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5 things to know about pseudonyms

masks, psuedonym, theatre
Written by M. Amelia Eikli

If you have spent any time at all in writers’ forums around the web, you will have seen this question asked a number of times: should I write under a pen name? The comment section splits into two deep trenches. Shots are fired. Both sides are convinced the other ‘doesn’t get it’. Alliances form, and the original asker is none the wiser. But, whether you’re a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, there are some things you should probably know about writing under a pseudonym.

Although the most common option is to write under your own name, there are some very good reasons for writing under a nom de plume. The good reasons have one thing in common: they’re about separating characteristics associated with the author’s real name (or other pen names) from the work in question. The ‘no’ group will argue against this by saying, “If you can’t stand by what you’ve written, you shouldn’t publish it!” But this suggests a misunderstanding of what a pen name is and can be.

1. Pseudonymity is not the same as anonymity.

Anne Rice, Mark Twain, Dr. Seuss, Lewis Carroll and J.K. Rowling are all pen names, yet these authors are very well known.

A pseudonym may be nothing more mysterious than the name you use when you are published, do book signings or speak at conventions. Your face, your information – and, most of the time, even your real name – can still be well known. Pseudonyms like these are often chosen if you want a gender-neutral name, if you want a more exciting name than your own, if your name is difficult to pronounce or if you want to create a specific author identity.

2. Sometimes, publishers may suggest pen names to avoid confusion.

Another good reason to use a pen name is if you share your name with a celebrity.

If I say ‘Winston Churchill’, it’s likely that the image of Britain’s perhaps most famous prime minister springs to mind. Maybe you even know him as a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. But, before he became a famous politician, he had an active and successful writing career under the name Winston S. Churchill. Why the S, you may ask? So as not to be confused with the – at the time – far more famous American novelist Winston Churchill.

Publishers want their authors to stand out and create a loyal following, so if your name is very common – like Sam, Mary or Anne Smith – they may suggest a pen name to avoid confusion with the other 10,000 authors of the same name, and to make your name more unique.

3. It’s hard to publish in more than one genre.

If you have an established career as a chick-lit author, it will inevitably ruffle some feathers if your next work is hard science-fiction or a gory thriller.

Many of your readers may enjoy both of your genres but, based on what they have read of yours before, they will expect one or the other. Our expectations play a huge part in how much we perceive books, so it is not uncommon for authors who work in more than one genre to use different names.

Doing so isn’t always about hiding your identity, though. J.K. Rowling kept her crime fiction writing under the name Robert Galbraith after her identity was revealed, saying that she wanted to keep a clear distinction between her crime fiction and her other writing.

4. Pseudonyms can be political.

Some women have found they get better results with agents and publishers if they query with a man’s name.

Some authors have to use pseudonyms because the subject they write about is illegal where they live, or they’re writing about something that would endanger their safety, position or work. Not all of us live in the most tolerant areas, and some of us live in places where our rights are severely limited. If this is you – a pseudonym may be the solution.

5. Pseudonyms can be liberating.

J.K. Rowling chose to write under a pseudonym to be able to start ‘from scratch’ – to write without the hype, expectations or harsh judgement that come with great success.

But even if you’re not already selling millions of copies of your book, perhaps you want to have a go at writing steaming erotica amid your usual work? Do you normally write high fantasy, but want to have a go at writing a sultry romance novel? Writing under a pseudonym may liberate you from some of the limitations you put on yourself and allow you to write bravely. Self-publish, submit to publications or even try to get published with your new experiment. Rest in the knowledge that if it all should fail, no one will know but you.

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