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!


36 thoughts on “Freedom!

  1. The following is more “traditional publishing” than indie but Harry Turtledove was asked why he used a “pen-name” for his pure-historical novels (non SF/Fantasy/Alt History).

    IIRC he was concerned that if he wrote them as “Harry Turtledove” and they did poorly, then the buyers for the book chains would decide to purchase fewer of his regular books thus “hurting his sales”.

    Of course, he mention the problem of “reader expectations” and how the pure-historical novels would be seen by his regular readership.

    1. Yep. same reason I used Sarah Marques. BUT stuff like the musketeers, which has high crossover appeal, is coming out as Sarah Hoyt Writing as — and yes, part of what I’ve been doing is prepare the release.

    2. I love love love the Greek sailors doing a merchant version of Aubrey and Maturin. I didn’t like the Justinian II novel, but only because I don’t like Justinian II and I like a novel full of him even less.

  2. I have one story I consider putting out under a pen name because of the day job. Then I tell myself I can just let that story sit for ten years. It’s hard enough getting stuff up that doesn’t cause me problems, that I can just keep it last on the list.
    But, my boys leave for college day after tomorrow, so I’ll likely have more time [heavy sigh].

  3. 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.

    FWIW, I probably would’ve gotten whiplash if I’d read the Daring Finds books, then A Few Good Men.

  4. I can think of one other reason…

    If your early work is so abysmally *bad* that publishers reject anything coming from “Dan Lane,” say, that they scramble for the pink reject form whenever they hear it, you might want to consider submitting your later “good” stuff under a different name…


    1. Nah. First of all, I wouldn’t submit to most traditional publishers now (Baen excepted) — for cause read Dean Smith. BUT I’ve been on the other side of this. Most of what you first saw was CRYING bad. But then there would be a story that shocked you. And you bought it.

  5. One other reason I read about is if your name is very similar to another writer in your genre. If I go looking for David Weber on {searchengine}, I’ll either get the Honorverse author or a late and much lamented historian of the American Southwest as my top two hits. Both have really good books out there, but you can see the problem if David J. Weber had decided to try his hand at sci-fi under his real name.

    1. Chuckle Chuckle

      A while back there was a person named “David Drake” posting in the Baen’s Bar Slush piles.

      No he wasn’t the “David Drake” and he wasn’t concerned about possible confusion with the “David Drake”.

      He wasn’t concerned that is until the “David Drake” politely informed him that HE did visit Baen’s Bar so the people informing the “second David Drake” of the problem had a valid point. [Very Big Grin]

  6. Had a professor in grad school who added a purely fictitious initial to his name, in order to prevent confusion with a similarly-named researcher (who also did research in a related field). The style being for authors of papers to list themselves as A.B.Scientist rather than Archibald B. Scientist. Made all the more funny by him being a prim and proper Kiwi who probably never even got a speeding ticket, so the idea of him using a one-letter pseudonym was *quite* shocking!

  7. I’m trying a pen name for branding purposes. If it’s written by Zoey Ivers, you won’t mind your ten year old reading it. There may be some bad words, but no sex, no innuendo, no closed doors. Because if it says Pam Uphoff on the cover, it’s not even erotica, let alone porn, but there are lots and lots of very adult situations, not to mention lifestyles no one wants their kids to decide would be a cool way to live.

  8. I use pen names mostly because my real name is frighteningly foreign, and not well suited to certain genres. I can write sf/fantasy, supernatural, poetry, or even historicals under Kaichi Satake, but who would read a western by such a strangely-named author? Kai Starr (which was my musical stage name before it was my authorial pseudonym) seems to fit the western genre fairly well, and it’s much easier for people to remember (let alone pronounce) than my real name. I’ve started using it for everything except sf and comics. I like it so well, in fact, that I’ve considered legally changing my name to use it everywhere.

        1. Japanese-sounding names are cool! I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of non-Japanese kids out there using Japanese pen names, heh! (Certainly in fanfic circles.)

    1. What she said– plus, I think I even said it right!
      (Husband is big on subed anime, gets much amusement from my butchering of…um… all languages except for some English….)

      But yeah, Kaichi Satake does kinda break the “spell” for a western novel.

      1. You’d be amazed at how many ways my name can be butchered. In elementary school, I had one teacher who argued with me that my name should be pronounced CAKE-ee. Er, like I didn’t know how to pronounce my own name. 😛 And countless folks have pronounced my surname as suh-TACKY. First name sounds like kah-ee-chee, or kie-chee, if you say it fast, where kie rhymes with sky. Last name is sah-tah-keh, with the emphasis the same on all syllables. Even Kai (which rhymes with sky) is hard for some folks. I have friends who consistently call me Kia, like the car, or Kay, like the ladies’ name. I don’t complain much, because I can’t pronounce eastern European names to save my life. 😛

        1. If you knew my name, you’d know I’m not trying to tease you, but… last name like the mushroom, yes?

          And second part of first name like the number? I have a vague notion that I’ve heard the name before, in connection with Naruto, but I’m probably conflating two or three things, like Kakashi counting or some stupid thing. -.-

          To be fair, replacing Y with I is very common for those looking for a “different” girl name. I’m not sure if my cousin’s name is Kelly or Kelli or Kellie.

          When I was stationed in Japan, I thought the butchering of my name was kinda cool and/or adorable, depending on who was doing it.

          Now wondering why my initial reaction was mild surprise at someone with a Japanese name doing western, since the one time I’ve been scared in a taxi was after I mentioned that I grew up on a ranch and my folks still run cattle, and we went the next few blocks with the guy turned all the way around utterly enthused that I’d grown up just like “Chon Wayne.” GG, random mental blindspot. 😉

          1. Ha, yes, similar to the mushroom and the number! I can certainly relate to feeling differently about having one’s name butchered depending upon who is doing the butchering. Some people do it on purpose.

            I might have a Japanese name, but I am American born and bred. Born in the Bronx, in fact, and then almost immediately became a Texan, which I still am, today. Well, I did have a short stint as a southern Californian, but overall, most of my life has been spent in Texas. We had horses when I was little, and I had my own pony. I still have pics of four-year-old me dressed in cowboy outfits, back in the days when I told everyone my name was Johnny. (^-^) My real dad (not the one whose family name I bear) had a ranch with longhorn cattle, horses, and buffalo. I spent several months there, and enjoyed the heck out of being around the animals. I can only imagine what it would have been like to grow up there, but I think I’d have been fairly well suited to it. You must have had a great childhood!

            1. Good lord, your real dad kept buffalo? THAT is an expression of either really loving your animals, or insanity…..

              (Note, cow kid here: cows respect fences. Buffalo laugh. Although, from my aunt’s report, they’re pretty respectful of being assaulted by a broom.)

              1. Yeah, if you knew my dad, you’d easily see it was a mixture of insanity and vanity. He’s always liked to have things just because nobody else he knows has them. They were constantly having to go fetch the buffies after they knocked down fences. No jumping, no sir. Knocked them flat down. They were cool animals, though. Smart and curious and a little scary.

          2. A internet search and looking at the Naruto wiki suggests that if the source is Naruto, it is either a VA, or a conflation of Daichi with either Kaija or Kaiji. If things beyond Naruto…

    2. I might read a western by a Kaichi Satake.

      If nothing else, I mean to look more at that website when I’m on a browser that doesn’t break it.

      I think I may get it right, when I concentrate, and remember my impression of how Japanese works. That said, I probably regularly mangle the language I really know, in speech.

        1. LOL To be honest, my real name would probably be a better indicator of what KIND of western it is. It’s almost a comic book. Certainly not your grandpa’s kind of western. I’m unusual in that my mom chose to give me her father’s name. I’m probably more like him than anyone else in my family. We’re the only two with baby fine hair, and the only two who were artists, and the only two who flew planes. His was a Zero and mine a Cessna. Thankfully, I didn’t die in mine. (~o^)

        2. I just mangled my English enough to fail to specify that English is the only language that I really know. Also, I regularly mangle my English.

  9. I decided to just be me, and if what I write perhaps reflects badly on me in some people’s eyes, that’s their problem. (Unless they try to get me fired from my day job or something). On the other hand, while I don’t normally use my middle name or initial, for writing I do, because I think Richard Alan Chandler has a nice rhythm to it, while my name without it kinda gums up the pronunciation with all those Ch’s and a D in the middle. Also, it’s my Dad’s first name (And my first is his middle, he didn’t want me to be a Junior), and I use it to honor him.

    On the other hand, I can see it for marketing purposes. You might want a male name for the MilSF and a Female for the Romance. A friend of mine has a couple of pen names for different genre.

  10. I had to start writing under a different name, because “Maureen O’Brien” is an actress who played Vicki on Doctor Who and then went on to buy a Vancouver bookstore and write mysteries. There are also three or four other namesakes who write litracher (some of ’em by married name), and one who worked for Publisher’s Weekly and several publishing houses (not sure if she’s also the field hockey player).

    So yeah, I’m M.S. O’Brien, and I don’t particularly like it.

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