Pen Names For The Win

Okay…so you’ve decided to take up your pen and start Writing for Fun & Profit*, but you have questions.

*Err…not Trademarked because, well, no one in their right mind believes there is much in the way of “profit” in writing…

Honestly, when I talk to folks about writing, I tend to get the same questions…over and over.  Here is what that generally looks like:

“Do your characters talk to you?” — Yes.  Yes, they do.  They make fun of me, too…all the damned time.    {Shut up, Oz!}

“How do you come up with your ideas?” — Beer.

“What’s the best way to write convincing dialogue?” — Read your stuff out loud.  When you read out loud, especially dialogue, you better understand the rhythm, pacing and problem areas.

“How do you deal with writer’s block?” — More beer.  Or, for the really acute cases, scotch.

“What advice would you give aspiring, new writers?” — Walmart offers benefits.

“How much money did you get in advance?” — What’s an advance?  For that matter, what’s this money thing you speak of?

Okay, okay, I admit it — I may be a wee bit cynical and irritable today.

Let’s go to one of the few questions that doesn’t give me (as much) room for sarcasm:

“Should I use a pen name when I write?” — I do.

**Sarcasm alert!**  Of course you should use a pen name*!  Do you really want anyone to know that you chose to do this for a living?  If ever I go to a high school reunion (not freaking likely, by the way), I’m pretty sure I’ll tell folks I’m the cleanup boy in an adult bookstore before I admit to being a writer…

*It’s interesting, by the way, that my spellcheck system likes to correct “pen name” to “penance”.  Is the Universe trying to tell me something?

Now, look, if you’re using a pen name to hide who you are — from, say, the mob, or the IRS (same thing), or the court system, or student debt collectors — don’t bother.  The courts and the mob will just call the student debt people, and there is NO hiding from those assholes.

If, however, you have legitimate reasons — or even semi-legitimate — then have at it, I say.

Look, I use a pen name for a couple of reasons…reasons I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before…

The DockRat series is sci-fi.  Not just that, it’s a series with a very specific tone and feeling to it.  It is, when you get right down to it, bitter, angry, pained…and personal as all hell.  I’ve mentioned before that Oz represents, in many ways, those friends I’ve lost to suicide; that, of course, means that I’m writing with…well…baggage.

I prefer to keep my baggage semi-anonymous, thank you very much.

Alright, so that’s the personal part of it.  The personal, by the way, is the less important part.  The more important part?  That’s simple: I’m a former Marketing & Sales monkey.Chimpanzee_seated_at_typewriter

Besides being the main reason why I’m drinking scotch at this particular moment, that former career also left a legacy of knowledge and awareness.  Specifically, that worst and most abused of marketing-knowledge: Brand Identity.

The only people who get pigeon-holed and type-cast worse than actors are writers.  I’ve been beyond-addicted to sci-fi and fantasy since…well…let’s not get into just how long…and still I can count on one hand the “names” who succeeded commercially at both sci-fi and fantasy.

Honestly, when folks check out the aisles at the local bookstore — or (far more often) the categories on Amazon — they look for names they know.  And not just know, but know are good at the genre/story for which they are looking.  They look for the brand, in marketing-speakthat oh-so-important confluence of author and genre and reputation.

I am, by the way, as guilty of this as anyone else: I know the writing team known as “James S.A. Corey” is good at writing sci-fi, but what if they came out with a fantasy story?  Yeah, I’d probably wait to buy it.

The simple fact of the matter is that I don’t want to be pigeon-holed into one genre.  I already have a story series in mind for when DockRat is done, and it’s completely different.  Not just different in genre — fantasy versus sci-fi — but different in tone and voice and message, as well.  As you probably guessed, that series will “live” under a different pen name than does DockRat.

When you get right down to it, Connor & Oz are unique to their setting, and to their stories.  And I refuse to have the other stories I want to write be judged by the “reputation” of two drug-addicted, criminal characters — much as I love them.

Dreams And A Blank Page

I’ve mentioned a few times my belief that the “next story” is always better.  The field is wide open, the possibilities endless, and the lessons learned from writing the last story still (theoretically) fresh in your mind.

IMG_0728That blank sheet of paper is an exciting prospect to a writer.  The best comparison I can offer is that feeling when, standing on top of a ridge, I look down over a place I’ve never seen or hiked…a fresh place, untrailed, unexplored, and empty.  A place of infinite possibilities.

It’s not mine, not yet.  No, it’s not mine until I have hiked it, until I have learned the lay of the land.

Just like the next story.

It’s not mine until I frame it and prep it, until I’ve explored it’s depths and breadth.  Until I know the story and the characters like I know that no-longer-fresh valley…

Even as I write Silence — slowly…oh so slowly…and oh so behind schedule* — I am starting to prep and work through the initial legwork for the “next” story.  It’s fresh, it’s new, and it very much provides a nice contrast…

*Douglas Adams’ brilliant comment on deadlines: “I love deadlines.  I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

Writing Connor’s story gives me an outlet, and a flow of words and thoughts that touch the darker areas of my mind and spirit.  But you can only be dark and gritty for so long.  The world is not a paradise, nor a particularly friendly place, but acknowledging and dwelling in the dark places can be a tough weight to bear if that is all you have.  And believe me, that weight can become too much: in writing Wrath, the dark was all I had.  I won’t repeat that.

So, although I’m still writing in the dark, I let in the sun in other ways…

My hiking and camping I have mentioned before.  Without that outlet, the dark would threaten to engulf completely.  But, beyond that, letting in the sun comes down to that simplest of things — it comes down to dreaming.

It comes down to blank paper, and a whole new world.  New characters, new problems, and new tone.  New possibilities…and new stories that I want to make mine.

I have no story, not yet.  I have a world, and some dynamics and inspiration to play with.  I have a handful of (potential) characters, and hints of the context and history that will eventually give rise to the story itself.

I have dreams…  No, that’s not it, not exactly.  I have new dreams…new dreams and blank paper.

No matter what has happened before, no matter what happens now, the next story is always better.  And, for a writer, is there a better dream than that?

Fevered Imaginings

Important safety tip: the flu is a great time for weird, out-there thoughts and dreams with all the potential in the world to turn into cool stories. It is also, however, a terrible time for remembering those ideas…

Two nights in a row there were wonderfully interesting ideas.  And two mornings in a row there was a distinct lack of energy and focus with which to actually turn those fevered imaginings into something even so basic as a character or a setting.

Ah, well, such is life — it’s not like I need more little ghosts fluttering around the back of my mind demanding to be written.  I have enough of those, thank you very much.  Hell, there are a couple that date back to, err, well…

Let’s not get into how far they date back.

When I was young, I used to bitch and complain about writers who got distracted in the middle of a series. “How can you,” I would scream, “start writing something else right now?!  Finish the goddamned series first!”

Umm…okay, so I actually still do that.  I’m looking at you, Patrick Rothfuss…*

Ahem.  Let’s not get into that.

As a writer, though…

As a writer, I completely understand that urge to explore different characters and different stories.  There are so many stories to tell.  And, as I’ve said before, the next story is always the most interesting one.

Which, of course, does NOT mean the Kingkiller Chronicles can sit there unfinished without massive consequences!  Well, not without massive, ongoing nerd-rage, anyway.

Wait, what was I saying?

Crap, I can’t even claim a hangover, let alone a long New Year’s Eve, as an excuse for today’s random ramblings.  Nope, the plague get’s that particular credit.  Woohoo, sickness for the win!

Where was I?  Oh, yeah: finishing stories.

You — well, I — “budget” a trilogy at roughly 350,000 total words.  We — nope, still I — sit at the 200,000 word mark…and those fluttering ghosts still won’t shut the fuck up.  Those other damned stories still want to jump up and down and demand their own attention.

And I still want to listen.  Then again, in my defense, some of those stories sound like a lot of fun!

Those ideas, by the way, are precisely why this blog is semi-anonymous.  Not only do I write fiction with a pen-name, but the sci-fi and fantasy stories get different pen-names.  And 75% of those fluttering ghosts just happen to be fantasy stories.


I suppose there’s only one thing for it — time to get back to the writing…

*Just remember, Mr Rothfuss: even while you finish the third book, I still need my regular doses of Viari and Dreibus on Acquisitions, Inc!

The Other Stories

One of the hardest parts of writing – at least to me – is keeping all of the other ghosts at bay. You would think, with all of the focus and emotion and effort that goes into writing, that the other ideas would shut the fuck up for a while and just let you get on with things.


Not a chance.

Damned ghosts, they keep calling…

Even as I’m finally planning and writing the actual scenes for Silence, all of the other unrelated, unrealized characters and ideas keep fluttering around, making noise. Well, all except that damned passive-aggressive conspiracy theory story that’s been lurking in the background for fifteen years. That one knows it can piss me off more by just looming quietly at the back of my mind – very obviously, very annoyingly, and very aggressively quiet. Bastard.

It wouldn’t be so bad if some of those ideas were related in some way other than my own (overactive) imagination. But that would be too easy, wouldn’t it? Can’t have easy. Nope, not in this life of mine.

So, while I’m busy writing scenes about Connor in prison, I’m also contemplating stories about an exiled god, about a soldier sold into slavery on the far side of the world, about a deposed queen who will do anything to protect her kids…


I know there are folks out there who can write multiple stories at the same time. I think about that and all I can say is: “what the fuck?”

How on Earth can anyone do that? I most definitely could not keep the emotions and needs of all those characters straight. Writing is nutty enough for me, but trying to do two stories at once? I’d have to move right past booze and go straight for electroshock therapy…

Maybe I shouldn’t have killed Oz – him I could count on to always keep me on track. Connor, on the other hand, is as much a slacker as I am, and he’s letting me get away with far too much!