Fiction Addiction
Book news and reviews with Bronwyn Sell and Christine Sheehy

Fiction Addiction: What's in a (pen) name?


All over the world, new parents agonise over the names of newborn babies. They test out combinations of first and last names, nicknames and initials, anxious to avoid any mickey-taking potential.

But sometimes even the most sensible of names turns out to be not quite good enough.

Novelist Alison Potter's parents settled on a name she was happy with for 40 years. But then, as she recently wrote in The Guardian, on the verge of publishing her debut thriller Wink Murder, her publisher informed her that her name must be changed.

Pen names have long been used by novelists - think Mark Twain, George Orwell or Lewis Carroll - and the reasons are diverse. Privacy is a common justification, as is a desire to maintain some separation between one's writing and one's personal life. Louisa May Alcott may be known for her wholesome family novels, but she paid the bills by secretly writing racy thrillers, mysteries and romances for the more lucrative magazine market under the name A.M. Barnard.

Others have opted for pen names to avoid discrimination. Charlotte Bronte first published Jane Eyre under the masculine name Currer Bell, because she and her sisters Anne and Emily (also known as Acton and Ellis Bell) believed critics to be prejudiced against female authors.

Even J.K. Rowling switched Joanne for gender-neutral initials because her publisher was concerned boys would not read books written by a woman.

For some, like Agatha Christie, a nom-de-plume allows the author to publish novels in a different genre while avoiding reader confusion. She published her romance novels under the name Mary Westmacott.

But sometimes your name just doesn't suit the marketing department's aspirations. The problem with Alison Potter "was that it was safe, dependable, middle-of-the-road", even middle-aged. Not exactly desirable attributes in a thriller novel, nor it appears in a thriller writer. Perhaps that's why snappy pseudonyms are relatively common in the crime and thriller genres, such as John Le Carré or Lee Child.

So how do authors come up with pen names?

It is often said that the first letter of your chosen surname should fall within the first half of the alphabet. This should place your books at eye level in the book shop, not, as I once heard Fay Weldon lament, "buried amongst the cobwebs on the bottom right shelf." (Weldon's comment made such an impression that it was one of the reasons I put to my husband when I decided against taking his W-commencing surname. Should I write a novel some day, then retaining my S would place my books if not at eye level, then at least closer to thigh level. Let's just call it future proofing.)

Don't opt for a common name like Smith or Jones unless you have a distinctive and memorable first name, but steer clear of anything too exotic or unpronounceable. You'll want to stand out - but not too much, so make sure you do a google search first. You don't want any nasty surprises in the antics of your namesakes.

Alison Potter tried out various surnames within her extended family, before compiling a shortlist of names from graveyards and film websites. Eventually she settled on Ali Knight, because it was "strong, confident and felt crimey", with the added benefit of placing her in the illustrious company of Stephen King and Stieg Larsson on the bookshop shelf.

Or you could follow the advice of crime writer CC Benison, who, writing in the National Post, suggests the first name of your childhood best friend, followed by the surname of your favourite literary character.

That would make my pen name Miriam Bennett. I'm not sure it takes me out of the middle-of-the-road or middle-aged categories, but it would elevate any future works of fiction to eye level. That alone makes it worth considering.

What are your thoughts on pen names? What would you consider when coming up with one? What would yours be?


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