Last week I had the same query from two new students on a subject I happen to be writing about at this very moment for my column in Writing Magazine: pseudonyms - when should a writer use one?
In many respects, I’m confused by the number of new writers who think about this. Let’s be blunt - if you’re a new writer, then your priority should be sitting down and writing something first, rather than struggling to decide what name you’re going to be published under. After all, you can’t be published until you written something and submitted it!
That’s not to say writers don’t need a pseudonym, and there are many reasons why you might HAVE to have one. For example, last weekend I was at the National Association of Writers’ Group’s Festival of Writing, during which they held their annual Mini-Tale competition. Entries must be 100-words (exactly) and, in previous years, submitted under a pseudonym, enabling the judging process to be blind and impartial (this year a new numbering system was introduced negating the need for a pseudonym). So, delegates who'd entered in those previous years HAD to submit under a pseudonym. It was a condition of entry. But they had no need for a pseudonym until they’d written their entry.
There are short story writers who regularly write for the women’s magazine market. While many of these magazines are happy to have two short stories by the same writer in the same issue, some are uncomfortable if they want to use three or more stories by the same writer in the same issue. At which point they get in touch and ask the writer for a pseudonym to use instead. Again, these writers had written something first (and, the reason for the pseudonym is not because they’d written something, but because they’d written lots) and had then been asked for a pseudonym by the publisher.
It’s also common for writers established in one market to consider a pseudonym when trying to break into another market. Readers may be confused if your last twenty novels have been romances, and your next is a psychological thriller. Writing under a different name for a different market keeps your two ‘brands’ distinct and separate. But again, in this situation the writer has already written plenty of material and had it published.
Of course, there are times when what you’re writing about is too close to home, and it may be unsafe for you to write about it under your own name. That’s certainly another valid reason for using a pseudonym. But in that situation creating a pseudonym is relevant when you’ve written your material and are ready to submit to publishers/publications.
So, if you think you need a pseudonym, ask yourself if you need one right now. Or could it wait until you’ve actually written something? Don’t waste your energy trying to think of something suitable until you need one. Some writers get so hung up trying to come up with a new name they find themselves unable to actually get on with the writing.