Many writers use pen names. I’ve never written anything under my real name. But why do writers feel the need to use an alternative guise?
Speaking for myself the main reason was confidence. A writer bares their soul when they put pen to paper. It doesn’t matter what the subject matter is, what the genre is, or what the setting is, the moment a writer puts pen to paper it’s personal. I went into this writing lark expecting a sea of rejection slips. I didn’t want that level of rejection under my real name.
Writing under a pen name allowed me to hide, but it also gave me a freedom to express myself in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to under my real name. Back in those early days only two people knew that I wrote. It’s ironic these days that I barely bat an eyelid at a rejection, and I don’t care who knows that I write. Again, ironically, it’s the continued practice of writing that’s given me confidence and belief.
The second reason for using a pen name was practicality, or maybe I mean marketability. Most people struggle to pronounce my real surname. If by some miracle of good fortune I happened to get a book deal it would hardly help my sales if people were wandering into bookshops asking for the latest book by Mike (insert long pause) er, I think it’s…. You get the point. Even in the work place I’ve always been referred to as Mike K.
Let’s look at some professional writers. Shaun Hutson has worked under seven different pen names to date. Dean Koontz has used various pen names. Stephen King had fun with Richard Bachman. Agatha Christie was also Mary Westmacott.
All the writers above used multiple pen names for reasons of identity. Agatha Christie used Mary Westmacott to separate out her historical romances from her crime fiction. Shaun Hutson’s seven pen names are utilised across seven different genres.
Identity is important.
If I want to read a Horror story I’ll look for the latest Stephen King, or a James Herbert, or a Clive Barker. If I want to read a Historical novel I’ll look for Bernard Cornwell, or George MacDonald Fraser. Those writers have a very clear identity in terms of their output.
I’ll say it again… Identity is important. The last thing a writer wants to do is to confuse their reader.
My pen name that has served me so well for so long is now causing me a problem of identity. Who exactly is M. J. Wolfson? What does he write? Take a look at my genre output:
Post Apocalypse Sci-fi
Experimental Stream of Consciousness
Can you see the dilemma? I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to utilise more pen names. I know I need to be careful. I’m not sure I’d want to go down the Shaun Hutson route.
The majority of my work will remain under the brand of M. J. Wolfson, but I’ve already written two stories as Jane Hunter. Both stories – The Things We Can’t Foresee and Beautiful – have been published. I’ve already developed a persona and style of writing for Jane which is different to Mr. Wolfson’s.
One of my other stories The Proposal – accepted for publication but never actually published – is another work that is very different from anything else I’ve written as M. J. Wolfson or Jane Hunter. As a result I’ve always struggled to know what to do with it after the initial acceptance failed to result in a publication. Lately I’ve considered using a different pen name and all of a sudden I’ve become enthused about the story again.
I accept that multiple pen names aren’t necessarily the answer for everyone. Dennis Wheatley, although lesser known these days, was a popular writer in his heyday being second only to Agatha Christie in terms of sales.
Dennis wrote black magic horrors, historical thrillers, murder mysteries, and non-fiction books, and he did it all under the name of Dennis Wheatley.
It’s like everything else in the creative world of the writer… You have to identify the approach that works best for you and embrace it!
I hope this has been useful and / or interesting.
I love holidays, but hey, who doesn't? This year we headed off to the sunny Canary Island of La Palma. One of the great joys of being away is the fact I get quality reading time. I packed six books to take with me, and I managed to finish them all.
Here they are, and rest assured there are no spoilers in the following text:
Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler
This is the first Bryant & May novel. The first one I read was The Victoria Vanishes which I enjoyed so much I decided to read the series in order. For those who don’t know; Bryant & May are two ageing detectives who head up the Metropolitan Police’s Peculiar Crimes Unit.
Full Dark House starts and ends in the present day but the narrative jumps back to world war two London, and it really tells the story of the young Bryant & May on their first meeting / investigation. Our central characters are colourful and engaging. Bryant is irascible, he doesn't understand women, he’s an English eccentric fond of a practical joke or two and damn the consequences. You can’t help but like him. May is his antithesis. Good looking, affable, popular with the ladies even in his advanced years.
Bryant is constantly looking for the unusual motive, while May is more grounded in his approach. Ultimately, they like and respect each other, while occasionally infuriating one another. Yes, they’re like a married couple.
The book is engaging and witty, while managing to incorporate elements of historical fact without dropping the reader into a history book. The plot is engaging and is set within London’s theatre world.
I didn't quite enjoy it as much as The Victoria Vanishes, but it’s a great introduction to the Peculiar Crimes Unit and the ever great Bryant & May. If you like crime fiction, and if you haven’t given them a go, I can heartily recommend this book.
Last Seen Wearing by Colin Dexter
This is the second Morse adventure, and I have to say that this was pure brilliance. Characterisation, pace, plot, dialog…I could just wax lyrical about this all day. If you haven’t read the Morse books, please, give them a shot.
The main story twists and turns so many times that you’re basically on the last page before you know where the endings going. I don’t want to say anything else in case I say too much. My favourite holiday read, and one of my favourite reads of all time.
We’ll Always Have Paris by Ray Bradbury
I love Bradbury. The Golden Apples of the Sun was the first book that blew me away, the first book that gave me that spark about writing my own stories.
This later collection of short stories doesn't quite live up to his earlier works, but there were quite a few in the collection that I really liked.
Nobody does nostalgia quite like Bradbury. His prose has a poetic edge to it that is unmistakably him. He takes us to Mars and to L.A, he tells us strange little stories along with tales of everyday life, but ultimately for me Bradbury’s stories are always about human nature. Simple tales of you and me beautifully told with colour and life.
The Mysterious Mr. Quinn by Agatha Christie
I love Poirot. I've never read a Miss Marple adventure, but Nemesis in in my reading pile. I've read several of her stand-alone books, and other tales of her lesser known sleuths. Christie’s sales and seemingly undying popularity speak for itself. I am undoubtedly a fan.
Having said that this collection of short stories featuring the titular Mr. Quinn was a mixed bag. These stories were very different from anything else of Christie’s that I've ever read.
Harley Quinn is not a detective, amateur or otherwise, he’s a supernatural figure of mystery. He appears at the most opportunistic times. All of the stories feature the unflappable Mr. Satterthwaite, who is basically the main character in all of the stories.
Mr. Quinn questions what people have seen, or at least what they think they've seen, and the aforementioned Satterthwaite does the rest. Once the conclusion is set the mysterious Quinn disappears in much the same way as he magically appears.
Worth a read if you’re a Christie fan and you fancy reading something slightly different.
The last two books on my reading list? They were guilty pleasures; two books from my childhood that I wanted to revisit. Very much geek material so I’ll spare you the details.
More posts soon including a release date for the 13 Anthology.
M J Wolfson - That's me.