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What's in a Pen Name?

Before I began writing under my legal name, I used two pseudonyms for my historical romances (mainly Gwyneth Atlee). I had several reasons for doing so. I taught children and didn't want to worry about certain parents running to the principal with complaints about the books' adult content. (Parents assume their kiddos' teachers go home to read -- and upon occasion dabble with writing -- stuff like Babar the Elephant or, when we're really feeling edgy, Curious George.) Also, at the time, I was marketing a book in another genre and writing educational articles under my real name and I was shy about attention, so the pseudo seemed like a good idea.

When I switched to writing romantic suspense, I decided a name change was in order. Since I was no longer in the classroom and didn't fret as much what people thought about everything, I chose my own name. For one thing, it was simpler than keeping up with three aliases. For another, people in the industry like the sound of it.

But not everyone can use their legal name, for a variety of reasons. If you're writing something likely to attract stalkers or enrage an ayatolla or your relatives, after reading your books, will send deprogrammers to abduct you and straighten out your head, you might want to give yourself a modicum of privacy. If you're switching genres or hiding out from tough numbers on your last book, that's another reason, as is a real name that's too long, clunky or whatever to work well.

Choosing a good pseudonym requires lots of thought. Ask yourself if the name you're considering:
1. Is simple enough to spell, pronounce, and recall. I went to many a booksigning to find Gwyneth Atlee misspelled on the marquee, though I thought it was common enough (while still being distinctive). People constantly misspelled it online as well, and I still go places and hear people refer to me as Gwenyth Al-tee. **Sigh**
2. Doesn't try too hard by being overly mystical, witty, cutesy, sexy, or exotic.
Though I was trying to sound like a historical romance writer, I've lost a lot of affection for "Gwyneth Atlee" because to me it sounds contrived. (Maybe I think this because *I* contrived it.) I like my one-book, sacrificial (long, sad story) pseudonym, Colleen Easton, much better.
3. Looks as if it could exist in nature, although it's distinctive. A fair number of romance authors I know of have taken their son's first names as last names. (A lot of guy first names are also good old American last names.)
4. Is short enough to be printed in big letters on your book's cover. Also, you'll appreciate this when autographing.
5. Is not at the very beginning or very end of the alphabet because of shelving problems.
6. Is not too similar to another author in the field, or one closely related. Though Colleen Thompson is my real name, there's a mystery/suspense author named Carlene Thompson. (I didn't know this when I started writing romantic suspense, however.) I once drove a long way to an out-of-state booksigning only to be confronted by a smiling, young bookseller who proudly led me to a huge pile of her books. (I couldn't be mad. The bookseller was so mortified - nearly in tears- that I felt sorry for her. After all, who hasn't done something like that? She was so grateful that I didn't spaz out that you can bet she'll remember me from now on.)

Think long and hard before taking a pseudonym. Because with any luck, you'll be living with it for years to come.


Shana said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shana said…
Good article, Colleen. Just to add to your comments, often your publisher will choose your pseudonym, as in my case, so don't spend a lot of time thinking of the perfect one before you sell. Your editor may just veto it.
Christie Craig said…

Great post.

I find it interesting how people come up with pseudonyms. When I sold to Silhouette, they frowned upon their writers publishing under their own name. So I chose Christie Clark. Clark was my husband's and son's middle name. In my freelance career, I mostly published under my own name, but several editors used to print me under two pseudonyms, Nina Stevens (my son's and daughter's first names) and Christine Eagle. They did this because I had written more than one article in the magazine.

Now, I'm planning on using Christie Craig with my romantic suspenses with Dorchester.

Oh, one thing that is kind of funny, Amazon has my Silhouette Romance down as being published by...Mary Higgins Clark. Who know I was so famous?

That's a good point, Shana. As with titles, it's a good idea not to get too attached.

And that's interested, Christie, about magazine editors renaming you so it appears they have a larger stable of writers. I've never heard of that one.
Anonymous said…
I am in the process of publishing my first book and have chosen to go with a pen name because I still work in the industry in which I write about. My question is how do you copyright your work? Is it under your legal name or the pen name? And do you get paid under which name?

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