Nano Tip #9: Meta-Documents

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:

Part I
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.)

Part II

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

Part III
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
And me!
18 West 18th Street
New York, NY 10011

Click here for all tour details. And click here to buy Leviathan.

38 thoughts on “Nano Tip #9: Meta-Documents

  1. First comment? Probably not, but if it is, whoot!
    This is actually such logical-seeming advice that it’s simplicity just about escapes me. It just makes so much sense! How could I have never used this! I’m also very, very happy to see that many of my favorite points in Uglies happen on my birthday XD.

  2. I use time lines.
    I have one for each of my main characters, then weak ones for other characters…

    &&thanks for using Uglies… I miss it

  3. oh… and my curiosity: what is the date of the beginning of Pretties, and the date of the end of Pretties? then what is the date of the beginning of Specials and the date of Specials?

    I was trying to follow the weather to figure out the dates, but was never completely sure.

  4. Metadata is SO important! I always create a timeline file. I also create a characters file, with names, relationships and appearance of each character, for easy reference. Also, a map file; if you don’t lose paper you can just draw one, but I like to have a file with spatial references of where places are in relation to each other.

    When people ask if I outline, I always say yes, by the time I am done, I do have an outline. It’s just not there when I start.

  5. I’ve kept metadocs describing characters’, their history, physical appearance, and temperament. Timelines is a really good idea!

    This is really tip #9, right? 😉

  6. That’s really interesting, because while I was doing my outlining (I need a detailed plan if I wanna write), I also printed out May-July 2013 calendars and filled them out with what chapter happens on what date (which came in handy when I wrote one of my character’s diary entries). Then I printed them out again and filled them out as my Main Main Character would.
    And it’s really helped me…
    So the moral of the story is that calendars and timelines rock.

    Oh, then a few days before NaNo started, I made this thingy describing the bits of stasis and the inciting incidents (there are three)… along with detailed character sheets… and iTunes playlists of their favorite music… (et cetera…)

  7. OH MY GOSH!!! Uglies ends on my birthday. I feel really really special (in a good way) now. 😀 😀 Thanks for making my day Scott-la.

  8. Wow! This is really interesting! It’s the simplest thing you could do but it’s so effective. I’m definitely doing this for anything I write, before it’s too late. And this outline/timeline really gives you an idea of time (DUH, that’s what timelines do!) because while reading Uglies, they go on such long journeys that it’s difficult to keep track of time. And a warning to anyone who attempts to write a book were your characters time-travel: DON’T USE A TIMELINE!!! It will mess you up completely! Trust me, this is from personal experience.

  9. I’ve done this before! While writing my book, I’ve been keeping notes on what’s going on – but on post-its.
    Guess what’s I’m going to go do now? 🙂 Thanks for the outline of the timeline outline! Ha!

  10. Also, I didn’t realize Uglies took up 5 months! I think that when I was reading, I guesstimated about 4. Kinda close? Guess I’m bad at cues!

  11. Whoa, it’s so cool to know the dates that the events happened! Honestly. It made me very happy. Weirdly, I thought each book of Uglies took place over a year. I’ve tried to make these but with page numbers, because my long-plotted stories often end up short and terrible.

  12. That is cool seeing all the events in Uglies all laid out in a time line! I never thought about the importance of time when you are writing a novel… I just assumed that it came naturally. 😀
    Uglies is my favorite series too… do you know any other good sci-fi books? I just finished The Hunger Games and loved it! 😀

  13. Ping to Team Toshi Banana,
    i dont know if this is really a sci-fi book, but I’m gonna say it anyways. I’m reading a book called The Maze Runner and it’s really good 😀 Oh and who wouldnt love Uglies?? Well except my dads girlfriends daughter she HATED it and I was like (i didnt actually say this but i wanted to i just sat there and listened to her) if you hate Uglies I HATE you! 😈

  14. Ugh, I really want to go to your appearance tomorrow….but I live much too far away! And yes, Hunger Games is an amazing book, Team Toshi Banana. Did you read the sequel?

    Ah it was really cool seeing the Uglies time line! Scott-la, will we be seeing any meta-docs or other tips relating to your books like today? Any ones other than Uglies (though Uglies of course is amazing), like Midnighters or So Yesterday? 🙂

    Thanks for the tip and can’t wait for the next one!

  15. Ack timelines, my NaNo is part of what I think is called a “stand alone series” (two worlds just different times over the past 300 years with some charcters popping up now and then, hell it may be set over 600 years!) and I’ve been having to do some serious thinking in the shower about what events in the world series relate to the other events. But actually for the story itself I have a good idea about the time and don’t need to worry about it that much. Well, I think anyway, things might get a little tricky to the end but I usually write first, work it all out later.

  16. no spoilers to Catching Fire yet please – I haven’t gotten to it.

    I hardly have time for reading right now.

    but I did discover Clare’s tril and I got Ashes this morning and am a good way through but I shouldn’t be reading… I have an 8 page paper and it’s 10pm… have not started the paper

  17. I keep lots of meta docs. Cast list, character bios, world building encyclopedia, timeline, compass (my version of an outline), etc.

    I used to put all that stuff into a wiki, using which is free and awesome, but now I print it all out and keep it in a binder. I like being able to scribble notes on my notes while I’m writing. Writing the story by hand is too slow for me, but for making notes handwriting helps me think clearer.


  18. Oh, I love meta docs. I never thought of the timeline though. (well, okay, that’s a lie. I just hate them. But I really should get up off my butt and start one before I get any further into my novel)

  19. I wrote out a timeline for my nearly-finished book. It took a while, but I feel so much better! Wrote a little side-thing for character description, too. Ahhh, sweet relief. After my fencing midterm today and my math homework, I’m totally going to work on my book! …If I have time. 🙁 Thanks for the tips, Scott!

  20. So, I have a question, if you have time to answer it. While writing novels is fun, I prefer writing short stories. Is there anything beyond just writing them, as far as publishing goes? Can you get a book of short stories published, or do they have to go into an already planned, multiple author, anthology of science fiction, fantasy, ect?

  21. finished Ashes and I have no way to get Glass…

    anyway, regarding my main writing project {not my nanowrimo, but what I’ve been writing and developing for a handful of years}: I haven’t done a time line yet. I do have a character collection, but my biggest meta-document is really a series of one all devoted to the world my story tales place in. I have profiles on creatures, races, etc… Also what technologies exist where, economic and political “fun” and I’ve discovered much of the geography – I made a unique-ly styled map. I have histories of Kingdoms and main sities {cities}. Religion maps, and pages of myths and legends as Benaian children would hear them… stuff like that.

    but hardly any is typed… the map is up on deviantart with a watermark of my penname… and I few things are typed, but hardly anything. I get grounded from the computer a lot so it wouldn’t make sense for my stuff to be on here… I have notebooks, notebooks, folders, notebooks, loose pages, etc… of all this and then the actual chapters

    my nanowrimo this year – all I have is what I’ve written so far then some character pages… I’m horrid with deadlines

  22. I never really realized how important a timeline was. One thing though whenever I finish a book lately I have been paying a lot of attention to the amount of time it takes the book to give the story, and the shorter the time span the more amazed I am. The first book I realized this for was Midnighters and when I finished the trilogy I was happily surprised to realize it was only over a span of a month. So basically what happens to me is the shorter the writer is able to get their story through the more amazed I am like for Dan Brown’s books they happen overnight and that simply amazes me.

  23. The Timeline business really helped me, because before I was just typing stuff, but now I have some form of direction. I’m going to start a metadoc sometime…
    : D

  24. I didn’t know they were called meta-documents, but I always keep these when I am writing an original story. I write out a summary of my ideas, because I always forget, and I don’t want to forget the main idea of my story, that would make it poitnless….then I usually map out my characters, names, age, birthday, looks, personality, etc. But that’s good advice, I’ll start adding what I’ve already written into the meta 🙂

  25. I just felt like commenting on your blog after I saw what it was in the Bogus to Bubbly book. You are definitely my favorite author of all time. I have a ton of your books and I think that Peeps was so good. I read it in one day. I liked how every other chapter was information on random parasites. I read the whole Uglies/Pretties/Specials/Extras series, too.

  26. Wow, all these tips are so helpful! I do a lot of writing both for myself and for I was surprised by how many of the tricks I use already like timelines, making a daily routine for writing and reading things through to delete over used words – I’m also a victim of ‘just’ and (bizarrely) ‘without warning’ which I seem to write about four times every day each!

    I love Parasite Positive and since I’ve been working in a book store, I wrote my own little review about it that hangs proudly on the wall next to it. Success!

  27. what positive contribution have you made yo society? and a timeline about your life during writting the books.

  28. I’m starting book four in a series and I write all kinds of reference papers for each book. I have synopsis of characters, personality traits, I even found pictures of some of the houses inside and out. I write vague timelines to keep ages of people straight but the day by day thing is interesting even for the character not in play in the chapter. My problem is I’m not real organized with all this stuff. I got started with putting some things in a file in my computer but there is still a lot of handwritten pages just floating around in notebooks, totes, desks etc. I cant seem to make myself do a completed outline of what is happening beforehand though. Sometimes about halfway through I will outline the remaining chapters and figure out what needs to happen approximately to finish up.

  29. I am working on my first novel and found myself making notes of this nature so that I could remember details of the story without having to re-read the entire book again and again. So glad I found this article. Makes total sense and love to see that a really great writer does it as well.

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