What’s in a Pen Name?

Sarah M. Chen

by Sarah M. Chen

As I scramble to have everything ready for the Left Coast Crime conference in Phoenix (which is in a few days, yikes!), something in the back of my mind continues to tug at me. No, it’s not to order more book cover postcards (although I really wish that had occurred to me before late last night). It’s not to try to figure out how many books I can realistically fit in my suitcase without being overweight (I’m going to carry on the majority of them). What is bugging me is what my name is.

I haven’t gone nuts, although that’s debatable. I have a children’s chapter book coming out this year (hopefully) entitled Superbeetle and it’s targeted towards 6-9 year olds. It’s about an Asian-American girl named Hong who’s half Chinese and half Caucasian. She visits Taiwan for the first time but isn’t crazy about the huge bugs there. It’s not until she meets Superbeetle, a giant rainbow beetle in her grandmother’s bathtub, does she see bugs in a new light. It’s a book about the importance of learning about your culture, accepting who you are, and of course, the beauty of bugs!

Rainbow Beetle
Rainbow Beetle

We’re at the point in the publishing process where I have one last polish to the draft and the illustrator is working on a mockup for the cover. But the big question my publisher asked me was do I want to use my name “Sarah M. Chen” or do I want a pen name? Of course, this didn’t even dawn on me, but she has a point. I don’t want children – and most importantly, their parents – to look up my name to see what else I’ve written only to be horrified to find my crime fiction that skews fairly dark. My upcoming noir novella “Cleaning Up Finn” has strong language and sexual situations. It’d be rated R in movieland.

So who do I want to be? My publisher suggested dropping the “M” but I didn’t think that was enough of a difference. Plus there is a Taiwanese singer named Sarah Chen. I thought of using my middle name and dropping my last name. Then I’d be “Sarah Michele” and I could be cool like Buffy.Buffy_Season_(1)

But others told me it’s important to keep the “Chen” as diversity is important with children’s literature. So then I thought of Michele Chen but when I Googled that, I came up with a Michelle Chen who writes Hello Kitty cookbooks. I thought of “S. Michele Chen” to keep the Sarah in there yet distinguish it from the Hello Kitty fanatic. Plus she has two “l”s in her name whereas I only have one “l” (my mom didn’t know how to spell Michelle).

6c861e360e8019b8fdd546056dcca94bThat also brought up a slew of other questions. Do I want to do signings with people thinking my first name is Michele? Will I get confused and not know who they’re talking to? Is it weird to have my first initial in front of “Michele”? I haven’t seen any other authors do that. Is Sarah Michele Chen different enough from Sarah M. Chen? I kind of like that one too. Do kids even care about the author’s name? Most likely not. And do I want my “Sarah M. Chen, crime fiction writer” identity to be a secret?

I also have a YA novel in the works. Would I use “Sarah M. Chen” or would I then go with whatever pen name I decide upon? This pen name would have to be something I’m comfortable with then. I hit up a few chat forums and the advice varied. Some said to use a totally different name that has nothing to do with my real name. The idea of being a completely different person is appealing, I have to admit. Others said that “Chen” is such a common last name that a variation of my name would be fine (I tend to agree).

How do other authors out there handle this kind of stress and pressure? Ack! I know there are many of you who use pen names, sometimes more than one.

Either way, I’m going to Left Coast Crime as Sarah M. Chen and that’s a huge relief.


Sarah M. Chen juggles several jobs including indie bookseller, transcriber, and insurance adjuster. Her crime fiction short stories have been accepted for publication online and in various anthologies, including All Due Respect, Akashic, Plan B, Shotgun Honey, Crime Factory, Out of the Gutter, Betty Fedora, Spelk, and the Sisters in Crime/LA anthology, Ladies Night. Her noir novella, Cleaning Up Finn, is coming out May 2016 with All Due Respect Books. www.sarahmchen.com

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31 thoughts on “What’s in a Pen Name?

  1. Sarah, what a great post and a great way to get input. I do think you should separate your kids book author name from your crime writing name, and I like S. Michele Chen for your children’s books because it’s still “who you are” and shows that writing diversity (ethnic and female). I, too, thought of having a pen name for a time because there are Gayle Irwins and Gayle or Gale Erwin, that’s why I use my middle initial. Whatever direction you go, I’m excited for the diversity in your writing, and I look forward to reading your upcoming children’s and YA books! Best of luck at the conference and in all your writing and publishing endeavors.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Gayle! I do think you’re right and am leaning towards S. Michele Chen. I also like Sarah Michele Chen too but wasn’t sure if that was different enough from my Sarah M. Chen name. Thanks for reading and commenting!


  2. Sarah, what a great post on a topic that often crops up for authors. My vote is to definitely separate the kids book author from the crime-writing author. I like S. Michele Chen. I write under a pen name and wish I had done something similar. I was worried that my last name of Baumann would be hard to search, etc., because it has two n’s and most people want to spell it as Bowman. So I opted for the pen name. I am very happy with that pen name, but as I want to expand my writing, I may run into the same problem as you. I suppose then I could just add my first name instead of the “L”. Good luck with whatever you decide and have a fantastic time at the conference!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Linda. Yes, it’s tough to choose a pen name because who knows what type of writing you’ll end up doing in the future. But I think that’s a good idea, to change the “L” to your first name. I like S. Michele Chen too. Thanks for reading!


  3. I think using a different name for your children’s books is a good idea. I like S Michele Chen.

    There are a few Cindy Carrolls on Amazon. I registered my domain before one of them published. And I published before the second one (who uses a middle initial) published.

    I will be writing young adult and have been thinking about using a pen name for those. I will probably go with my initials and my husband’s last name.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s good you registered your domain name early on. I need to figure that out too once I decide what name to go with. I too like S. Michele Chen. It’s helpful to have a married versus maiden name too. Thanks for reading, Cindy!


  4. Interesting post, Sarah. I’d definitely NOT use Sarah Michele Chen. From personal experience I can tell you that a lengthy pen name makes it tough to keep your name readable on a book cover in thumbnail. I wouldn’t worry about the Taiwanese singer if you want to use Sarah Chen. I don’t think there’ll be much confusion there since your respective audiences (not to mention languages) are so different. Or maybe S.M. Chen? Or Sarah Michenele?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t even think of that Craig, that the name would be too long on a book cover, but you have a good point. I thought of S.M. Chen too but wanted to have an actual first name for a kids book, although I’m not sure if that matters. Thanks for reading and commenting, Craig! See you in Phoenix!


  5. I keep my name on all of the age groups, but my books are all GP rated, so it wasn’t a big problem. But I had considered using my maiden name (Dickens), for my children’s book. I’d like to get an illustrator for my picture book, but I don’t have much money to spend right now. My thoughts were S.M. Chen as well. it will be the parents who buy the book, and J.K. Rowling didn’t do so bad. Cher’ley

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that J.K. Rowling didn’t do too shabby! I’ve had quite a few votes for S.M. Chen. I like that too. My only concern is I don’t want to hide that I’m a female author. Thanks for commenting, Cher’ley!


  6. Neil Gaiman uses his name on his children’s books, and he has some rather dark stuff out there too. But, to be fair, when you’re as successful as he is, you can really do whatever you like.

    I agree with the others: definitely use a pen-name to isolate your writing personas. It just makes it easier from a promotion standpoint, and for the parents who are buying the books.

    I have a pen-name. But, I chose it for a different reason. I like the idea of the anonymity, and not having to answer for anything I write, though I’m not ashamed of any of it. But, I like the separation of art and the artist. Keeps things more focused on the story instead of who wrote it.

    Great post. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Craig! I agree….Neil Gaiman can do whatever he wants. I’m certainly not going to question his choices and if only I can be of that caliber. Maybe someday! But until then, you’re right. I think a pen name in this situation is wise. I like that you want to separate your artist self from your regular self. Makes sense to me. Thanks for reading, Craig.


  7. Sarah, I feel you frustration. When I began writing fiction, I consciously decided that a pen name was the most logical thing for me. So much of my performing and research are under my own name. I wanted something different for this other part of my life. Most people know I’m both, but my reading audience doesn’t and I’m okay with that. Angela Raines works well for fiction, and I like the name. Doris McCraw works for everything else. I think is all boils down to what you are comfortable with. Doris

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree 100%, Doris. I have to be comfortable with what I choose, especially since I’m going to have to live with it for a while. I like the name Angela Raines and think you chose a fine name. Thanks for reading and commenting!


  8. Lots of good suggestions after an interesting post. I think a pen name to separate your genre’s is good too. What about Sara Chen, leaving the h off of Sarah? S. M. Chen would work too or whatever you are comfortable with. Another author who put her maiden name in the mix to honor her family of origin said it was cumbersom afterward as she had to sign three longish names when autographing. So length to sign and for book covers might be a consideration. Good luck with whatever and looking forward to your books. Neva

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Yes, I think using Sarah Michele Chen would be too cumbersome. I can see that now. I can’t see myself dropping the “h” because I shudder whenever people leave it off. It just looks so wrong to me! I agree, I need to be comfortable with what I choose. Thanks for reading, Neva!


  10. Sarah,
    If we’re voting, I like S. Michelle Chen or Michelle S. Chen.
    I agree that you’d want to keep your gender and ethnicity in the name. I was considering Stephen Walker Buehler but thought that was too long, though I think it sounds like a writer’s name. Right now I’m using Stephen Buehler but whenever my first novel comes out I may go with Stephen W. Buehler.
    I can’t wait to read Superbeetle.
    – Stephen

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Stephen. I think the majority vote is for S. Michele Chen. I do like Michele S. Chen too; that’s an interesting one. I have a lot to think about. I like Stephen W. Buehler. I didn’t think of how long a 3-word name would take up on a book cover until Craig Faustus Buck mentioned something. But I like the way it sounds too.


  11. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, S. Michelle Chen works. Originally I wasn’t sure hope I wanted to publish my name. Perhaps if I do something different the same dilemma a may hit. Congrats on the upcoming book!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. It’s a question that caused me a lot of heartache. I write mystery , historical adventures and time travel for TEEN/ YA so I thought a lot about what to call myself when my TEEN novel was published last year. I’d sort of intended to add another initial to my name but I only have a first and a second name so what was I going to choose? 😉 In the end I decided to just keep my own name as I reckoned it would be too frenetic to market under different names. I find it hard enough with the one name never mind multiples! Good luck with whichever you choose. Personally I’d go for the Sarah M. Chen if you feel you need something different.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Nancy. Yes, it’s hard enough with just one name which is why I don’t want to choose something so different from my real name. I’d prefer not to change it at all! Thanks for reading and commenting.


  13. As you probably guessed I use a pen name, I opted for my initials. This is a decision I made quickly many years ago when I began my photography career. My work was being returned unopened. It turns out that publishers felt a woman wouldn’t have the images they wanted and didn’t bother to look . Once I began using my initials magically my work was being reviewed and purchased. Yes my checks sometimes are written to Mr S. J. Brown, but the bank cashes them. I never intended to educate the publishing industry but a few publishers are now a bit wiser.

    Your issue about confusion when dealing with people is a real concern. Most people who meet me at signings or talks call me SJ. Once I get to know someone they just call me Sue.

    As I am approaching the final stages of a collaborative effort I revisited this issue. I decided to stick with my initials. You need to do what works best for you. I do think using a pen name for your children’s books is a good idea, S Michele Chen sounds good. If you go with Sarah Chen the kids can call you Miss Sarah. Sorry I don’t think I was much help.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I find that so disheartening that your work was returned unopened when they knew you were a woman. But it’s a sad fact these days. Yes, I’m not sure how kids would refer to me if I have an “S” in front of Michele. I do like “Miss Sarah.” Maybe they’d just skip over the “S” and call me Miss Michele which wouldn’t be bad either. Thanks for commenting.


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