularly in Iraq, publish under a pseudonym to avoid bucking cultural trends (Arab Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide, 1873-1999 By Ferial Jabouri Ghazoul, Hasna Reda-Mekdashi).
In fact, women all over the world have been known to take male pen names, if not for protection then to be taken more seriously. Authors such as Mary Ann Evans (“George Eliot”), Alice Bradley Sheldon (“James Tiptree”), and Charlotte Bronte (“Currer Bell”) all made large contributions to society with their writing while hiding their gender from the public. Others, such as Louisa May Alcott (“A. M. Barnard”) simply used initials to create ambiguity and allowed gender bias to do the rest.
Women aren’t the only ones looking to don the opposite sex’s name. Men have been known to take a female pen name as well. Tom Huff (“Jennifer Wilde”), Mike Hinkemeyer (“Vanessa Royale”), and even good ol’ Benjamin Franklin (“Mrs. Silence Dogood”) all fooled the public into thinking they were of the fairer sex.
Of course, not everyone takes a pen name because of politically charged reasons or to hide their gender. Fun fact: the beloved children’s book author Dr. Seuss’s name is actually Theodor Geisel. As a college student Theodor threw a wild party. It earned him a rap sheet for breaking federal prohibition law and he was fired from his job as editor-in-chief of his college magazine. To hide his misdeeds from the public he forever after wrote under his middle name, Seuss.
FIT IT ON THE MARQUE
Another major reason writers use a nom de plume is because their name just doesn’t have that je ne sais quoi. It’s too long, too male, too female, too ethnic, not ethnic enough, or just plain unmarketable. If your name is Princess Guinness McDraughty-Jerico and you’re writing… well pretty much anything, you’ll probably want a name that will encourage people to take you more seriously. Readers may judge a book by its cover, but they also judge an author by their name.
BLEND INTO THE GENRE
Within the same line of thinking as “fit it on the marquee” many authors like to choose a name that fits their genre. A horror writer might try to find something a little spooky, or an erotica author might choose something with a bit of sexiness to it. Some pen names are subtle about this, and some are obviously tongue in cheek.
If you decide to head down this route with your pen name you should do a little research. It’s up to you to judge your readers and decide how far you’d like to take your pen name, and how it will be taken by the public.
THE WRITING TEAM
When teams of writers work together on a book, or several different authors work on a series of books, one name is often used. A great example of this is the well-known Nancy Drew series. Attributed to author Carolyn Keene, the series was actually penned by several different ghost writers hired by the Stratemeyer Syndicate.
TO STAND OUT
If you have the misfortune of being named John Doe, and you want your readers to be able to find you, you have an uphill battle. A quick Google search of “John Doe Author” gives page upon page of results, for all sorts of different writings. Likewise, an Amazon Kindle Store search brings up 4 pages of results for books written by John Doe.
Either John Doe is the most prolific writer in the history of the universe, or—and hear me out on this one—there just might be more than one John Doe.
Some names are a dime a dozen in the writing world. If you’re literally named “John Doe”, or there’s another author with your name—especially if that author also writes your genre—then you’d better get yourself a pen name, and fast.
IT’S A PERSONAL CHOICE
You’ll want to take a hard look at whether you should be using a pen name or not.
Take into consideration everything from the length and sound of your name, to the genre of your book. Your name is your calling card and is often all readers know about you.
It can be a hard decision. I can understand that. Some writers feel like they’re being dishonest when they adopt a pen name because it hides who they truly are. I, for a long time, used my pen name, M.F. Wahl, to hide my gender. In fact, I recently wrote a guest blog over at Darkness Dwells discussing this very fact (you can check that out here).
Not true maybe, but not a lie either. If you use common sense when choosing your name, and you’re not using one to hide legal obligations to a publisher or the like, you’re in the clear. Not only is it acceptable for an author to use a nom de plume, it is often expected and celebrated.
One final note. If you’re a Masher using a pen name, we’d love to hear about it, and your reasons why, in the comments.