Read like a writer using Evernote, part one: Saving examples of clever writing techniques

1024 683 Writer and the Wolf Editorial

I know it’s easy for me to sit here shouting ‘Read analytically! Take notes! Annotate!’ but that’s not very helpful without practical, actionable advice to go along with it. How do you annotate? What’s the best way to record what you’re reading? So, friends, I’m going to take you through my Evernote system. Lucky you! Of course I’m absolutely not suggesting you have to take notes like this when you read or that you should keep digital records rather than paper ones (and this is not an advert or affiliate post for Evernote!). This is just one way I track my reading; I also scribble in notebooks, keep Goodreads lists, write blog posts and write reviews for other websites. But my Evernote system might be something that works for you so I’m going to share it with you! This first part will focus on how I collect snippets from novels that demonstrate clever solutions to storytelling problems I’ve come up against.

What is Evernote?

Evernote is a free online note-taking app you can access through your desktop browser or on your phone or tablet. I’ve been using it for about a decade and after a couple of years I upgraded to a professional account because I use it for work a lot. It lets you create notes and organise them into notebooks and stacks and everything is fully searchable and tag-able. There are lots of similar apps out there so if you like the idea of recording your reading this way, shop around to find software that works best for you.

How I record the novels I read

First, I have a stack (which is like a shelf of notebooks) called ‘FICTION EDITING: Fiction Bookshelf’ and in that stack I have several notebooks including one named ‘Clever solutions to tricky narrative problems’.

For the past few years I’ve been saving snippets from novels that demonstrate how to pull off specific storytelling devices or handle tricky situations. It started when I was first working on my own middle grade novel and struggled with a crowd scene in which ten or fifteen people are queuing up for a ghost tour and getting impatient because it should have started half an hour ago. The people in the queue weren’t particularly important as characters – the scene was really about my protagonist – but I still needed a sense of chaos from the crowd, a mood of nervous excitement that gave a glimpse of how the cast felt without focusing too much on any one person.

I happened to be reading the middle grade novel The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine one day and I came to a scene where a huge crowd gathers impatiently outside a new shopping centre and I just loved how Woodfine captured the hustle and bustle and electric atmosphere by alternating between snippets of conversation from the crowd and physical descriptions of what was unfolding, like children running around and getting under everyone’s feet while their parents glared at them. Immediately I could see how to write my scene!

Other notes in that notebook include:

  • How to give a setting a compelling backstory (an excerpt from The Travelling Vampire Show)
  • How to write dialogue in a flashback scene (an excerpt from The Polar Bear Explorers’ Club)
  • How to filter an event through a unique perspective (an excerpt from The Saturday Night Ghost Club)

Sometimes I’ll just fall in love with how an author has handled a particular challenge and I’ll snap a photo, and sometimes I’m actively looking for a solution to a problem a client is having in their manuscript. I’ve built up a library of go-to examples this way and it’s been really useful for my editing work and my own writing.

How to capture these snippets from novels

Evernote has a built-in camera feature that lets you take photos of documents and pages from books and then, using edge detection and image optimisation, gives you a really clear, readable picture of the page. It’s searchable, too, so you can find words or phrases from those photos later. But if you don’t have Evernote, you can just take a regular photo of a page in a book or type out the passage you want to record. Copying out lines from novels is a great way to really pay attention to the words on the page and can help them stick in your mind better than if you just took a photo.

Your turn!

So, how can you use this in your own reading? When you come across something an author has done really well in a novel, write out the passage or take a photo. Analyse it: why does it work? What do you like about it? What other way could they have handled it? Apply the lesson to your own work. Try out their approach in a scene in your own WIP.

Maybe there are particular things you struggle with in your writing like physical description of characters, or ending chapters. You can look out for good examples of these every time you read a book and collect them together.

And they don’t have to be big things: if you want to record examples of interesting structures or well-written villains, great. But if you want to collect little details like different ways authors describe their main character’s hair or how rain is used to create mood, do that too! Digital notes aside, just by making a conscious effort to record these elements you’ll be thinking analytically and storing ideas away in your brain for later.

Coming soon

In future posts I’ll talk about how use Evernote to record every novel I read, take notes from craft books and save writing advice from around the web. If you have any specific questions about my process, ask below and I’ll try to address them!

* The images in this blog are from the gorgeous The Beauty of Horror: A GOREgeous Coloring Book by Alan Robert, coloured in by my fair hand. 


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Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes