LilI of the Gaslight

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or group, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment, often evoking in them cognitive dissonance and other changes, including low self-esteem. Using denial, misdirection, contradiction, and misinformation, gaslighting involves attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim’s beliefs.

Now, Gaslighting is particularly nasty form of abuse. It’s NOT fun. It’s also a lot more common than most people realize, and something many people engage in, possibly without being aware of precisely what they’re doing, but probably aware of it getting them their ends.

A current example of this would be the whole ‘white guilt/ institutional racism/critical race theory’ hysteria, where the target group has been, via such things as the 1619 project covertly sowed disinformation (which historians say not accurate, and even the NYT has backed away from the historical accuracy of) to doubt their own memory, perceptions and indeed judgement. It’s certainly intended to lower the victims’ self-esteem and lead them into cognitive dissonance. ‘Mostly peaceful’ dissonance, as the media puts it.

You know, there’s a simple empirical test for what the actual reality in this is, a test proven by hundreds of millions of people, repeatedly, over millennia: no group voluntarily moves towards worse conditions, where possible, groups – not just individuals but substantive numbers of that group, and always those who can – the wealthy, skilled, qualified — will leave persecution, and settle in the best they can get without that, or at least less persecution.  Ask the Jews.  

A friend, Julie Pascal, once illustrated it far better than Wikipedia did. I’m going to sort of paraphrase and expand her illustration. I am sure she did it better. A young boy acquires a new stepmother, and moves to a new house. He wants nothing more than to loved and accepted (this is important). On the first day he leaves his bedroom and walks through to the living room.  His new step-mother screams at him “You bad child! How dare you! You walked on the cracks on the floor!”

Now, the boy had no idea he wasn’t to walk on the cracks. But he is contrite. He wants to be loved and accepted, remember. He apologizes, asks if he can fix it or do anything to make up for it.
And he is very careful not walk on the cracks.  Only one problem… he can’t see any cracks. He is foolish enough to say so, and gets screamed at again. So he spends his time trying to avoid something he can’t see… that he’s eternally in trouble for standing on, and desperately trying to appease.

There are no cracks. Even if there were, she neither cares nor would it make any difference if he stood on them. And no matter how he tried, he could not ever win her good graces. The entire point is have the poor child desperately trying to appease, do anything he possibly can for her. That’s what she wants, nothing to do with cracks. If he could levitate – she’d change the rules. It’s the abuser’s game of Calvinball, that you can’t win.

If you play, that is. Realistically, if the kid hadn’t cared and hadn’t wanted acceptance and been desperate to please and appease, well, it wouldn’t have worked.

So: how does this all tie into writing: Oddly, quite positively to some extent – for me at least. I’m not going to play Calvinball, and the various abusers gas-lighting all the writers and Cons so desperate to please and appease them… well, that’s their problem.  One can, by the way, always tell the difference between gaslight and some genuine problem which can be resolved.  Genuine problems don’t have moving goal-posts, people are eager and willing to show you in detail what they are, not vague accusations and demands ready to be moved. The complainants want solutions and resolution, not continuation and it is a norm for both sides make genuine compromises, and concessions… from both sides (not I have demanded 100% of x and give you nothing, but will settle – today, for 50% and tell you that’s a concession. And next week I want the rest. I’ll take 50% of what is left again… and tell you that’s concession, and so on.)

How it worked for me… and I was indeed desperate to please and appease, and had no idea where the cracks were. I couldn’t even see them. You see… I had my first book accepted, bought. My editor – whether on purpose or simply as an accident, gaslighted me incredibly effectively. He told me it was nearly a great book, ready for publication. It just need some improvement in places.

I had, obviously, polished that book before submitting it.  Polished and polished again.  I was more than willing to believe I need to fix some areas, but I seriously couldn’t see those cracks in the floor. So I asked where they were. I didn’t get screamed at, but I got: ‘I can’t remember, you look.’

So I did. I read each sentence from the back of the book, to pick up errors. I picked through every line, every paragraph, every word and polished. And resubmitted. And got ‘a bit better, nearly there.’ This went on for several iterations. And on what proved to be the last one… I accidentally sent the same draft back, not the latest. It was entirely an accident, but I was told it was now right.  And then I realized I’d sent the wrong one… but I had for once the brains to keep my mouth shut. Whether it was deliberate or not I will never know, but it did make for a much more polished draft.

And I think, unconsciously, and with no ill intent, many authors do the same… to themselves. Maybe they’re even right, there is something wrong they can’t put a finger on. But it reaches a point where it isn’t really improving. When, honestly the pen-ultimate draft was actually better.  I think that’s a lot sooner than most of us accept. We want to please, desperately.

But generally, most of the audience really isn’t an abusive roach. They just want an entertaining story, and they are surprisingly forgiving and nice, and aren’t looking to tear you down. Actually, they give you back appreciation on your effort. The ones that don’t: walk away. You never win at Calvinball.

Image by AD_Images from Pixabay

29 thoughts on “LilI of the Gaslight

  1. Publishers, and the editors who work for them, believe with all their hearts that what they do is take the raw clay produced by authors and lovingly form and shape it into a great work of art. Mostly by nit picking whatever their gripe du jour might be and getting the writer to jump through what feels like and endless series of hoops.
    What they actually used to do of value was offer an independent set of eyes to catch those inevitable bobbles that your author mind keeps skimming past along with all those ancillary support functions such as cover, printing, distribution, and promotion. But all of those can now be bought by the yard or done entirely independently by any half way accomplished indie writer.
    IMHO traditional publishing is dead, the corpse simply hasn’t been embalmed and put in the ground as of yet.

  2. Speaking as reader, writer, *and* editor-for-money, it’s fairly obvious to me that in recent years, some publishers have done no professional-level editing whatsoever (not even proofreading). This “almost there” for a dozen iterations sounds to me like a settled procedure for getting the *writer* to do all the editing-and-proofreading at no cost to the publisher, using the theory that if the writer goes over it enough times, all the problems will be caught and fixed (at least good enough that the customers won’t notice whatever remains).

    And I’d bet they use this as needed to delay publication, or to give themselves a path out of the contract if they decide this work won’t be sufficiently profitable (because you never got it to a “satisfactory” condition).

    I’d bet that each time you could have submitted the original, or at worst the first polish, and the result would have been the same; it would have been “accepted” at the point where the publisher needed to fill next month’s printing slot.

    The corpse isn’t awaiting embalming; it’s up on the sky-rack and passing vultures are carrying away vital bits.

    [My cynical little voice wishes to add, “Note how few publishers are left, and recall that corporate mergers are often the losing side’s exit strategy.”]

    1. I believe traditional publishers have been doing this for years. I vividly recall getting the huge, lavishly illustrated coffee-table bio of Edith Head from the library ($75 from Running Press Adult). The book was riddled with typos, some of which spellcheck would have caught and others any copy-editor would have seen from across the room. It was published in 2010 so standards must have already been in decline for years.

      1. Yeah, I first noticed the crappy/absent editing creeping in about 20 years ago. So it ain’t new, but about ten years back it suddenly got a lot worse (and I started seeing a lot more obvious editing artifacts). And it’s probably worse than I know, because over the same timespan my book habit went from a pack a day to near-zero.

  3. Amen on most of the audience not being…well, nasty.

    Remember that there are folks who really aren’t happy unless they’re miserable.

    1. First of all, Happy Thanksgiving to all. (Yes, October is the proper month for Thanksgiving, Americans do it wrong. ~:D )


      Many will recall me swearing up and down that I would not read the reviews of my book when it was published.

      Mea culpa, I was wrong. The reviews have been entirely reasonable, and with one exception very positive. The single negative review was also reasonable, the reviewer was angry I didn’t give him what he wanted. He wanted the nerd character to get rejected and crushed, which did not happen. So he stopped reading at that point, because I had departed from the Proper Path.

      But everybody else loved that part, so I guess you can’t please everybody. 9 hits to one miss is a pretty good batting ratio.

      As Dave says, had I gone with this to a Big Five publisher (and had they answered their f-ing email) I’d have been told: “The nerd has to die. Make him an incel pervert. (Because those two things go together, right?) And make the robot girlfriend kill him. Then make the robot company hunt her down and kill her after she goes on an incel-slaying rampage. And make it the company’s fault because they used cheap parts or something.”

      Because that’s how the story is supposed to go. How many stories have I read with that for the plot lately? Pretty much all of them, I think. Corporations bad, robots bad, nerds bad, death and mayhem and betrayal and destruction, the end.

      But needless to say, that is the story I did NOT write. Mine is the other story, the one where the fabulous robot girlfriend gets the nerd of her dreams, she mercilessly bugs the hell out of him all day, every day, and he loves it. (Spoilers, good guys win in my books.)

      I think, based on my admittedly very small sample, that -my- story is the one that nine out of ten general-issue SF fan wants to read these days. Maybe I’m wrong because of sample size bias, but I don’t care because I’m not going to write the thing I’m supposed to anyway.

        1. We’ve had frost already. The combines are going flat out getting the beans and the corn in, the wheat came in weeks ago. Canada, land of stupid weather.

          Pretty soon it’ll be time to get the snow tires on and get the snowblower tuned up. This year I have a new secret weapon though, I got a blade for the back of my little tractor. Zoom zoom!

          Probably won’t snow a single flake now. Just slush all winter. ~:D

                1. Yep, glowball warming is not the thing. Its all down to me finally getting decent tooling. ~:D

                  Same principle as getting the subway to arrive by lighting a cigarette. The iron rule of the universe is that the train invariably comes as soon as you light up.

                  Somebody should let the camel know, he’s still having the vapors over carbon dioxide.

      1. The single negative review was also reasonable, the reviewer was angry I didn’t give him what he wanted. He wanted the nerd character to get rejected and crushed, which did not happen. So he stopped reading at that point, because I had departed from the Proper Path.

        ….that sounds like some of the reviews I’ve seen where I wonder if they PAID to have that “negative” review made, and voted “most helpful.”

        1. Interesting actually, the one negative review is from a “Vine Voice”. And what is that, one asks?

          Vine Voice: “This customer is a member of Amazon Vine™ Voice, an invitation only program that gives Amazon reviewers advance access to not-yet-released products for the purpose of writing reviews.”

          He’s part of the Publishing Industrial Complex. Writing reviews on books he can’t be bothered to finish reading, to get freebies from Amazon. He -is- paid to write negative reviews.

            1. That’s how I view negative reviews, generally. You see many 4s and 5s, and you see very few 1s and 2s, you go look at -who- said it was a 2. If it was an SJW, then it counts as a double 5. ~:D

  4. That…actually sounds remarkably like what I went through with my first academic advisor. “There are two typos in these twenty pages of dense, mathematical prose that you’ve sent me! How dare you consider this worthy of my time! Did you even make an effort to do it right?”

    When the relationship ended, I considered him an unreasonable perfectionist, but now I wonder if I was being too generous to him.

  5. What Dave depicts in the above is a dominance play. The publishing house editor wants to inculcate an attitude of subservience in the writer. Nearly all of them do exactly as Dave has described to the aspiring writer who’s thrilled that someone is finally pleased by his stuff.

    The drive to instill an attitude of subservience has several motivations powering it. First, there’s money: a writer who’s been sufficiently cowed will usually be a poor negotiator. Second, there’s the pub house’s agenda: it wants a certain kind of image, among both readers and publishing-industry organizations, and a stable of writers who jump on command can be useful in that pursuit. And third, there’s ego. Most editors harbor writing aspirations of their own. Indeed, they may have several novels “in the trunk,” having been rejected by houses like their own. To reduce an aspiring writer to subservience helps to buttress their self-images as “creators” rather than mere enablers and hangers-on to the creative process.

    It’s something of a game. An evil game, but a game nonetheless. If you’re going to pursue “traditional” publication, you have to be prepared for it. Most new writers aren’t.

  6. I’ve seen writers get into this gaslighting without the need for an editor or publisher to actually exist – instead, they start worrying about what people might say or could possibly think.

    Granted, we’ve seen the publisher version, too, where books are yanked before they’re even published because the Mean Girls on Goodreads took offense to what might possibly be in the book according to someone who may or may not have and advance review copy.

    But there are people who’ve been so gaslit so long that they talk about how they have to rewrite their book in case somebody thinks that someone in some scene was racist, or that protagonist wasn’t pro-Cause of the Day enough, or…

    I learned long ago that the critics in my head are very rarely actually congruent with reality when they start worrying about what other people will notice, think, or care about. So, I work on perfecting the art of not listening to my critical voice as it worries about how someone might perceive… and instead fret over reviews, and how actual people actually perceive.

  7. I remember when I believed that the receiving authorities really cared about the product, and about the community, and sincerely desired having the best Things get the recognition they deserved.
    What a warm, soft, cuddly fifteen minutes THAT was!
    The publishing industry doesn’t have a lock on that particular form of torture. For sixteen years, I worked for a public school system. We got a NEW and IMPROVED (!) boss with NEW ands IMPROVED ideas !! And, honestly, some of them WERE good ideas; such as “we are going to stop doing stupid things.” (a near-verbatim quote)
    But, then New and Improved demanded an annual report, the School Improvement Plan. Had to be submitted at the end of the second month of school, the ULTIMATE high stakes assignment, as each new administrators was told much of their professional evaluation would be based on the document. There really MIGHT have been some good to be found in the process, but…
    …after it had been in place for a few years, I got drafted, as the resident wordsmith, to write up the introductory portion of the plan. I looked at the plans my school had submitted in previous years.
    I discovered that what looked like an intro of about 3000 words, was REALLY two intros of about 1500 words each. Somewhere along the line, the original intro had reproduced, like an amoeba. The first 1500 words, subdivided into paragraphs, was followed by the exact same 1500 words, divided into the exact same paragraphs. It took me ONE reading to discover that; it had been approved by the Powers AT LEAST three times, consecutively. I didn’t tell anyone. And I submitted it, just as it was. And nobody noticed. Again.

  8. That process with the editor kind of reminds me of a thing Dean Wesley Smith related, that if an editor sends back a big list of things to be changed, that he will change a couple things in the first few pages and a couple things in the last couple pages, then send the manuscript back otherwise unchanged. The editors usually just want to show that they are “doing something” to their superiors and they will not be doing any real checking to see what the writer may have changed. (DSW is a strong advocate of one-draft writing with just a couple passes for spelling and obvious inconsistencies in things like names.)

  9. I was in a painting class. I watched one of our better painters finish a painting. Then spend a week fixing it. At the end of the week it was back to where it had been at the beginning. Which proves you don’t need editors.

    1. hmm. I’ve actually had two great edits…. in 23 books. In both cases it was structural editing (‘You need an earlier mention of so-and-so to make this logical’, or ‘there is a continuity problem here. Fred cannot be there as on page such and such it clearly says he wasn’t.’ or ‘if you shift Chapter 5 to Chapter 4 it will heighten the tension and remind the reader Freddy exists.’ ). I have had many good line edits (which are really extended proof-reading). Editors CAN add a lot. But such editors are very rare.

      1. That’s the sort of thing I’ll see and fix… character just fell from the sky, the sword was not established *before* you stabbed him (or you left it lying on the ground and are now disarmed), the car used to be blue, where the hell are we now? weasling, weak descriptives, redundancies, needless telling, words out of optimal order; voice breaks (yours or characters); action scenes slowed by too much ‘positioning the mannequins’. I also poke fun at the more egregious gaffs, so you learn to hear what you actually wrote and can thereafter fix it yourself. (Which makes writing that much easier.)

        A gratifying experience: was editing a book in chunks as the author finished each part, so she saw the fixes before she finished the next section. The early parts were a mess, but by the end it was almost clean. She wasn’t green; she just hadn’t had the bad habits beaten out of her in realtime. 😀

    2. Sometimes, sometimes not. About half the time when someone revises a scene, I’m like — no, no, put it back, you broke it, it was better before… and the other half are like yes, good, finally it has all the elements it needs.

      I’m not a fan of machete editing; in my observation, usually when someone wants to cut a scene entirely, the problem isn’t that it was needless, but that it was insufficiently developed.

  10. I kind of did this to myself.
    It wasn’t that my first world (first submitted world) was unsaleable per se but that a) it needed me to know how editors/publishers thought. b) the approach I took was so non-politically correct that no one would publish it (yes, I WILL. Soonish)
    BUT I didn’t know it was the worldbuild/theme. So I kept polishing everything else, and figuring out how to tell the story better.
    In the end it served me well, even if it cost me 8 years. (Sigh.)

  11. Interesting, my ‘bad’ reviews have also come from “Vine Voice” readers… That ‘splains why they weren’t verified purchasers. But those 1 star reviews SOLD books after I published them on my blog. I write for Joe/Jane Average reader that wants realistic characters and correct gun usage. Which means my books will NEVER be allowed in school libraries, per a couple of Texas school librarians I’ve talked to. Sigh…

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