Thursday, April 26, 2012

To Penname or Not to Penname?

A lot of writers angst over how many pennames they should use, or even if they should use one to begin with.

(Yeah, my post has such an original title. I know.)

/dry tone

So why might an author use a penname, a pseudonym, a name other than their* own to grace that gem they've written?

  • Their name is common enough that they will have problems differentiating themselves from the others with that name.
  • Their name is uncommon enough that nobody will be able to spell, remember, or pronounce the name.
  • Their name doesn't match their genre, like an author of chick lit romance named Marc MacRobertson. (Note that I'm counting name type and gender under the same point, here.)
  • They don't want their writing career to potentially interfere with their day-to-day life, sometimes because they write in a genre some object to (erotica?) or due to how employers or clients will view their writing (like a doctor writing medical thrillers).
  • They want to protect their privacy. (This has been called a "silly" reason by some folks, claiming that anybody can find an author's legal name after a few minutes with Google. That isn't necessarily true. Find mine.)
  • They want to escape some bad sales numbers or reputation they've developed under their previous name.
  • They want to attempt a new genre or publishing method without affecting their career in another genre. (Example: A traditionally published author of children's fantasy might decide to self-publish adult mystery stories under another name, to avoid potential issues with their publisher.)
  • Their contract might contain a nasty non-compete clause** that prevents them from publishing anything in a remotely similar genre or even under the same name for an extended period, forcing them to use a penname if they want to keep the bills paid.
  • They might want to avoid the stigma of "Fast writing = crap."
  • Their name might be built as their "brand", so stretching into a different genre or type of writing means creating another "brand" name.
  • They don't want readership to accidentally cross-pollinate, between the two. (For an example, keep reading. For some of my work, this is me.)
  • They want to clearly delineate their different work to make it easy for folks who want to stick to one type of story to do so. (Also me.)

Why might an author not use a penname?

  • None of the above reasons apply or matter to them.
  • They feel that the "brand" of their name is them, not a specific genre or writing type, and that's more important to them than splitting themselves up into multiple identities for easy classification.†

If you've checked out my website at all, you may have noticed that "Misti Wolanski" is my penname. It's probably more accurate to call it my "Internet identity" or "Doing Business As (DBA) name". I use it so much that I probably get called "Misti" more often than I get called by my legal name. (My legal name is one of those odd rare ones that you've probably heard of, though likely not with my spelling. Even if you know my first and last name, you'll get a mere handful of hits on Google.)

I've never wondered, "Do I stop using my penname?" No. I'm not writing under my legal name. I don't want to. My name gets slaughtered enough in person, thanks, and I like my privacy.

No, I've pondered, "Should I use another penname for my adult fiction?"

See, I have some works in progress (WiPs) that enter "Every character's a sociopath" territory. Some of these stories, my friends have actually confessed to being a bit scared just hearing about them. I don't want some teenager who's comfortable with the dark undercurrents in A Fistful of Fire to pick up one of these completely dark, humorless, more gruesome titles and have nightmares. I mean, these things creep me out! (If you're familiar with the Bible, think along the lines of, er, Judges.)

Then again, my Darkworld titles get… gruesome, for some folks. And even the more light-toned Aleyi titles touch on such themes as insanity.

But that's the distinction, I guess. These adult WiPs are darker than my YA+ titles. More psychological. More disturbing. More graphic. (Though in a minimalistic graphic way.) Between that darkness and the detail that I also work as "Misti Wolanski," I'm thinking it likely wouldn't be the brightest business move to release psychotic titles under the same name.

Particularly when some of those planned psychotic stories will also cross into politics. But then, I've been looking into entering that more as a freelancer, too, so that's not a good reason for using another penname.

As you might guess from my use of the same name for my YA fiction and my freelancing, I don't really believe that "Using the same name for different types of works dilutes your brand" argument. As I pointed out to Kristine Kathryn Rusch in an e-mail: "Your works all interest the same writer, so why is it such a surprise when they interest the same readers?"

(A little background: I found Rusch originally from one of her few Star Trek novels; years later, I was browsing my library's limited adult fantasy collection and happened upon the first Fey novel, and that name recognition made me try it out despite the cover. I liked Sacrifice enough that I sought the author out online, which is how I found the blogs of she and her husband, Dean Wesley Smith—and I have yet to encounter a title of Ms. Rusch's that I haven't enjoyed reading. And that includes the cute paranormal romances she writes under the Kristine Grayson penname.)

Sure, some readers don't pay attention and will flip out when they don't receive what they thought they were buying. But some readers flipped out over that Homecoming graphic novel that Patricia Briggs released, too, because they were expecting a novel—despite the detail that it was clearly marked as a graphic novel everywhere you looked. That misunderstanding was their fault, not Patricia Briggs's.

Some folks will misunderstand you no matter what you do to prevent it.

So reader confusion isn't that big a deal, in my book, and the assumption that readers won't cross-pollinate is also silly. (Not that every reader will cross-pollinate, but some will.)

But for some stories, I actually don't want my readers to be able to easily cross-pollinate. Adult readers? Sure. Mature teens who like thrillers and horror movies? Okay, if your parents are okay with it, too. Your average teen? Absolutely not.

So I've decided to use another penname when I do release adult titles. (By the way, I always suspected that I might end up using at least one other penname, which is why I use that "Carradee" handle everywhere.)

Also, some readers won't cross-pollinate. They won't want to. So while "Misti Wolanski" is a name that might release anything from a non-fiction how-to article to a fantasy movie script to a YA novel, everything under this name will be… me, balanced. There won't be dark without light. There won't be grim or serious without humor.

Stories that are skewed (or in usually male genres), will have other pennames. In those cases, though, I plan to openly link my names. Just not the names for my psychotic stories or the ones for which I'm not in the intended audience.

(Note: If you are trying to decide if you want to use a penname, check with your local laws: country, state, municipal, etc. I don't have to register a DBA name. You might.)

What are your thoughts? Do you use a penname? Can you think of a reason for using a penname that I missed?

—Carradee (AKA "Misti")

*There are historic linguistic grounds for using they as both a plural and singular pronoun, so I'm using it.

**Beware of non-compete clauses. Seriously. Beware. Get pro legal help (which I'm not) to deal with them. Maybe the horror stories are rare; maybe not. I've heard them since I was in high school, and between freelancing and short story markets, I've seen enough nasty rights-grabbing contracts to suspect that more writers have fallen prey to bad non-compete clauses than are willing to openly admit it.

†This I-am-my-brand thing is why I'm even willing to write book reviews, positive and negative, under my author name. It's also why I've been reluctant to pull out another penname.††

††No, I am not intentionally channeling Robin McKinley's blog style.

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