Ah, you guys think I’m joking with that title, and partly I am, of course. But only partially.
You guys – some of you. You know who you are – keep bugging me to write a post about pen names, when they’re needed, when they’re important, what they’re good for.
Mostly I’ve fought shy of it. I’ve fought shy of it, because the reason I’m the woman of maybe half a dozen names is something in the past.
This is the short and sad history of how I came to have four (five?) pen names (sorry, I’m too sleepy to count. Had a lousy night. As always worry kicks up my eczema, which means I could barely sleep. Mind you it’s only on my arms. If I go full carb it’s all over my body. Which is why I’m low carb.)
I started out at Berkley under my real name. Then I was told that my books had done so badly (No sh*t Sherlock. Released the week of 9/11 with ABSOLUTELY no publisher support, and a 10k print run, hard cover, unknown writer and nothing on the spine, not even fiction, so that when it got shelved – most of it never did. It stayed in the closet – it was in Theater, Painting, and Shakespearean biography… you mean the series didn’t rocket to #1 spot on the NYT list? I’m shocked, shocked that there is gambling at Rick’s. Never mind.)
They told me I needed to change not just genres but names.
Now, this might have been an attempt at getting rid of me, since the editor seemed to believe I couldn’t come up with an idea for a different genre. I sent her ten for historical mysteries. (They’d already told me SF didn’t sell, period – ah!)
So I wrote the musketeers under my maiden name Sarah D’Almeida. Then the third cover of the series looked so much like the first, I have to focus before I sign them. (I have different pithy sayings for each.) Oh, and they took the first out of print before the second shipped. So… series tanked.
In what was probably another attempt at getting rid of me, they told me to do yet another genre/name. Only this time they dictated that the name had to be “white bread” (Ah!) and it had to be a craft mystery. So, enter the Daring Finds Mysteries by Elise Hyatt.
At the same time, I sold a vampire sex thingy to a medium publisher. Remember I was still with my head in the old model, then. My fear was not that you guys would find it and fail to heed my warning “There is female on top domination going on” because you are more than three, and the first scene involves a tied up male and a frankly evil, sadistic female. You guys can read print. I think you’d get it.
But I knew this small press couldn’t put my book everywhere, and I was afraid of hurting the Baen distro. So, I said they had to use Sarah Marques.
So much for that. That’s why I have four (I guess) pen names. Those reasons are now gone. If you’re contemplating an indie career, they will never apply to you.
So, do what? Why have pen names?
There is ONE reason – but you have to keep those pen names absolutely secret. No, I don’t mean if you write porn. If I wrote porn (Probably not, but there’s a romance knocking about my head) I’d tell you. If nothing else, it would have entertainment value.
No – the important thing about secret pen names REGARDLESS OF WHAT YOU WRITE UNDER THEM – is that they’re secret.
A writing career is a series of LITTLE choices, which little by little hem you into a path. You’re not thinking of setting a path when you make each of those little choices, but that’s what you’re doing.
Things like… how you handle description. Or the voice you use. Or how you structure plots. Or whether you talk about your beliefs (political, religious, whatever) in public, or if you like explicit horror or not, or if you’re sex-explicit or not, or… much smaller decisions relating to characters and how much you hurt them for your plot.
When you’re 25 (26?) books in, you find people expect certain things from you. You can still grow and change, but take too big a step and they’ll hate it, NOT BECAUSE IT’S BAD, but because that’s not what they expect from you.
In those circumstances, a secret, secret pen name or three will allow you to try new things, to write “silly” plots you’d never do in your “real” work, to play with emotions in a way you don’t dare under your persona. And it gives you freedom about being forceful in public, too, because those names are secret, and what you do and what you are, NO ONE WILL KNOW.
And this is the reason to have a pen name in the new era of publishing. I realized it when Kris Rusch – talking about the Rowling outing – said more or less this.
I’m not Rowling. I don’t have that kind of fame, and I’m not that hemmed in, but I AM hemmed in. And one of these days I mean to try that secret pen name thing. For exercise and stretching the wings.
For now, I just need three clones to do all the work already due. BUT the time will come, and I’m looking forward to the Freedom!