A pen name, or pseudonym, is an alternate name under which a writer publishes, something like a stage name for an actor or musician. There are many reasons why a writer might decide to use a pen name.
A writer’s name could be too long, or she doesn’t like it. My pen name is a shortened version of my real name, which would never fit on the cover of a book. It barely fits when I sign a receipt. If I don’t get married in the next few years, I think I’ll just change the damn thing. Of course, now watch me marry someone named Smitty Wermenyagermanjensen* or something.
Another reason is to maintain relative anonymity, to protect the writer’s own and his family’s privacy. This one is a bigger concern nowadays, with media everywhere you look. If you’re not in the bestseller category you won’t be getting tons of exposure—and maybe not even then—but it’s still possible to be recognized. Loved ones may not be comfortable with this. If the writer’s work is controversial, a pen name may protect the writer against retaliation for his views.
And it’s possible to publish in several different genres and write each book under a different name to avoid confusion. A writer who did this could be free to explore other story types rather than getting locked into one category. How an agent would handle that, I really don’t know.
Some famous pen names are:
Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) – American humor writer and novelist. Coined the term “The Gilded Age.” His most famous books include Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Roughing It. His pen name is taken from his time working on a steamboat on the Mississippi. Mark Twain is a term meaning two fathoms, or twelve feet, of water, a safe draw for a steamboat. It does sound like somebody’s name, doesn’t it?
George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) – Victorian era author of Silas Marner, Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss. She wrote under a male pen name because women weren’t thought of as serious writers then.
George Orwell (Eric Blair) –English writer who penned Animal Farm, a political allegory, and 1984, one of the most famous dystopian novels ever written. The term “Big Brother” from the latter, referring to a watchful government figurehead, has become familiar to everyone, even people who have never read the book. I’m not sure why he chose George Orwell for his pen name; if anyone knows, please tell us in the comments.
Avi (Edward Irving Wortis) – a contemporary author of children’s and young adult books. The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and Nothing but the Truth are two of his books. The first one is a favorite of mine. Avi is a childhood nickname his sister gave him.
Richard Bachman (Stephen King) – If you don’t at least know who Stephen King is, you’ve been living under a rock. For a while, King seemed to have cornered the market on bestsellers. He wanted to see if people would indeed buy his work if they didn’t know it was him and so he invented Richard Bachman. An alert reader outed him, however. According to Bachman’s Wikipedia page, the name is a combination of Donald E. Westlake’s character Richard Stark and Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Some of Bachman’s works include Blaze, The Long Walk, The Running Man and Thinner. King’s novel The Dark Half, written under his own name, is about a writer whose pseudonym terrifyingly comes to life.
A pen name is a personal choice. If you choose to use one, take your time to consider how you wish to be known. If you have a pen name and a neat story about where it came from, or know of any writers who do, please share in the comments. You need not give your real name.
*HE WAS NUMBER ONE!!!!