In this series, we put our own writing coach on the receiving end of your questions. This is the third question for Mia Botha who will answer questions you have. This one is all about pen names.
I get asked many interesting questions by writers and thought you may be interested in some of them. Read the first two here:
I’ve mostly gravitated towards writing horror over articles and such for magazines. I used to navigate the nonfiction content I’ve previously written/had published under my legal name over my pen name, Willow Croft, which provided a clear line in the sand between my two author personas.
However, a couple of times I’ve been approached to write essays and other nonfiction content on other blogs, but even after several rounds of edits, I still find myself reluctant to share it in a more public forum. Essentially, I’ve been struggling with writing content that gets too personal or revealing, and I have this strong urge to keep certain areas of my life, and aspects of my personality, private, and I feel pretty old-fashioned in this aspect…in this “tell-all” world these days. Likewise, I tend to agonize (also in private) over comments I leave on others’ blogs that are (or so I think) personal and/or revealing–unfiltered.
Where do I draw the line–should I continue to challenge myself to step out of my writerly comfort zone, or stick to writing fiction in my speculative genre(s) of choice? i.e. how much should I continue to “self-reject”, if any, on nonfiction fronts? I strive to be very professional as a writer, and deliver content, but I have a hard time with “telling all”.
What a great question! I do not use a pen name, but I know many writers do, so I asked my writing group if and why they use pen names. Here are some of their responses:
- I used a pen name for my blog and my memoir simply because most of the writing was very personal and I felt I could write more freely without using my real name. – Linda
- I wrote ghastly horror stories for a web site years ago. Didn’t want to confuse my clients so used a pen name for those. – Georgiana
- I used one for a series of co-written romances for two reasons. Firstly, I think romances go down better if written by a woman, and secondly, I didn’t want confusion over my other professional role, which is quite visible. – Martin
- I do. Even though I write thrillers, I struggled with the severe, career threatening negativity from family and friends. Now it’s all done in secret with a pen name, and I’m able to freely write the best stories ever! – Snyman
- I have done this, but for weird reasons. A long time ago I used to edit a magazine. So, I had this ‘head of the business’ position. This meant I couldn’t write frivolous articles or nonsense stuff that I enjoyed doing. I made up a fake name and wrote under that. It was rather liberating. – Michael
- I don’t. As a content creator, I find it actually helps when clients know I am also a published author. They figure I must know something about writing, and with the editorial reviews I have so far, they figure that what I know and what I can do must be good. And they buy my books. So, win/win. It didn’t bother John Grisham that he was a lawyer who wrote stories so can’t see why it would affect anyone else’s career. – Elaine
- I will if I publish my book because some of the subject matter is controversial & will undoubtedly bring a large amount of hate mail—at least. – David
As you can see the reasons are varied. Your reason is a common one, the need to keep your professional name and fiction name separate. At least that is what you are doing on the surface, but you’re also using a different name to protect your heart and identity.
As writers we have to learn to deal with fear. There are many different kinds of fear for writers. First, we are scared to write, but we muster our courage and put our words on the page. Once we’ve conquered that fear we have to share our work. We’re all scared to share our work. The terror of hitting submit. The rejection that is always possible. You’ve overcome that fear by using a pen name.
The pen name protects your identity. It allows you to control what information you share with the world. What information you share is entirely up to you. Today it seems like you have to share everything from your coffee to your pets to your children to be successful, but you must remember that you are in control. Stop listening to people who want you to share more than you are willing to. It does seem that you are moving into a place where you may be ready to shed your pen name. If that is how you are feeling I would suggest baby steps.
You can still keep your private life private and write under your real name. You control what information you reveal.
That said, the writing rarely lies. We do reveal more than we intend to on the page. Ask yourself why that matters? In the beginning writers keep writing about themselves, even when they don’t think they are. Work on your characters. Make them unique. Make them different.
Memoir writers can also ‘hide’ their truths. Jenny Lawson started her memoir with the line, ‘This book is totally true, except for the parts that aren’t.’ You do not have to be that direct, of course, but there are many ways to approach it. You are also writing fiction; not memoir.
The decision to stop writing under your pen name is another fear you will have to face. It’s where you are in your journey. And there are more fears: the fear of having only one book, the fear that your second book will be badly received, the fear that your series will tank on the eighth book. You see what I mean? That fear is pretty much a constant. You have to learn to live with it.
I hope this helps.
by Mia Botha
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