Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

How to Think About a Challenge

New Year Is Coming…

And many writers, me included, are starting to set up challenges to help us reach goals with our writing. But the question is how to make the goals large enough to be challenging and yet not set up for failure.

So let me tell you how I do it, since I have started and backed off a challenge twice now that I will be starting for the third time on January 1st. I do not consider the two first false starts as failure. Not in the slightest, actually. They were learning.

So that is point one… Never think about failure. Just think positive about the challenge you are setting up for yourself.

If you are still dealing with a bunch of publishing myths, this will be a hard thing to do. And if you still think your rewrite brain and critical voice knows more than you do, this will be impossible. Myths need to be cleared or at least pushed aside. Failure is not an option, as someone said somewhere. (grin)

Point two… Make it a challenge just beyond where you are at in your writing.

For me, I have done challenges where I wrote a novel in five days while traveling. That took a bunch of thinking, planning, and clearing out some myths I had put on myself.

On another challenge, I wrote four novels in one month and hit that as well. Again, a lot of planning.

I have also written 30 stories in 30 days a number of times now, actually enough that I hope to have a series of books called “Stories from (month name).”

The idea that has been eating at me for a time is the 10 novels in 100 days. Of course, I came up with a name for it and will do a book about the writing of that, including the false starts. But that is just beyond what I have already done. Enough beyond as to be a real push.

Why that challenge interests me is the consistency of the writing for 100 days. I can be consistent for a month, but can I be consistent for over three months? I honestly don’t know, so thus a challenge.

So figure out where you have stretched, then set up a challenge just beyond that previous stretch.

Point three… Keep the challenge time limited in some way.  A challenge that stretches over an entire year will be impossible to maintain. That is a goal that a challenge is helping you reach.

So say you want to do 400,000 words of fiction in a year. A two month challenge will help you reach that goal. Then figure out something else for a few more months, and so on. Don’t think about the overall goal. An elephant too big to eat.

Point four… Break down into small bits what you need to do to make the challenge.

This seems like logical advice, but it where most writers fail. They eat the elephant, which means they look at the entire project instead of breaking it down.

So as an example again, let’s look at the challenge I am going to do of 10 novels in 100 days. Sounds impossible on the elephant scale of things. Even to me.

But when broken down, it means writing a 50,000 word novel in ten days. I have done that a bunch, written nonfiction books about it, actually a number of times. In fact I often did 70-90 thousand word books in ten days for traditional publishers. I did Abductors by Jonathan Frakes in 6 days around the cover and it was 90,000 words. So I can do the 50,000 words in ten days easy.

So I need to average about 5,000 words per day. For me that means about 4 hours of writing. Add in a couple hours of exercise and a couple hours of business and email and I am fine at 8 hours.

When looked at in bite-sized pieces, nothing really hard for my life and where I am at in my writing. (Back to point two, make the challenge just beyond your previous level of success.)

Point five… Prepare your world for the challenge.

That is where I missed on the first two attempted starts at my coming challenge. I wanted to get back to writing after the long year of moving and other stuff, but I wasn’t ready yet, not mentally, but in the world around the writing. I wasn’t even moved into the new place yet completely, let alone this office.

So get those around you clear on what you are doing, listen to their concerns, then decide if real or not. Then clear it all out and be positive.

Point six… Have fun and be ready for setbacks. If the challenge causes the writing to not be fun, or adds too much unneeded stress, kill the challenge at once. Writing needs to be a fun, safe place to go play. Now some stress is normal in the creative process, but if the stress is coming too much from the challenge, then you have a problem.

As far as setbacks, they will happen. They key is how you roll with them. For my challenge, there is no chance on any planet that I will be able to write 5,000 words every day for 100 straight days. I have too many other things happening. So I will miss. I am planning for that. So on good days, I am planning on more like 6,000 or 7,000 words.

In other words, the setbacks are planned into the challenge.

So as you start thinking about a challenge for the start of the coming year, those are a few points on how to look at setting up a challenge.

Challenges really do help your writing if you follow those six points.

And again, remember, telling stories is fun. It’s entertainment, both for you and for those who read it.

So keep it fun.


  • Sean McLachlan

    “some stress is normal in the creative process”

    This is something that took me a long time to understand. There are days when I leap out of bed eager to write. There are other days when I think, “Oh my God, I can’t do this. What am I going to say?” Then I sit down, get to it, and have fun. And when I’m done I feel a deep sense of satisfaction. I think that stress actually helps to an extent. For example, with my mysteries, a fairly new genre for me, I write the murder with no idea who did it or why, and then I have to figure it out along with the sleuth. Lots of fun, but yes, a bit stressful.

  • Harvey Stanbrough

    Excellent. Absolutely excellent. I suspect to make the challenge a bit more difficult, you’ll also not have a clue what each novel will be going in. I look forward to seeing what you come up with as you go.

    I might even play along in a particular world I’ve been considering strictly for fun. The result would be a series of 10 novels in 100 days, though mine will probably be closer to around 40,000 words per novel. (I’ve written in that world before, and that seems to be the length of those types of novels for me.) It would be a stretch because my average daily word count is around 3000 words per day now.

    If you can’t tell, I’m very excited about this challenge for you and for others.

    • dwsmith

      Harvey, sounds great. And I got a hunch mine will range in length all over the map, from 35,000 to 55,000 words, depending on what the story needs. That last one I started ended up a novella at 23,000 words and it just needed to be that length. So I won’t know until I get into a certain story. Ahh, the fun. (grin)

  • Rikki Mongoose

    There’s a darn idea by my critical voice. I guess, I’m not alone with it.

    It think that being prolific will cause repeating myself. I.e., I would write a thriller about a serial killer. Then I write… another thriller about another serial killer again.

    How to beat it? I’ve listened your course on originality, but what if I need to be different stories in a whole series, not just one?

    • dwsmith

      Rikki, welcome to critical voice thinking there. That is your critical voice shutting you down and stopping you. A very, very clear example of it, actually. How do you makes stories different from each other? Simple, actually. Trust your creative voice. Get the doubts out of the picture and just write. Creative voice will take care of it. I know, sounds simple, but that is how it is done. Just flat stop worrying about it and kill the doubts, the originality will come.

    • Harvey Stanbrough

      Rikki, Dean’s advice might sound over simplified. I thought so too a few years ago. It isn’t. It really is as simple as trusting your subconscious. Translated, that means Just Sit Down and Write. You’ll get stuck from time to time too. More conscious mind stuff. When that happens, shove the conscious, critical voice aside and Just Write the Next Sentence. Then the next. Then the next. Before you know it, the story will be running again.

    • Jeremy

      Good question Rikki. I think the same way sometimes and it leads to me saying something like, “yeah, 700 words is more than enough today.” Critical voice always tries to find an in.

  • Philip

    You might be the only indie voice I hear who talks about the need for writing to be fun. In fact, you boldly say that the fun of the process itself is key to the business of writing, too.

    This has been a game-changer for me.

    For a long time, I wondered why my most prolific writing period was ages 11 to 18. Hmm? Then I read you talking about fun and I realized that’s the big difference. Back then, I was just a kid. I didn’t do ANYTHING unless it was fun (just ask my high school Algebra teacher).

    There are a million ways to make money in the world, so pick one of THOSE instead of writing if you don’t care about the pleasure of writing itself.

  • James Palmer

    Great tips, Dean. I would only add go public with your challenge, because that will help hold you accountable, but you are already doing that with this blog. : )

    I have set what is a pretty aggressive (for me) but doable challenge for myself early in the new year. I will have a ghostwriting gig starting in April, so before that I want to write a space fantasy trilogy-60k words each-in January, February, and March. That’s 2k words a day, every day of each month. A bit of a daily stretch for me but I’ve been working toward that anyway. Then with some of my ghostwriting advance I will pay for covers and rapid release the trilogy as I complete the ghostwritten novella.

    And this is all while working a full-time day job for an electric co-op and raising a family. Whew!

    My challenge will be not only keeping this going, but keeping it fun, because I’ve already built this thing up in my mind as needing to be important, and I know I have to let that stuff go and just enjoy the creative process. Wish me luck. ; )

    And best of luck to you in the New Year with all of your writing goals.

  • Philip


    After thinking of this post all day, I’ve decided my New Year’s Challenge is going to be to write at Pulp Speed 3 for the entire month of January 2019.

    Based on your post from 12/4/2014 (“The New World of Writing: Pulp Speed”), that means 4,000 words/day, or 124,000 words for the month of January.

    Originally, I wanted to try to hit a certain Pulp Speed for the entire year, but heeded your advice about setting year-long goals. This way, I can always find a new Pulp Speed Challenge each subsequent month.

    I work 2 jobs, but I’ve hit Pulp Speed 2 for a month before, so I think the next step up is reasonable at Pulp Speed 3. I should get 3 novels out of the deal!

    This would be huge to accomplish, so that’s motivation enough.

  • David Anthony Brown

    For personal reasons, Thanksgiving time has an emotional tug on me, more so than New Years. So for the last couple of years I’ve started my resolutions on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Last year was to write fiction every day, which I managed and still on that streak. And I kept to that streak despite one hell of a life roll almost right away in 2018. Total sucker punch life roll, but I turned in at least one page of fiction every day. No clue how many short stories I completed that way… 20? More? I need to figure that out before end of the year. But I learned a lot from that, and cleared away a bunch of myths.

    This year the larger challenge is to write between 1k and 5k words every day. So far, I’m hitting the minimum, with day 20 being last night. I feel like I’m back to where I was this time last year. The smaller challenge I want to work on is to fit in two 5k days in my week when I’m not at the day job.

    And yes, the fun is so important to challenges like this. No way I could attempt what I’m doing unless I enjoyed it.

    • dwsmith

      Wow, David, congrats on the streak last year. Wonderful! A friend says that a day you write fiction is a good day. He has a minimum of one page a day and is hitting it. He usually writes more than the 250 words, but on really bad days, he at least writes something and thus every day is a good day.

      So well done!!

  • J.A. Marlow

    I loved this post. I used to be highly prolific. I could write 5000 to 8000 words a day if I had the time and wanted to, while working a full time job, no sweat. Come November NaNoWriMo time, I could write 125,000 to 150,000 words in that one month (good clean words, no revision, again with a full time job. Almost all books from those Nanos have been published. Only a few are still waiting in the wings.)

    Then the big life roll hit. Then another one. And now I have another one.

    All my challenges to get myself regularly writing again have failed. Reading this post and thinking about it, I had the sudden realization as to why.

    You said, “Point two… Make it a challenge just beyond where you are at in your writing.”

    I changed it to: “Make it a challenge just beyond where you are at in your writing AT THIS MOMENT.”

    I think part of my problem is that I’ve been trying to make challenges according to how I USED TO BE. I’m not that same person anymore. I’ve had a lot of trauma, some of which I’m still dealing with. I’m not in the same place in life as then, for better or for worse.

    My reality has changed. But the writing brain keeps remember how it USED to be.

    For 2019 that’s my goal. Assess where I am NOW. Figure out how to build from the current reality. Considering how I’ve been failing at that over the last two years it’s not going to be easy. Because the brain keeps wanting to revert back to how I used to be before I got hit by ‘real life’ so hard. It’s something I keep having to remind myself of. I suspect I’ll have to try many ways to get the forward motion consistent. It won’t be as easy as finding just ‘one’ way.

    It’s going to be a struggle every step of the way. But I love writing so much. So onwards I go into the new battle, realizing what part of the battle actually is.

    And now for your G.I. Joe public service announcement, “And knowing is half the battle.”

    • Harvey Stanbrough

      J.A., I hope for you that you’ll forget “thinking” about anything that has to do with writing. Just sit down and do it. Don’t worry about numbers or fret over anything else. Just write.