Writing with a Pen Name: Part 2 (Choosing a Name)

IMG_2630.JPG I showed up to my first writing group meeting in January 2010 with shiny new poetry. After introducing myself with my real name and real writing history, they invited me to read the piece aloud. I sat on my hands, stumbling over my own words because they were a collection of pretentious garbage. I knew that, but these were real live perfect-stranger humans who volunteered to sit around a table for two hours listening and reading and critiquing–they had no idea what who I was or what my writing was like. That blank slate of freedom made it easy to look up after I was done reading and collect the memory of their expressions: they didn’t hate it, they might have liked it, but mostly they didn’t get it. I didn’t blame them. But there was nowhere to hide. I needed a pen name, stat! For more reasons on why an author should chose a pen name, backtrack to Part One of this miniseries.


Though I had been considering it for a while, that experience put my quest into high gear. Once I solicited the help of my family and friends to crowd-source my pseudonym, I realized the struggle was real. I had never named a child, but I imagined it was just as challenging, if not more, renaming an “adult” (yes, quotation marks are necessary).

I rummaged the internet and found many baby-naming and character naming tools–which were helpful–but didn’t really inspire me. Here’s a list of unconventional naming tools that I used to help me come up with Maxie Steer:

  1. Have a letter minimum: Five letters only. Fourteen letters total. Whatever numerology will work for your purposes, stick to it and only entertain names/words that fit the length.
  2. Use a surname as a first name: Why does Anderson Cooper sound so cool? I don’t know, but it has a ring that makes it sound important.
  3. Use a verb as a last name: Nicholas Sparks. Need I say more?
  4. Use names of places: It doesn’t have to be a well known place, but it works, like Paris Hilton
  5. Use names of companies: It doesn’t have to be a well known company, but it works, like…um, Paris Hilton.
  6. Recycle character names: Pay homage to the characters that changed your life. Mix and match first and last names.

After you’ve generated a healthy list of names you like, whittle them down with these important considerations:

  • May I have your autograph? After your story goes mainstream, and the movie(s) debut, you’ll be in the airport jet-setting over the pond and some brave fan is gonna walk up to you with book and sharpie in hand. Is your pen name ready for this? Consider this bullet the main reason I chose to have an “X” in my first name.
  • Just google me! This is how a lot of people will meet you. Make sure your name is not taken online. You can try your potential username here http://namechk.com/ to ensure availability and test your domain name at godaddy.com
  • No, I’m not from the UK… Does your chosen name have regional ties? Do you want that? Some names carry heritage, which may or may not be favorable. Research etymology.
  • On the shelf next to Danielle Steel. Find out where your book will stack up once it gets into stores and libraries. If I wrote romance, I’d be in a good alphabetical neighborhood.
  • Speaking of Romance… Does your genre have a penchant for punchy author names? Generally speaking, shorter names work best, but it does help to look at the names of authors in your genre and discover the pattern.
  • How do you spell it? Sure, you can get creative and call yourself Pah-Jamay Williams, but people will hear this and try to google Pajama (If your name is actually Pajama pronounced Pah-Jamay, I heard it from your elementary school teacher).

While you go through the naming process, it is important to keep your ideas close by because at any moment, inspiration can trigger an idea. I chose my last name as I was sitting outside a recently closed down Max and Erma’s, watching cars drive by (watching people steer… get it?). Be ready to jot down and cross out a lot of very good names.

At the next writing group meeting, I debuted a new poem. This time it was written by Maxie Steer. They picked at it and ripped it apart, for its own good. By then, of course, I had no fear.

How did you chose your pen name? We wanna know! Leave a comment below:

Stay tuned for the next installment in the series: Managing your Pseudonyms


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