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Author: JennyTrout

Second Chance Book Club: The Mister, Chapter Three or “Deja View”

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In the grand tradition of renaming characters to reflect where E.L. James nabbed them from, Maxim Trevelyan is now Moss Troldark. Alessia is now Demelssia Carmachi.

And the author is still a real piece of work.

Honestly, as a reader, I feel cheated. I went into this with every intention of being open-minded. And I sat here like, wow, I’m really enjoying this! Sure, the writing isn’t great, but I can ignore terrible writing for a story this gripping!

I should have known the story wasn’t hers.

And what really gets me, deep, deep down, is that she clearly did so much differently from Fifty Shades of Grey based on what critical reviews dinged her for. There’s emphasis on consent, the hero isn’t an abusive and irredeemable douchebag, it just was reading like she understood the reasons people hated her first series and tried to make this some kind of example that yes, she can really write, yes, she can really learn.

The only lesson she didn’t take away from the experience was the part where people were like, “Hey, maybe don’t steal people’s shit.”

Second Chance Book Club: The Mister, Chapter Two or, “Oh, now I know why I was enjoying this so much.”

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I was devouring this book. Devouring it. I was astonished at how much better the plot of this book was, how much she’d grown as a writer.

And then commenter Sushi pointed out that it’s Poldark.

No. Really.

E.L. James just rewrote Poldark.

  • Maxim is the only male relative of the Earl of Trevethick. Ross is the only male relative of the Master of Trenwith.
  • The Earldom includes an estate in Cornwall. Trenwith includes ownership of an estate in Cornwall.
  • Maxim is captivated by his young housekeeper who has escaped an abusive past. Ross is captivated by his young housekeeper who has escaped an abusive past.
  • Maxim’s captivating young housekeeper has an uncanny talent at the piano. Ross’s captivating young housekeeper has an uncanny talent for singing.
  • Maxim’s brother and closest male relative married Maxim’s first love and childhood best friend. Ross’s cousin and closest male relative married Ross’s first love and childhood best friend.
  • Maxim stands to inherit the Earldom until Caroline reveals she’s pregnant with her late husband’s heir (spoiler alert). Ross stands to inherit Trenwith until Elizabeth produces an heir before her husband dies.

And for extra fuckery? Ross Poldark owns mines in Cornwall. Trevethick is the real-life name of a famous Cornish mining engineer.

I shit you not. She did it again. She took someone else’s work and she did it again.

Now, lest you go, “Oh, well, it’s like when people remake Jane Austen novels,” Winston Graham’s final Poldark novel came out in 2002. We’re not talking, oh, this is so old and out of copyright and nobody alive even owns it anymore. This is quite literally Fifty Shades of Twilight all over again. And the poor dude can’t fight her because he’s dead.

Second Chance Book Club: The Mister, Prologue/Chapter One or “To my overwhelming surprise…this is actually kind of good.”

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Once again, I stare down the cold, unfeeling face of spring with an E.L. James book in my hands. This time, however, my trepidation is born not of whispered contempt and one-star reviews, but the knowledge of what the author’s past literary efforts have wrought. I have not heard the dread tales told by sailors; I have lain mine own eyes upon the yawning maw and vast, slithery tentacles writhing in the horrors of the deep.

In other words, I’m about to read The Mister.

My mind recoils from the task. Every ridge of my brain, every nerve and memory bears the scars of my past encounters with James’s work. The story that started off amusingly naive before descending into a Lifetime Original nightmare, a fever dream from which the zeitgeist could not, would not, utterly refused to wake. The popularity of James’s celebration of a sociopathic man and the woman who embraced his manipulations until she learned to tolerate all the abuse he expected her to take for his convenience dismayed me so much that by the time we reached his side of the story, I just couldn’t take it anymore. The beast slew me.

But as I said in my post yesterday, I’m ready to give James a second chance. The Mister is, as far as I can tell, an original piece of fiction. In her own sandbox, playing with her own toys, what will James be able to create? Without the fawning adoration of thousands of Fanfic.net users begging for more violence, more abuse, more control, manipulation, and fear, what is she capable of?

As it turns out…it’s actually not too bad. So far.

Prologue: Okay, full disclosure? The prologue didn’t inspire a lot of hope. It opens with an explanation of what the word “daily” means as it applies to newspapers and cleaning staff. And by “explanation” I mean, literally, a single page with the two definitions written dictionary style in case we’re too stupid to pick up the meaning from context. I assume there will be some kind of daily/daily joke in the book that made this necessary, and when I get to it, I’ll be like, “Oh. I see now that the ‘daily’ page was a response to an editorial note.”

Obviously, I’m joking. E.L. James is a guaranteed money maker. There is no way anyone made editorial suggestions beyond typos.

Now, I didn’t want to come right out of the gate with a comparison to Fifty Shades, I really didn’t. But The Mister opens so similarly to Fifty Shades Darker that I had some kind of flashback.

No. No. No. Not the black. Not the choking dark. Not the plastic bag. Panic overwhelms her, forcing the air from her lungs.

It’s written in the same third-person, present-tense as Baby-Christian’s inner monologue was and I developed an immediate rash.

E.L. James has never met a word that didn’t sound better three times in a row. The “No. No. No.” I can see. It’s the following:

It will be over, and then I will be free. Free. Free.

and:

Go. Now. Run. Run. Run. Go.

that really stick out when they’re stacked together. Our heroine is in a flight so desperate, she runs into some woods and makes a nest out of leaves to hide and sleep in. Tossing in words in groups of three makes it seem less like an escape and more like bad slam poetry.

Go. Go. Go. Don’t stop.

I mean.

Cold. Cold. Too cold.

This was probably not written with the intention of making the reader sing, “Vanilla Ice, ice, baby too cold, too cold,” out loud in their bedroom at one in the morning, but it happened and there’s no way to undo it now.

The prologue is basically made up of several micro-scenes as the heroine flees from a shopping center to the woods, to an urban setting. She has an address she’s headed to–

This is where she needs to go. Now. Now. Now.

Could you please. Just for one god damn minute.

I get the effect James is going for here. The thought process was that if she wrote short, choppy, stream-of-consciousness sentences, the passages would feel more urgent. But they don’t. They just feel childish. It was way too childish when she wrote this way in the POV of a four-year-old, so it sure isn’t going to work for an adult. But we get things like:

One foot in front of the other. Walk. It’s all she can do. Walk. Walk. Walk. Wake and walk on. Walk.

And it just becomes monotonous. We see her go into a McDonald’s bathroom to drink water and the food “smells enticing” which is like the only time anyone has ever used that word to describe McDonald’s. Then we jump to the next section and she’s, surprise, still cold and still walking.

And she walks and walks, following the map. A stolen map. Stolen from a store. A store with twinkling lights and Christmas music.

A gif of Kronk from The Emperor's New Groove saying, "Oh right. The Poison. The poison for Kuzco. The poison chosen specifically for Kuzco. Kuzco's poison."

Our heroine arrives at the address she’s been looking for, where a woman named Magda has been expecting her for over a week and has no idea what happened to her.

The word “cold” is used eight times in the prologue. Eight times on one page, going by Kindle’s classification of pages. So is “walk.”

You know, not to spoiler anything, but the less said about the heroine’s POV and how it’s written, the better. At least, at this point. We’ll have time to get into the rest later.

Chapter one:

Mindless sex–there’s a lot to be said for it.

Whoa now, that’s a real change in pace, ain’t it? This is our introduction to Maxim Trevelyan, the hero of the book. And while a passage like:

Who was it last time? Jojo? Jeanne? Jody? Whatever. She was some nameless fuck who moaned a great deal both in and out of bed.

might make the casual or non-reader of the genre go, “Ugh, gross, no, get him away,” I assure you, he falls in line with the bad boys of romance here. If someone didn’t read romance, this might have been a throw-the-book moment, but I’m familiar with the tropes, so while I rolled my eyes, I kept on going.

We learn that tonight, he’s not with any ordinary one-night stand. He’s slept with his best friend, Caroline, for what is not the first time. He’s all about thinking how wrong the situation is, how he loathes himself, and it’s like, you know, calm down, dude. So, you slept with your best friend. That’s another entire romance novel trope right there.

This is Caroline, for heaven’s sake, my best friend and my brother’s wife.

Oh. No, that’s a lot different than I was thinking. You’re right, that’s really bad.

Ex-wife.

Oh…kay. All right, yeah. Still bad. Probably shouldn’t be doing that, but at least we’ve taken a step down, right?

No. Not ex-wife.

Uh-oh.

His widow.

Yike. But okay, I can see it. It’s a highly emotional time and it makes sense that something like this could happen, as ill-advised as it may be. And it’s a great set-up, really. Our hero isn’t just grieving, he’s destructively grieving? Let me hop right on the James train because this is the angst I live for. Choo choo, motherfuckers!

Caroline wakes and begs Maxim to have sex with her again, so she can forget her grief and pain.

And because I’m hurting, too–because I miss him, too–and Caroline is my connection to him, my lips find hers and I ease her onto her back.

Hello. My name is Jenny Trout. And I am extremely present and accounted for, specifically for this type of thing.

There’s a section break and Maxim wakes to an empty bed and a note from Caroline about having dinner with “Daddy and the Stepsow.” If you thought this was going to be an E.L. James book sans-internalized misogyny, oh ho, dear readers. The “Stepsow” is referred to that way at least through the second chapter and I assume further into the book.

We also learn that it’s only been two days since his brother’s funeral. So. He and Caroline didn’t wait for the marriage bed to cool much, right?

Well, I have some news that will shock readers of the original Fifty Shades recaps to their very marrow.

Caroline is a blonde.

Just a nightcap, she’d said, and I’d gazed into her big blue eyes, brimming with sorrow, and known what she wanted. It was the same look she’d given me the night we learned of Kit’s accident and untimely death. A look I couldn’t resist then.

Oh. So you guys banged like…immediately after hearing that your brother, her husband, died? I guess that could be a natural… Um. You know, I’m not going to police anyone’s grief here.

We’d almost danced the dance so many times, but that night I resigned myself to fate, and with an unerring inevitability I fucked my brother’s wife.

Wow. So. You guys had already flirted with the idea of doing this…and then hours after his death, you acted on it. I mean, again, I’m not policing anyone’s grief but I’m just saying, this is the kind of thing I want to see the hero doing with the heroine. In a historical. And the husband was an evil duke who was mean to her.

Maxim’s brother’s name, by the way, is Kit.

You know. How you name one kid something clunky and Russian that literally means, “the greatest” and you name the other one three letters after a baby fox?

Anyway, Maxim gives Caroline a pass on fucking him so soon and so often, but he’s super hard on himself about it. He thinks about how his brother was always so well-liked, how great he was, and how he deserved better in life. Maxim also describes himself as a “wastrel,” so I’m starting to wonder why this isn’t just a Regency romance in the first place.

Then he tries to steer away from his grief, straight into gross town:

She likes it. I like it, and it’s what I do best, fucking some eager, attractive woman into the small hours of the morning. It’s my favorite recreational activity and gives me something to do–someone to do. Fucking keeps me fit, and in the throes of passion I learn all I need to know about a woman–how to make her sweat and if she screams or cries when she comes.

Caroline is a crier.

Caroline has just lost her husband.

Shit.

And I’ve lost my big brother, my only guiding light for the last few years.

Here,  James is able to do with Maxim Trevelyan what she failed to do with Christian Grey. Both of them are womanizing pieces of trash. But Maxim has a conscience. Christian had a rationalization. Christian Grey would absolutely argue that fucking keeps him in shape, that all he needs to know about a woman is what she’s like during sex, and then he would turn it around to, “because my mom died twenty-three years ago, this is all acceptable behavior.” Maxim is a dude who is two days out from the funeral of a brother he loves. There is actual human feeling and emotional response to Maxim. And he hasn’t used his emotional response to dupe or pressure Caroline into anything; he’s weaponizing his grief against himself, not an outside target.

Maxim continues to beat himself up about how much better and more responsible his brother is, then decides he needs to hit the gym. He runs on the treadmill and we learn that his inner-monologue has a thing for threes, as well:

Run. Breathe. Run. Breathe.

Don’t think about Kit. Don’t think about Caroline.

Run. Run. Run.

Oh my god, you and your heroine are going to be perfect for each other!

As I cool down, the treadmill slows, and I jog through the final stretch of my five-mile sprint.

So, you know how much word repetition irks me, both as a writer trying to avoid it and as a reader having to see it, right? This is one of the things I don’t understand about James’s writing. She will hammer one word, like, oh, I don’t know, cold, for example, over and over again eight times on one page, and not just for emphasis; some of the “cold” in the prologue was used in random description where it could have easily been swapped with another adjective without ruining the effect she was going for and already ruining. Here, we have a case where she’s clearly not wanting to repeat “run” so she swaps it out for “sprint.” But that’s the wrong word. Five miles isn’t a sprint. And you don’t jog a sprint. Not even the last part of a sprint. A sprint is where you go all out, full capacity, for a very short distance.

Writing Tip: Word rep is obnoxious to read and write, but sometimes, it’s unavoidable. Don’t replace one word with a different, incorrect word to avoid it. If you can’t find an equivalent synonym, just bite down on a leather strap and battlefield medicine your way through typing out that repetitive word.

Maxim backs up his “wastrel” remark by explaining that he’s never done a day of work in his life. He’s been the party guy, living off his trust-fund, while Kit worked hard for everything he got. Except for heirs. He doesn’t have any of those, so Kit made Maxim the executor of his will and you know, I’m not 100% sure this isn’t just a regency romance brought into the future.

Upstairs in his shower, Maxim thinks about Caroline and what’s going to happen next. We learn that they’re best friends since boarding school, where they met at thirteen. She was his first love and the woman he lost his virginity to and…she married his brother. I’m dying to know the backstory there. No sarcasm at all, guys. I’m actually really into the book at this point.

He makes it clear that he and Caroline are not going to be together, and that they never got together while his brother was alive, which really goes a long way for me in the “liking Maxim” department. I don’t know if I would be cool with a hero who fucked his dead brother’s wife while the dead brother was alive.

So, Maxim gets dressed, thinks about how his “daily,” an old Polish woman name Krystyna, will be there because it’s Monday. I’m going to be honest, if I find out there is a word for cleaning lady called “daily” and it’s used when people don’t come clean, you know, daily, I’m going to be a very unhappy person for the rest of my life. He goes outside and walks along Chelsea Embankment, which is important to note here because it is on the cover of the book. Also, I haven’t included it here yet, but the fact that he can see the Thames from his apartment is brought up…

Often.

He goes to see his lawyer, Mr. Rajah, and comments on the receptionist’s “olive skin” and how hot she is and how easy it would be to get her phone number. So, this is going to be another book where every side character is a woman who might or might not be a race other than white but who in any case is very attracted to and easily obtainable by the hero.

So, the lawyer comes out and says:

“Lord Trevethick, may I offer you my sincered condolences for your loss,”

And it took me a second to realize that the guy didn’t have a bizarrely-placed lisp or something. Note I would have made, as an editor? “Trevethick and Trevelyan are too close.”

Kit was Earl of Trevethick, see, and with no heirs, that means the title goes to Maxim, who coveted the position as a child. Because Kit was the heir, he was treated better by their mother. Styled Viscount Porthtowan until their father’s death when Kit was twenty, he became the twelfth Earl of Trevethick–

Hang on. What in the Jane Austen is going on here? This is a Regency romance! He’s even sitting alone by the fire, at his club, drinking and contemplating his vast inheritance. Oh, and Caroline? She has been left nothing in the will.

No wonder I’m liking this so much. It could have been written by someone writing Elizabeth Gaskell fanfic and then publishing it to the delight and rapture of the Ton.

Maxim is pretty sure Caroline is going to challenge the will, but at the moment she’s texting him, wondering where he is, and he’s so upset about everything he’s going to talk his feelings out to Tinder and some cocaine. There’s a paragraph break, and he’s brought a woman back to his apartment, where she looks out over the Thames because, again, it comes up a lot. So much, I went back and checked and so far, by page eleven, there have been four mentions of the fact that he can see the river from his house.

Anyway, Maxim has brought this chick, Heather, back to his place, where she does not do the totally free cocaine he subtly offers her, which to me means that Heather can afford her own cocaine, thank you very much. Now, here is another place, guys. Here is another place I have to refer back to Fifty Shades of Grey for comparison:

I step closer so that she has to angle her head to look at me. I’m careful not to touch her.

Wait, there’s more, further down the page:

“What do you want?” I watch as her gaze moves to my mouth. It’s an invitation. I pause for a moment, just to make sure I’m reading her correctly, then lean down and kiss her.

A hero worrying about consent? In an E.L. James book? In this economy?!

It’s actually kind of sexy, with him asking her what she wants, and all the kissing and thinking about how hot her body is, how sober she is, and he asks her again what she wants and then…

She’s turned on. Big time.

Well, I don’t know about you, but there goes my boner.

Not his, though. They go to the bedroom, where there’s more kissing and he undresses her and–

Heather tosses her hair over her shoulder as she turns and gives me a searing look from beneath her lashes.

Damnit, Erika, we talked about this! How many times have we talked about this? So many, Erika! A thousand many!

But at least she’s listened to one of the loudest criticisms of Fifty Shades in that she’s putting a huge emphasis on consent for both parties.

They fall into bed together, and then we cut to Maxim awake at five in the morning, wondering when he can kick her out. And he’s not mean about it, he just wishes he was alone. He remembers a lot of details about Heather that we don’t really need or care to know about, like where she lives and what her job is. Then he remembers Caroline exists.

Three whining texts and several missed calls from Caroline have pissed me off.

Hey, so. She’s your best friend and dead brother’s wife and you fucked her like, within hours of her husband, your brother, dying. Let’s cut it with the “whining” angle. I want to keep thinking you’re a better guy than your predecessor.

On the other hand, the texts from Caroline read:

WHERE RU?

CALL ME!

*POUTING*

And like. Again, not to police anyone’s grief here. But…”*pouting*”? That’s the text a twenty-year-old sends her boyfriend playfully when he doesn’t want to come over. Not the text a thirty-something adult woman (I mean, I don’t know her age, but I assume they’re in their thirties) sends her dead husband’s brother when she’s DTF.

So, here is where the characterization and conflict get a little murky:

She knows the deal; she’s known me long enough. A quick tumble between the sheets isn’t going to change how I feel about her. I love her…in my own way, but as a friend, a good friend.

Earlier in the chapter, it seems like Maxim really loved her and she chose his brother instead. Then he was like, Caroline knows we’re incompatible. Now, it’s like she’s the one who’s chasing him and he doesn’t have romantic feelings for her. This is something that is going to need to get cleared up before we go any further.

Sadly, that’s not going to happen in chapter one. Heather wakes up and they have a little conversation where he says he’ll call her and she’s like, no, you won’t, and oh, before that, there’s another reference to being able to see the Thames from his apartment.

Most of these are mentions of the way the light reflects off the water and onto his ceiling. Sometimes, it’s tied to his emotions. Other times, it’s purely decoration.

Anyway, while they wait for Heather’s car to arrive, we learn that Maxim has a piano, a guitar, and DJ equipment because he’s into music. Also, photography. And modeling. So, he really does just kind of do whatever he feels like, and we’re meeting him at the moment where suddenly, he has responsibilities. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to play with in a character who goes from alpha man-child to responsible dude real quick like. And Maxim has to be responsible; he now owns three estates and a bunch of London property, including the people who work it and depend on him for their livelihood.

Shit got real Downton Abbey, real, real fast for Lord Trevethick.

Anyway, before Heather goes, she tells him she hopes he finds what he’s looking for, and he gets all in his head over what she could have possibly meant by that. Then he goes back to bed and the chapter is over.

My impression so far: Guys…it’s actually not that bad. Like, no, seriously. I’ve read past this point. I’ll probably spend all day reading this unless things take a drastic turn because it has hooked the fuck out of me. The writing is, eh…it’s still not good. Has it improved? Eh…no. Will it probably ever improve? Doubtful in the extreme, given the fact that writers usually stop receiving true editorial guidance once they reach James’s status. But it’s not like I haven’t read worse on AO3 or Literotica and enjoyed it. And I’m interested in this whole concept of a Regency romance plot brought forward into modern times. Maybe this is what people felt when they first started reading Fifty Shades of Grey and went on to like it. Maybe there is charm and charisma to her work that I missed the first time around.

I guess we’ll have to tune in tomorrow to see.

Second Chance Book Club: THE MISTER starts Tuesday

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Everything old is new again. After is in the news and E.L. James has a book coming out.

You asked.

I humbly answer your call.

The Mister, James’s first non-Fifty Shades of Grey novel, is out tomorrow. When it hits my Kindle tonight at midnight, I’ll be reading it and, yes, recapping it here. But rather than make it a selection of the Jealous Haters Book Club (which already has a current resident), I’m giving it a second chance. It’s going to be the Second Chance Book Club, for a few reasons.

Though it seems like only yesterday, Fifty Shades of Grey was published eight years ago. That’s eight years for James to have grown and evolved as a writer, and as a person. Maybe she doesn’t find intimate partner abuse as spine-tingling and sexy as she used to. Sure, she wrote Grey and Darker in that time frame and they somehow turned out more disturbing than their source material, but those actually give me some hope for The Mister; instead of writing how romantic and wonderful Christian Grey was from his own POV, she made him the abusive monster critical readers actually saw the first time around.

In any case, when James was writing Grey and Darker, she was yolked to the Fifty Shades of Grey storyline. She couldn’t change anything about the plot, characterization, or dynamics. On top of that, Fifty Shades of Grey wasn’t even really hers. Everyone and their mother will argue these days that plagiarism isn’t really plagiarism until it happens to [redacted cattiness], but the fact remains that while Fifty Shades of Grey might belong to James materially, the story and characters are not hers. In The Mister, she’s going to have to show readers what she can come up with on her own, without taking from another author. Considering my own fanfic background and the fanfic backgrounds of other authors, I’m actually really excited to see what happens to James when the training wheels come off. Fanfic communities tend to breed good authors. Maybe a book with characters and events that weren’t stolen from someone else for profit will turn out better than Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels did.

That’s why this isn’t going to be a Jealous Haters Book Club event. I plan on busting through this one with shorter, more frequent recaps, the way I did the first Fifty Shades of Grey recaps before I hit the wall of, “What am I reading? Is this real life?” and the whole thing spun off into 3,000-5,000 word installments of me gnashing my teeth and wanting to slap women in public. Expect to see the pace pick up here at the blog in wall-to-wall The Mister posts for a while. Everything else is going on hold. We are entering a Trout Nation state of emergency.

Everybody limber up.

State Of The Trout: I FINISHED A BOOK AND I’M GOING TO TALK AT YOU ABOUT IT.

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GOOD NEWS EVERYONE! Well, at least, good news for me. After a horrible six or so months of constant stress and a serious mental health crisis, I finally managed to finish a book! I did it! Let me show you the cover!

The cover of Where We Land is yellow, with "Abigail Barnette" above the title and a little cartoon of a ginger dude in a hoodie and stocking cap playing guitar to a brown-haired white girl in a ringer tee and jeans. Pink hearts float between them.

I started writing this…oh, god knows when I started. I had such high hopes for it. I planned to release it in March, but since then, various circumstances have made writing difficult to painful to impossible. And my heart hurt, because I love, love, love this book. But between a severe breakdown, legal trouble stress, and people constantly talking about New Adult in the past-tense, I started to think I should abandon it and move on to something else.

But I didn’t. Because I love this little love story. I really do. I love that it’s not about two people in college with their whole futures ahead of them, but two non-students stranded in a college town, feeling like their lives are passing them by. I love that it’s friends-to-lovers, “oh my god, they were roommates,” and features the most beta, cinnamon roll hero I’ve ever written. I love that they’re just two people trying to get by, who worry about money, who work multiple thankless jobs (he’s a CNA at a nursing home, she works in a head shop and a cafe), who don’t get much time off and who are both terrible at dating. I love that there’s nothing glamorous about them. I. Just. Love. Daniel and Lauren.

I’ll have an excerpt and release date soon. In the meantime, here’s a Spotify playlist of songs that inspired me while I wrote Where We Land (and whose artists, labels, mothers, dog walkers, etc. are in no way affiliated with the book in any official capacity or endorsement).

Thanks, everyone for being patient with me so far this year as content on the blog has been spotty and my release schedule has been slow. I appreciate and love you guys and I can’t wait to be able to share Where We Land with all of you!

EDITED TO ADD: I totally forgot one of my other favorite parts about this book: it’s set in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I spent my post-high school/non-college/what am I doing with my life? days. I also shamelessly resurrected Boogie’s, a coffee shop that sadly closed years ago but which was the scene of so many of my own pivotal moments in early adulthood. That’s what you get to do when you’re a writer; you get to bring stuff back from the dead!

The Copyright Lawsuit. What was THAT about?!

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Hey there, Trout Nation friends! Remember a few weeks ago when I was like, surprise, I’m getting sued? Well, now that the suit is settled, case closed, glad that’s over, I can tell you what happened and more importantly, how to protect yourself from some common mistakes, because “oh shit, I didn’t know it worked like that,” is not a valid legal defense.

Like four years ago I had a series on this blog called “Double Steve Bonus Monday.” Born out of an off-handed comment a friend made after her young daughter’s surgery (anesthesia left the poor kid seeing Blue’s Clues in stereo), I posted an image of someone either named Steve or with a name from that same Steve-centric group, like Stephanie or Stefan. I would repeat this image one on top of the other with no explanation whatsoever as to why they were there or what “Double Steve Bonus Monday” meant. It was just garden variety Jenny weirdness that amused no one but myself. One of the Steves was Steve Forbes. And that’s the photo I got sued over.

You have no idea how much I laughed over middle-class me getting sued about a picture of a billionaire.

About a year ago, I got an email from a law office. I get a lot of vaguely threatening emails from law offices and they’re always very obvious scams claiming that you owe money to whatever random company you don’t know and you better settle up or they’ll send someone to your work to get the money and you’ll be embarrassed and I’m like, jokes on you, I embarrass myself at my work all the time. But this one looked pretty legit. They were contacting me on behalf of their client, whose photo I had used on my website without a license. And they wanted nearly $7,000.00 to make things right.

I thought, well, that’s weird. Why would I need a license? I didn’t use it on a book cover or a t-shirt. I didn’t put it on an album cover or run it behind a paywall. I didn’t sell the image and I didn’t make any money from it. It wasn’t like these were the days of the wild, wild internet west and I simply didn’t realize there were laws governing the use of other people’s photos. In fact, I thought I had a pretty good handle on what did and did not constitute fair use (I did not) and that since my site wasn’t monetized at the time of the post and the photo was used in part as a parody, I was in the clear.

An industry professional I spoke with felt the same way. “This seems like it would fall under fair use,” they said. “I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Just take it down and they’ll back off.” On top of that, this person said the email felt “scammy” because of the upfront demand for money. Several people I spoke to about it, all of them professionals in creative fields, felt that coming out of the gate asking for cash was a red flag. Besides, anyone who’s ever written fanfic knows that a C&D is the first step! Nobody takes your money unless you disregard the C&D!

All of that is wrong. You might be sitting at home right now thinking of the time you used a photo of a celebrity in your IG book promo or you tossed a few song lyrics into your fanfic and maybe you’re sweating a little bit, but you’re thinking that of course, you’d take that down if you received a C&D. But despite the conventional wisdom spouted on the internet, the first step in an infringement lawsuit is not a C&D. The client and their attorneys are under no obligation to give you that chance to remove the material before they attempt to recover financial damages.

Also, the way I used the image did not fall under fair use. Though Steve Forbes was being made the target of a joke (or parody, to get all fair use-y), it wasn’t Steve Forbes suing me. It was the photographer, suing because I had used his work without permission. If I had altered the image or copied the image in a parody of that particular photographer’s style, that would have been a parody, but being a photo of the subject of a parody wasn’t enough to make it fall under fair use. A lot of you are probably going, “duh, Jenny, anybody could have figured that out,” but based on the conversations I had with people who work with this stuff all the time for a living, it’s apparently not that obvious.

My response to the first email was to remove the images from the site and simply say, hey, I don’t have that kind of cheddar lying around, this is all I can do for you. I figured that taking it down was the end of things, but I was once again contacted with the demand for money. I responded that I had removed the photo, no malicious infringement was intended, and they should consider the matter closed because I still didn’t have that amount of money available. When they contacted me yet again, I lost my patience. I had done some research on this law office and learned that they make their money with software that crawls the internet doing reverse image searches of all their clients’ registered copyrights. They then issue the offer of a settlement and threat of a lawsuit.

After responding in good faith to a few of their attempts to threaten me with judgments and court costs in excess of hundreds of thousands of dollars, I snapped. I told them that I had removed the photo and that while I respected their hustle, I wasn’t going to pay them because I simply did not have the money.

I didn’t hear from them for months. When they contacted me again, it was via first class mail, with one last attempt to collect, and the prepared brief they would be filing. At that point, I sought legal counsel. Here, I began to understand just how dire my position was. The work was not transformative in itself. And though I hadn’t sold the image or put it on anything else I sold, I did monetize my website in 2017 with an affiliate link, while the post from 2015 was still visible on the site.

To date, I’ve made $37.00 from the affiliate link, but the law wasn’t on my side; they were suing for statutory, not real, damages, meaning the judge could have awarded them anywhere from $700.00 to $150,000.00 dollars plus court fees and the legal fees paid by the client. Since it was a Double Steve Bonus Monday, I’d posted the photo twice. If I lost, I was warned, I could potentially wind up with nearly half a million dollar judgment against me. Obviously, I decided to settle.

Now, I want to reiterate that this was not malicious infringement. I did not post this photo thinking, “Aha! I will use this photographer’s work and become rich! Fuck that guy!” I just didn’t understand fair use the way I thought I did (this will not be the last time that my supreme confidence in my own understanding of a topic will be my downfall). And I also want to reiterate that I appreciate copyright lawyers and the work they do to keep creatives safe. I’m not saying I didn’t fuck up and do something that infringed on someone else’s copyright; I did and I’m horrified that my ignorance resulted in me doing something I find repugnant. But I don’t think I’m the only person who carelessly commits infringement without realizing it, so here are some tips to avoid lawsuits:

  • Always use the usage rights filter tool when Googling. I could have saved myself a lot of hassle by knowing this trick prior to 2015. You can do a Google image search for pictures that are labeled for reuse for your needs.
  • Know what constitutes commercial use. One tiny affiliate link is all it takes to bump your site from noncommercial into commercial use. Noncommercial use is also subject to copyright laws, but it’s a lot more difficult to argue against statutory damages if you’ve even attempted to monetize the content. And it doesn’t matter if you used the photo on your blog long before you monetized it.
  • Don’t use photos with watermarks on them, for god’s sake. That’s what the watermark is for. There’s currently an author on Twitter using a watermarked photo as her profile header while she’s out there screaming about how she’s going to sue everyone for everything under the sun and I just stare at it every time I see it. The watermark is clearly visible. If all your images bear the ghostly mark of “SHUTTERSTOCK” across them, it’s hard to believe the person using it had no idea it was copyrighted. (For a while, there was something of a meme to use blatantly watermarked photos in jokes. This was a bad idea).
  • Don’t use photos of celebrities in your book promo! Authors post fantasy casts on their blogs all the time and we don’t think anything of it. It’s just our blog, right? We’re just excited to share the vision in our head with our readers. That’s great! But when we use photos to do it, we not only tend to use copyrighted images in our posts, but we might be breaking laws against using the image of the person in the photograph, depending on what text or links accompany it. You could not only be infringing on the photographer’s copyright, but also the likeness rights of the person in the photo.
  • Save proof of your licenses. This is another bad habit I know that a lot of people have: thinking, “Well, if anything ever comes up regarding this stock image, there’s a record of my purchases on the site.” But what if the stock site where you bought your book cover images shuts down, taking your account info with it? You can’t prove you purchased that license if you haven’t downloaded it or taken a screenshot of your receipt.
  • Make sure the photo you used is actually the one you’re being sued over. Let’s say you did everything right. You used the Google image search tool and you found a photo labeled for reuse or covered under a creative commons license. You’re using it in a way that is covered by its usage rights. And you suddenly find yourself on the receiving end of a “pay up” letter. While I researched my situation, I found cases where people had been sued by law firms using various types of software to search for their clients’ photos online. Only, the photos they sued over didn’t belong to their clients; they just happened to be very similar shots by virtue of a group of photographers standing in the same place, shooting from similar angles. This is most common when people use images taken at large events, like press conferences and political rallies, but it has happened (in at least one case, a photographer was sued for using his own photo because it looked so much like a photo taken by the photographer who’d been standing behind him). Before you pay up, make absolutely sure it’s the same photo.
  • Be sure that you actually understand what “fair use” is. Again, a lot of us don’t. Fair use doesn’t mean just not monetizing something or simply using it for internet fun. Do your research and if you’re in doubt…don’t use it. Or, buy a license. Take it from someone who had to endure almost a year of stress over this and who is now slowly crawling through old posts to remove any copyrighted images I had assumed I was using properly.

What about all those gifs, Jenny? You may be asking. That one is trickier, as there has never been a ruling in a case of gifs and copyright infringement, but let me tell you: if a ruling came down tomorrow? I would remove every single one from my site.

Since I went public about all this, Trout Nation has helped me out considerably. So far, you guys have donated $5,800.00 to my legal defense GoFundMe (the full $7,000.00 will cover the settlement and some of my legal fees) and I am beyond grateful. A fantastically good Samaritan financed the full settlement, so the GoFundMe money is going to them. Anything I can’t pay off via GoFundMe I’ll pay off as their credit card bill comes in. This was so kind of them, as I was able to avoid taking out a high interest loan. Not everyone has that kind of support; I’m super lucky to have so many people out there who have my back and again, I am profoundly grateful for that support. But knowing that not everyone has the kind of support makes me super nervous for other members of the writing community who may be unwittingly making the same mistakes. “Ignorance of law excuses no one,” as the saying goes, and we all need to be more vigilant about the ways we’re using images on our blogs and social media.

The mystery and enchantment of the title sequence from Perfect Strangers

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“I watched the intro without sound and from it guessed that the show is about a time traveler from the 1800s who is befriended by a guy who left home for college at age forty seven.” –Charlotte Stein

Thirty-three years (and two days) ago, Perfect Strangers premiered on ABC. The long-running sitcom was instrumental in the development of the channel’s iconic “TGIF” (“Thank Goodness It’s Funny”) juggernaut that dominated television comedy in the late ’80s through the 1990s. The description Stein gave me via Twitter is about as accurate as one can get based on the information presented by the opening title sequence, with or without sound.

But if you dig deeper, there’s even more to discuss:

 

The season one intro begins with stars Bronson Pinchot and Mark Linn-Baker standing in front of the least popular background choice at the Sears Portrait Studio:

Bronson Pinchot (in the most '80s windbreaker ever crafted) and Mark Linn-Baker (in a sweater over a button down that honestly wouldn't look weird if you wore it tomorrow) standing in front of a background that is basically the same color as when I vomited after eating too much chocolate at Easter one year. The show's title is emblazoned across them in a hideous, yellow font.

The theme music doesn’t waste any time letting you know that you’re about to have a good time. No, a great time. No, a life-changing experience that can only be expressed through the driving beat of a Casio keyboard and a good old fashioned harmonica solo. Our leads get a Brady Bunch introduction, complete with the same shade of blue!

Bronson Pinchot, still in that '80s windbreaker, on a vertically split screen with his name in that same hideous yellow font but on a field of intense blue that clashes with every other color on screen.

Mark Linn-Baker in the same type of set up, but instead of his original sweater, he's in a way more '80s one with diagonal, intersecting slashes of green and gray.

Note Linn-Baker’s costume change here. In the opening shot, his outfit is something you could put on today and wear around town and nobody would bat an eye. Within seconds, that all changes. “Maybe the things I remember about fashion in the 1980s are too broad and extreme,” one thinks when gazing upon Linn-Baker’s solid teal sweater. “Maybe the proliferation of pop culture images featuring dated trends has altered my perception and memory of what people actually wore during that decade.”

And then you see the second sweater and you’re like, “Did someone knit the logo from a medical billing company’s corporate letterhead? You really can get inspiration from anywhere!”

Next, we swoop in on a default Midwestern neighborhood. “Sometimes the world looks perfect,” the theme song’s lyrics explain. “Nothing to rearrange.” And indeed, the scene set before us does appear to be idyllic:

A gray house at the end of a row of houses, all two-story with small front lawns and white picket fences. The gray house has what appears to be a full living room set on the damn lawn.

But right away, I’ve got a few concerns. First, why are two neighbors both dressed in long-sleeved red shirts? What’s going on with that family next door? Do they wear a uniform? Also, is that a full living room set complete with coffee and end tables just sitting on the front lawn?

Though the lyrics tell us that sometimes, the world looks perfect and no change is needed, they tack on a pretty big “however”. “Sometimes you just get a feeling like you need some kind of change.” What’s this change? Well, it looks as though this family’s adult son is finally moving out.

A slightly motion-blurred shot of Linn-Baker's character, Larry, heading down the porch steps of the gray hous. He's got a camera bag over his shoulder and is followed by a woman who is clearly meant to be his mother, as she carries a sack lunch. Another adult man, this one in a sweater vest and button down like he's wandered in from a movie about young Wall Street hustlers hands Larry a garment bag.

Well, at least one of them. Eagle-eyed viewers will note that the other guy is first seen in the aerial shot of the house, sitting on the arm of the law couch in his junior associate sweater vest and tie. Exactly how you dress to just chill on your front-yard sofa.

On the short walk to his car, Linn-Baker (heretofore referred to as “Larry,” his role on the show) collects a cast of interesting characters. For example:

Larry crosses in front of a teen girl in a ponytail and sweatband, wearing a baseball uniform, red Chuck Taylors, and a red baseball cap tucked in her waistband. Larry shakes hands enthusiastically with an old Asian man in a brown cardigan.

Baseball Girl and Extremely Russian Mr. Rogers, that latter of which could easily blend into my family photos. They’re both contributing to the creepy proliferation of the color red. Check out Mr. Rogers’s shirt and Baseball Girl’s uniform, right down to the shoes. What is going on in this neighborhood? Does Baseball Girl’s team have a game today? And everyone in the neighborhood is wearing red to show their support?

But let’s not overlook how prepared Baseball Girl is for any situation. Sweatband, ponytail, and easily accessible cap? There will be no sun in her eyes today.

Larry's mom, I guess, hands him a sack lunch.

Whoops! Don’t forget your sack lunch, Larry.

Please note the (red) car behind him. There are honest-to-god steamer trunks lashed to the luggage rack. I’m going to do the legwork right now and connect these to later events in the title sequence.

As Larry continues on his journey to the car, he encounters a little girl in a red shirt, a basketball playing boy in a red shirt, and—

Larry's family stands beside the car waving him off. There's a boy in a red shirt and track pants, a little girl in a jumper and red shirt, the other characters already mentioned, and a dude with kind of a shaggy mullet-type hairdo and a red plaid shirt. He's wearing sunglasses and leaning back on the fence, as opposed to standing behind it with the rest of the family.

Who is that guy? He stands out from the crowd. He’s not behind the fence. He can’t be caged. Look at that near-mullet thing happening because he can’t figure out what to do with his hair so the cut is kind of growing out. The casual posture. The steely dominance he exerts over his emotions. Those shades.

Is Larry fleeing from a different sitcom that none of us know about?

On the other hand, the lyrics are a little sinister. “No matter what the odds are this time/nothing’s gonna stand in my way/This flame in my heart like a long lost friend/gives every dark street a light at the end.” It sounds like Larry has attempted to escape before. Escape in his red car. From the red neighborhood.

Larry's red Ford Mustang leaves the driveway. In the background, the out-of-focus figure of a woman in a red shirt stands beside a man. Another person in a red shirt is visible on a second-story balcony.

Somewhere else in the time vortex, we find Balki, a simple shepherd. His family is also seeing him off on a grand adventure:

Balki is hugged by a woman in a kerchief, red shawl, and floral print skirt. A girl in a peasant blouse stands to the left of the shot, with another woman. A young man in a turtle-neck sweater and jaunty cap are behind them. An old man with glasses, a newsboy cap, and a scarf stands to the right

This is what I find fascinating. Compare the zany cast of characters Larry is leaving behind in his desperate flight from The Red Land. Now, check out these people. It’s all extras from a community theater production of Fiddler On The Roof. Sure, the dude in the back with the sweater on got here direct from an Irish Spring commercial they were filming on the other side of the same park, but all these other people are vaguely Old World peasants. I honestly expected Extremely Russian Mr. Rogers to pop up again in this scene. I mean, not to give away any spoilers, but it’s possible; Balki and Larry are cousins. At least one of Larry’s parents have to be from Balki’s home country of Mypos. And that is where they got those steamer trunks! I told you I’d connect it!

On the other hand, maybe I’m showing my ignorance of Eastern European sitcoms. Maybe someone in Belarus would look at this and go, “Whoa, they could be extras on Vladislav! or something!”

I imagine that Vladislav! is the Russian-language equivalent of John Mulaney’s short-lived Mulaney, but like, way more popular and successful. It would be on its eighth season if it existed.

My rampant xenophobia aside, I can see why my friend Charlotte Stein described this sequence the way she did. The only indication that Balki is departing for America in the 20th century is the sign on his horse-drawn taxi:

Balki is riding on the back of a horse-drawn cart. The cart is filled with straw, a caged chicken, and an "America or Burst" sign.

And it weirdly doesn’t get clearer from the b-roll shot of the…gas carrier that Balki rides to America?

A shot of a gas carrier ship at sea

Imagine you’re working for PG&E, just cruising along on the open sea, and this Fivel Goes West motherfucker is just blundering around the decks, getting the full tramp-steamer experience:

Balki, dressed in clothes that he probably inherited from my immigrant great-grandparents, standing at a ship railing, nothing but blue sky behind him.

We are one helpful pigeon away from a Linda Ronstadt/Peabo Bryson duet.

Another stock shot of the Statue of Liberty lets us know that Balki’s long journey has come to an end.

Or has it?

A shot of the Lake Michigan shoreline and Chicago skyline with more credits across it.

“Aha!” you’re thinking. “Not only are the credits over, as indicated by the fading theme song, but the show takes place in Chicago.”

You’re half-right. Because even though the music seems to be ending with a wistful harmonica solo, we’re following a Greyhound bus down a three-lane highway. It’s kind of like that episode of Rick and Morty where they see the commercial that follows the spokesperson back to his house and films him making a sandwich. It feels like they forgot to end title sequence where it was meant to end. We’re just voyeurs now.

Who’s on the bus?

Balki on a bus that still had windows you could open because the 1980s were like that.

Of course, it’s Balki! Don’t be ridiculous. We already know that Larry has a sweet-ass Mustang. So, where’s he at in his journey?

Larry is driving and looking incredibly tense. Like, to the point that I'm working if they actually made him drive on the Chicago expressway while someone filmed him from the passenger seat.

Look at the terror on that man’s face. Usually, driving scenes are filmed with the actor in the car on the back of a flatbed truck or something, but this dude appears genuinely terrified. Did they make him actually drive on the Dan Ryan while some PA filmed him from the passenger seat? Or worse, did they make him take the local, all-exits route? That’s fucking Thunderdome, man.

Or maybe this is just more of Mark Linn-Baker’s superb acting (no, seriously, watch My Favorite Year or listen to A Year With Frog and Toad, the dude is gifted as fuck) and he’s portraying Larry’s anxiety at nearing freedom from the Red Village at last. He’s so close to the finish line, closer than he’s ever gotten before. But what’s that in the rearview mirror? Oh, it’s only a rust-colored Dodge Dart. His fear is at a fever pitch now, but if they haven’t followed him this far, they probably aren’t following him.

A shot of the highway with a "Welcome to Chicago" sign over it.

Safe at last.

The credits finally close out with a bookend of the opening shot, clocking in at a whopping one minute and twenty-nine seconds. They don’t make ’em like that anymore. And maybe that’s because of the sheer amount of creative energy that had to go into making them. There is a backstory here. And if there isn’t a backstory here and I’ve read way too much into it due to all this marijuana, the fact remains that there were enough side characters to spark even the possibility of those storylines in my head. In fact, there are more side characters in the season one opening than there are regular side characters in all of season one combined.

So, there you have it. I bet you’re feeling particularly foolish for having read this far, but trust me: you can’t possibly feel as foolish as I do for writing it.

#GetSilent: The Anatomy of an Ignored Issue; Part One: “MAGA Martha”

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If you missed the prologue to this story, you need to read it before delving into this part; there’s simply too much to sum up to get us to this next point. All of the information in this post has come from people involved, either directly or peripherally. If they’ve asked me to obscure their identities, I have.

Also, please note: the information here is presented without screenshots. The reason for this is that there are so many, the posts will become too image heavy and frankly, difficult to read. These screenshots can be produced at a moment’s notice via email or social media if any of the “Sassies” or their supporters feel they are being slandered and need to take any of the legal action they’ve baselessly threatened others with.

In January of 2019, a reader known as Nikki was temporarily suspended from Twitter as a result of an argument with some of the “Sassies” (now consisting of M.R. Rutter, Paula M. Hunter, Gloria Geiger, and K.N. Blackburn). Nikki, it should be noted, was an early critic of Santino Hassel. As a result, she had changed her Twitter display name to “Nikki C. Fisher,” a play on “catfisher,” the popular term for someone who lies about their identity for personal gain on the internet. When Lissa Gromley blogged about her experience with the Sassies, she handed over three-thousand pages of the Sassies’ private chat to Fisher, who posted details about the Sassies’ treatment of Gromley on Twitter. As support for Gromley grew among the readers and bloggers associated with Fisher (and as another, unrelated author scandal unfolded), the Sassies employed a tactic they had congratulated themselves about in their private chat: they “discovered” information about Fisher and exposed her true identity: author Nikki Fisher.

Blackburn attacked Fisher, accusing her of “lying, and looking for notoriety.” Fisher denied lying about anyone; she’d recently unfollowed a large number of people due to their association with another author and tweeted about it, but she genuinely had no idea about Gromley or the Sassies. Still, they piled on, with Geiger boasting:

“One should use their names investigative skills when going after someone especially for they claim to be a writer. As we do investigate and research EVERYTHING! The targeting was not only inappropriate it was truly immature and deserving of the loss that followed. Meg we got you!”

Fisher responded:

“What targeting? Everyone is talking about it but no one wants to tell me where this targeting is?”

Geiger insisted that Fisher had deleted a tweet slandering Rutter, demanded an apology, and warned that her actions would harm her career. Blackburn also alleged that Fisher had deleted a tweet and also demanded an apology, going so far as to say that the people who unfollowed Fisher did so because they knew she was spreading misinformation. Yet, Fisher still insisted she had no idea what was going on.

Because she didn’t. Because Nikki Fisher, author, and Nikki C. Fisher, blogger, weren’t the same people, despite Geiger’s crowing about their extensive research. Their shoddy detective work had caused an innocent author to lose followers and readers, and they refused to back down, fully convinced that Nikki C. Fisher and Nikki Fisher were the same person.

Later that month, Gromley wrote her blog post about her experiences with the Sassies, and conflict ensued between (the real) Nikki C. Fisher and the group. Blackburn referenced her alleged career success and swollen bank account several times to imply that the “trolls” were jealous (a quick check of her Amazon profile on March 18, 2019, showed her as being the author of one book, currently ranked lower than #25,000 in each of its categories and #996,984 overall) and threatened that Gromley would be served with a lawsuit the next week (she was not, and has not been, to date). As the Twitter spat went on, a suspicious account popped up in defense of Blackburn.

Reader Angela says:

“One morning Nikki told us in a chat that she was in twitter jail for something involving all those authors. I don’t remember what tweet was reported though. So we starting being funny on twitter and doing this #FreeNikki stuff. I decided to check the mentions of the people involved and saw some random person tweeted KN and said she was looking for a series to read and found her on twitter and sorry she has all these trolls. I clicked on her and it’s just all maga. She supports the maga hat kids and said the elder was guilty of “stolen valor” and just all the crap maga people say. There’s no way this person is a romance reader in my mind. There’s also no damn way you could use any general search terms on amazon and have KN’s book show up. So I know this is all set up. So you can see what happened after that.”

“MAGA Martha” had created her account in January of 2019, very close to the time that Nikki Fisher, author, had been incorrectly doxed. Her bio claimed that she’d been locked out of her past account and that was why her current account was so new. Martha rushed to Blackburn’s defense, stating that she should block trolls and that Martha, a new account who’d only ever tweeted vitriolic conservative talking points before and nothing at all about books, was excited to buy Blackburn’s novel. When blogger Darien Moya saw Martha’s “stolen valor” remarks about Nathan Phillips, she tweeted her objections; Martha fired back, accusing Moya, a black woman, of racism against white people (though at one point, Martha, whose user pic was of a white woman with blonde hair, accuses Moya of incorrectly assuming that Martha was white).

Meanwhile, Blackburn received a one-star review on her book, a review which she blamed on the blogger Fisher, calling it fake and telling another Twitter user that she had contacted Amazon to take it down. They did not take it down, likely because the review was highly detailed, including plot points that one couldn’t know without at least skimming the book. Blackburn bragged on Twitter that she had only positive reviews and therefore this one must have been fake. One of those reviews came from “Phil.” Shortly after Gromley’s break with the Sassies, Phil posted five reviews on the same day: two five-stars for Geiger, one apiece for Hunter and Blackburn, and a one-star for Gromley that read only “badly researched. DNF.” Before that, the Phil account was occasionally reviewing the odd electronic item or books about horticulture. Phil’s passion for indie romance appeared to spring up just in time to one-star bomb Gromley and praise the other Sassies.

Except for Rutter. Because according to Gromley and others, Phil is her husband. Rutter allegedly used her husband’s account to five star her friends’ books and one-star Gromley. These actions are consistent with the Sassies’ policy of “when we do it, it’s okay.” Though they screamed down a valid, if critical, review as fake, they’re fine with fake reviews tilted in their favor.

Blackburn also accused Angela and Moya of “going after” MAGA Martha simply because Martha had stated she would buy Blackburn’s book. In Blackburn’s world, it was inconceivable that someone would be more concerned with white supremacy than with Blackburn’s books and career. She continued to insist that a personal vendetta was the only reason anyone cared about the contents of MAGA Martha’s racist tweets. Blackburn piled on Moya, mocking her for using African-American Vernacular English and demanding that Moya “use proper English” when speaking to her. When several people pointed out the racism in her tweet, Blackburn doubled down:

“Asking someone to speak proper English isn’t bigoted. If I went to Spain, I would speak Spanish. If I was speaking to a Frenchman, I would speak French. I speak proper English. I would like the same courtesy, please. 🙂 “

She goes on to taunt Moya by asking if Moya dropped out of high school and advising her to get a GED. As her racist insults escalated, Blackburn accused Moya of hiding her identity to “[…]smear others without fallout[…].”

Again, this group of authors privately bragged about bringing their sockpuppet accounts into Twitter arguments to fight on their side. When they do it, it’s “sassy.” When others tweet from their actual accounts, they’re dishonest and probably tweeting under an assumed identity.

Despite MAGA Martha’s continued abuse of Moya, Blackburn didn’t step in to shut it down, even when other readers appealed to her to do so. Nor did Geiger, who stepped in to defend MAGA Martha in a series of Tweets from her author account:

“As an author I DO NOT control the views, be it political, religious, or otherwise of my followers or readers. And I do not care it’s their right to those things. If they want to read my books then good I’m glad. But if someone else has a problem with these things, too damn bad!

“I will not follow the hypocrites and be rude or nasty to someone just because they like a politician who everyone else despises. Or because their religion is one where they worship in Mosk or are Wiccan. I will not put MY own personal views on anyone who wants to read my work

“And neither should anyone else. I watched as 2 people trashed an author and a new reader because the reader supports a politician that is EXTREMELY unpopular. Neither deserved the attack at all. And furthermore this reader is actually a very nice per who, after reading my

“Friends book posted it to HER Facebook page and told all her friends, also book readers, to get my friends books. As authors we do not want to put our feelings/views upon others shutting out those who don’t fit in our little cookie cutter life. To this reader I want to say,

“Thank you for being an awesome person and reader! You didn’t deserve that attack and neither did my friend. But I am glad you stood your ground and defended your right to be an individual. Authors do not control their audience.”

To Geiger and Blackburn, white supremacy was simply a difference of opinion that should be lauded. MAGA Martha was a brave, noble figure. Meanwhile, Martha began assembling photoshop collages of Moya’s tweets to “prove” that Moya was the real racist. These tweets included telling Blackburn that no one cared about who read her books, that nobody needed to create sockpuppet accounts, and calling Martha “Becky” and telling her to watch Fox and Friends. The strongest racial statement Moya makes in any of the screenshots is to say “AMEN!” in a quoted tweet about white people needing to assimilate into the human race, a tweet that had nothing to do with any of the Sassies.

Since I started trying to piece together this story, I’ve had several people theorize to me that MAGA Martha is Blackburn’s own alt-account. Some claim it’s Rutter’s or Geiger’s sockpuppet. But it’s generally agreed that MAGA Martha is the outlet for one of the Sassies to air her white supremacist grievances. Why else would they rally around MAGA Martha? Why else would they risk their careers by standing up for a proud white supremacist?

In a tweet, Blackburn says:

“Woke up to record-breaking sales! [star eyes, mind-blown emojis] I sold the most copies I’ve ever sold in one day yesterday, including release day. Considering yesterday’s events, I’m super grateful to everyone who voiced support or gave HMH a shot. [heart emoji] Thank you all! [heart emoji].”

Perhaps they view vocal white supremacists a crucial part of their reader base? In any case, the Sassies now sought to spin themselves as victims of a vicious attack, frequently implying that Blackburn couldn’t have committed any degree of racism due to Blackburn being “more native than not” (she is a self-proclaimed descendant of Pocahontas.) In a February Tweet, Blackburn stated:

“[…] I have an oddly large bone structure for a woman too, courtesy of the cross breed between my German/Irish father and my very Native mother (Apache, Algonquin, Cherokee, Creek, Pueblo, Blackfoot, Comanche, as far as we know).”

Some Twitter users doubted this claim, as in the past she’d talked about the love story between her Nazi-with-a-heart-of-gold grandfather and her Jewish grandmother who fell for each other in a concentration camp. Her use of the term “cross breed” and insistence that there was no racial component to telling someone not to use the language of their culture also raised eyebrows among a few Native readers; at one point in the conversation, Blackburn says:

“LOL, how dare I ask someone to speak my language!”

Later, she tries to deflect another Twitter user’s accusation of racism by claiming that English isn’t her native language at all.

People also became concerned over an unearthed tweet in which Blackburn stated that the Vikings were the original inhabitants of North America. As the latter is an oft-repeated white supremacist talking point, it led some to believe that MAGA Martha was Blackburn’s account, after all. This rumor gained traction the more Blackburn tweeted to defend her anti-black racist attacks on Moya’s speech:

“The act of speaking the language most spoken and taunt in our country is not racist. Can people use the language to say racist things? Sure. Your friends here have done it plenty. [shrug emoji]”

Blackburn now cast herself as the true victim of racism, despite continuing to argue that mocking AAVE had no racial connotations.

“Proper English is that derived from William Shakespeare, responsible for most of the modern words that we use. No, it isn’t a racial concept. It’s a literary one. Like there isn’t a big enough racial issue, let’s make words one too!”

When other Twitter users continued to point out that there absolutely is a racial component to language, especially in the United States, Blackburn leaped to a new tactic: accuse anyone who mocked Geiger’s spelling of “mosque” as “mosk” of being ableist due to Geiger’s history of traumatic brain injury.

Mocking spelling errors can arguably be deemed ableist depending on context; namely, whether or not the misspelling is intentional or a mistake. But there was no context for Geiger’s brain injury. Geiger had explained her “mosk” tweet as being the result of using speech-to-text. After people pointed out that they were unable to elicit “mosk” in place of “mosque” with their own speech-to-text programs (and because the word was used in a series of tweets defending and praising a white supremacist), they assumed Geiger’s typo was a satirical misspelling aimed to the eye dialect of the alt-right. When Geiger’s condition came to light, several of those mocking her acknowledged their mistake and called for others to stop pointing out the misspelling. But now, Blackburn and her defenders felt her anti-AAVE screed against Moya (which began before Geiger’s tweet was mocked) was somehow justified:

“Doesn’t matter. You all took place. Silence is compliance. When you don’t speak out against it, you are guilty of it. You posted it with the intent to have her mocked for having a traumatic brain injury. Seriously, think about how that makes you all look.”

Blackburn felt that Angela, who had tweeted screenshots of Geiger’s rant in defense of MAGA Martha, had done so with the sole purpose of creating an ableist dogpile. Blackburn also began tweeting that those calling her out for her racist campaign against Moya would be sued for deliberately and maliciously harming Blackburn’s business, a claim that seemed difficult to prove after all her public gloating over her success and the great sales the controversy had earned her. To date, no one has been served, though several sockpuppet accounts have emerged threatening to investigate parties involved in order to file suits.

Considering the Sassie’s previous attempts, it won’t be surprising if their stellar detective work leads to Blackburn suing the wrong individual.

In February, a screenshot of a 2016 rant from Blackburn’s public Facebook account cast more doubt on Blackburn’s motivations for mocking Moya’s speech:

“I have kept silent for the most part, but I’ve had it up to my eyebrows hearing about how the Oscars are too white and that black kids don’t have enough role models to look up to. This is my question: why are you teaching your children that in order for someone to be a role model, they have to share your skin color or heritage? My husband and I watch UFC. We still haven’t missed a fight in over two years. It’s likely that [redacted] is going to grow up watching the sport, liking it, maybe even wanting to participate in it himself. I would never limit my son by only pointing out the white fighters, or the only Irish title holder in the UFC’s history, just because we’re white and have a lot of Irish ancestry. There are some seriously gifted fighters who are black. If my son came home and said that he wanted to be like Demetrius Johnson or Jon Jones, I would tell him to go for it; work hard like they do, put your heart and soul into what you love, and one day, you’ll be as good as they are. Because when I look at people, I don’t see the color of their skin. I see their personality, their drive and devotion, their work ethic and their accomplishments. That’s what makes someone a role model, not the color of skin they were born with.”

 

Come back for Part Two: Down The Toilet

(RE)RELEASE DAY: AWAKENING DELILAH

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I’m so happy to kick off the Northern Circle series with the re-release of my first ever shifter romance, Awakening DelilahThis novella was originally published in 2011, and now it’s here, shined up a bit (I can’t believe how much my writing has evolved with a few short years and no word count restrictions from publishers).

The cover of Awakening Delilah features a beautiful, dark-skinned Black woman in profile, in front of a misty background of a pine forest. There is a ghostly image of a doe standing over her shoulder and the logo for the Northern Circle series in the bottom right corner.

 

When Delilah Lewis moved from Boston to Gwinn Close, a sanctuary for shifters in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, she knew there would be an adjustment period. She just never thought getting shot at by poachers would be a part of that adjustment. When two sexy shifters come to her rescue, things get even more complicated. Delilah is a good girl, with a good-girl upbringing, and both men make her want to be very bad…

Miguel and Darius are in a committed relationship, but once they meet Delilah, they want more. While Delilah wonders if Gwinn Close is right for her, Miguel and Darius do everything they can to convince her to stay. But secrets from their past threaten a future with the woman they both crave. And while she struggles to let go of her boring former life, both men work to bring out the wild animal in her…

Amazon Smashwords 

The Northern Circle series is a multi-author project featuring series and stand-alone novels and novellas by Bronwyn Green, Kris Norris, and Jessica Jarman. All of the stories will feature paranormal elements and take place in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (home of the Keweenaw Vortex). Look out for more books later this year!

#GetSilent: The Anatomy of an Ignored Issue; Prologue: “What constitutes an attack?”

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In January, I declared a hiatus from anything to do with the romance community to work on my mental health. I thought that I could carefully weed out the bad apples and toxic pontificators in the community and everything would be fine. Instead, I found that when you see a wide-reaching, long-running campaign of doxing, stalking, racist attacks, and threats against dogs and children, it’s a lot harder to sleep at night when you’re trying to not get involved or just watch from the fringes and you know you have the platform to bring the abuse to light.

At least, it’s harder for some people to sleep. Others are snoozing comfortably. But we’ll get to that later.

Much later. Because whoo doggy. This is a long one.

Before we go on this journey today, it’s important to note that there will be chunks of this twisted, complicated tale left out, at the request of individuals who are trying to disentangle themselves from what has been a months-long battle. Also, some parts of the story may be told out of order as the narrative calls for it due to issues of clarity and continuity; I’ll note when this is the case.

But for right now, let’s start in June of 2018, in the aftermath of Faleena Hopkins’s failed attempt to trademark the word “cocky”. #CockyGate, as it became known, sparked a sometimes heated, genre-wide debate among indie romance and erotica authors who were tired of the scammers and cheaters running roughshod over the self-publishing world. A new tag, #GetLoud, covered issues from bookstuffing to shady marketing tactics. One such popular trick used to earn the coveted orange #1 Bestseller badges on Amazon is by putting your book in a category it doesn’t belong in. For example, shortly after Fifty Shades of Grey fell out of the top slot in the erotica, erotic romance, and contemporary romance categories, readers found it inexplicably listed as the “#1 Bestseller” in “humor/pets/dogs & cats”.

Not a joke. It’s currently coasting at a sweet #257 in the “Holiday Romance” category, despite featuring precisely zero depictions of any holiday festivities.

Obviously, this kind of trickery doesn’t sit well with authors. As much as we talk about how there’s room for everyone on the playground and this is a community, not a competition, the fact remains that Amazon’s algorithm (upon which indie authors, especially, depend for visibility and book sales) doesn’t care about sisterhood. Get your book to #1 in any category, even the wrong category, and you’ve increased the number of eyeballs in front of which Amazon will place your book. It’s an easy system to abuse, and authors are right to be fed up with it. This led some on the #GetLoud tag to suggest mass reporting books that had been miscategorized.

In a private message to me, Individual A explained that at the time, emailing Amazon about which categories to place your book in would result in Amazon not only recommending inappropriate categories but categorizing your books for you based on the keywords you entered into your book’s description. For example, if I were to write a book about a vampire mechanic who falls in love with a ballerina but I was unsure if it belonged in paranormal romance or romantic comedy, Amazon might helpfully look at the keywords “ballerina,” “mechanic,” and “vampire,” and decide to categorize the book as, “non-fiction/arts & entertainment/ballet,” “non-fiction/automotive/repair and maintenance,” and “fiction/young adult/paranormal/vampires.”

I’m not sure if those are real categories, but you understand what I’m trying to illustrate here. Some of the books being reported weren’t the result of authors breaking the rules, but authors trying to follow them. To prove their point, Individual A contacted Amazon through the same channel and received a response that proved their theory, then presented this evidence to the #GetLoud tag. They warned that mass reporting books due to incorrect categories could harm innocent authors. There was a disagreement; authors M.R. Rutter, G.L. Geiger, Paula M. Hunter, and Lissa Gromley were apparently on the side that felt Individual A was undermining the goal of #GetLoud. Words and subtweets were exchanged, and it created an animosity that lingered among the four authors.

On October 28, 2018, Individual A became the topic of a group Facebook message between Rutter, Geiger, Hunter, and Gromley. In the chat, 3,000 pages of which were shared with me for this profile, Hunter revealed Individual A’s real name and links it to Individual A’s pseudonym:

“Bad to [real name redacted] aka [Individual A]. [They] jumped all over me after I kindly provided a list of Amazon categories. [Individual A] was getting nasty at Pippi about category squatting, saying that not everyone does it on purpose and then going on about stockphoto (of people)profile pictures on Amazon not being a problem.”

There is no indication of any interaction between Individual A and “Pippi” on the subject beyond a single, cordial conversation. As for going on about stock photos, that was also a limited interaction with Hunter’s sockpuppet account, a chicken persona. Individual A had merely cautioned that mass reporting might have ill-effects on authors in the indie community and that an author using a stock photo to hide their identity wasn’t uncommon or necessarily nefarious. After scouring Individual A’s timeline, I can personally find no evidence of any nastiness on Individual A’s part. Certainly, nothing that would justify Hunter’s seeming obsession with Individual A; shortly after the above message, Hunter added:

“I got plenty of screenshot on [real name redacted]. LOL [Individual A] has even hidden [their] personal info on [their] website. I got that before [Individual A] started paying to hide it.”

It seems that simply by disagreeing with Hunter, Individual A was deserving of a gross intrusion into their privacy. Whether or not Individual A was even aware it was Hunter they were talking to isn’t clear. What is clear is that this one small interaction that took place over the course of a single day was enough to incite Hunter to find Individual A’s personal information and file it away for future use months later.

An exchange with an almost comical lack of awareness followed those messages:

Hunter: “[Individual A] was tagging Meg in everything at the RWA Con. Lol.”

Rutter: “It was bizarre”

Geiger: “Omg. Stalker much”

Rutter: “I know. Creepy”

Individual A tagging someone they believed was a friendly acquaintance on social media was creepy stalking to Hunter, Rutter, and Geiger; Hunter investigating Individual A over a conversation between Individual A and Hunter’s sockpuppet account was reasonable. As was their obsession with “trolls” and “bullies” and “haters”. At numerous points in the months-long conversation, members of the chat congratulate each other and themselves in their skill at taking on people they viewed as their enemies, including finding out personal information as they did with Individual A. At one point, Geiger even brags:

“Yes but we also know how to trigger him and he knows it but he is too stupid to know how to mess with anyone of us”

The five of them (the group later grew to include author Kay Blackburn) not only celebrated the thought of causing psychological harm to the people who ran afoul of them, but Hunter continued to ferret out the personal information of other twitter users. Three of the authors ran multiple Twitter accounts; Hunter’s chicken, Geiger’s @AuthorPrime01, and an account Rutter referred to as “Maggie.” Throughout the chat log, coy references are made to “Maggie” becoming angry and unleashing abuse on a target. Hunter gloats that someone arguing with her chicken handle didn’t know it was her. Geiger simply seemed to want to keep her social media attacks partially hidden behind her secondary account. While Geiger tweeted official book news under her real name, she engaged in these Twitter fights as @AuthorPrime01. None of them seemed terribly concerned with keeping these secondary identities secret, but separating their author identity from their increasingly aggressive and cliquey online behavior was something they were certainly familiar with.

In a post to her blog made in December of 2018, Gromley explains that she and the other authors had created the Sassy Literary Ladies, a Facebook group for reader interaction. Gromley describes the private chat between the authors as a fairly common group message between online friends:

During the Sassies private conversations, we discussed many things, from how one person was in constant pain, what their family was doing, the books in general that we had published, and so forth. Every so often, I’d talk about my dog or about other things too, sincerely believing I was a part of this group and that we could share anything together without judgment.

It’s unclear from reading the chat transcript how, why, or when this changed. It appears to have done so literally overnight; after a friendly chat into the early hours of November 28th, the group goes unusually quiet. At 7:37 pm, this conversation takes place:

Gromley: “What happened to Gloria’s account? 🙁 ”

Geiger: “I paid with no interaction is not a successful page so I shut it down I’ll be doing other things anyway and I’m too busy with the group and with my Twitter which is far more successful so I worry about an author page on Facebook some other time”

Gromley: “Ohhh. Oddly, on my side your personal page isn’t showing either. 🙁 I has a sad.”

Geiger: “[shrug emoji] Facebook go figure”

Blackburn shows up to second Geiger’s comment about Facebook, and once again, the discussion in the group message slows to a trickle but nothing seems to be wrong. Everyone is busy with other things. On November 30th, Gromley informs the group that she’s updating the Sassy Literary Ladies website and asks Blackburn if she has a logo. At 6:37 p.m., Gromley posts:

“Gloria… 🙁 I’m blocked from you on Twitter. Did I do something wrong?”

When no one answers, Gromley posts again at 6:54:

” 🙁 I has a sad…”

Two minutes later, Rutter responds:

“Hey Lissa I forgot if you had a college degree. I’m doing a personal survey.”

Gromley confirms that she has four degrees, and Rutter asks where they’re from. A minute later, at 7:01 p.m., Gromley responds with the names of the schools she attended. The chat goes silent until her next message at 7:20:

“-still doesn’t understand why she’s blocked-“

At this time, Blackburn enters the chat to say she won’t be answering messages for a while due to a family situation. Gromley asks Rutter to message her, but Rutter is unavailable and indicates that she’ll contact Gromley when she returns home.

The next exchange begins on December 1st, when Rutter opens the chat for the day with:

“I got a disturbing call from a friend. Did anyone query agents and editors using my name?”

Geiger, Rutter, Hunter, and Blackburn bemoan the unprofessionalism of an author who would stoop to such tactics. Gromley appears in the chat at 12:37. No one responds to her messages. At 3:20, Rutter asks:

“I’m confused. I looked at the years you were in college Lissa and can’t figure it out. Why 4 years for an associates but 2 years for both a bachelors and a masters and 1 year for a second masters. Did you misenter the dates?”

Remember, Rutter had asked for the information about Gromley’s degrees for a personal survey. Supposing we gave Rutter the benefit of the doubt here, perhaps there was a personal survey asking about the college degrees of online friends. And perhaps Rutter asked the follow-up question because she truly feared that Gromley’s degree may have been given to her by a fraudulent school. But what follows over the course of the next few hours amounts to a cross-examination that culminates on Gromley sharing her official college transcripts on December 2nd.

At 9:05 p.m., all hell breaks loose:

Geiger: “I’m going to put this kindly as possibly. For quite some time you have been saying and doing things that are questionable. You make grandiose claims of things then later your story changes. It raises more than a few eyebrows. But I chose to let them slide. Then your behavior started to get stranger. You seemed to have a constant need for attention. Wanting all conversations to revolve around you. You’d but into a conversation I was having with Meg or Kay or Paula about your

Dog and how it’s pestering you. When our conversation was about my book covers

Or Kay’s new release, or when we were all chatting with Bean. It felt as if a spoiled child

Was demanding attention away from the child we were taking to. “Somebody come get this dog before I throw him in the closet!”

That was not appropriate and certainly not funny. If you have nothing to add to an already in progress conversation then you say NOTHING! But you chose to continuously try to get our attention away from Bean and on to you. This was extremely annoying. The next day we are discussing the song I wrote for my book 2 and you suddenly cut in with a story that has noting to do with the conversation but screamed of “Pay attention to me!” A very childish maneuver. When we were dealing with Bob and I had THOUGHT James was the culprit what did you do? YOU outed him as the troll so others would attack him. Which another account did. When I said I wanted to keep that info under wraps, as we were still investing, what was your answer to me? “OOPS” and laughing faces. When we all apologized to James… you didn’t. And you didn’t straighten out the FACT it was YOU who outed him and NOT me! But that was okay with you, right? Let me take the fall for your bad judgement. This was completely inappropriate. Did you bother to apologize to me for making me the bad guy? Did you apologize to James? No! You went on your marry little way doing as you always do, AS YOU PLEASE AND DAMN THE CONSEQUENCES TO ANYONE ELSE. We make plans for our group and you make promises you cannot keep or do not intend to keep. Aka the flyers. We had seen NO proof of them even though BOTH Paula and Meg asked to see them. Your response to their requests went completely ignored. My biggest grievance with you is your complete lack of respect and boundaries. I shared my sons post on MY Facebook page. Which is kept private for a reason and what you did is exactly why. You wormhole through my account and comment DIRECTLY to my son. This is completely inappropriate and crosses all kids of boundaries. Yes, I realize my son is a public figure and an adult, but the key words here are MY SON! Someone else would have commented to ME not Matt. All my friends see my posts about him, do they wormhole through and address him as if they know him personally like you did? No they don’t! They comment to me. Ask me to tell him they congratulate him. But you go on his Facebook and comment as if he knows you, which he does NOT! I did show your comment to Kay and she agreed that your comment came across flirty as well. I am not and NEVER will be okay with anyone using ME to get to HIM! Good grief! His career is just taking off and you cross the freaking line? Your behavior is why you are blocked on ALL my social media

And why I will NOT be speaking to you after today. We are done. And I’m completely offended at the fact you will try to backpedal like you did about using Meg and [redacted] by Querying their friends in the publishing world. How dare you do that and when given the opportunity to be honest dodge and say ‘Whoever used Meg’s name to query without permission shows a complete lack of disrespect. I’m so sorry, Meg.’

The WHOEVER IS YOU! I don’t want you to ever contact me or my family ever again. And DO NOT follow ANY of my kids social media. They already know who you are and what you’ve done. If anything, you should be ashamed of yourself, but we all know you aren’t.”

At this point, Hunter shows up to assert that all of Geiger’s allegations are true. Rutter says she’ll keep an open mind. Gromley denies every allegation and is shocked at Geiger’s insistence that she’s tried to further her career through association with Geiger’s apparently famous son, or that she’s begged for attention. The suddenly un-busy Blackburn returns for another cross-examination, telling Gromley:

“…don’t take this the wrong way, because I’m nobody myself. But…why would anyone query with your name? I mean…you’re nobody yourself.”

But she doesn’t mean it in a mean way.

Though Gromley produced her college transcripts, Rutter can’t produce the query, the name of the agent who was allegedly queried, or which email address was used for the query. Gromley insists that she hasn’t queried any agents in a year (and in her blog post corrects it to two years and asserts that she can provide proof of the queries she has made and the contents of the letters, none of which mention any other authors).

Blackburn: “I’ll be honest, this sounds…well. Very suspicious, at best.”

Rutter: “I know that. I told her that it didn’t come from my end and moved on. She did read me the first paragraph and I was appalled by the bad writing.”

When Hunter returns, it’s to add another charge to the growing list of offenses the group wishes to level against Gromley:

“Lissa, why do still continue to be friends with Craig and joined his groups after the way he behaved towards me and the bad mouthing he gave us? To me it smacks of disloyalty towards to Sassy group.”

Gromley insists she never joined any of this Craig person’s groups, though she still followed him on social media to keep tabs on him. Much in the way Hunter routinely scouted out the personal information of the “bullies” they encountered online. This, however, seems suspicious to all of them, even through Rutter admits to still being friends with this Craig individual. Gromley offers to provide screenshots of the groups she’s in on Facebook, but Blackburn says that the only thing it will prove is that Gromley left the groups, then took the screenshots. Blackburn also claims to have seen screenshots of Gromley participating in Craig’s group, but won’t produce them for Gromley.

The chat devolves from there, with Blackburn feeling “uncomfortable” with Gromley’s presence, Geiger feeling that Gromley congratulating her (adult) son on a role was inappropriate contact with her “child” (as her own friends from childhood would never dream of speaking to her children without her being involved), and Rutter criticizing Gromley’s “non-committal” answers about her education (which included providing her transcripts and student I.D. numbers). When Gromley steps away from the conversation in frustration and hurt, it’s declared evidence of wrong-doing. When she responds again, she’s “digging”. And all along, Blackburn continues to talk about how uncomfortable she is, how she’s worried about what she’s gotten into by attaching her name to the group, and how she’s not sure she wants to invest in the Sassies with Gromley’s involvement. So suspicious, that Blackburn interrogates Gromley about a GoFundMe organized by a family member and accuses her of lying about a legal matter. Again, Gromley provides too much information to appease them, giving them the name and phone number of the magistrate handling the case, as well as the case number, the county the case is going to court in, and the real names of her family members. These answers come rapid-fire, with timestamps often noting the questions have been answered in the same minute they were asked.

Eventually, Blackburn says (and please, remember this for the record in upcoming installments, it will most certainly come up again):

“I cannot be associated with someoen who lies, uses people, or manipulates.”

Gromley tells them that when she proves their allegations false, she wants an apology, but Blackburn insists:

“Sorry, but we gave you multiple chances to show us proof. You didn’t do that.”

On December 2nd, Blackburn announces the dissolution of Sassy Literary Ladies and the departure of Gromley. On December 3rd, Gromley leaves the chat.

In her blog post, in which Gromley addresses each of the group’s allegations, she also speculates on the motives of the group to turn on her:

I’ll be honest. It seemed like they got bored because nothing was going on on Twitter that they could get involved with. Cockygate, the bookstuffers, Bob Villian and so forth were over with. It was like they needed a new target […].

Now, you may be thinking, “Wow, Jenny, that’s some garden variety mean girl stuff…but what does it have to do with all the wild shit you talked about in the first paragraph of this long ass post?”

This was just a primer on how Blackburn, Rutter, Geiger, and Hunter cultivate online excitement. And as damaging as their treatment of Gromley was, it’s nothing compared what they embarked on in January of 2019.

 

Next time: “Part One: MAGA Martha”