#130: Pen Names and Shame

Dear Story Nurse,

What’s your opinion on using a pen name for some of one’s work, but not other work?

I have found myself wondering if I ought to use a pen name when trying to publish certain kinds of writing that’s different from what I have out there right now. Some of it is R-rated (for reasons of sexiness), and some of it is just stuff that feels unprofessional or “off brand” but will pay the rent (i.e. writing listicles for ListVerse or similar ‘clickbait’-y sites).

I’m a bit torn. I feel like, maybe if I am embarrassed of something I’m creating, I shouldn’t put it out into the world? If I cannot truly stand by my work (because I think click-bait taps into compulsive behaviors, encourages snap judgements, and doesn’t necessarily reward good writing or thoughtful reading; or because I’m not sure of the possible ethics of writing the kind of erotica I’m scribbling), maybe I just shouldn’t put it out there. Is a pen name a cowardly cop-out?

Or, maybe I’m embarrassed only because I am judging myself too harshly? The erotica I’m writing is unusual (i.e. fantasy-ish, impossible irl [it’s furry / anthro]) , but the scenes are consensual and don’t validate anything I’m opposed to. And the embarrassment just comes from being different or “weird.”

Likewise, the content of the click-bait I’ve toyed with isn’t against my beliefs, even though it isn’t my ideal style. Maybe I’ve internalized some classist ideas about art and commerce; that I “should” only write things that are artful and completely true to my spirit without taking money into consideration (#shitrichpeoplesay).

Even though I could really use an extra $100 / week, perhaps my embarrassment comes from needing money, even if it’s from less-than-ideal work, rather than embarrassment from feeling like a hypocrite by writing for listicle sites when I’m not a fan of the way they work or the rhetoric they encourage.

Anyway, that’s my core dilemma: I feel embarrassed about these kinds of writing, even though I also enjoy it, and I have opportunities to make money from it. My embarrassment makes me think I should use a pen name, so that if I ever try to publish serious work under my own name, editors will only see my current publications in more professional outlets. But, maybe I should just be bold and own whatever I create? Or maybe this is a sign I shouldn’t publish these works at all?

Just wondering your take,

Anthem (yep, using a pen name here too) (they/them)

P.S. Thank you for answering my previous question! With your encouragement, I did polish and submit some of my #ownvoices horror & dark fantasy stories with disabled protagonists, and I’ve had some success! Possibly an interesting wrinkle to this: I used my own name with those pieces and didn’t feel embarrassed at all.

I’ve written “it’s okay to be a minority of a minority” in the front of a lot of my notebooks. So, just, so you know. Your advice has been very empowering for me.

Dear Anthem,

I’m so gratified to know that my earlier advice was useful to you. Thank you for telling me! And it’s fantastic that you’ve had success writing and selling those stories.

Your letter sounds like you’ve almost talked yourself into believing you’re ashamed of what you want to write, just because you’ve had the idea of using a pen name for it. You talk around a lot of reasons why you might be feeling ashamed. But is that really what’s going on, or is it just an association you have with pen names?

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#95: The False Competition Between Fanfic and Original Fiction

Dear Story Nurse,

I’ve been writing fanfic for as long as I can remember, since before I even knew fanfic existed. When I got online at age 11, I tumbled into that world and learned so much about writing. I’ve had at least something on the go all the time since then. I’ve now reached the point where I feel I need to be writing something of my own.

It’s not that I lack an understanding of how to transition from fanfic to original on the technical levels of building characters and worlds; it’s that I can’t seem to get the same level of enthusiasm for my original worlds as I do for other people’s. It doesn’t help that a lot of what I like doing as a fanfiction writer is playing with the fact of having a shared canon to do weird postmodern things; I’m obsessed with having characters meet alternatively written versions of themselves from variant incarnations of canon, I’ve written a story which allegorised the lackluster sequel interpretations of two video game characters to my own experience of depression, and so on. But what’s most painful is that it’s making me poor. Inspiration for fanfic comes to me effortlessly and with a big ‘let’s do it!’ feeling—original fic ideas never feel so exciting. It doesn’t help that as I’ve become a better writer the effort required to write fic has increased to the point where it is no longer sustainable for me to write fanfic—I have to write it, because the ideas kill me if I don’t, but then I’ve just written something that won’t get me any validation and certainly won’t improve my career prospects, and the guilt is almost as bad as the guilt of not having written the idea in the first place.

You’ve already given ideas to someone looking to graduate from fanfic to original fic, but please can you provide some advice for someone who needs to quit fanfiction to get money and validation, but can’t keep my heart from obsessing over new things I can do with video game characters?

—Naomi (she/her)

Dear Naomi,

The word “guilt” really jumps out at me from your letter. You’ve gotten yourself into a bind because you’re perceiving your energy as a scarce resource that’s depleted by writing, so no matter where you put that resource, you feel like you’re spending it unwisely. But what’s actually depleting you isn’t the act of writing; it’s the shame you feel about how and what you’re writing. I can’t give you advice on how to quit writing fanfic, because I’m skeptical of your assertion that you need to. What I can advise you on is how to stop pouring your energy into the guilt-pit so you have enough for both fanfic and original fiction, with some to spare.

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#69: Getting Unstuck from “Should”

Hi Story Nurse!

I’ve found your advice on getting back into writing after a long break really helpful, thanks! At this point I’m having what feels like a related problem. Earlier this year, I got back into a more regular writing habit after many years of not writing, or only writing very rarely and with extreme difficulty. I write mostly fanfiction, though recently I’ve come up with a couple ideas for original short stories that I’m excited to tackle. I still feel out of practice and kind of clunky, which is frustrating – but I want to stick with it and build my writing muscles to the point where the hard stuff is easier, and the fun parts are even more fun. Before that long hiatus, I had a real sense that I was getting better at getting stories out of my head and onto the page, and I want to get there again.

At first, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to come up with enough ideas to keep writing consistently, but actually I’m having the opposite problem. It seems like as soon as I start writing one story, I’ll come up with an idea that feels even more important to get on the page as soon as possible, so I’ll put the first project aside and start working on the bright shiny new one. I’ll mean to get back to the first one, but a lot of the time the same thing happens again, and I’ll end up abandoning the first project.

I think a lot of this comes from wanting to avoid what’s harder for me right now – I love mapping out the bones of a story on notebook paper and planning how all the pieces might fit together, while finishing a first draft and revising feels like hard and confusing work. So it makes sense that the new thing would be that much more tempting to me! But I don’t just want practice at starting stories, I want to get better at the whole process. And the whole reason I love writing fanfic is the sense of collaboration – reading other people’s interpretations of the characters, worlds, etc, and sharing my own. But that isn’t really happening if all of my own are sitting half-written on my hard drive.

When I have a deadline (two of my three finished stories this year have been for fic exchanges) I can finish a story, but because I’m worried about the time pressure, I end up writing stories I know I can finish, not ones I’m very excited about or interested in. The answer seems to be stop doing exchanges for a while, but I’m afraid then I wouldn’t finish anything. Due to the finite nature of time, it’s not going to be possible to write every single idea I come up with, so it’s fine if some are abandoned – but how do I prioritize so that some of them do get finished?

What makes it worse is that in the background, I’m constantly afraid that I’ll abandon my current project and never start writing again (or at least have to re-learn a ton of stuff whenever I do start again). And it’s much easier to abandon a project when it gets boring, so it seems even more important to chase those super interesting new ones. But that’s no way to finish anything! I feel stuck in this pattern – any ideas for how to get unstuck?


—Unfinished Business (they/them)

Dear Unfinished Business,

It sounds like what you’re stuck in is a whole lot of pairs of competing urges and influences:

  • Wanting to push yourself to learn and get stronger but not wanting to do difficult things.
  • Wanting to finish anything at all but feeling that the things you do finish don’t count.
  • Understanding that not every story can be finished but trying to develop every new story idea.
  • Dropping projects when they get boring but dodging the challenges that keep projects exciting.

You need to have a good hard think about your priorities along each of these axes. Think about what you get out of them, what makes them appeal to you in the short and long terms. Also think about, for a lack of a better term, your values—the type of writer you want to be. Which choices are in line with those values? Which paths take you closer to your own personal definition of satisfaction and success?

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