Pen Names

By Glenn Boothe, Assistant Editor

Pen names, or pseudonyms…why do writers choose to use them?  As a newbie writer in an MFA program, I had not thought about the importance of considering whether or not to use a pen name.  I had thought that using a pen name was just a way to remain anonymous, to hide behind the pseudonym.  But why would an author wish to remain anonymous?  I have learned that there are many reasons—reasons that never occurred to me, yet make sense and, in some ways, seem obvious.

Many writers throughout history have used pen names to hide their gender.  George Elliot was a female using a pen name to suggest that she was a male.  Other writers (J.K. Rowling, for example) used initials in order to make gender ambiguous.  Male contributors to the romance genre may wish to be perceived as female, while women appealing to a male audience in the science fiction or action genre may adopt a male pen name, or use initials.

Other writers have used pen names either to hide or convey a particular ethnicity.  For example, a story about Irish castles and the ghosts that haunt them may seem more credible if written by a writer with an Irish name. Then there have been writers who want to write in different genres, and/or send work out to different types of journals for publication.  In this manner, a writer may submit their best works to only the best, most prestigious journals; other works are sent to other types of journals under different names.  Other reasons include the desire to make as much money as possible by writing in many different genres and/or sending in several different works to the same publication.  A writer may use one pen name per work to increase the likelihood of having multiple works published in the same publication.

Of course, this practice begs the question, “Isn’t this somewhat dishonest?”  One writer I talked to believes that one shouldn’t use a pen name; she feels that it is dishonest in some way.  Yet she also told me that she knew a writer who was trying to make a living in the literary world by writing erotic material.  This leads to another consideration for using pen names; writers may want to separate their writing life from their family and/or their professional life.  Writers who write erotic works may not want family to find out.  An engineer, a salesperson, or a manager may not want co-workers, HR, or bosses to read writings that may not align with their company’s ethics.

As I researched the reasons behind using pen names, I gained a new perspective and found that there are many more reasons than what I have touched on here.  I have also come to the conclusion that using a pen name is much like having multiple email addresses, and/or having multiple account names, multiple blogs, multiple social media sites, multiple gamer tags, and so on. Thought of in this way, it is my opinion that using pen names is not dishonest in any way; it has, in a lot of ways, become a necessity for writers who want to make a living, who write prolifically and in many different genres, who may use gender purposefully, or hide gender for various reasons.  Or perhaps they just want to portray a neutral image, unbiased from race, religion, or political affiliation.

As I conclude, I wondered how much consideration I give to reading something by looking at the author’s name.  I wondered if I should seriously consider using a pen name or names myself.  As I considered this, I realized that I do judge a book by its cover, and I do judge a name that is written on that cover.  I think most of us do, even if we don’t realize we are doing it.  At least it gives me pause now, and the next time I pick a book off the shelf or flip through a literary journal trying to decide what works I want to read, I’ll look at the name and smile and wonder who is hiding behind that name.

How to Deal with (Journal) Rejection

By Megan McCormack, Assistant Editor

You haven’t heard anything in months. You check your email constantly, your mailbox, your Submittable account, hoping for something—anything, really—to give you hope. Your friends call you obsessed, but really, what do they know? And then, one day, there it is: something in your inbox from the journal. Finally, a response! Your heart skips a beat in anticipation as you click and scroll to discover…

You’ve been rejected.

At first, you can’t believe it. You re-read it several times, but the words don’t rearrange themselves into something better. Denial quickly slips into anger as you shout several four syllable words at your computer screen, reaffirming your neighbor’s suspicion that you are, in fact, insane.

But you aren’t (at least not as a result of this situation). You are dealing with rejection, and that is perfectly acceptable. Here are some suggestions on how to get through a journal rejection successfully:

1. “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Sometimes, a journal might reject you on the grounds that your work is not the right fit for that publication. While you may initially think that this is a pathetic excuse, it can really be true. Often, journals have very specific guidelines for the type of material they publish. Make sure that you take a very careful look at their requirements. I’d recommend looking at a couple of their past issues. For example, you don’t want to submit a short story about robots to a journal that only publishes realism pieces set in the Midwest.

Also, you don’t know what was going through the minds of the editors who read your work. Every journal editor has his or her favorite style, bias, writing pet peeves, and so forth. This means that your audience is extremely varied. One set of editors could love your submission for the same reasons that another set of editors could hate it. Don’t take it personally because sometimes it really isn’t your fault.

2. “There are other journals in the sea.”

There are hundreds of journals out there. New ones are being created all the time, especially online journals. Do your research and come up with a list of journals to which to submit your rejected piece. While I am not implying that you should just settle, you might find a journal that is a better fit for you than the one rejected you in the first place. Don’t let this rejection be the end all, be all. Cry into your pillow a bit, and then open that laptop and find yourself another journal to try.

3. “Take rejection slips and pin them on your wall.”

Now, it may sound silly and somewhat masochistic to have a Wall of Failure. However, if you really want to be a successful writer, you are going to be rejected over, and over, and over, and over again. It does get easier, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt every time it happens. Instead of turning into a bitter shell of a human being, take that rejection letter and pin it to your wall. Print out the rejection email. Do a screenshot. Whatever works for you. Doing this makes the rejection process less personal. It also forces you to confront the rejection rather than forgetting about it and denying it ever happened—which is not healthy.

4. “Embrace the friend zone.”

Occasionally, you might receive a personal rejection rather than a pre-made form. An editor may have enjoyed your submission, but it might not be as developed as the editor wants. Sometimes these personal rejection letters will even include some editing suggestions. This is what you want (aside from an acceptance, of course)—it may get your hopes up, but there is still a chan work. This could indicate that you are on the cusp of an acceptance, but your work isn’t quite there yet.

See: Bukowski’s “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip

5. “Do a make-over.”

Have you been sending in the same ol’, tired story that you wrote in a workshop almost five years ago? Not to say that you need to change your identity as a writer, but it may be time to break out of your comfort zone. A writer doesn’t grow unless he or she challenges him or herself. Sure, you can stare at your Wall of Rejection and fume about it. You can send in the same piece that was rejected to several rebound journals, hoping to find a quick fix. Have you considered, though, that maybe it is you, not the journal that is the source of the issue? Why not try experimenting a bit? Try a new style. Shake up your routine. You have to be willing to edit, change, and adapt. As Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill your all darlings.”

6. “Get the right kind of pep talk.”

Who was the first person you told about the rejection and how did they react? Whoever that person was, he or she probably told you they were very sorry it happened, and that the journal has made a huge mistake. Then, he or she probably suggested that you go out for a drink or ice cream to talk about how that journal will be on its knees at your solid gold doorstep when you are a super-rich-famous author one day. These are all good things to hear. However, it’s not going to help you in the long run. What you need is practical and honest advice: constructive criticism. Once your ego has healed enough, gather up a list of people you trust to read over your rejected work. You need people that will rip apart your writing and then help you stitch it back together into something better.

The lesson to learn from this is that rejection doesn’t always have to be a negative experience. Don’t let it control you. Use this as your opportunity to become stronger and even better than before. It’ll make receiving that acceptance letter all the more worth it in the end.