What's In a Name, part 2 of The Write Focus podcast
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What’s In a Name? Shakespeare claimed that “a rose by any other word would smell as sweet”, but we know that names did matter in Romeo and Juliet. Tybalt would not have challenged Romeo to a duel if he hadn’t been offended by a Montague’s attendance to a Capulet ball.
Names do matter. Your pen name. Your character names. The names of your books and series.
How do we pick names?
Maybe this episode can help.
Welcome to The Write Focus, a podcast for writers at all levels. Headed up by M.A. Lee from Writers Ink Books. Our focus is productivity, process, craft, and tools. Resources along with the transcript of this and other episodes can be found on thewritefocus.blogspot.com. Write to us at email@example.com.
Names are tools for a writer.
In the last episode, as we burbled on about the process of selecting a name for this podcast, we had 3 tips.
Tip 1: Names must connect with our audience.
Tip 2: Names should be easy to remember.
Tip 3: Try to have a unique name.
How do we translate those tips to our pen name?
First, we have to determine if we want a pen name or if we want to use our own name.
Using our own name has strong early benefits to our writing career. Family, friends and acquaintances can easily find and support our writing.
As long as we are writing one type of book, sticking to one genre, then our “Also Boughts” in the various online bookstores won’t get entangled with books in other genres.
However, those benefits can just as easily turn into detriments. Do you have a spiteful relative or co-workers who would go out of their way to leave one-star reviews when you are first publishing? Ouch. That is problematic.
And what if you had a boss like one of mine? She was a sub-boss, actually, who obviously suspected that I was writing my books on “company time”, which was not just her belief that I was unethical but meant that my creative output could be attached by the company. With nickel and dime earnings, that wouldn’t be much. A licensing agreement, however, if one of my stories “hit big”, would have garnered that “company” a lot of money. But I wasn’t—writing on company time, I mean, so she could think it but not prove it. However, that was one more reason for me to start with a pseudonym.
In publicly accepted genres—yes, I know we’re trying to correct social ills, yet this one will linger, your own name remains a benefit—although I’ve had people frown when I said I wrote mysteries with murders in them. Why the frown? I don’t quite know. And in not so acceptable genres like sexy romance or scary supernatural or gory horror, when writing adult themes or situations, your own name is not the best choice Especially if you’re working in a public job like teaching small children or sales at a religious organization.
You can dig your heels in and keep it. More power to you. Stand strong … but you might become tired of the fight, and you may risk your paycheck before the writing starts paying your way.
Here’s another problem with using your own name. Do you want your fans to arrive at your house? It’s great to meet fans at conferences that include readers. It’s not so great when you have fans knocking at your front door, whether they interfere with your writing time or whether they have a few stalker tendences.
So, if you want to protect your day job and prevent awkward questions from your first graders’ parents and your youth minister at church or your sub-boss at the company, use a pen name.
And if things go crap-O-la with your writing, you can generate another pen name and keep writing.
Here’s the best reason to use a pen name.
You plan to be prolific, and you plan to write in several genres, not limiting yourself to one brand.
Readers do not generally cross over to other genres. Say you write a trilogy of squeaky-clean cozy mysteries then decide to write a historical thriller with a harder edge, a bit more gore and certainly more swear words. While I wouldn’t be offended—and as a reader I would be glomming your whole backlist, excited to find a new writer I loved—other readers would not be as excited. We’ve all seen those reviews. “I really enjoyed their cozy mysteries, but this book offended me. I will not buy another book by this writer.”
The wall, however transparent, between the genres does need to be maintained.
A different pen name allows that wall.
I write historical mysteries and fantasy. That’s two completely different genres. I have a “wall” between those genres by using different pen names.
Nora Roberts created a similar transparent wall. The fabulous Nora writes contemporary romance. When she ventured into science fiction mystery romance (with books that are set a few decades in the future), she chose J.D. Robb as a new pen name. Her devoted readers were happy to cross genres; her not-so-devoted readers didn’t drift over the wall. And J.D. Robb brought new readers to the Nora Roberts brand.
Stephen King also has the pen name of Richard Bachman for some of his earliest writings. After he was established, the Bachman books were re-published as “Richard Bachman also known as Stephen King”. The use of a pen name allowed him to get his writing feet under him.
Actually, having a pen name is pretty standard behavior for the professional writers who are prolific. The great Elizabeth Peters, with her mysteries that have an archaeological topic, also has quite a number of more supernatural mysteries under the name Barbara Michaels. Her actual name is Barbara Mertz. At the time that she began publishing, her publisher did not want her previously published nonfiction work to confuse readers. The Elizabeth Peters pseudonym developed years after, when she crossed into the other mystery subgenre.
Dean Koontz has published over 100 novels and sold over 450 million copies of his works. Early in his writing career, he wrote as David Axton, Deanna Dwyer, Leigh Nichols, and Brian Coffey.
I grew up reading Victoria Holt. After a decade or so of reading Holt, I learned that she also wrote under the name Jean Plaidy. Gradually, I learned she was also Philippa Carr. Her real name was Eleanor Hibbert, information I didn’t learn until a couple of years ago while researching author brands. Victoria Holt—as Eleanor Hibbert, actually—had five other pen names. Her publishing editor and her agent encouraged her to use other pen names. In all, she published over 200 books that sold more than 100 million copies. Victoria Holt was the author brand for the vintage gothic romances. Jean Plaidy was historical novels, usually about the queens of England. Philippa Carr was historical mysteries with romance. Each pen name devoted to a particular genre; each creating a BRAND.
A pen name helps create a brand for a writer. A brand will associate a name with a particular genre or subgenre. That’s its purpose. A clear name for a particular kind of book, all to assist the reader with finding more books by that writer.
So, your first decision as a writer is to write your first novel. Your second decision is to decide if you want to use your own name or a pen name. Even if you want to use your own name, you can stick to initials or use the given name that’s not your daily name or use an alteration of it.
Question 1: Keep your own name or use a pen name? Carefully weigh how intrusive the public world is into our private lives.
Question 2: Do you plan to have only one brand? That is, you plan to write in only one genre? The same type of book, like contemporary romances set on islands. Or cozy mysteries without murders? Or historicals that track one family generation after generation? If you answer yes to any of these questions, then using your own name or a version of that name, would simplify the marketing for your books.
Question 3: However, if you plan to be prolific or plan to scatter your writing into more than one genre—children stories versus murder mysteries, or thrillers versus supernatural romance, or gory horror versus cozy mysteries, or even contemporary romance versus historical westerns—then pen names are the way to go.
And the three tips help us make that pen name decision.
Tip 1: Names must connect with our audience. Names can hint at genre and create that author brand.
And names create audience expectation.
If you want a slightly harder edge to fit your genre, use initials, the way Nora Roberts did by switching to J.D. Robb.
Koontz used Deanna Dwyer, with those alliterative Ds, for the early fiction aimed for a female audience. And notice, Deanna is built from his own name of Dean. The David Axton name creates a much harder connotation, for books directed toward a male audience.
Avoid names with a bad social or historical connection. Don’t just laugh at the irony; think about 15 years from now and the marketing battles you may still have to fight.
Tip 2: Names should be easy to remember.
Easy to remember means Easy to Find. Avoid confusion with other writers out there in the world.
See those alliterative Ds that Dean Koontz used. Nora Roberts’ wall between her name and J.D. Robb is easily broken.
Victoria Holt is completely different from Eleanor Hibbert and her other, earlier pen names. Holt is much more easily remembered than Hibbert, and Victoria sounds much more intriguing than Eleanor (not that there’s anything wrong with Eleanor, but people know of Queen Victoria much more than they know of Queen Eleanor of Aquitane). Victoria, then, is a mental connection for a greater group of readers, much more than Eleanor would be.
Tip 3: Try to have a unique name. Remember, nothing is truly unique—except maybe our fingerprints. You may start unique, but that won’t last. I did mention my own problem back in 2015. Months with no other M.A. Lee in the marketplace, then I publish and a couple of months later, Bam! Another writer using that name but in a different genre.
Alliteration is one way to create that unique factor.
A name’s meaning or spelling is another way.
Using an unusual name will make a writer distinguish themselves in the marketplace. Was that the reason Stephen King chose Richard Bachman so early in his career? Who knows what his original purpose was? Bachman is certainly different from the usual WASP (white anglo-saxon protestant) names that dominated in the established bookstores in the 1970s and 1980s? The world has now changed, thank goodness. Barbara Mertz, also landing on the bookshelves in the 1970s, is a vastly different name than Barbara Michaels. I find Mertz much easier to remember than a proliferation of Michaels’.
Don’t go too crazy with an unusual name, however. Readers need to be able to spell your name easily in a search engine when they start looking for more of your books. In the early days of your writing career, with only a couple of books out, your name can help readers recall their experience with the first book of yours that they read.
I’m still not certain how to pronounce the name of one of the great mystery writers of the past. Ngaio Marsh. I can remember it, just not how to pronounce it.
Consider the SOUND of your pen name. Sound creates a mental image, just as the definition of the words creates a mental image. KING dominates a field while Bachman does not.
Here’s the #1 Point ~ Your Writing Name is your Author Brand.
A brand isn’t burned into your flesh. It is burned into your reader’s minds.
1st, a brand creates a contract with the reader. This type of book. This type of characters. This type of ending.
Don’t break this contract with your readers. If you decide to head off into another genre or a vastly different sub-genre, consider a different pen name. The wall between your writing brands doesn’t have to be three-foot thick and brick. You can create a transparent wall, the way Nora Roberts did with J.D. Robb. However, the Barbara Michaels pen name creates a vastly different reader contract than the Elizabeth Peters pen name.
2nd, brands identify quality work with artistic effort. They serve as a stamp of approval for the reader.
And this is the best reason to create a transparent wall between your pen names. You can start with a thick, brick wall between your pen names, then remove it years later. Once you’ve established both brand contracts with your readers, do so. Some readers may not be interested in crossing over to another genre, many will cross eagerly into your other backlist.
Here’s a Shameless Promo.
Look around, and you’ll spot lots of flashbang presentations on creating author brands. As more writers become self-published and traditional writers try to increase their marketing, the author brand is a hot topic.
Well, here’s my own book on Discovering Your Author Brand. How is it different from other books in the marketplace?
1st, it’s packed with examples based on highly successful writers.
Face it, in today’s marketplace, our competition is not just our current peers. Our competition is also every other writer who has come before us. Agatha Christie is still selling. Ray Bradbury’s selling. Arthur Conan Doyle sells. Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot became a Will Smith movie over two decades after Asimov died.
These writers aren’t on the best-seller lists. Only NEWly published books earn places on those lists. But Christie and Doyle and many, many more writers are competition for everyone else entering the marketplace. And they have the cachet of quality that current writers struggle to achieve.
So, in Discovering Your Author Brand, we look at successful author brands and analyze the secrets of their success.
2nd, Discovering Your Author Brand understands that the browsing readers will only give a few nanoseconds to our books.
So, we explain the three main glances that hook the readers before they swim on down the book-browsing river. We also look at the keys to unlock those glances. With the right keys, the brand is revealed, and the door for the reader opens.
To help with the keys and glances, we have worksheets (or charts!) to help you discover the brand for book, series, and your author name—because the first leads to the last.
3rd, we have something that other books don’t have, another way to catch the attention of that swimming reader. Video trailers!
Advertising claims that consumers have to see something 7 times—7!—before they’ll buy. Static ads and promo posts are all well and good, but we writers need an extra oomph to get that 7th look. Enter the video trailer.
Have you ever wanted to set up a video trailer or a brief clip, currently big on social media sites like Facebook Live and TikTok and Instagram and Twitter? Have you hesitated because you don’t know where or how to start?
We have an easily adaptable script as well as guidance on settling the debate between music and narration.
Discovering your Author Brand is packed with explanations and examples. It’s book 7 in the Discovering set, guidebooks designed for new writers on the journey to becoming totally professional.
You can find resources and links as well as the transcript for this episode from The Write Focus at thewritefocus.blogspot.com. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Coming Up: We still haven’t talked about character names and book titles and series titles.
That’s next Wednesday on The Write Focus. Write on.
Link to Discovering Your Author Brand, our only link this episode.