Friday, February 18, 2011

The secret identities of authors

At a conference last fall, I sat in on a few sessions where authors pitched their stories to editors.

One session had maybe a dozen authors, and I was surprised when at least four of them began by announcing, “my name is Jane Smith, and I’m writing as Suzie Brown.”

OK, they didn’t all use those exact names, but you get the idea.

More surprising to me than those introductions, however, was the fact that the editor stopped each author after that.

“Why are you using a pen name?” she asked.

Sometimes, the author had a good reason – a churchgoing family of five and a fondness for writing steamy lesbian erotica, for example.

But at least one author blinked at the editor with a confused expression. An expression that said, “I thought making up a pen name was the first thing a new writer is supposed to do.”

I know that look because I once had it. I’ll admit that one of the first things I did the summer of 2002 when I decided to try my hand at fiction was conjure up a good pen name.

Well, good may not be the right word. Atrocious might be more appropriate.

I don’t know why a pen name seemed like a more logical first step than, say, reading a book on plotting or joining a writers’ group.

But I know I’m not the only author to think that way. I’ve heard the same story from tons of others. Some have perfectly legitimate reasons for it – a real name that’s too common or unpronounceable, or a secret career as a spy.

I’m curious why the editor asked the question. Was she watching for signs that a newbie author had her head so far in the clouds she was more enthralled by the idea of a nom de plume than learning the craft or the business side of publishing?

That certainly would have been true for me back in 2002.

But like I said, there are perfectly legit reasons for using another name.

Once I got serious about writing, I never again considered a pen name for my fiction career. In a funny ironic twist, there was a brief moment last fall when the issue came up again. I was interviewing for a new marketing/PR job and wondered if I should offer to use a different name there. I knew the job required occasional high-profile media stuff, and I worried the organization wouldn’t want public ties to an author known for risque humor.

It never became an issue, since it turned out they were delighted to embrace my smuttier side. Still, it was the first time I’d given much thought to pen names in years.

Do you use a pseudonym for writing? If so, why? If you don’t, do you have any early moments where you toyed with the idea? Please share!

Oh, and before you ask, I’m not sharing that early pen name. Not even if you hold me down and tickle me until I pee. Some things are just too embarrassing. Yes, more embarrassing than throwing up in my underwear or spitting gristle in someone’s purse. That bad.

44 comments :

Laina said...

I thought about it when I was younger (like preteen, when I assumed all authors got stalked by the paparazzi :P ), but apparently I've given up on that... XD

Laina said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jess said...

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, because I'm getting ready to query a YA manuscript but the book I want to work on while querying is a paranormal romance (I'm not agented yet and don't see a reason to limit myself at this point). The only way I'd use a pen name, I think, is if I were writing in these two very different genres. I assume if the YA gets me an agent then I'll have to re-think how I want to approach branding, but ultimately, I just wouldn't want to confuse the teenagers...

SM Schmidt said...

I have a super super common first name. Growing up there were 7 girls with my name in grade school, 3 in jr high and high school and college once or twice. But as great that story is behind the deterrent of using my real name, the truth is a little blander.

Work is the real reason I am using a pen name. Er future work, after I eventually finish getting my degrees. I read on an agent's blog, right before I jumped into twitter and blogging, that some companies could be uncomfortable depending on what the author wrote. With this economy I figure getting a job would happen before landing a book deal so work gets my real name.

Delphine Dryden said...

I was still working for the public schools when I was first published, so I had to have a sooper sekrit identity (also I have two young kids and live in the Bible belt). Since I HAD to do it, I figured I'd pick something that sounded just as ironically pen-name-y as possible without being plain idiotic (seriously, I made a study of pen names, I had spreadsheets and everything to track about a dozen different characteristics of author names among the entire membership of RWA).

The name made me smirk every time I saw it in print for about a year. But now I admit I sort of like it, which is just as well since everybody in the book-writin' world knows me as Del now. And Delphine Dryden looks much better on a cover than my actual name. So I think the main thing is to choose wisely if you do decide to use a pen name, as you may end up stuck with it indefinitely. You don't want to end up being known for eternity as Eroginique Sexypants or whatever.

Jayne said...

Although my published writing is under my real name, I do use a pseudonym for my blog. I use my blog very much like a diary, in a way, and wasn't a happy bunny when I started it, so chose a name that honours my Nan, who was a very strong independent lady. As my blog has grown I keep the pseudonym to keep it apart from my full-time job, which is based in online media. But when the day comes when my novel gets published (sings Oh Happy Day!) then I would go for it under my real name. :)

Karla Nellenbach said...

Weirdly, that is one of the first questions people ask me when they find out I'm a writer. Why aren't you going to use a pen name? Don't you want to keep your privacy, considering all the crazies out there? Like they all think that not only once I finish a novel it will be instantly published but that I will become an overnight Stephenie Meyer or James Patterson..thus garnering the attention of my very own stalker. To which, I reply: Having an obsessive fan is the first sign that I've arrived.

But seriously, why worry about a pen name...well, unless I suddenly decide that not only do I want to write YA but steamy erotic novels following the super kinky sex lives of secret ninja assassins. Then, I might have to come up with some alter ego/secret identity...maybe...

Angela Perry said...

I went the pen name route. All my first work is published under an atrocious pen name. I finally dropped it, because I realized that it was cheesy.

I chose another pen name, but dropped it before I published under it. (I didn't do enough research first, and it turns out my chosen pen name was used by a popular author to publish lesbian porn.)

For now, I'm sticking with my real name. If my agent or publisher want to talk pen names, I'll be happy to listen. They've got a lot more experience than I have. Regardless, I think a pen name is the last thing a writer should worry about :)

anaquinn.com said...

I am using a pen name, but it was well-thought out. My married name is 11 letters long and illogically spelled. My maiden name starts with BOR, and I just didn't think that conveyed happy, peppy romance writer. My (real) first name is Susan, but I grew up as SusiQ. This name was so prevalent that a lot of people who didn't know better actually thought my last name started with a "Q," so I decided to embrace it. Quinn has always been a favorite name of mine, so it was a natural choice.

I couldn't use Susan with Quinn because of Susan Kaye Quinn (YA Author), so I used a shortened version of my great-grandmothers name.

Seriously, a part of me wishes I could permanently change my name to my Ana Quinn. I imagine it would be much easier to fit on the little lines on credit card slips! :-)

Malin said...

I have considered changing my actual name to something that sounds cooler on a cover, but never wanted a pen name. For me it's a matter of pride and identity. I am a writer, even when I hate writing, and hate myself for writing, and think I suck. Through it all, writing is the only thing I ever really Want. So, putting my own name on the cover is a matter of stating "this is me".

Elise said...

The sad truth is I have too much of an ego to even consider a pen name, though I did go by "Mittens" in my smutty mystery party days. And stuffed my bra with an entire drawer full of socks. And walked into a mall like that to get my picture taken with Santa. But that's another story.

I am, however, dying to know that early pen name of yours. Would it help if I said I know a bondage "actress" who went by " Debbie Jointed?"

terripatrick said...

I have a double first name so had the choice of which to use for my author name.

My last name is often misspelled and mispronounced to refer to a personal sanitation system.

Therese Patrick writes memoir, Terri Patrick writes romance.

Leah Petersen said...

At the beginning I toyed with the idea long enough to come up with a few names. I have a situation similar enough to 'a churchgoing family of five and a fondness for writing steamy lesbian erotica' that it seemed a way to avoid complicating my life.

But also, I have a common name that spelled "wrong." Admit it, you didn't notice it was "en" not "on" either. So I worried it would make me hard to google or whatever. (Interesting find: I'm in the top three google results of the misspelling of my name.)

I didn't go with a pen name and I'm glad. I'm too easily confused. :)

Cyndi Tefft said...

Del- Eroginique! That's awesome. hehehe

I think if I ever write erotica, I will use the pen name J.K. Growling. It makes me giggle.

Patty Blount said...

People are making me crazy about this. Now that I have an agent, everyone's excited for me and expect my novel to be on sale already. When I explain the process, their next question is always "Will you publish under your real name?"

Isn't seeing your name on a book spine part of the thrill?

Now I'm all frightened about stalkers showing up on my door step. I even checked with my employer's HR and Legal departments to learn if they are opposed to me using my real name. (They're not.)

Kind of sucking the fun out of the joy I'm finding in my achievements.

So. Now the next dilemma: Patty Blount? Patricia Blount? Patty Ann Blount? GAH!

Linda G. said...

I don't think I'll use a pen name. Not letting my family off that easy. ;)

Deirdre Randall said...

I've actually considered it because I am not the first Deirdre Randall to actually think of writing a book (and here I thought I had an interesting, unique name) turns out the other Deirdre Randall likes babies and writing baby self help books - theres another that does author pep talks and helps with branding onesself. Interesting, i think. Anywhoozle. I have considered changing to what my married name will be (squee! in 4 months!) of Deirdre Puff (yeah no lie!) but I think that might be a bit too much unique in one..name.

But damnitall I like my name. Like a LOT. I considered naming my first child Deirdre the second... still do occasionally.

Sofie said...

I've done both. When I use my real name I get asked why I'm not using a pen name. When I use my pen name I get asked why I'm not using my real name.

Betty Blue said...

I used a pen name for writing lesbian erotica initially, and then decided I liked it so much I wanted it to be my legal name, so I changed it. Meanwhile, the writing I really wanted to have published is fantasy, and while it contains some erotic elements, it is definitely not erotica. I figured publishers would be reluctant to accept traditional fantasy by an erotica author, so I chose another pen name. (Not my original name, which I’ve always thought was rather boring.)

Now that I’m getting closer to publication, I’m starting to wonder if I’m making a mistake. Will I regret it later? Or am I right to keep these two personae separate?

kd easley said...

I use a pen name, sort of. My nickname since I was a kid was Kadi, short for Kathleen. No one knows how to pronounce Kadi if they see it written and no one spells it right if they hear it. They always spell it Kati, Katie, Catie, well, you get the picture.

For some reason It always drove me nuts when people spelled or pronounced my name wrong so my pen name is KD. It's not possible to pronounce it wrong, but it tickles me because I pronounce it the same as my name and Others give the to letters extra emphasis like they are in bold face type. I also chose the initials because it's more gender neutral and I didn't want to scare off male readers. Though if they look at the author photo in the back the secret it out.

My first Pen name idea, T Raye Davis. A mixture of my name, my maiden name and my mothers maiden name. I still might use it one day, it has an interesting ring to it.

Sarah W said...

I thought about writing under my maiden name, but that's always an option if I switch genres. Or, you know, get published.

I've also always wanted to write hard-core erotic detective-noir under the name "Dirk Turgid." But that's a story for another day.

Candyland said...

Hahahaha...the gristle in the purse gets me every time. Haha...

Danica Avet said...

I knew I didn't need a pseudonym to write, but I wanted one. I work in a predominantly male company and I write erotic romance. The last thing I wanted was to be a scene similar to the condom tree scene in Lethal Weapon, which yes, it would've happened. Although knowing my co-workers it might've been escort service numbers, or vibrators placed around my office. Besides that though, I don't like my real name. *sniff* I chose Danica because I thought it was pretty and now I sometimes have a hard time remembering what my real name is anymore!

Teri Anne Stanley said...

I am a pen name girl. Partially because I KNOW I'm going to be incredibly famous soon and don't want paparazzi camped outside of my house. Partially because my evil twin is a good Catholic Soccer Mom, and her kids might be embarassed. Partially because I am a scientist in real life, and science geeks frequently don't take the romance genre seriously (I'm working on changing that, however).

Mostly, however, I chose a pen name because I wanted one. I have never really loved the name I was born with. Not that the one I made up is any better, but hey, it's all mine!

Rick said...

I strongly considered - and attempted - one when I first started blogging/blogging about my writing. I work in a sensitive field on the day-job front and have a fairly unique name (oddly enough), so people are prone to find both my professional writing and writerly ramblings when they search for me.

The angst and level of hyper-awareness required to divorce my two identities from each other, though, proved way too much of a PITA.

So I figure at this point, I'll just have to deal with it.

Patrick Alan said...

I am a pen name of sorts. My last name is missing. It is absolutely unique. Patrick MyLastName brings you right to me. There is not another one over the age of 5 in the world. And I say that because I don't know what all my cousins have named children or even the generation after that.

I don't care who knows on either side, but for people meeting me - as a consultant - they need to have a great deal of confidence in me. I don't want them googling me until my current career is more optional than it is right now.

Plus, if an agent thought my blog/twitter was detrimental to my career, it could easily disappear.

R.L. Naquin said...

I'm using my maiden name and my initials. My husband is also a writer working toward publication, and we write in the same or similar genres. Sounds insane, but I don't want our books alphabetically lined up together in the bookstore. Neither of us want to be Tabitha King. We both want to succeed on our own merits and not have people thinking (true or not) that one rode the coattails of the other.

The initials are for two reasons. Like KD said, it's more gender neutral. But also, my name has too many sharp edges for my taste. R.L Naquin softens it. Rachel Naquin is pointy and sticks in my mouth.

Sharla said...

I thought about it when I was single and first started writing years ago. My name was Sharla Lovelace...and well...yanno... I grew up with the name and I'm used to the hardy-har-har humor, but figured putting it in print might bring some unwelcome issues.

Then I got married. And being a double "S" kinda rolls off the tongue... Sharla Scroggs... so I decided to go with the real me. :)

lora96 said...

I thought of using the KD/RL-esque initial thing for gender neutrality's sake, but I realised I'd never been neutral before so this was no time to start. It would have been L.E. so "Lee" would make a simpler pen name. One doesn't want to be confused with L.E. Modesitt (Okay, *I* know who he is!).

I'll stick with my name...my maiden name (although the whole maiden idea just pisses me off utterly)...

Noelle Pierce said...

I use a pen name because I write erotica and romance with steamy scenes and I teach college-level psychology. Ethically, I don't think it's appropriate for my students to know the kind of sex scenes I'd like.

I experience an identity crisis when I meet other writers in person, though, because most of them know me as "Noelle," but RWA and my local chapter have my real name.

Laura Maylene said...

I think I'm too vain to use a pen name. :) I do use my middle name, though, because without it, my name is too common. But no one in the regular world calls me by my middle name, and all my work-related writing is published without the middle name. So sometimes it feels like I do have two names anyway. And for all the people who mentioned using their maiden names...I'm married but did not change my name. Even if I had taken my husband's name, I'd still be writing under this one!)

I don't really believe your pen name could be THAT bad. Come on. Share. Otherwise, we'll have to start making up even more atrocious names as we guess. Ball's in your court, Boobsie McLusterson.

Jen J. Danna said...

I don't write under a pen name, per se, but rather under my maiden name. My reasoning is two-fold - I wanted to separate my professional scientific career publications and my fiction writing, and my maiden name is mine, not my husband's or his family's name. So Danna it is. And truth to be told, I have two legal names (in Ontario, when you get married, you assume your spouse's name but don't legally change it, so you end up with two recognized legal names) so it's fine to use my maiden name on contracts etc. That made it easier.

Abby Minard said...

Okay so this sounds awful, but I thought of using my maiden name for the sole purpose that people who knew me in High School would know I wrote a book. Since half of them don't know my married name, they'd never know it was me. But I'm passed that, and like my married name better. So I'm using that. The only other thing I toyed with was using Abigail or Abby. But I write YA so I thought Abigail would be too formal. So I stuck with my nickname.

Leona said...

I've worried abou the pen name thing for a while. I finally came to this conclusion.
1) I'm going to use the same last name. I'm branding myself on twitter with that last name.

2) I already have a science fiction out under my real name so Sci-fi fantasy work will be under that name.

3) My first names will all start with L.

4) and a pen name is necessary. I'm not the norm in my neck of the woods. People who love fantasy don't love erotica and vice-versa. I have written, two thrillers, a paranormal erotica, a fantasy, and a lot of shorts and a couple of other full lenghts in last 1-2 years.

I can't have my grandma picking up the demon eroitca. She can say my fantasy isn't good because it contains magic or my sci=fi not to be read cuz of the psychic elements, but she wont' be shocked down to her pretty little toes.

I'm weird. I know. It's why I like Tawna so much! LOL

PS My latest is a dark parnormal female noir...my brain is so not right!

Karin said...

Of course I use a pen name! And not only that: I write in a foreign language, I'm published in a far away continent and I use a male protagonist. All that, I think, in order to get as far away as possible from anything that could be remotely similar to me. Always thought of this as the natural thing to do. Your blog makes me wonder if I should perhaps see someone about it.

Catherine Stine said...

I was advised not to use one, unless I was writing in another genre entirely from my normal one (and even then, not necessarily). I have a well-published friend in adult thrillers, who started out using one, and then became really bummed out about it. In her new series, she took the plunge back to using her real name and is very happy about it. It's kind of like getting a tattoo: you need to think very hard about it, because once you've published with a pen name it's hard to take it back.

Bethany Mason said...

Bethany Mason is my pseudonym - simply because I really hate my name and for some reason no one can pronounce my surname (Epps, if you're curious).

However, I have considered using my real name just so everyone from high school will know I wrote a book! Abby - you're not alone.

HoldenLyric said...

Now I really want to know your pen name! haha

You built it up, now we've got to hear it!

I used a pen name when I wrote for the newspaper in high school, mainly because I wrote a story that was pretty close to me, and in high school, everyone's out to get you.

I don't know if I'll use it for my book. Currently, my actual name is on the title page, but since the main character is a guy, I feel like it would lose some credibility.

Oh, and my pen name is the name you see here. haha

Jan Markley said...

I was more than happy, and proud, to use my own name on my novels. Though, I did wrestle with what version of my name to use (short form, initials etc.,).

Janalynne Rogers said...

I worry that my name is too long. For a while I used Jailyn to sign everything (I still own jailyn.com), but I feel more authentic being Janalynne. Rogers is pretty harmless (and it's my maiden name) and I'd like my dad to be proud when he sees it in a book store. So Janalynne Rogers it it.

Matthew Rush said...

I'm almost certainly going to have to use a pen name if I can ever get a novel published. In fact, I've used the pen name Matthew MacNish to publish short stories.

I have a legitimate reason to do so. If you doubt me turn off safe search and do a Google image search for Matthew Rush. You will not be disappointed.

maybeandthewolf said...

My pseudonym follows the ever popular Plain First Name Plus Last Initial formula (Alice M.), and my real name is just as bland.

So why? I don't have Cary Grant's embarrassing real name, and my real life is actually kind of cool and not mortifying at all.

It's because I'm happier this way. I just like my privacy. I like being able to choose what I show people.

Eventually, if I'm successful, the truth will out. I'm lukewarm about this prospect. I don't have anything to hide (apart from the fact that I'm getting old and fat, but isn't everyone). It wouldn't be the end of the world, but on the other hand, I'd prefer to stay anonymous.

Allie Sanders said...

I'm a little late to this party but I will admit that Allie Sanders is not my real name...well, it kind of is. I got married in August of 2009 and since then ONE person has managed to get my name right. My own mother cannot spell my name properly because my husband has one of those horrible names where people insist on adding letters to it. My bank has refused me money because they couldn't type it properly and because my boss spelled it wrong.

Instead of coming up with a perfect name for my genre I went the easy route and used the name I'd been giving people for 20 years instead of my new one that not a living soul could ever remember. If it took me 3 years to learn to spell what hope do I have for readers to remember it?

Gen said...

I know I'm about a week and a half late on this bandwagon, but I thought I could make a last ditch leap.

Genette Wood is my pen name. Legally, Genette is my middle name, and Wood used to be the second half of my dad's last name (the first half I use as a generic character name).

My real name [A] is impossible for most people to spell and [B] links me to a family of $$-suckers. I'd rather them not know I wrote a book.

So there's my 2¢ worth. Love the blog, Tawna!