the problem with knowing the end

I’m an outliner.

Mostly. Pretty much.

Anyway, I start with an outline! And then about halfway through drafting a new book, I come up with all sorts of better ideas, and I retool my outline, and I slap a big notice in yellow highlighter on page 180 or wherever I am: “FROM HERE ON OUT, FOLLOWING OUTLINE #2.”

Cuz who cares? Making the first half match the second half is Future Sam’s problem!!

Let’s just say it: Past Sam is a reckless monster. A heartless villain. SHORT SIGHTED.

Here is my blessing and my curse: I’m an outliner, and my outline is stronger in the second half. I know the ending, so I backtrack through a series of complications that need to happen in order to land that ending. And then somehow I (by which I mean: my hapless mark, Future Sam) need to stitch these intro chapters to that row of endgame dominoes without it seeming super obvious that they never fit together naturally in the first place.

It’s the beginning that’s the real end, the last thing I need to make work in order to set up this grand finale I’ve supposedly nailed with all that seamless action in the second half. But here’s the trouble with endings: they don’t land on their own, not without expectations raised and backstory planted, not without the tone well-tuned and the atmosphere maximally atmospheric.

Oh my god, it’s torturous.

I’m doing it right now (revisions, hiss, spit, etc) and I’m kicking my feet and wailing on pretty much a daily basis. “Please,” I’m begging these characters that I made up, “please, don’t just wander around learning the things you need to know by the end! Make the decisions that will lead us there! In retrospect!!”

Melodrama aside, there is a light at the end of this tunnel, and it is called self-awareness. (That’s right, there is a beam of light which embodies the conscious knowledge of one’s own behaviors, and it is located at the end of a tunnel, keep up.) I’ve become intimately aware of this problem, and I am now giving my future outlines a very stern look.

Moving forward, I am trying to–get this–fix the outline before I rough draft. A shockingly novel approach, I know! But I can no longer rush through my beginnings under the assumption that I always rewrite them aaaanywaaaay, because Future Sam is actually really busy these days and doesn’t want to write the book three times to make it work, she just wants to write the damn book.

And that means, well, kind of pantsing my outlines. I have to resist the impulse to leap to the ending first and then backfill the setup. I have to get better at carefully laying interesting pieces on the board, and then following through on the ramifications of what my characters initially want and probably won’t get–and if I do this tinkering and stream-of-conscious writing at the synopsis level, I’ll get the best of both worlds: the natural progression of pantsing + the steady guiding hand of an outline. Right?? Oh lord I hope so.

But first I need to finish this (last?) torturous revision.