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Reading in Bad Faith January 15, 2022

Of the millions of pieces of fiction written over the past two hundred years, a big chunk of them are harmful in some way. They're racist or sexist; they teach young readers that cruelty is cool; or they portray rape, murder, and other crimes as fun and exciting.

More than once, I've been accused of maliciously inventing problems in beloved stories just to ruin them for everyone else. My most unpopular observations:

  • Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre is a middle-aged predator who imprisons his disabled wife and then emotionally manipulates his teenage employee, who has no support system and nowhere else to go, into having sex with him.
  • The moral of The Lion King is that there's a divine order to society: special light-colored males are born to rule no matter how irresponsible and unqualified they are, and giving power to impoverished dark-colored outcasts would upset the "natural balance" so catastrophically that the heavens would close in protest and everything would die.

It's frustrating when people tell me I'm making up issues that are so evident in the source material, you'd have to will yourself blind to them. Seriously, look at these "bad guys" vs. "good guys."

Scar from The Lion King
Hyenas from The Lion King

Adult hyenas are beige-colored with brown spots or stripes (see Google Images). They're nowhere close to the dark wolf-gray of the trio in the animated movie and all the Lion King merchandise. Either the Disney animators tragically lost all of their reference photos, or they used their "artistic license" to signal to young audiences that these characters are devious and menacing. (In combination with the exaggerated Black vernacular and Latino accents, of course.)

That said, I've been seeing a trend in Goodreads reviews and social media threads: people are increasingly criticizing books for "problematic content" that isn't actually in the text. These one-star reviews and Twitter take-downs are excoriating authors not because of what they wrote, but because the critics imagine other people with poor reading comprehension will misunderstand what was written.

For example, I recently read a young adult thriller and thought it was very well done. When I went to Goodreads to give it 5 stars, I spotted popular reviews calling it toxic for supposedly (1) promoting slut-shaming and (2) perpetuating harmful stereotypes about people with depression. These assertions fell into two broad categories of Problem Projection.

"This book doesn't state emphatically enough that bad things are bad."

There was slut-shaming in this book, yes...by the detestable bullies, towards a sympathetic main character. The poor girl's ex-boyfriend waged a cruel campaign to isolate her from the rest of the school by telling everyone she slept around. A sneering queen bee scrawled "WHORE" on her locker and tripped her in PE to humiliate her to tears.

How could these scenes be perceived as promoting slut-shaming? Well, as one incensed reviewer argued, "The characters call it out sometimes, but not every time."

To these readers, it's not enough to show that slut-shaming is bad through a likeable heroine's suffering. It's not enough to write on-the-nose dialogue proclaiming that slut-shaming is bad three times in the same book. If the author doesn't categorically state that slut-shaming is bad every single time a mean girl is mean, these readers are convinced that people less enlightened than they are might think the moral of the story is that slut-shaming is okay.

"This book doesn't stop bigoted readers from being bigots."

The villain of this book was a maladjusted boy who became an incel after falling down the 4chan rabbit hole. He started an app to spread nasty gossip about the sexual indiscretions of his classmates. He cooked up a scheme to destroy the lives of two pretty girls who dared to ignore him, and two charismatic "chads" his crush had dated instead of him, by committing suicide and framing these four popular kids for his murder.

A Goodreads review with more than 700 likes railed about this plot: "Depression does not equal being a terrorist!" Other reviews echoed this sentiment. The author is so ignorant, this portrayal of teens with suicidal ideology is so damaging, we need to stop publishing books that trivialize and demonize mental illness.

The text of this book did not imply that depression is trivial, nor that all depressed people are terrorists. Other characters in the book also had depression and were not terrorists. Depression was just one element of the villain's character, and from the way it was framed and discussed in scenes, the author's intent was clearly to make the boy more sympathetic to readers, not less. The causes of his descent into antisocial behavior were shown to be his delicate wounded ego and the bad influence of incel culture, not his depression.

The only people who would come out of that book with the belief that all mental illnesses are psychopathy must have carried it in with them. So these reviewers' complaints weren't really that the book asserts all depressed kids are future criminals—because it doesn't—but that the author didn't proactively charge into battle with theoretical bigots who might read the book and project their preexisting worldviews onto the page.

When I was active on Twitter, one of the daily controversies sprouted up over a video of humorist David Sedaris reading one of his pieces. "David Sedaris Demands the Right to Fire Others in 'Citizen's Dismissal'," the captions blared. In the piece, Sedaris complains about a retail worker who didn't have any bags left for his purchases and didn't try to help him figure out how to carry them. "Well, they're yours," she said. "You bought them." Sedaris says if this woman were any good at her job, she would have come up with a solution...like taking off her own underwear and using it to wrap his new cups and saucers.

Whether you think the piece is funny or not, you couldn't possibly believe Sedaris's "citizen's dismissal" proposal was serious. His intent isn't even mildly ambiguous. He's making fun of people who couldn't care less about their jobs, but also of himself for his petulant and entitled thoughts about those people.

Netizens were determined to be enraged. "Yeah I know it's satire," they said, "but the fact is people won't watch the video and won't get that it's a joke. They'll just read the title and think it's a good idea. David Sedaris's words could have far-reaching negative impacts on the vulnerable workers in customer service."

In short, the only fault they could find with the content is that they expected other people to be too stupid to understand it. This alone made the piece "incredibly problematic."

The Problems with Projecting Problems onto Media

To a certain extent, we must be careful not to reinforce common prejudices in our work. For example, it wouldn't be a great idea to write about a surly private eye who cleans up the streets of L.A. by taking down gangs of drug-running, gold-chain wearing Mexicans who don't speak English.

However, every BIPOC writer has received unfair criticism that their work "reinforces damaging stereotypes" simply for featuring multifaceted characters from their own cultures. Overzealous critics believe anything less than a complete repudiation of every stereotypical trait is a problematic portrayal.

If a Chinese mother wants her child to get straight As and attend a prestigious college, that's Sinophobia.

If an African or West Asian father is abusive, the author is asserting that all non-white men are violent subhumans.

If a heroine is a talented engineer, but she doesn't enjoy it and is more interested in childcare, that book alone has managed to unravel feminism and set us back two hundred years.

In essence, these people believe writers are obligated to contort themselves around the prejudices of others. Because bigots believe all Chinese mothers are obsessed with grades, no Chinese mother can ever be portrayed as caring about her child's grades. Every BIPOC character must be a perfect saint. Nuance and cultural differences cannot exist. We must be very careful to specify what we believe is right and wrong in heroic speeches, or readers might not be able to tell.

When we first start sharing our work with the world, we quickly learn to accept that not everyone will like it. Everyone has different tastes, and that's fair. If I bring deviled eggs to a potluck, and people who don't like eggs don't eat them, I have no reason to be offended. (Plus, that's more eggs for me.)

What's harder to accept is that people will read our work in bad faith, and it's not fair. They go into books hunting for reasons to hate them. They read a small sample and leap to the worst possible assumptions about the characters and the author's ethics. Basically, this kind of reader approaches books the same way they react to posts on social media—eager to find weaknesses they can latch onto and twist to proclaim you're wrong, you're ignorant, you deserve to be fired from writing in a collective citizen's dismissal.

What Can We Do?

Nothing.

There's no point in trying to appease this kind of reader. If people are determined to complain about a piece of media, they will, even if there is nothing objectively wrong with it and the best they can do is, "Well, bad people who aren't me won't get it."

Even if you can appease one group of readers, you'll incite the wrath of others. Amazon made a show about fairies. Because the first few minutes of episode one showed the fairies being treated poorly by the ruling human class, an angry swarm stopped there and bombarded the page with one-stars.

Another SJW garbage show.

social justice agenda disguised as alleged entertainment can't they just make entertainment without shoving their agenda down our throats

If you believe that immigrants should come here legally, prepare to be vilified and called a racist every five minutes.

Like our other examples, this show never called anyone a racist. It just showed hateful and cowardly humans mistreating individuals from another race. If a person watches this and thinks the show is calling them a racist every five minutes, that's their conscience talking.

It's as futile to write for people like this who willfully misunderstand you as it is to engage in productive debate with conspiracy theorists. We also shouldn't try to write for the people out there with bad morals and no critical thinking skills who can't tell the difference between right and wrong or sincerity and satire. Every story has a moral, but we're not literary evangelists on a mission to reform the sinners.

Our intended audience should be essentially good people who read in good faith. Readers are our partners. A piece of writing on its own is a bunch of squiggles. The audience turns it into an experience. For a fulfilling experience, they must be willing participants with the same goals for reading a book as we have for writing it.

Tips from the Query Trenches November 20, 2021

I finally finished Our Little White Lie and launched the long process of traditional publication with a flurry of query letters to literary agents. There's a lot of information about the querying process on the Internet, but I'd like to share some of my tips to make it as painless as possible.

The key things you'll need to have on hand for querying are:

  • A finished book
  • Resilience
  • A list of agents
  • Comp titles
  • A one- to two-page synopsis
  • Multiple versions of your pitch
  • Personalization
  • A short bio
  • Samples from your project
  • Patience

A Finished Book

Before you query, you need to have a finished book with a known word count ready, and the book must have good commercial potential. I don't mean the book must be good artistically, which is a different matter. For traditional publishing, the book must have the kind of concept that sounds like a hit in a single sentence.

Not every book is suitable for querying. My last novel, Lizzie Bennet's Diary, was not. Though I'm very proud of it artistically, I suffer from no delusions that yet another contemporary retelling of Pride and Prejudice with no sexy twists would sell. The only people interested in that premise are Austen fans who seek out all the retellings they can find, and that's okay.

Resilience

It's no secret that traditional publishing is soul crushing. Every book that hits the shelves had to break through a wall of "no, thank yous" first, and it's not a reflection of their quality. Even if you think you're emotionally prepared, and you know intellectually that publishing is a business and nothing is personal, getting rejection after rejection in your email inbox will suck more than you thought.

In the month after you send out your first batch of query letters, you'll never know when an unread email is just your electric bill, or a delivery notification for cat food, or a sucker punch to the gut that says, "I'm sorry to say your sample pages weren't as compelling as I'd hoped"—which is in all likelihood a form letter that doesn't mean anything, but it still feels like it means no one thinks you're good enough.

If you do get an agent, the soul-crushing doesn't stop. When your book goes on sub, editors will also reject it. Maybe everyone will reject it for reasons beyond any agent's or editor's control, and in the end the book won't get published unless you do it yourself. Maybe it will get acquired (yay!), but the advance will probably not be the quit-your-day-job money you imagined, but more along the lines of budget-vacation-in-Hawaii-three-years-from-now money. And no matter what, your life leading up to publication will be marketing, marketing, marketing, which is not what you thought you were signing up for when you dreamed of being a published author.

You need resilience to emerge from the publishing process without turning into a cynical, disillusioned ghost of your literature-loving self. Capitalism ruins everything. It takes proactive mental discipline to prevent it from ruining your writing.

A List of Agents

Once you've finished the grueling process of writing a book with commercial appeal, the grueling process of researching literary agents begins.

The number of agents out there today, and the amount of information you have to hunt down about each one to query them, can be overwhelming. In days of yore every public library had the annual Writer's Market in print, sitting on the bottom shelf of the reference section with the other ungainly tomes, and it listed most active agents and publishers in the United States and what they wanted. Now finding agents who might like your book is a multi-week Google deep dive.

Here are some of the resources I've found most useful for finding agents to query this month.

  • Manuscript Wish List: Agents and editors write profiles spelling out exactly what they're looking for, and often what they're not.
  • MsWishList: This website harvests a feed of tweets with the hashtag #MSWL.
  • Literary Agents of Color: A directory of BIPOC agents.
  • Poets & Writers Literary Agents Database: Not every agent is on Twitter, and this database contains the names of others you can filter by pretty granular themes.
  • QueryTracker: Unfortunately the advanced search filters are for "premium" members only, but you can do a basic search by genre and see comments from other writers about their interactions with an agent.

Google each potential agent and read whatever you can find. Crucial information can be buried in unexpected places. I've written down the names of agents I thought were perfect fits, but then I found an anti-wishlist on their website that specified they don't want any books about BIPOC trauma, or they said in an interview for a client's blog that they hate pitches with protagonists who are authors. Sometimes I've followed links to their YouTube channels, and from the videos they made about their working styles and what they're looking for in new clients, I knew we just wouldn't jive as business partners.

I write down every agent I find in a spreadsheet, with a comment explaining why they're a good fit (e.g., "Wants upmarket fiction for Millennials") to make query personalization less stressful later. I also started writing down why some agents are not a good fit (e.g., "Category romance & SFF only") so I don't spot them in another #MSWL tweet later and look them up all over again.

Comps

Finding "comps" (competitive/comparable titles) is the hardest part of the process for me. If you Google "how to find comps for literary queries," the resulting articles will mostly emphasize the pitfalls: "Not too old! Not too popular! Not too obscure! Not too misleading! Not so perfect the agent thinks your book has nothing new to add!" Some well-meaning advice-givers will conclude you should try not to include comps at all, if you can help it.

But from what I've seen directly from agents' mouths and thumbs, comps are important and can't be skipped. Some QueryManager forms will have a required field for comps, or at least the closely related question, "What current titles do you see your book sitting next to on the shelf?"

There's no easy shortcut to finding good comps. The only way to find them is to read, and read, and read some more.

Look at the current bestseller lists. Google agents' favorite titles and authors from Manuscript Wish Lists. Go to your local bookstores and public libraries, and browse the Hot Titles and New Books displays. Pick up books with the same aesthetic you'd want for your book, books with a similar tone, books with a somewhat similar setup. There are many different elements of books you can compare: themes, characters, settings, conflicts, writing style.

After reading everything with a pink, illustrated, or upmarket-looking cover I could find with Millennial characters and the themes of social media, coming of age, the complexities of multiculturalism, and lying about who you are, I eventually had a list of potential comps for Our Little White Lie to pick from:

  • THE VANISHING HALF - theme of BIPOC cutting off their own roots to be accepted by white people
  • BIG SUMMER - theme of young women misrepresenting themselves on social media for commercial gain
  • SUCH A FUN AGE - theme of the awkward tension between privileged white feminists who think they're progressive and the women of color they use without realizing it

Not listed are the many others I hoped could be comps, but weren't quite right, like a book that was packaged as upmarket fiction that turned out to be a romance, and another packaged as a rom-com that turned out to be a literary family drama. The process was very frustrating, and I thought I'd never find a single title that could communicate the essence of my own book. But there are many, many more books in the world than you might think, and every topic has been addressed by someone. You just have to keep reading.

Synopsis

A good number of agents I've queried had a Synopsis field on their QueryManager forms. They didn't specify length, but one to two pages seems to be standard.

The synopsis is the "book report" version of your novel. It's not a play-by-play of every chapter, with every character and subplot. It's the key beats of your main story, with your characters' motivations for doing what they do and how their relationships change.

I'm the kind of person who reads the Wikipedia articles of movies before I decide to watch them, so I imagine agents use synopses the same way. A story can have a killer premise, but then it doesn't live up to its potential. Your synopsis shows how you took advantage of juicy conflicts to keep readers interested all the way through.

Multiple Pitches

Long Version

The traditional query letter was an actual letter, on actual paper. But no agency I've looked at this month accepts snail mail queries anymore. Agents aren't going through a literal slush pile of envelopes one by one at a desk in a New York office; they're quickly scanning a list of submissions during their coffee breaks in QueryManager portals or email apps. They're not necessarily opening letters chronologically, or reading each one from beginning to end. They're clicking on whatever they're in the mood for and scanning quickly, in the same way you might browse Libby for something to read or Hulu for something to watch.

So the "long version" of a query today actually needs to be quite brief, get to the point, and generate the gut reaction, "Ooh, this looks good!" I used to obsess over dressing up the language of my queries, but what's more important are the naked ideas underneath.

  • Who is your protagonist?
  • What is the inciting incident?
  • What are the challenges your protagonist will face?
  • What is at stake if they mess up?

Agency websites might compare the pitch to a back-cover blurb. But while a blurb withholds information to tease potential readers, the query should tell the agent exactly what this book is about and where it's going. You don't have to be coy to avoid "spoiling" the plot. Agents aren't reading manuscripts like casual readers to find out what happens. They're reading to evaluate the commercial potential of the project, and whether any editors they know would want to acquire it. So give them all the selling points you can. Spell out those delicious disasters readers won't see coming, like one of those glossy Hollywood trailers that give away every beat of the movie.

One Paragraph

Every agent says they read a little differently. Some put the most weight on comps, some skip right to the sample, some read the pitch first and look at the sample only if they're on the fence, etc.

For the agents who specifically say they don't need or want a long pitch, you'll need a one-paragraph version of your query ready. I've found it easiest to work from longest to shortest: first distill the novel into a synopsis, then distill the synopsis into a query letter, then cut out everything but the bare essentials for the one-paragraph version. A paragraph gives you just enough room to answer the questions above.

One Sentence

Some QueryManager forms have a field for a one-sentence pitch. You don't have room for the whole plot, so this will be the extremely compact version of those four pitch elements put together.

For example, if the movie Happiest Season were a book, the one-sentence pitch might be: "When Abby Holland [protagonist] visits her girlfriend Harper's conservative family for Christmas [inciting incident], she must hide their relationship from Harper's image-obsessed parents and decide how much she's willing to endure for the woman she loves [challenges & implied stakes]."

You can Google tips for screenwriters writing "loglines" for other examples.

Personalization

For every submission, you'll need to personalize your pitch a little bit. One sentence is enough, just to let the agent know why you're interested in working with them. E.g., "I saw your #MSWL tweet calling for laugh-out-loud rom-coms," or "I read on your Manuscript Wish List that you're looking for atmospheric horror like MEXICAN GOTHIC." You'll put this at the beginning of your email queries or in a QueryManager form field for "Why did you choose to submit to me?"

Short Bio

From all the talk of platforms on the internet, you might think the purpose of a bio is to impress agents with your fabulous literary awards and one million Instagram followers. If you have those things, great, but most of us don't. The purpose of your bio is really just to tell the agent who you are and why you wrote this particular book. A few sentences will suffice.

For example, my bio in submissions for Our Little White Lie is simply: "Like the fictional Rachel Miller, I'm a half-Chinese, half-white Millennial with a fondness for K-dramas. Unlike Rachel, I have a career as an IT manager for academic libraries in the Pacific Northwest. I've self-published previous works of fiction and maintain a website at https://author.tkmarnell.com."

If you're struggling, you can think about what parts of yourself you put into your story. Even for highly imaginative fantasies, every writer embeds themselves somewhere in their work.

Samples

You have a book, but now you have to chop it up into samples that can be easily copy/pasted into QueryManager forms and email bodies.

If you wrote your manuscript in serif font with first-line indents, I suggest copying the first 50 pages into a new document to reformat. Use a sans-serif font like Arial to match the emails you'll be typing, and adjust the paragraph styles so they'll look nice in electronic communications someone might be reading on a phone. You'll probably need to find clean breaks at various marks: 5 pages, 10 pages, 15 pages, etc.

If agents request partial or full manuscripts, the standard format requested will be a DOC or DOCX file with Times New Roman 12-point font; double-spaced paragraphs with first-line indents (not a tab character); page headers specifying your name, book title, and page number; and a title page on top with your contact information. Google results for "how to format a book manuscript" are all mostly the same, so at least in this one matter, you won't have to sort through a lot of conflicting information about what agents want.

Patience

Once you've gathered all of your materials, it's time to submit! If you have twenty agents on your list, you'll probably mix and match the elements above in twenty different ways.

And then you wait. And wait. And try to forget you're waiting, and to stop tensing up in the anticipation of heartbreak every time you look at your email. The agents I've queried say they typically respond in four to six weeks. Then if anyone requests partial or full manuscripts, they'll probably get to them in another three to six months. They have a lot of submissions to read and tackle them during evenings and weekends, because their current clients are their priority during the work day.

Instead of dwelling and fretting, start thinking about your next project. If you get "the call" in six months, the agent will ask about your plans and vision for your writing career, you can tell them about the new book you're drafting or revising.

The Fad Diet Mentality of NaNoWriMo October 31, 2021

Starting in October of every year, the question pops up on every online space related to writing: "Are you doing NaNoWriMo?" Public libraries schedule NaNo events. AuthorTubers make videos with tips for how to succeed in NaNo. There's a universal understanding that NaNoWriMo is a good thing, and criticizing it makes you a jerk who enjoys "pissing in other people's cornflakes," as I once saw proclaimed in the comments of a blog post about the wonders of NaNo.

So why do I persist in ruining a fun program that helps people follow their dreams? Because it's not actually a fun program. NaNoWriMo is a toxic program that teaches people to hate writing and themselves.

I grew up in the days when the standard of beauty was size zero. Journalists gleefully chronicled the "weight problems" of svelte celebrities like Kate Winslet, Liv Tyler, and Hilary Duff. Cruel reality shows like The Biggest Loser dressed large people in skin-tight underwear for millions to gawk at, then tortured them with extreme diet and exercise regimens overseen by celebrity trainers who screamed in their lazy, disgusting faces until they broke down sobbing for the cameras.

Every year a new fad diet was all the rage. Grapefruit, Atkins, South Beach, "cleanses" of lemon juice with cayenne pepper. These types of diets promised that if you could endure the pain of starvation for a short while, you'd be thin and pretty forever.

Of course, dieting doesn't work and is ultimately damaging to your health. The only way to change your body long-term is to form permanent habits that don't make you miserable. Regular moderate exercise, fruits and veggies, plenty of water and sleep...healthy habits are quite simple and boring. They're not alluring like the programs that promise instant success and accolades.

NaNoWriMo encourages the fad diet mentality towards writing. People join because they've always wanted to write a novel, and they believe if they can just endure the pain of writing 1,500 to 2,000 words a day for one month, they'll become Sara Gruen. As the About NaNoWriMo page enthuses, "hundreds of thousands of people around the world...enter the month as elementary school teachers, mechanics, or stay-at-home parents. They leave novelists."

But just like the Lose 10 Pounds in 10 Days fads, the NaNo Diet doesn't work. Statistics from 1999 to the present show only 10-20% of participants complete the "challenge" each year. I'm willing to bet most of those "winners" are novelists already, who are accustomed to plotting out books and writing a chapter a day. They're not the school teachers and mechanics lured by the promise that if they cut themselves off from their families and friends for the month of November, glue their butts to a chair, and keep typing whether they want to or not, a great book will magically appear.

When I worked in a college library a couple of years ago, I spoke to a student who was doing NaNoWriMo. They were excited about reaching 20,000 words. I said, "Cool! What's your book about?" They answered, "Oh, I don't know yet. How it works is you just have to keep writing every day, and the book will take shape naturally. I'm concentrating on reaching my word count goals and seeing where it goes."

I'm sorry (not sorry) to piss in anyone's cornflakes, but that's not crafting a novel. That's brainstorming for 100+ hours. What you'll end up with is not a book, but a 50,000-word journal entry with a few ideas that could maybe be a book in the future, if you start over with a plan and a notion of what you want to accomplish.

However, the low completion statistics and unsalvageable "novels" that result from the challenge are not the most significant problems with NaNoWriMo. My main issue with both diet culture and NaNoWriMo culture is the lasting psychological harm they inflict.

If you want to teach children to appreciate music, you wouldn't tell them, "This month, we're going to practice piano for four hours every day. Whether you like it or not, you're going to sit down and keep hitting those keys until you love it." Within a week those children would despise the sound of the piano, and they'd never willingly touch a musical instrument again.

Or if you want to incorporate exercise as a part of your daily life, the worst way to do it is to say, "Starting tomorrow, I'll wake up at 5 am and run three miles every morning, no matter how tired I am and how much I hate running. I'll post my miles on Facebook to hold myself accountable, so if I give up everyone will know how lazy and worthless I am."

I can tell you from my disordered eating days that "accountability" is a euphemism for "publicly shaming myself into doing something my body and mind are telling me to avoid." NaNo participants posting and comparing their word counts reminds me strongly of the women like me who posted their daily calorie counts and monthly pounds lost on the internet for "accountability." It was a form of self-flagellation dressed up as motivation.

The real prize for dieting isn't a pair of sexy gams that fit in size-four skinny jeans, but a long-term loss of self-esteem that is very difficult to build up again. You learn to think of the number on the scale as an inverse measure of your worth as a human being. You learn that cooking and eating meals is stressful and guilt-ridden, and the tasty foods you enjoy are an evil "temptation," and there must be something essentially wrong with you because you failed to endure hunger long enough to see "results." If only you had more discipline and stronger will-power, you'd be as beautiful as the other women posting celebratory bikini pics after losing twenty pounds for summer.

Similarly, the structure of NaNoWriMo does not nurture a life-long love of storytelling. It's a fool-proof recipe for burnout.

I can write a 3,000-word chapter on a weekend. A professional writer who already has 4-8 hours a day carved out for writing could complete a first draft in a month with a little extra effort, which might be why so many AuthorTubers don't see any problem with NaNoWriMo. But if I attempted to crank out that many words every day with my full-time job, like those mythical school teachers and mechanics, I'd have a complete psychological breakdown. By day seven I'd be puddled on the floor, pounding the carpet and wailing like a Sim with their Needs bars for Energy, Social, Fun, and Environment all stuck in the red.

The only way for a person who doesn't write full-time to "win" this challenge is to write a bunch of nonsense without critical evaluation, like that student at my former library. When they see the inevitably terrible results, they're likely to believe they have no talent and no future in creative writing. Drafting a novel is discouraging and humbling enough when you can pace yourself and do your best. Doing it under duress is a great way to destroy your self-esteem.

Though NaNoWriMo professes to provide encouragement for writers, it actually teaches people that writing isn't an activity we do willingly because it has intrinsic rewards, but something unpleasant we force ourselves to do on the threat of humiliation.

If you enjoy storytelling, you'll do it regardless of the date on the calendar or your progress towards an arbitrary word count. You'll read a lot, and practice regularly, and improve your skills over time. You'll come up with a lot of ideas for stories that don't work out, but some that do, and you probably won't find your groove until you're a few books in.

If the idea of writing continuously for years makes you balk, and it's a lot more appealing to "get it done" in thirty days of NaNoWriMo, you probably don't enjoy writing. And if you don't enjoy it, don't do it. Seriously. Go try other activities that are fun for you. The vast majority of novelists don't get extrinsic rewards like fame, money, or critical acclaim. The only logical reason to write is because you want to.