What’s in a Name?

We name the world around us. As children we name our toys and imaginary playmates. As gamers and internet users we name our accounts and individual avatars. As writers we agonize over the name of each character.

It’s no wonder so many writers give themselves a name. I liked the idea so much I gave myself two—a different identity for different genres and points of view. My guess is that a good portion of the readers here use one as well.

There’s a lot of reasons to rename yourself. For Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights he imagines seeing his name in big neon lights—perhaps no different than many of us picturing our name on the cover of a book. “I want a name, I want it so it can cut glass, y’know, razor sharp.” Razor sharp. Or maybe we just want something more arresting—simplified if we have long names, more floral if your real name is too common; dark, mysterious, comedic…unique.

Some may hide behind a pen name to protect their real identity or their professional career. Others may want to create different names for different genres—it might be prudent for a writer of erotica to create a pen name for their foray into children’s lit. Stephen King came up with Richard Bachman so that he could publish more than one novel a year, and his son—Joe Hill—turned away from his celebrated family name so that he could work and succeed on his own merits.

Creating a pen name allows us to create a new identity, a new character that may or may not look like us, live where we do, or do what we do. It’s a new layer, a new story to tell.

It might also be a new complication.

As a writer, artist, or creative professional in any medium, your promotional efforts are your own blood, sweat and tears. In this highly-connected world we live in, one of the truest paths toward successful self promotion is through social media channels. Attempting to create a name for yourself that is not your own poses many problems. Suddenly, you have an identity that is not you—at least not directly – and if you’re already active in these circles you need to start making choices. Do you create a new Twitter handle or Facebook account? Do you keep the pen names quiet? Tie them to your real name? If you’re already promoting yourself through a blog, do you want to set up another site for your pseudonym?

What about conventions and other “real world” events? Will you answer when that pen name is called out? Are you ready to sign that made-up name when people ask for your autograph? Are you robbing them of an opportunity to meet the real writer behind the words?

You also can’t sign contracts with a fake name. If your goal is anonymity you will need to seek out legal advice to somehow prepare this aspect before you’re confronted with a sale (which leads to contracts, which leads to exposing your real name to the editor and publisher).

If you’re highly inventive about your pseudonym’s life and experiences be prepared for some backlash. It’s very possible you can create confusion by the story you tell about your fake identity, and you may turn readers—or worse, editors and publishers—off with your fake personality.

These are all manageable concerns, but I suspect most of us spend more time thinking about what the name should be than how having one will affect your career. Don’t ignore this aspect—it’s possibly the most important consideration.

I recently made the decision to switch away from my pen names and publish under my own. A number of factors played into this: not giving each identity enough promotional time; seeing that publishing credits for one name meant very little for the other; realizing that most of my connections on Facebook (with my real name) had no knowledge of my pseudonyms; and not knowing if I should tie my personal artistic efforts to a pen name or the real one.

But it took another artist to laugh at my assorted names for it to really click—I was not doing myself any favors. He also pointed out that my real name was infinitely more memorable than the others. I can’t argue with that. In the end, isn’t that what really matters?

Hello, my name is Bear. Who are you?

Do I Have to Have a Facetwibblogger+ Page?

Jim C. Hines is the author of the forthcoming Libriomancer, about a magic-wielding librarian, flaming spider, motorcycle-riding dryad, and other miscellaneous fun. He’s written seven other books and more than forty published short stories. Jim hangs out at www.jimchines.com and other online sites, but occasionally pokes his head back into the real world. (Mostly for the ice cream.)

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably encountered the common wisdom about social media. These days, in order to succeed, a writer has to have a website and a blog and a Twitter and a Facebook and a Tumblr and a Pinterest and a Google+ and a Goodreads, and if you don’t, you will plummet into obscurity, a forgotten FAILURE forever and ever!

Do me a favor. Since you’re already online, open up another window and do a search for Suzanne Collins’ blog. Nothing? Try searching for J. K. Rowling’s blog. Stephenie Meyer’s?

Wait, Meyer does have an update feed on her website … which mostly seems to be updates maintained primarily by someone else. Rowling has a Twitter feed, but it has only a handful of updates from the past few years. It seems like these authors have somehow managed to do all right for themselves without being active on all the social media. I could name more, but hopefully this is enough to make my point that you really can succeed as a writer without spending every free second updating various websites and feeds.

This might sound odd coming from someone who’s active on Facebook and Twitter, made a Tumblr feed for a goblin advice column, and spends a lot of time blogging. I do believe these things have helped to get my name out there, and have led to more people finding and reading my books. Social media can be a useful tool. But it’s not a requirement, and it’s not as easy as folks sometimes make it sound:

  1. Build your Facetwibblogger+ page.
  2. ???
  3. Profit!

Most of us can point to authors who have become online superstars, folks like Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi, who get tens of thousands of hits every day. Over on LiveJournal, authors like Catherynne Valente and Seanan McGuire have thousands of followers and routinely generate hundreds of comments.

The thing is, these people have spent years building their online presence. It takes a great deal of time and work, and none of them are doing it because they’re “supposed” to. Nor are they doing it just to promote their books. I’ve studied these authors and others to try to learn how to improve my own blog, and one of the things I noticed is that the most successful author-bloggers are those who, the majority of the time, aren’t talking about their own books at all.

Compare them to Author X, who joins all the sites because that’s what he’s supposed to do to promote his book. He posts reviews of his stuff, links to Amazon and other sites, and … nothing happens. Eventually, he gets frustrated and gives up. Virtual dust soon blankets the Twitter feed. His Facebook cover photo is a tumbleweed, his wall empty save for those Happy Birthday wishes from six months ago. Because, while most of us will tolerate the occasional ad or self-promo, very few of us want to tune in to watch a neverending infomercial.

I believe every author should have a website with their publications and a way to contact them. Beyond that, if you decide to build an online presence, do it because you want to. For me, I spend time online for the people. For the community and for the conversation. I hate playing salesman, and the last thing I want to do is spend my time and energy pushing books on people. I’d much rather geek out about Avengers or Doctor Who, or jump into a conversation about sexism in the genre.

You build a name by being interesting, not by hard-selling yourself and your work. People can and do succeed with a minimal online presence. If you choose to get active online, remember you don’t have to do everything. You don’t have to share things that make you uncomfortable. You don’t have to do what That Other Author did – just because it worked for her doesn’t mean it would work for you. If it’s something you choose to do, then find the way you can enjoy it. The rest will follow in time.

(P.S. – I wrote this from the perspective of a “traditionally” published author. For someone who is self-publishing e-books, I do think it’s a lot harder to succeed without more of that online marketing presence. As always, everyone’s experience is different, and there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all advice.)

You Are Not a Gadget…Or, at Least, You Shouldn’t Be

One of Matt Staggs’ links last week was to a New York Times Book Review piece on Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget. I haven’t read the book, but the description of its main points really resonated with me, especially because I’m currently taking a break from Facebook and my personal blog.

This part of the review made perfect sense to me:

Mr. Lanier, a pioneer in the development of virtual reality and a Silicon Valley veteran, is hardly a Luddite, as some of his critics have suggested. Rather he is a digital-world insider who wants to make the case for “a new digital humanism” before software engineers’ design decisions, which he says fundamentally shape users’ behavior, become “frozen into place by a process known as lock-in.” Just as decisions about the dimensions of railroad tracks determined the size and velocity of trains for decades to come, he argues, so choices made about software design now may yield “defining, unchangeable rules” for generations to come.

This argument and others from his book mirror my own concerns about new media. Even as I’ve embraced much of what new/social media has to offer, I also strongly recommend, in Booklife and in my lecture for MIT, thinking about what you’re doing and remembering the importance of balance. In particular, these points:

(1) New media tools like Facebook and Twitter are exactly that—tools. They are not strategies. Just getting on Facebook, creating a blog is not a strategy or a plan. I can’t repeat that enough.

(2) It’s when you mistake the tools for a strategy that you begin to not only become tactical and reactive but also limited in your thinking because of the limitations of the tools.

(3) The most successful writers in the future will be the ones that stop responding in Pavlovian fashion to our current need for that little food pellet in the form of a response to a Blog entry, Twitter line or a Facebook status message.

(4) Further, the tools which you help realize both a creative project and create interest for it are constantly changing. Thus a focus on the tools is a focus on what will all too soon be the past.

(5) A focus on tools thus also means that you are in some ways limiting your options by letting the limitations of the tool and the preconceptions the tool engenders shape your project. Don’t let your imagination become a lackey to a new media tool. If a tool controls your actions, it to some extent controls your imagination.

Lanier’s book also seems to make strong arguments about not supporting mob behavior on the internet, something that we’ve seen too often—in which sheer force of numbers seems to win an argument, even when there hasn’t been true or logical discussion of the issues. Nuance suffers and the facts tend to become distorted.

Food for thought–and a book I’ll be picking up shortly. Amazon has an interesting interview with the author here.