The Professional Writer: Pseudonyms & Personas

Hi Folks,

Okay, this post is gonna be about The Care and Cleaning of Pseudonyms and Personas, Part I: The Pen Name. As usual, I’ll start with a definition.

A pseudonym is a pen name. It’s something you use when you want to publish something without allowing others to know you’re the author, or perhaps you want to let them know selectively. Some writers use a pseudonym because doing so makes them feel cool or makes them feel more like a writer. Some want a pseudonym because they believe the pseudonym sounds more like a writer’s name than the writer’s actual name does.

Back when I was a beginning (but very serious) poet, I was slipping in that direction. I mentioned to formalist poet Richard Moore that perhaps I should choose a pen name. He asked why I would do that. I said because Harvey Stanbrough just doesn’t sound like a poet’s name. He laughed, put on that Someday you’ll understand look and said, “That’s because you haven’t written yourself into your name yet. You have to grow into it.” Ah… just as the child must grow into adulthood, so does the toddling writer have to grow into his name. Made sense to me, so I didn’t use a pen name.

Over the next several years, Harvey Stanbrough’s poetry garnered all sorts of attention, to include several major award nominations. Might my work have received the same acclaim had I written it under a pen name? We’ll never know.

But there’s one more major reason for using a pen name: anonymity. That one breaks into two useful categories:

  • the writer requires anonymity because his chosen genre is taboo in some way
  • the writer is already successful in one genre and is testing the waters in another

In the first case, say the pastor of a prominent church is also a writer. His real name is John Smith. Now say John writes action-adventure novels, some of which have passing references to human sexuality. He might choose to use a pseudonym to avoid upsetting some of his flock. But say while writing one of those scenes, he discovers a real talent for writing lurid, passionate scenes that involve a great deal of sweat, heavy breathing, physical contact and slurping sounds. And it doesn’t take place in a barnyard. Should he choose to pursue his new talent, albeit as an author in a decidedly different genre, he almost certainly will do so under a pseudonym.

Or let’s say a police detective chooses to write mysteries in which some parts of the plot are loosely based on old cases she’s worked. She might want to write under a pseudonym to maintain a degree of anonymity as a way of avoiding potential lawsuits.

Or the easy one, at least a few years ago. Today more and more men are writing romance novels openly. But only a few years ago, when a man wanted to write a romance novel, he would take a feminine pseudonym. Would it surprise you to learn that Nora Roberts is actually a man? Well, it should. She’s not a man. (Sorry, I was having a Dave Barry moment there.) But turn about certainly is fair play too. Back when Carolyn Janice Cherry decided to try her hand at science fiction, she realized it was still a male-dominated genre. She began writing as C. J. Cherryh (that’s the correct spelling of the pen name) and never looked back from her perch atop a very successful career. Hey, you can’t argue with success. Well, you can, but you’ll sound really stupid.

But let’s look at the second bullet point. Why would a successful writer ever want to use a pseudonym? Because he or she wants to test the waters in another genre. To take the easy way, perhaps an excellent SF writer decides to try writing romance. Chances are he’ll do well, but who needs chances? Why risk losing his SF audience if he bombs as a romance writer? So he continues to write SF under William Robert Smythe (I’m making this up now) even as he writes romance novels under Wilma S. Roberts and backwoods murder mysteries under Billy Bob Smith. Hey, could happen.

Now just to avoid any confusion (or possibly to create some) I should probably mention ghosting or ghostwriting. When you ghost write, you’re writing a work for hire. That is, you’re being paid to write a book or other work for another person. When the book is published it will either carry the author’s name (or pen name) OR it will be “as told to Your Name or Pen Name.” Or both. I guess.

If you’re an author in your own right and you also ghostwrite for others, possibly you will choose, for good reason, to ghostwrite under a pseudonym. Then again, I don’t know much about ghosting. To learn a great deal more about it if you’re interested, I recommend you attend the SSA Forum* on Sunday, July 20, to hear the tag team of Bob Hunton and Dan Baldwin. Bob will talk about rejection and paths to publication, and Dan will talk about (tada!) ghostwriting and paths to publication. I plan to be in the audience because, seriously, someone has to keep an eye on those two when they’re in the same room. Hope to see you there!

Anyway, overall I think my point here is threefold:

  1. If you’re gonna use a pseudonym, have a reason;
  2. If telling people your pseudonym defeats that reason, don’t tell them; and—
  3. Nope, apparently my point was only twofold. Hey at least it had a fold, amirite?

The next post will be a lot more fun. The subtitle is The Care and Cleaning of Pseudonyms and Personas, Part II: The Persona. In that one, I’m gonna teach you how to lay your ears back and attack in all directions… or something.

‘Til then, happy writing!