I digress this week from the regularly scheduled post on plot and structure. I was asked about using a pen name, or not using a pen name. So I reached out to the fabulous and most spectacular Carol Berg to talk about her experience. If you are considering using a pen name vs your real name, consider this information. If you are an author published under both a pen name and your real name, or multiple pen names, please reach out to me. I’d love to interview you about your experience.
Carol Berg Interview
Thanks for taking the time to let me interview you about your pen name/real name situation. Since you may be new to some of our readers, why don’t you go ahead and tell us about you, the fabulous and wonderful Carol Berg!
I am a former software engineer and longtime reader who was hooked into writing as a hobby. I then discovered that it was the career passion I had always been looking for. Though I enjoy reading every genre of fiction, writing fantasy is my first love. As Ursula Leguin once said, “Fantasy is the great canvas upon which every human story can be told.” Since my first novel was published in 2000, I have also discovered a love for teaching writing at writers conferences, speaking on panels and meeting readers at fantasy/science-fiction conventions, and spending multiple week-sized chunks of time per year with other writers on mountain writing retreats. My books have won a number of awards, including the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature and multiple Colorado Book Awards. I live in Colorado with my Exceptional Spouse and have three sons who are now putting together exceptional lives for themselves.
What made you start writing fiction and how long have you been at it?
I started writing fiction on the prompt of a friend from the software engineering lab where I worked. We shared a lot of books and talked about them over lunch. One day she confessed to me that she had always wanted to be a writer and coerced me into exchanging email letters “in character”. It was So Much Fun. After a year, we had each written thirty-two long letters (including dialogue and dramatization, of course) and had a complete story. The writing was pretty awful, but I was entirely hooked.
Over the next eight years, while working full time and raising three kids, I wrote seven manuscripts—only for myself. I couldn’t imagine anyone else would ever want to read them. Every once in a while, I would read an article about writing and go back and revise all my stories, using what I learned, but I didn’t know anything about writers conferences, conventions, or the publishing business, so I never submitted anything to anyone – for which I am very grateful! It was during those years that I learned how to write.
How long did it take you to get traditionally published (I am assuming you haven’t done any self-pub at this point but—at least none that I have seen–if so please address that)?
That eighth manuscript was a new story, and I immediately felt a difference in what I was writing–like I “got it.” My friend read the few chapters I’d written and agreed. We found out about the Pikes Peak Writers Conference and signed up; that was in April 1998. One year later, that manuscript (Song of the Beast) won the Pikes Peak contest. At that same conference, I read the opening of yet another a new story for an editor from Penguin. It was called Transformation. She requested a full. I spoke to an agent there who read Song of the Beast and took me on while I finished Transformation. Five days after I sent the finished manuscript to my agent, that editor bought both of those books and also the unwritten sequel to Transformation. So one could say it took me only five days after submitting the novel. Or one year and three months from my first foray into the professional world. Or one could say I experienced an eight-year self-directed writing class from my first attempts at writing and then sold three books.
Nope, no self-pub. Transformation was published in 2000, and sixteen more have followed since. All of my books are traditionally published with Penguin Random House or Tor/Forge, a MacMillan imprint.
How many books have you published under your real name?
Fifteen. All with Penguin Random House. All epic fantasy in five different series.
Why did you decide to publish under a pen name? (I assume it was your decision, but if it was your publisher’s decision, please address that and also how you felt about it—it seems to me that it would double the time it takes to market but maybe not.)
After my fifteenth book came out in December of 2015, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to work on next. My mom was in her late nineties and in a steep decline. My last release had been rocky due to a dispute between Penguin and Amazon which resulted in the book being unavailable for two of its first three weeks. And I was a bit burnt from delivering fifteen books in sixteen years. I took some time off and wrote some short fiction for several anthologies – a new thing for me. Then I had a smattering of an idea for a new series.
Rather than a large over-arching story broken into several volumes, this would be an episodic series of fantasy “heist” adventures with strong mythic foundation and an ensemble cast of characters. I noodled over it for about a year and wrote a first adventure. It was really short compared to my earlier work. I decided I ought to write a second episode, just to prove I could. In November 2017 my agent got after me and told me to send her the first manuscript. I did. She loved it. Told me to write up a proposal. I did. She did a broad submission in January, and Tor (the fantasy/sf imprint of MacMIllan) jumped immediately. Before I knew it I had a three book deal.
On my first call with my new editor – after the contract was signed – she asked if I would consider an open pseudonym. She felt like my series would get more attention as a Tor debut, than as an epic fantasy author moving to a new publisher with a new kind of series. It would open up some marketing programs and expand my audience, while still allowing my current readers to know that it was new work from me. I knew other writers who had done this kind of thing. I talked to my agent, and she agreed that it could be a good thing. Actually, the publishing cycle was not longer. The book came out one year after I delivered the finished manuscript. Sixteen months from after signing the contract to publication.
How many books have you published under your pen name?
Two. An Illusion of Thieves came out in May 2019. A Conjuring of Assassins comes out in February 2020. The third is in development.
How did you come up with your pen name?
I asked my agent for advice and she said she had only three rules. Make it:
- Easily pronounceable
- Short enough to fit easily on the book spine
- Reasonably high in the alphabet
That made sense to me. So I looked at family names first. My mother’s family name is Glass – and I thought that had a great fantasy vibe, plus it met all of the agent’s criteria. Then I went looking for a first name that would sound good with it. I considered initials or an androgynous name as there is certainly a history of gender issues in the speculative fiction realm, ie. women writers not being taken seriously. But I decided not to bow to that. And the situation is improving. Thus, Cate Glass.
How does having a pen name affect any marketing you do?
Truly Tor has been great about providing marketing outlets. My main difficulty is deciding whether to appear at a conference as one or the other. I haven’t gotten past the notion that more people will show up at a panel or presentation for Carol Berg than for Cate Glass. I don’t know when my mind might switch gears.
Do you market the same with both names? How does that work?
For the most part. So far I tend to keep the Cate Glass social media closely related to the books. Carol is both personal and professional.
What are the pros of using a pen name?
The jury is still out. I hope it will result a wider audience, both in capturing readers who assume that all of Carol Berg’s writing is in a certain style, and drawing in those who more commonly read shorter, more episodic subgenres of fantasy fiction. I know that it has been very successful for writers like Robin Hobb. As Megan Lindholm, she wrote well-reviewed and beloved fantasy.
But after taking on the pen name, the work became fabulously successful. But of course, it all depends on the books themselves—not the name. No one can tell me, as yet, why one book from an author comes and goes, while another from the same author finds the wider audience and commercial as well as artistic success.
Managing two social media platforms. I’m not great or consistent at one platform, two feels burdensome. Deciding what Cate should say or Carol say. How to differentiate, or even whether to differentiate. Do I maintain two newsletter lists? Send different newsletters—I’ve heard that I should.. A closed pseudonym, where there is no public knowledge that Cate and Carol are the same, would drive me bonkers. I would not have agreed to it.
If you could do it all over again would you do it differently? How and why?
I would have streamlined more from the beginning. I started out by creating non-integrated web pages, non-integrated social media platforms. I only do Facebook and Twitter to begin with, but even that became burdensome when I am deep in the middle of a book – which is like all the time. Gradually I have integrated the websites, each acknowledging the other identity. I want readers to be able to find Cate and learn what they want to know, and then discover the path to Carol and her books. And visa versa, of course. I spent way too much time at first trying to do two Twitter streams. Oof. I would consult with more pseudo’d authors to see what they found effective. In my case, the books sold so quickly and I was immersed in the revision/release/writing the next so immediately, that I never got time to say, “OK, this is how I’m going to manage it.” That is, I would make a better plan.
Carol Berg majored in mathematics at Rice University, in part so she wouldn’t have to write papers. But while earning her mathematics degree, she took every English course that listed novels on the syllabus, just so she would have time to keep reading.
Somewhere in the midst of teaching math, raising three sons, earning a second degree in computer science at the University of Colorado, and a software engineering career, another friend teased her into exchanging letters written “in character.” Once Carol started writing fiction, she couldn’t stop.
Carol’s fifteen epic fantasy novels have earned national and international acclaim, including the Geffen Award, the Prism Award, multiple Colorado Book Awards, and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. She has been twice voted the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Writer of the Year.
Carol’s newest work, written as her alter ego Cate Glass, is a fantasy adventure series called Chimera about a rag-tag quartet of sorcerers who take on missions of deception and intrigue in a world where magic earns the death penalty. The first book, An Illusion of Thieves, will be released in May 2019 by Tor Books. Carol lives in Colorado at the foot of the Rocky Mountains with her Exceptional Spouse.
Writing as Cate Glass, author of An Illusion of Thieves, first novel of the Chimera,
from Tor Books, and A Conjuring of Assassins, forthcoming Feb 2020. <www.categlass.com>
Award-winning author of the Books of the Rai-kirah, The Lighthouse Duet,
The Sanctuary Duet, the Novels of the Collegia Magica… <www.carolberg.com>