Challenge,  On Writing

How Do I Keep Going…

When a Big Project Is Finished?

I get this question a bunch, usually from someone who has just finished one of the big challenges, like a story per week or a novel every two months.

Very real and very tough question.

The essence is that when the motivation to do something in writing stops, how to replace it with an as-effective or better motivation?

The answer is, of course, “It depends…”

“And it is different for every person…”

But here is how I would look at it.

First, look at the motivation that has been keeping you going through everything. Sit down and list why it kept you going, the key points that got you to the computer, over all the life rolls, and finishing projects.

Write it all down, maybe take a few days to do it.

Was it a set deadline every week? Or Month? 

Was it the repercussions of missing that kept you going?

Was it the feeling and the work you were going to have when you finished?

Was it a carrot at the end?

Did it give you an excuse to get to your writing that other family members bought into and helped you?

Did it make your writing valid in some fashion?

Did the challenge get you going, but the momentum kept you going more than the challenge?


There are more, but you get the idea. Write them all down that apply to you. Then once you have that done, and you have thought about it for a day, then look at the list of what motivated you, what really, deeply motivated you, and ask the simple question…

“How can I set that up again?”

Try to get the same feeling.

To be honest, I seldom can, but in trying, I tend to find something new and different that gets me going. And that is the key.

You need to get going again. At least at the pace you want to be at.

We professional writers just write. It is what we do. But I would not write as much as I like to write if I didn’t have something, some sort of challenge or deadline or goal that I wanted to hit at the moment. The challenges, the goals, the deadlines are shields against the real world distractions.

So if you just finished a big challenge or project of one sort or another, make the list of reasons it worked for you (keep it for the next time as well) and then study it and try to set something up again that will drive you forward with a new challenge, a new project.

All writers spend our time between our ears, and sometimes it takes a structure from the outside to motivate the creative and business part. The challenges we do give you that structure. But when you finish the structure, find another structure as soon as you can. Otherwise months go by and you wonder how you could have ever written as much as you did.

One last bit of advice that I always give because it is the secret of writing. Have fun. If it is not fun, don’t do it. Find another way.


  • Linda Niehoff

    This is so, so good. Thank you! I love this especially: The challenges we do give you that structure.

    And also the reminder to have fun. About 8 stories into the short story challenge, I realized it was a grind and that if I didn’t change something, writing would be miserable. So I remembered you saying to have fun because that was the key. So every week I started asking myself: Where do you want to go this week? I could take a trip to anywhere! I could try anything! What great fun! (And as it turned out, sometimes I went to dark places because sometimes that’s what was needed/wanted in the moment.) But focusing on the fun turned the whole thing around for me. I did go back to my old ways once or twice 😉 But that was what brought me back to enjoying the ride.

    Anyway, thanks again for this post and for ALLLLL the time you’re willing to spend helping new writers. You and Kris are treasures.

    • dwsmith

      Thanks, Linda. And it is amazing how powerful the myth is that writing must be work, must be hard, or it has no value. Everyone looks for the secret and it actually is make writing fun. The creative voice is a positive, fun-seeking part of our minds. That’s why Kris and I call it a two-year-old. It is way smarter than the critical part of our minds and loves to have fun. Engage it and the writing is a joy. Stressful at times, sure, but a joy.

  • T Thorn Coyle

    This is gold, Dean.

    I am internally motivated and do really well with setting personal goals and deadlines that I care about. I had to figure out that things like streaks and hitting word counts make writing feel like work to me. What feels like fun? Finishing projects!

    I set out a production schedule for the year–writing and publishing–knowing full well that adjustments will be made. As a matter of fact, I just recently re-set that schedule and included two separate months for “catch up” which gives the whole thing even more flexibility.

    This sort of goal/deadline based, but flexible schedule has kept me writing and publishing through multiple life rolls for the past 5-6 years. Even years where it felt like I could barely work, a lot got written and published.

    Writers who are able to just work on what they feel like, when they feel like it, baffle me. I wouldn’t get half as much done and would feel frustrated all the time. I like knowing what large project is coming up next, as well as hitting my smaller, weekly deadlines.

    So your questions about finding what works for each writer are helpful. And what works for me? That changes and I need to pay attention and make adjustments as I go.

    • dwsmith

      Exactly, Thorn. Different for all of us an always changing. Crazy, but looked at from the right angle, keeps it fun.

  • Catherine

    I’m definitely finding structure helps me. This year has already been so much better–on the third novel already–because of the novel challenge. Woot!

    On an unrelated note, if you have not seen Summerland, I highly recommend it. I cannot remember in what workshop(s) you talked about tags, but this movie has them by the basket. Impressively well done, especially for a writer-director, since you are losing a collaborator by combining those two roles.

    • dwsmith

      Often better to only have one. Collaboration often makes things worse, not better. Seldom better, actually.

    • Charles Campbell

      Speaking of stuff with great tagging that someone wanted to tell Dean about, check out “Orphan Black”. One actress plays 5 identical clones raised in completely different households, and manages to keep all the clones entirely separate and instantly recognizable as individuals through layers and layers of tagging.
      it’s fascinating.

      • Katie

        Orphan Black is one of my all-time favorite shows, but I never thought of it from the writing perspective. That Tatiana could pull off so many different characters and instantly we knew who was who. Amazing acting, yeah, but wardrobe, accents, mannerisms. All tags. And all so distinctive.

        My 4th rewatch is going to focus on tags. Thanks Charles!