Monday, August 26, 2013

Nom de Plume: To Be or Not to Be?

            Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, Mrs. Leonard has accused my client of sexual harassment arising from the simple act of text messaging a picture of his pride and joy to her client. But yet, let me refer you to Defendant’s Exhibit One, her debut novel. Please highlight and circle every reference to the mattress mambo then render the verdict you find to be appropriate.

            And so begins a recurring nightmare I have that inevitably leads to the internal debate of whether I should use a pen name. I like my name. It’s mine. I answer to it when called. Sort of attached to it. But professional and privacy concerns make compelling arguments to become a superhero and adopt a secret identity. A nom de plume.

            In search of answers, I asked the wise women of Southern Magic who write under pen names for their advice. I posited five questions, and have summarized their responses:

  1  Why do you write under a pen name

The two primary reasons identified for writing under a pen name were personal privacy and professional anonymity.  Seems like I’m not alone in having a day job where my books could set tongues (and judgment) in motion.

However, more than one author responded the pen name was required by her publisher, either for purposes of branding (the author writing in multiple genres) or other reasons.

Unfortunately, more than one author noted her pen name came about because she'd experienced a stalker. In a world where information is a few key strokes away, their concerns are ones we should all share.

Finally, some indicated they went with a pen name because their true names were a little complicated or less marketable. Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) and Joseph Conrad (Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski) were in the same boat.

  2  How did you come up with your pen name?

Most authors chose derivations of their own name.  Some kept their first name while using their maiden names.  Others pulled from family nicknames.  A few used names of their favorite literary characters.  The common thread was that all the methods of choosing a name involved pulling from something personal.  Makes sense. If you are going to tie your writing career to an identity, make sure it means something to you.

One wise author pointed out the benefit not only of baby naming books but also the internet.  She gave the wise advise of searching domains for your possible pen name to make sure they would be available. Great idea! There is an actress who has my same name, and already owns the dot com url for name. 

  3  What are the pros of writing under a pen name?

Keeping your personal and professional life separate. A large number of the Southern Magic authors who responded extolled the freedom that the pen name provided them to write without the concern of what their friends, family and coworkers would think.

  4  What are the cons of writing under a pen name?

This is where the responses were great.  Here were some of my favorites:

  • I've had some Amazon bestsellers and have enjoyed some notoriety under my pen name, including best books of the year on various review sites. My latest release got a mention in USA Today and there's no one I can brag to about it.
  • Forgetting to answer to your pen name in a crowd.
  • You do have to get used to answering to a different name, though, and people who do know you under both names are never sure what to call you. I've been known to refer to myselves in third-person, which is kind of obnoxious but expedient.
  • In all honestly, I can't see many cons.  People change pen names so frequently now, due to the vagaries of the market or in order to write in a different genre, that many authors who began writing under their real name end up with a pseudonym at some point in their career.  I suppose that writing under your legal name offers some protection from someone attempting to copycat it, but other than that, it seems you should do what makes your personal situation easiest.

These answers also bring up the interesting etiquette question: when introducing an author who writes under a pen name in social situations, which name should you use? I always ask the author, but the few times I’ve forgotten I looked like the rudest person on the planet because I danced around the introduction until the author introduced herself.

  5 Any advice for those considering using a pen name?

The ladies said it best:
  • The time to do it is before you publish, when you're first starting to establish your "platform." You're marketing a brand, basically, so you need the brand established from the outset.
  • Keep it short and simple. If you are signing books, you don’t’ want a name that will take you a long time to sign.
  • Choose something that's easy to remember, easy to pronounce, and maybe slightly different from the "pack."  I've heard it said that one should choose a name close to the beginning of the alphabet to avoid "bookshelf fatigue."  Does anyone actually walk into a bookstore and look at all the books in a genre?  Or do they browse the first half of the alphabet and make some selections and then head to the check-out?  Something to think about, at least.  I've also heard that being close to a big name on the shelf, someone like Nora for example, certainly can't hurt your chance of being noticed.  In short, my advice is do what makes you and your family comfortable and happy.

What are your thoughts on writing under a pen name? I’d love to hear your answers and thoughts on these five questions.

Thank you to all the generous Southern Magic authors for the gift of their time and advice.


Chris Bailey said...

Heather, I'm in the middle of deciding. As in, I've decided three times so far, but I'm still not decided-decided.

The tips about checking domain names and picking a quickie for book signings were both good ones.

My main reason for choosing a pseudonym is because, according to, there are about 345 Chris Baileys in the U.S., and 89 percent of them are men.

When I use my middle name, I'm 100 percent female, but there are 1,462 of us.

My own middle name and maiden name? 206. But my own middle name is a bear to sign.

You've got me thinking! I'm a lot closer to deciding. Really.

Lisa Maxwell said...

So I decided to go with a pen name, because at the time I thought I was going to continue editing at Samhain, and red-hot books + YA writer identity... yeah.
I probably should have picked a pen name and used it sooner, because now I'm trying to re-establish everything and build a platform. But I felt like picking a pen name was getting ahead of myself, so there's that.
I kept my first name, because it took me more than a year to answer to Ms. D... when I got married. No way did I think I could remember to answer to a completely different first name :O)

Good luck!

Carla Swafford said...

I say keep Heather (always liked that name) and go for a new last one. :-) Us women are use to that anyway.

M.V.Freeman said...

Excellent Post Heather,

And I agree its very, very hard to decide on what name and when.

I'd like to know what you end up with Heather. :)

Lexi said...

You'll come up with something awesome that fits YOU. Be sure and let us know what you decide!

Angela N. Blount (RedPeril) said...

I completely understand the pen name thing--especially for those with identities/reputations they need to consider protecting. Lawyers, school teachers, political figures, medical professionals... Sometimes you're already getting too much scrutiny and attention with your day job.

I still wonder if I should have chosen one. I might yet, when I switch genres--no reason to confuse/agitate contemporary readers by throwing sci-fi at them. >.< Agitation seems to be bad for reviews.. >.>

Ali Hubbard said...

Great info, Heather! Love your opener too. haha

I like Carla's advice to keep your first name. It has a very positive feel to it. And it should be something you like and that fits you (easy to say).

I decided I'll do a pen name to associate with the steamier books I may write. Ali Something-or-Other. Ali Rio? It's cheesy but it's my name and favorite city- lucky it wasn't Salt Lake, huh?

I thought of using colors or stones or animals. I just feel like I'll know it when I hear it. I'm not sold on Ali Rio. Ali Luca? Luca is a family nickname for me. Luca Rio? It's erotica, why not? lol.

Great info to consider though. I hadn't thought about signing length and place in the alphabet.

For my contemporary/new adult I'd just write under my real name.

Meda White said...

By the time I even thought about using a pen name, I'd already built my website and had several social media sights so the thought of changing everything gave me a migraine. I hope it never comes back to bite me in the butt. Good luck choosing your name. My honey had a ton of fun making up some for me.

Debra Glass said...

Especially in the field of erotic romance writing, I think readers expect a more purple prosey type name. I wish I had used a pen name that more represented the genre in which I write.

I also think there was a time in the late 90s and early 00s when authors opted to use their real names. I imagine a good many of us regret it and wish we'd opted for a nom de plume. :-)

Great post, Heather!

Heather said...

Thank you everyone for commenting! I feel like I should have a "naming" party. Too bad there isn't a sorting hat to use for pen names