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  • [Reality Check] Pen Names, Image & Your Writing Career
This blog was featured on 12/28/2019
[Reality Check] Pen Names, Image & Your Writing Career
Contributor
Written by
Zetta Brown
December 2019
Contributor
Written by
Zetta Brown
December 2019

Some people say that thinking of a pen name is a waste of time when you’re starting out as a writer. You should establish your name before trying to come across as someone else.

Five or ten years ago, I would have agreed with this position, but now, in this day and age of social media, I think having a pen name is very important. I would go as far to say that you should start out with a pen name rather than your legal name.

I wish I did.

Not because I’m ashamed of what I’ve written (time to insert a shameless plug for my book Messalina: Devourer of Men, an erotic romance) but because you never know where life will lead and having your name associated with one thing may detract it from being associated with another.

Some authors have successfully married their pen name with their face and only those who need to know will know their real name(s). Some authors have famous names (real or pseudo) but you wouldn’t be able to pick them out in a police line up.

Chacun à son goût, as the French say. “To each his own taste.”

I know some authors who have cultivated their career and image behind a pen name, and I’m always surprised to discover that it wasn’t their real name to begin with.

In an earlier post, What’s In a Name? Your Reputation, I discuss how your behavior and professionalism can affect your writing career. It’s true whether you use your real name or a pseudonym.

These days, when everyone wants their fifteen-minutes-and-then-some of fame, where even being a Z-List celebrity is the desire for some, your face is often associated with your name.

Some authors have their faces plastered on everything they do. You will definitely recognize them in the street, in the bar, or when you see them in an alley with a prostitute. That’s the price you pay if you choose to give yourself away.

However, I don’t agree with those people—and laws—that say just because you are in the public eye you do not have a right to privacy. That’s bullshit. Paparazzi be damned. EVERYONE has a right to privacy, but you can’t expect to have that right if you give the public easy access to your private life. Princess Diana and other celebrities have learned that the hard way.

I don’t know if any of you are following the Nigella Lawson scandal in the UK where pictures were published of her husband abusing her in public. Nigella is a very public person and an author whose real name and face is plastered on everything she does, and yet, she has set and maintained a very firm line between her private and public life. She has not said anything publically about the incident—at least not yet—if ever. Some are criticising her for not “coming forward” whereas others are respecting her privacy.

I would love for Nigella to make a public statement. I think she’s totally cool. But her actions are speaking louder than her words. She is apparently moving her and her children out of the house and putting distance between herself and her husband. A clear sign that she is not taking things lightly. Yet she has not descended to “reality TV show” theatrics where she has cameras documenting her every move, nor has she resorted to venting all over Twitter and Facebook. Although we may crave for a spectacle, Nigella Lawson is looking stronger for not doing so. She has class, which is something woefully missing from most “celebrities” today.

Nigella Lawson will rise above this situation. Paula Deen however...

So give some thought on how your name—and your face—plays a part in your writing career and your life as a whole. You may be one of the lucky ones where, years from now, you become an “overnight success” and find yourself in the limelight. So you might as well be prepared.

 

* This post was originally published in September 2016.

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Comments
  • Zetta Brown

    @DeLani - I heard a story about an author got "caught out" several years ago when she used a male stand-in for public appearances because she used a male pen name. Some fans felt cheated. If you want to use a pen name and you think gender is an issue, why not use a gender-neutral name? Shawn, Lee, Jackie, etc. Or think of something totally original by using a name one wouldn't consider as a first name? 

  • I am currently wrestling with this topic...on the one hand, I think I want to use a male pseudonym because 1. I already write as a journalist under my own name and 2. sexism in the publishing industry/society in general.

    But I'm not sure if it will be a good way to go...how much harder will it be to self-promote when I can't make personal appearances or even do interviews? It's hard enough to generate buzz and sell books, and I don't want to shoot myself in the foot.

  • Zetta Brown

    One of our authors sent me the following link about the pros and cons of using a pen name.

    http://www.cbc.ca/books/2013/07/whats-in-a-pen-name.html

    Poor J. K. Angry all the way to the bank now she's been outed.

  • Kathleen Kern

    Yes, you're right, it is interesting.  I was just whining.

  • Cynthia Close

    Kathleen, I certainly sympathize with  your situation, but I thought it was interesting to take a look at a well established writer to see what may have motivated her to use a pseudonym - especially in the context of her fame and fortune.

  • Kathleen Kern

    Except that J.K. Rowling has all sorts of time and money to experiment with!  I, on the other hand have to think, do I drop the audience I have built who follow my religious, political and academic writing because some of them (a minority) might be shocked by the language and sexual content of my fiction?  I have a very small, but passionate, following for my fiction at this point.

  • Cynthia Close

    The most recent revelation by JK Rowling (Harry Potter creator) that she used a her pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, to publish her recent detective novel The Cuckoos Calling is very relevant to the discussion we are having here on SW.

  • Helen O\'Reilly

    On this topic, my very favorite contemporary author is Ruth Rendell, whose given name, evidently was Ruth Barbara Vine (she married a man named Rendell). She writes her Inspector Wexford and other more commercial fiction as Ruth Rendell, and her more literary fiction as Barbara Vine.

  • I just started a Facebook Page for SaBrowny Rae Books and in the tips I shared you because I just feel you are a great mentor..I encouraged them to go to your Zetta's Desk and to come here for your Reality check...its at Facebook.com/SaBrowny Rae Books

  • Yes Zetta it will be autographed and I will inbox you will its sent planning on sending it off on Monday

  • Zetta Brown

    @Nicolia - having a pen name is a great way to cultivate an alter ego while keeping the real you private. Everyone has a right to privacy, and just because you write books doesn't mean you have to give up yours.

    @Gynger - Thanks! Don't worry about linking your image with your name because it's been my experience that if/when you meet that person in person, they don't always look like their photo, sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad way. LOL But basically, even though your image may be out there, unless you're in the (inter)national spotlight day in and day out, the number of people who DON'T recognize you will outnumber those who do.

    @Helen - I'd say you did the right thing having different names for your children's writing and your erotic writing!

    @RevLa - I'm glad I can help! I'm sure your great-grandma would be proud of your achievement. I'll keep an eye out for my copy. It will be autographed, right?? ;-D

    @Cynthia - when writing nonfiction, especially memoirs, you have to consider the other people involved. Like you said, there are people you mention who could be upset at what you write. They may, and probably will, sue you. Having a pen name and changing the names of people will help, but it may not be 100% "sue-proof." There are many writers on She Writes that are writing and publishing memoirs and I'm sure they can give you some good advice, but in the end, you may want to check with a legal professional.

    And by the way, everyone, I DO plan on using a pen name for my current WIPs :)

  • Cynthia Close

    Zetta, I had never actually considered a pen name, as all my writing (up to this point) has been commissioned pieces by my editor for magazines/journals (book reviews, film reviews, etc) but I have a memoir that I have hesitated publishing, in part because of family members who would be upset about its frankness - and the reveal all aspects which I feel any good memoir must confront. But perhaps the idea of publishing under a pen name and changing the names of the other players in my book makes sense. Thanks for raising the issue.

  • Thank you Zetta for this post. You are one of the few authors here that has given me direct advice in my walk as a new author and I wondered if I did the right thing writing my fiction work in my pen name. I did it because first of all I wanted to honor my great grandmother who named me that but the name was changed by my father. Second I'm an ordain minister and I write non-fiction in my own name...so reading this has helped me feel better and I thank you for your wisdom...I have your copy coming to you by the end of the week and so honored that you are one of my mentors....She Write ladies are great...smooches RevLa...aka...SaBrowny Rae (my pen name)...lol

  • Helen O\'Reilly

    I struggled with this issue when I wrote my recent novel, Spunk, a Fable, which is most decidedly adult in theme. My pen name had been my maiden name, Helen H. Moore, under which I had a fairly successful career as a writer of children's poetry and educational books. However, I decided to publish Spunk under my legal name, Helen O'Reilly, in part because it's enough of a pain in the keyster to have to think up names for my characters, much less for myself. This is just my opinion, but that's what has worked so far for me.

  • Gynger Fyer

    Thank you for this insightful article. I had to think long and hard about this very thing. I chose to use a pseudonym but, I am open with my image. If I changed genera's I would choose a different name and my image would be anonymous. Social media is a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because it has allowed me, as a fairly new writer, to connect to readers who I would have otherwise never been able to reach but, it's a curse because if you choose to use your image as I have done, it makes you more accessible and not just to your readers. I get male lurkers on my page a good bit. Saying you write erotica is like putting chum in the water. Thank goodness for security on most sites. However, that can only go so far. Things such as blogs are public and you never know who's looking at your pics. I try not to even think about that LOL! I'm glad I didn't use my real name because when I Google my real name, nothing comes up, but when I Google my writing name, everything I've ever written, commented on, signed up for, posted pictures of, is there for all to see. I could go and find the link and try to erase it, but once in cyberspace, always in cyberspace. Fortunately, I am okay with the stuff I've written...for now :)

  • Nicolia

    The name that I use on here and around the Internet (at least with writing related stuff) is my pen-name. I agreed with everything you said. I'm really private, so it made sense to me to use a pseudonym.

    It also did something to me mentally. Once I started setting up accounts and using this name in relation to my writing, I started to think of myself as a writer. In my everyday life, I'm Sanique, but once I get online and start working on my blog or on my writing, it's like an alter ego of sorts and I shift into writer mode.

  • Zetta Brown

    Thanks for the comments, everyone! 

    To those of you who have established a name with one type of writing, you don't have to use a pen name if you don't want to. All I'm saying is that you may want to consider it. You have to construct it like you would any other part of your writing career. 

    For example, we have an author who has written a successful series, but now wants to change his name becvause he wants to reserve his real name for his academic writing. Although he has a following, he isn't "mega famous" (yet!) so he can still afford to establish a pen name. 

    However, if he had put thought into this issue BEFORE publishing his first book and gaining a following, things would be much easier for him now, so in answer to Kathleen's question, I wouldn't wait until you have an agent/editor/publisher interested. Give thought to your writing career NOW. Don't use it as an excuse to keep from writing, but do put serious thought behind it as you develop and work towards your goal.

    Pen names don't have to be secret. If you already have a following and want to use a pen name for a different type of writing--tell them. Some may follow you, others won't. If your Writing Type A is vastly different from your Writing Type B (e.g. academic writing vs. erotic writing) and you want to keep both sides separate, build your pen name's reputation in the same way you did your own. It may not happen overnight, but if you've built a strong following over the last several years, I'm sure you've learned a few things that will help.

  • Kathleen Kern

    I've thought, too, since I've done a lot of academic and other nonfiction writing that if I sold my novels, it might make sense to  have a pen name, but is it the sort of thing you can wait to worry about until you have an agent/editor/publisher interested?

  • Alexandra Caselle

    I think whether you use a pen name or not, you still have to draw the line between your personal and professional life.  I would never think of authors having the problems with paparazzi like celebrities, but I guess it could happen because it is easy to become too conversational on Facebook and Twitter.  But while you build your platform, you want to connect with your followers.  I understand about your comment about your erotica romance. I chose a pen name because my professional/legal name is connected to scholarly/educational writing so I see my pen name as a separate identity because I am venturing into different genres. I also like Josette's question, too. I'm interested in seeing the response to it. Thanks for this post.

  • I think this is such a fascinating topic, particularly in an era where authors are not only expected to be the public faces (or brands, ack!) behind their books, but to also participate actively in social media, which complicates the relationship between an author's personal and professional lives enormously.  Thanks for such a thoughtful post...

  • Josette Keelor

    Thanks for this article, Zetta. This will give me something to think about, but I'm wondering what you would suggest for someone like me who already has an online presence from writing nonfiction and is trying to build a presence for fiction. Wouldn't it be foolish to ignore the six years of newspaper stories I have and start from scratch with a pen name?