Should you use a pseudonym?
This question comes up in writers groups all the time: "I'm getting ready to write my first novel...should I use a pen name?"
The short answer is "you can if you want to." But, as you can probably guess, it's not always as easy as that.
What is a Pseudonym?
A pseudonym, or pen name, is a fictional name used by many authors and writers in place of their given or legal names.
Why use a Pseudonym?
There are plenty of reasons to use a pseudonym.
- There's another author with your same name and you want to stand out. This can be especially concerning if that other author is famous.
- Your name doesn't "fit" the genre for which you write.
- Your name is too hard to remember, spell, or pronounce.
- You've just got a really bad name that will open you up to ridicule or bullying. As much as I hate it, bullying is still very much a thing, even as an adult. And people can and will ruin a good name through bullying tactics, word play, etc.
- To keep your identity concealed. At the time I chose my pseudonym (Clara Ryanne Heart), I was in grad school to be a therapist. And I fully planned on writing and publishing more books related to therapy and therapists, but was also worried that some of the stuff I was writing as fiction might taint how people perceived me on a professional level. So, at the time, it was to create a boundary between my fiction writing and nonfiction writing.
- To protect your privacy. Being an author is not always pretty. In fact, sometimes the hate you get publicly is downright ugly. I have quite a few author friends who use pseudonyms because they don't want people to be able to find where they live in case any of them try to act on their threats.
- Keeping other pieces of your identity concealed. In the past, authorship was dominated by rich, white men. To give themselves an edge in the publishing world, some female authors and nonwhite authors sometimes used a pseudonym in the form of initials to help conceal the fact that they were not rich, white men in hopes that they would get published before anyone found out. In a few cases, this worked and many new authors still talk about whether or not this is needed to this day.
- Breaking into another genre. This is similar to keeping your identity concealed. If an author has branded themselves in such a way that they have ingrained their name into a particular genre, then they aren't always well-received if they should choose to cross into another genre, especially if that other genre seems too far gone from their first genre. For example, imagine Stephen King writing a romantic comedy? Could he do it? Sure -- he's a phenomenal author. But when people see the name Stephen King, they hold a certain expectation.
Are there Reasons Not to Use a Pseudonym?
Though there are several reasons to use a pseudonym, the digital age has also made using a pseudonym tricky. So, there are some good reasons to stay away from pen names and stick with your legal name.
- You've already got an established readership using your legal name for the genre you want to go into. As an author, you'll want to build your author platform before your book is even finished. This will help you grow your fanbase so that when it's time to sell your book, you have a market to sell to. This is especially important if you haven't formally been published yet, either through self-publishing or traditional publishing.
- Using a pseudonym entails more than merely making up a name and signing it onto your book. It requires building an entire persona and a separate brand. Depending on your business and goals, building and maintaining a separate brand can be an overwhelming amount of work.
- Digital channels, especially social media channels, make it very hard to establish and maintain a presence as your pseudonym's persona on their platforms. For example, Facebook will allow you to build a fan Page, but getting permission to build a personal profile will require a lot of hoop-jumping and hiding the connection of that fan Page to your real personal profile isn't always easy.
- If you want to use that writing in another area of your life later on, it'll be much harder to publicly claim it.
- Should you need to file a copyright claim, if your legal name is not tied to that book in some way, you could find yourself fighting a harder battle (although, I am not a lawyer. So, if you are using a pseudonym and need to file a copyright claim, make sure to contact your lawyer and ask for real help).
How do you Choose a Pseudonym?
Every author who uses a pseudonym goes through a different process for creating the name. Sometimes the name holds special meaning, sometimes it represents the genre that the author is writing in, and sometimes it can be nothing at all.
When I chose the name Clara Ryanne Heart, there were three pieces to that name:
- Clara, after Clara Oswald from Doctor Who. I've always loved the name Clara. It's classic and modern at the same time. And Clara Oswald is one of my favorite companions from Doctor Who.
- Ryanne, after my autistic nephew Ryan. He's amazing and caring and smart and strong and I wanted to honor him in some way.
- Heart, inspired in a roundabout way by Alan Rickman. At the time I chose this pseudonym, I was working on a fantasy novel based on my life, and was having a really hard time writing the villain. What helped was imagining that the villain was being played by Alan Rickman in the movie, because he played all his villainous characters with such heart. So Heart served as a reminder for what I was trying to do.
Other Ideas for Choosing a Pseudonym
First, try some good old-fashioned brainstorming. How you brainstorm is up to you, but I usually start with a brain dump. Grab a piece of paper and a pencil and just start writing down names until you find one you like. You can start by your friends and family, characters in books or movies that you like, or even just work your way through the alphabet letter by letter. Keep brainstorming until you have four or five choices for each name, then start putting them together until you find a combination you like.
Second, you can try honoring people in your life. We all have people we love, but I'm sure if you were to look around, there's probably that one shining beacon who saved your life or inspired you in some way.
Third, You could go the route of new parents every where and start looking at baby name books and sites. Although these sites can sometimes feel overwhelming if you don't already have at least an idea in your head of the type of name you want. But if you're just browsing, they can spark other ideas.
Fourth, you can start with meaning and go from there. Maybe you want to name yourself after the sun, or the moon, or the sea, or some other meaningful element. That's great! Start looking up those names in different languages and see if one of them catch your eye. Don't be afraid to experiment here, either. Just be mindful of the name you choose and take care not to choose something that could get you into trouble down the road for appropriation. Be respectful of the name you choose and its origin.
Fifth, check out a name generator. Sometimes, all you need to spark an idea is too see some of the crazy ones already out there. A name generator can be just the thing to get the juices flowing.
Should You Use a Pseudonym?
Should you use a pseudonym? I'm afraid the only person who can answer this question is you. The choice to use a pseudonym (or not) is a deeply personal one -- for some authors it runs as deep as naming their own child. Just keep in mind that a person is not a name alone. If you choose to go the route of using a pseudonym, you will also need to build an entire presence for that new persona, including an author platform, social channels, and a separate brand from your own.
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