Dear Poetry Newbies: pen names - yes or no?
An earlier version of this post appeared at One Night Stanzas in August 2008.
OK guys, for many of you, this may seem like a trivial matter. I know there are many writers out there who wouldn’t dream of adopting a pen name, and who think it’s just for historial novelists and fanfic writers. However, there are a lot of legitimate reasons why poets and other writers might want to adopt an alternative moniker — and it happens more than you think. I originally wrote this post because I saw so many unfortunate and off-putting pen names in my work editing Read This Magazine. Clearly working out a good pen name is quite difficult, and sticking with it, even more so. This post is designed to help writers who might want to take the pen name plunge to see it from an editor’s point of view. Hopefully it’s helpful.
Firstly, you need to decide whether you really want a pen name, or whether actually, you’d be better off using your real name. Chances are you can easily prove your birth name and identity, and you probably already have a bank account and whatnot set up in that name - useful, if your work ends up in a magazine that wants to pay you (I promise, sometimes it does happen)! However, pen names are handy things for those of you who have the same name as already-famous people, for example; donning a pseudonym can clear up any confusion and prevent those annoying “oh, are you any relation to…?” comments.
Think about why you want a pen name in the first place.
Is it because you just don’t like your name? Is it because your real name is, say, Michael Jackson, and you want to avoid confusion, and/or irritating comments? If so, you could always keep your real name, but just doctor it slightly. Maybe publish your work using initials instead of your first name? Many of the greatest poets have done this, after all - WH Auden, e.e. cummings and WB Yeats, to name just a few. Or, if you don’t like your last name (I can relate to this!), you could publish using your maiden name, your partner’s name, your mother’s maiden name, etc. This means that your pen name does not force you to assume a whole new identity… it just allows you to tweak your own a little.
A cool name doesn’t guarantee publication
If your reason for creating a pen name is because your real name seems boring, or because you don’t think it sounds “literary” enough, remember this: you don’t necessarily have to have a cool writerly name like Dashiell Hammett or Fyodor Dostoyevsky to get your work out there. In fact, I think you’d struggle to find an editor who’d take “cool name!”, over “great poems!” In fact, sometimes, it’s better to embrace who you are than to worry about projecting an image. If your poetry is good, your name shouldn’t matter.
Make sure your pseudonym is not stolen.
I remember when my sister and I were teenagers, we both wanted to use the pseudonym Elizabeth Gill (our paternal great-grandmother’s maiden name). It was her idea first, but I latched onto it, and obviously the whole situation resulted in much scrapping and sulking. Similarly, if you want to use the actual name of someone you know, you might want to ask them first. It might be that they already have something published or copyrighted under their name… and even if they don’t, you still ought to warn them, or they might get a big shock if they ever Google themselves.
For goodness’ sakes make your pen name sound realistic.
You might think it’s cool to combine your love for your cat and your favourite football team in order to make the ultimate pen name… but a pseudonym like Snuffles Hibernian - while personal to you - doesn’t exactly give you a heap of street-cred. There’s nothing wrong with a quirky name, but think about it this way: you might just be sending the odd poem out here and there now, but what about in five years’ time? What about in twenty years’ time? If you’re forty and you end up with a massive book deal, would you be OK with putting your chosen pen name on thousands of covers?
Please, please don’t use the name of an already-famous writer, literary character, or mythological figure.
This might sound like a no-brainer, but trust me - at Read This we saw this all the time. Morgan le Fay is particularly popular… we’d sometimes get two or three submissions in a month from people with that pseudonym! We also had someone who gave their real name but asked for their poems to be attributed to Oscar Wilde (they got a polite but firm “um, no!”), and there are many, many people who name themselves after characters from books, film and TV (Sally Stitches and Hamlet Shakespeare are particularly memorable ones I’ve seen).
OK guys - please don’t do this! It’s just like stealing someone else’s pen name idea, or using someone else’s name without permission - only it’s worse, because it’s also hideously cheesy. Some editors may be OK with it if you sign your submission email “Geoffrey Chaucer,” or “Sir Lancelot”, but most won’t. Chances are, originality is pretty high on their wishlist. Don’t have them raising an eyebrow before they even read your cover letter.
Try to make your pen name exactly that… a name.
This is a tricky one, because there are writers out there who gig and publish successfully under a non-standard moniker (take Bitch, for example, or Harlequinade). However, generally it’s a good idea to have a pen name that’s recogniseable as a name. Again, we Read This editors witnessed poems written under all sorts of guises — many that read like chat-board screennames, “Becca666” or the like. It was also a pain in the ass to get submissions from writers whose names we were unable to pronounce thanks to their use of weird characters — so in case you were thinking about it, steer clear of “$@R@H”, etc. And finally, although they can work, you should be wary of things like “Justpoemz” (we once had a poetry submission from one “ItzJustDrama!”). The name you write under will, whether you like it or not, project an image to editors and other writers. You need to decide what you want that image to be, and act accordingly!
Finally, if you’ve picked a name but you’re still not sure if it’s OK, try setting aside a few days or a week, and adopt your name for the whole of that time. Introduce your pen-name-self to your family and get them to call you by your chosen name (seriously — if you want your writer friends to do this, you also need to be OK with your mum knowing about it). Send off letters and postcards to friends and sign them from your pseudonym. Ask people you know what they think, and get their honest opinion. After a bit of trying and testing, if you’re not embarrassed by or sick of your new name, chances are it’s OK.
Thinking of taking on a pen name? Why - and what ideas do you have? Or do you already have a pen name? If so, how did you come to choose it? Why did you want to use a pseudonym?
You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!
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