Pen Names

There has long been a debate in the writing world about the pros and cons of using pen names. I’ve read a lot of them, and there are good and bad points on both sides of the argument.

stephen_kingSome people use them to hide their true identities for one reason or another. One of the most famous is Richard Bachman, the pen name Stephen King used for a time. According to him, the main reason he did so was, at the beginning of his career, Viking would only publish one book a year from an author. But Mr. King had more material he wanted to get out, so he fabricated an entire biography for Richard Bachman and published some books under that name. He was discovered eventually, and even had a public funeral for the Bachman character after he “died” of cancer. He even published a supposedly posthumous novel discovered by Bachman’s widow years after he’d died.

Another example is JD Robb, the pen name Nora Roberts uses to write a series of near-future science fiction mysteries. This is a case of using a pen name to write in another genre, as Nora Roberts writes romance.

Then there’s Anonymous, the name used by Joe Klein for his novel Primary Colors, a novelized version of the 1992 Democratic Presidential Campaign of Bill Clinton. Mr. Klein, a political columnist, denied it for some time, sometimes vehemently, but eventually admitted to it.

But when I think of pen names, I always think of William H. Keith, aka Keith William Andrews, Robert Cain, Ian Douglas, Keith Douglass, Bill Keith, and H. Jay Riker, according to I discovered all these pen names by accident when looking him up on Fantastic Fiction, seeing how many books he had in his Galactic 51-GdRRDxxL._SX300_BO1,204,203,200_Corps novels—only to discover I’d already read him as William H. Keith in his Warstrider series of science fiction about a future where we use mecha as an elite unit to fight aliens. I’m not sure why he uses different names, since with the Keith and Douglas names he writes military science fiction. Under Keith William Andrews he has a series called Freedom’s Rangers about an elite commando unit traveling in time to fight battles in the past to save the present. The names Keith Douglass, Bill Keith, and H. Jay Riker are used for military fiction, so I’m not sure why he uses so many pseudonyms.

So as you can see, the reasons run the gamut. I bring this up because at Oghma, we have an author who’s about to do a big reveal for her pen name. I’m not gonna steal her thunder and explain it all, but we’re doing some synchronized blogging to talk about pen names, so I’ll talk about why I decided to use a couple.

Under Gil Miller, the name I was first published under (and which is itself sort of a pen name as my full first name is Gilbert), I write crime fiction. I try to make it gritty, and a lot of it will be based here in my home state of Arkansas, doing what is coming to be called country noir. I won’t stick strictly to that, of course, as I have in mind a novel called Bogus Deal that takes place in 1980s Miami. And who knows what else I’ll branch out into? The world of crime fiction is so wide open, has so many possibilities, that I don’t want to limit myself.

My current WIP is a science fiction mystery, written in a noir style, called Animal Sacrifice. I’m writing it for a couple reasons, the first of which is I read part of a science fiction mystery involving a serial killer and was bored to tears by page 80. It’s probably the first book I’ve read in which I told myself, “I can do it better than that.” So I set out to prove it to myself. This may be the first in a series—we’ll just have to see how it goes. I also intend to publish an ambitious space opera under this name. Basically, Scott McGregor is the name I’ll use for science fiction.

Then there’s Thomas Hawk, the name I’ll use for fantasy. If you’ve followed this blog much at all, you’ll know sf and f were my first loves, and I made attempts for years to write in both genres, most of which failed. Hence the sf mystery mentioned above. I found I have a talent for crime fiction, so I branched back out to sf using something I was familiar with and had reasonable expectations I could finish. I kept the criminal element in place as it’s something I’m very familiar with. For the fantasy side of things, I’ll likely do a rewrite of an old trunk novel I have called The Firstborn, an urban fantasy set in—wait for it—Northwest Arkansas. Right now I’m going through the process of having some people read it and make recommendations on things to do in the rewrite to improve it, and to get its magic system a decent distance away from a role-playing magic system I really admire and used during the writing in order to just get the story down.

As you can see, I’m doing it for genre reasons. I’m making no effort to actually hide these pseudonyms. In fact, if we can ever get the domain name to work, I’ll have a central author website listing all my books under each name as well as my reasons for using them.

N2071There are some who would argue using separate names for science fiction and fantasy doesn’t make sense as they’re almost the same thing anyway. There’s some merit to that, in a sense. Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game) has written quite successfully in both genres. But I see them as two distinct genres whose readers have different expectations. Yes, there’s some crossover, and there are also authors such as Andre Norton who wrote what I like to call science fantasy—the characters maybe take a spaceship somewhere and then duel it out with magic. Star Wars falls into this category, in my mind, because of the Force. Never mind those stupid-ass midi-chlorians.

Our author wrote under a different name because some of her subject matter differed so much she was afraid it would damage the first name she’d published under. I have a different reason: Over the years, I’ve come to… not hate, but strongly dislike authors who write in multiple genres, and it’s because when I see one of their books, I’m not sure what I’m getting. I’ve been afraid to read Kurt Vonnegut for just that reason. Some classify him as science fiction, but he didn’t care for that classification, apparently.

So after a lot of thought, I decided to use pen names for one simple reason: you can associate each name with something specific. Gil Miller will be crime fiction, Scott McGregor will be science fiction, and Thomas Hawk fantasy. It all comes from me, but when you pick up a book by each “author,” you’ll know exactly what you’re getting.

Is it a good strategy? I have no idea. There’s the issue of branding—you’re not pushing your books, you’re pushing yourself. Stephen King is a great example. There are people who read him who probably have never read another horror novel in their lives. He’s a brand. Everyone knows who he is.
But very few people know who I am. I’m still, for all intents and purposes, at the beginning of my career, so I can advance each brand. Yes, it’s splitting my energies somewhat, but that’s okay. Better to do it now than later.

Stick with me and let’s see how it works out, okay?



3 thoughts on “Pen Names

  1. veldabrotherton

    Hmm, some interesting points. I stopped using two pseudonyms to write everything (several genres) under my own name. But my brand tells it all. No matter the genre, the reader must be looking for sexy, dark and gritty stories. That might work too for those who wish to write several genres under one name, or several names. The brand might be adjusted to tell it all, no matter what. Enjoy your blogs, they always make me think.

  2. Madison Woods. Or maybe today I'm Ima Erthwitch, my other alter-ego.

    I write my nonfiction under Madison Woods and the rural sci-fi/fantasy (also set in nw AR) under Erthwitch. Both are pen names. I originally wrote under my real name but multiple marriages made that troublesome so I quit that. someyimes I toy with the idea of putting it all back under Madison but I think I’m just going to keep it separate “brands” since they’re so different from each other in content.


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