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.

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

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.



Never Lose Your Work Again!

A very well known writer recently tweeted about how he’d accidentally overtyped a whole morning’s work. I think every writer would feel his pain – not only is there the frustration of having to retype everything, but there’s also the thought that it will never be as good the second time. Things written in the flight of creativity are never as good as things slavishly repeated. (That’s why I think good ideas/scenes/dialogue should be captured live, but that’s another post)

There’s no reason that any writer should have to lose any work, however. All you need is a little planning. It all comes down to backups and version control.


If you’re not backing up your work already you’re a fool. Sorry to be blunt, but that’s just the way it is. If you haven’t got a backup routine, stop what reading this and go and get one.  Here’s some links:

I’m assuming if you’ve got this far you have a backup routine in place.

So, have you ever actually checked your backups? It’s surprisingly common for people to set up regular backups without checking that files are being backed up properly.  If not, go and see if you can restore a file.

Okay, let’s assume you have a backup strategy and you’ve taken a look at what’s being backed up. What we’re interested in, for the purposes of this post, is what is called incremental backups. Suppose you have ten files on your computer, you edit two of them and then perform a backup. With an incremental backup you’d end up with 12 files: the original 10 and the 2 new edited ones.

Actually, incremental backups are cleverer than that, but the above will do as an example. The point is, with incremental backups you’ll have a series of “snapshots” of your hard drive, each snapshot showing your machine’s state at a certain date. Look at a snapshot, and the backup software will rather cleverly put together a selection of files showing you what was on your machine on a particular day.

Just realised that the file you want is the one you deleted two months ago?   The one you thought you’d never need it again? No problem, just go to that snapshot in your Backups

Incremental backups mean that you will never lose more than a days worth of work.

All this talk about saving extra files might make you concerned about disc space.  There’s no need for worry.  Your Word documents are tiny, especially when compared to sound and video files. I’ve just checked, and my life’s work is comfortably less than 1Gb. That wouldn’t be a problem to anyone with a machine built in the last 10 years.  You’ll have more than enough space.

Version Control

Daily backups mean you can always restore yesterday’s work – you never lose more than a day’s work. But what about losing this morning’s work? For that you need version control.

The excellent How To Geek site has an overview of version control for Word Users:

Have I mentioned I use Emacs to write? Here’s a simple solution for Emacs users.

It will take you about half an hour to set up the above.   Half an hour now and you’ll sleep more soundly in future.  And half an hour now is much better than retyping a morning’s work…

My Emacs Writing Setup

A few years ago, due to the interest in my post on Writing Tools, I published an HTML document on my Emacs writing setup. 

I continue to use Emacs to write, however I’ve now adopted Doom Emacs. You can read about my Doom Emacs Writing Set Up here.

If you want to know how I plan and plot stories, you may find the document interesting.  You’ll probably find it more interesting if you use Emacs yourself.

A Note on Emacs

I think of Emacs as a text editors’ tool. As I spend most of my life working with text, either programming or writing, I want to do it as efficiently as possible.

It first struck me when I was editing my novel Divergence just how inefficient I was being in pressing the arrow key and waiting for the cursor to get to where I wanted. That got me thinking about the time spent deleting text, transposing words, moving around paragraphs… I realised there must be a quicker way.

And then I remembered Emacs.

It makes sense for someone who spends most of their time manipulating text to learn a group of obscure key combinations. It saves time and increases productivity. Learning to use Emacs properly reminds me of playing Jazz on the piano. I’ve learnt all those chords and runs and fills so that I can use them without thinking when I’m improvising. Likewise, I’ve practiced using Emacs key strokes such as M-f, M–M-c and C-M-<Space> so often I use them without thinking when editing. I rely on M-/ to complete words, and I can’t do without M-h and C-e to select and move around text.

I practice using Emacs because it makes me a more productive writer. If you’re interested, I’ve written up some of those tips and exercises on my Emacs Workout.

Writing Tools

Charles Stross has written an interesting polemic about Why Microsoft Word must Die over on his blog.

I broadly agree with him.  But this post isn’t to dwell on what’s wrong with Word, but rather to look at the alternatives.

Replacing Word is easy.  I’ve used LibreOffice (and its predecessor, OpenOffice) Writer for around 7 years now with few problems. Neither my publisher nor my collaborators appear to be aware of the fact that I’m not using Word, which makes me wonder why people say that Word is essential.  The sort of demands placed on a Word Processor when producing text based manuscripts are not particularly heavy.  I suspect an unwillingness to move away from Word is down to fear of the unknown rather than any solid reason.

The advantages of LibreOffice are that it’s free, it’s Open Source (if that’s important to you), and it’s sufficiently similar to Word to make the transition quite straightforward.  As an added bonus is it doesn’t have the Microsoft ribbon toolbar which I find irritating to say the least.

Of course, as Charlie points out, Word and LibreOffice don’t lend themselves to extended pieces of writing.  More and more writers are switching to software that allows you to structure your writing, a common example being Scrivener.  I’m a great believer in such tools.

Emacs and org-mode is one such tool.  I discovered org-mode for Emacs in 2008. I wouldn’t recommend Emacs to everyone, but I find it the ideal application for planning, structuring, writing and editing.  I’ve written my last three novels using org-mode, exporting the finished products to odt (Libreoffice) format when I’ve finished. You can find out more about my Emacs writing set up by following this link.  Aethernet Magazine is also produced using org-mode.  The magazine is marked up using org-mode codes and then exported to html for conversion to mobi format using kindlegen.  There’s more about Emacs over on my tech blog.

Finally, I use the Evernote App on my phone to record notes and pictures.  I’m a great believer in getting ideas and dialogue down “fresh”. They’re never as good if you try to recreate them later.  I’m actually writing nearly fully realised scenes now on Evernote, line by line, as the mood hits me.

Take a look at my monthly series How Writers Write to see other writer’s setups