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Friday, 4 October 2013

Why do you use a pen name?

I’ve been asked that over the years, as, doubtless, have many other authors who fall into that category. There are reasons.

Let me start by pointing out that my real name is Robert William Nicholson-Morton (no secret, it's on my website). Yes, quite a mouthful. When cheques were the normal form of payment, I hated signing them with that name – more like a squiggle. In truth, I hated signing cheques anyway!

When I joined the Royal Navy, my name-tally ended up as R.W.N-Morton. Having a double-barrelled name had its amusing side. When I appeared for duty one evening, the Leading Hand called out ‘Morton’ and I answered, ‘Here!’ Then he called out ‘Nicholson!’ So I said, ‘Here!’ I quickly added, ‘But I don’t want two jobs.’ Inevitably, in true forces spirit, I had to have a nickname. I became ‘Nik’ – I insisted on dropping the ‘c’ so I could sign my cartoons that way. (I thought there couldn’t be another Nik Morton around – and there wasn’t for some years, but now there is, and he’s a distinguished doctor in UK! But I got there first.)

That’s one reason to opt for a pen name; you’ve either got a common or familiar name or your name is already on the covers of published books. And although it doesn’t deter some authors, a long name is harder to fit onto a cover than a shorter snappier one.

I digress.

Way back in 1971, when I first started submitting short stories and articles, I wrote as Platen Syder. Being in the RN, I felt it prudent in case I ended up having some possibly controversial piece published. (I’d slightly adapted the name of someone I’d signed-up to join the Navy in Gosport, Platten Syder, who now lives in Truro, UK). Despite the name being in front of them, some magazine sub editors managed to give me the byline Playten Syder!

By the time I was publishing the magazine Auguries (, I was using Nik Morton. (When courting my wife-to-be Jennifer, she knew me only as ‘Nik’ for a short while, and to this day I am still Nik to virtually everyone. Schizophrenic, who me?)

When I ran book reviews in my magazine, I had a small stable of reviewers; but the volume of books meant there were still too many for them to cope with. So I reviewed some books under the names Maggie Weaver, Nicola Williams as well as Nik Morton, to avoid the name monotony!

Eventually, after many years, my first novel acceptance was Pain Wears No Mask by Nik Morton, in 2007. Within a month or so afterwards, I wrote my first western and felt it should be under a different brand, so Ross Morton was invented. Ross was my late mother’s maiden name. Bear in mind that this was in the traditional publishing arena, where genre branding is considered important. The reasons for this are manifold: readers’ expectations possibly top the publishers’ list. If a reader buys a Nik Morton book, they expect it to be a crime novel. This is a little nonsensical if the cover and blurb of the book stated the story was a western, or a science fiction dystopian novel, surely? Nik Morton is considered a ‘brand’, in effect.

So quite a number of authors over the years have adopted pen names to get out of the ‘brand’ straitjacket – Ruth Rendell became Barbara Vine, for example, and recently J.K. Rowling hid behind Robert Galbraith for The Cuckoo’s Calling, perhaps because she felt she’d never get a dispassionate review as herself. Years ago, Doris Lessing did something similar with the pen name Jane Somers for two books. And yet there are exceptions, of course; she also successfully switched genre from ‘mainstream’ to science fiction with her Canopus in Argos sequence, eschewing a pen name; perhaps the success of her remarkable dystopian novel Memoirs of a Survivor helped.  
Nowadays, as any reader or writer knows, publishing is changing. There’s a recognition that maybe readers are happy to read an author no matter the genre she or he writes. Of course there will be those who won’t touch a western or a science fiction novel ever – or not again, not after reading a bad one. (You mean, there are no bad detective, mystery, romance novels? Fancy that!)

Things have become a little blurred for me and my pen name usage. I was commissioned to write a western, chose the title, Bullets for a Ballot, but then baulked at the byline – Nik Morton or Ross Morton. The publisher had published my short stories as Nik Morton, and that was the name most familiar to a US readership, so I clouded the issue and settled on Nik Morton!
I have a horror-crime-romance cross-over novel written as Robert Morton – Death is Another Life. My science fiction and horror short stories were published as both Platen Syder (or Playten Syder!) and Nik Morton, so the confusion persists.

Should a writer use a pen name, then? It’s his or her decision. There’s a great deal of excellent advice and background material on pen names to be found in the blog of Kristine Kathryn Rusch (former editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and an incredibly prolific writer in several genres); just one instance: she wrote the popular novelization of The Tenth Kingdom as Kathryn Wesley. Her blog is:





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