To pen name or not to pen name. It really is a question.
My Twitter stream just blew up in rage over this article, and I have to say, it made me wince pretty hard. I’ve read Lamb’s book, and there’s some good stuff in it, especially about how to approach social media. I have a lot of respect for her zeal in wanting to shepherd new writers. On this issue, though, I’m going to disagree pretty intensely with her post which says it’s everyone’s personal choice but is mostly a lot of cheeky-winking-elbow tsk-tsk at some straw men representing the idea of having a pen name. This is something of an interesting reaction on my part, since I do not have a pen name myself.
Here’s the thing about pen names, the simple truth you can take to the bank. Whether you adopt one (or two, or three) or not truly is your choice, and it’s an intensely personal one. Yes, your author name is completely and utterly part of your brand, so whatever name that is should be pretty deliberate. It’s also a huge part of your author identity, the thing you have to cart around in your head. It’s also something you need to live with in your daily life. But the answer of whether or not your personal calculus means you adopt a pseudonym or use your legal shingle is not simple in any way, and it really, truly can’t be boiled down to a few memes.
The Privacy Issue
It’s very true, pen names aren’t quite the privacy shield they used to be. It’s not terribly difficult to unearth someone’s legal name if you’re determined. Yet the reasons for seeking privacy aren’t entirely about escaping death threats and stalkers.
Most writers never quit their day job, which means using their legal name to write fiction (or nonfiction) will result in their writing showing up in online searches their employers absolutely will perform before hiring them or during performance reviews. Not a problem for some genres and topics. HUGE albatross for others.
Women who write sexually explicit material, especially regarding heterosexual couples, sometimes find themselves with passionate, devoted, a little bit too invested male fans…in prison. There is not an epidemic of female authors being harassed by felons, but knowing those fan letters come to a PO Box and not a home address, to a pen name and not a legal name, can be a comforting buffer.
Children and spouses, and possibly other family members can be affected by an author’s use of a legal name.The only times I’ve regretted using my legal name have been in these instances. I write sometimes very sexually graphic LGBT fiction. There have been several instances when my daughter’s friends’ mothers have been politely inquiring about what I do, my child has proudly declared I was a writer, and I held my breath hoping the friendship wouldn’t be terminated because of a Google search. My husband had to undergo a process to work out how to explain what I do at work and how to handle well-meaning coworkers’ requests to read my work. It’s not that he’s not proud of me or that my daughter’s friends have bigoted parents. It’s that if anyone was to have a negative reaction to what I do and judge my family for it, it’s an awkward moment. It’s one that would be easier to filter if I had a pen name. Because writing is my life, not my daughter’s or my husband’s.
I am fortunate in that my in-laws love that I use “their” name to write. They’re proud of what I do and have no compunction addressing anyone who might blink or look askance at their daughter-in-law’s subject mater. Not everyone, however, is that fortunate. Keeping the family peace might be a reason to adopt a pseudonym.
The Identity Issue
Even writing the most benign of topics in the most open, supporting families on topics which help one in the workplace, some authors may choose to adopt a pen name because doing so affords them a separate headspace. Many, many of my friends have pen names, and every single one of them speaks of their author persona by their pen name and as a third person. Jane Author and Jim Scribbler have their own wardrobes and manners of speaking. I’ve even heard some lament that they can’t be Jane Author in real life, and by that comment they mean they’re unable to adopt the same confidence and sense of identity as a layman as they do as an author.
As someone who has found a pleasure in doing drag, I can say I fully understand this power of a separate persona. My alter ego is Calvin Fine, a man who will dance with anyone, flirt with everyone, say and do anything. He will go into men’s restrooms and do photo shoots. He’ll push women and men against pillars and smile rakishly as they melt at the aggression. When I dress him, it really is like putting on a Calvin suit inside my head. Heidi is nothing like Calvin. And yes, there’s a huge comfort in that separation.
Identity doesn’t have to be that intense a reason to adopt a pen name, though. A pen name might be adopted for such a practical reason as being an accountant by day and feeling there is better bang for the identity buck by separating author self from number cruncher. The day job and/or the author gig might be better served by separate identities, on social media or simply in general. I would say identity is probably the biggest reason people adopt pen names.
The Brand Issue
I didn’t choose a pen name for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest was that I had managed to get myself quite a network under my legal name, and I wanted to make it as easy as possible to utilize that network. I also knew I never wanted to go back to teaching in a classroom, and publishing under my legal name put a nail in that coffin in a manner that suited my professional goals. Never look back, never surrender, etc.
For some people pen names are the practical choice, and not just for professional and personal conflicts. Sometimes pen names are important because the legal name would not help one’s brand. Jennifer Crusie is very open about her legal name being Smith, and as she says, “Do you have any idea how many Smiths are out there?” Having the same legal name as a politician, actor, or other public figure isn’t always a help either.
If I were ever to take a pen name, it would be to write young adult fiction. I’d be pretty frank about the connection between Heidi Cullinan and this second persona, but this young adult pseudonym would have her own website and Twitter handle and the whole works. Why? Because some of my works are so explicit and adult in theme they are absolutely not what I’d want a thirteen-year-old to read, and young adult works can and are read by children even younger than that.
My daughter is thirteen right now. There are books of mine I’d be happy to let her read, and there are ones I would say no. I’m not ashamed of what I write and we’re not shy about sex in our house. But I’m okay with saying thirteen-year-olds don’t need to read books about fisting or rough BDSM play. I’m willing to bet a lot of parents would agree. My goal with these YA books would be to make them accessible to LGBT teens. I’d adopt the pen name so it was clear which books were intended for youth and which were for a little bit later.
Marie Sexton did this same thing, though in the other direction. Her books aren’t sweet–in fact, they’re very sexy–but one series she wrote became quite dark and edgy. It’s a great series. It’s also completely and utterly off the Marie Sexton brand. So she chose A.M. Sexton as her edgy pen name, made it clear they were by her, and also made it clear they were not her usual fare. Many of her fans gave it a try, and many of them liked the books. Did it help that they went in with clear expectations of what they’d find from their favorite author? Many of the readers said, directly or indirectly, yes, very much so.
I know authors who are hugely successful under one pen name and who write other series under other pen names and never publicly connect the dots. Why? Lots of reasons, but the bottom line is it’s because it’s their career and their choice and their bus. It works for them. If it works for you, you can do it too.
If you do take a pen name, be smart about it. Google the hell out of it. Brand the hell out of it. Don’t make it something nobody can remember. Don’t make it something impossible to pronounce or spell. Despite Lamb’s insistence any name will work, most authors are not Janet Evanovich, and spelling their name wrong will absolutely land you in an empty Google sea. (This goes for titles too, but that’s another blog post.) Don’t poach–as in, don’t adopt a name incredibly similar to someone successful in your genre and hope for accidental spill. Don’t go to all the trouble of getting to craft your own name and turn into someone so common you’re lost in the meadow of Jenny Smiths.
Do What Works For You
There is no right or wrong answer to taking a pen name or not. Your life will not be over if you keep your legal name. You aren’t spitting in the wind if you take a pseudonym. Your legal name and pen name might be easily linked, but they might also be easily and comfortably separated. You might feel invigorated and protected by your pen name. You might feel ridiculous over pretending to be someone else.
The bottom line is do what works for you. You wouldn’t let anyone tell you what to write or what not to. Same goes for your name. The only wrong choice is doing something that feels wrong to you but someone made you feel bad about in a book, blog post, or convention bar. Be loud, be proud. Whether you do it naked, in drag, or some point in between is entirely up to you.