Tuesday, May 11, 2010

How to Choose the Perfect Pen Name

Side view of hotel reception desk

Hello. I’m Clarissa Southwick.

No, not really.

Clarissa is my pen name. My real last name inspires drunks to make crank calls in the middle of the night. So the decision to go with a nom de plume was easy for me.

Choosing a pen name was hard.

I started by gathering advice from fellow writers.

Here’s the list they gave me:

  • Keep it short
  • Aim for the front of the alphabet.
  • Make it easy to spell and pronounce.
  • Make it appropriate to your genre.
  • Choose something which has personal meaning to you.
That sounds simple enough. I have four children. I managed to name all of them, didn’t I? I studied baby name books, expecting the perfect pen name to jump out at me. But it’s a lot harder to come up with both the first and last name.

When I got stuck, some of my writer friends suggested combining loved ones’ first names. Sabrina Adams, Marie Williams, etc. This works very well if you’re working with uncommon names. But when I googled my family names, I got lost in millions of entries from authors, porn stars and politicians. I might as well be invisible.

Tourists at the entrance to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, NY, USA
I played Ellis Island with my real name. I chopped off syllables, changed out parts, and rearranged the letters. Many writers have done this successfully. But somehow Alderzigera and Zeraglaider still sounded like evil villains from a manga comic book.

I needed a name for a historical romance writer.

In spite of having a last name which gets me ‘randomly selected’ at the airport 100% of the time, my father’s family has been in the United States since the 1620’s. So I dusted off those old genealogy records and looked for ancestors who would have been born at the same time as my heroines.

And there she was, Clarissa Southwick, granddaughter of George Southwick, who died in 1775 at the Battle of Lexington during the American Revolutionary War. I remember being fascinated by his monument in Peabody Square as a child. I googled Clarissa, and found nothing objectionable. Somehow the name just felt right.

Is it the perfect pen name? Well, it breaks at least two of the rules on my list. It’s far from the start of the alphabet, and it is incredibly long. It doesn’t work on twitter and my hand will break if I ever have a book signing. But it has meaning to me, and that may just be the most important rule of all.

I would love to hear your stories Tell me, why did you decide to use a pen name and how did you choose it?


Donna Goode said...

What a great post, Clarissa! In my case, my real middle name is Catherine but that sounds too formal to me so I decided to try shortening it to Cate. I, too, am a historical romance writer and wanted to pick a name that seems to fit. I then had to come up with a last name, a harder prospect as you pointed out. I wanted one that I wouldn't completely ignore if I was ever addressed by it in a crowd. My maiden name was Parke so I played with that for awhile...and it just seemed right. So that's what I went with.

Carolyn Hughey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carolyn Hughey said...

Clarissa, I don't use a pen name, although I'm adding all kinds of sex scenes to my current contemporary novel, so I may just want to hide behind a pen name. LOL

I did choose a pen name for another book though, not because it was sensual, but because it was a different genre. Romantic suspense, but I had no idea the name should match the genre. The name I chose was Cate Percy. The Cate because I like the fact that I could use a 'C' which is the first letter of my real name, the Percy because my favorite uncle called me "Percy' because I reminded him of a motormouth at his job, and I was apparently running a close second to the man, hence the name. The book hasn't been published yet, so I haven't had to use it, but I had no idea there was a formula.

Thank your for sharing such a wonderful insightful post about the process.

Erin Kelly said...

I simply used my first and middle name. It is certainly not unique, but my middle name is my grandmother's maiden name, and therefor is meaningful to me. I like keeping my first name because, well, I can answer to my own name at conferences and (hopefully!) book signings :)

Angela said...

I didn't care for how "flat" my last name sounded. I wanted something that couldn't be mis-pronounced (as my maiden name surely would have been). And I realized when my maternal grandfather died, that his name was gone with no male decendants. So I took his name: Morgan.

Great Blog! Very interesting.

AvonLadyJerrica said...

I desperately want a pen name, but no one is willing to help me choose one because, apparently, my real name is too cool. LOL! I guess I'm a bit like Anne of Green Gables...always wanting to play at being someone else. I did, during your post, just come up with what I think is a great name: Penelope Bell. But it sounds like more of a southern historical writer's name than a Regency author's name. Which isn't unusual for me. When I was younger, I used to tell people my name was Savannah all the time. I may have been born in the midwest, but the south is in my blood :)

Great post, *Clarissa* ;)

Lise said...

An interesting journey to your pen name. I have chosen a pen name for my erotic romance and erotica. I've seen some that, honestly, I just find silly sounding. I don't feel the need to be something like "Juicy Touchit" or something. But I did want something that had a bit of a smooth, sensous sound to it: I chose Lydia Hill. First, my real name, Lise Horton, so I wanted an "L" and an "H". I'm using Lydia for a snarky reason - a very unpleasant relative who did mean things to my Mother and who was very full of herself and her standing in the community. I figure she'd hate someone writing "dirty books" so why not use her name? (She's long, long dead at 101 yrs. of age, so neither she nor any relatives can find out). Then I looked around. "Holt"? Taken. "Hammond" - sounded more like a Regency or historical author. Then I hit on "Hill". Why? Fanny Hill the book character. One of the earliest "naughty" books. I figured a bit of homage wouldn't hurt. And voila, Lydia Hill, nom de plume!

Clarissa Southwick said...

I just love all of these stories about how you chose your pen names. We even have the unexpected revenge plot. What a fantastic idea. I like how almost everyone has managed to tie it back to their real names. Thank you so much for posting!

Joan Leacott said...

I chose to keep my first name so I'd notice when people called out to me. My last name is easy enough, much harder to spell. So I chose bits from authors I admired; Stephen Leacock (a Canadian humourist in Mark Twain tradition) and Louisa May Alcott and ended up with LEACOTT. My tagline completes the package with heart (from Louisa), humour, (from Stephen), and Canadian heat (that's all mine).

Joan Leacott
heart, humour, and heat...Canada style

Catherine Gayle said...

The women of my family through the last many generations have all received a family name as part of our names. We all get either Marie, Catherine, or Gail. This goes back to my great-great grandmother who was Marie Catherine. The Gail only came in with my mother and carried on to me. I decided I wanted to choose a name that was still mine, essentially, even though it isn't my name. So I combined them and tried to find a way they sounded right. Catherine Gail stuck, but Gail isn't a traditional spelling for a last name. Gayle, however, is.

One other thing I took into consideration: I have horrible handwriting. HORRIBLE. And I have big dreams of someday signing my books for my adoring fans. Try not to laugh at this next part, LOL. Before I chose any name, I had to make sure I could sign it and make it look halfway decent. Marie could not make the cut. Catherine and Gail (and Gayle) all could. They were the chosen ones.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

I chose Paisley because it is a beautiful old town in Scotland, my great great grandfather was born there and a certain Scottish actor is from there. My Mother's family came from Scotland so I chose her maiden name. Even though my stories are historical west, all of my heros seem to be Scots so Paisley Kirkpatrick worked for me. I have been amazed at how many compliments I've received including the people at GoDaddy where I registered the name. It sort of rolls off your tongue, but I will also have a sore hand when I start signing autographs. :) Can't wait!

starowl7 said...

I chose a pen name to write my outlined fantasy novel and my soon to be adventure into erotic paranormal. It was easy for me as I like my mother's maiden name Caldwell and still have a leftover teenage crush on Elvis Presley.Both evolved into my pen name of E.P.Caldwell.It's also close to the front of the alphabet.

Anonymous said...

My husband is a cop so a pseudonym it is. I asked him, "If I'm not me, who do I look like?" He said, "You look like a Jill." I added James for my dad who had just died when I was picking a name, thus Jill James was born.

Natasha Moore said...

My husband picked my first name, Natasha. I think he thought it was sexier than my pretty boring first name. I agreed, it's unusual without being too strange. :-) I decided I needed a more common last name and I also, at the time, was trying to come up with a tag line to put on my website. So Natasha Moore was born. "Romance with...more."

Allison Chase said...

I always say there's a reason our parents name us and we don't have to name ourselves - it's very hard to come up with something that feels natural. Not only that, I wanted to have the .com, and a lot of the names I initially came up with were already taken. I looked at family names, both living and deceased, and put two together. My real name is Lisa, and those letters can be found in Allison, so that helped make the name feel more natural. It was hard and a little weird at first, like it wasn't really me getting credit for my books, but I've totally embraced my pseudonym and do answer to it when called, lol.

K.M. Daughters said...

Kathie dubbed us K.M. Daughters when we decided to write as a team. Mom's name was Katherine and Dad's name was Michael. So we are "K"ay's and "M"ickey's Daughters. Since the penname celebrates their memory, we love it a lot. At a recent NJRW conference a fellow chapter member referred to us as "The Daughters". :-) Pat has a license plate KM DAUTR. So it works in the singular, too.

Carolina Valdez said...

I'd just placed my first novel with an electronic publisher, and the story was set in Early California. When I sold my first erotic short story, I was terrified someone would find out I'd written it, so a pseudonym was a must. Not having a single clue as to how to go about it, and with the novel and short story set in Early California, I selected an Hispanic name.

No one knows it's pronounced Car-o-LEE-nuh VAL-dez, so I'm referred to as Carolina (as in South and North). If I had it to do over again, I'd choose something different, but my author friends like it. Once it's on several publications and you have fan base, it's tough to change it. Too, you begin to think of yourself as that person.

Helen Scott Taylor said...

Interesting post Clarissa. Now I'm wondering what your real name is LOL. I had to tweak my real name because when I searched for it on google there were hundreds of hits for my real name--and I couldn't get the domain name. So I simply added a third name in the middle. Which breaks the length rule. And I have rued doing that when I've had to sign lots of book plates or done a signing.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post, Clarissa.

My pen name is Ransom Noble, and it was a name i'd chosen for a character but never used. I write speculative fiction and young adult, so it works well. It may not hit the beginning of the alphabet, but I'm married to it now. I did want something everyone could pronounce and spell, and the worst trouble I've gotten is people getting them in the wrong order.

I originally decided to create a pen name when my maiden name was butchered time after time by people looking at it trying to say it and people trying to spell it after hearing it.

I have signed it and I respond to it fairly well when addressed in person. A name is only a habit.

Joanne said...

Interesting post, Clarissa. I chose a pen name, as you can see by my picture. Long story behind it, but it works for me.