9 Mental Health Traps of NaNoWriMo and how to avoid them

What’s this episode about?

Welcome to November and this bonus episode of The Pen Garden Podcast. Listen to it in full above and/or scan the show notes below for the main takeaways.

This podcast talks about mental health and writing productivity. NaNoWriMo, for many, is the epitome of writing productivity. For anyone uninitiated, it’s a global challenge where writers attempt to write 50000 words in thirty days. The 50k is the base wordcount for what qualifies as a novel so, as the NaNoWriMo organization proudly states on their website, people “enter the month as elementary school teachers, mechanics, or stay-at-home parents. They leave novelists.”

But while this challenge is a great opportunity to become a better writer, meet new writers and feel a great sense of accomplishment, it can also create the perfect storm of self-imposed guilt, low writer self-esteem and eventually burnout. The idea for this episode came as I was preparing for my fifth NaNoWriMo. Out of the four NaNoWriMo I’ve participated in, I’ve technically only won once, felt really bad about it twice and did well with my writing and mental health once.

I recognized some unhelpful patterns in my thinking, some words I would say to myself that would hinder my progress. I call them mental health traps, because once you start thinking them, your mental health suffers and you’re trapped in an unproductive state.  So I wanted to make this special episode of the Pen Garden for all of you who are attempting NaNoWriMo this year and give you a chance at a strong start, particularly when it comes to your mental health. So here we go, let’s avoid all these traps together.

1. It’s too much, too fast

Maybe you’ve prepped for the whole of October. Maybe you haven’t touched anything but you’re super excited to begin. And then the 1st November rolls over and you start. Three days go by and suddenly, it dawns on you that you have 27 more days of this and you have no idea how you can make it. On the fourth day you begin your writing with dread, by the seventh you’ve convinced yourself there’s no way you can keep this up.

This scenario is quite common and there is nothing wrong with the people who face this. It is a trap because shows that the writer’s mind is not ready for the change in daily life which NaNoWriMo brings. People are naturally resistant to change because it’s more comfortable to stay within the boundaries of established routines and habits, be they good or bad. But research has shown that people can change their habits if they think about the change proactively and identify its benefits.

For NaNoWriMo, they are many and each can offer a unique boon to your writing practice – you get better at your craft, you meet new like-minded people, you have something big at the end that you can continue working on, you get plenty of inspiration and you also get a taste of what’s it like to have a high creative output every day. So make a mental list of all the good NaNoWriMo can do for you and ease yourself into it.

2. You don’t have time

‘When there’s a will, there’s a way’, people say and that is very true when it comes to finding a writing time. This is where NaNo Prep might really help you out but if you’ve not done it, no worries, you can still prep mentally for the time commitment at least. I guarantee you have some time to write, even if it’s not as much as you want.

Be both realistic and kind to yourself. Look at your daily life and identify any gaps where you could do some writing. Think about how you’re going to write – maybe if you’re often stuck waiting for something, you could knock out a couple hundred words on your phone, maybe you dictate to an app while you do housework you can’t avoid. Maybe you have lots of time but need structure – pick a time when you can sit down and relax enough to let the words flow. For this month, try to give up the idea of the perfect writing time and conditions – you’re working towards a massive goal so be creative.

I have a whole episode from season 2 about how to find your perfect writing time according to your personality, so go listen to it if that’s a known issue to you and you want some practical ideas for your normal writing practice.

3. There’s too much in the way

This follows on from the ‘Not enough time’ trap and it’s all about seeing the countless things that can prevent you from achieving your end goal. So break it down one by one and think realistically.

Do family and friends usually interrupt you when you write? Tell them about NaNo and its time constraint and ask them to respect the time you’re writing.

Do you procrastinate often? Use the time to refill your creative well and think about your story. Inspiration will flow after this and you will be writing in no time.

Do you have no good space? Be creative when you evaluate your surroundings – many things can be a desk and many things can do just as well as a laptop if you don’t have access to one.

Are the days too dark and cold and sad, leaving you uninspired? Put a scented candle on and some music. Get in the mood, allow your mind to wander.

There’s never going to be a perfect month where nothing is in the way so make the most of it now.

4. It’s impossible

I’ve done NaNoWriMo a few years and trust me, something at some point in this month will make you throw your hands in the air in frustration. In this moment, maybe you will even think the whole thing is impossible. But a feeling like that can crumble your motivation to bits. What is the point of continuing something which is impossible?

Well, in a pep-talk a few years back, author Maggie Stiefvater said “I love everything about that word, impossible, and I love everything about slapping the ‘im’ right off its smirking face.” Some of you might raise an eyebrow at that statement, thinking, that’s all bold and motivational but you can’t just change your thinking like that. And that’s true. But it’s important to acknowledge what you feel first, then to try and break it down into smaller, more possible chunks.

Maggie Stiefvater tells us what and why: “It’s going to feel like the writing is the impossible part. But all of the puzzles you’re going to face—plot holes, characterization woes, bad pacing, words ceasing to make any sort of logical sense—aren’t even really problems; this is just what the writing process looks like. So learn to love that process.”

5. You feel alone

This was me a few years ago – I would get up, go to work, then come back and start writing. I would get my words for the day done, update my NaNo dashboard and then go and share this with my boyfriend at the time. He’s not a writer so had a pretty muted response. And by muted I mean disappointing. I didn’t know any writers at the time and as an introvert, wasn’t keen to go out and look for anyone. Writing is a task you do alone, right? Well, maybe not, because after about ten days of uninspiring responses from family and friends, I got really unmotivated. I felt what I was doing was pointless. There was no one to share the joy with. There was definitely no one to share the difficulties with, either. I did win that year, but I was very lonely. And the words I produced then weren’t great – I hid them on a hard drive and forgot they ever existed. But in my next NaNoWriMo, I joined a local group and I never went back to the solitary writing idea.

If you don’t have any friends you’re doing NaNo with yet, don’t despair. Just listen to the official stats:

“In 2019:

  • 455,080 writers participated in our programs, including 104,350 students and educators in the Young Writers Program.
  • 966 volunteer Municipal Liaisons guided 669 regions on six continents.
  • 968 libraries, bookstores, and community centers opened their doors to novelists through the Come Write In program.”

So trust me when I say you’re not alone. Go to the Community Tab of your NaNoWriMo dashboard when you next log in and don’t leave until you’ve made a buddy or two.

6. You can’t silence the editor within

If you return to your writing every day, only to read the last sentence of yesterday’s work and feel like everything is garbage, your inner critic might have come out. There is a time and place for that part of you, and NaNoWriMo is not that. Writing 50k in a month is hard enough, editing as much is not feasible. So push away the part of you that wants to change and swap and hone, and focus on getting your idea written out of your head and onto the page. 

Author V.E. Schwab suggests to change your mindset about what you’re doing this month: “You’re writing a story, not a book.” She, like me, is a lover of metaphors so she gives a great one in her NaNoWriMo pep talk: “You’re not making a whole body. You’re making its bones. You don’t need the muscle, the sinew, the skin. You certainly don’t need the makeup or the clothes. You just need bones. Something to work with. Something to build on. Something to make better, make whole. And you know the general shape of this body. You’ve read books, you like stories; you might not know every minor bone in a hand, but you know the big ones, the skull, and the spine, and the ribs. So go and make a body. There will be time to make it pretty later. But what good is smooth skin without a skeleton beneath?”

7. Writer’s block I – you know what you want to write but can’t

I’m splitting writer’s block into two traps because it can feel different for different situations. If you’ve planned your story, know what you have to be doing but sit down to write and nothing comes, then there really is one way to break through – just keep soldiering on. I’m not often an advocate of forcing yourself to do things but this block is similar to when you’re running and just have the last stretch left. Yet you have no clue how you can do it. You can see the finish line but it feels like you can’t get there.

It’s the same when you hit a block like this – maybe you’ve lost faith in your story, maybe you’re not sure that scene is necessary, maybe you hate the words you have so far. Take a bit of time to reassess if you need to, and start typing. Leave the second-guessing for the editing stage. Writing month is for writing. So don’t overcomplicate it and put some words down.

8. Writer’s block II – you have no idea what to do next

The second scenario of writing block happens to pantsers and plantsers and sometimes to planners who decide to abandon their outlines and see where their story takes them. It’s exciting to write whatever comes to mind, joining the threads of your story on the page just as they join in your mind. But, what to do if you find yourself with no ideas one day?

Here’s what prolific fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson says about refilling your creative well: “One of the lessons I learned as a storyteller was how to refill the creative well while doing other activities. You can do it while driving, exercising, eating . . . anything that doesn’t take your full attention. During these times, many writers I know run through plots in their heads, feel out character personalities, think about conflicts. They make connections, overcoming blocks.

Personally, I’ve found this practice to be essential in promoting healthy writing habits. As a full-time writer, it can actually be harder to refill my creative well, as I’m working on my writing all of the time. One of the ways NaNo could help a writer is by training them to use off moments to delve, mentally, into their stories. Instead of turning on the television as you wash dishes, turn on some music and think through character interactions. Plan out what you’re going to write the next day.

Even if you don’t have much time to write every day, you can supercharge that time by planning out for hours what you’ll do. Teach yourself to think like a writer. It’s a habit you’ll find very useful.”

9. This year sucks

This is a super special 2020 mental health trap that we’ve unlocked collectively as humanity. The year has been horrible so far and no one really is at their best place mentally. We’re battling with difficult things like isolation, grief, illness and uncertainty.

 And maybe you’ve thought about NaNoWriMo and then decided that it’s just a bit too harsh to push yourself like that when you’re already in a gentle mental state. That’s absolutely valid. You know yourself best and if you believe taking part will impact negatively on your mental health and overall writing practice, please listen to your gut and take it easy. You can always give it a go next year.

Or if you’re still doing it but you feel kind of fragile about it all, practice some self-compassion and accept that you might not win this year, that the words might be less and the motivation – harder to find. That’s okay. Take part, write words, connect with people as much as you can. Read the pep talks and know you’re not on your own in this difficult year.


NaNoWriMo is an amazing social phenomenon where masses of writers come together to attempt the same thing at the same time. Research has confirmed that “NaNoWriMo functions as a fandom, a participatory culture, an informal learning space, a writing group, and a community of practice. It encourages freewriting and positions participants as writers. The combination of intrinsic motivation, choice, and accomplishment provided by the NaNoWriMo challenge promotes participants’ feelings of self-efficacy and encourages persistence in a sustained writing project.” In three very non-scientific words, it is great.

So now that you know where things go wrong, go write. Be kind to yourself, don’t forget to eat and drink and refill your creative well from time to time. Respect your choice to do this and follow-through with your aspiration to get those 50000 words out of you. You will come out wiser, stronger and prouder at the end of November. And by December you’ll be a novelist. Connect with people, you’re definitely not alone. Share your progress and let’s do this together.

For anyone new here, The Pen Garden episodes come one a week on Tuesdays with a break every five episodes. There’s lots of episodes to listen to so when you have some spare time, go back and learn more about how to establish a good writing routine while maintaining good mental health. The next episode comes on Tuesday the 3rd of November and there I will look into how sleep, dreams and daydreams can inspire us. I’m very excited and hope you will join me.

If you want to be up to date on Pen Garden news, subscribe to the show and sign up to my newsletter. I promise no spam, only cups of writing joy.

If you want to continue the conversation, you can poke me on The Pen Garden Facebook page or tweet me @laineydelaroque. I will be tweeting my NaNo progress daily so come hang out with me on Twitter. Thanks very much for listening everyone. Hope you have an awesome week and speak to you soon.




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