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Pseudonyms

About to head off to the Romance Writers of America Conference in Orlando (tomorrow), so no time to write a new post for today, but I present the third of my Agent Anonymous articles for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America...."What's in a Name" by Agent Sue Dee Nym.

What's in a name?  A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.

 

Okay, but would James Bond really be the same if he went by Izod Lipshitz?  Or Harry Blech.  Or Zaphod Beeblebrox?  Would he still get the girls?  Well, perhaps.  But still, you get the point.

From fantasy to reality, it's long been accepted that names have power. 

To name something is to know it.  Herman Melville understood this when he began his best known novel, incidentally named for the great white whale of the story, with three of the most famous words in literature.  Call me Ishmael. 

So, what's in a name?  Writers take pains to come up with the right designations for their characters, their races, places and creatures.  Why would any less effort go into inventing themselves?  Throughout history many authors have chosen pen names over their own.  The trend continues today.  So, let's examine what might go into such a decision.

1- Let's talk about sex, baby.   (My apologies to Salt 'N' Pepa, who probably didn't mean their lyrics to be the kick-off to an intellectual discussion.)  Historically there've been times when it wasn't considered appropriate for women to write literature or appear on stage or even show their ankles.  For that reason, many female writers adopted male nom de plumes.  (George seemed to be a popular one, good for both Mary Anne Evans, aka George Eliot, and Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright, aka George Egerton.)   Even once it was more possible to publish as a woman, there was often more respect and a larger readership to be gained by using a masculine pseudonym (think of James Tiptree, Jr., who was really Alice Bradley Sheldon, CL Moore, whose given name was Catherine Lucille Moore, Andre (Alice) Norton). Today, while we still occasionally see women choosing ambiguous names (J.K. Rowling, P.N. Elrod, Robin Hobb), we also see the reverse, men who write under female pseudonyms.  Notably, there's historical romance writer and past president of the Romance Writers of America, Leigh Greenwood, and fantastic gothic novelist Madeleine Brent (Peter O'Donnell).  In other words, it goes both ways.

2-Roses are red, violets are blue, I'm schizophrenic and so am I.  I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that most of us here are voracious readers.  We don't stick with one genre or format (epic fantasy, novels only) as readers, so why would we do so as writers?  Sometimes writing in more than one genre means that you do so under more than one name.  (Think Nora Roberts and J.D. Robb.)  Maybe you write both darkly suspenseful and laugh-out-loud fiction.  Maybe you write horror and romance.  Or scholarly work and the unrepentantly commercial.  Chances are, these will have different audiences with different expectations.  You don't want readers of one to be disappointed and maybe turned off when they pick up something that's not what they anticipated, and so you choose to be two different people. 

3- Show me the money!  Publishing is a business.  It may not be just reader expectations you're trying to dodge with a new name, but the numbers game.  Maybe your sales figures have flatlined and you want to revitalize your career, start with a clean slate.  Sometimes this means a new identity.  It doesn't have to, of course.  Maybe you've got fantastic quotes you don't want to leave behind, good contacts and a dedicated fan base.  Sometimes the revitalization can involve a hot new idea, something fresh and brilliantly executed that fires up folks' imaginations and gives the publisher a new way to approach the marketing. This is the kind of thing that's best discussed with your agent and decided on a case by case basis. 

4- I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am.  Maybe someone's already using your name or something so close that it might cause confusion.  Maybe your name is really Archibald Leach (Cary Grant) or the afore-mentioned Zaphod Beeblebrox.  The reasons for using pen names are as individual as the names themselves, which brings me to….

How to chose the right pen name for you.  Well, everyone knows that you take the name of your first pet and the name of the street where you lived, right?  Or is that the formula for your adult film name?  I forget.  Anyway, my two cents:

-Make it short and sweet: something the publisher will be able to blow up on the cover when you make it big.  Ultimately, you're going to want your name above the title.  Foiled and embossed.  The longer the name, the more difficult this is.

-Choose something people can spell, say and remember. 

-Check out the shelves of the genre you're writing in.  What names are right about eye level?  Which are way down by your ankles?  Do a survey of area stores.  Pick a name that will be shelved at about the right level, maybe even close to the works of a writer whose audience you think you'll appeal to.  When readers go looking for their favorite author's latest work and it isn't out yet, well, yours will be right there to console them.

-Make sure it doesn't sound like a pen name: Bubbles Baxter or Sue de Nym…oh wait, that's mine.  Anyway, make it sound authentic and appropriate for the genre in which you're writing.

And then commit.  Once you've got your new name up and running, you've got to sell it.  Register a new domain, put up a website, blog.  You name it.  You'll have to do everything you'd do as you.  Decide with your agent and editor how hush hush the whole thing will be and then have fun.  Feel free to create your persona as you would a character.  There's no saying that just because you like jelly donuts, agent Sue de Nym does as well.  Maybe it's all about the fudge sundaes.  Maybe instead of a ferret you really have a mastiff or an iguana or a club-footed cat.  Maybe you share your home with dust bunnies and camel crickets.  (Perish the thought.) 

But the long and short of it is that you should be smart and have fun.  Isn't that truly what it's all about?  




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Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
hellarms
Jul. 28th, 2010 03:12 am (UTC)
Pen names
I guess my porn name of Edmond Trueheart Everhard will not fit over the title. Damn....
joeicarus.blogspot.com
Jul. 28th, 2010 05:16 am (UTC)
So my porn name is Candy 128th Place? o_O

-o-

I've thought about this a bit, since I have a difficult to spell and difficult to pronounce name. Because I have OCD tendencies, I've also taken a long hard look at the names of science fiction writers I'm familiar with (I suppose I should repeat the exercise with YA authors as well, but I bet I'd see similar results).

I totally get the idea that a smaller name can be made bigger on the front of the book, but it seems to me that readers may like a certain cadence. In my unscientific tally, I found science fiction writers had, on average, four syllables in the complete name as it appeared on the cover. Interestingly (to me, anyway), I found that about 40% of the names I came up with had last names that either were a word, like Bear, Moon, Card, Farmer, Butler, or contained a word, like Silverberg and Sheffield. It'd be interesting (same caveat as above) to see if a more comprehensive study would show the same results, or if other genres are different.

Anyway, sorry for nerding up your comments section. ;)
varkat
Jul. 28th, 2010 12:15 pm (UTC)
Don't apologize. I love it! My study when I chose my pseudonym of Kit Daniels (for Playing Nice) was a lot less scientific. I browsed a lot of bookstores to see which names were at eye level. The Ds were consistently at browsable height. I've always liked the name Kit (from The Witch of Blackbird Pond) and Daniels just seemed to fit well with it.
(Anonymous)
Jul. 29th, 2010 07:24 am (UTC)
I'm always looking for good advice about pen names. To be honest, my real name is long and not very sparkly. It would not fit well above the title, embossed or otherwise.

On the net, I generally used to use character names from some story or other of mine. Now I have a name I use that is short and I like it. Screen names are not necessarily the same as pen names, nor chosen for quite the same reasons, but I think it would make a pretty good pen name, as it is not attached to anything I would be embarrassed to be associated with.
(Anonymous)
Aug. 5th, 2010 05:50 pm (UTC)
Pseudonym
I may be in trouble. Since I write fake autobiographies by an alien interpreter, I can't use my own name. I wanted him to have a name typical of the region where he's from, something kind of dorky, because he is. But the name I gave him is Stephen Anthony Wytrysowski. Hard to remember, long and very bottom shelf. Hmmm, Maybe next to Zelazny? Are we doomed?
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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