Monday, December 14, 2009

What's in a name?

Today's hopefully short post from me is about the use of a pen name, or nom de plume. I got to thinking about this topic today while I was at work. I had a stack of reference material that had been loaned to our library, and to make sure it goes back to the right owner eventually, I had to write her name in the cover of each journal- about twenty of them.

As I was scribbling her name, flipping to the next copy, then again, then again, I smirked a little at the thought that this is what it's going to be like to sign my own books one day.

Ha! I'm just going to hang onto that thought, thanks.

Except the only difference was, I wasn't writing my own name. And then it hit me that it's no different at all, because I'm not writing my own name here, either. I decided about three years ago to use a pen name, and that's what I'll be signing my books with in years to come.

Pen names have been used by some of the most famous writers in history, and for a variety of reasons- check out some of these:

George Eliot (otherwise known as Mary Anne Evans)
George Orwell (otherwise known as Eric Blair)
J.D. Robb (who is in fact Nora Roberts in disguise)
Lewis Carroll (whose real name was Charles Dodgson)
Nicci French (who is actually a writing team comprising Nicci Gerard and Sean French)
C. S. Forester (Cecil Smith)
Robert Jordan (James Rigney Jr.)
Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens)

I could go on, but you get the point. Pen names are as common amongst writers as stage names are amongst actors.

So, why use a pen name?

There are a whole lot of reasons why people choose to publish their work under a name other than the one they were born with. Reasons like:

-Pen name sounds better or more distinctive
-Desire for privacy- keeping public life separate from private
-To fit a genre in which the original name might not be as catchy or appropriate
-Because the author writes in more than one genre, and doesn't want their name carrying expectations from one across to another
-Due to controversial themes in the work
-And many, many more

A few of those reasons fit the bill for why I decided to use a pen-name.

My family has always been a little funny about privacy, and I've fallen into the same mode since my daughter was born. Sure, you say. That's why even your daughter has her own blog! But actually, that's exactly why I use a pen name. I don't want to hide away in the dark- I like to blog, I like to share my ideas and experiences, and I think there's a lot of value in it. Using a pen name allows me to do that without fully exposing myself to the wider world.

Some of my other reasons for using a pen name relate to the genre in which I'm writing- it might sound shallow, but I feel like there's a chance I might need to take the George Eliot route and make my name a little more masculine to succeed in the realm of Sebastian Faulks and Ernest Hemingway and the like. If it comes down to that, I plan to use C. S. Gregory as my pen name. Hey, it worked all right for J. K. Rowling, didn't it?

Lastly, I wanted a pen name because I plan to tackle some controversial themes in my stories, in particular those related to the Australian Stolen Generations of Aboriginal people. I feel that fiction writing is a powerful platform I can use to share my opinion on the wrongs of the past- but to do that, I've got to write characters whose views couldn't be more different to my own.

The rub is, I actually work with Aboriginal communities in my day job, and I don't want to associate the views of my fictional characters with my real name for fear of causing hurt.

So, those are my reasons.

Lastly, I guess there's the question of how I came to my pen name. Anything goes if you're looking for one- it's just like naming one of your characters. But for me, I wanted something that sounded literary enough, but also had a level of personal significance. Obviously Claire really is my first name (I thought about changing that, but I felt like I needed it to be "me"). Gregory is a name that bears distant relation to my real family name- some of my ancestors ten or so generations back had a similar name, which later evolved into what my real one is today. So the name isn't totally made-up- for some reason that felt important.

I want to own my work; I want to acknowledge my achievements when they come. I know those are amongst the major reasons why many people do *not* take on a pen name. But by adopting a pen name which is related to my real one, I get the best of both worlds- I'm able to acknowledge my own work, but I'm able to do so without compromising my privacy or offending any friends.

How about you? Have you considered a pen name? Are you using one? How did you choose it, and why?

I bet there are plenty of people out there who are as-yet undecided- maybe you'll read something here that helps!


  1. I'm considering using a pen name when (note the positive use of "when" as opposed to "if" *grin*) the time comes. Partly for privacy reasons--I do tend to be a Very Private person--but also because my real name seems so...I dunnoh, ordinary? Non-distinct? Just not very catchy. I haven't yet thought of a great alternative, though, so we'll see.

  2. I'm with you, Linda! WHEN I get published, I am considering a pen name made up of two initials for the first and middle names, and then a surname from my family tree. This keeps people guessing as to gender, which I rather like, as I think it's still a man's world.

  3. I probably would want a pen name, but I don't know (at least now) what it might be. My initials aren't much better than my name--I can think of far too many ways they could become embarrassing acronyms.

    My first name isn't horrible, but it isn't great. I've met perhaps an even dozen people in person with my first name (one of them is a cousin) but countless people, upon learning my name, have remarked "Your name is Gretchen? I have a dog named Gretchen!" Argh! ;-P But it sure gives me a thrill to see it in print. Doesn't matter if it's the lowliest props-mistress on a movie, or the local anchor-woman, that's "my" name out there. :-) If it were more common, I might feel differently about it--I have another cousin who hated her name--there were five of her name in her kindergarten class, and it appears in popular music, and...

    So I'm torn. The story I've got so far would nearly demand a pen name, but I sort of like being uncommon.

    For now I need something worth publishing--I'll worry about the name later. ;-)

    Best to you and yours!

  4. All very valid reasons for using a pen name, Claire.

    I just read a post (on one of the gazillion blogs I read through Google Reader) where a writer, after pooh-poohing other authors in the past for not writing under their real names, had to fess up that he was writing his latest, as yet unsold book, under a pseudonym. He's switching genres, and doesn't want publishing houses judging him on the sales figures of his previous works (which I think were solid, from the sounds of things, but mid-list.) He wants *this* book to be considered as his "debut", with no pre-conceptions. Interesting ...

    I'm happy to write under my own name ... however, if I reverted to my maiden name I'd end up in the "A" section on the fiction shelves, rather than in the deep, dark, recesses of the "Ws" ... you never know, I may have a change of heart!

  5. I probably will write under a pen name because my surname confuses everyone. Nobody can spell it or pronounce it. Plus it _is_ extremely distinctive (we're a very small "twig" on the family tree that has it, less than 20 people) so for privacy/safety reasons I'd also be inclined to take a pen name.

  6. I don't have a pen name exactly... I love the phrase nom de plume and would be happy to use it, but as yet have no reason for entirely changing my name. That said, I'd much rather use my husband's last name than mine, so Deniz Bevan it is. I love my first name and thank goodness it's obscure enough that I'm not an obvious female author right off the bat - what a terrible thing to say, no? And yet...

  7. Claire,

    Ahahha. You know this is a tough one for me. :) My family is really pushing me to use a pen name (for some pretty obvious reasons), but man, I just want to be able to walk into a bookstore and see MY name on the shelf. That would be way cool. But yeah, I essentially have the same issue (or at least in theory) as you. Do I want to link my books with what I used to do...and therefore, myself to someone who may think Jen is good fodder for his/her pent up rage. LOL. I joke, but yeah, it could get scary. Yanno as a writer all worse case scenarios have flashed through my mind at one time or another.

    But yeah, as of right now, I'm planning on using my real name. Don't know what will happen when/if I'm cross-published in adult and YA. Of course, being published in one is enough of a goal for now. :) And being as THAT is a longshot, I'll worry about such things later. *bites nails*


  8. I have a question related to the use of pen names. I've been told recently that I shouldn't use facts from my "real life" in a biography that utilizes my pen name unless I acknowledge in that same biography that I am using a pen name. For example, if I write in my bio that I graduated from Harvard, and someone looks me up in the Harvard alumni directory and doesn't find me, then that makes me a liar and could damage my reputation. What does everyone think? Should you add a disclaimer to a bio to let everyone know that you are using a pen name?

  9. Hi Miz,

    That's a really interesting question. It strikes me that there's a difference between fiction and non-fiction when it comes to pen names- when you're writing fiction, you're not claiming to have any particular expertise in anything except storytelling. When you're writing non-fiction, on the other hand, it sometimes (not always, but sometimes) matters who you actually are and where you got your qualification to write on a matter.

    Thinking about it, though, I'd have to say my first instinct is to say you would NOT need a disclaimer. Why? Well, I graduated from university with MY degree before I married my husband; therefore it's in my maiden name. When I write a professional report or article, though, I use my current legal name. Now, if you looked on the directory, you wouldn't find me listed under that. But that's not what's relevant- what's relevant is that I actually am the same person who got the degree.

    Basically I think the important thing is being accurate when you're writing non-fiction, whether it's about your subject or yourself. If you're truthful about all the details, then I don't think anyone can complain about your use of a pen name. And if they do, you have the real facts about yourself to back yourself up. All you need to do is prove that you and your nom de plume are the same person if you're ever questioned.

    Hope that helps!