The Life Authorial: Choosing a pen name

The Life Authorial is a series of posts sharing firsthand tips learned on the journey toward publication.

Pilot Hi-Tecpoint & Precise by bfishadow. CC by 2.0.
Pilot Hi-Tecpoint & Precise by bfishadow. CC by 2.0.

So I chose this photo because: 1) pens, duh; and 2) the Hi-Tecpoint writes so smooothhh (picture me saying that in a James Brown sort of voice), I can easily picture myself using it to sign my name on the crisp new pages of my super-mega-like-whoa bestseller.

The first hurdle, of course, is to write the book, but I’ll put the trivial details aside for a moment to talk about what’s really important – the pen name! In deciding whether to use a pen name or not (I do), there are several factors to consider, including:

  • How difficult is it to pronounce your real name?
  • How common is your real name?
  • How dorky is your real name?
  • How embarrassing/shocking/controversial is what you’re writing?

My real name isn’t particularly difficult to sound out or spell, and I don’t think it’s all that dorky, but there are different variations of it and folks outside my geographic area have been known to have trouble pronouncing it.

On top of all that, it’s a fairly common-ish name where I’m from, and I didn’t want it to be immediately obvious to everyone I know that I write a little – ahem – purple prose from time to time. So it was pretty much a no-brainer for me to decide I wanted a pen name.

And if the above wasn’t enough to convince me, there’s something that’s just plain fun about a pen name – as Nora Roberts once said, she assumed all romance authors used a nom de plume*.

So now that you know you want or need a pen name, how do you go about choosing one?

1. Say your name, say your name. 

First of all, say your potential name out loud and ask yourself if it sounds like a porn star, as Angela James suggests in this great blog post at Carina Press. If you call yourself something like Candy Jane Stiletto, you’re going to attract a very different sort of audience than if you call yourself Tolstoy J. Auteur. Keep in mind whether or not you’ll actually be embarrassed to use this name professionally, and have people address you by it in public.

2. Consider your intended audience. 

Do you want your book to appeal to fans of chick lit or middle grade fantasy? Romantic suspense, or military thrillers? There are certain naming conventions across various genres, and christening yourself in the tradition of your genre can help readers associate you with a certain type of work. I chose the “FirstName, Initial, LastName” convention because although my work falls very definitely in the romance camp, I’m also heavily influenced by sci fi and mystery writers like Donald E. Westlake, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Philip K. Dick (Ks are popular, apparently).

3. Will you be able to remember and respond to your name?

choose your own adventure 138: dinosaur island by Chris Drum. CC by 2.0.
choose your own adventure 138: dinosaur island by Chris Drum. CC   by 2.0.

If all goes according to plan, you will someday be a big, huge, famous author whose fans go crazy whenever you speak at a conference, and call for you in the street. When they yell out, “Candy Jane, we love you!”, will you automatically turn and look, or will you fail to recognize that they’re speaking to you?

(If the latter, you manage to alienate a big-time reviewer and sink your career. The End.)

4. Does the name make practical sense?

  • Will readers be able to say and spell it? And more importantly, find you online and in bookstores?
  • Is the name you’ve chosen even more common than your real name? (If so, you’re kind of missing the point.)
  • Is there another author already using the name you’ve chosen?
  • Are you able to write the name with sufficient ease and legibility for book signing purposes?

5. Is your domain name still available for purchase, and are the associated social media handles still available?

As James points out in her post, “if you search for a domain name and it’s available, be prepared to buy it, even if you haven’t settled on that name. It’s worth the $7 to $10 investment per domain to reserve a few options. There are people who watch sites like GoDaddy, to see what people search for, and then buy it, hoping you’ll come back and decide you want it and pay a higher price for it.”

The same goes for Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites. Even if you aren’t ready to start establishing your presence on all channels, it will be an asset later on to have these accounts already ‘reserved’.

*From an interview excerpted from the March/April 2002 issue of Book magazine, at

Published by nicolarwhite

Author of romantic urban fantasy, science fiction, and mystery.

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