Should I use my own name or a pen name for my fiction?
From, A Ninja Writer
Hey, Ninja Writer!
Let’s define pen name first, so we know we’re on the same page.
A pen name is synonymous with pseudonym or nom de plume. It’s a name that a writer assumes professionally, instead of publishing under their legal name.
I use one. Legally and in my everyday life, I use my married name. Shaunta Grimes is my maiden name. I always use it when I write and in other professional settings. It’s my name, of course. I was born with it. But it’s still a pen name. When someone pays me for writing and when I sign a contract, I use my legal name.
You might choose to do the same — write under a name that’s yours, but is different from your legal name. A maiden name, your initials, or using your middle name as your first or last name are all examples.
You might just make up a name whole cloth. I kinda-sorta did this when I planned to self-publish romance novels and came up with the name Belle Bray. While the name has meaning for me — I have a great-great Aunt Belle and Bray was my mothers maiden name and is my daughter’s middle name — it isn’t my name or remotely like my name.
There are several reasons a writer might choose to use a pen name.
I decided to write under my maiden name for a couple of reasons that I think are pretty common to writers. My married name is a mouthful of a German name that’s mildly difficult to pronounce properly (similar to how my first name is mildly difficult to pronounce and many people get it wrong often.) It doesn’t flow as well with my unusual first name and I thought having two names that were difficult to pronounce and didn’t flow wouldn’t serve my career.
Also, I have dreamed about my name on a book all my life. For decades before I got married and wasn’t Shaunta Grimes anymore. It felt right to me to have my own name — the one I was born with — on my books.
I came up with a completely different name for my romance books because my other books are for children. For the record, I don’t think this is totally necessary unless you’re writing picture books and literary porn. I have never had a publisher or agent tell me that I had to change my name, even though my first published books were pretty steamy romance. I’ve also never been told that I have to remove those books from the market.
In other words, I came up with a pen name because I wanted to, not because I thought someone like a publisher or an agent might make me. Part of why I wanted to is because I’m experimenting with indie publishing and I didn’t want to do that with my established professional name.
Another reason you might choose a pen name is if your actual name is already being used by someone else. If your name is Stephen King for instance, you might want to go with a pen name.
My name, Shaunta Grimes, is fairly close to a famous name — Shonda Rhimes. Not close enough for me to change it, especially because Shonda Rhimes is a TV writer more than a book writer, but close enough for me to get comments occasionally.
Sometimes a writer will use a pen name in order to hide or de-emphasize their gender. J.K. Rowling’s publisher thought boys wouldn’t read a book written by a woman. A male romance writer might use a woman’s name as a pen name if they think that women readers won’t take a chance on a romance book written by a man.
Another reason to use a pen name is to keep separation between your personal and professional lives. Sometimes a writer wants to keep the private, private. A pen name provides at least some buffer between their readers and their lives.
Using a pen name is pretty straightforward and easy. Just use it. When you write query letters to agents or publishers, use your pen name. When you get to the point of signing a contract, you’ll be able to tell the other party your legal name.
Practice signing your pen name, for when you do book signings.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She lives in Reno with her husband, three superstar kids, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nationand the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.