Ask the Brain: Should I Use a Pen Name? Plus, What Does it Mean That I Hate My Friend’s Friends?

Ask the Brain is a column where readers can ask me advice about love, life, writing, and, well, just about anything. My massive, all-powerful brain will deign to grant an answer. Either that, or I’ll just make some s**t up.

Speaking of which, do you have a question for the brain? Ask it here! (Be sure and include the city, state, or country where you’re writing from, though that can be obscured if necessary.)

Hey Brain: Well I’m a wannabe writer, I am currently in the midst of producing a manuscript and sending it around. My question is: when should I use my real name or my pen name? Because my books are usually from the point of view of gay youth, and are usually boys — and there’s that whole thing where people say, “People mightn’t read the book because it’s written by a girl and she knows nothing about a teenage boy.” But there’s also a nagging feeling in the back of my mind saying if I use my pen-name and people find out I am not male, then will the readers ‘rebel?’ — Girl Who (Hopefully) Writes Like a Gay Boy

The Brain Responds:

There are a lot of different reasons writers use a pen names, but the most common is probably because authors want to keep their “brand” clear. A book by “Nora Roberts” means a very specific thing, as does a book by Tom Clancy and Stephen King and Dean Koontz.

So when these writers have written books that are in different genres than what they’re readers are used to, they’ve sometimes chosen to use pseudonyms in order to not confuse the reader. With the new name, they’re trying to create an entirely new brand.

As an author who’s written in many different genres (and totally confused my readers), I can say I don’t necessarily think this is a terrible idea. As a reader, I have some pretty strong genre expectations of authors I like too.

But you’re talking about something a little different. You’re talking about the other reason why writers and publishers often use pen names: to hide the true gender or identity of the author.

Most of the times this has been done, it’s usually women pretending to be men so as to not scare off male readers. One of the most famous examples of is The Outsiders author S.E. Hinton — who is actually Susan Hinton, although her publisher worried a female name would confuse critics and readers, since the book is told from the point of view of a teenage boy.

And of course J.K. Rowling made exactly the same choice for exactly the same reason.

I’m not going to name any names, but this still happens a fair bit in gay male publishing. Whether it’s initials (which are a tell-tale sign of a female author) or a complete pseudonym, it goes on a lot, especially in gay male romance.

Should you do it? I’d love to be able to tell you that you shouldn’t — that we’ve long since moved on from such necessities. But the fact is, I suspect a female name on a book about a gay male teen might have a negative effect on sales and critical reaction. (I’m absolutely positive minority-themed books are considered more “authentic” when written by a member of the minority in question.)

On the other hand, a big (and growing!) part of the market for gay teen books, especially romance, is women and girls. So maybe you can start a whole new trend!

I also think you put your finger on a very real concerned: pissed off fans who feel a little tricked, at least if you have an entirely different pen name.

Bottom line? Perhaps using your initials is something to consider, at least when circulating the manuscript to editors and agents. Then once you’ve landed one, you can decide together what the best marketing strategy might be.

Dear Brent’s Brain: This sounds terrible, but here goes: I hate my good friend’s friends. They’re not necessarily “evil” people, but they’re just not people I relate to in any way: they’re often kinda judgmental and superficial, but mostly they’re just plain boring. I know this sounds harsh, I know this doesn’t really affect me, except that I often have to spend time around them. But I’ve tried to like her friends, and I’m just not into them. Part of me thinks my friend is not quite the person I think she is — frankly, around her friends, she’s judgmental, superficial, and boring too. But another part of me thinks my friend just has low self-esteem and, therefore, low standards in friends: if someone expresses and interest in her, she’s too flattered to not be a friend in return. Anyway, does all this mean my friendship with my friend is doomed? Should I say something? And for what it’s worth, I’m not a teenager: I’m 35, she’s 34. — Non-Teen Drama Queen

The Brain Responds:

We all have that friend whose partner we can’t stand. What in the world does he or she see in that person?

Sometimes those relationships don’t last (and we’re thrilled when they don’t!). But sometimes they do. Does it make your friend any less of a friend?

Actually, sometimes it does. A person’s choice of a partner, just like your friend’s choice of friends, is a reflection on her: it’s a part of her identity, of who she is. These friends you don’t like are telling you something important about her.

But it’s not the only part of her identity. A friend might also like cilantro and I can’t stand the stuff, but so what? I focus on the things I have in common, minimize the cilantro-related parts of our friendship, and I carry on.

But for some reason, you can’t. Her friends are more important than her like of cilantro, after all. This is clearly bothering you, so ask yourself these questions:

Why did you become friends with this person in the first place? Is that still intact? When her friends aren’t around, do you still like this person? Is this a symptom of a bigger problem with your friend: namely, that she has no solid identity of her own and she tailors her personality to be like whoever she happens to be around at the time — you when she’s with you, her friends when she’s with them?

But it’s also worth asking: are you a judgmental person in general? Does this kind of thing come up with in most of your friendships and partners? If so, the problem might really be you and your uncompromising standards, and not your friend at all. If so, you might be the one who has to change.

I can’t answer these questions: only you can.

But in the end, friends should be friends because they genuinely like and respect each other. Staying friends with someone out of guilt or obligation does no one any favors: it just makes you feel resentful in the long run, and the friend (usually) senses it on some level anyway, creating many more problems than it solves.

If you’ve got a history together, you owe it to the other person to try to work this through. If you do decide to bring up the topic, tread gently — and put the onus on you, not her.

But if you’re ultimately not feeling it, you’re not feeling it. It might finally be time to move on — or at least downgrade her status from “friend” to “acquaintance.”

Now do you have a question for the brain? Ask it here! (Be sure and include the location where you’re writing from, though that can be obscured if need be.)


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9 Responses to “Ask the Brain: Should I Use a Pen Name? Plus, What Does it Mean That I Hate My Friend’s Friends?”

  1. Ulysses Dietz 31 January 2012 at 11:17 pm #

    Pseudonyms…Ah, Brent, here's a topic on which I've spent much thought. I do understand the "brand confusion," problem, which (from admittedly biased perspective) is the only reason for a pen name that I can fully embrace. I think a woman who writes with a male pseudonym (or vice-versa) risks really pissing off the readers, who feel betrayed when the truth comes out. This has in fact happened in the gay romance world. I think your citing J.K. Rowling is a good example of a cagey compromise…I assume J.K. Rowling was a man as I read the first book…and by the time I found out she was a woman, I was hooked anyway.

    But my issue with pseudonyms for YA books, particularly with gay themes, is the matter of integrity. One reason authors, male and female, gay and straight, use pseudonyms is to hide their true identity because someone out there might take exception to the fact that they write gay-friendly stuff. I wonder what the message is to gay youth when the author trying to write for them won't be "out" about who he or she is. That really bothers me.

    On the grown-up side, there is one very famous gay romance author who has a huge career and a huge name in the genre – which is a fake name. I lost all respect for that author, which broke my heart because the writing is brilliant. The lack of honesty just rankles with an old out man like me. Most of my peers in the scribbling world think I'm wrong; and clearly my opinion isn't hurting sales any (nor would I want it to). If you can't be out and proud as an author, how can you be a role model for other gay people, whatever their age? Of course, as you know, the gay romance market is heavily straight women, so the author's gay identity is irrelevant.

    As to the other question: I have a tradition of good friends who dislike each other. Makes for lots of small parties. Sigh. I don't get it, but apparently I attract contrary types. Go figure, I'm such a doll.

    • Brent Hartinger 1 February 2012 at 6:38 am #

      Part of me thinks it shouldn't matter — that it doesn't matter, that books should be judged by their authenticity, not anything about the author. And yet, I hear you on the integrity question. I seems like a pretty blatant lie, and I can totally understand feeling cheated.

      It's one of those things: apart from the "initial" compromise, I think you just sorta need to let the chips fall where they may. But that's easy for me to say — I didn't have this problem.

  2. Jake 31 January 2012 at 11:42 pm #

    Maybe it's not fair of me, but it does annoy me when a female author pretends to be a gay male. It seems dishonest. And it annoys me more when their books don't seem "authentic," but everyone gives them street cred they don't deserve because they assume they're actually written by a gay guy.

    But this whole thing is a pretty complicated topic, isn't it? Could be an article all its own!

    • Brent Hartinger 1 February 2012 at 6:45 am #

      Unfortunately, it's one of those topics that I don't have really strong feelings on: I can sort of see both sides. I know how hard it is to make a living as an author, so it's really hard for me to judge the choices other writers make.

  3. Liz L. 1 February 2012 at 1:32 am #

    As soon as I saw the question on pen names, I knew that Ulysses would have something to say because it's something we've discussed in the past. It's interesting that in the world of fiction, truth of identity is so important.

    When I first started reading m/m romance novels, I made two wrong assumptions: 1) I was the rare female reader of such works and 2) the authors were male. (I attributed the use of initials to literary snobbery – "I'm just like A.A. Milne or C.S. Lewis.") Yes, I'm an idiot, and clearly it's true what they say about assumptions.

    Now that I know better, when I see an author uses initials, I assume the author is female. With so many female readers in the m/m romance genre, I can't help but wonder why they feel the need to obfuscate their identities. On the other hand, I'm also guilty of assuming that gay male writers, with all their insider information, can write more credibly on the subject. (I'm not being much help here, am I? And yes, I'm still making assumptions.)

    In the end, I say be truthful, because no one likes being misled.

    Brent, I'm curious to know why you want people submitting questions to include their locations? Does it make a difference in your reply, or are you just curious?

    • Brent Hartinger 1 February 2012 at 6:41 am #

      Yup, initials = female author. I wonder if there any exceptions…

      Why ask for the location? That's funny, I'm doing it mostly because that's how I did it at It just seems interesting, I guess.

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