Cara Langston

Why I’m writing under a pen name

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PenNames

The above photo is a modification of this work

If you read Freakonomics back in the day (because 2005 was ten years ago and at the threshold for being considered “back in the day”), you’ll remember there was a chapter on nominative determinism–that is (quoting Wikipedia), “the theory that a person’s name can have a significant role in determining key aspects of job, profession, or even character.” The study focused mainly on racial and socioeconomic factors, but at an aggregate level, it succeeded in highlighting the importance of a person’s name. People judge us based on what we are called–employers, colleagues, readers.

Our legal names are generally chosen by our parents. Mine was a last-minute choice after I was born, because the doctors assured my parents that they were going to have a baby boy. I guess they could’ve jumped onto the androgynous name train and called me Craig (I’m personally glad they didn’t).

But whereas my parents had the responsibility of choosing my legal name, I had the sole responsibility of choosing my pen name. Cara Langston is not my real name. It’s a pen name I chose to use for my writing endeavors.

Why did I choose to use a pen name? And out of all the names in the universe, how did I pick this one? Everyone has their own reasons, but I’ll share mine.

Part I:  Do you need a pen name?

Short answer: Of course you don’t need one. You don’t need to do anything you don’t want to do.

However, here are the reasons I chose to use a pen name:

1. I have a successful career outside of my writing — I pay the bills working as a senior strategy analyst at a large healthcare organization. I doubt I’ll be able to quit that career for a writing career anytime soon, so in the interim, I’d rather not have my name associated with my writing while I’m still climbing the corporate ladder. For example, I don’t want potential employers to be concerned that I may be writing on company time (of which I’m . . . ahem . . . guilty).

2. Everyone misspells my name — Both first and last names. Coworkers, friends, family members. Maybe (hopefully!) it’s their spell check, but every time someone spells my name incorrectly, I think, “Seriously? The correct spelling was in my email address just above this greeting.” And if by chance I’m one day successful enough that someone is actively looking for my books, I’d rather they be able to spell it correctly in Google or Amazon searches. On the flip side, there are plenty of successful authors with crazy last names–Chuck Palahniuk, anyone? So it could be a differentiating factor.

3. It’s a cushion for failure — I almost didn’t include this, but it’s the ugly truth. There’s some relief in knowing that if I’m really bad at writing or have some kind of terrible experience, I can shed the name and put it all behind me. That’s a really pessimistic view, but it’s always in the back of my mind.

Part II: How do you pick a pen name?

Now once you’ve decided that a pen name is for you, you can go through the process of picking your name. There’s so much riding on this decision! Your pen name will be emblazoned on the cover of that bestseller you’ll eventually write, so choose wisely. 🙂

If you do a quick Google search on this process, you’ll find plenty of articles about strategic positioning on bookshelves, the use of acronyms if you’re a woman trying to cater toward a male audience (*rolls eyes that it needs to be a consideration at all*), and fashioning a name to match your genre.

I disregarded those opinions. Instead, I based my name choice on the following:

1. Availability of website & social media handles — It’s so much easier if http://www.yourchosenpenname.com or @yourchosenpenname is available. Unless you absolutely have your heart set on a specific name, you may want to do a search to see if anyone else already owns the website address and Twitter handle. Checking to see if your pen name is already claimed by a semi-famous author or other celebrity falls into this category as well.

2. Ability to write the name — Think of those future book signings! Unless your real name is Elizabeth Jingleheimer Schmidt and you’re already used to writing it, it might be long name to jot down over and over again. I chose “Cara” because I can get away with a “C” and a short squiggle. Yes, I’m lazy.

3. Association to your real name / heritage — The initials I was born with are CL, so I came up with a name that had those same initials. My maiden name is Italian, so I chose a slightly Italian first name. I picked my last name from the “L” last names on my Ancestry.com family tree. “Langston” was my third choice, as the first two were already widely used by two authors.

So there it is. Why I chose to write under a pen name and how I chose the one I have. Mom, I hope this answers all the questions you’ve been asked by friends and family. Thanks for fielding those questions for me!

One thought on “Why I’m writing under a pen name

  1. Good points–this is an important thing for writers to consider. Something you might find interesting: studies have demonstrated that people with names that have a middle initial (or, preferably, two) are judged to be smarter and more competent. I know plenty of people in academia who add a middle initial to their public name for that reason alone.

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