Pen Names

Rachelle Gardner had a post today: Should We Rethink Pseudonyms?  This post doesn’t address the issues she raises there, but I have been thinking about writing this post for a while and now seemed as good a time as any.

Not that it’s blatantly obvious, but M.H. Lee happens to be a pen name.  Lee is not in fact my last name.  And my initials are not M.H.

So, why did I decide to choose a pen name?  Here I am, some Internet nobody, it seems a bit like putting the cart before the horse.  (And, yes, in my blogging I love clichés.  They’re easy.  And I don’t have all day to craft the perfect blog, so why not use a little shortcut here or there.)

Anyway, the reasons I chose a pen name:

1. My first name is such that people will have a reaction to it.  Think something like “Cashmere” or “Abdullah.”  Nothing wrong with either name, but they create impressions or associations.  As opposed to “Sarah” or “John,” which, at least in the States, are fairly neutral.

2. At present, you can Google my real name and find my home address.  (Hopefully not the case by the end of next month.)  Not that I expect anyone to track me down and want to see me in person, but there are some crazies out there and it only takes one.  (Note to any of those crazies: Please, please, please do not ever try to find me when I’m living my personal life.  Don’t do that to anyone.  Really.  Romantic interests, movie stars, co-workers.  Just let them live their lives.  If you’re going to run into them, you’re going to run into them.  And the proper place to see those people is at conferences (authors), at movie premieres (movie stars), on dates (romantic interests), and at work (co-workers).  You get the idea.)

3. I have a full-time career (sort of) and part of that career relies on my reputation.  Right now, if you Google me, you find articles related to my career or my education.  Both fine.  There’s one or two Google hits I’m not particularly fond of, but what I don’t need is my professional “credits” to be overwhelmed by my blogging or (eventually, hopefully, someday) my writing.  That career is going to be what pays the bills for quite some time and I need to protect it.

4. I don’t care if my real name is on a book cover.  Honestly, truly, it just doesn’t matter to me.  I tell people in my life that I’m writing a book because it’s important to me and it’s something I value.  But the people who need to know I wrote that book will know I wrote that book.  To anyone else, does it really matter that they’re talking about “M.H. Lee,” “Cashmere Jones,” or “Abdullah Smith”?  Nope.  (Other than point 1 – they may be influenced to buy or not buy based upon the name.  Cashmere doesn’t have much of a chance selling high-tech spy thrillers.  Sorry Cashmere.)

So, why did I choose the pen name I did:

1. I wanted a name that was gender neutral.  Initials accomplish that in and of themselves.  J.K. Rowling is a perfect example.  I could’ve also done the whole “Pat” thing.  (Anyone else remember those SNL skits from back in the day?), but even choosing a name like “Pat” was more of a stance than I wanted to take. (Not that I think I can hide my gender – I’m pretty sure most people who read this blog can make a pretty darn educated guess on that front.  Just that I don’t think it should influence someone’s decision to buy my book one way or the other.)

2. Some of my favorite SFF authors are in the K-M range.  And I’ve found them by looking for books by an author I already liked and seeing another book nearby that sounded interesting.  (With online shopping changing how people find books this may be less relevant, but for now I think it still holds.  We like to alphabetize things.  It’s just our way.)

3. I wanted a name I have some tie to.  It feels weird to choose a different last name out of nowhere.  Seems to me that, depending on what you write, someone with that last name might take it personally.  So, I didn’t.  Lee is a family name.

4. It’s short and easy to remember and spell.  I used to work at a bookstore.  If a book is popular, you can pretty much work off of any description and find it.  (“My sister-in-law was telling me about this book she’s reading.  I can’t remember the title.  I think the author’s name had a K in it?  The cover was blue.  It has something to do with twins separated at birth?”  “Oh yeah, I know that one.  Right this way.”)  But if the book or author never really become popular, your readers better know your name or the title of the book.

5. I wanted a name I could live with.  Assuming I achieve any level of long-term success at writing, I will be stuck with this name for the rest of my life.  It had to be something I could hear people use for the next thirty years without cringing.

Now, it’s quite possible I’m going to get an agent and they’re going to say, “Ditch it.”  Or I’m going to get a publisher and they’re going to say, “Ditch it.”  Or I’m going to publish a few books, they’re going to tank, and my only option will be to start over with a new pen name.  (It happens.  More than I realized before I started researching this writing thing.)  Or I’m going to one day say something really, really stupid on this blog and I’m going to have to ditch it.  (For that matter, maybe I already have and just don’t know it because I’m a nobody right now…)

I hope not.  I hope I get to be M.H. Lee for many, many years.  But that’s another reason for a pen name.  I’m a baby writer.  I still have plenty of room to screw things up majorly.  (That’s some good writin’ right there…)  This lets me grow and learn in a somewhat safe space.

And, yes.  I know.  Anonymity on the Internet is just an illusion.  If I succeed at this whole writing thing, I give it three months from my first publication date before my “real identity” is disclosed somewhere by someone.  Hell, I’ve disclosed enough information in this blog that someone who had way too much time on their hands could already figure it out.  (As much as I would like to be successful at writing, I really hope no one ever takes that much of an interest in me…trust me, person who just heard that as a challenge, there are better things to do with your life.)

So, anyway.  That’s my personal reason for choosing a pen name and the reason I chose the name I did.  I say to each their own.  Use your own name if you want.  Use a pen name if you want.  Use ten of them if you want (and can be that prolific and can keep them straight).

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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4 Responses to Pen Names

  1. Keri Peardon says:

    I don’t think anyone will tell you to ditch your pen name (although they may tell you that you need to change it because it’s too similar to another writer or something). If you write business articles/non-fiction, it’s not at all unusual to take a pen name when you write fiction.

    A lot of romance writers write under a pen name because, to some degree, there’s still a stigma attached to writing romance. They may use their real name to write non-romance fiction or non-fiction.

    I originally thought I’d write under a pen name (I wanted a last name further up in the alphabet), but I ended up deciding to write under my own name, just because the internet allowed me to discover that I’m the only Keri Peardon in the world. It makes marketing a book easier when you’re not competing against anyone else with that name on Google. (Catherine Ryan Howard points to the use of her middle name in all of her writing, because otherwise search results only return Catherine Howard, one of Henry VIII’s wives.)

  2. I think I might end up getting a pen name for my writing because I do want something more gender neutral and easy to spell/pronounce.

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