20 October 2018

Names and Pseudo-Names

by John M. Floyd

A few weeks ago I got into a familiar discussion, among writers: Should you use a pseudonym?

Here are some authors who have:

Eric Blair -- George Orwell
Ed McBain -- Evan Hunter
A. M. Barnard -- Louisa May Alcott
James D. Grant -- Lee Child
Agatha Christie -- Mary Westmacott
Samuel Clemens -- Mark Twain
Isaac Asimov -- Paul French
Stephen King -- Richard Bachman
Joseph King -- Joe Hill
Joanne (J. K.) Rowling -- Robert Galbraith
Barbara Vine -- Ruth Rendell
Davis John Moore Cornwell -- John Le Carre
Charles Dodgson -- Lewis Carroll
Nora Roberts -- J. D. Robb
Joyce Carol Oates -- Rosamond Smith
John Hughes -- Edmond Dantes
Gore Vidal -- Edgar Box
Erle Stanley Gardner -- A. A. Fair
Ruth Crowley, Eppie Lederer -- Ann Landers
Pauline Phillips, Jeanne Phillips -- Abigail Van Buren
Juliet Hulme -- Anne Perry
William Anthony Parker White -- Anthony Boucher
John Dickson Carr -- Carr Dickson
Washington Irving -- Diedrich Knickerbocker
Ray Bradbury -- Douglas Spalding
Mary Ann Evans -- George Eliot 
Jozef Korzeniowski -- Joseph Conrad
C. S. Lewis -- Clive Hamilton
Daniel Handler -- Lemony Snicket
Benjamin Franklin -- Mrs. Silence Dogood
William Sydney Porter -- O. Henry

And there's usually a story behind every pseudonym. In an old interview I saw recently, Donald Westlake said he chose the name Richard Stark for his series of Parker novels because (1) Richard Widmark was one of his favorite actors and (2) "stark" was the writing style he wanted to use for the series. (NOTE: Westlake also said he later regretted choosing the name Parker for his main character--because it kept him from ever writing "Parker parked his car.")

Other examples of that process: Western author Tom McCurley invented his Mack Curlee pseudonym by rearranging his last name, and prolific romantic-suspense writer Melanie Noto dropped the W from her maiden name (Melanie Watkins) to come up with her pseudonym Melanie Atkins.

Another writer friend of mine, Charles Wilson, said he wishes he'd chosen the pen name Wilson Charles, because all the novels written using his real name are located on the hard-to-see bottom shelves in libraries and bookstores. If he'd used Wilson Charles, his work would be shelved up there alongside the Crichtons and Cornwells and Childs and Connellys.

Those who do use pseudonyms have said the names should be carefully chosen. Once their works attain any level of success, pen names become as permanent as a tattoo.

But I still haven't talked about why a writer would--or wouldn't--need a pseudonym. Here are some pluses and minuses.

You might choose to use a pseudonym if:

1. You want to write in a genre different from your previous work. Nora Roberts, who's known for her romances, writes mysteries under the name J. D. Robb.

2. You want to hide your true identity from your family, friends, boss, etc. This might be the only way you'd consider writing erotica, or about controversial subjects.

3. You want to disguise your gender. A woman might use a man's name to write for Field & Stream, and a man might use a woman's to write for Brides & Weddings.

4. You don't want to appear too prolific. When Stephen King started out, the idea of publishing more than one novel in the same year by the same author wasn't widely accepted. Pseudonyms were, and still are, a way around that.

5. You want to collaborate with another author using the same name. Ellery Queen was of course really the writing team of Dannay and Lee; and both the Hardy Boys author Frankin W. Dixon and the Nancy Drew author Carolyn Keene were actually teams of different writers.

6. You have a real name that just wouldn't work. It'd be hard to publish if your name is John Grisham, James Bond, Eliza Doolittle, etc. Or, for that matter, Jekyl Juberkanesta.

You might choose not to use a pseudonym if:

1. You don't have any of the requirements listed in items 1-5 above.

2. You already have a reasonable-sounding name.

3. You don't want to have to double your marketing efforts.

4. You want to keep things simple.

It's worth mentioning that Larry McMurtry, who is probably best known for his western novels like Lonesome Dove, also wrote Terms of Endearment and other "literary" works, and did both under the same (his real) name. And--on a far smaller scale--I've written a boatload of stories for a women's magazine without bothering with a pseudonym. Just saying.

Questions: Do you use a pseudonym? Do you think you might, in the future? If so, why, and how was it chosen? Have you found it helpful? Do you use your real name instead?

I'll close this topic with a poem and a joke. First, the poem (which, since I'm not much of a poet, might be considered a joke as well). It's called "Altering the Ego," and appeared in the April 1999 issue of Writer's Digest.

I'll admit I've had problems
With my pseudonym;
When my book was a failure
They knew I was him--
But when I sold the sequel, 
Which did splendidly,
I couldn't make people 
Believe he was me.

Who says writing isn't a thankless profession?

Now, the joke:

John walks into a writer's meeting.
Jane asks him, "What's your pen name?"
"Paper Mate," John says.

And maybe that's the only one he needs.


  1. Always a good blog, John. I've never use a pseudonym even when wirting in different genres as I have from crime fiction to historical fiction, children’s fiction, mainstream fiction, science-fiction, suspense, fantasy, horror, western, literary, religious, romance, erotica and humor. Followed the lead of Kate Wilhelm (and McMurtry). Good, bad, indifferent - it's all mine.

  2. Hi, John and everyone.

    Despite my perhaps nondescript name, I didn't think of using a pseudonym to get published for the first time, and fortunately I didn't need one.

    I don't like the identity-hiding aspect of pseudonyms, but I wouldn't mind using them to avoid seeming too prolific or to write in different genres or forms. At the same time, I'm glad I haven't needed one yet.

    Then again, how many editors see my real name and think it's a pseudonym anyway. :)

    Swell poem, by the way. :)

  3. Hey O'Neil -- Why WOULD you use a pseudonym? You have one of the best writer names I've heard, already. Other friends with ideal "real" names for writers: Culpepper Webb and Lovejoy Boteler.

    Gerald, your name's also interesting enough to stand on its own. Like you, I wouldn't mind trying a pseudonym but so far just haven't seen a reason to do it.

  4. I've used many pseudonyms, but only two by choice: Patrick Myers and Rolinda Hay.

    I've written under at least 18 house names or editor-assigned names, an untold number of times pseudonyms on my work were some combination of initials and city/state (ex: "H.D., Glenview, Illinois"), and the confession magazines—where I had more than 350 stories published—didn't use any bylines at all.

    On top of all that, it took me a bit to settle on my preferred byline, so early on I had one story published with my full name—Michael Patrick Bracken—and several pieces published as Mike Bracken. Gah!

    The advantage of all the pseudonyms: I often had two or more stories published in the same issue of a magazine, and pseudonyms (or, in the case of confessions, no byline at all) made that possible.

    But these days, I'm sticking with my preferred byline. So, as some of my Patrick Myers stories are being reprinted, I'm switching them over to my preferred byline.

  5. Michael, you're a prime example of using pen names so you could be more prolific. (And it worked!)

    I've never had a story published without a byline, but two of my stories were published under someone else's byline. They were mistakes, and the editor called both times to apologize. Just call me Rodney Dangerfield.

  6. These days, publishers tell us to use your own name for every genre (except erotica) because this is your 'branding' - and branding is everything, dammit. I write sci-fi, fantasy, romantic comedy and crime all under my own name, all humorous. The trick is: on a website, you can let readers know what books are what genre, so there is no disappointment or confusion. They won't buy the wrong book. So the whole reason for using a different pen name is eclipsed by the need to cross market your brand. gah. I hate that I'm even talking about brands.

  7. Good point, Melodie! Thanks for bringing that up. I agree that it hasn't hurt authors a bit to write under different genres using the same name. The thinking on this has probably changed a bit over the past few years.

  8. I've heard that if you had a series that petered out and you want to sell another series, agents will sometimes recommend pitching the new series under a pen name. That way your old series' sales won't count against you. That's always seemed like odd advice to me, since the publishers will find out who the author really is, right? (Although Parnell Hall once told the story that when he sold his Puzzle Lady series, he did it under a female pseudonym. His publisher didn't know she was him--until they asked for, and upon push back, eventually demanded an author photo for the book. (I hope I've remembered these details correctly.))

  9. Another good point, Barb. I’m beginning to wonder if I ever know for sure who’s writing what i’m reading. Thanks!

  10. John, I laughed at the line "Parker parked his car.” In my head, I was hearing it with a Boston accent: “Pahkah pahked his kah in the Hahvahd Yahd gahraj.”

    I recalled the alias Carter Dickson but not Carr Dickson. Turns out John Dickson Carr used three aliases, Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson and Roger Fairbairn.

    Come to think of it, my first story was published as L. Leigh.

  11. Leigh, I heard somebody say she changed the first name of her protagonist from Fred to Joe because she was worried about having to constantly write “Fred said.”

    By the way, L. Leigh wouldn’t have worked for long—we would’ve eventually figured that out.


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