Pen Names Are Masks

We writers spend many months, or years even, locked away in our imaginary garrets.  From time to time, our mother/spouse/child will call up to us in our garrets, “What are you doing?” and we answer “Nothing.”

Really?  

Our writing is something important.  Why do we hide what we’re doing?

Then the day finally comes when we gain the small reward of seeing Our Names in Print.  This glorious day reveals the truth to our friends of why we’ve declined going out to lunch with them for countless months.  So, why on earth would we ever consider hiding behind the mask of a pen name?

Lots of writers have used pen names for many reasons.  Alice Sheldon felt that she needed to hide her gender to break into a male-dominated science fiction world, and so she became James Tiptree, Jr.  William Anthony Parker White wrote and edited both science fiction and mystery — he became Anthony Boucher, a name that spawned Bouchercon and the Anthony Award for the mystery field.  Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee wanted to collaborate, and they became Ellery Queen.

There are as many reasons for using a pen name as there are writers who’ve used them. Pen names point readers to the particular type of story they may prefer to read.

My pen names have become my masks, and they boil down to meaning such things as:

  • Creepy things will happen in this story.  Is this author evil?
  • The backdrop of the story is too real.  This author can’t write about that!
  • The backdrop of the story is too unreal.  Is this author nuts?

My masks don’t really hide me as much as they help to serve the purpose of suspending my readers’ disbelief.  Masks protect readers from reading what they wouldn’t otherwise want to read.  Hurray for masks!

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7 thoughts on “Pen Names Are Masks”

  1. As I’ve said before, I write the mysteries under a pen name. I wasn’t going to, but once I thought about how I’d feel as a parent if my 10-year old picked up a book with profanity and dead bodies (since I wrote middle-grade under my real name), well…

    Yes, buyers should be able to look at the cover and jacket blurb and know this is NOT a story for kids, but why make them work so hard? To me, it’s like a label on a soup can. You know you’re buying chicken noodle because that’s what the label says. Doesn’t matter if it’s Campbell’s.

    I feel the same way. I write all of it. I’m Mary Sutton. But M.E. Sutton is the label for the middle-grade adventure-fantasy, and Liz Milliron is the label for the mysteries. Now I just hope it works!

  2. So true, Sue and Mary. A pen name lets us be the deus ex machina of our particular genre. Our readers know what to expect by the name on the cover. And sometimes, having that ‘other person’ out there can be very handy!

  3. I hope so too, Mary. We certainly don’t want to lead our younger readers into material that’s too adult for them.

    It’s fun playing god, right Kait?

  4. I’m in Cynthia’s camp. Always considering…but I have so much published under this name (my married name) from my reporting carrier that it seems silly to go with anything else at the moment…

  5. Not everyone needs a mask to hide behind or a writerly garret to hide in. But they’re fun!

  6. Sue, great examples. I’d love a garret, too. I know the one. In the attic of the house I was always in love with as a child–an English Tudor. Doris Lessing wrote under a pen name mid-career just to see what breaking into print was like at that moment.

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