There have been a few times when a client has asked me to be the author of their book. They didn’t wish to use their real name, because the information disclosed was too personal and they felt perhaps a little dangerous. It’s a bit reverse for a ghost.
You might wonder how I respond to such a request. Well, to be honest, I always politely say, “No, thank you.” Inwardly I’m thinking, “Really? Would you like me to be your food taster as well?”
There is a solution to their dilemma, one that has been tried and true throughout history. I advise my clients to come up with a catchy pen name. This concept can also be called a nom de plume or a pseudonym. After all, many of our favorite authors have chosen to write under now-famous pen names. A few might surprise you.
Why choose a pen name?
Throughout history, there have been many people who have written a book under a different name for a variety of reasons.
I don’t want to embarrass my family and friends.
When Agatha Christie decided to branch into steamy romance novels, she didn’t want to use her given name, so she came up with the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott. Most authors with famous pen names don’t have close ties to the chosen name, but in this case, Mary was her middle name and Westmacott was the last name of a relative.
Although Agatha Christie was deemed the Queen of Crime by many of her fans, she wanted to flex different muscles and write in a new genre. Why not? People didn’t catch on for quite some time until an eager journalist blew her cover.
If you’re contemplating writing a book based on true events surrounding people you know well, a pen name could make sense. It becomes harder to connect the dots for readers who become sleuths. A good pen name might just protect your loved ones at least a bit.
I don’t like the way my name sounds.
If you were born with a name you don’t enjoy, you might consider changing it legally and permanently. However, doing so might cause a bit of family strife. Mom and Dad could be offended. So, another solution for you and others in your situation is to create what could become famous pen names.
Actors do this all the time. For instance, growing up I fell in love with the charismatic Archibald Leach on the silver screen. He was so debonair and care-free in his style and attitude. What was there not to like? However, I think we can all agree that Archibald Leach doesn’t quite have that ring to it while Cary Grant certainly does.
There’s a wonderful freedom to be allowed to select your own name without having to jump through all the legal hoops. Some writers use multiple names for various projects they write (usually across various genres). It’s a bit like giving birth to multiple children.
I’d like to just tweak my name.
Sometimes an author can change their name just a little. For instance, Joanne Rowling is better known as J.K. Rowling. Yes, it is still her name, but it’s distinct enough to set her author world apart. There are countless examples of this style if you begin to look. The advantage here is that you don’t need to dramatically change your name. You just tweak it a bit.
I don’t want to be judged by my name.
There was a time when the general public didn’t accept a female author. I’m happy to say that about 50% of authors today are women who write under a female name. However, going back in time, if a woman author wanted to be published, she often needed a male name. Publishers often refused to publish a woman’s book.
Mary Ann Evans wrote Middlemarch in the late nineteenth century under the name George Eliot. Today there is actually a movement to give her proper credit for her work. Sadly, she couldn’t receive that credit in her era, as I believe she longed to write under her own name. Despite the cover of the male pseudonym, her identity was discovered by some, including Charles Dickens, who was a fan of her work.
Having said that, some authors wish to hide behind a male moniker and not reveal their true gender.
A few famous pen names
Samuel Langhorne Clemens
Now that’s a mouthful! Throughout the generations, this author has been beloved by many. Every grade school English teacher has his books on their list of required reading. My daughters both adored The Adventures of Tom Sawyer growing up. I think we can all agree that his chosen famous pen name of Mark Twain has a lovely ring to it.
It’s interesting to note that in his time Mr. Twain did quite well financially but sadly invested in the wrong things. He was intrigued by iffy ventures and ended up declaring bankruptcy. However, he overcame those difficulties and made a point of paying every creditor back showing the man’s shining personal integrity.
Howard Allen Frances O’Brien
This one would be hard to guess. It’s odd, but this author was named after her father. To avoid being teased, she changed her name at age five or six to Anne O’Brien. Later she married Stan Rice and released the Vampire Chronicles under her new name a couple of decades later. She also used A.N. Roquelaure and Anne Rampling as other pseudonyms.
When she died last year at the age of eighty, she had sold over one hundred million copies of her books.
Stanley Martin Lieber
This creative genius started life with modest means. In his teen years, he and his family lived in a small apartment in the Bronx. He and his brother shared a bedroom with his brother, while his parents slept on the couch. Planning and dreaming to be a writer, he created a now-famous pen name that he felt would be well-suited for a novelist.
Today we all cherish this man for the work he created. I don’t know about you, but every time I see Stan Lee’s cameo in a Marvel movie, I shout out loud “There he is!” I can’t help it.
Mr. Lee entered the superhero realm and made a few important changes. When I was growing up it seemed to me that superheroes were all perfect beings without flaws. Not terribly realistic. Mr. Lee was responsible for turning these Marvel men and women into more believable and realistic characters. Thor is far more entertaining being the vane creature that he is, and Iron Man is beloved for his sarcasm and we all love to witness the continual errors that he makes. And isn’t it cool that various Marvel characters worry about the mundane details of living here on Earth?
Stan Lee is missed by all his fans.
This colorful man went to Dartmouth College, where he ran the Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern, a humorist magazine. Being that Theo was smack dab in the middle of Prohibition, he was punished for drinking gin in his dorm room with friends. Dean Laycock insisted that Theo be removed from the Jack-O-Lantern and stripped of his title.
So, what did he do? Theo changed his name! He took a pseudonym using his middle name and gave himself the honorific of doctor in homage to his father who would have preferred him to practice medicine. With his new moniker, Dr. Seuss resumed his work on the magazine and went on to work for various magazine and book publishers as a cartoonist and writer. He quickly rose through the ranks and gained wealth through his magazine and advertising gigs. In his later years, he moved to the lovely La Jolla community near San Diego where he published many books through Random House under his famous pen name.
Eric Arthur Blair
This author was concerned that his first stories would embarrass his family, as they highlighted their era of poverty. When considering a pen name he was inspired by the patron saint of England, a country he loved dearly, and a river where he had enjoyed sailing frequently in his youth.
George Orwell was born in India but raised in England. After a stint as a police officer in Burma, he began to write back in England. His work continues to influence our next generation as it had me. His pen name went on to become an adjective to describe how awful the world could become if we all aren’t diligent. It’s hard to imagine his old name in place of his famous pen name.
Born to a Jewish refugee from Germany, Mr. Handler grew up in San Francisco a voracious reader. When Mr. Handler did research for his first book, The Basic Eight, he came up with his pen name which sounds a bit like Jiminy Cricket when you say it quickly.
In A Series of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snicket becomes a character in the books and continues to appear in All the Wrong Questions and his Unauthorized Autobiography in 2002.
If you’re an author who has any hesitancy in publishing under your name, consider using a pseudonym. Perhaps you and your fellow authors will create something that will have famous pen names, which will be featured in a future blog article.
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