27 October 2015

Nom de plume -- why a pseudonym?

Many famous authors throughout history have written under pseudonyms that became vastly more well-known than the authors’ real names — Konrad Jozef Korzeniowski wrote under the pen name Joseph Conrad, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson wrote as Lewis Carroll, Eric Arthur Blair wrote as George Orwell, Alisa Zinov’yevan Rosenbaum wrote as Ayn Rand, and Samuel Clemens took the name of Mark Twain. They all had their reasons for choosing a different name.

In fact, using initials instead of given names was commonly employed long before JK Rowling, JRR Tolkien and HG Wells. People like CS Lewis, EB White, AA Milne, HP Lovecraft, JD Salinger, SE Hinton, ee cummings, LM Montgormery, WB Yeats, TS Eliot and so many others all had their reasons. Most often it was to remove gender as a barrier from the equation.

Women often adopted male names to be taken more seriously in the male dominated world of literary works and sci fi. George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans – Middlemarch ), James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Bradley Sheldon – Her smoke rose up forever), and Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen – Out of Africa) are three. George Eliot wrote about society in Victorian times. James Tiptree Jr. broke into sci-fi and won numerous Hugo Awards for her works sparking great debate about her identity and gender. Isak Dineson protected her well-known family’s reputation in case her writing proved controversial.

So some of the reasons for choosing a pen name are:
  • Your own name is a mouthful, truly awful, or won’t easily fit on a cover
  • You want to maintain anonymity
  • You don’t want gender to cloud choice or perception
  • You are writing in more than one genre
  • It is advantageous from a marketing perspective
Interestingly, using a pen name for a first time author can be difficult as apparently few publishers will take a chance on someone who doesn’t use his or her real name. But once you are established, choosing a second name under which to publish can be rather liberating, like Nora Roberts (JD Robb, Jill March, and Sarah Hardesty), Stephen King (Richard Bachman, Eleanor Druse, Steve King and John Swithen) and JK Rowling (Robert Galbraith) can attest to. BTW, Nora Roberts is the pseudonym of Eleanor Marie Robertson.

As choosing a name is going to affect you for the remainder of your career, choosing carefully is advisable. Basically, an author has several options.
  1. Use your full name 
  2. Use your common or nickname (i.e., Sandy instead of Sandra)
  3. Use your initials
  4. Use your maiden name 
  5. Use a pseudonym
 Strategic analysis of my options

I may have more options because of my many name changes over the course of my life. But I would stick with a few options for logical reasons. Here is my thought process.

As a child, I was known as DK right through high school. Those were my initials and no one that I knew had a clue what my real name was – Daria Korzeniowski. I also have a middle name, which is Olena, a name never heard in the world until a certain character named Lady Olenna Tyrell played by Diana Rigg made it cool in Game of Thrones. In one circle I became known as Darka which is a familiar form of Daria in Ukrainian but not terribly useful in English. I kind of like the middle initial O. Like X or Z or Q it doesn't come up that often.

Daria came into play in college when I could no longer be taken seriously as DK and had the opportunity to start over with all new people who didn’t know me. But it took a while to respond to people calling me Daria. It’s still not a name I feel terribly comfortable with. (BTW: St. Daria’s day is April 1 by the old calendar.) I don't feel like a Daria.

And Korzeniowski is certainly not a name to toy with. I couldn’t wait to give it up even though I was among the first to learn the entire alphabet as a child. In my early adult years, I often substituted Conrad when making reservations for simplicity, adopted from my potential great great uncle Joseph Conrad.

Mental Floss notes the following about Joseph Conrad’s choice:

Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski is a bit of a mouthful, and when the Polish novelist began publishing his writing in the late 1800s he used an Anglicized version of his name: Joseph Conrad. He caught some flack for this from Polish intellectuals who thought he was disrespecting his homeland and heritage (it didn’t help that he became a British citizen and published in English), but Korzeniowski explained, “It is widely known that I am a Pole and that Józef Konrad are my two Christian names, the latter being used by me as a surname so that foreign mouths should not distort my real surname… It does not seem to me that I have been unfaithful to my country by having proved to the English that a gentleman from the Ukraine [Korzeniowski was an ethnic Pole born in formerly Polish territory that was controlled by Ukraine, and later the Russian Empire] can be as good a sailor as they, and has something to tell them in their own language.”

I published in scientific literature under the name Daria Korzeniowski when I was a biochemist and I recently discovered that one paper I wrote way back is considered a seminal work in drug metabolism literature. I was shocked and honoured that my paper is online and highlighted as historically significant. I had no idea as internet did not exist back then. Some early work in medical copy writing was also done under that name, but basically I gave it up and never looked back.

My married name is Daria Blackwell. A rather nice name, but Daria is often difficult for people for some reason. I’ve learned to tell them, “Like Aria with a D in front.” But I still get Darina, Darea, and various other inflictions. I had a prior married name but it was fleeting and not something I would resurrect. It’s better left unspoken.

My married name is what I’ve published under to date. I have two books that I share credit for with my husband, Alex Blackwell. The books are non-fiction sailing books and I am currently working on my first fiction work, also using sailing as a theme. I have also written numerous articles for sailing magazines on both sides of the Atlantic and a few about skiing.

Under that name, I have also written many articles and a book chapter on medical marketing. It was my business name for much of my lifetime, especially the pivotal parts when I was President of companies in NY and NJ. So that name has specific associations with it. My decision is to reserve the use of that name for those genres in which I have already written and am somewhat known.

Now comes the tricky part. I am planning to undertake the writing of literary novels and memoirs. These will bear no resemblance to what I’ve written to date. Several questions will come into play. Can using a pen name enhance my chances of success? Will I have a good story to tell? Is there a good name to choose? Will anonymity be important in tackling troubling subjects? If the answer is yes to any of those then I will need a pen name. So what are my choices?

My choices of nom de plume

DK Blackwell – my childhood initials with my married name removes me from Daria Olena
DOK Blackwell – capitalizes on my birth initials and married name
DO Blackwell – initials of my real given names
DO Conrad – my given initials with a pseudonym
DOK Conrad – my birth initials with pseudonym

In checking amazon, no one uses DOK Conrad or DOK Blackwell but DK Books and DK Publishing comes up with those initials. At this stage, I am leaning toward DOK Conrad. I believe that when asked about why I chose initials and a pseudonym I can easily explain my childhood name dilemma and wanting to achieve gender neutrality. I can then readily transition into the story of Joseph Conrad's precedent making it easy to choose a pseudonym. Of course, that would set up literary expectations and potential comparisons. Can I handle that? Being compared to Joseph Conrad? It is a goal I have set for myself, so therefore I must be able to deal with it. It is not presumption, it is a stretch goal. I hope I am worthy.

The challenge with this name is that it does lead to my real name and so does not achieve anonymity. But as I have not yet decided if I will present the memoirs that I plan to write with names changed to protect the characters in the story or if I will tell the true story of the people. If I tell the true story, then DOK Blackwell or DOK Conrad are reasonable choices.

If anonymity will be required, then I’ll just have to choose yet another name. One that doesn’t connect me with anything before or after. And I won’t be able to tell you what it is. That’s not a decision I have to make today, but at least I have thought it through.

What’s in a name? Potentially freedom.

X.Q.Z. Nikto. Now there's a name no one else will have.

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