Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What's In a (Pen) Name?

by Jaden (Beth) Terrell

I've been thinking about pen names lately, primarily because I have a new one. There are a lot of reasons to use a pen name. Maybe your real name is difficult to pronounce. Maybe it's too common, or maybe it's already being used by another author. Maybe you're writing in a genre that's incompatible with your day job (e.g., a kindergarten teacher writing erotica) or your family. Nora Roberts became J.D. Robb because she wanted to write in a different genre than the one she was famous for and wanted to keep the two brands separate. Stephen King wrote as Richard Bachman because he wanted to write more books in a year than his publishers thought was wise. Things have changed since then, as James Patterson's recent contract for some ungodly number of books per year proves. I can't even remember how many it is. Seven, maybe? Let's just do what the rabbits of Watership Down would do and call it "Har" (meaning some number greater than five).

One of the most common reasons for using a pen name is when the author's sex is different from the character's, especially for books written in first person. Click here for an interesting article that shows how an award-winning author faced this problem. It used to be that women would use their initials to make readers think they were men, but that became such a common practice that Joe Konrath writes his first-person female police detective novels as J.A. Konrath because he knew people would assume he was a woman. Initials can be tricky, though. The pairs of initials that work as names (PJ, JP, JT, BJ, JW, etc.) have all been used and re-used. And if you're using initials that don't work particularly well as names (let's say, QX), what are readers supposed to call you? Another danger is blending into a sea of writers all using similar initials. What's a writer to do?

This was the situation I found myself in. When my book, a private detective novel with a first-person male protagonist, was first released (under a different title), I used my real name--Elizabeth. Several different booksellers told me I was completely missing my audience. People who wanted to read the kind of semi-hardboiled, thriller-ish PI novel I wrote refused to pick it up. When the booksellers attempted to handsell the book, the customer would point to the name and say, "No, look. It says Elizabeth. I don't read cozies."

"It's not a cozy," the bookseller would say. "This is your kind of book."

"No, no," the customer would say, again pointing to the decidely feminine name on the cover, "I don't read these."

On the other hand, there were some people who were drawn to the book because of the name. These readers expected a cozy novel with a female protagonist--even though the cover made it clear that it was not that kind of book. So the people who would have liked it wouldn't read it, and the people who thought they'd like it were bound to be disappointed. My name led readers to believe exactly the wrong thing about my book.

When the book was picked up by Nightshadows Press, we decided to go with a pen name. I didn't want to use initials, for the reasons mentioned above, so I decided on a male pseudonym, E. Michael Terrell (my own last name, my own middle initial, and my husband's first name). My sex wasn't a secret; anyone who went to my website would see it, as would anyone I met in person, but those people, if they chose to buy the book, would know what sort of book they were buying. It was the impulse buyers who needed to get past the name so that the book could speak for itself. E. Michael was a mistake, though, because people couldn't see me as a Michael, and I couldn't see myself as Michael.

When I signed the contract for the second Jared McKean book, my agent and I decided a new pen name was needed. Fortunately, I came across this article by John Kremer. His advice to always publicize and speak under your pen name struck a chord, and I realized I needed to choose a name I would feel comfortable wearing on a conference nametag and answering to during interviews and events. It was one of those "duh" moments. I started looking for unisex names--especially those starting with J, which was my real first initial--and settled on Jaden E. Terrell. It immediately felt right. My agent loved it. Fortunately, that first book with Nightshadows has been issued with the Jaden E. Terrell name so I can consolidate my marketing efforts. I took the name on a trial run at Tony Burton's "Deadly Dinner" last month, and it went over well.

As I learned the hard way (I seem to learn everything that way!), choosing a pen name requires time and thought. If you're thinking of using one, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Choose a name people can spell and pronounce.
2. Choose a name you love.
3. Choose a name that fits your genre and type of book.
4. Choose a name you would feel comfortable using in all your professional dealings.

Once you've chosen the name, use it in all your professional dealings. As Kremer says, don't confuse the issue by giving two names. I know; I'm using two names, but that's so everyone who knows me as Beth/Elizabeth has time to ease into the transition. Take it from me, it's much easier if you pick the right name in the first place.

Are any of you using or thinking of using a pen name? If so, please chime in and share your thoughts and experiences.


Bill Kirton said...

I'm just on the cusp of that, Jaden. My books so far have been crime/mystery and the latest one's historical/crime/romance, ao they're all in the same genre. Soon, though, the first of a series for younger readers appears and it's as far removed from crime as it could be, featuring a fairy. I obviously couldn't stick with my own name so I became Jack Ross - Jack because, for some reason, that's what I'd called the narrator, in whose house the fairy lives, and Ross because it's a family name. Not having yet had to be him in public, I'm curious to see how it feels.

Palmaltas said...

Another reason for choosing a pen name is to choose something easy to sign. I wrote two books as Chancey Hern√°mdez (maiden and married names) but found how time consuming signing was. I now write mysteries as Lea Chan.

Jean Henry Mead said...

There are so many Jean Meads writing that I added my mother's maiden name, Henry, as my pseudonym. Now I receive email from France because they think Jean Henry Mead is actually John Henry Mead (a French photographer). So, unless my photo is displayed, readers wonder which gender I really am. :)

I've also written books as Jean Henry, S. Jean Mead and J.J. Hammond (my own maiden surname).

Helen Ginger said...

I can totally see the reasoning behind a pseudonym, but at this point, I'm thinking I would stick with my real name. So far, that's working for my nonfiction books.

Jaden Terrell said...

Bill, I like both your names. Jack Ross has a nice sound to it, and there's a long and illustrious history of "Jacks" in folk and fairy stories. Your book for younger readers sounds interesting. ANY book where the narrator has fairies living in his house sounds interesting.

Palmaltas/Lea, good point. I hadn't thought of that one, but it's definitely a consideration. Thanks for the contribution!

Jean, I hadn't heard that story. It's interesting that the same name can connote opposite sexes, depending on what country you're in.

Helen, I agree. Your name seems to be working for you. :o)

Carola Dunn said...

I've been using my own name for 30+ years now, switching from Regency to mystery. I'm lucky to have a fairly distinctive name--no one else with it on FB, anyway!--even if I'm always being asked how to pronounce my first name and whether my mother made it up. When I did a 5 day blog for St Martin's, I spent the last day on the questions. No, she didn't--author Carola Oman, Joan Grant's Life as Carola, Queen Carola of some German principality, and a Swedish pop star called Carola! Oh, and the stress is on the first syllable--I am not Corolla, Crayola, or anything similar ;-)

And my last (my ex's last, actually) is easy to remember and pronounce.