Thursday, June 21, 2007

"Thinking Too Far Ahead" Syndrome

ok, maybe this isn't the best place to post this. But it's the most current. From an agent's (or assistant's) point of view, what is your opinion on pen names? When are they appropriate, and when are they a nuisance? I know there's lots of pen name advice out there, but it's all from writers without pen names. What are your and/or your boss's feelings?

I have gotten this question a number of times and I will emerge from my stupor of the school group assignment due tomorrow to do it. For those of you who are familiar with my tone, you might have guessed that the Rejector is not a team player. It's not bad; it's just my personality type. I am pretty sure that the rest of my group thinks I am the laziest, most irritating, most argumentative person on the planet, which is the way I come off when I work in a group. Really I'm not. I just don't like non-hierarchical social groups (especially of women) that have been assigned tasks. It's much for efficient to have a hierarchy.

ANYWAY, on to our topic.

First of all, pseudonyms are a case of “thinking too far ahead” syndrome, along with sending in your cover ideas and your pre-written book jacket (as if you’ll be handling either of those two things and not the publishing company). Pseudonyms don’t come up into discussion until either late with your agent before he/she sends it out, or after the contract with the publishing company is signed.

When you’re a writer, there’s a temptation to use a pseudonym. It seems cool. You can name yourself whatever you want (like “Max Power”) and you’re all secretive, as if you’ll be an angry old J.D. Salinger, chasing reporters off your lawn with a rake unless you used a pseudonym. Well, let me dispel a myth: That’s probably not going to happen.

Pseudonyms are bad for logistical reasons. They complicate book signings, contracts, royalties, a lot of other paperwork, and your fan base when they try to write in. Yes, the publishing company will know your real name (they need it to write those checks), but various departments in the company could easily become confused, especially with a new assistant handling the mail.

Originally, pseudonyms (or just not naming the author) were used by women writers, people with politically-dangerous ideas, and people who wanted to assign their text to the authorship to an older (and more prestigious) author. Many people tried to pass off their plays as written by Shakespeare. The Zohar was not written by 2nd-century Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai; it was written by the 13th century Jewish Kabbalist who “discovered” it (you can tell because he was Spanish and some Spanish words appear in the text).

Totally, in a free, largely egalitarian society (at least on the writing end), it’s not necessary.

Pseudonyms are usually suggested by the publishing company for one of the following purposes:

(1) You have a name that is awkward, like Dan Hitler, Or Olaf Cisnădioara.

(2) You have the same name as another published author. Even if your genre is totally different, you’ll get into shelving and search engine issues. You may be asked to make a minor change. As interesting example in film, Michael J. Fox does not have a real middle name. When he registered with the Actor’s Guild, they said he could not register his name because there was already a Michael Fox, so he added the “J.” It does not stand for anything.

(3) You are writing erotica and do not want to embarrass yourself or doom your non-erotica career (see Anne Rice, who used a pseudonym for her smut)

(4) You have a legitimate reason to stay anonymous. You were a private assassin, you were a member of the early Bill Clinton Presidential campaign, you were an O.J. Juror (whoops!). Usually this apples to people with something political to say or a sketchy background.

(5) You are an established writer in one genre and you want to move to another one. This is done by recommendation by the company, again for shelving and search engine confusion reasons. Readers who only read mystery novels may be stupid enough to pick up your space opera novel, even with the guy shooting a laser gun on the cover, and not realize it’s not going to be a mystery.

Occasionally the company will suggest that you change your last name so that you are shelved near someone who is more famous and writes similar things to you. There’s a reason that most of the people who write sequels to Jane Austen novels have A and B last names. Those aren’t their real last names, for the most part. They’re looking for that key shelf placement in the “Fiction and Literature” section of Barnes and Noble.

Other cases of “thinking too far ahead” syndrome in queries – suggesting what shows you want to go on (Oprah. It’s always Oprah), how you want to market it, whether it should be hard or soft-back (another decision you don’t make).


Anonymous said...

Actually, my writing partner uses a pseudonym (middle name instead of first name) because at the time he was pastoring a church that took a dim view of writing (and for that matter, anything outside the four walls of their church). As a soon-to-be ex-pastor, I'm pushing him to drop the pseudonym and go back to his original signet.

As interesting example in film, Michael J. Fox does not have a real middle name. When he registered with the Actor’s Guild, they said he could not register his name because there was already a Michael Fox, so he added the “J.” It does not stand for anything.

Jay Ward established that custom of "J" as a middle initial in Rocky & Bullwinkle back around 1960, when he gave all the characters in the 'toon the middle initial "J" after his own name. Since then, it became a tradition among cartoonists; for example, both Homer & Bart Simpson have the middle initial "J" in homage to Jay Ward.

Anonymous said...

Or, you might want to keep living - at least in the same town.

Merry Jelinek said...

I'm using my maiden name for my fiction - I hadn't thought that was a big deal at all, I planned on querying with both my legal and pen name, but using my pen name on the ms.

Candy V said...

I didn't realize a pen name could create so much confusion.

There are a lot of reasons for pen names -

1. So you won't get fired from your day job - Not relevant if you're rich or have a sugar daddy/mama to pay your bills.

2. To keep your sanity - because of the family drama, personal conflict it'll cause

3. Because you've always hated your name and the jokes associated with them.

I don't get the "thinking too far ahead" syndrome. I agree with the designing covers and such. People do that?

Susan said...

I'm on the reverse side of the anonymity thing. I'm a professional who intends to continue with my day job until such point as I can't possibly, and it's in an area where being known as a genre novelist is not exactly going to be great for my reputation and I'm not interested in attracting clients on that basis.

But I'm also not worried too much about it and all I'm going to do is switch from my fairly distinctive married surname to a family name that's slightly less so. (Distinctive enough that I may be the only person in the US with my soon-to-be married name, and I'm one of only three, as far as I can tell, with my maiden name.) It only came up when I made the mistake of telling a coworker about my hobby and realized that many of the people I deal with are not creative types and don't have a lot of respect for those who are. Alas.

Anonymous said...

So okay, then, question - I fall into one of the categories listed, as an established but not super famous (but respected enough, it seems, in her genre, romance, which is not what I'll be writing at least) author already exists with my name. So I assume I'll be told to pseudonym up. I've started querying with my middle name included (so, Stephen William King instead of Stephen King, for example), which is unfortunate as I feel like that's so pretentious, but what can you do. Anyway, is this enough for now? I assume any further changes can wait, right?

Dave Kuzminski said...

I'll give two more reasons for using a pseudonym.

Working at a job where you deal with medical records and your name goes on thousands of letters to patients. While it would be nice for them to purchase your book, it could lead to problems where they might think something medical in any of the scenes was referring to them. In fact, I discovered after the fact on several occasions that the made-up names for some characters were actual names.

The other instance is when family members insist on a pseudonym being used so their privacy won't be disturbed when you become famous. Yes, they were positive I'd become famous.

The Rejecter said...

Anon 10:32

The point is, you don't have to worry about the pen name in your query, though you might want to point out that you're NOT Stephen King or joking around; that's just your real name.

Anonymous said...

Assuming one gets to the point of making a decision...

What if your name is just too 'common'? Wouldn't John Smith be wise to use another name?

The Rejecter said...

Previous poster -

I think the publishing company would make that call. Or at least give you advice.

dancinghorse said...

Another reason to use a pseudonym is if you are a published author whose sales have been poor, or who wants to bump sales above the current level--just about an impossible feat in the current distribution system. The publisher may recommend a change of name in order to get around the computers.

ORION said...

I didn't worry about it -- it was my agent who brought up the fact that hyphenated names are confusing. It was always my choice but ultimately I went with a shortened version of my name.
I agree with rejecter when she says that deciding on a name is premature. It is an agent and author's decision.

JanW said...

Another reason I have is that I work with two other writers at times. To put three names on a novel seems ridiculous to me, so we came up with a pen name that is made up of a mix of the letters in our first names.

Good idea? Bad idea? Do I tell the agents to whom I'm sending queries for us?

Rob said...

I thought about either using my first initial and middle name or my first and middle initial with my last name.

I want to keep a little anonymity, but not come up with something too far off from my name.

The Rejecter said...


It's actually not that uncommon for two names to appear on books, or at least it used to be far more common. That said, you have to mention all the authors in the query (obviously) and maybe suggest the name, but don't make a big deal out of it.

Anonymous said...

I both dislike my name and don't want to have my highly conservative coworkers (who already think of me as a flaky hippie chick) to know what, exactly, I write. Being known as the author of fantasy, romance or erotica could affect my job and my relationship with others in the community.

Kidlitjunkie said...

Two things. Number one, my personal favorite example of thinking too far ahead? Dedications. When you send it your manuscript with a dedication on it already, that is thinking WAY too far ahead.

Second, all you people who are coming up with very valid reasons for using a pen name (using your maiden name, not liking your name, not wanting your customers to think your book is about them, etc etc) - all those are valid reasons. And they are completely fine. But don't write them on your query letter. I roll my eyes every single time I get a query letter from an unpublished author that is signed "Jane Doe, writing as Jane Smith."

When you have a book deal? That's the time to talk about the name on the cover. But not before.

There are plenty of good reasons to use a pseudonym. But none really to bring it up in the query.

Josephine Damian said...


Are we related? Your attitude toward school group projects is the same as mine. I dread them - there's always a conflict. Ugh!

Anyway, prosecuting-attorney- turned-mystery-writer, Jeremiah Healy, told all us gals at a Sleuthfest years back that we should ALL use pen names. Why?

Too many stalkers, perverts and weirdos out there who will use the internet to track down where we live (land records, etc.).

What if you regeister Jane Doe dba Mary Smith? Can you then sign contracts solely as Mary Smith?

You can get a bank account to deposit those fat royalty checks
:-) under your dba name, so why can't a publisher cut checks to your pen/dba name only?

Please advise.


Anonymous said...

On the subject of established writers in one genre writing in another:

While browsing through the mystery section of a used bookstore, I found a copy of Rita Mae Brown's "Rubyfruit Jungle" shelved amongst her Mrs. Murphy mystery series. If anyone picked it up expecting talking/sleuthing cats, they were in for a big surprise.

Anonymous said...

My dilemma is I have a legitimate reason for publishing under a pen name or my maiden name, but I hope to publish one or more short stories before seeking an agent for my novel. The short stories are set in the same world as the novel and feature some of the same characters--it's my hope they will not only provide me with pub credits for the query letter, but will help promote the novel if it I manage to sell it. However, if the short stories are published under one name, and the novel is published under another, I lose any name recognition I might have gained from the short stories.

Anonymous said...

My name is short, 6 letters for the first name and 4 for the last, but I have had to correct the pronunciation of both the first and last name since I entered gradeschool. It is amazing how many variations people come up with. My first name is just an old-fashioned spelling of a common name, but almost nobody pronounces it correctly the first time, and sometimes them they insist on their pronunciation. I promised myself that if I ever got published I would do so under a phonetic version of my name because I am tired of correcting everyone. People could greet me (okay, in my wildest dreams) and I would know they were talking to me. It would be nice.

Katrina Stonoff said...

Joshilyn Jackson blogged about going on book tour when an assistant (who didn't know she writes under her maiden name) booked all her flights as Jackson, but that's not what her ID said. She was able to change the reservations, but since it was a name change, it was considered a security issue, and she had the patdown search EVERY time she went through the x-ray machines and at every gate. On book tour. UGH!

However, I think if you're going to use a pen name (for whatever reason), it makes sense to start early. Writers have to do a lot of their own publicity--we're told to have a website and build a web presence, before we even sign an agent, much less publish. If I start building a fanbase now, and later change my name, a lot of that work is wasted.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't there some curfuffle about the Vanessa WIlliams of pageant infamy, and another Vanessa Williams who had to go with a stage name? And I know that when Edward Burns went to register with SAG, he was forced to use his full first name because of some comedian from way back--Ed "Kooky" Burns.

Personally, I'm keeping my initials, but what I'm writing isn't something I want my in-laws attributing to me.

Sam Riddleburger said...

If you do use a pen name, prepare for every single person in the world to ask you why you picked a pen name once the book comes out.
My mother still can't seem to get over it.

Anonymous said...

"because of some comedian from way back--Ed "Kooky" Burns"

LOL-- Ed "Kooky" Burns was a teen idol from apppearing on the television show 77 SUNSET STRIP in the '60's. Kooky was the character's name. He went on to have a hit record recorded about him called "Kooky, Lend Me Your Comb," based on the character. He never, ever was a comedian, but a poor actor who got typecast forever in this role. Which, come to think of it, may be a good reason for a pseudonym!

Mrs. Brain Bomb said...

Bless you! I hate seeing pen names on manuscripts. Now can you get writers to stop leaving messages on answering machines to find out how to query?

Chumplet said...

I decided early to use my maiden name as my pen name. I can still use the autograph, and it's more lyrical than my eastern European married surname.

Only recently I stopped using the old 'so and so writing as so and so' in my query letters. I didn't realize it was so irritating to agents.

Since my first book is accepted for publication, I'm sticking with the name I chose. I'm already using it in my blog, etc.

Anonymous said...

Build a website and fan base before getting an agent? I've never seen that advice.

I suppose if you're dying to blog, you should do so (although it's a great distraction from real writing, and worthless in query letters).

The timing is this, from everything I've read: write your novel; query widely; if you get an agent, there will be a long lag time between that acceptance and the publishing acceptance, and an even longer space after the deal is signed before the book comes out.

That is when you should build a site and a presence -- after you're sure you're going to be a published author. Many people will never make it that far.

Kanani said...

There's one other reason to use a psuedonym.

Let's say you're a parent and you're writing about your experiences with a child who has mental challenges or emotional disturbances.

Your book not only conveys sad or disturbing insights on your life, but also on that of your child's.

Fine, you print the book.
Your child becomes a teen or an adult, and desperately wants to define him or herself on their own terms.

But then.... they always have "that" book and those descriptions hanging over them. And unwittingly, they find themselves defined by their loving parent, when maybe they were going through a particularly painful time. A friend of mine did this. Got rave reviews. So her psych-practice jump in numbers. But her kid feels they have this "thing" over their head that they can't shake.

That's when I'd caution parents to use some judgment when it comes to writing about their experiences. Is it about you, is it about the kid? How will your child feel in 10 years? And while you're at it.. would you please take those photos of your kids off the blog? You know, those ones with their names and ages?

So yes, I think a nom de plume is apropos for this situation. If the story is really about how to help others in the same situation, you shouldn't mind protecting your child's privacy at all.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said:

My name is short, 6 letters for the first name and 4 for the last, but I have had to correct the pronunciation of both the first and last name since I entered gradeschool. It is amazing how many variations people come up with. My first name is just an old-fashioned spelling of a common name, but almost nobody pronounces it correctly the first time, and sometimes them they insist on their pronunciation. I promised myself that if I ever got published I would do so under a phonetic version of my name because I am tired of correcting everyone. People could greet me (okay, in my wildest dreams) and I would know they were talking to me. It would be nice.
Thank God there's someone else out there with the same problem! It was so bad with my name that we actually gave our twin boys a slightly different last name, just so they wouldn't have to go through life with people misspelling their last name, and then TELLING THEM THEY'RE SPELLING THEIR OWN NAMES WRONG!

Anonymous said...

have you heard of the writer joe hill? another reason for a pen name...

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