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Pseudonyms: How to Choose a Pen Name for Novel Writing

How to Choose a Pseudonym

Pseudonyms abound in writing circles.  What doesn't abound is clear and insightful advice on how to choose the best pen name for a long-term career in novel writing.

Let's have some fun.  Check out the names of these genre fiction authors:  Robin Hobb, Stephen King, Jack Higgins, Rebecca Brandewyne, Issac Asimov, Barbara Michaels, Alistair MacLean, Eboni Snoe . . .

Do they or don’t they?  Write novels under pseudonyms, I mean!

(Keep reading for the exciting answers to your Writing Novels That Sell pop quiz.)

One of the biggest decisions you’ll face as a newly contracted author is whether or not to write under a pseudonym.   Choosing a pseudonym – which is sometimes referred to as a pen name or a nom de plume – will also be one of your greatest creative challenges.  In fact, it's far more difficult to name yourself than to name a character when you’re writing novels!

Whenever fiction writers ask for my advice about pseudonyms, they’re usually wondering:

a) Why do published authors choose to write under a pen name, and

b) How do genre fiction writers choose a “good” nom de plume.

The answers aren’t cut-and-dry.  There are many reasons to write under a pseudonym.  Some considerations are emotional (honoring a relative or mentor); some involve self-protection (keeping aggressive fans from tracking you down); and some considerations are strictly professional (your real name is too complex for the average person to pronounce, spell, or remember.)  

Later in their novel writing careers, some authors choose to change the name under which they write.  A variety of reasons exist for this decision, including:

The author wishes to write in multiple fiction genres or sub-genres.

For example, bestselling Romance novelist Nora Roberts (her real name) decided to try her hand at futuristic suspense. She didn't plan to stop writing Romance.  However, she thought that her core readership might be confused to see a Suspense published with Nora Roberts on the cover.  As a result, she chose to write Mystery under the pseudonym, J.D. Robb.

The author wishes to start fresh.

If an author’s rate of return is 50% or higher (after his third published novel), publishers will shy away from buying that author’s future books. To overcome this “sales stigma”, an author might bury his name (or pen name) and give birth to a new pseudonym, hoping for a second chance with publishers and readers.

Choosing whether to write novels under a pseudonym is a highly personal, and often emotional, matter. It’s important to remember that the decision is, at its core, a business one. Before finalizing your choice, confer with your agent and editor, as well as your spouse.

Your advisers can help you make the best choice for your novel writing only if you’re clear about your long-term career goals.  You need to carefully consider how publicity (both positive and negative) will impact your life, your family’s lives, and any other businesses that you may own now or in the future. 

Most importantly, you need to understand the far-reaching impact of publicity upon your privacy, as well as your right to privacy, under the law, after you become a public figure.

Here are some questions to consider as you decide whether or not to write under a pseudonym:

  • How comfortable are you with having your real name splashed all over the Internet, especially if your writing is being savaged in a blog post or book review?
  • Are you likely to attract more readers in your fiction genre if you’re writing novels as a male or a female?
  • Would your name be easier to remember, pronounce, or spell if it was more generic?  
  • Is your real name so common that it could be easily confused with the name of someone else (for instance, a highly publicized white collar criminal or another author in your fiction genre?)
  • Would you prefer to err on the side of caution, protecting your loved ones from your followers or from any future career fall-out that you may suffer?
  • How comfortable are you with the idea that fans and detractors may be able to find you in the phone book and show up at your house or your place of business?
  • Is your preferred pseudonym easy to spell and remember? 
  • Does your real name invoke a positive association with the fiction genre that you’re writing?  (For instance, if your birth name is Cherry Clapp,  you may face hurdles in the Romance genre.)
  • Are you planning to write multiple fiction genres?
  • Is your preferred pseudonym likely to be shelved at the bottom of a book store's stacks?
  • Is your preferred pseudonym likely to be shelved near the name of a bestselling author in your fiction genre?  (There’s no guarantee, of course, but a reader might stumble across your Urban Fantasy because that reader is looking for “Patricia Briggs” or “Jim Butcher,” and your pseudonym just happens to be "Tammy Brock," which will get you shelved somewhere between Briggs and Butcher.)

Okay:  I promised you some answers to the pseudonym mystery --  “Do they or don’t they write under pen names?”  So here goes:

Robin Hobb (her pseudonym) writes epic Fantasy.  She also writes as Megan Lindholm.

Stephen King (his real name) writes Horror.  He also writes as Richard Bachman, Eleanor Druse, Steve King, and John Swithen.

Jack Higgins (his pseudonym) writes Mystery.  He also writes as Martin Fallon, James Graham, and Hugh Marlowe.

Rebecca Brandewyne (her real name) writes historical Romance.

Issac Asimov (his real name) wrote Science Fiction.  He also wrote as Paul French and George E. Dale.

Barbara Michaels (her pseudonym) writes gothic and supernatural Thrillers.  She also writes as Elizabeth Peters.

Alistair MacLean (his real name) writes Mystery.  He also writes as Ian Stuart.

Eboni Snoe (her pseudonym) writes African-American Romance.

For better or worse, your pseudonym will follow you throughout your novel writing career. It will become your brand, characterizing your public persona and the types of books that you write.  Like any decision, choosing a pseudonym has its pros and cons.  It can offer you a layer of protection from the public and help you retain a degree of privacy. 

A pen name can also be a cause of embarrassment when someone’s shouting at you across the buffet line (because they think you’re deaf) and you’re too busy chasing meatballs to remember that you’re supposed to answer publicly to the pen name, “Miss deWolfe.”

(Naw.  That NEVER happened in my novel writing career.)

While deciding whether or not to write under a pseudonym, I encourage you to research the privacy rights that public figures are entitled to under the law.  That way, you’ll start your novel writing career with your eyes wide open.