What's in a name?

Apparently, if you’re an author trying to get a book published, everything. And I’m not talking about the title of your book. Wait, back up - we need context.

Once upon a time, when my age was in single figures and life was much simpler, I wrote stories. Made-up, convoluted, sheerly-for-fun stories. When I was nine years old, I wrote my first fan fiction (although I’m not sure that word had yet been invented). It featured Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Watson and Mrs Hudson, and it bore witness to Mr Holmes bemoaning the lack of a case or in fact anything of interest to a visiting Watson. What it taught me was that (1) it wasn’t necessarily Holmes who was bored of life, and (2) I loved doing it. However, it would be a full five or six years before I would have access to something called a word processor, manufactured by the Raytheon Corporation, and I began making up my own stories in earnest.

A lot of things came next. Eventually I ended up living overseas, and had finally (through either luck or unconscious planning) secured myself a flat for one. I had come from a large family and the tenancy of a near-empty flat with no-one in it but myself was pure magic. I knew very few people and I liked it that way; I threw myself into writing in my spare time.

However, while I was typing away on what today would be considered an antique Sony Vaio laptop, I was conscious that my own stories were vapid, meandering, and definitely lacking in anything that might be called ‘plot’ even if you squinted a bit and tilted your head when studying them - but that was ok. After all, I was just writing for fun, for myself. No-one ever saw my output.

It came to be that a good friend of mine shared a love of good old-fashioned telly from old Blighty, and so we purchased a boxed set of Sharpe and got watching, beers on hand.

We went through the entire box. And in 2006, I wrote no less than four separate Sharpe stories - or fan fiction. These were published on a website I ran, and then later on, were added to the FanFiction archive. I received reviews. I read them. I read them again. And then I realised just how poor my writing was.

There was absolutely no doubt about the plots; they whisked along and questions were answered, puzzles were solved, some people died and some people were saved, and the story went pretty much the way of every episode in the telly series. No, what was poor was my actual writing. The language, the execution, the (mis)use of format - the basics that made it easy to read. But did I give up? Fuck, no. I kept right on writing and learning. Next came Doctor bloody Who and a total of eleven stories, plus two crossovers. I could see the improvement, and I could appreciate the constructive criticism that came with them all. I was very grateful people were bothering to read my work at all, and I made every effort to make every page of every story - every paragraph - the best that I could.

Round about December of 2007 I switched fandoms. I didn’t turn my back on Doctor Who, but I was running woefully short of things I could put the Doctor through. And so my new virtual voodoo dolls for torture became the brothers Winchester, of Supernatural fame. This time it was a case of fifty-one stories plus four crossovers - and I’m not sure I’m done with them yet. It also heralded my first script, my first semi-lucid experiment in abstract word art, my first out-and-out comedy farce, my first poem-like satire, the development of the ‘Sam rolled his eyes’ game, and some great feats of stretching in terms of actual writing skill and execution. In short, I loved it and some of those stories are still by far the best work I’ve done.

There were other stories, too, though. A brief bit of fun with an A-Team story, two Farscape stories, and even an Enterprise story (although that last one still makes me cringe, and every time I see it’s still there I want to delete it). A quick go with Burn Notice (which I still like myself), and then two Avengers stories (focusing exclusively on Hawkeye and Black Widow being badasses). Then came new obsessions, and a crossover between Supernatural and Constantine was as timely as it was fun. The most recent piece was a solo Constantine story, and I’m still very fond of that one.

I did bemoan in an earlier post the state of my current writing skill level. I was whining about how I thought the magic had all gone, that my stories now were flat, boring, dull and pretty much worthless. That I could see the ending a mile off, which meant any reader would too, and it was a monumental waste of my time to produce more stories when, looking back, I had written such exciting and well-executed pieces that felt like they worked on several levels at once. When I re-read parts of some of these, I’m reminded of how good I was, whilst riding the high of enthusiasm and fun.

So here’s where we are: one million, three hundred and twenty-seven thousand and six hundred words (give or take fifty) in nine years. Plus the eight books I have written, coming to around one million, three hundred and forty-nine thousand and two hundred words in themselves - and that was over the same time span. That means that, on average, I’ve written nearly three hundred thousand words a year for nine years. That’s just over eight hundred words a day - every single day.

Put like that, I seem like quite the writer.

What of these eight books I’ve written? Where can you find them online or at a bookshop? You can’t. I’ve been trying on and off for the past four years to get the first of the sci-fi books published, and lately the stand-alone high-concept novel taken by an agent. As previously discussed, I’ve gone from getting very nicely-worded and appreciated rejection letters to being completely ignored by agents altogether. This is after I’ve taken advice from a book doctor, an agent herself, two books written by agents on how to get them, and countless blogs and online articles written by agents. All the submissions were to agents who said they were looking for the type of writing I thought I was pretty good at, and all of them were sent my work exclusively, one at a time. I was beginning to think that it wasn’t them but me - that I was completely shit and the old net myth of fan fiction writers being legends in their own minds was true (especially after certain arguably poorly-written ‘yummy mummy’ semi-porn novels have been published since with great fanfare). In short, it dawned on me that perhaps my work was simply badly written, and it was being turned down or just blatantly ignored due to its crappiness, not because of anything I had or hadn’t done in the submission process.

And then I saw an article that popped up on my tumblr dash. Someone else, a woman who had been successfully published herself, had shared a news story she had read. I read it too. And then I got angry and not only reblogged it, but then debated what to do about it as it pertained to me.

Female Novelist Learns How Far a Male Pen Name Can Take Her, an article over at the Mary Sue, left me stunned. (Short version: she submitted under a fake man’s name and got instant replies and even - GASP - taken up on her book. Repeatedly.) I was shocked, and I was angry. Why shocked? I had a sneaking feeling that this kind of thing still went on, but until I saw actual figures, I was reluctant to put much stock in it. Angry? I was all shades of raging. Why should anyone have to change their name to even get looked at? Why should someone’s identity make a difference?

Certainly, parts of the article made me wonder if this was the reason I was getting ignored by agents. But it couldn’t be, could it? How could an agent, who specifically stated they were looking for debut female writers, fail to even read something by a debut female writer? It’s not like I sent my novel to someone who only took in non-fiction about gardening. I bothered to check each agent’s website, I bothered to check if they would be interested in my kind of writing. I mean there’s optimism and then there’s just stupidity.

I did what any other English woman would have done after having read the article; I made a cup of tea. As I was waiting for it to cool sufficiently for me to drink, a lot of shouting went through my head. Should I change my name the next time I send my novel out? Should I take on a man’s name to get my novel read? Should I just keep to using my first initial only, and keep hoping for the best? And then the other side of the coin hit me: wait - why should I? I shouldn’t have to hide my identity to get ahead. I shouldn’t have to invent a Remington Steele just so someone would read my words. None of this was reasonable. And yet I was contemplating it anyway.

Because the Laura Holt part of me was thinking it through. What if I did send it away under a man’s name? And what if they did write back asking for the entire novel to read? And what if, after that, they wanted to offer me representation? Well then the jig would be up, surely. There would be a face-to-face meeting and they would instantly discover that I am not the Remington Steele they were expecting.
But then the Alan Shore part of me shouts “A-haa! It’s not for me to justify why I had to use a man’s name to get read - it’s up to them to justify why, when meeting me, they are disappointed that I’m not a man!

The Spock part of me spots flaws in this logic. After all, it wouldn’t be fair to send it to an agent under only a man’s name, and then get all high and mighty when they do read and ask for more of the novel. Mainly because they never saw it under my actual name, so I have just assumed they wouldn’t even read it under my own name and skipped the part that would have made it fair. Then again, you can’t send it to them twice. This precludes any kind of fair chance and goes straight for the 50/50 chance of being read, instead of the 1/50.

And again, put that way, am I really going to be so stubborn that I refuse to improve my odds of getting read? That in just calling myself Bob or Dave or Richard instead of my first initial would give me a one-in-two chance of getting read?
But that’s not the real question at all. What it comes down to is this: does using a pen name to ‘fool’ agents into reading your work count as lying? Are you tricking someone into reading something, making their unconscious prejudices work for you? And if you are, does that constitute a lie, or a con, on your part? Or a self-inflicted wound to their reputation? Are you helping to perpetuate these prejudices by using them to aid yourself?

And that last paragraph, ladies, gentlemen, both and neithers, is where I come to a full stop. Using the system to my advantage only keeps the system in place; not using it means I never accomplish what I want, and what I have wanted, since I was nine years old. I morally can’t do one, and I physically can’t do the other. It comes down to how much of me cares about changing the system for others. How much do I want to stick it to The Man? And do I want it more than my book(s) published?

One thing is for certain: I’m going to need more tea.

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