Sunday, April 19, 2015

It’s All in A (Pen) Name

As most writers have already figured out, names are an important tool in writing.

The name alone, on first impression, can make a character seem weak or strong, nasty or gentle, or even wise or foolish.

As an example, in the old television series Grizzly Adams (the younger generation of writers may never have heard of it), two of the main characters are Grizzly Adams and Gentle Ben.  As his name suggests, the woodsman Adams is a grizzled sort, a rough looking mountain man.  Contrary to his name, he was also kind hearted and ran around saving everybody.  His name also plays on his role as a mountain man and keeper of a pet grizzly bear.  His co-star’s name, Ben, itself seems gentle and calm, more so with adding the prefix Gentle to the name.  If you haven’t figured it out from the description of Adams, Ben is a gentle and peaceful grizzly bear.
The same first impression applies to the titles we give our works.

As the writer, you may agonize over the names of every character, searching for the perfect name.  You also may find yourself agonizing over the name of the story too.

The title of the story is the first thing a reader sees, aside from the cover art.  A bad title can be just as damaging to the image of the book as bad cover art.  That first impression is what will decide whether or not that potential reader will pick up that book to read the back cover blurb or skim the pages, or bypass it to pick up the book beside it instead.

Here are three books that are on Amazon.  You have only a title and cover art to decide.  Which one would you pick up?

But what about the name of the author?
In the same way the book title is the first impression a reader gets of your story, your author name is the first impression they get of you.

For some, living in obscurity and safe from the prying eyes of their fans is preferable.  After all, not everyone is cut out for a life of being recognized, especially if he or she is shy.

For others, an assumed pen name is all about finding the perfect name for the author image they want to put out there with their books.

Some writers would not hear of using anything but their real name on their writing, after all it is their hard work and they deserve the credit.  Right?

Some may even see writing under an assumed name to be akin to hiding behind a mask, as if afraid to let their true identity be known.

Of course, secret identities are not always a bad thing.  Super heroes do it all the time.

Sometimes it is in an author’s best interest to don that mask of invisibility and watch the world through a pseudonym.

The reasons for using your real name vs. a pen name are as numerous and there are authors.

Good vs. Bad Names
Authors and actors alike work under assumed names for many reason.  For some it is because they do not think their real names will cut it.  Maybe they’ve been made fun of as kids and are embarrassed by their real names.  Or they are just looking for a name that pops.  One that stands out as memorable so it will help them get ahead in a business that is almost impossible to break into.

The many rejections of Stephen King
Even Stephen King wrote under a pen name for a while.  Like many other writers, Stephen King also faced his share of rejections before becoming a household name.  I’ve read repeatedly over the years that he turned to the pen name Richard Bachman after being unable to sell a single novel under the name Stephen King.  Mostly that was around the rumour mill.

However, this article refutes that claim, which puts the former in the category of hearsay and gossip.  According to this article and others like it, writing under the pen name was more about getting more books published than the publishers would allow by one author for fear of saturating the market with a single author.  And, perhaps as the article suggests, it was in part an experiment.  After being outed as Richard Bachman and Stephen King being the same person, he went on to write exclusively as Stephen King.

Oh For the Love of Privacy
Of course, another reason for using a false name is to protect the privacy of the writer.  Some writers may be concerned that if they ever make it big their private lives will be put out there for the entire world to see.  Of course with technology and information sharing the way it is today, this will probably happen regardless of attempts to hide behind an assumed name.

However, there are some steps that can be taken to make it harder to find out who you are.  Such as is outlined here:  U.S. copyright office – pseudonyms

Genre Confusion
It may be advisable for any writer publishing in more than one genre to use pen names.

Readers like consistency and reliability.  When they pick up a book by a certain author, they expect that author to follow through on the promise implied by the quality and nature of their other books the reader has read.

It wouldn’t do for Suzy Homemaker to buy Sally Schoolgirl that new chapter book by her favourite author only to discover through the child’s look of horror and disgust that the book is actually an erotica novel.

And a horror novel lover probably won’t be buying your books ever again if that next one turns out to be a sappy 18th century romance.  The same goes for that romance fan who starts reading to discover to her disgust that the twists and turns are about what brutal way the heroine will be murdered instead of whether or not he will kiss her.

So, for the sake both of not alienating your readers, and for your own reputation, it is probably wise to use a different pen name for each genre you publish in.

Of course this does not apply to sub-genres.  Using a different pen name for your thriller mystery with a touch of romance than the one used for your thriller suspense would possibly push all your many pen name aliases into obscurity.

Picking a Pen Name
Picking a pen name can be as hard as picking that perfect baby name, the character name that gives the right impression, or the story title that sells.

Why do you think actors often choose the stage names they use?  Do you think Vin Diesel would have the career he does with his real name Mark Sinclair Vincent?  Not as catchy, huh?  Definitely not when his target audience tends to be teen boys and like-minded men who want to see boobs, guns, and car chases.  And considering the types of role he plays, the stage name gives the characters the right feel.

Your pen name is perhaps just as important as your character names. After all, the character is a fictitious person in a story and may never even be carried over into another story.  But your pen name is the fictitious YOU.  This is your alter ego, your alias.  This is you and the identity you will be known as for all of those stories.  Of course, pen names can be changed and stories can be reprinted under the new name, but if the book became popular under the assumed name, it may be best to keep it as is, especially if you’ve never succeeded in making a name for yourself as yourself.

The same resources that can help you find the right names for your characters can help you find the right name for your pen name.  Sources like online baby name finders and baby name books (helpful if you want something with certain origins or meaning).

Pen Names and Copyrights
While under both Canadian and U.S. intellectual property copyright law your writing is automatically copyright protected through the act of creating it, it’s still basically a big game of he said – she said when a copyright dispute goes to court.  Without any proof it boils down to who comes off as seeming more believable to the judge.

In Canada and the U.S. you cannot copyright a pen name any more than you can a book title.  But using a well-known name of another author might leave others thinking you are only trying to ride their coattails of fame.
It may be interesting to note that according to this U.S. copyright office – pseudonyms, in the U.S. at least, your work is actually copyrighted longer if you file under a pen name and do not let your real name be known than if you do list your real name.  Of course that will only matter to whoever gets your estate after you pass on, since it counts in years after your death.


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