Ya know, it’s kinda funny, SUDO means a whole different thing in my everyday life. But I’m not talking about switching users on a UNIX system – I’m talking about switching names when you write fiction. Writers sometimes decide to use a pen name, or pseudonym, to publish their fiction under a name other than the one their mommy gave them when they arrived into this world covered in fetal slime.
When is it a good idea? Should you do it? What does it mean?
I’m gonna start off by saying: don’t do it. Not strong enough? Okay. Don’t fucking do it. My detailed reasons appear below, but it all comes down to one central point: stand up for yourself. This includes believing in yourself, embracing honesty, taking responsibility for what you write and so much more. We writers aren’t tortured souls, recluse oracles nor should we strive to be celebrities. We are storytellers. Part of pre-history and history. We’re adding to the fabric of the human experience, just the same as everyone else in their own way.
So fucking do this as yourself. Do it as John Burgess Wilson, not Anthony Burgess. Do it as Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum, not Ayn Rand. Do it as Kate Cary, Cherith Baldry and Victoria Holmes – not some conglomerate called Erin Hunter. (yes, there is a Wikipedia site dedicated to linking the real names of writers to their pen names)
Maybe there are solid reasons to use a pen name. I’m not saying there aren’t. Screw it – let’s dive in already!
Here, the writer needs to protect themself (or feels they need to protect themself) from some harm which could befall them if they attached their real name to the work. A solid argument can be made for this in the nonfiction world. Perhaps. Fine. Protect yourself if the conditions merit camouflage.
But for fiction? In today’s world where freedom is enjoyed by a majority of the nations?
What do you have to fear? Are you really writing something that will rattle the feathers of the topmost levels of some xenophobic or criminal group? Why obscure your name if there is no realistic fear for retribution? And who would gun you down over your fiction? Do you fear your family?
Will you get fired from your job? Hmm… Okay. Let’s say you write furry porn (crap, my search hits just got a little wider for this blog). And your employer finds out about it. And fires you. I guess you have a few questions to ask yourself: Why did you write furry porn? Are you really passionate about writing porn? Do you believe in what you wrote? Do you think your employer was “right” to fire you?
Personally, I say write all the furry porn you want. And if your “day job” has a problem with it, tell them they can keep their job. If your work hasn’t been impacted by your writing, what business is it of theirs?
So… if you cannot afford to lose your job, and you really really want to write all that furry porn — maybe you should consider a pen name as an option. Now, I used an extreme example here, but who’s to say your science fiction doesn’t cause your employer to wonder if you belong on their payroll? Maybe they harbor rigid views about how each of their employees should behave, and writing about the planet Zoxorn isn’t on that list. It doesn’t need to be pornographic for someone, somewhere to decide they take issue with what you’ve written. It’s a human decision based on ignorance and a sense that their idea of “proper” society is a one-size-fits-all ideal.
Fuck those people. I still say: write what you want, and standby what you write. Come at me! I don’t need a shield.
Now, if you’re writing to harm someone else, and want to use a pen name as a shield, then you and I might have a problem (and you might want a shield). Jesus’ first rule is: “don’t be a dick”. Direct quote! And while I’m never in danger of being accused of following Jesus (or Yeshua, if you prefer his given Hebrew name… which I respected in Eden), I do try to follow that simple rule. If you’re writing nonfiction, harming others all comes down to cause and effect – so maybe you have your reasons. But in fiction? Are you trying to affect social change? Prove a point? Sure, you can draw parallels to people (living or dead), but be very very careful how you go about it. Avoid libel. Don’t stand on a soapbox. And for Gods sake – keep it entertaining! We’re storytellers, and stories are only valuable if they entertain. Otherwise, leave it to the News. And don’t use a pseudonym – stand by your assertions & fiction if you truly believe them (you should).
Maybe your name is “Ivanna Dikinme,” or something equally fun/boring. Maybe you think a female author will have a better chance of selling chicklit books than your given name of Harvey McGuyver – so you perform a sex change for the novel. Whatever the case – you decide your name just isn’t good enough.
Um… why? If you’re ashamed of your name, you can legally change it with town hall.
Otherwise, my earlier advice still holds: stand by what you do. Don’t try to prop it up with some additional fiction (like a name/sex change). Let the work (and your integrity) stand on their own. It’s the same argument with adverbs: don’t give crutches to your verbs. If your work needs some artificial help, then maybe you should reconsider your choice to publish.
I mentioned that 3 authors were merged into one body in my short pseudonym list above. Now, I don’t know what the deal was there – perhaps they decided to do that on their own, or maybe the publisher demanded it. Maybe they were ghostwriters? I dunno. Whatever the case, what’s the point? Why do this sort of thing? Do publishers feel the average buyer wouldn’t buy a book with 3 authors on the cover? Is that all it is – a business decision?
Well, in my opinion – it’s a crappy decision. Everything else in the world is so fake & concocted (see: “Reality Television”), must storytelling also have an air of misdirection/lies around it as well?
“But Matt, authors have used pseudonyms since there have been books.”
Yeah. Fuck most of those guys/gals too. It’s all part of the whole “I don’t have to take responsibility for my own actions” mentality which I absolutely won’t be teaching my kids. Whatever their reasons, I still don’t think a pseudonym for sake of a facelift is the best choice. Embrace your name, embrace who you are ’cause there’s only one of you… and your name is ___________.
Imagine for a moment, your dream is to write novels. You bang out your first book (or several), and the reviews come in: rubbish, trash, not fit for public consumption. Maybe the feedback isn’t even from strangers. But you forged on anyways.
And come to find out: you’re better at drywalling than stringing prose into meaningful chapters. Shit, maybe you are “okay”, but you think you damaged your name in some way with your previous work. Whatever the case – there’s some awful reviews of your little babies out there in the world.
And you want to forget all that and try again. Under a different name. Start over from square 1. Reincarnation!
Hold on there, Skippy. What went wrong the first time? Was it because you can’t write or was it all just “bad luck”? (followup: ask yourself how anything can be 100% attested to “bad luck”) How do you think you can change things for the better this time around? Is your material enough to carry you past your previous spot? You got some new mad skillz? New publicist? New strategy? New brain? New computer? New shoes?
Whatever the case, think long and hard about your decision to get back in the game and also under what name you do it. Even bad press is good press, so consider carefully your name change.
As a footnote to this, I also had a colleague of mine ask me if she should write with a pseudonym because she had several books published in one genre, and she didn’t want potential readers to question whether or not she was “fit” for this other genre.
I’ve heard stuff like this before. Where does it come from? Agents? Publishers? The Internets?
My advice: stop worrying so much about markets, sellability and whatever other distractions you may have. As a storyteller, your first and only responsibility is to tell the damn story! Fuck the rest of that noise.
To Sum it All Up
You may very well have some valid reasons to use a pen name for writing your fiction. But, if you think you do, I suggest you ask some critical questions and decide why you’re doing it.
If it’s all a matter of privacy in the end, then I suggest you reconsider your decision to publish. Part of storytelling (I believe) should be engaging in dialog with your readers – and it’s hard to do that with any integrity if your name is really Clarence McGraw, not Sally Storm.