When the English mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson wrote a children's fantasy about a little girl who fell down a rabbit hole and had all kinds of unlikely adventures, he had a problem. Mathematics is, after all, a deeply conservative and serious profession. Surely, if he were known to be the author of such a book, it would damage his reputation and professional standing. Dodgson solved the problem by inventing a new character: not a character in the book, but a character who wrote the book. The author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland would not be Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, but Lewis Carroll. A measure of his success is the fact that today, over 150 years later, the name of Lewis Carroll is far more well known than Dodgson's own name.
Of course, Dodgson was far from the only author who chose a pen name to hide his or her true identity. At a time when women writers were not accepted, authors like Mary Anne Evans, who wrote as George Eliot, had no choice but to use a pen name if they wanted their work read. Even today, a woman writing in a “masculine” genre might choose to do so under a male name. Likewise a man writing a romance in the first person as told by a woman, might want to use a female name.
Hiding one's identity is not the only reason for choosing to use a pen name. Sometimes it is simply a matter of wanting to distinguish between genres, as I have done with the release of my first novel, Next Year In Huntsville. Up till now, with the exception of a few short stories which had not been published till recently, my writing has been either poetry or Christian non-fiction. When I decided to venture into the world of general-market fiction, I wanted people to know that it would be different from my other writing. Recently I stuck one little toe into the water of speculative fiction - just one unpublished short story yet, but I enjoyed being able to cast off the restraints of truth and invent a world of my own design. I will almost certainly write more in that genre, but I am aware that it is quite different from my other fiction writing, and might well need yet another persona.
So, having decided we need a pen name, whether to hide behind or just to distinguish between genres, how do we go about picking a suitable one? In the case of Next Year In Huntsville, I started with my own name, by looking up the meaning of Lynn. It has several meanings, but one of them is Grace. Not surprisingly, my full name, Lynnette, also has Grace as one of its meanings. However, my name came about by my Mum combining the names of her two best friends, Lyn and Nita, so I also looked up the meaning of Nita. Amazingly, one of its meanings is also Grace. That's it, I thought, I'm Grace three times over, the first name of my pen name has to be Grace. Sutherland was a family name from the past. The L (from Lynn) was added because I discovered that there is another writer named Grace Sutherland, and I didn't want us to be confused, so I became Grace L. Sutherland. (My author name for my poetry and non-fiction writing had a similar story. When I went to register my domain name, twenty years ago, lynnfowler.com was already taken, so I added my middle initial to get lynnbfowler.com. Then I decided that as long as my domain was lynnbfowler, I should write as Lynn B. Fowler.)
Whatever process you use to choose a pen name, be sure that it matches the genre in which you are writing. I didn't really think about that when choosing Grace L. Sutherland, but was fortunate that it fits quite well with my current fiction, which is largely aimed at a female readership. It might not have worked as well if I had been writing guns-blazing action.
Having chosen a pen name, you then need to build a platform around that name. If you are using the pen name only to distinguish between genres, you can link it to your real name (I regularly refer to Grace as my “fiction writing alter ego.”) If, on the other hand, you really want to hide behind your pen name, then you will need to develop it as a completely separate persona: separate web site and social media pages, different author photos, and keeping your genres separate when doing appearances.
Even though it's extra work, it's kinda fun to have a "secret identity."
Lynn Fowler's father was a writer, and she can't remember a time when she didn't write. She has published several Christian books, and recently released her first general-market novel, Next Year In Huntsville. Lynn can be found at lynnbfowler.com, and as Grace at gracelsutherland.com. Her books are available through birdcatcherbooks.com.