Writing Under a Pen Name

Not everyone knows I have a nom de plume, which I do. I started writing under Leila Bryce Sin almost as soon as I started publishing under this name.

My first series was a YA series but I found that I had a little bit of talent at writing racier content and came up with this idea of a race I called Bright Elves. Bright Elves were kind of a take on a succubus who didn’t kill. They raised magic and power through lust and love and all that good stuff.

But, since I was starting out as making my name as a YA author, I was a little worried about the wrong audience picking up something they weren’t expecting from me.

So I decided to publish under Leila Bryce Sin. One of the cool things about writing paranormal erotica was that I didn’t have put out full-length novels every time–a lot of readers of that genre like novellas and short stories. I liked it too because it helped me hone some writing skills. When writing fantasy and world building I tended to get lost in descriptions and narrative, but if your word goal is less than fifty thousand words, you tend to focus on character and plot.

But then I had an idea for a novel. A story set in Las Vegas, one of my favorite places, following an actual succubus who was hiding from the other demons of Hell and working as a bartender at an Irish pub. Billie the Bartender.

I love Billie and her story was pretty well formed in my head when I first set out to write her book. I didn’t realize it was going to be a full-length novel, let alone the trilogy it turned into, but some characters demand more stage time than others.

I got the first novel, Hellfire, and the second novel, Holyfire, written in good time while trying to balance writing under my real name. But the novels I was working on as Shauna Granger definitely took precedence and I realized, as I was starting to hit a creative wall thanks to a massive word count I was building, I didn’t have anything left in the tank to figure out the third and final book.

I’d ended book two with a cliffhanger and the start of a war, I couldn’t not write the ending. But I also couldn’t write it. While I’d given myself a creative outlet for a different audience and type of story, I’d also pushed myself to the limit and couldn’t find it in myself to keep going.

So there was a very long break between publishing Holyfire in April of 2016 and even starting the outline of the final book this past autumn. Honestly, if it wasn’t for NaNo last year, I don’t know if I would have finished writing the book, let alone be ready for it to be live tomorrow. #shamlesspromo

But I did.

So what I can tell you about writing with a pen name is that it gives you a lot of freedom. You can delve into new genres or age categories that you don’t normal wade into. You can try new techniques and voices that don’t lend themselves to your normal milieu. And if those genres are a bit racy and you don’t want friends and family to know it’s your work, they don’t ever have to know! But you need to be careful. As with any creative job, it takes something from you, so if you’re not careful, if you don’t find a balance, you can wear yourself out and burn out before you’re ready.

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Where is the line, exactly?

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So there’s a storm brewing in the world of [redacted] romance. One of the biggest authors in the genre {name withheld because drama} has been accused of catfishing – of creating an on-line persona that is substantially different than who they really are. While the last thing I need to do is throw myself into the middle of that pigpile, I think there are higher-level issues that are worth considering.

Issues around trust, and faith, and how much authors owe their readers.

I write under a pen name, because in real life, I’m a nurse practitioner (just like it says in my bio) and I don’t want anyone googling Amy D-C NNP to have to wade through a bunch of hits about vampire romance. I have two kids, a husband, and three ferrets, just like it says in my bio. (Well, the ferrets are technically my daughter’s, but…)

All that aside, I’m conscious of where I’m posting what. There are private Facebook pages where I’m comfortable identifying my kids by name, and others where I’m not. If we’re friends on Facebook, you’ve likely seen me tag my kids or husband in posts, or share stuff that names them, but I try to limit that kind of thing. I feel like people who are Facebook friends with Liv Rancourt get the real me, but that’s by my choice, and it’s within my comfort zone.

But what if, say, I was writing in a subgenre where it could make a financial difference if readers thought I was a man? Or anything besides a cis-het, married, middle-aged, woman?

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And what if there were other authors supporting me, vouching for me on social media, and telling readers I really was a [insert imaginary persona here]?

That would totally suck, and if I was found out, it could quite possibly ruin my writing career. (And I’d probably deserve for it to be ruined.)

Needless to say, the ongoing potential-catfishing situation has generated a whole lot of conversation. In the midst of a fairly heated enthusiastic thread, my friend Sadie framed the issue this way…

I find it interesting how much of this thread is actually about the generalities of trusting people to be who they say they are and internet negotiations of identity, not just about whether ________ is _______ or not. I think that’s part of why this situation seems to be such an inferno. Partly because there is someone willing to dig and put ‘facts’ out there for others to consider, partly because a lot of people seem willing to put a lot of emotion into it. But also partly because it hits at an insecurity in a lot of us. We all know we take chances when we trust someone to be who they say they are and scenarios like this one force us to consider where we’d fall if we found we were being duped.

Back in the day – like five years ago – most authors didn’t spend a lot of time on-line. (Okay, maybe ten years ago. Or fifteen. Something.) Regardless of the time-frame, there didn’t use to be the same demand to have a social media presence. If an author met readers at cons or book signings, it was a bonus. They exchanged names, and shook hands, and the author signed their book and everyone went home happy.

If an author was really a middle-aged, cis-het, married, woman she could tell everyone she was a twenty-something, single, ex-Marine and no one would be wiser. She might be found out – if, say, she got big enough that her agent demanded she make public appearances – but the unveiling of her real identity wouldn’t be as personally devastating to her readers.

Unless, you know, she let those readers raise money for her to treat her imaginary war injuries that she never sustained while fighting a fictitious war.

Or she played the James Frey card and faked her memoir and got called out by Oprah on national television.

There’s a line somewhere between the names on an author’s credit cards or birth certificates and the person they present in their pen names and on Facebook fan pages and Livejournals and Twitter and whatever other social media platform you’re into. Sometimes fans lose sight of that line, but sometimes authors do, too. Like Sadie said above, it’s an issue of trust.

Good writers open themselves wide, recording frank emotion on the page, but their honesty doesn’t give their readers to right to know how they think and feel 24/7. On the other hand, creating a safety net for their “real life” doesn’t give authors the right to fake the whole caboodle. I have no idea how this current kerfufle is going to shake out, but I recognize that the conversation is a necessary part of defining where that line is.

Regarding what’s expected of authors, the rules may have changed, but you know, the rules we learned in kindergarten will likely still apply.

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On Persistence

Those of you who know me or follow me on social media have probably heard my good news by now. (Okay, you’re probably already tired of hearing about my good news.) For those of you who don’t, I’m incredibly pleased to say that my YA fantasy Amber & Dusk was acquired by Scholastic for publication! *cue happy dance forever*

But I don’t want to talk about that right now. I don’t want to talk about what the book is about or what inspired it or what it means to me. Today I kind of want to talk about something else, something that I’m not sure is discussed enough in this glorious complicated frustrating industry. I want to talk about an important–if not crucial–lesson that I learned very slowly, and with much difficulty, over the course of a number of sometimes soul-bruising years. The name of that lesson is persistence.

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I didn’t start writing seriously until six years ago, almost exactly. I’d written all my life–from incredibly detailed diaries to elaborate illustrated short stories to painstakingly-typed royal histories–but it had never really occurred to me that I could be a writer. But when the opportunity to really take a stab at writing presented itself, I jumped at the chance. What I didn’t realize was that I was jumping into a black roiling sea of rejection with no floaties and oh yeah, there were sharks.

No lie, I thought I was going to write a glorious first novel, make a million dollars, and I don’t know like move to a castle and surround myself with adoring fans. Spoiler alert: that didn’t happen. Looking back on my first query letters is seriously cringe-worthy–they’re full of awkward self-deprecating jokes, vague stakes, and rhetorical questions. SO MANY rhetorical questions. I was so naive, and so inexperienced. And when most of my query letters were summarily rejected with form letters–or, worse, not responded to at all–I was crushed.

I’m not sure whether it was pride or shame or competitiveness or some internal strength that made me soldier on. But I wrote a second book. And then rewrote that book in a different setting with a different main character. And then I queried that book. And when that one received four rounds of rejections, I wrote another. And after querying that one I finally got into PitchWars, an amazing pitch contest hosted by Brenda Drake. And I got an agent! I finally made it!

HAHAHA gotcha. No way. No siree. Try another three rounds of revisions, and going on submission with editors only to hear another mountain of pure unadulterated NOPE. And then writing another book and a half. And then going on sub again.

True story: three weeks before finally getting an offer on A&D, I literally broke down and finally quit. I remember sitting with my sisters on the floor of my niece’s playroom and sobbing into my wine. I was done, I was finished with hearing no. Writing isn’t just a job; it’s pouring something of my soul out into the world, and having industry professionals read that art, recognize that as art, and then still tell me it wasn’t good enough had started to break my heart.

All’s well that ends well.

Don’t get me wrong–I have no illusions. I’m still learning this lesson: persistence isn’t the end game–it’s the name of the game. And listen–my goals aren’t and shouldn’t be everyone’s goals. But having my book published traditionally has been my dream, and despite the above paragraph, I’m usually not a quitter. So while it feels amazing to have taken a step forward in this crazy journey, I still have a thousand miles to walk. But I’m not going to worry too much about that now.

I’ll just try to remember to be persistent.