A big box of books landed on my doorstep this week. They were copies of my latest nonfiction books, six titles for a series called “Alike and Different” that teaches young readers to celebrate diversity. And I’ll tell you the truth—even though their arrival brings my total published book count to over 80 titles, it just never gets old for me to see my name on a book cover.
Because of their subject matter, this is a series I’m especially proud of. And it was really good timing for the books to arrive, because I’ve been feeling very stuck as a writer lately. I’m able to tackle writing assignments that have outside deadlines, so I’m actually still writing a lot. But when it comes to what I call “writing for fun” (meaning things I initiate myself, the type of projects that are closest to my heart), my mind is just a big blank page. I know a major reason for this is an ongoing health crisis with my mom, but it’s frustrating. I WANT to get back to writing, but I’ve been feeling completely stuck in a non-writing space.
Then I had a conversation this past week that reminded me of something. Sometimes when I’m stuck in the middle of a story, I’ll resort to a process I call “reverse outlining.” What it boils down to is that I start an outline at the end of my story, and work backwards from that.
It’s not really as complicated as it sounds. After all, I feel strongly that all good stories are built around a relatable conflict. So I spend a lot of time thinking through the conflict my character is facing. Understanding that conflict clues me into what kind of resolution will be required—what readers will need to feel satisfied when they close the covers and set the book down for the last time. In other words, I develop a basic sense of the story’s ending early in my writing process. If I get stuck at any point in the story, I can go to the ending I have imagined and work backwards from that. I sketch out some basic details about the final scene, and then I figure out what must happen in the scene before the final scene—and then the scene that comes before that—and so forth, until I have worked out a reverse outline for the entire story. Then I pick up again at the point where I became stuck, and I begin writing the story forward again.
So I had a strong sense of recognition when I had this recent conversation with a man who is a highly successful entrepreneur and businessman. He told me that one of the keys to business success is to figure out where you want to end up—and then plan backwards from that point, figuring out in reverse what steps you must take to get there. In other words, you create a reverse outline!
I’m not stuck in the middle of a story at the moment (I don’t even have enough of a start at a story to be stuck in one!). But I am definitely stuck at this particular point in my writing career. The good news is, I’ve already practiced the reverse outlining process—and I now have an idea for a different way to apply it to get my writing unstuck yet again.