Monday, August 22, 2011

What's in a pen name?

By Pamela

Writer Henrik Ibsen--would a
pen name have helped?
Authors choose pen names for a plethora of reasons and I thought it might be fun to talk about what’s behind that pseudonym in the bookshop window.

Famous pen names include: Eric Arthur Blair/George Orwell; Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum/Ayn Rand; Samuel Langhorne Clemens/Mark Twain; William Sydney Porter/O. Henry; and Mary Westmacott/Agatha Christie.

In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King tells of inventing his alter ego Richard Bachman while listening to Bachman Turner Overdrive on the turntable. At the time, King claimed, if an author produced more than one book a year, they were turning them out too quickly. Writing as Bachman allowed King to publish at twice the accepted rate. King kept his identity as Bachman secret for years before an eager bookseller figured it out. In typical King fashion, he faked Bachman’s death in 1985.

Why use a pen name?

Authors site various reasons for penning books with a name other than their own. Some like the anonymity that using a pseudonym provides. With 24-hour Internet access to celebs and stars, authors may wish to keep themselves and their families from eager fans or critics. Others who have a famous last name and would like for their work to be judged autonomously might adopt a pen name—as in Stephen King’s son Joe Hillstrom King aka Joe Hill.  

Writers might use one name to write a particular genre; a second name for a different genre. When a fan finds a particular author’s works appealing, chances are he or she will gobble up the author’s backlist, looking for more of the same. If an author writes romance or women’s fiction in one name (Nora Roberts), she might write a detective series in another (J.D. Robb). You might want readers to enjoy all your titles, but they may only like one side of your writing life. 

Joanne Rowling decided young boys would be more likely to read books about a wizard from someone named J.K. rather than Joanne. Young children are drawn to an author who is himself a character—such as Dr. Seuss over Theodor Geisel or Lemony Snicket over Daniel Handler. 

And would you rather ask advice from Esther Pauline Friedman or Ann Landers? 

Authors who collaborate on projects would either have to flip a coin to determine whose name to use, combine their two names or come up with an original third. (Joan and I pondered this when we co-wrote a manuscript and tossed around names such as Mora Hamm.) The Warriors fantasy novel series is credited to Erin Hunter, but is actually written by Kate Cary, Cherith Baldry and Victoria Holmes. 

Others contribute to an established series and only get mentioned on the title page and not the cover, in a sense adopting as a pseudonym the name of the original author. For example, my daughter and I read The Thoroughbred series together each night, one originally penned by Joanna Campbell and then written by Karen Bentley, Allison Estes, et al. 

Writers have also been known to create a pen name when reinventing themselves and their careers. I’ve met one author who admitted to having mediocre sales in her earlier titles, and then finally hitting her stride in a different genre and resubmitting to publishers with a different name so her previous sales didn’t color their opinion of her new work. It happens. And as writers, perhaps we’re fortunate to have a certain anonymity that allows us to reinvent ourselves. 

In the manuscript Joan and I wrote, our character contemplated a pen name, and her boyfriend suggested using the trick that porn stars are rumored to do: combine the name of your first dog with the street name you grew up on. (Would it work for you?)

If you could choose a pen name, would you? And what might it be?

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