What’s in a Pen Name?
On one otherwise ordinary day back in August 2016, my finger hovered over the ‘submit’ button. I had just finished filling out Olympia’s online submission form, inviting authors to send in the first three or four chapters of their manuscripts.
I’ve always wanted to be an author. I’ve always loved the power and beauty of words, as well as being aware of their dangers and their potential to harm. As such, I’ve been scribbling down stories for as long as I can remember.
Yet, there’s something incredibly vulnerable about being an author, too. It comes out of your imagination, your thoughts, your desires, your strengths and weaknesses. It’s as if you’re baring pieces of your soul, displaying them with each word, sentence, paragraph, page and story. Then, you just go ‘here!’ and hold it out to the world.
That’s why I decided, when I was a teenager, that if I ever achieved my dream of being published, I would have a pen name. I’ve always been self-conscious about being the centre of attention or being in the spotlight. I’ve much preferred to be behind a camera than in front of it – that’s just my personality really – so having a pen name seemed like the perfect solution. I could share my words, without anybody knowing it was my soul that was being partially on display.
The other big reason that comes to mind for using a pen name, is that I honestly didn’t know whether my writing was good enough, or any good at all. Because of my shy feelings about writing, I have never formally studied it, nor had my words critiqued before I was published. I honestly was expecting to be rejected, as I knew authors were, so many times, before maybe their manuscripts were accepted.
That’s why, back on that day in August 2016, I had no idea whether Olympia would like my story about a Celtic soldier, a character I I first came up with when I was 7 – or whether anybody else would. That’s why my finger hovered for so long, before I eventually pressed ‘submit’, with the thought that at least I’d know whether my words were any good or not.
Then, to my surprise, over the next few months my dream of being a published author came true! On the 22nd November 2016, I got an email from Olympia’s editorial team, requesting the full manuscript. I was thrilled! As a Christian, I don’t have my whole identity based on external validation – but it was extremely helpful to know that a publishing company approved of my work so far.
Then, on the 14th December 2016, I got the email I’d hardly dared hope for. Olympia wanted to publish my novel! On the 6th January 2017 I signed the contract with them and on 25th January 2018, just over a year later, ‘The Boy from the Snow’ was published. My childhood dream had come true!
So, in the light of all this, a question which I’m aware may be in people’s minds is ‘why now?’ Why go public with my pen name now?
Well, the first answer is that I’m in a different place with my writing than I was almost 18 months ago, when I shyly held out my first novel to the world. I realised that people liked it, both my writing and the plot. I’ve received several of either 4 or 5* star reviews on Amazon (as well as a couple on Amazon US, Australia and Canada sites) as well lovely comments, both through people on Twitter and people I know in real life.
As I say this, I can already feel the inward cringe start, as I’m still getting used to talking about my books and writing- it still feels very surreal that it’s out there! However, I mention this because the reviews and encouragement I’ve received have told me that, objectively, my book is good. I can now take confidence in my writing, in this gift God has given me (because I’m sure I wouldn’t have written a single word without Him), rather than frowning over my Word documents, wondering if my writing is any good.
The other main reason that I’ve chosen to go public now is because I’m excitedly expecting my second novel, ‘The Veiled Wolf’ (the sequel to ‘The Boy from the Snow’) to be released on the 30th May. Although I have made quite a few sales of my first novel (mainly through my contacts on Twitter, where I have a profile set up in my pen name), it has largely gone under the radar, because, obviously, I haven’t been able to go public about it. Funnily enough, hardly telling anyone about my books has meant not a lot of people have found out about it!
The catalyst for this decision came when I sent an email to someone from Olympia a few weeks ago, asking for their advice about marketing. I was wondering what else I could do to help promote my first novel, especially with the sequel coming out soon. The helpful answer I got back was a suggestion to contact local bookshops or libraries, to see if they’d be interested in stocking my book, or even doing a signing.
This wasn’t particularly new information, but it made me realise even more that with keeping my pen name private, I was missing out on lots of potential marketing opportunities. I knew that people in real life might well be interested in my writing, that maybe they’d even buy my books. The only thing that was holding me back was, well, me.
I’ve relaxed a lot over the last year about my pen name. For a long time only my family and closest friends knew (in fact I waited almost half a year before I told my parents!) but now I’ve told quite a few friends in a one-to-one context. However, it’s a bit of a leap to go from telling a friend confidentially over a coffee, to splashing it all over my Facebook!
On the one hand, it will be quite liberating. No more fumbling awkwardness when people ask what I do, no more checking through what I say on Twitter, wondering if I’ve said something that will give the game away. Also, in a way it will be really nice to actually talk about writing quite freely, after keeping it to myself for just almost 18 months.
Yet still, if I’m honest, I am a bit anxious about it. I imagine walking into church the first Sunday after I go public about my pen name and I worry that I’ll be too much in the centre of attention, or that people will treat me differently. Or possibly, that maybe some people will even think I’ve deceived them.
‘What do you do?’ is one of the most common questions to be asked. Since my husband and I moved from London where he was studying at Oak Hill Bible college to join in a lovely new church family, I’ve been asked that question a few times.
So far, I have told people that I do proofreading online. This is a line my husband and I thought of about a year ago, before we moved to our new church. We thought it would be a way of hinting at what I do, without having to tell people about being an author. In many ways this is true, as a lot of my work involves editing, proofreading and managing online content. I know, however, this isn’t the whole truth, so if people think I’ve deceived them, it wasn’t intentional and I’m truly sorry.
Despite my nerves, I’m sure (I think!) I’m doing the right thing with going public about my pen name. Going forward, I’ll continue to write under the brand of Maria Johnson and keep that as my social media base, as well as trying to keep my personal life and writing life separate. It brings me comfort to know that by the time I’ll send this out, the beans will be spilled – as with most things, I’m sure telling people will be much easier than I currently imagine!
I’m writing this a week and ½ before going public and I think I’ll share this just after I tell people on social media. I hope that through this blog, people might understand the reasons why I chose to have a pen name and why I’m going public with it now. If you’re interested in my books, you can check them out at my publishers’ website, through Waterstones and Amazon.
I’d like to take this time (goodness this is starting to sound like some Oscar winning speech, which is not my intention!) to thank my family and friends who knew about the pen name over the last year and a half. Thank you for being supportive to my writing journey, to those of you who bought my first novel – and thank you, too, for keeping your mouths shut! I hope the friends who didn’t know already will understand and that, most of all, you’ll still just see me as ‘me’.
Thanks very much,
Maria Johnson (Jo Seago).