As you probably know, Justine and I are doing writing tips for every day of NaNoWriMo. She’s doing even-numbered days, and I’m doing odd. Her tip from yesterday about the glories of square brackets reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to talk about for a while. And I think it’s going to be a multi-day thing.
So here’s the first of several essays on the subject of meta-documents! (And don’t forget to check below for my NYC appearance this Tuesday.)
Sometimes in the headlong fury of trying to make our word count, we writers forget to keep track of our characters’ scars and bruises, of their eye and hair colors, or even what day of the week it is. We forget, in short, to make meta-documents.
So what does this fancy term mean? Well, the main document your working on for NaNoWriMo is, of course, the Novel itself. But in order to keep that novel coherent, you almost certainly need meta-documents. That is, documents about the main document.
Think about it: novels are at least 50,000 words, and can be three times that length or more. That’s a huge project, and you, dear novelist, are the Project Manager. You need a clipboard with you at all times, or you will start forgetting stuff.
Of course, the most famous type of meta-doc is the Outline, the chapter-by-chapter plan of how the Novel will unfold. Some of us writers love to outline, some find it a chore, and some find that outlining is a novel-killer, destroying any need to tell the story at all. Finding your own place on that continuum is the job of every writer.
But heed this well: Just because you’ve given up on outlining, don’t think that you can throw aside all other forms of meta-documentation. The outline is actually quite an odd meta-doc, in that you usually work on it before you start writing. But most meta-docs are things you maintain while you write. They are maps of where you’ve been, not of where you’re going. They are the keepers of consistency and realness.
Trust me, the sooner you start making meta-docs in the writing process, the less you will be pulling out your hair later on.
So for the next few odd-numbered days, I’ll be giving descriptions of some meta-documents that I use while writing. Today, I cover the mighty timeline . . .
Timelines are possibly the most important meta-doc for me. Without them, I have no idea what day it is. And without that, all sort of details get shaky. Bruises heal instantly. People go to school six days in a row. The moon stays full for a week and a half. This makes for an unconvincing novel.
More importantly, emotional reality breaks if you don’t know how much time has past. A horrible fight with your best friend feels very different a week later than it does the day after it happened.
And take it from me: Timelines are extremely easy to create along the way, and a ROYAL PAIN to reconstruct later on. So do them while you write. Start one NOW.
Okay, but what should your timeline look like? In the timeline for the first book in the Uglies series, I started every line with a chapter of the book, and then give a calendar date. (I use a calendar even if the characters never mention dates themselves, just to keep myself on track.)
I also annotate jumps in time and other oddities, especially these three:
1) What off-screen characters (Shay, in the case below) are up to while the main action is taking place.
2) Any cues about time that appear in the text. “three days later” “It’s taking too long”
3) If characters are saying something untrue about time. (In Part II, Tally lies to hide her departure date.) It’s tricky to keep fact and fiction separate, for the reader as well as the writer.
Check it out:
Chapters 1-3 “New Pretty Town,” “Best Friends Forever,” “Shay”: late June 7
C. 4 “Wipe Out”: afternoon June 14
C. 5 “Facing the Future”: afternoon June 25
C. 6 “Pretty Boring”: afternoon June 28
C. 7-9 “Rapids,” “Rusty Ruins,” “Waiting for David”: late June 28
C. 10 “Fight”: morning Aug 26
C. 11 “Last Trick”: late Sep 2
C. 12-14 “Operation,” Special Circumstances,” “Ugly for Life”: morning Sep 9
C. 15 “Peris”: a few days pass, Peris comes in dawn of 9/12
C. 16 “Infiltrator”: morning of 9/12
NOTE: Shay (off screen) leaves to go to the Smoke late 9/2, and gets there early 9/8, 5.5 days later. (Same as Tally, basically, with a slower hoverboard but with David’s guidance.)
C. 17 “Leaving”: night 9/12
C. 18 “SpagBol”: night 9/12 through morning 9/13
C. 19 “The Worst Mistake”: starts sundown 9/13
then three days’ travel on bottom p.121
sundown 9/16 on p.122
C. 20 “The Side You Despise”: very late 9/16
9/17 dawns on p. 127
C. 21 “Firestorm”: late afternoon 9/17
C. 22 “Bug Eyes”: sunset 9/17 through wee hours 9/18
C. 23 “Lies”: morning 9/18
Tally arrives at Smoke
She claims she left late 9/8 (night before birthday) and took 9.5 days.
She actually took 5.5 days.
C. 24-27 “The Model,” “Work,” “David,” “Heartthrob”: all 9/18
C. 28 “Suspicion”: on p. 172 two weeks pass until 10/1 morning
C. 29-32 “Bravery,” “The Secret,” “Pretty Minds,” “Burning Bridges”: night of 10/1 except last paragraphs , which are dawn of 10/2
C. 33-37 “Invasion,” “Rabbit Pen,” “In Case of Damage,” “Run.” “Amazing”: early morning and onward of 10/2
C. 38-39 “Ruin,” “Maddy and Az”: morning 10/3
C. 40 “The Oil Plague”: night of 10/3
p. 259 is daybreak of 10/4
C. 41 “Familiar Sights”:
reach edge of desert during night of 10/4 p. 263
reach sea “three days later” on 10/7
travel for “a few days”
hunker down for storm from 10/10 to 10-14 p. 264
p. 265 is morning of 10/14
reach Rusty Ruins night of 10/17
In this chapter, David predicts they will make it to the city in ten days, but it takes 14 due to the 4-day storm, which is why he says (during the storm on p. 264 ): “It’s taking too long.”
C. 42 “Accomplices”: night of 10/17
C. 43 “Over the Edge”: as darkness falls on 10/18
The book ends 21 days later, the night of 11/8.
See how that works?
One quick note: Tally’s culture doesn’t use days of the week, but normally I keep careful track of those as well, just so no one goes to school/work on Sunday for no reason.
Another great thing about timelines is that they show you how your novel is paced. You might have three chapters in a row all set on the same morning, and then a series of chapters where time flies faster. Maybe this little pattern keeps happening again and again. Now, maybe that’s okay, or maybe it’s getting monotonous. But without a timeline, you might not notice the pattern at all.
Uglies is paced in a very particular way. Each book has a few intense days in the beginning, but then time spreads out as the characters go on a journey, allowing them to absorb the lessons they’ve learned. The timeline helped me recognize that pattern, and use it to my advantage.
Two days from now, I’ll talk some other types of meta-documents.
Take it away, Justine!
Also, don’t forget that I’m appearing with Justine and many other fabulous writers in New York City tomorrow!
Tuesday, November 10 6:00PM
Books of Wonder
Libba Bray — Going Bovine
Kristin Cashore- Fire
Suzanne Collins — Catching Fire
Michael Grant — Hunger
Justine Larbalester — Liar
18 West 18th Street
New York, NY 10011