The Art and Science of Pseudonyms (and Character Names)


Q: I’m about to sign a contract with a major publisher. I have a long European name with no vowels, and my agent says I should adopt a pseudonym. How do I do that?

A: If you are going to adopt a pseudonym, it’s wise to do it early in your career before your first novel or even your first story is published. But like the perfect crime, pseudonyms can make your life more complicated, if only because you have to remember which persona is inhabiting your body right now. There are several reasons why you might want to write under a name other than the one your parents gave you:

1. If you’re reading this article on ERWA, there’s a good chance you write erotica. Even if you’re not, you may be working in some other genre that may complicate your life. What would your ageing grandmother think if she knew that you write male-male erotica? If you were seeking to hire a lawyer, would you choose the one who writes fantasy novels in his off hours? (Well, you might hire him, but there are others who wouldn’t.)

A former member of a writing forum I frequent is the perfect illustration of the value of a pseudonym. She wrote erotica and published under her own name. A fellow employee discovered her avocation and outed her in front of her entire workplace, until she was forced to choose between her job and her writing. She gave up writing.

2. Your real name might be (a) boring, (b) very similar to a well-known author’s, or (c) unmanageable by English speakers. If your family christened you Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, for example, perhaps you’d rather call yourself Joseph Conrad. If you’re a man writing m/m fiction for a female audience, ‘they’ say it’s best if you choose a female pseudonym.

3. Your name might have become associated with a particular genre (if or when you’re fortunate enough to be published), and you want to experiment with a different genre. For example, readers of romance writer Nora Roberts know exactly what to expect when they open one of her novels. On the other hand, when she calls herself J. D. Robb, you know it’s going to be a mystery. She also writes occasionally under two other pseudonyms.

4. You don’t actually need a reason, nor do you have to defend your use of a pseudonym.

Q: How much do I have to explain to a publisher or agent?

A: Not much. The custom is known and respected everywhere in the publishing world. Pseudonyms are used strictly to identify your authorial self, and perhaps to conceal your identity for privacy reasons. When you submit a manuscript, generally the pseudonym goes under the title where the author’s name belongs. Your real name is listed with the contact information (address, phone, email) in the corner of the title page. You can also sign yourself, ‘William Gaius, writing as Filthy McNasty’ to avoid confusion.

Q: Should I sign a publishing contract or open a bank account using my pseudonym.

A: No. Pseudonyms have no legal status. You can’t sign contracts or open a bank account with a pseudonym. To do that, you’d have to register the name with your state as a ‘fictional’ or ‘doing business as’ (DBA) name, which makes the connection between the adopted name and your real name a matter of public record. This defeats most of the reasons you might use a pseudonym in the first place.

Q: What should I remember when choosing a pseudonym?

A: Here are some steps to follow. The same steps are also useful when choosing character names, especially in erotica, where extra caution is needed to avoid confusion with real people.

1. Choose a list of about 20. This is also a good time to choose the gender of your other self. You can use the telephone book, lists of baby names, or genealogies. You can shuffle first and last names of friends and old classmates. Just get 20 names that fit the kind of writer you want to be. ‘Biff Hardtack’ if you write adventure; ‘Violet LaFleur’ for romance.

2. Winnow the list down to a manageable 3 or 4. This might take a couple of days of gestation in your head to let the really silly ones filter themselves out.

3. Check out the names on (in the United States). This database uses census data to give the number of persons with the first, last, and combined name in the USA. If there are 20 or more people with that name, it’s good. One person with that name, not so good. If there is no one with that name, you can’t be sure if there still isn’t someone out there that just didn’t fill in his census information.

For example, entering ‘William Gaius’ gives the following information:
William: There are 3,843,112 persons in the US named William.
Gaius: There are 116 persons with the last name Gaius.
William Gaius: There is one (or fewer) person named William Gaius.

4. Google the remaining names. If the name belongs to someone prominent or vulnerable, or who works in a sensitive profession like teaching, you might want to eliminate it.

5. Make your final choice and immediately purchase the URL for that name: Also open email, blog, Facebook and Twitter accounts in the name of your newborn identity.

After selecting a pseudonym, make sure you’re happy with it. You’re going to have it a long, long time. You can only go back and choose again until that first book goes to press.

6. The final step. Educate yourself to avoid connecting your real and fake names. For example, they should never occur together in the same document. Google has a wide reach and a long memory. Always be aware of the right name to use whenever you’re posting or emailing. Google your real name and pseudonym frequently so you’re aware of any connections that slip under the radar. A friend’s well-meaning blog post, for example, may give the game away.

Q: You mentioned ‘vulnerable’ people. What do you mean by that?

A: I’m glad you asked. I had what I consider a close call with one of my characters, RoseAnn X. When the novel was about to go to press, I finally Googled the name and discovered that there was only one person in the US named RoseAnn X. She was about 18 and had a blog in which she revealed a very poor self-image. She wrote on and on about not having a boyfriend, and someday maybe her prince would come. I imagined that when the book was released, the character’s name would end up in Google connected with an erotic novel. One of the real RoseAnn X’s friends would sooner or later Google her name (don’t we all do that?) and discover that their introverted friend is really a porn star.

I could only imagine the effect such a discovery might have on an insecure person, and the teasing she might get from her friends. These days, the most obscure connections can be made at the touch of a button. In the world of Google, it isn’t a matter of whether the living RoseAnn X will be uncovered as a character in my novel, it’s a matter of how soon.

I contacted the editor just in time and did a global name change to RoseAnn Perez, of whom there are at least 20 in the US. Also, none of them are electronic engineers, like my character.

My point is that both pseudonyms and character names should be properly vetted before using in published work.

Someday, when you’re selling millions of books a year, some enterprising reporter or paparazzi will find you out, or your publisher will trot you out for a perp walk, and everyone will know that Filthy McNasty is really William Gaius. But by then, like J. K. Rowling, you’ll be wealthy enough to hire the fleet of lawyers that you’ll need when the vultures show up.

William Gaius
February 2012

“Kill Electrons, Not Trees” © 2012 William Gaius. All rights reserved.

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