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The Dos And Don’ts Of Pseudonyms And Author Personas

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There is a story that has been developing rapidly in the romance world, about author Santino Hassell. Hassell has been accused of conspiring to hide their true identity and using their false persona to gaslight and catfish readers. People began to investigate the author’s personal life and background and making various information public, resulting in initial defenses of Hassell’s privacy. As more details have come to light, one publisher has canceled the author’s contracts after the allegations gained traction. This story is still unfolding, so I’m not going to try to explain everything going on. But I am going to write about some aspects of it in a post that has been a long time coming. Because Hassell isn’t the first to do this, and definitely won’t be the last.

Many of the repeat questions I get in the Big Damn Writers’ Question Box are about pseudonyms. Why do you need one, how do you pick one, how do you hide your tracks if you need to? It has never occurred to me to ask the question, “Where is the line with regards to an author persona, and a pseudonym?” So, I’m going to go ahead and lay out what should be common sense when building your author brand. Not all of these apply to the Hassell situation, and not all of these have happened within the romance genre, but they are things people have done and will probably continue to do until we as consumers and professionals make it clear that there is no room for this kind of behavior.


The Dos And Don’ts Of Pseudonyms:

Do: Use a pseudonym to protect your identity if you’re more comfortable doing so. If you don’t want your family or employer to find out about your writing career, a pseudonym is a perfectly ethical way to maintain your privacy.

Don’t: Use a pseudonym that will mislead publishers and readers into believing you’re a member of a marginalized group. For example, Marvel’s C.B. Cebulski fostering his early career under the name Akira Yoshida despite not…being…Japanese. Cebulski’s work as Yoshida leaned heavily on Japanese themes and style, leading many readers to believe they were supporting a Japanese writer and not, you know. A white guy hiding, branding himself as a Japanese man.

Exception: Many writers of color who find that their names are “too ethnic” use pseudonyms that sound “white”. Many women write in male-dominated genres under initials or with male-sounding pen names. This is not a case of appropriation, but a means of protective camouflage to help an author succeed in a sexist, racist industry. Cebulski could choose to be Akira Yoshida because he could become a white man again when an opportunity for advancement presented itself. Meanwhile, a Japanese author might find themselves forced to use a “whiter” sounding name to open those doors already flung wide for a white man like Cebulski. In a society where Cebulski can afford to be Yoshida but a Japanese person cannot, there is no equivalency between privileged writers hiding their privilege and marginalized authors hiding their marginalizations.


Do: Chose select details about your life to share with your readership on social media, within your own comfort zone. Maybe you don’t want to mention that you’re a teacher, but you have no qualms about publicizing your passion for building ships in bottles. It’s up to you what to reveal or not reveal about your private life.

Don’t: Fabricate details about your life to share with your readership on social media as a means of creating a “brand.” I knew an author once who talked about her cats nonstop on social media, even posting pictures of them. Then an author friend visited this person’s home and found no cats at all. No hair or scratches on the furniture, no food or water dishes, no litter boxes, no cats. Even though lying about having cats is harmless in comparison to, say, lying about being Japanese or having cancer, it’s still a lie. And it’s really creepy. It’s one thing to say, “I really love cats.” It’s another to make up imaginary cats and post status updates and pictures about them.

Exception: Some authors adopt personas which are clearly not based in fact. For example, Chuck Tingle, who writes parodies of M/M romances, is clearly not a widowed man whose ghostly wife torments him from beyond the frozen lake where she drowned. And Lemony Snicket is, unfortunately, not a shadowy figure investigating the many maudlin tragedies of a family of orphaned children, but is, in fact, a racist and serial sexual harasser. Both of these personas are clearly affectations to set a tone for the reader and are employed as such. Daniel Holder doesn’t deny being the man behind Snicket, and Tingle has built such an outlandish and muddled backstory for himself that he simply can’t be assumed to be real by any reasonable person.


Do: Feel free to use your author platform to speak about issues you are passionate about, even if you’re using a pseudonym.

Don’t: Use your pseudonym to Dolezal your way into conversations you don’t belong in. Whoever Hassell was not only presented themselves as a bisexual man within the book community, but they also gave interviews, quotes, and even wrote articles about living as a bisexual man. New details are emerging by the hour, so I’ll shift back over to C. B. Cebulski. If Cebulski had given interviews or written articles as Akira Yoshida, claiming to be a Japanese man and offering the perspective of a Japanese man on issues that affect Japanese people, it would have been a reprehensible action. It should go without saying that if you’re not a member of a marginalized group, be honest about it. You can be passionate about the rights of marginalized people. You can’t pretend to be a marginalized person.

Exception: I’m not talking here about being closeted in some way and wanting to speak your truth without revealing yourself. That’s a tricky area that a lot of us navigate constantly. But we need to be careful that when we do that, we’re not adopting a persona that harms other people. As a bisexual woman, it wouldn’t be okay for me to present myself as a bisexual man, write nonfiction articles about being a bisexual man, give interviews about what it’s like to be a bisexual man because I’m not a bisexual man and all genders experience prejudice and biphobia differently. It would be okay for me to be Erin Stevens, bisexual woman. It would not be okay for me to be Aaron Stevens, bisexual man.


Do: Be transparent about your pseudonym or author persona with readers, authors, and publishers you befriend in real life. That doesn’t mean you have to reveal your real name to them, but they should know what is and isn’t real about you.

Don’t: Maintain your author persona in private conversations where people are revealing real life, personal details to you. Be honest that you can’t reciprocate on that level. Saying, “Oh, I write under a pseudonym to protect my job,” isn’t something an author or a reader or a publisher is going to look askance at, and people learn to form personal relationships within boundaries all the time. Bonding with someone over your difficult childhoods while they think you’re their good friend Leslie from Pawnee but you’re really Derek in Cincinnati (who had a lovely childhood, thanks for asking) is dishonest, creepy gaslighting. You’re presenting a false reality that will cause irreversible psychological damage should that illusion shatter. Hassell engaged in this type of manipulation more than once with their readers. Another particularly terrible author I knew was outspokenly anti-LGBTQA+ in her private life (up to and including suggesting conversion attempts on a mutual friend’s sister, attending a church that preached anti-gay rhetoric, and voting for politicians who supported anti-gay legislation), but who had no qualms about writing as a M/M author, attending LGBTQA+ literature conferences, and befriending queer authors and readers under the guise of being an ally. These people trusted her when she was actually a threat to and actively working against their rights and safety.


Do: Ask for help from readers and friends should financial or personal catastrophe occur. If I found out tomorrow that I donated to an author’s GoFundMe for their cancer treatment but I didn’t realize they were using a pseudonym, I probably wouldn’t care. They still have cancer. Likewise, when a popular blogger who received financial support during a lawsuit was revealed to be a bestselling author, some of us weren’t angry that we’d made donations to her fund. The woman was still being sued, and the lawsuit still affected the romance community at large (although it should be noted that she also catfished some readers).

Don’t: Falsify a financial or personal catastrophe as part of your author persona to bolster sales or solicit donations. This is another big issue in the current revelations about Hassell, who claimed to be a single father struggling to pay for cancer treatments. Readers not only supported Hassell by buying books and encouraging others to do so, but they sent direct financial donations, which the person or people behind the Hassell identity accepted. Now, someone behind this persona has made a statement to say that they did, indeed, have medical bills, but they did not confirm that they had cancer. Cancer survivors especially are saying they feel cheated and manipulated.


Do: Form friendships with readers, if you want to! In this day and age, it’s not unusual to have online friends and not know their legal names. I was friends with one author for years before I found out that he was writing under a pseudonym. He didn’t hide it, he just thought I knew. But I don’t need to know his real name. I’m not buying him a plane ticket, and he’s not lying about his life. He just can’t have his employer knowing what he writes.

Don’t: Form friendships with readers under a false persona in order to research your books. Another accusation against Hassell is that the person or people behind the persona used the Hassell character to court long-distance friendships and even romantic relationships with readers, then later used private information about these readers’ pasts and sex lives in Santino Hassell novels.

Do I really need to elaborate on that one? These people are psychologically wounded now because someone used their personal struggles and experiences for financial gain.


There’s a lot more tied up in this debacle and I’d wager more will be forthcoming. But as the several examples here show (as well as prior controversies that I didn’t touch on), this isn’t a new phenomenon. Yet when another of these situations arise, the conversation will once again prioritize author privacy over the safety of readers and authors. Hopefully, this has been a helpful primer on how you, too, can maintain your privacy as an author without causing massive amounts of psychological damage on the people around you.

Unless you just don’t give a shit. Which is probably what’s happening in every single one of these incidents. Because people are gross.

Jealous Haters Book Club: Handbook For Mortals Chapter 15 The Tower or, “The first time the card in the chapter title was actually applicable to what happens in the plot” (Part One)

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I’m cutting this chapter into installments, as the recaps will be long. Because there is…a lot.

When we last met, Lani Sarem had just clearly purchased five-star reviews on Amazon and GoodReads in some kind of weird bid to…I don’t know. I have no idea what she felt a hundred or so five-star reviews were going to do for her clumsy scam six months after the fact, but she did it.

At least one of those five-star reviews was real, though, and author Heidi Heilig (The Girl From Everywhere, The Ship Beyond Time) happened to notice something…interesting about two books that were reviewed by the same account:

A screenshot of two Amazon reviews. The first is for Angie Thomas's The Hate U Give, with one star and "depressing" as the full review. The second is for Handbook For Mortals, fives stars, with a bunch of glowing text I'll cover in its entirety below. Both are from Lisa Hendricks.

Since you can’t read the entire glowing review from the screencap, this is what Hendricks has to say about Handbook For Mortals:

I loved this book! It’s such a fun read. The characters are well written and the story is unique. I don’t want to give anything away but I love how the magician is tied to story. She’s a strong female protagonist and I love that about it but it’s just a cool story. I can’t wait to see what happens in the next book and I’m also stoked for the movie. The chapters being based off of tarot cards is also fun and if you are into tarot and magick this is your kind of book. It’s cool that it’s set in modern day. I like fantasies but get overloaded with complicated lands and names and I really don’t like dystopian. I know there was also this hubub about if it is or isn’t YA…seriously? who cares…It’s clearly meant for girls who are teenagers to read and have someone to look up to and if you are older you can still relate…I think it’s weird the only ones that care about that seem to be actual adults who aren’t “YA” either if we are saying that’s 13-18 year olds…I think this is a great book and if you are into THIS kind of thing you will love it…if you aren’t then of course you might not love it but stop hating on those that do.

So what. Lisa Hendricks has bad taste, right? That’s nothing to do with Lani Sarem. After all, they are two very different books and not everyone is going to like every single thing, right?

Except, you may remember from, oh, this entire fucking time that Lani Sarem has had it out for Angie Thomas ever since Handbook For Mortals was removed from the New York Times bestseller list and The Hate U Give was returned to its rightful spot. From the legendary “It’s not my fault that Angie is black!” comment to the fact that she has continually alleged that forces behind The Hate U Give have sabotaged Handbook For Mortals out of jealousy, Lani Sarem cannot stand to see Angie Thomas authentically achieving something that Sarem feels should have been handed to her just because she wanted it.

Still, how is Lisa Hendricks connected to all this?

She’s thanked in the gargantuan and self-congratulatory acknowledgments section of Handbook For Mortals:

To Lisa Hendricks for being my second mom, and for more things than I could ever write into words. Some girls need more than one mom, and lots of guidance, and I would probably be curled up on the side of the road somewhere if it weren’t for you. Thank you for letting me make your home mine, for being the voice of reason, for just being awesome, and for showing me who I should always strive to become.

Lisa Hendricks one-starred a book about a black teenager who sees her best friend shot by the police as “depressing” and it just happens to be the book that was knocked out of and later returned to the coveted #1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list during this fiasco, and she’s the person who shows Lani who she should strive to become? Checks out. Your work here is done, Lisa.

In case you remain unconvinced that this is a personal strike on Sarem’s behalf, Hendricks has only reviewed three things on Amazon: The Hate U Give and Handbook For Mortals on February 14, 2018, and then a camera tripod four years ago.

Though Sarem didn’t offer an explanation as to why these reviews suddenly started popping up (and she didn’t disavow a relationship with Hendricks, which to be perfectly honest, I thought she would do despite the overwhelming evidence that she does know her), she did make it very clear that Heidi Heilig’s grasp on reality would not be tolerated:

A tweet from Lani Sarem to Heidi Heilig that reads, "Completely untrue and you literally made this up. That is slander. You should take this tweet down or I'll contact my attorney. Making things up to get tweets is really bad."

Making things up to get tweets is really bad. Making up sales, reviews, celebrity connections, that’s all totally okay. But taking screenshots that clearly show the truth is really bad.

The Worst Person I’ve Ever Met (Part 8) “The Parting Gifts”

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You may have missed a lot. Part One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier installments, a lot of my issues with Cathy involved my spirituality, which I’m a bit guarded about. As a result, I’m setting this part out on its own. If you’re the type of person who rolls your eyes at hauntings, spells, curses, any of that stuff, this will probably not be a post you’re going to enjoy. If that’s the kind of stuff you’d like to skip, you can do so without missing any big revelations that are crucial to the story overall.

If, on the other hand, you’re the type of person who runs toward stuff like hauntings, spells, and curses, this is going to be right up your alley.

Jealous Haters Book Club: Handbook For Mortals Chapter 14 Wheel of Fortune or, “Fifty Shades of Mac”

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Hello, everybody! Things are still hectic over here at the Trout House, but I’ve been stealing bits of time here and there to work on my true passion, which is, surprisingly, not calling and canceling accounts for a deceased person. Who could have guessed? No, I’m talking about my passion for ripping bad books to shreds. It soothes me.

Before I go too far, I want to thank everyone who has donated money to us in the wake of this unexpected death. I won’t go further than that because Mr. Jen wants to thank you guys directly via video (when he’s able to do it without choking up) and I don’t want to steal his thunder. But you guys have really saved a huge chunk of our asses. Disposing of someone’s body and material life is expensive, even when you go super basic.

As of right now, posts here are going to be thin on the ground. I’ve got two novels I’m trying to get out while also doing death-related responsibility. But I’m so glad to at least give you guys this, and thanks for sticking around!

Okay, so, in Lani Sarem news, someone was very, very busy. Or, the people someone hired on Fiverr to write five-star reviews for Handbook For Mortals. From February 12 to February 14, over fifty unverified reviews flooded into Amazon for Handbook, all proclaiming it a wonderful book, a great read, that it should be made into a movie, or, in one case, just “A,” which fifteen Amazon customers found helpful. These reviews are being called out and roundly mocked on social media (and in the comments on my previous recap), as they’re clearly purchased. Next time, Sarem should consider writing a better book and getting good reviews that way.

But what do I know?

Over at Switzy Thoughts, Amanda J. Surowitz describes her experience in Sarem’s “How I Navigated The New York Times List” session at the Agile Writer’s conference in Virginia earlier this year. Sarem apparently spared some time to slam Phil Stamper, one of the key figures in uncovering Sarem’s scam, and continued to insist that because the world of publishing isn’t run like the far superior music industry, it’s broken.

With that, let’s go see what Shitbook For Shortles has in store for us this time.

Hiatus After Hiatus After Hiatus…

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I promised I’d be returning this week. I did not realize that my husband would find his mother dead in her apartment on Thursday afternoon. She hadn’t been feeling well, so he’d gone by after work to check on her. She’d died in her sleep the night before. She was only sixty-nine years old.

If you’ve been reading my “Worst Person I’ve Ever Met” series, this may interest you: “Sam’s” father was the medical examiner who showed up. One might have thought that would be the cherry on this shit sundae, but alas, it is a mere sprinkle. The complications that have been left behind are numerous. There is the time, money, physical labor for the monumental task of funeral costs, closing accounts, or cleaning the apartment. Mr. Jen and I have found ourselves the beneficiaries of several new full-time jobs.

The costs associated with even a modest funeral are astronomical. Some of you who heard the news on Twitter sprang into action and raised $600.00 to help us with the cost. We are so incredibly thankful for those contributions, as we are finding ourselves wiped out.

The worst part of all of this seems to be the numb practicality. Of course, my husband is grieving. But I feel nothing. Nothing but irritation and anxiety at the situation and at the number of things that require our urgent attention…later. Because everything waits on offices opening on Monday, death certificates arriving, signatures obtained from uncooperative parties. Hurry up and wait builds a wall between grief and the people who are supposed to be processing it.

I’m not going to promise that I’ll be returning next week. I have no idea if that’s possible. At the moment, we’re sifting through a lifetime of disorganized paperwork–here, a vital record from the retirement office, there a printed-off email joke from 1998–and sorting through useless brick-a-brack we feel guilty disposing of because it was precious to her in life. And the one person who should be allowed to step back and just not have to deal with anything other than his emotions is my husband, who absolutely will not get a chance to do that until all this other stuff is done.

For now, I’ll just say that updates will be sporadic and I’m sorry. Hopefully, it will only be in this immediate aftermath and not for weeks.

The Sickening

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Hey everybody! As many of you are aware, there is a deadly strain of flu picking people off in the U.S. right now because the collapse of our government apparently wasn’t providing enough excitement or something. I’ve been trying to fight something off since a bout of mild food poisoning last week, so I’ve elected to take the rest of this week off and spend it sleeping as much as possible. I’ll be back next week, hopefully not with the flu.

Jealous Hater Book Club: Handbook For Mortals Chapter 13, The High Priestess or “The Big Skew”

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How is it possible to have more Handbook For Mortal news when the book isn’t even like…a thing? Well, I don’t know, but this is where we are.

Jeremy West brought it to the attention of Twitter that Lani is using “#1 New York Times Bestseller” stickers on copies of Handbook For Mortals:

A photo of someone (possibly Sarem) holding a copy of Handbook For Mortals with a big gray sticker on it proudly declaring it a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. The sticker uses the logos of both newspapers.

If you notice, the logos of both publications are reproduced exactly. I’ve reached out to the New York Times for comment, but they’re presumably out of the office on a nation-wide hunt for the three remaining Trump voters they haven’t profiled yet.

Sarem also told author Claribel Ortega that the film version of Handbook For Mortals will be out this year. If you’re familiar at all with big budget, effects-heavy fantasy movies you will know that is not enough time to accomplish a good one, even if the movie released on December 31 because the project is still “in development” according to IMDB.

Now, let’s go to the recap. Oh, and again, warning for just an unsettling amount of racism. Just, a staggering amount of it.

The Worst Person I’ve Ever Met (Part 6) “The Red Squirrel”

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Missed past installments? You can find them here: part one, part two, part three, part four, part five

In this installment, I will cover several of Cathy’s claims about diagnoses she’d received from “a doctor”. Having an invisible illness myself, I hate when people try to prove that patients are faking their symptoms. This, however, is Cathy. You’ll have to forgive me and everyone who knew her for doubting. Mea culpa.

There are also mentions of suicide in this post.