No.8: My name is Bob, but you can call me B S Goodwriter
Did anyone else notice that lots of people’s names changed, at least for a little while, once they left school?
After our last long summer together a selection of my friends and I flitted off to the lure of university placements. It was when we all returned at Christmas that I started to notice the effect that the change of scenery had had on some of my friends’ previously stalwart forenames. Ellen, who had always been Ellen as far as I was aware, was suddenly Elle. Annabel was Bella. Sophia had distorted into a Sophie overnight.
If I’m totally honest I had quietly considered a name change myself.
It felt like a rare chance to reinvent the old, tired Vicki format that I’d been using for years. I even had a name in mind. I was going to go with Tora, a nickname given to me in early childhood owing to the fact that my elder sibling had trouble pronouncing the challenging V sound.
But I chickened out at the last minute.
Remembering all these new names was quite enough to think about without having to remember to call myself something different as well. The cringe-factor of the whole business got to me too. To introduce myself with a different name felt like a lie. I wanted to explain, to let my potential new friend know that I wasn’t duping them, but I could not find a way of saying ‘I’m Vicki but I’d actually quite like you to call me Tora instead,’ without sounding at least a little bit unhinged.
So Tora wasn’t to be. Vicki’s fine though. I’m used to Vicki. It fits. And anyway, almost all of the Ellens, Annabels and Sophias reverted back to what worked eventually so I suspect that Tora never would have lasted either.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I often detect this same effect in covering letters. It seems that people have a similar instinct to tweak their own names when they become authors as they do when trying to reinvent themselves at university.
Of course, this must be largely influenced by the fact that so many authors use pseudonyms (Erica Leonard being a particularly topical example of this) or employ their initials rather than their forenames (as Joanne Rowling was advised to do to make sure boys were not discouraged from reading her books. I think it worked okay, a fair few boys read Joanne’s stories eventually as I understand it).
The thing is, as with making your first introduction during freshers’ week, in a covering letter your time is precious. And I would strongly recommend not wasting that precious time discussing something like pseudonyms.
Besides using up valuable space on your (hopefully no longer than a page) covering letter this is also one of those approaches which tends to say the wrong thing about you. Just as my instincts towards explaining my personally assigned nickname would have done, all it achieves is to tell the person you are approaching that you have spent time self-consciously dissecting your own name. The image you want to feed agents is of you diligently applying your creative genius to your writing, rather than to your name.
On top of this, in suggesting a pseudonym for yourself you are somewhat jumping the gun, in the nicest sense. Discussing potential pseudonyms with new writers is something that any agent worth their salt will do before sending their work out to publishers. After that the publisher may even wish to stick their oar in. Pseudonyms, at the heart of it, are a bit like nicknames; it’s a bit embarrassing to try to choose your own.
We’ve all met that sort of person at some point, haven’t we? The stringy teenager who awkwardly insists that his friends call him ‘Playa’, no really, because he has totally gone out with loads of girls, honest. The middle-aged business man who, before regaling you with tales of how many people tell him he should be a stand-up comedian, demands that you call him ‘The Gavinister’ because (apparently) ‘everybody does’.
Sadly, it gives a similar sort of impression if you immediately suggest pen names for yourself.
I often hear the same vein of complaint being made about covering letters that include detailed descriptions of how the writer envisages marketing their work. This, again, is getting a bit ahead of the game.
It can produce the same effect as the ‘it would make a great film/tv series’ cliché, I’m afraid.
It is great to briefly mention that you are excited to market your work and to tell us if you are good at public speaking or have the charisma and rugged charm of, say, George Clooney. These are helpful things to mention. It is also brilliant to let agents know that you have thought about your reader and where your book will fit on the shelves/bestseller charts.
However, if your book has potential for blockbuster success a good agent will see this from your synopsis. If you have professional respect for the agents you are submitting to you can rest assured that they will have a detailed understanding of the book market and will be instantly aware of the marketability of your work, or they wouldn’t be trusted with reading submissions in the first place. And if you are unfortunate enough to have a name like Eugene Bogdrifter any agent you acquire will almost certainly discuss pseudonyms with you in due course.
Use your precious time to tell them something they don’t know. Like your amazing idea for a bestselling novel which you have brought to life through your fantastic gifts with the written word.
There’ll be time enough for nicknames and readership demographics later. Believe me.
By Vicki Le Feuvre