If you’ve decided to use a pen name, how do you choose it? There are so many options!
Last week we looked at the three main reasons for using a pen name: to protect your identity, to separate different types of writing, and to overcome limitations of your real name.
Alison Potter became Ali Knight when her publisher told her that her name just wasn’t right for a thriller writer — too middle-aged and boring. It’s worth clicking on that link to read the Guardian article she wrote, as you might find inspiration from the process she went through for finding something that would work.
She shortened her first name to Ali, then began a hunt for a surname that wouldn’t be at the extremes of the alphabet — better shelf position in a bookstore! “Having exhausted every family name I wrote down a shortlist of around 10, mainly collected from my regular runs through the local graveyard and film websites,” she said. “In the end we chose Knight. It sounded strong and confident, it felt “crimey”. It tied me to my genre.”
What do you think? Did she come up with a good name?
Could you follow some of her ideas to choose a name for yourself?
Places to find pen names
These are some ideas for where to start.
- Check out your family tree. There might be a great pen name lurking in there. You might find a great first name in one branch of the tree, and an excellent second name somewhere else. Don’t forget that many first names work as second names, and vice versa.
- Look in a baby name book. It will only have first names, but again, they can often make good surnames too.
- If your name sounds too old or too young, and you need an author name that suggests a person of a particular age group, calculate what year that person should have been born, e.g. 1984, 1974, 1964, 1934. Then google “popular baby names in [insert year]”.
- Search online for the meaning of your own name. Then do a reverse search to find other names that mean the same thing.
- Search online for names that symbolise qualities that really matter to you, whatever those may be. For example, when I googled “names that mean honest”, one site offered me 128 potential names.
- What are some of the characteristics of your writing or your genre? Do they suggest ideas for names? Have a look in a thesaurus for other words that mean the same thing. Maybe you could adjust the spelling somehow, to make it a better name.
- Think about aspects of the natural world: colours, fruit, animals, sounds, weather conditions. Do any of them suggest a name? What about the same word in another language? Try Google’s free online translator.
- Use online name generators. Just google “name generator” and you’ll be surprised what comes up! I’d add the warning that most of these are really just a bit of fun, and probably won’t give you a quality name that you’ll want to write under forever. But keep your mind open, and see what the name generator might suggest to you. Perhaps the silly Spy Name it comes up with will trigger further ideas.
- Check out classic literature such as Shakespeare. Don’t only look at character names, but placenames and job descriptions as well. Sometimes even the older versions of English words they used can provide inspiration.
- Try the phone book, if you still have one! In Australia, phone books don’t include first names, only initials. However, surnames often make great first names anyway, as we’ve said before. And you may have first names in the phone books, wherever you live.
- Try a map for inspiration! Yes, street, suburb, state and even country names can make great pen names.
This new name of yours is going to be a long-term commitment, so choose it carefully. If you write fiction, you know how hard it is to name characters… but their names only last for one book! This pen name is going to be your moniker for all kinds of promotional activities.
- How does your new pen name sound? How does it feel in your mouth? Will you enjoy saying it aloud for the next umpteen years? (Will you enjoy hearing Oprah introduce you by that name?!)
- Do the first and second names flow into each other easily? Does the total name hang together as a cohesive unit?
- Does it sound right for your type of book or genre? Strong or soft? Business-like or artistic? Masculine or feminine or gender-neutral? Old-fashioned or modern? Young, middle-aged or senior?
- Can people spell it? This matters much more today, when people want to search for you online, and buy many of their books online too.
- How will it look on a book cover? Make up some dummy covers in whatever software you have. Consider both full size and thumbnail size. Do the letters blend well together or do they look awkward?
- If you are writing certain types of genre fiction, such as crime and thrillers, a short name might be better, because it will fit across the width of the book cover in a larger font! Take a look at similar books in a bookstore, and you’ll see what I mean. The bestsellers all have the author’s name in huge letters, much bigger than the title.
- How common is the name you’ve chosen? Google it, and also check out social media such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Try to choose a name that doesn’t have any other authors using it, if you can. It will make it much easier for people to find you.
- Is the Twitter handle available? (I had to use @Belinda_Pollard myself, because @belindapollard was already taken… but it’s always much better if you can just have the simple name as your handle.)
- Is the basic .com domain still available? If it isn’t, consider another name. If it is available, buy it NOW, even before you make a definite decision. It’s a small investment to make sure you keep that domain available to you.
All this talk of pen names is making me want to choose one for myself! I don’t want all the extra work of a second online profile set… but it’s so tempting. Think what fun I could have…
Are you using a pen name? How did you choose it? Are you thinking about a pen name? I love to hear about your experiences. Scroll down and leave a comment.