14 Oct 2014

To Be or Not To Be – Mel Green or Mufinella Khong

When I submitted the Winchester competition article that I posted two weeks ago, I had to enter the competition under a pseudonym/pen name. 

Fortunately a recent discussion with a friend meant I wasn’t at a complete loss as to how to choose one.  She’d suggested combining your name with a colour, preferably beginning with the same letter – e.g. Mel Magenta or Mel Maroon – or by pairing the name of your first pet with the first road you lived on.  That could be a bit risky – Fido City, Bumbles Station or Tiddles Pond are possiblities – but fortunately mine was Sandy Kennedy.  I went for that on this occasion, although I don’t fancy it long-term.

In conversations with fellow (unpublished) writers, I’ve encountered a mix of opinions on whether or not they’d write under a pseudonym.  One already has a pen name.  Most are undecided.  Another was very clear that the whole point of writing and being published was to see your name on the front cover of a book.

When I’m tempted to have a pseudonym, it’s mainly for the slight level of anonymity it’d provide.  It is only very slight though, like wearing a mask to a party rather than a gorilla suit!

When I was reading “The Mortal Instruments”, I looked up Cassandra Clare on the internet to find out more about her and was surprised to discover the name was a pseudonym.  Obviously in this Google age, I was immediately informed that the writer’s real name is Judith Rumelt.  A pseudonym is not cast-iron anonymity (unless you’re Banksy), but it does mean you can introduce yourself, book a restaurant table or write a cheque without people instantly knowing who you are.  However, this assumes that your name is quite well-known and that for some reason (a diminishing possibility in this day and age) that your real name is not equally as well-known.   

As I’ve researched this post, I’ve discovered that a surprising number of writers have pseudonyms.  Here’s a few – how many of them are you aware of?:

  • Eric Arthur Blair – George Orwell
  • Jim Grant – Lee Child
  • David Cornwell – John le Carré
  • Jonathan Freedland – Sam Bourne
  • Stephen King – Richard Bachman and John Swithen
  • Joanne Rowling – Robert Galbraith and JK Rowling*

*(Jo doesn’t actually have a middle name, but her publishers thought that young boys – the anticipated audience for Harry Potter – wouldn’t want to read a book about wizards written by a woman.  They asked for two initials, so she added her grandmother’s  – “K” for Kathleen).

One of the craziest ways I’ve come across to create a pseudonym is to use a website that will generate them for you (e.g. www.namegenerator.biz/pseudonym-generator.php).  I had a go… 

It offered me Ced Zegans, Elnora Ragsdale, Odella Mazziotta, Fraze Eden, and – just when I thought they couldn’t get any worse – Mufinella Khong.  Apart from being completely mad, I couldn’t remember some of them long enough to flick between tabs and write them down in this post.  Difficult to remember/spell is NOT something you want in a pen-name.  While I won’t be using that site to find a pseudonym, it may become my first port of call whenever I’m in need of a weird and wonderful character name!!

More sensible methods include playing with your real name – e.g. William Dawson could become Will Daws – or using your middle name, maiden name, a relation’s name, etc.  Initials are popular in the sci-fi and fantasy genres, a là C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling.  Alternatively you can create a name from scratch, looking through books, newspapers and websites for inspiration. 

The most acceptable reason in the writing world for having a pen name is when you’re already famous for writing in one genre, but want to begin writing a different genre.  It provides a clear demarcation.

“…being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience!  It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback from publishers and readers under a different name.” J.K. Rowling’s statement when Robert Galbraith was revealed as her pseudonym.

If I don’t write wholly under a pseudonym then I would think seriously about using different (or slightly tweaked) names for different areas of my writing.  Even though YA and children’s are closely related, I would want the difference to be clear to kids and parents.  Jo Nesbo writes both crime thrillers and children’s books under the same name.  I feel slightly uncomfortable that a kid who enjoys his books for younger audiences might pick up another book with Jo’s name on the front and get more than a bit of a shock from its content!

An essential consideration with pseudonyms is choosing a name you really like and can live with long-term.  It also needs to be one you recognise and will respond to, so that when people refer to you at book signings or events you don’t ignore them.  I missed my name on the Winchester Feature Article competition shortlist the first time I glanced down it. 

Having and choosing a pseudonym doesn’t seem to be as simple as I first thought.  Thankfully I have plenty of time before it becomes a pertinent issue (and at that point I’ll probably have advice offered from agents, editors and publishers as well).

Would you want to use a pseudonym?  And what name would you choose if you did?



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