On Writing: The Importance of Names
Or, To Be or Not To Be Yourself?
(Using a Pen Name)
A question that frequently comes up in various groups where beginning writers hang out is about choosing to use a pen name or a pseudonym. Or even more than one.
I’ve heard lots of arguments both for and against over time, and, really, it is something that only you can make a decision about. But I will endeavour to give you some food for thought. Starting with, names are incredibly important.
I’ll say that again.
Names are incredibly important.
Anyone who has ever named a character in a story knows that.
Possibly so do parents, although, over my many years as a teacher, I’ve often had pause for thought about what the parents were actually thinking at the point at which they chose their child’s name. I will not mention any names in particular, but I will say, for goodness sake please don’t get creative with spelling and do think about what the name actually means.
Okay, I will mention one name, once there was a Jhon...
All right, two: I knew an Ebony with such blonde hair that you could almost have just called it white.
And they were just... let's say, there were more...
Anyway. Back to pen names.
I’ll state up front that it is not something to which I gave enough thought.
Why not? I went with the simple decision to use my own name. Cate Whittle.
Okay, my name is actually Catherine and I do live a strange life of being called Cate by some people, and Catherine by others, whilst some members of my family (and one or two long-time friends) persist with my childhood Cathy. I often joke that anything is okay so long as you don’t call me late for dinner, but that is not quite true. Calling me Cath may well result in a crime of passion on my part, or, more likely, tears of frustration.
Also Whittle is my married name – a name I embraced with delight from the moment of my marriage, as I thought it would stop the problem of forever having to spell my maiden name. Lee, variously spelled over the years (by other people) as Lee, Lea, Leigh, Legh, Ley, and… you get the picture.
A lee (by whatever spelling) refers to a field with a stream running through it. Interestingly, whittle (which we know is OE because of the unique partnering of the 'wh' - although originally it would have been 'hw', making the pronunciation of hwo and hwat by my Irish Junior 3 teacher absolutely correct) also refers to a field - this time either a 'white lee' or a 'wheat lee'.
Plus I was once stopped on the stairs in Hall at Uni and asked, very politely, why I wasn’t Chinese. My answer was that I wasn’t sure why I wasn’t Chinese – other than the fact that neither of my parents were – but that Lee is a fairly common name in the north of England and Scotland, where my family originated.
I think I confused the asker further when she said, ‘Oh, were you born in England?’ and I answered, truthfully, ‘No, I was born in Africa.’ She, it turned out, was also a Lee, but was (you probably guessed it) Chinese. Or rather, it transpired, her family originated in China and she was born in Sydney. We were both Australian. The whole conversation had occurred because she had seen my name printed on my door and spotted me coming in and out, very much an Anglo-Saxon female of not-Chinese origin.
In a truly great story we would soon become firm friends, but our deep, existential conversation was quite possibly the only time we ever spoke with each other, although we did smile and exchange a wave every now and again.
She was a Science student. I was not.
Not that there is anything wrong with Science students (in fact, I married one - but he was in my tutor group at Hall) - we just tended to move in different circles.
But I digress.
Also, again, I – rather old fashionedly – wanted to be Mrs Whittle so very much (and yes, nearly 38 years later, I am still very happy to be Mrs Whittle, just so’s you know, although that doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when other crimes of passion haven’t been on the cards).
It didn’t solve the spelling problem. I now just go with ‘that’s with a C, and, Whittle, W H I T T L E’. I don’t even bother with ‘double-T’ because that seems to cause confusion, too.
So... Cate Whittle.
Innocuous it seems, although still not straightforward to spell.
I chose it because of ego. I wanted to see MY name on a book. It is a nice feeling.
However – and it is a big however – I probably should have gone back to my maiden name (and possibly spelt Cate with a K, although that is a different problem that goes along with the spelling thing).
Well, it is simply a matter of logistics. L (for Lee) is in the middle of the alphabet. W (for Whittle) is at the end. L has the opportunity to sit in the middle of the bookshelves, W sits at the end, regardless.
On the bottom shelf.
Where you have to crawl on the floor to find it.
This is a shelfie of me with my second book: Trouble and The Missing Cat... note how I am crouched on the floor.
L is at eye-level and is a browse-able choice. W you have to go actively looking for (although I’m sure there is a possibility that I have benefited from being at least a little bit close to David Walliams on the shelf), and, while I’d like to think that people do go looking for my books, they aren’t easy to spot for casual shoppers, and downright difficult for grandparents who do like things at eye-level that don’t require bending and stretching too much, and can see things not hidden in the darkness of the bottom shelf so much better.
I know this because I am a grandparent and I know all about bending and stretching and eyesight issues, and, although I also know that there are many lithe and eagle-eyed older folk out there who are no doubt bristling right now, I also know there are probably more who are nodding in sad agreement.
So what about grandparents, anyway? you might say.
Ah, well. I’m in children’s books, you see, and grandparents are the biggest buyer of children’s books. It is the demography to aim your letters of the alphabet at.
So lesson number one: do not choose a letter at the at the end of the alphabet. Unless, of course, you are David Walliams and everyone knows who you are already. And will look for you.
At the very beginning can be pretty tricky, too. Only tall people can see and reach your books, and this does not generally include actual children – who, on the plus side for me, may be willing to crawl around on the floor of the bookshop looking for their favourite author (hopefully me). This (the beginning of the alphabet thing, not the crawling around on the floor thing) could be solved by the provision of library ladders in bookshops – I would definitely browse using library ladders, because, well, library ladders. Sadly, insurance probably doesn’t cover grey-haired, over-exuberant bibliophiles falling off them.
I couldn't find any pictures of library ladders, so this is an image depicting an imagining of all the adventures library ladders can take you away on!
Okay, I looked a bit harder.
Oh, and I have been known to crawl around on bookshop (and library) floors quite happily. Getting up is sometimes the tricky part, but it is amazing just what unknown treasures you can find while you are searching for a suitable chair to ease yourself up onto.
Okay, so hopefully I have now established that if your name is anywhere but the middle of the alphabet, choosing a pen name that targets the middle is probably a good idea.
But wait, there’s more!
One advantage of being an A is that on online sites you will be at the top… people will see you and your books, whether that is a bookshop page or a speakers’ agency. Being a W puts me at the very bottom, and most people give up searching through by then. No casual engagements for me!
Now, going back to the Cate and why that is a bad idea. Remember how at the beginning of this narrative, I had things to say about creative spelling of names? Cate is too creative.
Actually, in my youth only my dad and his wife called me by something that sounded like Cate. I liked it, but was determined that the name was spelled with a K – that is, Kate – and since my name began with a C, I couldn’t use it. I told them so, but it didn’t stop them calling me Cate. I was also worried, at this point, that if I spelled Cate with a C, the e at the end modified it to sound like an S. Sate sounded pretty stupid to me (with apologies to anyone who may have that name).
Then along came a few famous Cates and I capitulated. Thanks to Cate Blanchett, I embraced the name and the spelling.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
If anyone has heard my name and thinks they might like to google it, but they have never seen it written down, guess what they google: Kate Whittle. Or actually, they probably google Kate White, or Kate Whittel, depending on whether they have hearing problems or spelling problems. Basically, they are lucky if they find me. Or persistent.
So, pick a name in the middle of the alphabet and make sure it has a simple or straightforward spelling. One caveat is if you have an totally amazing, fabulous name that is so out of this world that everyone wants it. Stick with it. The novelty value is worth it! And I’ve already established that the spelling problem will exist no matter what you do.
There are, however, other reasons that you might like to choose a pen name or a pseudonym.
Maybe you share your name with someone who is already well-known in the field (or the drawing room or the kitchen…)?
One of my fave Aussie illustrators solved this with the simple addition of a middle name, but I know from talking to kids (remember, I was a teacher for a long time so I got to talk to kids quite a bit about books – one of the things I miss about #notateacheranymore) that this isn’t always enough.
I’ve had lots of conversations where I’ve been saying that Stephen Michael King illustrated several of my books and I’ve seen the eyes light up in delighted horror (carefully chosen word there) – and then I’ve had to explain that, no, famous writer Stephen King did not diversify from his usual authorial duties to draw pictures for my books. The problem is usually solved when I talk about one of the many gorgeous picture books SMK has produced, but there is always that moment.
Actually, that moment could be useful. Maybe there are more than one or two people who have gone out searching for my Trouble books because I didn’t explain…
Maybe there is a reason you don’t want people to know that you are the author… it could be professional anonymity that is needed, or maybe you’d rather your mum didn’t know for some reason (probably more likely if you write erotic romance than children’s books, but, hey, I don’t know).
Maybe, Like JK Rowling, you are hoping that by going gender neutral you will have a wider audience appeal. Maybe, like JK Rowling, you want to test the waters and see if you can also hit the big time as Robert Galbraith without everyone buying your books just because you are JK.
Maybe you are swapping audience or genre and don’t want kids to accidentally buy your erotic romance novel (or Grandma to accidentally buy it for them).
On the other hand, having established a brand (yes, your name is a brand) you might want to stick with it – partly for ease (you don’t have to go around trying to remember who you are right now) and partly so that you only need one website, social media platform, etc., etc. Two authors that I can think of (just like that) who quite successfully manage more than one audience and genre under one name include Jackie French and Jack Heath.
Or you could do the whole two different name thing but just say upfront that they are both you: for example, Kim Wilkins (historical fantasy) / Kimberley Freeman (women's historical adventures) is one person and she is not shy about it.
Whatever, give it some thought.
Also, ask yourself why so many romance writers appear to be of Scottish origin. No, go on, go take a look at the shelves in the romance section. Count how many names start with Mac.
Of course, it’s probably because the Scots are such a romantic people. How could they not be, coming from such a deeply magical and beautiful homeland?
I’ve given it some thought, though.
If I was starting again, I’d probably go back to my roots on my father’s side and choose a good Scots name, too.
A couple of little notes from Cate:
Thanks to some interesting issues, I have been unable to add links in the body of the text, so I am including them here (slightly less elegant, but it seems to be working!):
Stephen Michael King: https://www.stephenmichaelking.com/
Stephen King: https://stephenking.com/
JK Rowling: https://www.jkrowling.com/
Robert Galbraith: https://robert-galbraith.com/
Jackie French: https://www.jackiefrench.com/
Jack Heath: https://jackheathwriter.com/
All photos, unless otherwise cited, are either my own or sourced from Wix