How and why I chose a pen name

One of the fun things about being a novelist is inventing names for your characters. You can let your imagination run free, stripped of caution and compromise. But choosing a different name for yourself is personal and heartfelt, challenging your identity and family history. When I got a publishing deal with Hodder I sat in my editor’s office, brimful with excitement, as she outlined the company’s marketing and branding plans for me. ‘There’s one problem,’ she said. I froze, worrying that there was a plot issue I had overlooked. She looked uncomfortable. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s your name. It’s just not right. We need to change it. Your first name and your surname, I’m afraid.’ Ouch.

We may spend our lives escaping our parents and their influence, carving out our own identities, but our name is given to us and most of us never change it. Even if women marry, they have no choice over the surname they take. Alison Potter – the real me – had served me perfectly well for decades, until now.

Authors live in an age of search engines, social media and crowded markets; it’s a fight to be seen and heard. Sharing a surname with Harry Potter, the most successful book and film franchise of recent times, and Beatrix Potter too makes life harder for a writer trying to carve out her own space. But I was dealing with more than that.

Age and class are nebulous things, but they are powerful. I never thought of Alison as indicating very much at all: its not unusual; it’s not a Greek goddess or a city in eastern Europe, and it’s not a noun turned into a name so beloved of pop stars (Cello, Tiger, Peaches) – but that’s the problem. It’s boring. It’s safe, dependable, middle-of-the-road and middle-aged. And for a thriller writer, that’s fatal. Our job is to entertain, excite and captivate the reader, and that starts with the front cover. Marketing books is just like marketing cereal or face cream or tights: image is important, and middle-aged just won’t do.

So I set about finding a pen name. Literary novelists almost never change their names, but at the commercial end of the market authors are doing it with increasing frequency. I knew I was in good company: Lee Child, John le Carre and Nicci French are just a few pseudonyms used by thriller writers, and there is a tendency for writers (often men) in the psychological thriller genre where I work, to use initials to disguise their gender, such as SJ Watson and TR Richmond. This seems to be to appeal to the large bias towards female readers in this genre. Everyone does what they can to gain an edge. But the process itself was harder than I imagined.

A new name is also a new opportunity. I had the most trouble with a new Christian name, it felt like I was cutting out the guts of who I was. I wanted something short and memorable – it had to be Ali. The sale of books in international markets is also something to consider – Ali felt like it could be male or female, something I felt might help in foreign territories where my books would be sold.

I began to trawl my family for surnames. My husband’s name is Upstone. I suggested Ali Stone to my editor. ‘Too heavy,’ she said. ‘You could use Rock,’ my agent suggested. ‘Too Outer Hebrides,’ was the reply.

The problem is that all names conjure up other people and they are intensely personal. ‘Ians are always ginger,’ a friend said emphatically. Another added: ‘You need to think what the name means in other languages.’ It felt as complicated as rolling out a new car launch across multiple territories.

Having exhausted every family name I wrote down a shortlist of around 10, mainly collected from my regular runs through the local graveyard and film websites. In the end we chose Knight. It sounded strong and confident, it felt ‘crimey’. It tied me to my genre.

Four books later, Twitter and Facebook and on-line book communities have mushroomed and I have sometimes struggled running two online identities, the ‘real’ me and my thriller me. But that is a small price to pay for the privilege of seeing your name – real or fabricated, on the front cover of books in English and many other languages to boot.


This post is brought to you by Ali Knight.


2 thoughts on “How and why I chose a pen name

  1. Great post. I’ve always been intrigued by pen names and people’s reactions & assumptions to them too. Often get comments about my name – usually very positive but do wonder what preconceptions are seeded…


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