Hidden Bouquet

This essay is for fans of my work(1). In particular, those who know me as, and/or have read my work under my original byline, Laura J. Mixon(2).

Something has been on my mind lately, dear ones, and I’d like to share it with you. I’m trying to figure out how to tell this as I go, so I hope you’ll bear with me. I can’t tell you everything, but everything I am about to tell you is true.

I don’t talk a lot publicly about my most deeply held beliefs and opinions. I am a storyteller at heart, not an essayist. I remember, even as a kid, preferring to express myself through narrative. Expositive clarity often bleaches out the most important truths, which become blindingly obvious when viewed through the lens of narrative(3).

But there are times when an essay is necessary, and this is one of those times.

Since the release of my latest book, I’ve encountered some fans of my work who seem not merely perplexed, but also hurt, by my choice to adopt a pseudonym(4). That haunts me.

There are likely as many reasons for readers’ reactions to any writer’s choices as there are reactions, and part of my reluctance to write about this stems from an awareness that there is no way I can fully understand, much less speak to, the heart of any reader. But (and this probably sounds kinda goofy, but still, it’s true) how you feel matters to me.

I keep talking to you in my head, you know. Imagining myself telling you this story. Here’s this woman, y’see, who set out with a shining dream. She would write books that would ignite people’s imagination–stories that bring them the joy that I feel when I read a new book by a favorite author. I imagine telling you all the twists and turns of that woman’s life–the choices made, the failures, the wins–and give you this great ending: I’d tell you with a great reveal and flourish how she achieved her dream! Or at the very least, I’d give you a bittersweet but satisfying ending that showed you how she found meaning in it all, despite not achieving everything she’d hoped for.

But neither of those futures has come to pass. My youthful fantasy of a career as a full-time writer has long since twisted away from me. Like many writers–like most, even(5)–I have to satisfy my storytelling jones in the crannies of a life filled with demands and priorities whose importance can’t be wished away or put off.

In the grander scheme of things, that is no tragedy. But I haven’t made peace with all these competing priorities and psychological Gordian knots that separate me from my personal ever-after, whatever it may be. So how can I, honestly, offer a resolution to you? It wouldn’t be honest, and I promised myself I’d be honest with you.

So herewith, some honesty.

Some of y’all may not care at all that I’ve adopted a new byline, or may not have read my prior works, and you are right there going, hey, I don’t care what you call yourself, as long as you keep writing. Thanks; I appreciate that.

But here’s what my conscience is saying. By abandoning my previous byline, I’ve left some of my readers feeling abandoned, as if their loyalty didn’t matter. And by choosing a gender-neutral byline, I prioritized my own success over my commitment to my fellow women in SFF and science.

To the former, I need you to know: your loyalty really does matter to me.

The nine-year stretch between UP AGAINST IT and BURNING THE ICE was paved with miles of sharp stones. I have many things to be thankful for in my life. But for a variety of reasons, it was hard for me to fight my way back to my writing, and donning a new name seemed like a good way to reboot.

It was my own difficulties and painful memories I was putting behind me, in other words; not you. I am deeply grateful for your readership, and I hope you will be willing to make the leap with me.

To the latter, I say: your criticism is just. But I hope you can believe, I haven’t abandoned you either.

When I was first setting out as a writer, back in my twenties, I spent a long time pondering whether I should write under L. J. Mixon(6). I chose my own name because I am first and foremost a feminist, and I believe we must all strive to carve out space for each other, as we are able, and that means making hard choices sometimes, and taking a leap of faith that everything will come out all right.

I remember recently attending a meeting with a woman my age, a tech-professional woman about fifty, with salt-and-pepper hair. I remember the rush of gratitude I felt. Her choice not to color her hair–a brave choice for a Professional Woman of a Certain Age–was a vivid and visual affirmation that she could be a valuable contributor without having to pretend she was younger, that she didn’t have to play to the expectation that a woman must be young and attractive to have anything worth saying in a professional setting. I felt like tossing my own graying locks in solidarity!

We face a headwind, we women in technology and science. I tried to meet it head-on, on my first go-round. I got knocked back on my heels. Hard. This time I decided to try a different tack. Quite literally, I’m tacking against that headwind. It’s a gamble. We’ll have to see.

I have a whole post I’d like to do sometime, about James Tiptree, Jr., and the choices we make, we Others. The cracks we try to find in the wall. I honor the warriors who batter at that wall, and the clear clarion voices who refuse to be quieted(7). I can’t ask you to grant me a pass on my choice. Your disappointment is fair. But even if I’m not as visible as I might have been or as others are whom I admire for their clarity of voice and vision, I am here. For me, for right now, getting back up on my feet and moving forward again is my affirmation. It’s what I have in me to do.

So, there you have it: MJ Locke. A rosebush that has gotten perhaps a bit stinky in the transplant process, but I give it credit for this much: it’s got its roots planted in the soil again, and its face turned toward the sun.

(1) All twelve of you. Heh. (jk, y’all; you know I love you)
(2) I have published five books and some short works under my own name, prior to the release of UP AGAINST IT.
(3) This is what we writers mean when we say fiction is a string of lies that reveals a deeper truth.
(4) I.e., MJ Locke.
(5) Writers, even successful ones whose names you’ve heard of, don’t make a lot of money.
(6) The question of whether or not a woman’s name on the cover of an SF book (especially hard SF) hurts its sales is not the point of this essay. I’ll pick this one up in a future blog post, if there’s interest.
(7) Not just feminists, but other Others.

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About MJL

I write science fiction and sling other memes on the side. Drop a line in comments!
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33 Responses to Hidden Bouquet

  1. Elizabeth Moon says:

    A thoughtful analysis of a common problem. IMO, any writer has a right to choose the name she/he writes under. And because the reasons for the choice can be so various, the audience should be wary of imputing a particular motive.

    And BTW, it’s a good-looking website.

  2. Cecilia Tan says:

    Wow, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind that adopting a pseudonym could be considered traitorous to the Community of Female Writers, but then I saw the initials “MJ” and read that as female, anyway. (Like writer MJ Rose, and Spiderman’s paramour who is often referred to as MJ instead of Mary Jane)…

    You’re far from alone in the genre, though, of writers of all genders who have had mid-career pseudonym adoptions, if only because the reality of the business is that once Barnes & Noble thinks your name will only sell a certain amount, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, or even a self-dooming one (where they order 20,000 of your first book, and sell 17,000 copies, so they order 17,000 of the next book, and sell 13,000 copies, and so they order 13,000 of the next book, and sell 10,000… and so on it goes until they decide it’s not worth ordering your next book, which is exactly what has happened to many many of our cohort).

    Best of luck under the new moniker!

  3. Elaine Isaak says:

    A wonderful essay–despite your claim to not be an essaist.
    I am in a similar position myself, chosing a new name and how to present that to my fans and frame it for myself. I wish you great success by any name.

  4. Writing and science are each prohibitively challenging callings. To combine both in a woman’s frame is a tall order.

    That said, I wish women did not have to (still) agonize over such choices. On the personal level, the struggle over how to address these issues diverts a huge amount of time and energy from pursuing our primary interests; on the collective level, it divides and weakens us. And fatigue eventually overtakes us, no matter how feisty and strong we are at the start.

    I wish the newest novel (and the fascinating sequels I know are in your head) the great success it deserves.

  5. Add me to the “using a new name” club. It’s a step I’m taking on the advice of my publisher, and one necessitated in part by the chaotic state of bookselling (and therefore publishing and therefore writing) these days. I find it slightly disorienting to look at a page of manuscript with “Kidd” rather than “Robins” in the header and recognize my words but not my name.

    In the end, my goal is to keep telling stories and giving them over for the entertainment of the literally dozens! of people who find and read them. Taking a pseudonym will, I hope, make it easier to do that.

    Me, I’ll just keep reading your work no matter what the name on the spine says, because you are a writer I like to read, whatever the byline,

  6. Titling at windmills can be a fun hobby, but sometimes it helps the cause to sneak inside and loosen the bolts first.

    As someone of both the opposite gender and just starting out, I can see the outline of problem, but not understand the interior furniture. To me it would come down to the choice of if it would be more advantageous to die upon the sword, or live to continue fighting. We all admire the heroics of those who die upon the sword, but I think the cause is better served by those who can continue the fighting. Those who break walls aren’t typically those who throw themselves repeatedly at the wall and bounce off. They’re the ones that think about how to get around the wall and find a way through. Fortunately, each one that finds a way through weakens the wall for the next person.

    As to the readers who feel abandoned, I have to throw my vote with those who would say that with the pseudonym there’s more of your writing in the world, which should make them happy. Especially if the opposite choice was to keep your name and not be published again.

    I’ll also admit that I connote “MJ” as “female.”

  7. Pingback: On Using a Pseudonym | Mindy Klasky, Author

  8. MJL says:

    Wow, some terrific comments. Elizabeth and Elaine, your kind words heartened me… Cecilia, you pegged the situation exactly, with the buying-to-net death spiral.

    Athena, I am right there with you on frustration at being forced to choose and the fatigue that sets in after a while. Sometimes I want to punch a wall, sometimes jump out a window, and sometimes run away and lie on a beach somewhere.

    Steve, LOL on loosening the bolts. I’m open to suggestions! Got a wrench I can borrow?

    Madeleine… oh you Kidd! I didn’t know you were relaunching under a byline! Good to know.

    Re MJ registering as female–I’m actually relieved to hear that.

    There’s something about being pseudonymous that feels very multiple-personality-ish to me. And yet, as y’all say, it means I get to keep writing. Pseudonymity beats obscurity.

    What I really need to do now is buckle down and get regular about writing again, instead of expending my energy worrying about all this nonsense. You know?

  9. Sylvia says:

    This is beautiful and honest. I never read the name as anything but a woman’s so it hadn’t occurred to me that it was obscuring. It saddens me that such decoys are still necessary.

  10. MJL says:

    Thanks, Sylvia. Btw, I tweeted this recently, but want to say again that I really enjoy your website and blog. You have a lot of nifty features there.

  11. Kate Douglas says:

    I’m a romance author, and having a woman’s name in that genre is important enough that most men who write romances do it under a feminine name. My agent has suggested a name change for me, should I write in another genre, so as not to confuse the readers used to my sexy romances. While I’m attached enough to my name to want to keep it (and thinking of the time and effort I’ve put into branding that name) I’m not totally averse to a change. I don’t see it so much as pandering to publishing and a reader’s preconceived idea of the author as I do another form of branding to meet a reader’s expectations. That’s their baggage, not mine, and if changing my names sells more books, so be it.

    My goal is to write books that people enjoy, no matter their gender (or what they think of mine)and to make enough money writing them to support my retired husband and myself. So far it’s working. If it takes a name change to keep it working, I’m there. It’s my career and a business I love. I really don’t care how I’m perceived (by my name) as much as I care that readers buy my books and enjoy them enough to want more. Best of luck to you in your new incarnation. I think we do what we have to do if we’re going to be successful in this difficult and always fascinating business.

  12. Chris Gerrib says:

    Well, as:

    1) A male writer just starting out
    2) Somebody who found and enjoyed you as M. J. Locke

    I have to second what Steve Buchheit said. I also personally read “MJ” as male, but frankly because as a guy that’s my default and I really didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.

    Personally, it doesn’t matter to me if the writers are male or female, or if I agree with the politics or not. I’m just looking for a good story.

  13. MJL says:

    Thanks for weighing in, Kate and Chris. I’m really interested in these different takes on the topic y’all are bringing.

  14. Kayla says:

    High ideals and solidarity etc don’t put dinner on the table. You’re a professional writer, you do whatever you feel is necessary to sell your work (and yourself) to a publisher and to the reading public – well, up to the line that you personally draw in the sand, but the name you choose to write under is, in my opinion (which is not at all humble, by the way), nowhere near close to being a dealbreaker and shouldn’t be for anyone who seriously wants to be published. As a reader, I couldn’t give a damn what gender a writer is or what name they choose to write under. Talent shows through regardless. Just because I am a woman who can be described as a feminist (based on my own history and personal beliefs) means that I must restrict my reading choices to only obviously female authours? Sod that for a game of soldiers.

  15. This is a business decision, MJ — stop beating yourself up over it. Robin Hobb made it, Kate Elliott made it — more people will make it tomorrow. I expect to have to make it with the stuff I’m writing now. I may not even tell the editor.

    I just found out that Daniel Fox’s new series that people are raving about has been dropped with its third and final book only out a week. With a market like this, whatever it takes to keep in the game, if we can do it and produce a book we can be proud of — I agree that it’s the readers’ problem, if they would never pick up Laura’s books, but would try MJ’s books.

    Just keep writing your great books!

  16. SF&F Reader says:

    I don’t know if you read my blog entry on your new ‘byline’ or not. Actually I hope you didn’t. I admit that as more time passes without user comment on my posts I become more confrontational in expression.

    To be completely honest, I don’t care what name you use. I simply could not comprehend the choice. Had Steve not mentioned your new pseudonym on his blog your book would not even have registered on my radar, which would have been a shame.

    I’ve been a follower of both you and Steve since my friend lent me his copy of Wildside back in ’98.

    BTW, if you did read my blog, my comment about the explanation being slightly insulting was not directed at you. I should have expressed myself more clearly and I have updated my blog accordingly.

  17. MJL says:

    Kate, Kathi, and SF&FReader, thanks for commenting. I appreciate hearing your thoughts.

    SF&F Reader, I’m thrilled to have you as a reader.

    I confess, I came across your post and it did influence my thinking, as did Athena’s preface to my blog post, which she posted recently on Starship Reckless… along with a couple of questions and comments I’ve encountered in person.

    Your feelings resonate with my own discomfort, I think. Perhaps it’s a fear of loss of my own identity, or a loss of connection or continuity with my readers.

    Trust me, though, my publisher isn’t trying to manipulate readers with this change. As Cecilia points out above, they are trying to leapfrog me over the midlist death spiral and gain me new readers. In fact, my editor Patrick and Justin Golenbock, my publicist, were the ones that urged me to let the secret out on the connection between my old and new bylines, precisely so my existing readers could find my new stuff.

    I do like the idea of turning over a new leaf. With my girls heading toward college and a new job that I like, I’m seeing opportunities on the horizon — time is beginning to free up for me to devote to my creative projects again. A new identity for a new phase of my life seems pretty cool.

    The question of gender ambiguity is a bigger issue. I’ve been interested to read the different reactions here to my use of initials, for instance.

    It’s easy for me to keep my focus and keep pushing the rock forward with incremental change. I’ve got a lot of patience, persistence, and focus in my makeup. But it’s hard for me to find the energy to fight the big battles with consistency. Especially now.

    I had a decade’s worth of brutal reality during the ’00s. Honestly I felt nigh destroyed by it. I’m still reassembling myself, a chunk at a time.

    Here you go: I am better at being sneaky than scrappy. Given a choice of being a spy or a soldier, I’d probably pick spy.

    A damn shame one can’t snuggle one’s way into gender equity. Ghod, I want to write a story about that sometime. Talk about wish fulfillment. Heh.

  18. HWH says:

    The name(s) only matter to a reader like myself to the extent that I can keep up with the works of someone I know and like to read. Now that I know, I’ll happily read both Laura and MJ, and expect the same enjoyment.

  19. MJL says:

    Thanks, HWH. Glad to hear it.

  20. ChiaLynn says:

    Once upon a time, I quit reading a relatively famous SFF author upon learning that those initials concealed a woman’s name. It wasn’t her choice to veil her identity I objected to – it was the utter lack of strong female characters in the series I had been reading.

    That was, in fact, when I realized how many SFF series were lacking strong female characters.

    I haven’t read Up Against It yet, but I don’t anticipate that being a problem with your work.

    It was also when I realized just how many of the SFF writers who use initials rather than their full names are women – so I wasn’t really surprised by your choice of pseudonym.

  21. MJL says:

    ChiaLynn, thanks for weighing in. I am so with you there. Strong woman characters are my very favorite. In reading AND writing fiction. 🙂

  22. Susan Arscott says:

    As a far-from-young unpublished author of a young adult science fiction book, I too have elected to use initials instead of my first name. I’ve been told it’s best to do so when writing science fiction. Hmmm.

  23. thistle says:

    Here via a link James Nicoll posted. I’ve enjoyed the stories I’ve read under the Mixon byline and have no particular opinion about whether you (or other writers) choose to change the byline. 🙂 One point of trivia: someone, not me, has already edited your Wikipedia page (s.v. Mixon) to mention the Locke byline; there MJ is spelled out as “Morgan J.”

  24. MJL says:

    Hello, thistle! Glad you dropped by. Re the Wikipedia entry, I’m not sure it will last long, as I don’t think I meet their notability criteria… alas! But in the meanwhile, it’s nice to know people will be able to find me.

  25. Wow! i just made the connection tonight.
    I have just been reading the collection Welcome to the Greenhouse, and was pondering the fact that it only appeared to have one female author in it – Judith Moffett. Turns out Pat MacEwen is female too. And then, I finished the last sotry in the collection, which I loved and was very moved by and I thought .. I wonder. Turned to read the bio at the back for M J Locke and thought mmmm why no mention of gender.
    I was stoked to find out only minutes ago that this was not only a woman writer, but Laura Mixon! I totally understand why you might change your byline, and use a gender neutral one – I hate the reasons why, but mostly I’m just really happy you are still writing and i will rush out and buy your new book right away!
    For the record, I don’t think this is uncommon, and i can think of a number of female writers of sf especially harder sf who have to really fight for recognition – Chris Moriarty and Justina Robson come to mind.
    I loved your story and look forward to reading more of your books!

  26. MJL says:

    Wow, thanks for such a supportive message, Helen! Chuffed! And glad you liked “True North.” Bear and Patty were very vivid characters for me; I feel as if they are still with me.

    I am with you on this issue. I really dislike having to veil my gender in order to reach my audience. Glad you were able to make the connection.

    I haven’t read Justina Robson yet–clearly I need to; I hadn’t realized she wrote hard/ tech sf. I love Moriarty’s stuff, as well as Nancy Kress and Linda Nagata.

  27. Suzanne says:

    Just coming across this post now, sorry for the untimely (and what will surely prove to be disorganized and rambling) response.

    I did wonder if the choice of pseudonym was specifically for its gender ambiguity; it’s interesting that (as near as I can tell from the comments above) women tended to assume MJ was female, and men male. And I questioned as well — and I did long before “MJ Locke” existed — whether writing under by own name was automatically going to deprive me of a small portion of audience who don’t believe women can write SF, and if I’d have been better off with my initials, or a pseudonym. In the end, I think the conclusion I came to was that anyone who wasn’t going to read me just because I was female probably wasn’t going to like what I write anyway, and was also probably not the sort of person to have any grand epiphany on social issues in their reading.

    But it’s still a hard thought, and it shouldn’t always have to be a fight. In my day job, that discrimination and bias against women in technology and science is in my face every single day. It’s in the way my (all male) peers all talk over me in meetings but respectfully wait for each other to finish speaking. It’s in the way any technical information I provide is double-checked instead of taken at face value. It’s in the way I get negative comments about not dressing up enough when a peer wears food-stained t-shirts and sandals and no one thinks twice about it. I’m sufficiently nobodyish as a writer that right now I’m not directly feeling that same pressure (as a reader it’s a whole ‘nuther story, of course.) Will it always stay that way? If not, will I regret not having dodged way back when I typed my first byline on a story? I don’t know.

    This is what I do know: the very fact that we are left questioning ourselves (or being questioned by others) over our motives behind our decisions is further symptomatic of a larger problem, where there’s an implicit, reactionary judgment that if we aren’t fighting the fight in all directly visible ways, we can’t possibly be engaged in the struggle in more subtle or indirect ways. Our names are simply a wrapper. It’s our work — our communication, our vision — that is our content, and I would hope that we have come far enough not to judge on wrapper alone.

    In a more directly personal way, even if I knew nothing about you and you were publishing under the name Studly McMachoguy, the truth remains that there is a rare comfort that comes from reading work where, as a woman, I not only can manage to feel like I can fit my self into that author’s world, but where I feel I am welcome, and your work has never failed to do exactly that.

  28. MJL says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful response, Suzanne. Not rambling at all. I appreciate it.

    As a woman in a male-dominated profession, I have found over the years that the constant questioning and subtle (sometimes not so subtle) bullying and dominance behavior I have faced have worn me down and made it hard for me to believe in myself. But your encouragement and words of support and those of everyone here help give me confidence to keep going, keep writing, keep speaking.

    Thanks for checking in.

  29. another rather late response to your reply – yes you should totally read Justina Robson – her earlier work all very hard sf – her most recent series is more fantasy, but still sf-nal and has a fabulous cyborg heroine – the Quantum Gravity Series.

    I’m not sure where the last couple of months have gone, but have today finally ordered your book – I look forward to reading it!

  30. MJL says:

    Hi, Helen, and thanks for dropping by again. I appreciate the recommendation for Robson’s work, as well as your interest in mine.

  31. Does this mean we won’t get a sequel to “Astropilots”? 🙂

  32. pir says:

    just was pointed here by a friend after we had a conversation about the increase in writers changing their names in order to beat the (STUPID.STUPID.STUPID) publishing system. i grumbled about it because for me this tendency means i will lose track of writers i like, because i do not have time to follow industry-watching blogs or, ghods forbid, each individual writer’s blog. you’re one of the writers whose work i really enjoyed, and i thought you had stopped writing — i am delighted to find out you still do so, albeit under a different name.

    one reader’s datapoint: as to the name you’ve chosen, MJ reads neither male or female to me; i simply do not ponder an author’s gender unless the work somehow calls attention to it. i prefer “Laura J Mixon” because AFAIK that’s unique, while i have already several writers “Locke” with various initials tumbling around in my mind. if i were to ponder MJ Locke’s gender, i’d probably guess female or trans because in my experience people obscuring their gender in SF are less likely to be male.

    i don’t care AT ALL what name somebody writes under. i don’t care whether it’s your legal name or a pseudonym. i don’t care whether you write as a woman or a man or gender-neutral. i don’t believe for one second that women can’t write science fiction or even gay romance, or that men can’t wrote strong, believable, female characters. you don’t owe me your real name and gender; our contract is for a good story, nothing more. i understand the desire to write SF as a woman because the genre unfortunately still needs to be hit over the head with the evidence that female writers can write damn good SF, but i completely understand the desire to just write and be read, period. strong female characters probably do as much for the cause of feminism than the perceived gender of the author, and you’ve already proven that you can write those.

    i would just wish that every author who changes their name for whatever reason somehow let me and those like me know — put it in your books that you’ve written as somebody else, add it to your wikipedia page, and put it prominently on your blog. unless you really don’t want readers to find you, you’re losing followers when you change names. i even follow authors across genres if i like their writing, and frankly do not understand why publishers make it so damn difficult.

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