A.K.A. JOHN SMITH
by John M. Floyd
What’s your pen name? Bic? Paper Mate? Sharpie?
Okay, I know that’s not funny. Pseudonyms are serious business to many authors, and some are far better known (Mark Twain, O. Henry, Ellery Queen, etc.) than the writers’ real names.
A lady in one of my writing courses last year raised her hand and asked me what I thought of pseudonyms. I told her I thought — and I still do — that there’s nothing wrong with using a pseudonym if you feel you need to.
“Do you need to?” I asked her.
“I think so.”
“Because of my real name.”
That got everyone’s attention. This was our first class session, and none of us had yet met each other. “What’s your real name?” I asked.
“And what do you want to change it to?”
“Anything,” she said.
I told her I wasn’t sure I agreed. (I sort of like that name, and I bet the current governor of California would as well.) But that decision should be the author’s. If you as a writer feel you need a simpler or stronger or more appropriate name than the one your parents stuck you with, by all means choose another one. As Elsin Ann Graffam would have said, the door is wide-o.
I tend to go along with something Lawrence Block once wrote, on the subject of pen names: don’t use one unless there’s a valid reason to do so. What’s your opinion on that?
In any case, here are a few reasons that come to mind:
1. You need to hide your identity. Maybe you’d like to write erotica and your husband is the pastor of a 10,000-member congregation, or maybe you don’t want your ex-wife to demand more alimony if/when you hit it big.
2. You want to write in different genres. Think of Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb and Ed McBain/Evan Hunter and Joyce Carol Oates/Rosamund Smith and Gore Vidal/Edgar Box. (There are, of course, exceptions — many find it hard to believe that the same man, Larry McMurtry, wrote both Lonesome Dove and Terms of Endearment. No pseudonyms there.)
3. Your real name is already taken. If your birth certificate says John Grisham, Sue Grafton, or Tom Clancy, you might need to consider an alias.
4. You’re already famous and want to try an unknown name. I guess I can understand that, but I also can’t help wondering whether Richard Bachman’s books would ever have sold if it hadn’t “slipped out” that he was really Stephen King.
5. Your real name is either too plain or too complex. I heard that author Martin Smith didn’t do well until he became Martin Cruz Smith — and the aforementioned Ed McBain was born Salvatore Lombino.
An interesting and lesser-known reason was given to me by Charles Wilson, author of Embryo, Extinct, Direct Descendant, etc. He told me that if he could do it over again, he would reverse his first and last names and write under the pseudonym Wilson Charles. That way his novels would be higher up on the bookstore shelves, along with the Crichtons and Cobens and Cornwells. As it is, he said, they’re in the alphabetical basement, way down on the bottom right, and are less visible to browsers. I think he was only half joking.
There may be other incentives to invent a fictional byline, but these are at least a few. If none of them apply, my advice is to go with what you’ve got.
Who knows, your real name might even work better. Consider the following grammatically-incorrect poem, “Altering the Ego,” which I published in Writer’s Digest exactly ten years ago today:
I’ll admit I’ve had problems
With my pseudonym:
When my book was a failure
They knew I was him —
But when I sold the sequel,
Which did splendidly,
Then I couldn’t make people
Believe he was me.