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.
Well, a quarter of 2016 has flown by already. If anybody knows where the time goes, and has any ideas on how we can all slow it down, please let me know.
2016 has been pretty good to me so far. I’ve had two acceptances and both works should be published over the next few months. I still get a buzz when I see my work in physical print, or E-print.
Acceptances can be scary though. When a story gets rejected a handful of people will have read your submission. When you get an acceptance your work is scheduled to be exposed to the entire readership of the publication that said, YES! It’s a sobering thought and it’s exactly why you shouldn’t submit a story until you’re 200% happy with it. As a writer you should take pride in your work, and you should strive to deliver your very best for your audience.
I’ve worked on six issues of Firewords Quarterly and it still surprises me that we get submissions with really basic errors: Missing full stops, spelling mistakes etc.
Spelling mistakes is probably my pet hate. Pretty much every word processing package out there will highlight spelling mistakes. Ms Word underlines the offending articles with a big red squiggly line. There’s no excuse for an author not to make those corrections. It’s lazy writing.
The perfect submission probably doesn’t exist, and I’m not asking for it. I’m pretty sure that some of my own submissions are guilty of having a misplaced or missing comma. But is there any excuse for really basic errors?
Anyway I’m going off topic. The words have been flowing lately. Although, not exactly as planned. Quite a few times I’ve sat down to write Project A, or B, and nothings really happened. Then the muse will give me a painful elbow to the ribs, and I’m writing something completely new, completely unplanned. Two stories have come to fruition thanks to the muse: Shush and A Brief History of Doozer’s Cyclic Theory of Re-Invention. Both were seat of the pants creative outpourings and I had no idea where they were going.
I’ve also been busy with re-writes and submissions.
The Ending has been re-titled as Beautiful. The prose has been cut and submitted to Anti-Heroin Chic under a different pen name.
Dancers was tweaked following some useful feedback from my buddy Dan Burgess. I’ve entered it into the annual FictionDesk, Ghost Story, competition. I hope it does well. Any writer likes their work but sometimes a writer can’t help having favourites, and Dancers is one of mine. The standard at FictionDesk is high though, so it’s going to be up against some strong competition. Fingers crossed.
The Man On The Train has been sent to The Starving Artist. I’m pretty confident that I can place this one somewhere. Feedback has been universally good. It’s just finding the right market.
Wiped Clean has been re-titled The Remote Control Love Affair. I’m re-writing this one at the moment. This is an accepted work, but one that was never published. These things do happen.
I’ve added the new stories to the My Stories section of the blog. Rather embarrassingly I also noticed that two of my stories weren’t listed. So The Man On The Train, and A Quiet Retirement have now been added to my canon of work.
M J Wolfson - That's me.