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How to Create Your Perfect Pen Name

Hacks for Hacks [1]

Nom de plume. Pseudonym. Literary double. Even the term “pen name” has pen names. Now you’re thinking of using one; maybe your real name is hard to spell, or you want to differentiate your brand [2], or you don’t want your ex-wife to know about some extra income. You thought naming a baby was hard? Try naming yourself when there’s money and fame at stake. Robert Galbraith nearly died of starvation before J.K. Rowling gave him a cot and fed him three squares a day. Then there are genre concerns — you can’t write about a street-smart private eye if your pen name is Mellificient Elfwing, and Dashiel Hardcase presents problems if you’re writing fantasy about unicorns. Here are some time-tested methods to create a pen name that will be more famous and successful than whatever nonsense is on your birth certificate.

Nom de plume [3]
photo by Amy Strachan

Method 1: Found Object

Picture your protagonist’s bedroom. What’s the first thing she lays eyes on when she wakes up in the morning? If you write horror, it could be a writhing eldritch horror creeping toward…yikes, let’s start over. If you write YA, the first thing your protagonist sees is probably a book — nobody loves books as much as protagonists in young adult novels. From there you can free-associate names like Henrietta Papercut or Penelope Inksmudge or Elizabeth Spinecrack or Angelique Deadtree or Daphne Dustjacket. Easy as pie. (Those names are up for grabs, by the way. You can claim them in the comments section.)

[pullquote]If you come up with Ke$ha L. Ron Rico, please stop writing, because you have terrible taste in everything.[/pullquote]

Method 2: Use a Formula

Quick, what’s the first name of your protagonist’s favorite singer? What’s the first initial of your least-favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle? Now tell me your favorite brand of liquor. For me, Robert Plant plus Raphael plus Kraken rum gives me Robert R. Kraken — I’ve already harangued my parents for not giving me this name. You’re on the right track if you end up with something like John D. Morgan or Nico R. Dubonnet. If you come up with Ke$ha L. Ron Rico, please stop writing, because you have terrible taste in everything.

[pullquote]Your pen name will need her own website and Twitter account. Her own book tour. Her own wardrobe. Family history. Government-issued ID card. Passport. Swiss bank account. A chalet in the Alps far from your obligations and creditors.[/pullquote]

Method 3: Easy as A, B, C (but mostly A)

As long as you’re creating a name from scratch, get something early in the alphabet so you’ll jump to the front of the bookshelf in the stores. A is one of those letters that you can stick a couple of them at the front of pretty much any name and it’ll sound good. Alex Aaron, isn’t bad. Aabraham Aafalava is better. A Writer’s Digest report predicts authors will break the three-A barrier by 2015.

Method 4: The Mary Sue

If you were truly interesting, your publisher wouldn’t have asked you to use a pen name. Life may have shattered your non-literary dreams, but your alias can live the life you’ve always dreamed of by giving her an over-idealized, impossible-to-disprove backstory. Your fictional you can pursue exotic pastimes you could never pull off in your real life: Run with the bulls! Take up falconry! Buy a motorcycle! Have meaningful relationships with functional adults! All these far-fetched goals are now within your pseudonym’s pseudo-grasp. This requires all your character-creation skills — you’re no longer creating a mere name, you’re conjuring a living, breathing human being, with thoughts and feelings. She’ll need her own website and Twitter account. Her own book tour. Her own wardrobe. Family history. Government-issued ID card. Passport. Swiss bank account. A chalet in the Alps far from your obligations and creditors.

If these methods failed to produce a name you like (unlikely), I will hand-craft a bespoke, artisanal pen name for you. I will do this for free if you agree to use the first name I give you. Yes, this is a binding agreement.

About Bill Ferris [4]

After college, Bill Ferris [5] (he/him) left Nebraska for Florida to become a rich and famous rock star. Failing that, he picked up the pen to become a rich and famous novelist. He now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and looks forward to a life of poverty and ridicule.

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