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!