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The Trials and Tribulations of Choosing a Pen Name

According to novelist Alison Potter, one of the most enjoyable things about writing is creating names for her characters. “You can let your imagination run free, stripped of caution and compromise.” Yet, when she was asked to choose a pen name for herself, the naming process was no longer carefree. Hodder, her publisher, approached her about a name change as they were working on her debut thriller Wink Murder. “Suddenly, it’s personal and heartfelt, challenging your identity and family history,” she writes in an article for The Guardian.

“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 had served me perfectly well for about 40 years, until now.

“But we live in an age of search engines, algorithms and crowded markets; it’s a fight to be seen. 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.

“…I’ve never met an Alison who was born after 1972. It has, like a lot of names, become the Vera and Joan of yesteryear. It’s middle-aged. Marketing books is just like marketing cereal or face cream or tights: image is important, and middle-aged just won’t do,” explains Potter.

Her search for an appropriate name was a process that involved a lot of back and forth with her publisher. “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.”

Finally settling on a first name, the writer struggled to find a last name that would fit well with it. “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,” she concludes. Her quest for a nom de plume, complete.

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