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Nom de Plume… Pourquoi?
By Tracy Pomerinke

Why writers edit, revise and rewrite their own names (and a few things to consider before you do the same!)

If you’re a not-yet-recognized writer, the thought of using a pen name may seem inconceivable. After working so diligently for a byline, you can’t imagine not wanting to take credit for your work and seeing your name in print. On the other hand, if you’ve been publishing for years, you might look back on old writing and wish that you’d never put your real name to such drivel.

Next time you pick up a magazine, or browse the library for a book, be on the lookout for writers appearing incognito. Vampire novelist Anne Rice publishes erotica under the pen names A.N. Roquelaure and Anne Rampling. James Alfred Wight published stories of creatures great and small under the name James Herriot. And Pulitzer-Prize winning cartoonist Herbert L. Block published biting political humor under the pseudonym Herblock. While the Washington Post is mourning his recent death, the name and legacy of Herblock lives on.

Also widely recognized is Lewis Carroll, a pseudonym that was actually derived from the author’s original name, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Charles translated into Latin is Carolus and Lutwidge is an old German from of Lewis). Carroll was fascinated by the meaning of names, and explored the idea in many of his stories. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for example, the White Rabbit finds a page of verse to which no name is signed. The Knave appears before the court and denies that he’s the author. "If you didn't sign it," said the King, "that only makes the matter worse. You must have meant some mischief, or else you'd have signed your name like an honest man."

Indeed, a person’s name is considered to be a mark of integrity. If you’re willing to "put your name" on something, you’re willing to take responsibility for it and be accountable. Conversely, the use of a fictitious name brings to mind a sneaky or shadowy attempt to do business. Spies use an alias to evade capture; Most Wanted posters include an a.k.a. list of a criminal’s phony titles.

A pseudonym represents a way of disguising one’s identity—a way of holding back some aspect of the truth—and so in writing, a pen name can arouse suspicion. What is she trying to hide? If he won’t even tell us his real name, what else will he lie about? But a pen name can also enhance reader curiosity and create an air of mystery—who is the real person behind the writing?

The use of pen names is now more a matter of choice than necessity. As modern writers, we enjoy a remarkable freedom to express ourselves, and to do so under the name of our choosing. But why opt for a pen name? Here are some of the most common reasons—personal and professional—to write incognito.

1. You want to protect your privacy.

A. A. Milne described one’s name as being profoundly personal and private. Milne believed that any mention of one’s name by others "brings for a moment a vague sense of discomfort, as if a liberty were threatened."

Today, we want to protect our freedom to remain relatively unknown, and we talk a lot about keeping Big Brother at bay (incidentally, George Orwell was the pen name for Eric Arthur Blair). At a time when we feel more and more discomfort over the amount of information others can know about us, writers are choosing to keep their names private as a matter of personal protection.

2. It’s not easy being you.

Names can be difficult to spell or pronounce. Consider the following: if it took you more than eight years to be able to spell your own name, or if your name uses more than half the alphabet, it might be to your advantage to choose a shorter pseudonym. After all, if your name is easy to remember, readers will be able to track down your books with greater ease. Keep in mind, though, that a long, distinctive name doesn’t have to deter you from success. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s books on flow and creativity have reached best-selling status.

What if your birth name is Julia Roberts? Now you have the converse problem—a name that’s already memorable, because it’s the moniker of someone who’s very well known. In this case, it might be better to use a pen name (or at least some variation of your birth name by employing initials) to avoid confusion.

Some writers working on a collaborative piece merge their names to create the impression of a single author. Mystery writer Ellery Queen, for example, is actually the pen name for Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. This is a less-is-more strategy, based on the assumption that one name is simply easier to remember.

3. You want a name that says something about you or your writing.

In Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice how a name and its subject are related.

"Must a name mean something?" Alice asked doubtfully.

"Of course it must," Humpty Dumpty said, with a short laugh. "My name means the shape I am and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape."

Many writers choose a pen name that relates to their personalities or writing. An entomology column by "The Bug Doctor" or a weekly update on movie releases by "T. V. Mann"—these names are used tongue-in-cheek, to get a laugh and attract readers. One Japanese mystery writer chose his witty pen name as Sagashima Sho (sagashimasho literally means "let’s look for it.")

This type of pseudonym is most suited for a regular column or humor feature, and should be employed with care. Writers trying to be too clever run the risk of choosing a name that lacks professionalism and is ultimately self-defeating. It may be true that Otto Titzling invented the brassiere, but propose a book on the latest operating system under the name Michael S. Doss and you probably won’t endear many publishers.

4. You have some legal reason.

Certain publishers have house names and hire authors to write under a trademark pseudonym. V.C. Andrews is a good example. Some publishers want to prevent authors from building a name of their own and then taking readership to another publishing house, while contract clauses can prevent an author from publishing under the same name within a certain period of time. These are some of the compelling legal reasons that some writers opt for a pseudonym.

On the other hand, a pen name isn’t a good idea if you’re trying to avoid accountability for what you write. A pseudonym doesn’t exist as a legal entity and won’t protect you from legal action. No matter what name is signed to your writing, you are still ultimately responsible for it.

5. You feel like a different person when you write.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens started using the pen name of Mark Twain after training as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi. "Mark twain" was a phrase that boatmen used to indicate two fathoms of water (or 12 feet), the depth needed for a boat’s safe passage along the river. But Clemens was always careful to distinguish himself from Twain. While people found Clemens to be a narcissist and emotionally unstable, Twain was described as charming, generous and funny.

So… maybe you feel like a Mr. Hyde in most everyday affairs, but armed with a pen and paper, there emerges an impassioned Dr. Jekyll. If you sense there’s a whole other person inside when you write, you might want to honor that personality with a name of its own. But be advised: the person you christen with a pseudonym may represent a more troubling presence—as a symptom of your own pseudo–sanity.

6. You want to "cross genres."

When a writer established in one genre or style wants to write in another, a pen name can be used to make the transition. Stephen King released several novels, including The Long Walk Home and Running Man under the name of Richard Bachman to designate a different writing voice (he also wanted to see how well an unknown writer would do – see reason #8). King developed a thrilling account of a writer’s relation to his pseudonymous self, in the novel The Dark Half—a Cain and Abel-like story inspired by the King-Bachman relationship.

In 1996, King teamed with his alter ego to pen a two-book set—Bachman, the author of The Regulators, and King, the author of Desperation. That same year, King declared that Bachman had died from "cancer of the pseudonym," but his wife had found a box full of manuscripts. King said he had a lot of other reading to do, but would find some time to look at Bachman’s work and see if it was any good. So be on the lookout for a future release from Bachman. I can see it now—Revenge of the Pseudonym: Evil does have a Name.

7. Your real name has a past.

You published your first book and it was a flop—but you learned from your mistakes and are ready to try again. Here’s something to consider: large bookstore chains carefully track book sales. When an author’s second book is released, stores place orders based on the sales record of the first book, so if your first book wasn’t a bestseller you can publish under a different name and have the benefit of a fresh start. Writers can re-invent characters—why not themselves? Of course, that publisher you approach may already know about your past lives.

Maybe it isn’t a book failure but some other sordid act from which you want to create some distance. It’s said that Theodor Geisel got into trouble after a college drinking session and he started publishing under his mother’s maiden name, Seuss, so he could keep writing for the school paper. Later, he added a distinguishing title in honor of his father, who’d wanted Theodor to become a doctor. Publishing companies turned down Geisel at least 30 times before he employed the pen name of Dr. Seuss, and thereafter enjoyed remarkable success.

8. You want to prove a point.

Acclaimed writer Doris Lessing wanted to highlight "the whole dreadful process in book publishing" and reveal the influence of an established author’s name. She submitted two novels—The Diary of a Good Neighbour and If the Old Could…—under the pseudonym Jane Somers. Lessing’s longtime British publisher rejected both books.

More recently, Stephen King used the Bachman pseudonym to see what sorts of challenges an unknown writer might face. Not surprisingly, sales of the books by "King" far exceeded those by "Bachman." But word spread quickly when people discovered the books were by one and the same person—and Bachman became a best-selling author.

9. It’s part of your creative expression.

Have you ever been to an Internet chat room? Most people are "writing" under a pseudonym, or "handle" in computer-speak. We tend to feel less inhibited when we use an identity that’s not our own, so a pen name might allow you to be more open to creative possibilities with your writing. Indeed, many authors of erotica describe a greater freedom of expression when using a pseudonym.

Creating a different name can be part of the fun as well. Maybe you want to join in on the fantasy of your book, and while you’re naming characters, you pen yourself a nom de plume. That’s what Edwin A. Abbott did. He wrote the science-fiction classic Flatland, a social satire of a two-dimensional world in which the women are lines and the men are multi-sided shapes. Abbott published the book as a first-person narrative, under the playful pseudonym A. Square.

10. You’re afraid of prejudice or persecution.

In the 19th century—when A. Square was writing about women as one-dimensional creatures—female writers were using masculine sounding names in order to be published. George Sand was the pen name for Madame Amandine Lucile Aurore Dudevant, whose writing challenged social norms and promoted women’s independence. Meanwhile, Mary Anne Evans wrote as George Eliot, while Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë published a book of poems under the male pseudonyms Currier, Ellis and Acton Bell. Readers at that time were more receptive to the voice of men, and controversial ideas could at least find an audience when women wrote under male pseudonyms.

More recently, The Best Little Boy in the World was published under the pen name John Reid, due to the author’s fear of his parents’ reaction. The classic account of a homosexual man coming of age was first released in 1973, and has since been re-issued, identifying the real name of its author—best-selling financial writer Andrew Tobias.

Today, we place a high value on knowing who says what. We tolerate the expression of a broader range of views and writers needn’t be as fearful of public flogging (though Salmon Rushdie might disagree). It’s generally believed that you have the right to present a controversial opinion—and you ought to be willing to defend it. We’re realizing, too, that it doesn’t serve anyone to make writers appear homogenous, sharing any particular gender, culture or ideology.

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Traditional wisdom maintains the best approach to writing success is to focus on producing quality work and to let the writing speak for itself. But if you’re still looking for a creative edge and want the perfect pseudonym, why not try something unconventional?

Shelf-positioning theories suggest that last names in the E to M range secure the best shelf space. Meanwhile, numerologists can help you devise a name with positive energy value that will attract the attention of publishers and readers. Or take your cue from advertising moguls and skip the use of words altogether. Brand yourself with an unpronounceable symbol and you’re sure to get people talking. But beware. These sorts of theories are not approved by any writer’s guild or association—and may amount to little more than pseudonym pseudo-science.

Tracy Pomerinke is a writer based in Germany. You can reach her at pomerinke@t-online.de.

 

 

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