How to Dream up Pen Name Ideas That Are Full-On Brilliant
Pseudonym, nom de plume, secret identity… whatever you want to call it, the pen name has been the author’s go-to tool for preserving anonymity or boosting sales for centuries.
In fact, there are probably more pen names on your bookshelf than you realize. It’s even possible that two of your favorite authors are the exact same person. Or that the writer of a beloved series isn’t a writer but several wordsmiths telling stories under the same trademarked pseudonym.
So what’s the point of all this? Why do so many authors decide not to publish under their real name? Should you do the same? And if so, how do you go about choosing a pen name?
All good questions, and they’re about to get answered. Stick around to find out:
- The benefits of using a pen name
- Famous pen names and why those authors chose them
- The process for selecting your own nom de plume, including where to find pen name generators
- How to start promoting your new identity online
- Legal considerations of using pen names
Let’s start with why you should care about any of this in the first place.
Benefits of Using a Pen Name
Using a pen name isn’t objectively right or wrong. It’s merely a choice some authors make because it aligns with their goals or concerns. If you’d prefer to publish under your real name, by all means, do it!
Here are a few reasons some authors choose the path of the alter ego:
The Anonymity of Pen Names
A pseudonym can create a tidy little line between your author persona and who you are in real life. You might like this if you’re simply a private person. Other reasons to opt for anonymity include:
- You write about controversial topics or in an adult genre like erotica, and you’d like to control who in your personal life knows about it
- The content of your books could make life pretty rough for your kids if their peers got their hands on your work
- Your day job is in a sensitive profession
- You share deeply personal stories in your work and you’re not ready to link your true identity to them
It’s important to mention that a pen name can help you remain anonymous, but it does not free you from liability from anything you’ve written. A pseudonym is not a license to slander one’s enemies.
Also bear in mind that your true identity could be found out. There are no guarantees with pen names.
Creative Freedom and Flexibility
Many authors pick a pen name when they want to try their hand at a new genre or connect with a new audience.
You see this a lot with authors who’ve made a name for themselves in a specific genre. For example, when romance rockstar Nora Roberts chose the pen name J.D. Robb for her crime novelist alter ego.
A nom de plume also gives writers a persona to slip into when they put their fingers on the keyboard. For some, creating that mental separation between “Dan from HR” and “Drew Starcatcher, fantasy author” helps them get into the zone. (I got that nom de plume from a pen name generator, by the way. More on those in a bit.)
Some authors use a pen name as a sort of branding strategy. An author named Geraldine Snatherblath might opt for a softer, shorter, and slightly more modern name if she planned to write romance. (Not that it’s not a perfectly lovely name as is, if it somehow happens to be yours.)
You’ve probably heard that there’s a whole history of female writers selecting male or gender-neutral pen names in order to be taken seriously. The same thing still happens in genres that tend to have a male bias like science-fiction and thrillers.
Similarly, male romance writers often opt for pen names that mask or downplay their gender identity. There’s a heated debate about whether it’s appropriate for men to pretend to be women. My personal position currently is that it’s not ideal for a few reasons, including the fact that this is the one genre where women are able to thrive as themselves.
But I also don’t believe in restricting who gets to write what, and Todd Manpants probably will have a harder time finding an audience in romance than Daria Dusk. My recommendation would be to go with initials. And probably a last name that isn’t Manpants.
In case it needs to be said, it’s never appropriate to use a pen name chosen to suggest you belong to a minority ethnic group you aren’t a part of.
Sometimes an author’s legal name is something uncommon and tough to remember. “Wurdeman,” for example. In that case, an author might opt for a pseudonym that’s easier to recall and Google.
This can be a deeply personal decision, though. There are many writers whose names are considered “hard to pronounce” or “tough to spell” because they’re of a minority heritage. Switching to a pen name might feel like abandoning part of their identity to fit in.
So I feel it’s also worth mentioning that your author name will not make or break your book. Your main responsibility is to write a great novel. If you can pull that off, the rest of us can handle learning how to spell your name.
Famous Pen Names
So who’s built a killer career under a nom de plume? The list is long. Here are just a handful of the famous pen names out there.
Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Eliot, assuming a man’s name would give her a better chance of being taken seriously.
Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto wrote under the name Pablo Neruda because his father would have disapproved of his career choices.
Stanley Martin Lieber wrote comic books under the name Stan Lee, saving his real name for more serious literary work. In the end, his comic books were serious literary work, and he changed his legal name to match the pseudonym.
The covers of Jane Austen’s novels were printed with the words “By a Lady,” as Austen was quite private and authorship was considered an inappropriate endeavor for a woman.
Guan Moye used the pen name Mo Yan, which translates to “don’t speak” in Chinese—his parents’ advice to him for staying safe in the political climate of his childhood.
Agatha Christie wrote erotica as Mary Westmacott (you heard me). Mark Twain was actually Samuel Clemens, Toni Morrison was Chloe Ardelia Wofford, and Richard Bachman was just Stephen King trying to write more books without people thinking his prolificity indicated a lack of quality.
And I’m not saying who Elena Ferrante is suspected to be, because in the author’s own words, they chose a pen name “to liberate myself from the anxiety of notoriety and the urge to be a part of that circle of successful people…I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present. To relinquish it would be very painful.”
Dreaming up Your Own Pen Name
Now the only question is, how do you pick a pen name for yourself? There are a few ways you can go about this.
Self-Reflection and Brainstorming
Start by considering your writing goals.
What genre will you be writing in? Is there a specific voice, tone, or attitude you want to convey? Your pseudonym is part of your branding, so when you nail down this vision from the beginning, you’ll have an easier time narrowing down to the ideas that fit your goals.
Also consider what you want this name to do for you. If you’re going for total anonymity, you’ll want to make sure you keep any potentially identifying elements out of your pen name. If you want it to be easy to remember, you’ll want something catchy and short.
Incorporating Meaningful Elements
What inspiration can you draw from the people, places, and ideas that matter to you? Consider things like:
- Mythological characters who inspire you
- Locations that are special to you
- Words related to your hobbies or passion
- Names that hold significant meaning in your culture
- Relatives or ancestors who are important to you
- Symbols or natural elements
- Nicknames from your childhood
- Variations of your legal name
Make some lists, combine words, and see if any brilliant pen names materialize.
Pen Name Generators
You can always take the shortcut and try pen name generator tools. There are quite a few out there. It’s even possible to find a pen name generator specific to your genre.
Here are a few you can try to get started:
- Fake Name Generator
- Fantasy Name Generators
- Name Generator
- Pseudonym Generator
- The Legit Pen Name Generator
Selecting the Perfect Pen Name
Brainstorming is fun, but eventually you’ll have to pick a pen name. This shouldn’t be a close-your-eyes-and-point situation. You’ll want to make an informed decision, and that’s going to take some research.
Pick your favorite pen names and make sure they’re not already in use by another author.
Run searches on Google and Amazon. See if the domain names you’d use for those pen names are already taken. In other words, is someone already using YourFavoritePenName.com for their website? Check social media platforms to make sure no one’s built a solid following using the same names.
Also search for your pen name in your country’s copyright and trademark office websites. Once you’ve crossed out all the names already in use by someone else, share your remaining short list for feedback.
Testing and Gathering Feedback
Share your potential pen names with folks you trust. This could include family and friends, fellow writers, and people who buy books in your genre. Ask for their honest feedback.
Do they like the name? Does anything about the name make it hard for them to take it seriously? Who do they picture when they read your pen name? Does that picture match the tone and vibe you’re going for?
Quick reminder: before you share your possible pseudonym with anyone, think back to your reasons for creating a nom de plume in the first place. If your goal is anonymity, make sure you only share your potential pen names with people you trust. Then be sure to let them know this is classified information.
Establishing an Online Presence
When you finally land on your perfect nom de plume, lock down that online presence. Snag the web domain, create handles for your social media accounts, and set up your email.
Once that’s done, you’re ready to start writing. Or publishing. Whatever phase of the journey you’re on.
Legal Considerations of Publishing Under a Pen Name
Pen names aren’t particularly complicated, legally speaking. You don’t have to register them with anyone or anything like that. But there are a few things you should know about writing and publishing under a false name.
Before we dig into the details, allow me to clarify: using a pseudonym does not create any legal or tax benefits. You can still be sued for the things you write and you still have to pay taxes on your writing income, no matter what name you put on the cover.
That said, here are a few other things worth knowing about your new pen name.
Copyright and Trademark Implications
You can’t copyright a name, but it is a good idea to register your work for copyright under your pen name so you have your pseudonym on record. If you want full anonymity, you can even register under your pen name only and leave your own name out of it completely. For extra protection, use a P.O. box instead of your real address.
It’s possible to trademark a pseudonym, but only if it has “secondary meaning”—if you plan to use your pen name as your brand, attaching it to goods or services beyond your books alone. For example, there’s a trademark on the name J.K. Rowling.
Some new authors get the clever idea to use the same name as a writer who’s already established and successful. While I’m sure this devious plot would never cross your mind, I feel compelled to say, “Don’t do it.” Even though an author’s name can’t be copyrighted and might not be trademarked, you can still get nailed for identity theft.
Plus, it’s just really annoying for everyone.
Navigating Contracts and Agreements
When you land a book deal, you can sign with your pen name and the contract will still be legally binding.
That said, the vast majority of authors sign their legal names. It’s usually simpler for tax purposes and receiving payment.
Once You’ve Got the Perfect Pen Name…
…you’ll need the perfect book to go with it. And Dabble is here with everything you need to really create a name for yourself in the literary world.
Join our writing community in the Story Craft Café to share ideas, resources, and feedback with fellow writers.
Finally, check out Dabble’s super intuitive writing tool. This has everything you need for an organized writing process, from the famous Plot Grid to Story Notes, goal-tracking, co-authoring, and more. Click here to try it for free for 14 days—no credit card required!
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