Shall I shock you all? I think I shall.
My real name is not Amy Lane. (Are we shocked?)
Amy Lane was born at 10:30 p.m. in a Daley City BART station during the late eighties, when a girl from the small town of Loomis with a size nine waist, big brown eyes, and a braid of curly hair that went down to her ass got propositioned on a nightly basis.
She was sort of terrified. She didn’t want to piss people off—but she really didn’t want them to know who she was, either. She was, at the time, listening to Aimee Mann and her then-boyfriend’s middle name was Lane.
“What’s your name, pretty girl?”
She then went home and wrote an actual pen-to-paper letter to her then-boyfriend (now Mate) and told him, “Hey (haha) when I’m a big famous writer, I’ll publish as Amy Lane!”
So flash forward seventeen years, when she was self-publishing her first book, and she was deciding whether or not to publish under her real name, or (hee!) under that long ago dreamed up pen name.
Why the hell not? Let’s do the pen name, shall we?
Now flash forward six years after that, and she’s suddenly in a bind. She’s allowed the students to read her books, and in spite of being signed on to a publisher, the district believes she’s pimping porn to high school students. A high priced lawyer has just been paid more than three times what part-time Amy makes in a year to look through her blogs and determine if she’s confessed to doing anything heinous enough to get fired for. Amy Lane (as we shall now call her) spends three tortuous days combing through those blogs in the presence of her lawyer and opposing council, sweating about any careless word. Has she signed her own guilt-warrant by a raucous (and hilarious) rant against the Vainglorious Prickweenie who intimidated her for two years trying to get her to quit? Has she ranted enough about being powerless in the face of student/parent politics to actually get fired? Has her “pimping of porn” (as her district would have her believe) spilled out into the realm of immorality?
Turns out, none of the above.
Can you believe that? Amy Lane (at least the Amy Lane before this happened) has no filter—she spits out what she thinks and the consequences be damned! She once ground a staff meeting to a halt telling a representative from the Governor’s board of education that not making an allowance for Special Ed students who worked their hearts out was “fucking wrong!” That Amy Lane, in four years of blogging, never made a mistake?
Because she was blogging as that Amy Lane.
Not her real name.
Her pen name. The one she’d chosen seventeen years earlier because (haha!) she was a scrawny nineteen year old getting hit on at crack central.
In fact, after Amy walked away from that painful teaching job (assisted by a small settlement) and started writing for a profession, the only punishment she received for the whole affair happened because she left a note on the board for her students the morning she was called out of her room, telling them that she was in the dog house, and that they were to respect the incoming sub. Seems that telling the truth—even so mild a truth as “I’m in the dog house,”-- doesn’t set you free in the land of bureaucracy, it gets you a ninety day suspension from a credential you’d planned to let lapse anyway.
In the words of Mrs. Incredible from the Pixar movie, “Your identity is your biggest asset. Keep it safe.”
I know I’m not the only person who’s had their professional/personal life saved by a pen name.
The fact is, the pen name is sort of an awesome creation of the human imagination—and it has several uses.
· It legally separates us from our day job or daytime identity. If my nightmare in litigation taught me anything, it’s that the wisest thing I ever did was compartmentalize my writer persona from my teaching persona. Everything that sprang from that—developing alternative names for the people I worked with, for my spouse and children, even for the place I lived and my students when I spoke of them—helped to protect me. I could not be accused of wrongdoing if I made a good-faith effort to protect the people I knew in my everyday life from any repercussions of what I did on my online life. I didn’t get my credential revoked, I didn’t get fired, and I didn’t lose eighteen years of my life without recompense—all because I chose a pen name and used it to keep the defining details of my personal life exactly that: personal. This can be a powerful incentive to taking the pen name plunge—and even though I went this route on a whim, I cannot deny that it saved my large and hefty keester in a big-assed way.
· It allows us to be someone else. The fact is, I’m sort of a shy person as my other name. I’m better at eating my feelings than voicing them. But as the teacher (I had a nickname there too) or as the writer “Amy Lane”—I can say the blunt things and do the brave things and be the better, more colorful version of myself. Being Amy Lane makes me live up to the things that Amy Lane would do—whether it’s taking a risk in fiction that may make people hate me (done that!) or keep my Obamacare bumper sticker on my car until other people’s middle fingers drop off, I am that person because I bear that name. Amy Lane is a risk taker, and she’s brave. The other me is really happy to let that name bear the heavy lifting.
Sound silly? Sound childish? Well, so is Batman—but being who we choose to be is a powerful idea, and the first place it starts is with our name. Writing is a brave thing—we risk a lot of our egos when we present our work for critique. Sometimes the only thing that lets us take those hits is knowing that you could probably sit down and have a cup of coffee with the person who just verbally assaulted your book—but only because that person doesn’t see your pen-name as a human being but as a shield for any negative criticism being leveled at you. The internet is a tricksy, volatile place—and writing exposes your innermost heart to that place. Having a superhero identity helps make that a little bit easier to bear.
· It allows us to market as someone else. So you write M/M romance—excellent! What if you wish to write ménage? Straight up het? Inspirational? Pagan how-to? Marketing a different genre can be really difficult while using the same name.
Of course, there are drawbacks—if you have an established following, you may feel as though you are starting from scratch. And what if you’re squirrel-brained, like me, and want to write ALL THE GENRES? Well, there are a couple of things you can do. One is to work with your publisher and cover artist, so you can include your alternate pen names on your cover to attract attention from loyal fans. And if you do choose to include alternate pen names, be sure to take some time to decide which genres will lose your readers, and which genres are “umbrella” genres, where all readers gravitate. If you traditionally write M/M Sci-fi, you probably won’t lose too many readers if you write a steampunk novel under the same pen name. However, if you suddenly decide to write a contemporary M/F story, well, you may want to change your pen name for that. If you traditionally write vanilla M/M sex, however, and you decide to throw in some BDSM, you may want to keep your original pen name—enough people write both that you don’t want to build up your readership from scratch. It doesn’t matter how many times you repeat yourself on Twitter and FaceBook and Tumblr and your blog, people will miss the memo. The more you can do to keep your readers in the habit of buying your name, the better. And remember that superhero thing? It’s really hard to be Batman, Bruce Wayne, and Super-Pizza Delivery Man, all in the same life, so if you do go the alternate pen name route, be sure to choose sparingly.
Creating an identity is not something you should do lightly—even if you think you’re just publishing for kicks, or (as was my case in 2005) because you’re going to show your family and friends that you wrote a book! A solid pen name is going to be your marketing tool, your public persona, and, for those who incorporate and get a credit card in that name and copyright and all of the stuff I personally avoid in a big way because my hamster cage is too crowded already, your business franchise. When a marketing department talks about “name recognition”, that’s it, baby—my name is my badge, it’s my slogan, my banner, my creed. When I updated my logo, the one thing that didn’t change was that my pen name, my personal Bat Signal, would be included.
I didn’t choose my pen name lightly. Even when I thought about using my original promise of being a writer for my pen name, I took a moment to think of other names I could use. That being said, if I were choosing the name today (instead of ten years ago) I would have taken a few more things into consideration.
· First off, if Google were as widespread then as it is now, I would have Googled the hell out of my pen name to make sure I wasn’t trying to share a pen name with a porn franchise (my apologies to Jade Lee, who actually had this happen), a rising starlet (Hello, Amy Adams when she was playing Lois Lane!) or someone who writes something wildly different from what I write (Hello, Amy Lane, author of The Baking Pocket Bible). Think of a nightmare alter-ego, and I’m sure there’s someone out there who has one, and it could have been avoided with one little trip to Google.
· Also, I would try to avoid using my initials, mostly because it’s confusing when there are so many of us who already do. C.K., A.J., A.L. C.L., C.S., K.C., and M.N., are all difficult to differentiate when seen on a book cover. You want to stand out—pick a name that will do this. (For those of you that already have chosen initials for various reasons, this is NOT a bad thing-- you have name recognition now. But for someone coming into the community doesn't want to stand in your shadow.)
· Given that in today’s climate there is only the trace of a controversy over women writing M/M, I wouldn’t deliberately use a gender-neutral pen name or a masculine pen name as a woman, because that makes it hard to market personally. Also, what can be an ordinary thing when seen in the light of day can cause devastating backlash. (Of course, if you write straight-up science fiction, ignore this section. The blatant, painful misogyny still present in the sci-fi community is enough to make a woman choose Hardison Dickall as a pen name, just to keep some of those trolls off her back.)
· I would make doubly sure I could look at, write, and say this name ad infinitum. My name is on way more book covers than just the first book I ever wrote. I answer to Amy in public now, and, in truth, when introducing myself in a public venue, I tend to give out Amy as my first name, because after ten years, in some situations that’s who I am. I’m lucky—Amy Lane looks pretty good on a book cover, but if I’d gone with my more adolescent self and chosen Linathien Thai or Teron Angel, I’d be really frickin’ miserable right now.
· And that leads me to something that seems logical—but I know I didn’t think about it when I came up with my name, I lucked into it, because my name is short: Make sure it’s something you can work easily into a logo or a brand. Look at a book by John Grisham, Nora Roberts, or Nicholas Sparks. Their name is their brand. They don’t need a logo or a tagline—their name says it all. Start out with a tagline and a specific brand, but be aware—and prepared—for a moment when all of that transitions into your name.
Let’s face it—in a decision based on luck, when I came up with a logo at all, it included my name. Now, my logo is almost entirely my name.
When I sat in a windowless office, picking through four-and-a half years of my past to see if I’d ever lost it enough to truly lose everything, my name was my shield.
When I stood in a scary place in a scary part of town in the dark, young and anxious, my name was my escape.
And now that I’m grown and brandishing my burning literary sword at all things that incur my wrath—or my interest, or my compassion—my name is my armor, my weaponry, and my brand.
What’s in a name?
What’s in creating a name?
Hopefully a whole lot of thought.