PEEK BEHIND THE CURTAIN: Why Do Writers Use Pen Names?

I get asked this A LOT: Why do you write under two names, especially if those names aren’t a secret? Why do famous authors like Nora Roberts and J. K. Rowling do this?

Well, lots of reasons! I have author friends who go by their pen names and only their pen names, like, all the time. It can be years before I even learn the name they were born with. Isn’t that crazy? What’s weirder—that person is known as Mary to the rest of her family and friends outside of writing, but I only know her as Angelica. It’s the strangest thing!

Good advice.

So, why would a writer use a pen name?

1. Confidentiality: Some of my friends write stuff they don’t want their coworkers, kids’ teachers, other kids’ parents, neighbors, bosses, or even life partners to know about. That can include everything from scary vampire to gory horror to steamy, off-the-charts erotica. Some writers want and/or need to keep their writing life completely separate from their day-to-day life, so that’s where a top-secret pen name might come into play. It’s very freeing to know you can write about something naughty or scary, and it won’t come up at a board meeting or in your employee review with an ultraconservative or snobby boss.

2. Anonymity: Sometimes fans can be a little scary. (Not you guys! I love you guys!) With today’s technology, it’s super easy to find where someone lives with just a few keystrokes. I’ve heard of writers going off the grid and only coming back up to put out new work under a completely different name after experiencing threats or other harm to their person or families. Also? Some writers want to make sure their kids or partners are protected from outside attention. Not everyone is an attention-seeking werido like me.

3. BRANDING: This is why I write under two names. I write young adult (YA) fiction under my legal name, Jennifer Sommersby, and the romantic comedy/women’s fiction books under Eliza Gordon. This is so, say, a 14-year-old reader who’s read my young adult novel, SLEIGHT, decides to check out my other books. She goes and picks up MUST LOVE OTTERS because (hypothetically) it’s under the same name (which it’s not), and then I get an email from her mom because she had to explain why a heart condition + Viagra + single malt scotch didn’t turn out so great for Batman Jerry. Sommersby is kid friendly; Gordon is intended for a 16+ audience because I like penis jokes. Having two names keeps my brands separate. It is also VERY confusing when I do a book signing—I have to remember who I am that day so I don’t sign the wrong name.

RIP Batman Jerry. #MustLoveOtters

Think about Nora Roberts vs. JD Robb, though. Same author but two VERY different styles of books, right?

4. Gender respect: Believe it or not, the name on the front of a book can have an impact on a buyer’s choice. The powerhouse author behind Harry Potter had this to say in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour: “My publisher, who published Harry Potter, they said to me, ‘We think this is a book that will appeal to boys and girls,’ so they said, ‘Could we use your initials?’

“Because, basically, they were trying to disguise my gender. And obviously that lasted about three seconds, which is wonderful.” Weird, but true!

In her private life, J. K. Rowling—who, BTW, also writes the terrific Cormoran Strike detective series under the name Robert Galbraith—is known as Jo Murray (Jo = short for Joanne + her married name).

I hope this sheds some light on the practice of employing pseudonyms. It’s a time-honored tradition for MANY writers, often out of necessity. Did you know George Eliot, acclaimed novelist and poet who wrote Middlemarch and Silas Marner, was actually a woman? Her real name was Mary Anne Evans. Mind blown!

I am in disguise.

Pretend you don’t know me.

Have a great Tuesday, friends.

xo

A PEEK BEHIND THE CURTAIN ... Ask the Writer!

Folks who aren’t writers (and even some who are) love to ask about the writing life—writers are so mysterious! Do we really sit in wee cabins in the woods with a one-eyed cat named Victor Hugo and sip coffee and whisky all day whilst writing the next Great Award-Winning Novel?

No. No, we don’t. Well, maybe some of us do. Not me. I wish. I have too many kids for that. And both of my cats have both of their eyes and said felines are VERY NEEDY CREATURES indeed.

Rosie Cotton (also known as Rosie Chicken because she loves chicken), 7 months, and Nuit the Naughty, 6.5 years.

Rosie Cotton (also known as Rosie Chicken because she loves chicken), 7 months, and Nuit the Naughty, 6.5 years.

One question I get asked quite a bit: What does your writing schedule look like? “Civilians” ask this question because they’re genuinely curious if writing is a real job or if it’s just an excuse to collect cozy pajama sets; other writers ask this question because they’re desperate to find a schedule that works better for them than the one they’re on now. (We writers are always looking for better methods and practices. It’s part of the madness.)

I often cringe at this question because, unlike Stephen King who writes every single day, seven days a week, at the same time, in the same place, so he can crank out his required 2000+ words, my writing schedule is all over the place. SURE, I’d love to have a set schedule. In fact, my ideal schedule would be like Dr. Diana Gabaldon’s (yup, she’s a doctor—PhD in behavioral ecology!). She writes from, like, 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. every night, toiling away while the rest of the world sleeps. I LOVE THIS. I so wish I could make this happen, because I’m way better at night than I am in the morning.

But until my kids are out of the house, I’m relegated to hours that will still enable me to get up with them in the morning. It’s AMAZING how teenagers cannot hear their alarms, even though everyone else in the neighborhood can.

So when you get the teenagers up, start writing then! Better yet, get up two hours before them, with the sun, and try morning writing, Jenn! It’s super effective.

I did. And it was. Sort of. And then I was just too tired and the words felt forced and hollow. Maybe it was my brain’s way of telling me I should still be asleep? Sleep is basically my favorite thing. Other than going to the movies. And brownies. And Superman.

I keep promising myself I will:

1. Get up.

2. Eat a nutritious breakfast.

3. Exercise.

4. Shower.

5. Write and be wonderful until I hit that Magical Word Count.

6. Dance with the neighborhood fauna in celebration of the day’s success.

This is the reality:

1. Get up, likely exhausted from sleeping weird because Nuit the Naughty Tuxedo Cat likes to sleep against my calves so my hips are jacked and my feet are asleep from lack of movement.

2. Get the kids up.

3. Put toast in the toaster.

4. Go back upstairs at least two more times because the teenagers won’t get UP and their alarms are screaming.

5. Deal with some on-fire email.

6. Peel Rosie Cotton (the baby tuxedo cat) off the curtains. Repeat as necessary.

7. Attempt to butter cold toast.

8. Chase teenage children out the door, even if they’re whining about the oppression of having to learn algebra.

9. Sneer at the wad of exercise clothes because it’s now almost 10 a.m. and nothing has been accomplished.

10. Answer a call from the school because someone is sick. Or someone’s got a doctor’s/dental appointment.

11. Realize I haven’t had coffee yet.

12. Discover I am out of coffee.

13. Curl into the fetal position on the kitchen floor until someone discovers me and/or buys more coffee.

14. Check Facebook to see everyone else’s VERY PRODUCTIVE DAY or WONDERFUL AMAZING NINE-FIGURE BOOK DEAL or GLORIOUS AWESOME VACATION. Feel like crap.

15. Stare at blinking cursor until a teenager arrives home, likely in need of deodorant, and asks what’s for dinner.

You think I’m kidding. Don’t you.

A special note to fellow writer parents: Yeah, if you can’t be one of those 1000+ words/day writers, it’s okay. If you’re working a job AND working at home to take care of a family, it’s okay. If your workday is ALL about taking care of your family and there’s not a lot of time to write, it’s okay. DO WHAT YOU CAN. Always try to move forward.

Stephen King and Dwayne Johnson get so bloody much done in a day because they have wives, nannies, housekeepers, personal assistants, accountants, drivers, and chefs. We have us. Which makes us Super Awesome because we’re doing the work of at least seven other people.

So to circle back and answer the original question? No. I don’t have a set writing schedule. I don’t even write every single day. I just pray to the Word Gods that I find a spare few hours when no one needs anything, when the freelance work is managed, when the cats have plenty of cardboard boxes and catnip to keep themselves occupied, and then I write like there’s a fire under my butt. Because usually there is.

What about you, fellow writers? What’s YOUR daily schedule like? Do you have family or fur babies that demand your undivided attention? When you get to your job, are there 1001 interruptions that make you want to shoot everyone with a paintball gun as soon as they cross the threshold of your workspace?

Remember to take care of yourself. I’m gonna go make some brownies.

xo