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Get Rolling with Evernote for Writing

After some questions from other writers, I thought I’d expand on my “Why I Love Evernote” post to discuss how I actually use it to help with my writing projects.

The key to remember here is your mileage may vary. There may be things about Evernote I love that don’t work for you, and you may discover things I wasn’t aware of or had no use for. Dive in, play with it, and make it work for you.

Also, keep it simple. “Ubiquitous capture” and the lack of traditional computer metaphors like files and folders can be daunting at first, but once you get a handle on how Evernote handles notebooks, notes, tagging, and searching, things get pretty easy.

So let’s break it down and use my The Pack series and notes as an example.

1) Create a Notebook

It may help at first to think of notebook as folders, but the metaphor here is imagine you just purchased a shiny new paper notebook you’re going to write in and stuff full of pictures, newspaper clippings related to your project. It’s both notebook and scrapbook, in a sense.

An Evernote notebook, then is your first order of sorting. In the future you can share it with an editor or a collaborator, but in the meantime it’s the place you’ll dump everything related to that project. The default notebook is enough for some folks, but I just use that one for day-to-day things. I have a Recipes notebook, a Karate notebook, a notebook for the day job, and one for every major project I’m working on.

Everything from here on will have been created within my “The Pack” notebook. I could feasibly create one for every novel, but it’s a lot handier (to me) to group everything related to the series under one notebook.

2) Create Notes

Click “create note” and you’re off and running. The beauty of notes is they can include several types of content. Text is most common, of course, but I can also drag in photos and other media. Tables, lists, and checklists are available when needed, and with the indents and lists, you can build a traditional outline.

If you’re the type who likes voice notes, Evernote can handle this, too. Dictate into the Evernote app on your phone, for example, and it will be available everywhere you have Evernote installed or via the Evernote web app. Want to make dictated notes searchable, or transcribe to text? Check out Quicktate or Voice2Note. I don’t use these, but as I said, YMMV.

Here are the types of notes I use most often:

Character Dates and Timeline

This note is simply a master list of important dates and a timeline of events. The novels Winter Kill and Lie with the Dead occur about six months apart, but the events in the first Pack short “Bravo Four” take place decades earlier during the Vietnam War. Events from the Call of the Wild comic series have an impact in the prose series. There are references to unpublished (for now) events in each story, and of course there is the ages of characters to consider. To keep it all straight, I’ve got each major character’s birth date, their death date where applicable, and at least approximate dates of when each story took place and when unpublished events occurred.

Character Notes

This is where I get more detailed. Winter Kill has a lot of characters, including the Tyler family, at least two sets of villains, and a handful of supporting characters. There are two ways one might approach it: one note per character, like an old-school index card; or one note per group of characters.

I tend toward the latter because I don’t mind if the notes get a bit lengthy. So, I have a note for all of the core members of the Tyler family. I have a note for all of the skinheads in Winter Kill. I have a note for Angie Wallace, a major character unrelated to the Tylers or the villains. Each character’s physical descriptions, their personality, and so on are all included. It’s simply broken down so the character’s name is in bold, and then the paragraphs or one-liners follow.

These notes help keep details straight. For example, if a character carries a certain weapon, it goes in the note so the weapon doesn’t magically change in another book. If a character receives a wound, I make sure I know where the scar is. I might even paste in descriptive passages from each work to be sure it’s always consistent.

In short, it’s helpful for continuity, and it saves me the time of having to flip through published works to verify details later.

Book Notes or Outlines

I have at least one note for each novel in the series, including Book 3. They’re fairly organic, and change as I massage the plots. They might start with a simple breakdown of Act I, Act II, and Act III, or even just a line or two about what I want to accomplish or an overall theme. Some are just brainstorming, and at least one includes a discarded version of a story which I might pick apart for later use anyway.

Over time, they get more detailed. I might have a beat sheet breaking down the book event by event, or even chapter by chapter. Pretty soon, they’re more or less an outline of the book I can use to write from, and they also become useful to refer back to when working on other projects in the series.

Short Story Notes

I have one note that has the synopsis for each of the short stories I’ll be writing for the series over the next few months. I then flesh them out with a separate note to figure out how the stories will play out.

For example, there’s a “Bravo Four” note I used to write from. It’s an outline, and it’s a reference for the future. If The Pack were a comic series, I might even have an issue-by-issue breakdown, a note for each story arc.

Research Notes

These are most often web clippings, but some may be simply photos or other notes. Because The Pack is a werewolf series, I clipped the article “Why everything you know about wolf packs is wrong” in case it might be useful in the future. This way it’s available in searches and browsing rather than lost in a pile of bookmarks or other links. I also have some notes about places and events from the Vietnam War for “Bravo Four”, and I have some other history notes for future short stories.

Publishing/Business Notes

Everything related to publishing gets a note. I have a note with key reviews for Winter Kill. I have a note listing the ISBN numbers and publication dates of each work, and any relevant Amazon or Barnes & Noble links. They’re small things, maybe only needed once in a blue moon, but they’re handy to keep around.

I also have a note for the editing process of Lie with the Dead. I simply dumped the editor’s notes into a note for quick reference. Once, while sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, I thought of a way to address one of his notes. I fired up Evernote on my phone and jotted those thoughts in with that comment so I could address it later and not sweat forgetting it before I got to a computer.

I also dumped everything from a weekend retreat planning meeting I had with my publisher into a note. Notes we took, things we discussed, and even photos of the whiteboard we used are all still available to me for reference.

Miscellaneous Notes

Everything else, basically. I do all my brainstorming on paper, so I might transfer those notes into a separate note for later noodling. Other times, the brainstorming notes go into existing notes. There’s no hard-and-fast rule here, because tagging and searching makes where I record the notes irrelevant.

3) Tying Notes Together

There are two ways to do this: tagging and linking.

You’re probably already familiar with the idea of tagging. They’re a simple way to “group” notes without using folders. Character names are an important tag, for example, as are book titles. This way, if I look for anything tagged “winter kill,” I’ll get everything that may be related to that book.

Linking is also handy, and works just like a hyperlink on a website, and in effect can turn your notebook into a wiki. In a plot note, I might include a link from a character’s name to the note containing their description. Or I can link from a plot or character note to one of the research notes. This keeps me from having to reproduce information, or from bogging down notes with extraneous information.

4) Sorting Searching

This is the point people sweat keeping everything organized. Forget about it, because the search feature makes all of that irrelevant. It’s very powerful, and will search tags, text within notes, and text within attachments (pictures, and even PDFs if you’re a pro user).

You simply don’t need to sort things into folders because the search will find it for you. Accidentally drop a note into the wrong notebook? No problem, you can restrict searches to within a notebook or open it up to your entire account.

Notes are typically listed by the date they were last modified. This way, the thing you’re working on most at the moment is typically at the top of the stack. It can also sort notes by location if that’s what you’re into by tagging notes with GPS information and showing you a map.

Are you the visual type? Take a look at Mohiomap, an app which allows you to surf your notes visually as a mind map based on your tags. This is another feature that’s not for me, but if you’re a big fan of mind mapping, check it out.

Once you get used to searching over sorting, it’s very liberating. You’re not wasting time organizing things, archiving things, or otherwise performing housekeeping on a fat stack of files. Throw your data in a note and forget about it.

The Evernote app also allows you the flexibility of creating shortcuts to your most-used notebooks and notes. One click gets you to a current project rather than having to go through a list of notebooks every time.

5) The Extras

Ubiquitous Access

Wherever I am, whatever device I have with me, if I can get to the Internet I can get to my notes. If I’m going to travel somewhere coverage might be sketchy (a very real possibility for me now that US Cellular has carved up and sold off entire service areas), I can tag certain notebooks as Offline notebooks so I can keep current notes with me at all times.

A Second Screen

I’m not a fan of flipping back and forth between windows, and it’s not always helpful to shrink windows to keep them side by side on a screen. Thus it’s not unusual for me to have a document in progress open on screen, and the notes related to that project open on the iPad or smartphone next to me. It’s a small thing, but I like it.

Reminders and To-Dos

I personally prefer Todoist and Google Calendar for these, but Evernote does have these features built in. You can set a reminder to nag you about a meeting or a deadline. You can create checklists of to-dos in a note, and tie them to reminders. It’s all very flexible, I just find it unwieldy compared to Todoist.

Just Do It!

There’s really no right or wrong way to this, and it’s all very adaptable to your style and personality. Get in there and dig around, start creating notes. If you decide you want to handle notes and notebooks differently, you can drag notes to different notebooks.

It’s all very organic, and all a lot more user-friendly than it appears at first glance. Understanding comes quickly. Learn by doing, and don’t be afraid because you’re not going to lose anything.

If you’re ready to get started, please, use my referral link to set up your Evernote account. I’d appreciate it!

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.