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.
Writer’s Block. You’re sitting at the typewriter, the PC, maybe you still prefer pen and paper, but the inspiration doesn’t want to play today. The sheets of pristine white paper or the electronic glare of the PC screen stare back at you.
Your muse is on vacation.
You make yourself a cup of tea, maybe you prefer coffee, and you walk back to those pristine sheets of white paper only to find that your muse really is on vacation. They’re on a long haul flight with an open ended ticket and you have no idea when they’re coming back.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read about writers suffering from Writer’s Block.
It sucks, right?
Pardon my vernacular but Bullshit!!!
I can say that because I used to be afflicted. I’m definitely cured, because my last bout of this affliction hasn’t occurred for years.
The cure was short and sharp. I was reading an interview with the acclaimed – and very good in my opinion – historical novelist Bernard Cornwell. The interviewer commented about how prolific he was, and asked whether he ever suffered from Writer’s Block. Now, Bernard’s vernacular was a lot more politically correct than mine, but roughly translating he said: The condition is Bullshit!
BC used the analogy of nurses, and firemen. Would it be permissible for a fireman to say, “Sorry, I can’t put your fire out today I’ve got firemen’s block.”
The counter argument is that they are difficult physical jobs that are purely done, but a writer is being creative and it’s not always possible to have your muse by your side.
I don’t buy that argument because creativity can take many forms and is involved with many professions. For my sins I work in the IT industry. Sometimes technology breaks, and sometimes the standard recovery actions either don’t work, or they fail and make the situation worse. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen IT technicians come up with creative complex technical solutions to very complex problems. Had any of those individual turned around and said they had techie block, and couldn’t help, they would have been sacked.
Writer’s Block is nothing more than another form of the writer’s worst enemy, procrastination.
Funnily enough I’ve only ever heard prose writers complain about the condition. I don’t ever recall reading about a professional screenwriter, playwright, or songwriter complaining about Writer’s Block. Now if it was a genuine affliction wouldn’t it apply to all? Let’s not forget professional speechwriters.
Reading that interview with BC was a real slap in the face for me and I’ve never looked back since. Sure, I have days when I try to continue with a story in production and I can’t seem to get going. However, it generally means I’ve written myself into a corner. I read back through the work find the error and off I go re-writing / writing.
Occasionally, I do have days when I struggle with a story, and there are no obvious errors and it does seem like inspiration has deserted me. However, when that occurs I write about something else. It could be an overheard conversation from the day before, something I can see out of the window. There is always something that you can write.
I’m with Bernard on this one.
Take care and I’m happy to hear from anyone who disagrees.
M J Wolfson - That's me.