Why do you use a pen name? I get this question all the time. New writers ask this all the time too. I’ll tell you my story, but first let’s talk about the reasons a writer might choose to use a pen name. Then we’ll talk about how to choose one right for you.
Why use a pen name?
There are many reasons to have a pen name. Each reason is unique to the person. My reason is not one I’ve heard about from any other person. More on that in a bit.
You might have professional reasons like you write erotica, but teach 3rd grade and don’t want people to associate teacher you, with erotica-writer you. Maybe you are writing a whistleblower novel about the horrors of such and such industry, but don’t want to lose the soul sucking job that puts food on the table for your family. Hey, sometimes we do what we must. Perhaps you are a VP at an accounting firm but you write about unicorns and rainbows for little kids. A great way to de stress from a highly stressful job I would guess, but might cause some talk (and giggles) in the break room.
Some reasons are practical. A common one is that your name is long and difficult to pronounce, not to mention spell. Imagine trying to spell Bezuidenhout to search for a book. Or tell your best friend about this great book by Bezuidenhout, but you are not sure how to pronounce it.
Perhaps your parents named you after their favorite author, Ursula K. LeGuin. You probably shouldn’t write under that name. Ethics and all. Or perhaps your parents had a horrible sense of humor when naming you. Steven Stevenson. Elle Vader. Augusta Wind. (Honestly, I’d legally change my name.)
Perhaps naming an alter ego gives you freedom to write more authentically in anonymity. You needn’t fear judgement from friends and family if they don’t know it’s you.
Gender Bias is still a thing. Bias is hard and time consuming to eradicate. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a way to go yet. Many female authors choose to use their initials with their last name like K.M. Weiland, J.K. Rowland, and S.E. Hinton. Male authors do this as well. Romance is now dominated by female authors, so men might choose to use their initials to overcome the female bias in the romance genre.
Yes, Virgil, There Are Men Writing Romance: Focus on Romance 2012
The Gender Balance of The New York Times Best Seller List
That’s not the only reason for using initials. You could use initials to shorten a long name. You might also use initials to create a bit of sophistication or mystery around the author. Initials could help differentiate a common name. Imagine George Martin with out his initials. George R.R. Martin is much more distinct.
Sometimes authors who publish in different in different genres have a variant of their name using initials. Victoria Schwab writes for children under her full name. She uses V.E. Schwab for her adult novels. Joanna Penn differentiates her fiction from her non-fiction with a pen name. J.F. Penn is the name for her fiction books.
You could also use totally different names for different genres. David Farland (a pen name) uses this name for his fantasy books and Dave Wolverton (his given name) is for his science fiction books.
Team Effort- Collective Names
Sometimes a pen name can be used for multiple authors. The Warrior Cats series is actually written by Victoria Holmes, Kate Cary, Cherith Baldry, Inbali Iserles, Tui T. Sutherland, Kasey Widhalm and Rosie Best under the name Erin Hunter.
Carolyn Keene was actually several ghost writers.
James S.A. Corey, author of The Expanse, is actually a collaboration between two people.
We could talk about these reasons forever. I’m sure there are as many reasons as their are authors who use a pen name. Want to hear mine?
My Pen Name Story
Now for my story. My maiden name is Mary Johnson. First, that is very, very boring. I’m 25% Canadian, 25% Swedish , and 50% 17th generation American.
My husband is a 4th generation American whose family was from Spain. When we married, I took his last name, Herrera. Living in Texas, people tend to assume 2 things:
- My husband and I speak Spanish. We don’t. My sister picked up Spanish pretty easily on a mission trip to Mexico. I, however, failed Spanish class twice!
- Our family is from Mexico. We’re not. There is nothing wrong with that, it is just an incorrect assumption.
Another factor in my decision to take a pen name is that the publishing industry is trying to diversify. They are seeking #ownvoices writing. Which means they want writing of varying perspectives from people who live those perspectives.
I am a white woman, with all the privilege that comes with being a white woman. If I submitted a manuscript to an agent looking for a story by a minority, they might think with the last name Herrera, that I qualify as that. But I’ve not faced the struggles of a minority. It would not be right to get a book deal like that and take the place of a genuine minority.
So I chose a pen name, one that matches my Euro/American heritage and culture.
How do I Choose a Pen Name?
There are many factors you might want to consider.
- You want a name that fits with the genre you write.
- Easy enough to spell/pronounce Kahleesi might be off-putting for someone trying to pronounce or spell it in a search for your book. How does it sound when you say the two names together?
- Not too long. The name should fit nicely on the book cover.
- Not too boring. Mary Johnson is about as plain-Jane as it comes. If I had used my maiden name I’d have used a middle initial or gone with MK Johnson. Even that is kind of boring.
- You might want to choose a name that has meaning to you. Some people choose a family name. Brewster, Broomall, Van Horn are some of the last names I could have chosen from my family line.
- Is anyone else already using the name? Do a Google Search. You will likely find others with the same name, but check to see if there are any who are authors, or in a profession you don’t want to accidently be associated with.
I fell in love with this name in the late 90s. I noticed the spelling of it on the credit roll of Star Trek Voyager for Kathryn Janeway. I love the character as well as the spelling of her name. The character is a strong woman who leads well and yet remains feminine.
I write fantasy and science fiction, so I decided to go for an old medieval last name. Often names were based on the family occupation. Fletchers were people who fletched arrows, or put feathers on the arrow.
I also have positive associations with the name as well. My first grade teacher was named Fletcher and became a family friend of ours.
I also grew up watching Murder She Wrote and dreamed of being a writer as a child, so Jessica Fletcher had an influence on me.
Checking the Name
I Googled the name and found another author by the same name, but she has only written one book 4 years ago. There is also a doctor of psychology with the same name and a number of other people. The name is fairly common, but I have yet to find anything that would negatively associate with the name.
This might be a good book for you to learn more about the legal aspects of your authorpreneur business, including using a pen name.
Is it right for you?
That is completely up to you!
I also have a chapter in my book, From rough Draft to Published, that covers the steps necessary for setting up your pen name legally.
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