Shakespeare famously wrote: “What’s in a name?” I say, ‘Quite a lot actually. And it’s got me confused!’ Let me tell you why …
This weekend I’ve been to the Romantic Novelists’ Association Annual Conference. Looking down the attendee list, I was struck by how many of my fellow romance writers use a pen name. Some of them were completely different names (NWS organiser Melanie Hilton writes as Louise Allen), some were same first name but different surname or vice versa, some were slight changes (e.g. Write Romantic Alex Weston writes as Alys West) and some were just a change of spelling (e.g. Lynne to Linn).
I found myself wondering why all these writers choose a pen name. Three of The Write Romantics use pen names but for different reasons. One wanted to distance her writing persona from her professional persona and have a name that felt more closely aligned to the type of book she writes, one changed hers because there’s already a writer with the same name, and another wanted to use her maiden name.
My maiden name is Williams and in the days before eBooks, I always knew I wanted to use a different surname because Williams would feature at the bottom of the bookshelf! Fortunately I married a Heslington and moved right up to a prime eye-level position. Except my book is more likely to be an eBook so the bookshelf-browsing scenario isn’t really an issue anymore.
In the early days of my writing, when I fantasised about one of the big publishers taking me on, I imagined a scenario where they asked me to change from Heslington because people couldn’t spell or pronounce it. (Personally I think it’s easy to pronounce but when it comes to spelling, we’ve had post addressed to allsorts – Heslerton, Hesletine, Hessington and even Heffalump!) I toyed with an alternative name and the one I kept coming back to was the name I’d given to the munchkin: Ashleigh Brooke. I adore that name (obviously or I wouldn’t have picked it!) But I dismissed it and decided I’d fight for my right to be myself and write as Julie Heslington. Only now I’m having doubts …
Pen names have been around for centuries. Anyone heard of Sieur Louis de Conte? No? Me neither. I bet you know his other name though: Mark Twain. But neither of them are his real name. He was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Lewis Carroll was really Charles Dodgson and George Orwell was Eric Blair. CS Lewis was his real name but he also used Clive Hamilton and NW Clark for his writing. Crikey! That’s a lot of pseudonyms floating around.
So why use a pen name? There are a stack of reasons. Many years ago, females found it difficult to be taken seriously in the publishing world so Mary Ann Adams brought her books to the world as George Eliot and all of the Bronte sisters wrote under male names. This reason hasn’t gone away today. It’s widely known that JK Rowling used her initials to make her book appeal to a wider audience as males are typically less likely to pick up a book penned by a female than they are by a male. Female crime or horror writers often go for male names or initials too for this exact same reason ☹
The “right name for the right audience” is a key one that goes beyond gender too. Names can age a writer and a woman in her mid-twenties looking for some romantic comedy is more likely to be attracted to a writer with a young-sounding name like Sophie Kinsella than an older-sounding name like Mavis Winterbottom (apologies if there is a Mavis Winterbottom out there writing rom-coms aimed at twenty-somethings!) Speaking of Sophie Kinsella, she was born as Madeleine Sophie Townley, married to a Wickham and brought out her original books as Madeleine Wickham but then changed to a lighter style of writing with her Shopaholic series and, with this, used her middle name and a new surname to launch a new identity and appeal.
So changing genre is another reason for having a pen name and why several writers such as CS Lewis have more than one. Hiding one’s identity, writing something controversial, writing as a pair or a team but presenting the work as one author identity are all other reasons. So is being such a prolific writer that not all books are released under the same name due to a worry that readers would perceive more than 1-2 books being launched in a year as being poor quality. Don’t think I’ll struggle with that one given that it took me ten years to write my first!
These are all great reasons and, until now, I thought the only reason I had to use a pen name was that my surname is a little unusual. But then it struck me that my first name ages me. I like the name Julie. I’ve always liked it. Unfortunately, it’s dying out. In the 1960s, there were 4,307 Julies for every 1 million babies born in the UK. Whilst it’s currently the number five most popular name in Belgium and Switzerland, hardly anyone in the UK names their baby Julie anymore. Which now ages me as someone in my forties or fifties. Not someone currently in their mid-late twenties experiencing the relationship traumas I write about. Hmmmm.
Something else that struck me recently is social media. I’ve had my own Facebook page for several years which, like most people, I use to share family photos, news and pictures of cats in funny poses. Linked to this is my Julie Heslington Writer page. However, (and please shout if I’m wrong here) in order for me to invite fellow writers to like my writer page, I need to friend them on my own Facebook page first which means they get to see my family photos, news and pictures of cats in funny poses. Do I want them to? Maybe not. Do they want to see these? Almost definitely not. I’ve always had a strict policy of only accepting friend requests from people I actually know well with a few exceptions of people I have encountered, find interesting, and would like to keep in touch with. I’d rather build my writing relationships elsewhere and, let’s face it, me rabbiting on about writing is probably dull as a dull thing for my family and friends who aren’t into writing so do they really want their newsfeeds filled with my writing exchanges. Solution: develop a whole new persona, have a FB author page off that for when (!!!) I get published and keep my own FB page for what I always intended it to be: a way of keeping up with family and friends who I don’t get to see very often.
The other thought floating around my head is around the idea of going indie. As readers of this blog will know, this is the way I anticipate going. I have a few more subs in although I don’t anticipate any of them leading anywhere so I’m getting myself ready. I feel that the success of being indie will be in me viewing myself (and therefore my writing) as a product that I’m taking to market rather than thinking of it being me. In my mind, I find it easier to take a business approach to the idea of marketing “Pen Name” as a product rather than trying to promote myself. Promoting myself gives me the fear. Promoting Pen Name is a little daunting but not nearly as much so – after all, I’ve worked in recruitment on and off for twenty years and have promoted many companies and graduate schemes. This would be the same principle; different scenario.
I’m there aren’t I? I want a pen name. But do I go for Ashleigh Brooke or something else. Eek! What would the something else be? Time to dig out the baby name dictionary. Any suggestions? Watch this space!!!