Pen names, secret identities, and Superman

Do you use a pen name? If so, why? Are you staunchly in support, adamantly against, or somewhere in between, shrugging your shoulders and saying, “It depends?”

Dirty secret revealed: I use a pen name. Initially, I didn’t, partially because, to be honest, I couldn’t think of a name to which I would feel as connected as the one my parents bestowed upon me. Names are powerful things; who we are gets wrapped up in our name. Maybe our name even has power over us, as works as varied as Joss Whedon’s Angel (remember Jasmine, Angel fans?) to Ursula le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea have suggested. You know that feeling you get when someone says your name, your turn, only to find they’re talking to someone else? The names we’re born with us become part of us.

When I got married, I didn’t take my husband’s last name. It was a feminist thing, but also a career thing. I had published journalistic writing under my “maiden” name. But it was also my name. It wasn’t merely my family name, my father’s name. It was my name. I owned it, and I was proud of it. It was the name on my high school diploma, my bachelor’s degree, and my master’s. My education is important to me; it’s shaped me in wonderful ways and opened up doors in my life that would have otherwise remained closed. As the granddaughter of a coal miner, I understand how far I’ve come, the sacrifices my ancestors made for me to have those opportunities, and I’m overwhelmed with gratitude. Perhaps I felt changing my name would distance me from my accomplishments (silly, I know now—those are just pieces of paper, records, symbols, not the journey itself). Maybe it was the feminist in me, railing against the system. Point is, my name meant a lot to me.

So when I considered using a pen name, the idea at first felt strange. But after much debate, I figured I should, if only for practical reasons: my real name is common, the URL is taken, and it’s also the name of an accomplished musician. I also wanted the freedom to write what I wanted to write without worrying what my boss would think. This way, I don’t have to worry about awkward looks over the water cooler if I suddenly decide to write naughty erotica—which isn’t what I write, but hey, a girl likes to keep her options open… It also leaves me free to discuss magical topics without worrying about creating awkwardness at the day job. I am a very private person. I am not ashamed of my faith and will tell you if you out and out ask. But yeah, sometimes the day-job me wears a mask. (Though unlike Clark Kent, I actually need the glasses, just one of many differences setting me apart from the Man of Steel.)

So I decided to use a pen name. I went back and forth. I thought and thought about it and mulled it over some more. Finally, I came up with the last name Madigan, which has a lovely sound to it, yet is easy to pronounce. It feels like part of me. It also means “mastiff,” and I’m a total animal-lover, and it’s Irish, so I like that it pays homage to my family’s Irish roots. (Note that I chose the name before I knew what it meant. Initially, I wasted wayyy too much time pouring over books of names and their meanings–and bear in mind that those books can often contradict one another.) One of my best friends helped me choose my first name. I liked the ring of it, simple but unique at the same time. And it wasn’t taken by anyone in the genre. So off I went.

And yes, just like my “real name” (Hint—it’s not Kal-El.), my nom de plume is a part of me. I can feel it entwining with my heart, becoming a part of my identity. Janelle Madigan. Yep, that’s me.

So I support pen names. If it’s good enough for Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain), it’s good enough for me. On her blog, Kait Nolan offers a couple very valid reasons for using a pen name: one, privacy, and two, writing across genres. And Rachelle Gardner offers a list of reasons why you might want to think of using a nom de plume.

Conversely, Kristen Lamb offered a strong and reasonable case against pen names. In many cases, I find myself inclined to agree. If you have no real need for a pen name, why go to the hassle of having to explain to all two-hundred of your Facebook friends that you’re actually writing under x name and they can also friend you under your pen name or become a fan of your Facebook page? Don’t even try to explain it to grandma. She’ll just be confused.

Many female authors use their maiden names, and I suppose any of us could use a family moniker. But please don’t make it your pet’s name and the name of the street you grew up on. Unless it really works. Like, Sadie Stone. I’d pick up one of Sadie’s books. But, Rocky Elm or Cookie Sunset, don’t go there. Now, it’s getting late, and I’m getting silly…

So where do you stand? Are you using a pen name? Do you write in different genres under different names? Would you consider writing under a name other than your “real” one?

10 thoughts on “Pen names, secret identities, and Superman

  1. Well, your pen name is a nice one.
    I used to have a different screen name, until recently. What I have now is a bit closer to the real name. It will be easy to make the connection as soon as some one sees my real name.
    I don’t mind it. I figured pen name or not, what you write is part of you. I would however go with a pen name for publication if there is valid enough of a reason for it.
    PS: by the way how is the Crit Partner Match working for you? (or is it too soon to ask?) I’m just curious. 🙂

    • Yes, regardless of the name you write under, your work will always be connected to who you are. And sometimes a writer’s pen name suits them better than their given name. Take Mark Twain again. Mark Twain, not Samuel Clemens, wrote about the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. And the name is just perfect for him.
      It’s too soon to tell with Crit Partner Match. Have you been using it? I’m interested to see how it works out.

  2. I had an active community life and was known by my given name. I also wrote and taught about the Goddess and used my matrilineal name which was not part of my known given name.
    The odd thing is that while my mother gave me a first name she never called me by it. So I have always felt I had a public self and a private self.

    • I understand about the whole public self and private self thing. There are parts of us that we keep hidden, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, as long as we remember who we truly are. My co-workers don’t need to know about my collection of faerie art, or that I believe “goram” (Firefly) and “frack” (Battlestar Galactica) are acceptable curse words. A pen name can be an extension of our deep self, not a way of hiding it (Starhawk, Silver Ravenwolf, etc.).

  3. Pen Names
    The reason I am adamantly against pen names is that, historically, writers only really had to worry about writing a great book. Of course, that earned us a 93% failure rate. But, in fairness, we didn’t have to bust our collective butts trying to build a platform.
    Many writers are already parents and working a day job. Writing is often at the least a second job and NOW we have a thrid job of marketing. Pen names, no matter how you approach them are extra work. This is even MORE work for people who are already spread way too thinly.
    With modern search engines, pen names offer about as much privacy as a beach towel. Also, if we write multiple genres, that means we have to build even MORE platforms. Who has time left to WRITE?
    In traditional marketing, pen names were used because the only way an author had of building a platform was their fan bases for books. Now an author can have fans all over the world for HER. Befors social media, this was impossible.
    I have a worldwide fan following for my social media stuff. One day soon when my thriller comes out, I doubt many of them will have their brains explode if they find out I write thrillers too. Probably a lot of them will buy my fiction, too. Why? Because they like and support Kristen Lamb.
    Pen names are glamorous yes. But fat paychecks buy better stuff to be glamorous in better ways…like driving a Mercedes. I would rather have time left over to write great books that SELL then spend a lot of time building a name and doubling my efforts.
    Are pen names always a bad idea? No. Just most of the time.

    • Re: Pen Names
      Kristen, thanks so much for reading. I think you make really valid points. I’ve implemented a lot of your ideas and suggestions into my work (you totally demystified Twitter for me!). I saw on the comments of your blog that you’re writing a post about pen names, and I’ll be sure to read it and add a link to it on this post, so any of my readers on LJ can see it.

  4. I use a pen name, but it has become so familiar to me now that it’s almost like using my real name! My main reason for using a pen name is privacy. I like to think that one day I’ll be a bestselling author with sales to rival JK Rowling or Stephenie Meyer. And when that day comes, I’d like to keep some sense of anonymity and not have everyone know who I am and where I live. I like to think big! Plus, I really like my pen name. It’s catchy and it would look great on the cover of a book! ; D

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