In the IT world, metadata is information about the data, such as when it was created, updated, deleted, who by, how big the file is, and so on. In writing, especially fiction, meta-documents are documents about the novel, rather than the novel itself.
I talked last week about outlining, and the outline is a meta-document, but unlike most other meta-documents, you produce it before you start writing the novel. The other documents you produce during the writing process, to help you keep track of things.
Whatever you may think before you write your first novel, you will soon find it absolutely vital to devise some way of keeping track of these details. Otherwise you may have a hero whose eyes change colour, a place that’s down the road in one chapter and several hours away in another, or lose track of the passing of time.
Some writers keep a notebook with a page for each character, some have a file on the computer they can keep adding to, lots of people use spreadsheets, because they are perfect for making lists and not hard to learn. Writing software usually includes space for this, and I use yWriter, so I’ll be illustrating what I mean with screenshots from yWriter. (I think it’s really great, and the best thing is, it’s free!)
Timeline and Pace
It may not be important to know what day it is, but you need to keep some track of time, otherwise you may have children in school for six days in a row, or have two groups of people who take different times to do things but meet up again on the same day. Your timeline can be as simple or detailed as you like.
The pace of your novel is how often there is action, tension, comedy, romance or just exposition and progression of the story. When you track the pace you can see how this balances out. Is there too much action without giving readers time to catch their breath and think about the story? Is there a big chunk where there’s no action and readers might get bored?
yWriter has Action/Reaction and Plot/Subplot switches on every scene, and allows you to configure your own ratings, which then appear in the Details screen show previously, where you can rate four different things out of ten.
You need to keep details of every major character, and you might find you need some minor ones too. I don’t draw up character sheets in advance like some people do. I don’t work out their birthday, schooling etc., unless I need it for the story. But as I’m writing, every time I mention something about a character, I write it down. Next time I need to mention it, I can check it.
If you’ve been following posts about my novel Intruders, you will have seen pictures of actors who look like my characters, just to make descriptions easier.
I had been writing Intruders for years when my son asked me what the spaceship Kestrel looked like. I had no idea. That’s why there were no descriptions of the scenes there. I made a rough sketch, but soon found as I improved the novel that I needed to know lots more details. How do you get to the mess hall from the bridge? Which way does the Captain turn to speak to the comms officer on the bridge? The same goes for all your locations. If you write the details down you can refer back to them later.
This list refers to any object or other thing that you need to keep details on. What sort of gun is it, who did it belong to, where was it used or lost? You might need details of the weather in a certain place, or the terrain. It might be an object that gets stolen or is a vital clue.
You may be the sort of planner who likes to decide all these details ahead of time, or someone who just makes them up as they go along, but you need to write them down somewhere. That way you can be consistent through the novel and not jerk readers out of their absorbtion with a jarring error.