Monday, May 25, 2015

Pen Names - Should I or Shouldn't I?

When I first started self-publishing, I considered using a pen name for the first couple of books I published.  I didn't because I write too many different kinds of fiction, and if any had a different name, they probably all should have one.

Every now and then, I do regret that I didn't use a separate pen name for my children's fiction... except I really couldn't. For two reasons: one is that most of the children's fiction I wanted to self-publish has already been published under my own name.  Same with my fantasy and mystery short fiction.

The other is that my "children's" fiction tended to be all for different ages, and most of it was actually written for adults. I couldn't find a clean line to draw between my different stories.

So I ended up just using my own name because it was easier, and because in the end, my work is unified by my own style, and genre has little to do with it.

Enter the Story Game

When I started playing with the Story Game a couple of years ago, even before I thought of writing stories from it "for reals," I planned to write these books under a pen name. 

I had three reasons for this:

1.) The books might suck, er, I mean be kinda cheezy* (in a cool, pulpy sort of way).

I enjoy pulp and old movies.  When I read, I can forgive a certain amount of extra cheeze or illogic or datedness in a story if it has something to compensate for that.  Usually, with a pulp story, there is a certain zest to it that comes of being written fast, cheap and sure.

And I would like to have the freedom to write something cheezy or stupid.  Even if others know I wrote it, using a pen name feels like saying "Hey, I warned you."  Or maybe "I meant to do that, honest."  It's like... giving myself permission.


Let's be honest here: I tend to give myself permission to write whatever I want anyway.  And these books aren't coming out any cheezier or dopier than anything else I write.

And ... if I ever do come up with something truly cheezy and dopey later, then I'll want to use yet another pen name to separate them from these books.

*(NOTE: "cheeze" is not the same as "cheese" though both can be stinky or tasty, depending on circumstances.)

2.) A pen name puts another layer of separation between one kind of story and another.

Most of my work is very hard hard to divide one genre from another.  But I plan for this series to be very consistent and up to code in terms of their genre, even if they are a series of stand-alone books, and even if the genre in question is a little dated.

So if these books have genre consistency... that means they'll have a chance to appeal to people who like to know what they are getting. The sort of people who don't like my regular work.

Furthermore, these books were planned to be different in style, not just genre.  So even people who like cross-genre fiction might not like my regular style.  Using a pen name, then, would give them a fence line.  "End of Safety Zone.  Here There Be Quirks!"


As far as I can tell, the style and appeal of these stories are turning out to have pretty much the same quirks as my regular fiction.

So the fence is kinda pointless.  (Here there be quirks, and also there there be quirks.)

3.) Typography.

Typographically speaking, my name has only one good thing going for it: the first and last name are about the same length.  Which means you can stack the first name on top of the last and they'll look nice and square. But that's about it.   No interesting opportunities for nesting or interactions between letters, or to play with different size and stacking.

If I use a pen name, though, I can choose it based on typographical possibilities!  I can choose the initial letters, and all the rest of the letters and make each name any length I freaking well please.  I can have interlocking As and Vs, or nest a short first name between the risers at the beginning and end of the last name. Or do that thing with the large block sanserif type where a long first name is stacked, in small type, on top of a gigantic but short last name.

I can change an N to an M just to make the text line up the way I want. I can add or subtract a vowel.


As I look over various pulp covers for the right "look" for the series, I find that the one that works best is one that depends on the type being really plain and boring.  No stacking, no interlocking.  Who cares whether it's an N or an M?

I can't find any examples just now, but it was a post-pulp paperback style, oddly self-conscious, while pretending it isn't.  Kind of a "hipster meets grunge" thing: where there would be this incredible mid-century modern art, but the typography and design elements were so plain they seemed to say "Hey, this is just a cover on a cheap pulp paperback - it's what's inside that matters."  Kind of pretentious and anti-pretentious at the same time.

Which is something you can say for a lot of visual arts of the period.

And for that particular style, it doesn't matter what your name is. It's like typing it on a typewriter.  If it comes out ugly, that's just how it is.

(Maybe, someday, when I track down the examples of what to do, I'll explain why I think this would be a good style to use.)

So anyway... much as I like the idea of using a pen name for these books, I am beginning to lean away from the idea. 

It will, of course, ultimately depend on how these books come out, and how the art comes out.  It's just looking more and more like it's all a part of my existing brand.

See you in the funny papers.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Although I don't have a problem taking a pen name (taking on my second pen name now), I wonder if it would be the right move for *you*...and it seems like you're coming to that conclusion, too.

Of course, you *could* do sort of what I'm doing and be Cam LaGuire (you don't really seem like a Cam, but you could do it!) or another variation on your name and then they'd be connected but still different. You'd connect to the books on your site.

Or you could write under a pen name and then market to your newsletter list and tell everyone that you're putting a book out under another name, talk up the book, and then they can choose if they want to check it out.

But, yeah, your stuff is already so diverse, I'm not sure I'd even bother with the extra promo required for a pen name.

The Daring Novelist said...

If I did use a pen name, it would be an "open" pen name -- I'd tell everyone about it.

But, for the most part, I think I just have to get this project done, and see what I've got first.

JenBusick said...

Have you read "Discoverability" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch? Excellent book. She talks a lot about pen names (she wishes she didn't have so many -- she has a bunch). Her suggestion is to use your name on all of your work, and distinguish one genre from another using cover design/cover art, so that readers know what to expect from any given book.

The Daring Novelist said...

Hey, Jen! (Your comment came up in the queue twice -- older comments are set to "moderation" so you probably wrote it twice thinking the first didn't "take")

Yes, I've read a lot of both Kris and Dean on the subject. (Dean and I were at the same Clarion 32 years ago, yikes!) They're very good, and they've changed their minds significantly over the past few years.

The main thing about a pen name is that you can easily undo it. (Just add a "writing as" line, and list your real name as a co-writer in the KDP dashboard, and it's yours again.) You can't, however, go the other way. Once you put something under your own name, you can't separate it from that name. I.e. you can add names, but you can't subtract them.