An author who publishes their work under a pen name writes under an alias—a fake name—rather than using their real name. Commonly this alter ego is known as a pen name, but if you prefer flowery language, then you may elect to use the far more elegant nom de plume.
Some writers say that their pen name is essentially a creative witness protection program, allowing them full freedom of expression without fear of consequences in real life.
Just as each author has different reasons for writing their own books, each writer that uses a pen name will claim a unique reason. How do you know if you should consider donning an alter ego via a pen name? Let’s talk about some reasons why publishing your book under a pen name might be the way to go.
The Luxury of Anonymity
Any preschooler who has donned a superhero cape and jumped from the couch can attest to the power of trying on a different persona.
There’s something enticing and exciting about using a separate identity to explore your creativity. Shedding your own identity may be the best thing to happen to you as a writer. Some find that the value of anonymity allows them explore topics they may never have had the courage to write about under their real name.
A pen name may provide you with the freedom to shed boundaries regarding what you “should” write about, and allow you to write about whatever you want. We all have self-imposed expectations based on our roles and titles: mom, surgeon, PTA President, college student. A pen name allows us to shed these titles and write freely, without worries of what the published material will do to our name and titles.
Say you’re a stay-at-home mom by day who wants write racy romance novels. Maybe 50 Shades of Grey rings a bell? Author Erika Mitchell started as a self-published author and has since shot to literary fame and fortune writing under her pen name, E.L. James.
Let’s consider the real-world application of using a pen name in the case of this spicy book. Many of us have mothers-in-law. And it’s a safe assumption that very few of us would relish discussing our book with the in-laws over the Thanksgiving stuffing. “Blindfolds? Whips? Yep! They’re all in there … pass the turkey, please!”
Obviously this is an over-the-top example, but many people who want to write about illness or addiction, or other topics they feel could be an invasion of privacy could benefit from hiding their true identity by using a pen name.
If you feel that your intended material is too racy, too controversial, or too off-the-beaten path to neatly fit in with your public persona, then it may be worthwhile to consider writing under the power of a pen name.
The last thing you want is for your creative work to die before it takes its first breathe because you’re worried about what others will say. Don your proverbial cape, and write on!
A Fresh Start: Reincarnation
One word: Reinvention. One more: Reincarnation. Ok, that’s two…
Perhaps you’ve dabbled in the publishing world before without much success. You had hoped your first book would be a runaway success, which would allow you to buy that beach house in Boca.
But instead of financial power and success, your book debut was met with crickets. Or worse, a bunch of terrible reviews. You might even be afraid those single star insults could drive a nail into the coffin of your writing career.
Take heart, it happens. The beauty of a pen name is that you can shake off that failure and start fresh. With a pen name, you can literally rewrite the next chapter. How exciting!
While we’re talking about fresh starts, there’s no rule which says you are limited to just one pen name. You might be surprised to learn that several prominent authors wrote under multiple pen names—consider Stephen King (Richard Bachman), J.K. Rowling (Robert Galbraith), Laurence Block (Jill Emerson, Chip Harrison, Paul Kavanagh, and Sheldon Lord).
Don’t let prior missteps deter you. Simply pick out a new alter ego and reincarnate your writing career. There’s no reason that the death of one book means the death of you as an author. Reinvent, then move on.
Dabble in a New Genre
You would think that if you were the best-selling author of all time, you’d want to keep cashing in on that magical name. Not so, says J.K. Rowling, author of the blockbuster Harry Potter series.
Her fantastical youth series—and its subsequent movie deals, product endorsements, and theme park royalties—have earned Rowling billions. Her avid fans would read anything she wrote next (even if it was just a grocery list).
Yet, Rowling confided that while she was writing her next book after the Harry Potter series, she felt confined by the clamoring expectations of her fan base. And hence, her second pen name was born.
J.K. Rowling published her thriller, The Cuckoo’s Calling, under the pen name Robert Galbraith. Press unearthed Rowling’s new alter ego and leaked the news. Even so, it was an experience that Rowling whole-heartedly endorsed.
According to Rowling, “It has been pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name,” said Rowling. “It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation.”
You can do worse than to follow in the footsteps of the world’s top-selling author. If you want to switch genres, or if you want to write from scratch—with no expectations from your audience, friends, or family, give a new pen name a shot. You and your new alter ego have nothing to lose by trying it out.
There’s a saying in the legal field that there are three sides to every story: His, Hers, and the Truth. It’s often the case, especially in memoir, that writers may be concerned about how their recollections will impact those close to them. Each person might have their own unique memories of the past, their relationships, and what may or may not be their own version of the truth.
Consider George Orwell. He was born into poverty as Eric Arthur Blair. He changed his author name to the now-famous Orwell to protect his family from the hard truths about growing up poor in his book Down and Out in Paris and London. The moniker was inspired by his English heritage; thus he combined George (an English saint) and Orwell (a river where loved to visit).
If there’s concern about hurt feelings or potential harm to the family name, then using a pen name may be the way to get your story told without residual strife. A pen name offers protection to tell your story, your way, without apology.
Authors throughout history have used pen names to tell their stories without limits to their creative expression. Maybe it’s time to embrace your own alter ego and write under a pen name.
While we can’t promise that you’ll eventually have a theme park named after your title character, we can tell you that you may find yourself emboldened by the creative luxury a pen name provides.
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