Going Backwards to Move Forward


10, 9, 8…. Have you ever stopped to think about the fact that we count backwards when we’re anticipating an exciting moment—like a rocket launch, or the New Year’s Eve ball drop?

We’re counting down the last few days of 2015, and in many ways I feel like I’m moving backwards after a rather topsy-turvy year. But fortunately, it occurred to me that maybe I could put my backwards thinking to use in planning for 2016! It’s based on a great writing tactic I stumbled across when I was struggling to finish my first novel, Turn Left at the Cow. I call it a “reverse outline.”

Here’s how it worked for my novel. From very early in the process of writing the story, I had a strong sense of what I wanted the ending to be. After all, an ending needs to circle back to the story’s beginning in some way, answering the questions asked there, and resolving the conflict introduced at the start of the story. So yes, I knew a lot about the ending, but other than generally steering towards it, I didn’t exactly plan out how I was going to get there. No outline for me: I was simply going to write what I was inspired to write each day! So each writing session, I said to myself, “What needs to happen next?” and that’s the scene I wrote. And that approach worked for a big hunk of the story.

But about three quarters into the story, I realized that I needed to start funneling towards that ending, or I might never get there. And I panicked. I stalled out. Out of desperation, it occurred to me that I could create a reverse outline. So starting with the ending I had long known, I said to myself, “What has to happen immediately before that ending to set it up?” Then I asked myself what had to happen before that scene, to set it up. And so on. Working backwards in that fashion, I managed to create a reverse outline all the way back to the point where I had gotten stuck—and then I was able to reverse that outline and write forward all the way to the end of the book!

So why not do the same thing when planning for your writing year? Start by sitting down and identifying exactly where you want to be in your writing career on December 31, 2016. Choose a goal that you will really have to stretch yourself to reach, but that is within the realm of possibility (and under your control). In other words, if you’ve just started writing for children, it’s likely not realistic to say you’ll have a book published by a trade publisher by the end of 2016—you’re still learning your craft, publishers don’t move that quickly, and it’s not totally within your control to make an editor fall in love with your book. But it IS realistic to say you’ll have a completed first draft of a novel, or twelve picture book drafts, because those things are up to you.

Then start planning backwards. Ask yourself, “What has to happen immediately before realizing that goal to set it up?” And, “What has to happen before that, to set that up?” In that fashion, you can create a reverse outline of your writing year. And on January 1, all you need to do is turn that backwards plan around, and use it to move forward to meet your writing goal by the end of the year!

10, 9, 8—it’s almost 2016! And even if you have to get there in a backwards fashion, it’s not too late to plan to make it a great writing year!


About Lisa Bullard

children's book writer, book promoter, writing teacher, writer in the schools, mentor, author of Get Started in Writing for Children
This entry was posted in Lisa's Writing Life, Networking, Writers in the World, Writing Advice, Your Writing Life and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Going Backwards to Move Forward

  1. Pat Bauer says:

    Good advice . . . thank you! And Happy New Year!

    • Lisa Bullard says:

      I’m glad it was helpful, Pat! Now I just need to take my own good advice and plan ahead…or backwards…or whatever direction seems like it will work! I hope you have a great writing year!

  2. Cheryl says:

    Lisa, I loved this post. And I’m going to put it into action. But it made me wonder what if we took it one step further and plotted our lives, not just our writing goals, like we plot a book? What is our GMC? How do we want this next years story to end?

    And by the way, I love – Turn Left at the Cow. I had checked it out at the library, but before I was more than a few chapters in I bought a copy for my keeper shelf.

    • Lisa Bullard says:

      I think you’re right, Cheryl, this could be a useful planning tool for many things, including goal-setting for our overall lives! Of course, sometimes the conflicts in our lives are even more strange and difficult than those in our books, but it would still be helpful to be steering towards specific goals, I believe. And thanks so much for the great feedback on TURN LEFT AT THE COW–knowing how much I value the books on my own keeper shelf, it means a LOT to me to know it can be found on yours!

  3. Reverse engineering gets a huzzah from me! If the puzzle doesn’t work one way, try another. Thank you, Lisa!

    • Lisa Bullard says:

      So glad it was a helpful way to think about the puzzle of putting together a plan to achieve your writing dreams, Jane! I do love a good puzzle!

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