Capturing Emotion: Inspiration and Evernote

(This post originally appeared on the Evernote blog)

To slightly misquote Kate Sanborn, writing is 1% inspiration and 99% hard work.

When inspiration strikes, the world pauses, and the sky lights up. Everything about your story becomes clear, and you walk with a spring in your step for the rest of the day. You don’t need to capture inspiration; it fills your world.

This post isn’t about that 1%. It’s about other 99%, capturing all those little scraps that make up a novel. It’s about preparing the ground in which inspiration can take root.

Capture emotion, not just description 

Every writer carries a notebook with them for recording scraps. I still do, but most of my captures nowadays are via the Evernote app on my phone. Why my phone? Because I nearly always have it with me, and because it has a camera.

There’s something about capturing a scene live. Sol Stein said that writing is about communicating emotion. Good writers don’t just describe what scenes look like, they capture the emotions inherent in those scenes. That’s why when I see something interesting, I don’t just describe what it looks like, I describe how it makes me feel. 

This is a picture of a tree near my house. I didn’t take the picture because it looked nice, but rather because something about the light and dark made me think of how the seasons were changing and time was passing.

I used Evernote to capture the image. Why? Because pictures just get lost on my camera roll, while saving them as notes means I can write comments beneath the picture itself. 

Remember: When making notes, you’re adding emotion, not just description.

Take a walk 

For me, the best way to get ideas—the best way to cure writer’s block, for that matter—is to take a walk. I can’t stress enough the importance of taking walks. I’ve written about that hereAnd hereI’m not the only person to think so, by the way.

Go for a walk and look around. Don’t listen to music; let your mind wander. The ideas will come. Start capturing your ideas—and don’t forget to capture the emotions that come with them. 

Using the quick notes widget on Android, I can end up with 40 or 50 notes which I then merge when I get home. Of course, you could add all the ideas to the same note if you prefer.

Walking isn’t only about capturing ideas, it’s a distraction that allows your mind to stop consciously trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle. Instead, those pieces are left to float free, to be jiggled into place by the subconscious. Writing is about getting to a place where the subconscious can take over. Letting your mind wander free is essential, and walking helps you to do it.

A good walk can produce a lot of notes. Not all of them will relate to the current work in process—these need to be retained and revisited later. Systems such as Zettelkasten are a great way to do this, and you can replicate this to a certain extent by using tags in Evernote.

My writing process 

Tags are one of Evernote’s most powerful features. Using tags, I can find all my characters, for example, no matter which story they are a part of. You can read more about my tagging system here

Every so often, I go through my notes. I tag them by story (for example, #threebears) and by things such as character, beat, and worldbuilding. Once you have all your notes neatly tagged, it’s time to sit down and write that story. 

Here’s how Evernote will write your book for you.

It won’t.

Of course, it won’t. Evernote is a productivity app, not a literary bot. No system is going to write your book for you, and that’s a good thing because if there were such a system, then writing would be no fun.

Here’s my real writing process:

I sit down and start writing. I allow the words to flow onto the page while I wait for my subconscious to take over.

My process is all about getting myself to a place where my subconscious can do its own thing. I believe that you should trust in your characters and listen to what they have to say. If you’re following your characters and letting them be themselves, then the story will unfold—maybe not how you want it, but in the way that it wants to go. The trouble comes when you try and force your characters to be what they’re not, when you twist them and make them act in arbitrary fashions to satisfy your initial plot. That’s when the contradictions build up, and the story crashes. If you can see that happening, it’s time to go out for a walk…

Stuck for ideas with NaNoWriMo approaching? Then don’t just sit there. Get out and capture some emotions!

The Professional Side

I’ve written a lot about the tools I use to handle the creative side of writing. But what about the professional side?

It’s a principle of both GTD and Zettelkasten (the two productivity systems I follow) that you keep your reference materials separate from your work. I’ve learned by experience that this is excellent advice.

I’ve had 8 novels and around 70 short stories published. Here’s how I use Evernote to keep track of my writing career.


The basic unit of my writing is a story. I use Evernote to create two notes for every story I begin, one for recording ideas and one for the professional details.

Here’s what goes into a “professional” note.

  • The date I started and finished the story (this is for my own interest.)
  • Dates of revisions, submissions to beta readers
  • Beta readers comments
  • Submission details.

Evernote has recently introduced a tasks feature that is ideal for keeping track of submission deadlines.

Once a story has been placed I add the following to the note:

  • The contract (usually a pdf)
  • Galleys
  • Date of publication, magazine issue (if appropriate)
  • Cover image. This is handy for producing publicity materials.
  • Reviews, quotations
  • Reprint details.

If you’re just starting out as a writer, I’d advise you to begin doing the above with your first sale. If your work is resold, editors want to know these details. Having them to hand will save you a lot of time in the future.

One last thing.

Evernote now allows you to place filtered widgets on your home page. I’ve set up a widget with works in progress or stories currently on submission. I can now see at a glance just what I should be doing.


I keep several bios on Evernote. A very short one, (22 words), short (60 Words) and longer (over 200 words). They are then when needed, though I usually have to update them at the time. I also have several photos I can download as needed.


Evernote allows you to create a shareable page. This is ideal for creating a press release. Here’s an example for my recent novel, Midway.

Income and Expenses

I keep a separate record of sales, payments and residuals on a spreadsheet and I refer to this when doing my tax return. I use tables on Evernote for keeping track of day to day expenses. I keep a note bookmarked for the current tax year so it’s easily accessible.


I have a note with a list of markets. Evernote tasks are an easy way to keep track of submission windows and deadlines.

Interviews, Panels and Workshops

I may not do as many appearances as I used to, but all my past notes and presentations are stored on Evernote for reference.


I’ve had changing opinions of Evernote over the years (see this post). The new direction the company is taking, plus the addition of a Linux client (currently in Beta) mean I’m once more fully committed to the system, so much so that I’ve recently taken the exams to become an Evernote Expert. I receive a free professional subscription to Evernote. The opinions here are my own.


Milanote is a tool for organizing projects into kanban like boards. It’s targeted at creatives, and comes with a variety of templates, not only for writers but for fields as diverse as game design, interior design photography and software development.

You can write notes and todo lists, upload images & files and save things you find on the web, which is pretty typical for this sort of software. Where Milanote differs from other products mentioned on this site is the way you can organize things visually.

Crucially, you can export your boards as pdfs or pngs, or export them in doc, md or txt format.

There is a free version available with no time limit. The PRO version is $9.99 per month (monthly and annual plans)

Disclosure: Milanote shared a lifetime subscription with me in return for writing this post. I must admit, I’m a plain text sort of guy and always will be, but if you think in pictures and not in words, this may well be the tool for you.

Six Lessons from Music…

… to think about when you feel that your work as a writer is not receiving the recognition it deserves…

  • Shostakovich wrote during the siege of Leningrad whilst working as a fireman.
  • Messiaen wrote his Quartet for the End of Time in Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner-of-war camp.
  • Mahler was forced to work as a conductor in order to pay the bills. He resented the time lost when he could have been composing.
  • None of Bruckner’s eleven symphonies were commissioned. Two of them received such harsh criticism he retracted them. This is why his last symphony is known as his ninth.
  • Bach was expected to write and perform one cantata a week whilst working in the St Thomas Church in Leipzig.
  • Mozart wrote his last three symphonies without a commission. The last, the 41st is regarded by many critics as among the greatest symphonies in classical music.
  • Finally, remember that Franck “steadily inculcated a disdain for immediate success, and a disregard of the public as a prerequisite for attaining durability in a work of art.”

See Also

Tagging #3: My Tagging System

The following are some of the tags I’ve evolved to help me organize and retrieve my writing notes.

I rely on two sorts of tags, those relating to GTD or workflows, and those relating to story notes.

The story note tags are quite straightforward, here they are:

5alien, 5atmosphere, 5bio, 5character, 5colour, 5ek, 5place, 5plotlet, 5scene, 5structure, 5tech

In case you’re wondering, an ek is an eyeball kick:

Vivid, telling details that create a kaleidoscopic effect of swarming visual imagery against a baroquely elaborate SF background. One ideal of cyberpunk SF was to create a “crammed prose” full of “eyeball kicks.” (Attr. Rudy Rucker)

I write SF so the alien tag should be no surprise. As my story worlds are all tagged, I can easily search for 5aliens in the 3recursion universe.

Possibly of more interest are my workflow tags.

I started out following GTD, labelling all my notes TODO NEXT or DONE. That worked out pretty well in my daily life, but not in my writing life. Over the years I’ve settled on the following

conceit -> idea -> story -> developing -> next/working -> staged -> published/used -> archived

What’s the difference between a conceit, an idea and a story?

The first two are explained in the Turkey City Lexicon. Here’s my thinking on the process by which a conceit becomes a story.

I get lots of ideas – I think most writers would say the same – however most of them are never used. Looking back through my notes I can see ideas that I’ve not had time to use, ideas that don’t go anywhere, ideas that just don’t seem that interesting now. Some ideas I don’t even remember what I was thinking when I wrote them down. But occasionally I will see an idea that joins with another idea and sparks something. When enough ideas join themselves together they become a story.

What’s the difference between next and working?

This is something I think many writers will experience. A story marked next is something that has to be done to a deadline, that’s why I’ve applied GTD to it. Something tagged as working is something that I’m ermmm… working on. I tend to work on stories over periods of months or even years so this tag indicates something I will keep coming back to. When inspiration fails, or when I’m looking for a next project, or simply because I want to move on, I bring up all the things I’m working on and decide what to concentrate on next.

When a story is completed it will be staged, ready to be submitted.  Hopefully I will someday  be able to tag it as published.

More on Tagging

How Writers Write: Anne Charnock

How Writers Write is a monthly series of guest posts where established writers invite you into their workspaces, reveal their work habits and share their experience.

Follow this link for a full list of previous posts

I met Anne in a bar in Helsinki at Worldcon 75.  We got chatting right away…

What do you use to write?

I handwrite only when I’m limbering up. As a first stab at a new writing project, I take a sheet of A2 paper and draw bubbles of characters/themes/plot. Next, I open a new hardback notebook and jot down my initial ideas, pose questions to myself so that I hone the central premise and my overall aims. At this early stage, I consider the connections between characters, draw approximate timelines and so on. None of this preliminary work is detailed. My outlines are minimal.

Before I draft a chapter, I dash off a few handwritten notes to set the scene. But I’m as likely to ignore these notes as I am to adhere to them.

As for hardware, I work with a MacBook Air linked to a widescreen monitor and a full-size keyboard. I’ve used Macs since they were first launched and I’m not going to switch now!

I draft my novels in Scrivener, which is especially helpful for a story based on masses of research. Scrivener allows me to assemble my research into a set of folders. While I’m drafting my story, I can dip into the research material without opening other applications. Scrivener is also ideal for novels with a complex structure. I can re-order the chapters by click and drag, or temporarily reorder the chapters to check the flow of a particular storyline or character arc.

Once I begin the first draft, I create two Excel spreadsheets. (I love a good spreadsheet, with lots of colour coding). One is a simple log: dates in the left column and chapter titles in the top row. This allows me to record whether each working day is a drafting or editing day and which chapter I’m working on. If it’s a drafting day, I record my daily word count.

The second spreadsheet is more complex and this is the reason I have a widescreen monitor. It’s an on-the-go summary of the developing novel. I set up columns from left to right: chapter number/title, character list, point-of-view character, tense, settings, main plot points in that chapter, and a column in which I note how the chapter connects with the story’s overall themes, and finally a column for the chapter’s word count. In the midst of writing, if I suddenly realise that an edit or addition is needed in an earlier chapter, I’ll add a note in green type to the spreadsheet. It’s always open on my computer desktop.

For my second novel, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, I needed an additional monster spreadsheet to record, chapter-by-chapter, the occurrence of repeating motifs and themes. The printout stretched the length of my kitchen.

When I’m ready to send a manuscript to beta-readers, I ‘compile’ my Scrivener chapters as a Word document. From that point on, through to final draft, development edit and copy edit, I work in Word.

When do you write?

With my first novel, A Calculated Life, I wrote whenever I had time — over a period of several years. It was frustrating; I had to set aside the manuscript for as long as six months at a time. You know how it is, life intervenes. So I had no idea how long that novel took to write in terms of days/weeks/months. That’s why I now keep a daily log.

I’m fortunate that I’m writing full time and when I’m in a writing phase it’s pretty full on, especially if there’s a deadline. I’m definitely not an early morning person. I’m content to start about 9.30 or 10 am and work through until 6-ish with breaks for tea/coffee/lunch/tea and cake. Sometimes I’ll set a stopwatch and do a writing sprint for twenty five minutes, for variety! However, I do find that when I write quickly, I spend more time re-writing and editing. So I don’t beat myself up if my word count looks meagre.

Where do you write?

I kinda work in a white cube. White walls, white semi-transparent blinds (invariably closed) and a desk with a near-white formica top. The desk is a lovely 1950s Hans Gugelot desk, my pride and joy. This small room is built onto the end of our garage. It’s brilliant to have this space separate from the house. I’m not disturbed by anyone knocking on the door, or by unsolicited phone calls.

Where do you go for inspiration?

I look beyond literature. I go to exhibitions, take a cycle ride, travel to new places. Or I walk around the local playing field to catch the sunset. I’m not sure I’m ‘looking’ for inspiration. Basically, I’m switching off my writer’s brain and opening up to new experiences or living in the moment, as with travel and cycle rides. I try to get away with my husband in our campervan for a change of scene. Sometimes I write while we’re away — I sit under the van’s awning, write in the shade.

How do you write?

No music. I don’t understand how anyone can write with music in the background. Each to their own! I live in a rural area but that doesn’t mean it’s peaceful — raucous birdsong (magpies are the worst), hedge cutters, chainsaws. I keep noise-cancelling headphones on my desk, and I wear them by default.

First Person, Third person, present tense, past?

For my first novel, I wrote in third person limited (free indirect style) and past tense except for two epilogues, which I wrote in present tense. I’m not sure how many readers noticed the change in tense, but I believe it shifted the tone, the atmosphere. Third person limited was essential for this novel because I wanted the reader to see the world through only the main character’s eyes — to witness the world from her limited, almost innocent, perspective.

I now prefer present tense and I think this preference reflects the fact that I don’t outline my chapters in any detail. Therefore I’m discovering the story alongside my characters. It feels more natural. I dislike the contrivance of an omniscient narrator. I don’t think I could attempt that.

My latest novel, Dreams Before the Start of Time, comprises 19 chapters and each has a single POV character: 19 chapters, 16 points of view in total, 16 chapters in third person, 3 in first person. A series of linked vignettes, if you like.

I’ve developed a real liking for first person. But the story always determines my choice. So, for my novella The Enclave I felt two different points of view would be perfect, each written in first person, giving room for the reader to make inferences concerning the gaps between the two characters’ stories.

Follow the plot or the character or just go with it?

Characters come first for me. I often discover their personalities in the process of writing their dialogue.

When the first draft is done…

After working for many years in journalism, I can’t bring myself to blast through a first draft. I edit as I go along — editing as I draft a paragraph, editing the previous day’s work, editing at the end of a chapter, re-editing several chapters at the end of a section, and so on. As a result, the first draft represents an almost-complete novel. I feel I’m almost there. Of course, I may well decide to add a chapter, move a scene, refine a character’s voice, etc. I address all the notes/reminders I’ve made in green text on my summary spreadsheet. Then I embark on the line-edits, fact checking and proofing.

For my latest novel I corralled five beta-readers: three family members and two writers. I’m fortunate that my family readers are pretty damn good, each in his own way (Yes, my family readers are all men!)

For me, it’s hard to let go of a manuscript. I like to be involved up until to the last moment, until the pages are printed.

Lastly, self promotion:

I describe myself as a writer of near-future science fiction or speculative fiction. To be honest that doesn’t feel complete because I’ve also incorporated historical and contemporary fiction in my work. I haven’t totally abandoned my fine art practice — I’m exhibiting a piece of text-art this autumn in a public installation curated by Andrew Bracey. I still gravitate towards journalistic and non-fiction opportunities. For example, I’ve had a feature published this summer on the UK feminist website, The F-Word — Time to Cut the Cord with The Stone Age? — and I’ve been given the somewhat splendid title of ‘interviewer in residence’ for a collaboration between The Arthur C Clarke Award and Ada Lovelace Day. To date the main result of this collaboration is the “Ada Lovelace Conversations” with women science fiction writers. Quick links on my bio page on my website. More conversations are in the pipeline. These have been immense fun and a great learning experience in terms of discovering other writers’ approach to their craft.

I’m currently developing two writing projects, one is underway, the other is still in outline. I can’t talk about either; it’s simply too early.




Tagging #2:  Applications that use Tagging

Here are few applications where I use tagging.


Tagging is straightforward on Simplenote.  Add your tags on the tag bar, keep track of them using the tag dropdown.  You can edit and delete tags using the phone or desktop app.

Click on a tag to search for it, or use the following syntax in the search bar to find all notes tagged with knife


Find notes tagged spoon and/or knife as follows

tag:spoon tag:knife

You can use the following trick on the webapp to find all the notes which haven’t been tagged.



Evernote has a very flexible tagging system with an excellent search facility. Searching for a single tag is a matter of simply clicking on the tag.

You can do more complex tag searches by using the following syntax:

Search for headings tagged spoon and knife

tag:spoon tag:knife

Search for headings tagged spoon but not knife

tag:spoon -tag:knife

Find all untagged notes


Evernote also allows you to save frequently used searches.

Evernote’s search features are very powerful. Find out more by following this link.


Emacs Org mode has a sophisticated tagging system.

Add tags to headings using

C-c C-q

You can filter tags using the built in agenda views as follows:

Search for headings tagged spoon and knife

C-c a m +spoon+knife

Search for headings tagged spoon but not knife

C-c a m +spoon-knife

Search for headings tagged spoon or knife

C-c a m spoon|knife

Find out more about Emacs on My Emacs Writing Setup


Tagspaces is a completely different way of organising your resources based entirely on tagging. You can find out more here:

More on Tagging



Tagging #1

  • Are you a writer?
  • Do you keep notes? (I can’t believe there is writer who doesn’t keep notes.)
  • Do you keep your notes on a computer?
  • Do you tag your notes?

If you only answered yes to the first three questions, then I’m about to change your writing life for the better.

Tags have been around for years, they’re very simple to use, and yet few people seem to bother. I think this is mainly because many people don’t understand the power of tags.

The following series of posts attempt to explain how to use tags to organise your life. This post will give an overview of tags. The next post will give examples of applications you can use for tagging such as Evernote, Simplenote, Emacs and Tagspaces. Finally, there will be a post describing my personal tag system.

Tagging v Folders

Most people store their notes in folders. This is no surprise. When computers first rose in popularity, the folder was an easy to grasp analogy. Put all your stories in one folder, all your submission letters in another, all your personal letters in another. Folders are easy to use and easy to navigate. You want to find that fantasy story you wrote, go to the folder marked story and look in there for the fantasy folder.

There’s one problem with folders, however: a story can only be stored in one location. Suppose you have written a story that mixes fantasy and horror. Do you store it in the fantasy folder, or the horror folder? Or do you make a new folder marked fantasy horror?

Tagging solves this problem.  Rather than thinking in terms of folders, you tag your stories #fantasy, #sf, #horror. If you write a story that mixes fantasy and horror you simply use two tags: #fantasy and #horror.  When objects have more than one tag, they can appear in more than one place, a big advantage over folders.

Tagging is not difficult, people hashtag on Twitter all the time. There is, however, an understandable wariness about taking your carefully filed stories out of their folders and putting them in a big tagged pile. What if the tags were to get lost?

Well, tags don’t get lost any more than folders get mixed up. Even so, there’s nothing to stop you using both tags and folders while you get used to things.

A Simplified Tag System

It’s possible to spend more time thinking of tags to apply to a note than it takes to write the note in the first place. One way around this is to adopt a standard system (there are many of these listed on the internet). I use a 1,2,3,4 system as follows:

  1. What area of my life does the note refer to: Personal, Writing, Work, Tech ?
  2. What’s the form of the note: idea, letter, reference, blog, interview ?
  3. What project does the note relate to: novel, how writers write, 99 java problems, emacs, six tips ?
  4. What’s the note’s GTD status: TODO, NEXT, DONE, WORKING ?

To give an example, the note this blog post is based on is tagged as follows

1tech, 1writing, 2blog, 3onwriting, 3emacs, 4next

In other words, this note relates both to tech and writing, it’s for my blog, it’s to do with my onwriting and emacs projects, and it’s marked next according to GTD.

The following is the tag for a note regarding a panel I’m attending at an upcoming convention

1writing, 2panel, 3sf, 3helsinki, 4todo

You might be able to guess from the tags that the panel is regarding SF and the convention takes place in Helsinki

Note how each tag has a number at the front. Most tagging systems will filter your tags as you enter them, so when I type the number 1, only tags starting with 1 appear. Also, thinking 1,2,3,4 when I’m tagging my notes helps speed up the tagging process.

What’s the benefit of all this? This becomes apparent when you search your notes.

Suppose I want to find all the posts relating to my blog. I could search for


This would bring up all the posts regarding my writing blog, my tech blog and my personal blog.

I could refine this by searching as follows

1writing, 2blog

Now I will only see the posts relating to my writing blog. I could add a 4todo tag to see the posts I still have to write.

If I want to see the posts regarding Emacs that I’ve already published I could search as follows

2blog, 3emacs, 4published

Most tagging systems allow you to save searches. One saved search I often use is the following

1writing, 4next

In other words, the things I have to do next in my work as a writer.



I Used to Worry About Finishing Stories…

I’d plan them in minute detail, I’d obsess over the twists, the climax, the ending.

And then I learned, as I’ve written in many other places, to just turn off my mind and to follow my characters. I learned to let my subconscious take over and to let the story go where it wanted.

But even though I’d learned this way of writing, I was still gripped by the worry that the story I was writing was going nowhere, that I would write myself into a corner, that the story would just crash. 80 000 words into a novel and I would have to abandon my work and start again on something else.

I was so gripped by this worry that I planned my first novel, Recursion, in quite a lot of detail. My second novel, Capacity, was also minutely plotted, but it veered off course halfway through. I took a deep breath and followed it and, hey, it worked.

Twisted Metal started off as one novel; it ended up being split into two when one character, Kavan, broke free and refused to do what I wanted him to. By the time I started Blood and Iron, my fifth novel, plotting beyond the bare minimum had gone out of the window.

Even so, I worried if the thing would end properly. I’ve written most of my short stories without plotting, but there’s less risk there, only 5000 words stand to be lost if things go wrong.

When I started on my most recent novel, I still worried about the ending, but yet again, everything worked.

This time, however, I realised whilst I was writing that it always will. I know it will.

Because if you’re following your characters and letting them be themselves then the story will resolve itself – maybe not how you want it, but there will be an ending. After all, that’s the way it works in real life.

The trouble comes when you try and force your characters to be what they’re not. When you twist them and make them act in arbitrary fashions to satisfy your plot. That’s when the contradictions build up and the story crashes.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t plot. I still write structured outlines, particularly after I’ve written the first draft. That way I can see how to make the story better.

What I am saying is that, in my experience, problems with stories come with too much plotting, not too little.

Six Tips on Writing Speech

Or more precisely, a conversation in six sentences.

A pupil recently asked me about writing speech in stories.

“Do I need to put he said, she said after every sentence?”  he asked.

“No.” I replied.  “If you look at a story in a book, you’ll notice that they very rarely indicate who has spoken.”

“Really?”  He picked up a book, read a few sentences. “Oh yes,  I see what you mean!”

“There you go.  You have to learn to trust the reader; they’re cleverer than beginner writers give them credit for.  The reader can recognise who’s speaking when people are taking turns in a conversation.”

“So you only have to indicate the names at the start?”

“Well,” I said, “You might want to occasionally remind them who’s speaking.”

See Also