12 reasons to write using a pen name

Have you ever thought of writing under a pen name / pseudonym / nom de plume?

You might think that pen names are an obsolete notion, or that only people who have something to hide would write under a pen name.  But that’s not true.  There are many good reasons to write under a name different from your own.  For example,

  • Your name is difficult to pronounce.
  • Your name is difficult to spell.
  • Your name sounds too young or too old for your target audience.
  • Your name doesn’t fit with your genre of writing.
  • Your name sounds too ethnic or not ethnic enough.
  • Your name brings to mind the wrong image.
  • Your name, or one like it, is already taken by another writer.
  • You need to disguise your identity.
  • “You” are really two or three authors working together.
  • Your name sounds a lot like another author’s name in your genre.
  • You want a website or URL under your published name, but that website name or URL is taken, is difficult to remember, or is difficult to spell.
  • You want a name which creates better marketing opportunities.

If you are a teacher looking for a writing topic for your students, here is one.  After you explain what a pen name is, and why a person might choose one, ask the students to create pen names for themselves.  Then ask them to write about the pen name.  For younger students, the writing might be a paragraph, but for older students, this assignment could be an essay explaining why they are choosing to write under a pen name and why they chose the pen name they did.  You could collect the assignments and read them aloud, letting the students  decide who really wrote the essay.

Next:  Some famous pen names

13 writing tips

The father of one of my students asked me if I could provide his son with a short guide his son could keep near his computer and use while writing.  Here it my suggestion.

Create a detailed prewriting organizer before you write.  Use it.

Make sure you follow directions if you are writing a response.  Cite?  Paraphrase?  Summarize?  Analyze?  Two instances?  Three?

Write the thesis sentence first before you write any other sentence if you are writing an essay.

Decide who your main character is and the problem he or she will face before you write your first sentence if you are writing a narrative.

Read your first draft aloud.  Does every sentence make sense?  Do you follow your organizer?  If something is missing, include it.  If something is irrelevant, delete it.

Make sure every body paragraph supports the thesis of your essay.

Make sure every action moves the main character closer to solving his or her problem in your narrative.

Identify weak or overused verbs and replace them with specific verbs.

Identify and vary sentence structures.  Especially include complicated simple sentences and complex sentences.

Show, don’t tell.  If you are concluding, you are telling.

Search for your typical grammar mistakes and fix them.

Add more precise details such as names, numbers, dates, locations, direct quotes, dialog, examples, thoughts, precise descriptions and sensory information.

Do revise.  First drafts are seldom good enough.

What is FANBOYS?

FANBOYS is an acronym for the seven words recognized in English as coordinating conjunctions.  Those words are

  • For
  • And
  • Nor
  • But
  • Or
  • Yet
  • So.

Using these words is an acceptable way to join two or more nouns, verbs, and many other grammatical constructions, including independent clauses.  When independent clauses are joined they form a compound sentence.

The FANBOYS acronym is an easy way for children to remember which words can be used to form compound sentences.  If one of these coordinating conjunctions is used, then a comma must be used after the first clause unless the clause has only a few words.

Some people use “then” as if it were a coordinating conjunction, but it isn’t.  “Then” is an adverb and cannot join two clauses unless a coordinating conjunction is also used.

Another way to form a compound sentence is to use a semicolon.  When a semicolon is used, no coordinating conjunction is used.  Clauses joined by a semicolon must be related in content.

Other conjunctions, called subordinate conjunctions, are used to join one independent clause and one or more dependent / subordinate clauses.  Complex sentences join two clauses of unequal weight while compound sentences usually join two clauses of equal weight.

Beginning readers needn’t know about coordinating conjunctions.  By third grade students are learning rules of grammar.  That is when they usually encounter FANBOYS for the first time.

Beginning writers sometimes think that if they use a coordinating conjunction to join two little sentences, they are writing better.  Sometimes they are.  But sometimes they are just creating stringy sentences.

Masters of introductions

Are you looking for good ways to start novels?  If so, here are some great models.

If you want to foreshadow:

A crisis in a marriage caused by a man’s casual affair is how Leo Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina, a novel whose introduction is considered by many to be the best ever written.  Ultimately, the  couple reconcile, with their affair acting as a comparison to Anna’s affair later in the novel.  Because the comparison is not a direct, and because it involves Anna’s brother, it is all the more compelling.

If you want to highlight a first person point of view:

Start with a character who reveals his personality with a bang, such as Holden Caufield in The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”  From this first sentence we know this is a kid with an attitude, and we are hooked.

Or how about Huck Finn’s opening comment in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”  The poor English hints at Huck’s lack of education and perhaps backwoods roots.  So much is revealed about the protagonist in one sentence.

If you want to capture tone:

If the tone is satirical, start with a satirical statement, such as Jane Austen does in Pride and Prejudice. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a large fortune, must be in want of a wife.”  Must be?  Acknowledged by whom?  We can expect wit, comic characters and a happy ending–a marriage.  This introduction is considered a classic.

If the tone reveals the misery of life, layer it on as does Frank McCourt in the third paragraph of Angela’s Ashes. “People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version:  the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.”

If the tone is mystery, Edith Wharton in Ethan Frome nails it.  “I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.”  Not until the second last word of the sentence do we realize where the author is going, and we are hooked.

If you want to focus on an important symbol or motif:

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 immediately talks about fire, but with a twist.  “It was a pleasure to burn.”  This seems like a contradiction.  Is the narrator an  arsonist?

If you want to describe a character:

Joseph Conrad, in Lord Jim, starts with a powerful character sketch. “He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.”

If you want to rattle the reader:

See how L. P. Hartley does it in The Go-Between. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”  Comparing the past with a foreign country provokes thoughtfulness, but then the writer compounds the mystery with the second clause.

Or see how Charles Johnson does it in Middle Passage. “Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.”  A woman is a disaster?  Even if you disagree, you want to find out why the narrator believes this is so.

Things you can learn from a narrative

Original cover of Huckleberry FinnGreat lives can be lived anywhere.  Hogwarts School. Macomb, Alabama.  On the Orient Express.  On a raft on the Mississippi River.

Life usually works out.  Elizabeth Bennett marries Fitzwilliam Darcy.  Brian Robeson gets rescued from the wilds of Canada.  Phileas Fogg wins his bet.

If not, wait for a sequel.  ScarlettLittle House on the PrairieDouble Fudge.

Odd names won’t hold you back.  Farley Drexel Hatcher.  Hercule Poirot.  Huckleberry Finn.  Jeeves.

It’s good to be odd, to be complex, to be eccentric.  Sherlock Holmes.  Junie B. Jones.  Huck Finn.  Anna Karenina.

Secondary characters can be fascinating.  Mercutio.  Mrs. Malaprop. Severus Snape.  Grover.

original cover of Sherlock HolmesThe best characters are not perfect.  Jay Gatsby.  Tom Jones.  Ebenezer Scrooge.  Lady Brett Ashley.  Scout.

When things go wrong, hang in there.  After all, tomorrow is just another day.

Unlocking the mystery of writing a good novel

I am not a fan of murder mysteries, but the books of a few murder mystery writers do attract me because their books are great literature.  One of those mystery writers is Raymond Chandler (1888-1959), the creator of Philip Marlow, the Los Angeles detective of the 1930’s and 1940’s, played by Humphrey Bogart in films.

Chandler’s first book, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939.  It was followed by others including Farewell My Lovely in 1940, The Little Sister in 1949, and The Long Goodbye in 1953.  These books are noted as much for their style as for their mystery novel qualities.

Why are these books so good?  What can we, as writers, learn from them?

The protagonist, Philip Marlow, talks to the reader. A first person point of view gives us insight into the thoughts of the detective, why he acts the way he does.  Many great novels are in first person—Huck Finn and The Catcher in the Rye, for example.  A first person POV can allow us into the mind of a character naturally without a need for dialog.  “You could know Bay City a long time without knowing Idaho Street.  And you could know a lot of Idaho Street without knowing Number 449,” Marlow thinks.

Marlow, though highly intelligent, is an ordinary person whom readers can identify with. He needs to make money, so he needs to work, sometimes taking jobs which he later regrets.  He is not a stuffy patrician.  He lacks a college education, but he is street-wise.  He is a person from a middle class social strata.  “I put Orfamay Quest’s twenty hard-earned dollars in an envelope and wrote her name on it and dropped it in the desk drawer.  I didn’t like the idea of running around loose with that much currency on me.”

Marlow thinks in figures of speech, using metaphors and similes as easily as Shakespeare’s Mercutio uses puns. Some are outlandish and humorous but others are discreet and insightful.  “To say goodbye is to die a little.”

Marlow’s dialog is witty.  “And now, Mr. Marlowe?”  “You do remember me?”  “I believe so.”  “Do we take up where we left off–or have a new deal with a clean deck?”

Chandler’s prose is like Hemingway’s. “I laid [the pencil] down in the tray on the desk and dusted off my hands.  I had all the time in the world.  I looked out of the window.  I didn’t see anything.  I didn’t hear anything.”  Subject, verb, direct object.  Few adjectives.  Fewer adverbs.  Plain prose.

Marlow has a sense of humor, sometimes ironic, sometimes droll, and he makes us aware of it. Few paragraphs pass without drawing a smile to our faces.  “There was a sad fellow over on a bar stool talking to the bar tender, who was polishing a glass and listening with that plastic smile people wear when they are trying not to scream.”

Marlow is single and attracted to beautiful women. Today his thoughts and comments sound misogynistic, but he is typical of male characters from the 30’s and 40’s.  That mindset that women exist primarily to tempt men leads him to underestimate some female characters and to miss some clues, which he acknowledges.  “From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class.  From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.”

Chandler assumes readers are sophisticated, so he might  not explain every point. This can bring pleasure to a reader who can infer the causes for plot twists.

Marlow’s imperfect; he doesn’t always capture the murderer.  He eventually figures out the culprit, but sometimes he allows a justice outside of the law to triumph.  This kind of not-so-neat ending–a murky morality–gives readers something to think about long after the reading is done—and a reason to reread.

Chandler instills a sense of place in the Philip Marlow novels. Marlow knows LA as well as Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw knows New York.  LA with its environs almost serves as a character.  “I drove east on Sunset but I didn’t go home.  At LaBrea I turned north and swung over to Highland, out over Cahuenga Pass and down on to Ventura Boulevard, past Studio City and Sherman Oaks and Encino.”  Chandler’s attention to detail leads us to trust him about other things.

Chandler also instills a sense of time.  Marlow’s sexist thoughts, his chain smoking, his suits and ties, the kind of car he drives—all of these portray the 30s and 40’s.

Marlow is honorable, returning money if he hasn’t earned it and walking away from drunk women. “If you’re not tough it’s hard to survive in this world; and if you’re not kind then you don’t deserve to survive.”

Treat yourself to a master writer sometime and read Raymond Chandler.  Read for the pleasure of a great novel, and then go back and see how he does it.

Add details

Students write in generalities rather than with precise detail.  Yet it is detail that enhances writing.

Take, for example, this general sentence:  The dog barked at the cat.  See how it changes when we add details.

Adding numbers:  The dog barked at the single cat.

Adding dates, days, seasons:  Just as the sun was setting, the dog barked at the single cat.

Adding proper nouns, names:  Just as the sun was setting, Fang barked at the Fluffy.

Adding places:  Just as the sun was setting in the back yard, Fang barked at the Fluffy.

Adding stories:  Just as the sun was setting in the back yard, Fang barked at  Fluffy, the cat almost hit by the garbage truck this morning.

Sensory information, figures of speech:  Just as the hazy sun was setting in the back yard, grey-muzzled Fang barked at puny, calico-coated Fluffy, the cat almost hit by the careening garbage truck this morning.

Specific verbs:  Just as the hazy sun was setting in the back yard, grey-muzzled Fang growled at puny, calico-coated Fluffy, the cat almost crushed by the careening garbage truck this morning.

What are details?

  • numbers, %, time
  • dates, days, seasons, eras
  • proper nouns
  • names
  • places
  • stories
  • direct quotes
  • thoughts
  • facts
  • for examples
  • sensory information
  • description
  • specific verbs
  • figures of speech