Writing 101: Using Pen Names

How do you feel about using a pen name? Everyone's got an opinion, even your readers. Crafting the perfect pen name is a little like writing the perfect novel...only the name is probably going to stay with you a lot longer. If you don't use the right one, you'll make things unnecessarily hard on yourself.

What's in a Name?

Stephen King. Anne Rice. Stephenie Meyer. What do all the big, blockbuster writers have in common? Names that are easy to remember and easy to spell. That's very important when you want readers to start looking for you on Amazon, Google and everywhere else you exist. By the same token, you don't want to publish books under a name that's too simple. Type John Smith into Google and you're going to get way too many results.

What's Wrong with Your Name?

Friends and family aren't going to recognize you by a pen name (and neither will all those people from high school who need to feel envy). Don't you deserve recognition for your fabulous self-publishing achievements? Sure you do, but if your real name is a thirteen-letter nightmare you've got to be reasonable. If you were lucky enough to be given a simple, easy to spell but unique name, then use it. If you weren't, try toning it down a little. Authors use initials, nicknames and small changes to tweak their own names into something that looks a lot better on a book jacket.

If that's still not an option, you might need to choose a pen name. But the truth is, lots of writers aren't very good at choosing their own names -- even those who fill their own books with believable, poetic and beautiful character names.

Picking the Right Pen Name

Once you begin establishing yourself under a pen name, you're no longer your own person. Your name will be all wrapped up with your reputation, with the public image you present, with the books that you write. Every time someone looks at your book, that name will be attached to it. So choose a good one.
  • Don't go gimmicky. You write erotic fiction, so maybe a pen name like "Rose Pleasure" sounds like a great idea. It's not. There are very few examples in writing where gimmicky names actually work -- and most of those examples are in children's books. Pen names like Dr. Seuss and Lemony Snicket are more than vaguely ridiculous, but you have to get a little silly to spend lengthy amounts of time with kids so that works out okay. Otherwise, don't create a gimmicky name. Why? Because you want to get some sort of respect from your readers, and you want to be regarded as a professional. Choose a silly, gimmicky name and you'll never be taken seriously. 
  • Don't go too exotic. It's tempting to come up with a name that's so fresh, so new, so exotic-sounding that no one could ever mistake it for anything else. Writer Poppy Z. Brite, for example, stands out for her unusual name. Problem is, it's way too unusual. Poppy Z. Brite sounds like a pen name, and anything overtly fake is always hard to take seriously.
  • Don't go famous. Some names should really be off limits because they're already too well-known. If you publish something under the last name of Hitler, for example, you're clearly setting yourself up for failure and everyone you want to attract is just going to be confused. Try to avoid Presidential, movie star and other famous last or first names because you need to establish yourself on your own; you don't want someone else's name baggage bogging you down. 
Picking the right pen name isn't easy. Keep it simple, keep it decently unique, and keep it sincere-sounding -- like a name that someone could actually have. Above all, try to pick a pen name that says something to you, or about you, or that means something to you in some way. One day, an interviewer is bound to ask you about your pen name, and you're going to need an interesting story to go with it. That's what people expect from writers.

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