Using and Choosing a Pen Name

In many cases, using a fake name is considered illegal or at least dishonest. But doing so is a common practice among artists like actors, musicians, and writers.

Famous authors have used pen names for different reasons for hundreds of years (if not longer). There was a time when women writers weren’t taken as seriously as men, so they often assumed men’s names if they wanted to be published. Sometimes an author used a different name for political reasons, like not wanting to be imprisoned by a particular government (French philosopher Francois Marie Arouet wrote as Voltaire). Stephen King’s early publishers didn’t want to saturate the market with too many of his books, but King wanted to keep publishing so he wrote under the name Richard Bachman.

Other good reasons to use a pen name include: the author doesn’t like their real name; the name doesn’t fit the genre the author writes in (female names sell better in romance, male names in business books); and separation of an author’s works when writing in more than one genre.

This last is one of the main reasons I chose to use a pen name for This New Mountain. I don’t plan to write another memoir, but I do hope to have my science fiction and fantasy work see publication. When it comes time for that, I’ll use my married name, KL Wagoner. But I don’t want future readers to think This New Mountain is anything other than a memoir, and so I took into consideration my later plans for publication.

There is one more reason I chose a pen name – the writing style for AJ Jackson’s memoir is very different from any of my other work. See my earlier post on the voice of the memoir. Again, I don’t want readers to get confused in the future.

The process for choosing a pen name can vary even more than the reasons for using one. Some authors simply take the initials of their first and middle names and add them to their last name (Joanne Kathleen Rowling aka JK Rowling). Others use the name of a relative, a friend, a pet or a combination of any or all. Maps are a great place to find a pen name, as well as characters from favorite books. But a pen name should be chosen as carefully as choosing the name of a character. The author of a crime novel won’t pick a silly, girly name and the writer of chic lit won’t choose an uppity sounding one.

As a child, I accepted my maiden name because it belonged to my father and I didn’t have a choice, but it wasn’t long before I learned that having a last name that rhymed with tick, lick, etc. (a fact which silly boys couldn’t help remind me of on a regular basis) had its disadvantages. So using my maiden name was definitely not on my list of favorites.

For Cate Macabe, I picked a variation of my real first name. As far as the last name, I’ve loved the sound of it ever since being introduced to someone years ago with the same name. I even have a character named McCabe in one of my unpublished novels.

Settling on the spelling of my pen name took careful consideration as well. In researching, I discovered dozens of Kate McCabe’s around the world, including artists, actors, and a published author. To simplify things, I decided on a different spelling. Changing the name at the last minute from Kate McCabe to Cate Macabe caused headaches for my publisher, but a certain amount of flexibility is one advantage to being associated with a small, traditional publisher (and for this, Casa de Snapdragon deserves a big, gold star).

There is a chance I will sign the wrong name one day if someone asks for an autograph. And I might stare blankly for a moment at a person who uses my pen name in conversation with me. Maybe neither of these scenarios will come to pass if I practice my signature and try to get comfortable with being…[cue loud and inspiring music] Cate Macabe, Author.

If you had the chance to choose a new name, what would it be?


2 thoughts on “Using and Choosing a Pen Name

  1. This was very informational. And I did just the same, because my family does not want to be involved with the story and has fears of the story impacting negatively and dragging the family name down. I’m glad this can be done, I’ve been battling with this decision. Thank you so much.


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