The Problem With Pen Names

There are a lot of reasons for using a pen name these days. From wanting to keep your writing a secret from friends or employers, wanting to keep two distinct writing styles separate so that readers from one genre aren’t turned off by the writing you do in another, or preferring a pen name which is less gender/racially specific than your legal name*, the reasons behind wanting a pen name are many and varied and for the most part, I don’t have a problem with any of them. However, I’ve run into a few people whose actions, enabled by the use of a false persona, are running dangerously close to unprofessional or even illegal.

Author Seanan McGuire also writes under the name Mira Grant. It is an open pseudonym, in that McGuire openly admits to using it. From her FAQ’s:

Q: Why are you Mira Grant?

A: I wanted a pseudonym for my science fiction because I wanted to create some “distance” between it and my urban fantasy work. Mostly, I wanted people to judge the Mira Grant books on their own merits, not based on how much they read like something they’d expect me to write. I believe this was the right decision, and I’ve been very happy with my life as Mira Grant.

Both websites use photographs which are actually of McGuire, and while the Grant site has a brief faux-bio blurb, the rest of the information is factual – release dates, book info, and the bio and the FAQs both end with pointing out she’s also McGuire. Author Joe Hill was born Joseph Hillstrom King, the son of author Stephen King, and felt a need to write under another name in order to be judged on the merits of his words instead of his father. His website and Twitter feed and books all say “Joe Hill”, but the pictures are actually of him, and when he talks about his children or his predilection for pie, he’s actually talking about his own life. These are just two examples of what I consider to be acceptable use of a pen name: you’re changing the name for the purposes of story submission, so you’ll be judged “fairly” when a publisher considers your work or a reader buys your novel, but the rest of your life as it’s presented under that name is close to 95% true.

Submitting stories under a pseudonym without informing your publisher that you have another, legal, name – or much worse, signing a contract under your pen name – can cause legal issues and certainly makes me less likely to want to work with you, but we’re still talking about just one mistake – not disclosing your legal name. I’ve had authors do that, and learn from it, and stop making that mistake, in which case, I’m happy to keep looking at their work. At what point does it go beyond acceptable use of a nom de plume for work purposes and pass into unacceptable, creepy, or disturbing? That point differs for everyone but for me it’s when the fiction becomes not just a mask but a lie. There are authors who use more than just a new name: they create a whole new life. Websites, Facebook pages, even in chatting online with others, they use not only another name, but false images and fake biographies. Posting pictures taken from the Internet, of people who are not you and don’t know you’ve stolen their image, to support your pen name is one example of going too far. Writing lengthy blog posts about the life you don’t actually have, with people who don’t exist, supported by pictures you didn’t take … unless you label the site as itself being fiction, you’re trying to convince your readers that you are someone who doesn’t exist. What’s the purpose of that? If it’s just to support your pen name with what you consider to be a reasonable back-story, then it’s possibly only poor judgment on your part.

What really makes me angry are the people who create this fictional life and use it to prey on others. Creating a persona that is (for example) a young, sex-hungry woman and then using it to flirt online, manipulate others, play games with their emotions … or use it to turn a profit, soliciting donations from others to support what is essentially a hardworking avatar … that’s cruel. It’s a lie, it’s wrong, and when I find out that authors are doing this I will never, ever, accept work from them.

Personally, I don’t use a pen name. I made a decision a long time ago to be read and judged and known for who I really am. I like knowing that my friends actually know me. I feel lucky that I’m not in a situation where I’d be forced to hide my writing, which is so much a part of who I am, in order to get a job or maintain peace with family members. I understand wearing a mask in this business, but you should ask yourself if you really need it. Do you think a white-washed name or a bio photo which is younger/thinner/prettier than you think you are is protecting yourself from being judged wrongly, or is selling more books? Are you honest about yourself within the confines of your persona, or is everything you present to the world a lie? And if it is … why?

* For the purposes of this discussion, I’m not using the phrase “real name”. What that is can be very different depending on who you’re talking to, and no one has any right to decide what’s your real name but you. I’m only interested in the distinction between “legal” (often but not always “birth name”) and “pen name”, a fake name under which you write and publish, which is not the same as your legal name.

Writer Wednesday: 10 Questions with Ken Liu

I’ve realized that I know some awesomely brilliant writers. Whether just starting to make a name for themselves or authors who’ve been working in this field for decades, they have insights into writing that I may never have gotten to myself, and I wanted to know more. I wanted their secrets, their advice, the gleaming nuggets of wisdom plucked from their brains. So, I asked a few questions (10, to be precise), and these wonderful people answered. I’ve decided to share these interviews with you because I learned something about writing and you might too.

First up is science fiction author, program, and tax lawyer (yes, really), Ken Liu:

1. You were a programmer before you were a lawyer, and now in addition to that job you’ve added husband, father, and writer. How has your writing changed as you’ve acquired these new experiences? Can you see the effect of your life on your work over time, or has your style remained constant?

I think the experiences of a writer can’t help but show up in his fiction—mutated, transformed, sublimated, disguised—but they’ll be there. You write about what’s on your mind. I thought much more about parenthood after my daughter was born, and the theme of parenthood became much more prominent in my stories. My ideas about the law shifted after studying it and practicing it for a while, and that change is reflected in my stories as well.

I hope that just as we grow more interesting and wiser over time—a notion that some would question—we also become better writers. So I’d like to think that my writing has improved over the years as I’ve learned more about the world and myself. But some things have stayed constant over the years. There’s a certain lens that I view the world through which leaves its mark on everything I write. I have a hard time articulating exactly what that mark is, but even my earliest stories have the same “flavor” as my latest ones.

2. Because you have less time to devote to writing than perhaps someone who writes full-time, do you have to make choices about which ideas you’re going to work on? If so, how do you decide which stories to breath life into?

When I sit down to draft or edit, it takes a while to get the work-in-progress back into my head before I can be productive. Because of this cost for context switching and the many demands and interruptions imposed by the non-writing life, I usually avoid ideas that have a tendency to sprawl all over the place. But some big ideas just refuse to let me go. I’ve been collaborating with my wife on a novel, and now I’m thinking of starting another one by myself. I need to develop processes that will allow me to work on a big idea through short sessions spread out over a long period of time.

3. What was the first story you ever sold, and how would you have written if differently if you had to do it again tomorrow?

The very first story that I sold, “Carthaginian Rose,” was bought in 2002 by Empire of Dreams and Miracles: The Phobos Science Fiction Anthology (v. 1), edited by Orson Scott Card and Keith Olexa. I still like that story, and if I were to do it again today, I think the main thing I would change is the drafting process. Back then, I wrote extremely slowly (it took me more than half a year to finish a first draft for a short story), and I didn’t understand how to work with critiques—I had a hard time telling apart comments that I needed to think about and comments that I needed to ignore. Writing faster and getting better at making use of feedback are two skills I’ve improved since then. Continue reading

Free Fiction Online From My Favorite Writers

While I am getting caught up with some writing and editing projects of my own, I wanted to direct you to some fundamental reading you may have missed. List is in alphabetical order by author’s last name:

Camille Alexa‘s “Shades of White and Road“, Fantasy Magazine, April 2009

Cate Gardner‘s “And, The Bride Wore Ashes“, Phantasmacore, March 2011

Claude Lalumière‘s “Spiderkid“, Reflection’s Edge, February 2007 (also in Objects of Worship)

Kelly Link‘s “Swans“, Fantasy Magazine, July 2011, and “Valley of the Girls” Subterranean Press Summer 2011

Ken Liu‘s “Ad BlockKasma Science Fiction, March 2011

Don Pizarro‘s “Combat Stress Reaction,” Crossed Genres, June 2010

K. V. Taylor‘s “Green” in Reflection’s Edge, Dec 2008

In addition, Small Beer Press has a whole page of free fiction available to download here. (Including The Baum Plan For Financial Independence, a wonderful collection by John Kessel!)

Remember, if you like an author’s work, go out and read more of it! Recommend it to your friends, buy their novels/magazines/collections, or mention how much you liked something you’d read the next time you see the author at a convention. We want to know when our work has an impact, and we appreciate every minute you spend reading our words.

Dear (Jackass) Writer, Offering Your Book For Sale Every Other Hour Is Quite Enough

Dear (Jackass) Writer,

Yes, I know you wrote a book. Your novel, the first of many (you are sure), is a thrilling/scary/original/erotic/captivating/special story that only you could have written. It is sure to include thrills, spills, and some sort of romance. Probably “paranormal”. Unless you are, dear writer, of the male persuasion, in which case your hero will only find romance as a side note while he is doing thrilling and heroic things, probably including the saving of a romantic/erotic character at some point. Good for you. The world needs more horror/fantasy/erotic/paranormal/romance novels. I have no problem with the fact that you wrote the book. I have slightly more problem with the fact that you appear to have published it yourself, but do not appear to actually have had your novel edited by anyone. Well, that’s a personal choice, and one you’re free to make. I would never judge a book by its cover, as they say, unless of course your cover was created in some sort of computer graphics program, one which manages to make your artwork look as if it was drawn by a not overly-talented 9th grader. In that case, I will judge your cover, since if you can’t be bothered to pay for a professional artwork (or, let us remember, an editor), why should I pay for your book?
Continue reading

It’s the wisdom of our elders, so listen up.

Over the last three weekends I’ve seen three different documentaries about famous writers. Done in dissimilar styles, I think all three were worth watching.

The first one was two weeks ago. I watched PUBLIC SPEAKING, a documentary about Fran Lebowitz, which was directed by Martin Scorsese and put out in 2010. It’s primarily a conversation with Lebowitz, interspersed with a few clips of speeches or performances of people she found inspiring. I love that sort of context, uncovering pieces of the foundation that makes a writer’s perspective and language and education. I know I am made up of the writers I associate with, the books I have read, the stories I’ve been told over a cold beer in a hot bar right before last call. We’re all a collection of our bits. Lebowitz makes no apologies or excuses for her opinions and why should she? She’s brilliant, insightful, funny and above all appreciates brilliance in others. My kind of person. I would happily spend an evening handing Lebowitz cigarettes and refreshing her drink as long as she kept talking.

Last weekend I watched Harlan Ellison’s DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH. Directed by Erik Nelson, put out in 2008, it’s a mix of Ellison’s cheerfully sharp ramblings and interviews with his friends, which includes Robin Williams and Neil Gaiman. Harlan’s got a nasty reputation but oh the man can write. Talking the documentary over with a friend, the question came up: does his writing excuse his being an ass? I think that no one is strictly one thing, and Ellison is clearly a nuanced character with a history and a sense of humor and a comfortable familiarity with his role as a “cranky old Jew” (as Gaiman keeps pointing out). Still, does his writing excuse his behavior? I think it doesn’t matter what I think of the man. I doubt very much he would care. What will endure, after he’s gone, after we’re all gone, is his writing, and his writing is brilliant.

This weekend I learned something completely new. I watched TRUMBO, a documentary about Dalton Trumbo, award-winning Hollywood screenwriter and member of the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers blacklisted in the 1950s. I admit, I didn’t really know who he was before this. Put out in 2007, it includes some footage of Trumbo himself, some interviews with the children of his friends, but also the most beautiful readings of his personal letters. Trumbo was fabulously prolific, writing novels, screenplays, and thousands of these letters, which have since been archived. Famous actors (Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Paul Giamatti, David Strathairn, Donald Sutherland) lend their voices to Trumbo’s 2 am missives to friends and family, musings on his political and economic situation, and even a couple of snarky letters to the phone company over the price of their intercom systems. There’s another about masturbation, but you’ve got to hear that for yourself.

In all three cases we’ve got smart, sharp, witty, individuals, unafraid to be themselves, who’ve had their lives strongly affected by that bravery. I think this, more than anything else, makes a writer unforgettable.

Be bold, young writers. Learn from your elders (and maybe even from me). Be who you want to be. Be kind, be thoughtful, but be bold. Write stories that speak about something you think is important. Bring to life characters that live their lives, deeply, fiercely. Frankly, don’t be boring, don’t be dull, don’t be afraid. What good is that going to do you? Fear keeps us in dead-end jobs, bad relationships, makes us stay friends with people we outgrew twenty-years ago just because there’s safety in numbers. Be like Fran, and respect art, respect genius, respect real individuals. Be like Harlan, and be unafraid to be brilliant, and to demand that the people around you are also living up to their potential. Be like Dalton, and stand up for your beliefs.

And above all, keep writing.