Narrative Setting: How To Build A World(

Narrative Setting: How To Build A World

“You create a story world to express and manifest your characters, especially your hero.” John Truby, The Anatomy of Story
John Truby, in The Anatomy of Story, writes: “creating a unique world for the story–and organically connecting it to the characters–is as essential to great storytelling as character, plot, theme, and dialogue.”
When I read that passage I knew I couldn’t close out my series on narrative setting without talking about how Truby constructs a story world, a narrative setting, one designed specifically for his characters. Truby talks the reader through how to create a story world that characters not only ‘hook’ into, but which complements the hero’s journey and gives it meaning.
Truby writes (and this is something he emphasizes all through “The Anatomy of Story”): just as the interrelations between the characters–especially the protagonist–give meaning to the whole, so it is for settings.
Truby writes:
“… in good stories, the characters come first, and the writer designs the world to be an infinitely detailed manifestation of those characters.”
“The process of translating the story line into a physical story world, which then elicits certain emotions in the audience, is a difficult one. That’s because you are really speaking two languages—one of words, the other of images—and matching them exactly over the course of the story.”
Here is John Truby’s advice for creating a story world rich in meaning:
1. Create The Story Space
1a. Use the story’s designing principle to draw the boundaries of your story world.
Begin with the story’s designing principle “since this is what holds everything together.” The designing principle will tell you where to draw the boundaries, what shape the world should be, what kind of world it should be.
1b. Divide the story world into visual oppositions.
Divide the story world we delineated in step one into “visual oppositions” based on how your characters oppose one another.
2. Three types of setting.
Truby advises us to “detail the world using … natural settings, artificial spaces, and technology.”
3. Connect the story world to the hero’s overall development.
When I read this part of Truby’s book I knew I had to share this information on my blog. This point is really why I’m doing this post, we’re going through steps 1 and 2 because they’re prerequisites to get here.
SO. Let’s take this one step at a time.

1. Creating The Story Space

1a. Use the story’s designing principle to find the boundaries of your story world. 

First, let’s quickly discuss the designing principle. This is one of the core concepts of Truby’s “The Anatomy of Story” so I’m not going to be able to do it justice here.
Truby writes:
“The designing principle is what organizes the story as a whole. It is the internal logic of the story, what makes the parts hang together organically so that the story becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”
Think of the designing principle as the seed, the idea seed, the nucleus, that a story grows from. Here’s one of Truby’s examples:
Designing principle: “Force a male chauvinist to live as a woman.”
(Note: Truby also talks about the premise but I’m not going to cover this concept here.)

Finding the boundaries.

What we want to do is develop a one line description of our setting, something that will tie it into the designing principle of our story.
Here’s an example from the movie, “Four Weddings and a Funeral”:
Designing principle: “A group of friends experiences four Utopias (weddings) and a moment in hell (funeral) as they all look for their right partner in marriage.”
Story World: “The Utopian world and rituals of weddings.”
John Truby gives many more examples in his book, and I should mention that I’m leaving out an enormous amount of material–the story premise, theme line, and so on.
Anyway, after you write down the designing principle you’re equipped to delineate the extent of the story world, to clearly establish its physical boundaries.
Truby writes that the story “arena is the basic space of drama. It is a single, unified place surrounded by some kind of wall. Everything inside the arena is part of the story. Everything outside the arena is not.”
Truby goes on to say there are four main ways of creating a story arena that possess enough “variety of place and action” to sustain the events of any story.

i. The Spotted Umbrella

Think of a medieval town surrounded by thick walls. Many inhabitants of the town could have a general overall knowledge of the town and how it’s laid out, its various areas, and so on, though a particular individual might spend most of their time in only a few of its many environs.
For example, when I watched the movie “Aliens” I had a general sense of the planet but Ripley only travelled to a few places on its surface. In terms of my analogy, those are the spots within the umbrella.

ii. The Straight Line

This is the basic layout of a journey story.
One of the challenges of writing a cohesive journey story is making all the different areas seem connected.
What one usually doesn’t want is for the reader to feel as though each location is a different story. You want them to feel it’s all part of one unified tale.
One way to create “the sense of a single area” is for the terrain the hero travels through to remain fundamentally the same.
For instance, a hero might travel to several different villages located along the same river. Or the hero might travel to several locations in the same desert or country.
Truby gives the movie “Titanic” as an example of a story where the hero travels in a straight line.

iii. The Circle

This approach has much in common with the previous one, with the exception that, at the end, the hero returns home. Truby’s example: “The Wizard of Oz.”

iv. Fish Out Of Water

The fish out of water story generally utilizes two different worlds.
In one world, the first, the hero is seen to have certain talents (or weaknesses). Then the hero is unceremoniously tossed into a second world–one where the rules are markedly different–and those same talents (or weaknesses) are shown.
Often, whatever the hero did well in one world he will be completely incompetent at in the other.
Of course, the two worlds aren’t necessarily different physical places. Something could happen to so completely alter the social environment of the hero that the change is just as profound as a change of place. For instance, the hero’s five older siblings die in a tragic accident and so he goes from completely ignored to being continually doted on.
Truby’s examples: “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Crocodile Dundee.”
Note: Truby writes: “What holds them [the separate locations] together is that the hero uses the same talents in both places …”
Truby’s tip: Don’t stay too long in the first area. Truby doesn’t like talking about acts, but I’d say, in a three act story, be sure to take the hero into the second world–the special world of the adventure–at the beginning of the second act.

1b. Divide the story world into visual oppositions.

Ask yourself:
What are the oppositions between my characters?
What values do they hold?
How do your characters fight each other?
How do their values conflict?
As you ask and answer these questions think about how these oppositions could be symbolized or represented visually.
Truby advises writers to attempt to produce three or four critical, visual, oppositions.
Truby uses the example of “King Kong.” The opposition is, in part, between “Carl Denham, and the giant prehistoric beast, Kong. So the main opposition within the story world is the island of New York, the man-made and overly civilized but extremely harsh world where image-maker Denham is “king,” versus Skull Island, the extremely harsh state of nature where Kong, master of physical force, is king.”

2. Three types of setting.

There are three main kinds of settings:
a. Natural settings
b. Man-made settings
c. Tools/Technology

a. Natural settings

i. The ocean.
An ocean has two parts: the surface and the deep, dark, depths.
The surface:
The surface of the ocean gives us a sense of contest, a sense of “a game of life and death played out on the grandest scale.”
The deep places:
– A weightless dream world.
– A terrifying graveyard.
In the deep places sea creatures reach up to grab those on the surface and drag them down to their death in the murky depths.
Also, when I think of the deep places of the ocean, it occurs to me that often bodies of water are used to symbolize the unconscious mind and the creatures/complexes it harbours.
ii. The forest.
The forest is a natural cathedral. “It is the place where contemplative people go and to which lovers sneak away.”
The forest is also where children get lost andwitches live. There may also be a ghost or two and we wouldn’t be surprised to see a hunter stalking his prey.
John Truby talks about many other kinds of natural settings: outer space, jungles, desert and ice, islands, mountains (the mountain vs the plain), plains, rivers, weather. But I’ll let you read about those in Truby’s excellent book.

b. Man-made settings

Truby writes that each man-made space “is a physical representation, in microcosm, of the hero and the society in which he lives.”
I’m only going to go over one of Truby’s examples: the house.

The house.

A house encloses a character and “shapes the growth of the person’s mind.”
Houses are intimate. They are spaces where your character can express himself without fear of ridicule.
Question: What might your hero reveal about himself in his house that he wouldn’t anywhere else?

The opposites.

Safety vs Adventure
Generally, we think of a house as a place of safety. It’s a place for you to relax and take refuge in, it’s a place for you to enjoy your friends and family.
No hostile forces are allowed in.
In this sense, a house is a place of safety.
BUT if the hero remains always in a safe place he will never grow, never achieve anything. He will stagnate. Truby writes that the trick is to use the house as “the strong foundation from which we go out and take on the world.”
“Often in stories, the first step of adventure, the longing for it, happens at the window. A character looks through the eyes of a house …” looks out at the far hills, at the mountaintop or even the jungle, and dreams of what might be, dreams of adventure.
Truby has many other examples, and he talks about various kinds of houses (the warm house, the terrifying house, the cellar versus the attic). Truly, if you have any questions about setting, developing the opposites, how to hook the characters in your story into the landscape/setting, chapter six of “The Anatomy of Story” is definitely worth the read.

3. Connect the story world to the hero’s overall development.

THIS–connecting, hooking, the story world (/setting) into the hero’s arc, his journey–is really what I’ve been wanting to talk about.
We’ve laid the foundation by formulating our story’s designing principle and drawing the boundaries of our world. We’ve divided this story world into visual oppositions and we’ve explored the various types of settings (natural, artificial, technology) and how these can help develop the hero’s journey.
But since this post is already twice as long as usual, I’ll save that for next time.

Good writing!

Photo credit: “almost may” by paul bica underCreative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Karen Woodward



Raymond Chandler’s Ten Commandments for Writing a Detective Novel(open

Raymond Chandler’s Ten Commandments for Writing a Detective Novel

in Literature | February 25th, 2014


Raymond Chandler – along with his hardboiled brethren likeDashiell Hammett and James M. Cain – sandblasted the detective novel of its decorousness and instilled it with a sweaty vitality. Chandler, through the eyes of his most famous character Philip Marlowe, navigated a thinly veiled Los Angeles through the desperation of those on the low end of society’s totem pole and through the greed and venality of those at the top. Instead of creating self-contained locked room mysteries, Chandler created stories that looked outward, struggling to make sense of a morally ambiguous world. He dedicated his career to the genre, influencing generations of writers after him. His very name became synonymous with his terse, pungent style.

So it isn’t terribly surprising that Chandler had some very strong opinions about crime fiction. Below are his ten commandmentsfor writing a detective novel:

1) It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.

2) It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.

3) It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.

4) It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.

5) It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.

6) It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.

7) The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.

8) It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.

9) It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law…. If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.

10) It must be honest with the reader.

These commandments are oblique jabs at the locked room whodunits popular during theGolden Age of the detective novel during the 1920s and 30s. Chandler delivers a much more pointed criticism of these works in his seminal essay about crime fiction, The Simple Art of Murder.

After taking thoroughly apart the murder mystery The Red Houseby A. A. Milne (yes, the writer ofWinnie the Pooh), Chandler rails against detective stories where the machinations of plot outstrip any semblance of reality. “If the situation is false, you cannot even accept it as a light novel, for there is no story for the light novel to be about.”

He goes on to trash other British mystery writers like Agatha Christie and particularly Dorothy L. Sayers, who Chandler paints not only as a hypocritical snob but also as boring. “The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers,” he quips.

Chandler then offers praise to his hardboiled colleague Dashiell Hammett who infuses his stories with a sense of realism. “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish….He was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”

Whether conscious or not, this passage is a fair description of Chandler as well.

How to and why you should write a journal(

30 Days to a Better Man Day 8: Start a Journal



My grandpa, Bill Hurst, was a journal writer his entire life. His journal was quite simple. He just kept a small notebook in the pocket of his pearl snap shirts and jotted down a short description of the things he did and the people he did it with. This is something he did pretty much every day for his entire life. He also kept extensive diaries of his time as a forest ranger in the Wasatch Range.

About 12 years ago, my grandpa took all these diaries and daily journal entries and began to write his memoir for his children and grandchildren. The finished product was a 500 page behemoth filled with stories from my grandfather’s life. Here’s just a few of the interesting things I learned from reading it:

  • My grandpa met my grandma by hitting on her while she worked as a telephone operator.
  • My grandpa helped pay for college by playing pool.
  • He worked as a sheep herder during the summers in high school and college. He gives a very descriptive account on how castrating sheep is performed. He did it just like this.
  • He has a scar from when he was hit by a car while racing his horse through the streets of his boyhood town. The horse died.
  • As a boy, his family traveled by horse and buggy.

There’s more. Lots more. But while the stories are interesting, what I found more interesting was the commentary my grandpa gave on different events in his life. In these moments, he passed on some insights and lessons on what it means to be a man. My grandpa’s memoir is a treasure trove of knowledge and wisdom from a life well lived. By writing  his memoir, he guaranteed that his legacy will live on indefinitely.

But his life story would have been but a few pages long had he not kept a journal.

There are a myriad of other benefits to keeping a daily journal besides remembering what you ate five years ago. So today’s task is to start the journaling habit.

Great Men Keep Journals

In studying the lives of great men, I’ve noticed a common trait: they were all consistent journal writers. Now, I’m not saying that their greatness is directly attributable to their journaling. I’m sure Captain Cook would still have been a bad ass even if he hadn’t kept a diary. But I figure, if great men like these thought it was important to keep a journal, maybe I should, too. Heck, if it weren’t for their journals, we probably wouldn’t know much about their great lives and deeds.

Here’s a short list of great men from history who kept journals:

  • Theodore Roosevelt
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Charles Darwin
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • Lewis and Clark
  • Andrew Carnegie
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Captain Cook
  • Winston Churchill
  • Sir Edmund Hilary
  • Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton
  • Doogie Howser M.D

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

Why Keep a Journal

Your children and grandchildren will want to read it. I know it’s hard to believe right now. Your life probably seems quite ordinary and of little interest to anyone else. And every generation believes that life will pretty much continue on like it is now. When your great-grandpa was kicking it in the 1920′s, he thought to himself, “Who would want to read about this new fangled radio or how I get my food out of an icebox? Phhht! That’s boring stuff!” But it’s not boring anymore; to this generation, such a peak at the olden days is fascinating. And so it is with you. When your grandkids are talking to people via hologram, they are going to be absolutely fascinated by your impressions of those ancient things like the alta vista and cell phones. And unfortunately, they’re not going to be curious about it until they get into their 20′s, realize you’re going to die, and start asking you questions.

Trust me, while you think that you’ll be able to remember everything just as clearly in the future, you won’t. Remember when you were a kid and you thought your experiences would be easily recalled at age 30? Now what do you remember from those days besides that time a dog bit you in the face?

As each year passes, the pixels of our memories burn out and the haze sets in. By age 80, you’ll only remember the faintest outlines of the big things that happened to you. But the stuff that’s really interesting is often the little, seemingly mundane details of life. What was a man’s daily routine like in 2009? Of course, the whipper snappers will ask you about the big stuff too: “Where were you when you found out about the attacks on the World Trade Center?” and “What did you think about the election of Barack Obama?” Your journals will give them the answers they’ll be looking for and will bring you closer.

And who knows? Maybe the whole world might be interested in your musings someday. You may not think so now, but how many famous men knew that they would be famous before they actually burst onto the scene? And how many men were ignored in their lifetime, only to be celebrated after their death?

It can bring you to your senses. Have you ever struggled with a choice, thought about it long and hard, made a decision, but then some time later started to regret it? Have you ever gotten into a rut from which you can’t seem to find a way out? A journal can aid you in these dilemmas. When you make a decision, you can write down all the reasons you have for coming to that conclusion. Then, after times passes, and you start doubting that choice, you can look back, remind yourself of why you made that decision in the first place, and feel reassured in pressing on. Or, it you’re in a depressed funk and don’t know how to extract yourself from it, you can look back through your journal to find the times when you were happiest.  Old journal entries can help you rediscover the kind of changes you need to make  to get your life back on track. Or you can look back at your journal and how you used to operate 5 years ago and think, “Damn! I never want to be that man again! What was I thinking?” A journal is basically a chance for your past self to lend counsel to your present self.

Finally, simply writing about your feelings and frustrations helps you focus on what’s really going on in your life and in your head, so that you can come up with a solution to your problems.

Journaling grants you immortality. Think of the billions of people who have and will perish from the earth without leaving a trace of themselves behind. They vanish into the ether, completely forgotten in the annals of history. A journal helps make you immortal. It is an tangible piece of evidence to leave behind that you were here! That you lived and loved! That there was such a person as Jared Matthews who lived in Austin, Texas who thought and breathed and died.

Journaling improves your health. Several studies have shown that writing about traumatic or stressful events and your deepest feelings and emotions  boosts your emotional and physical health and sense of well-being. (( Especially as men, we often tend to keep things bottled up. Journaling provides a excellent outlet to let go of those things that are bothering or worrying us.

How to Journal

Pick a medium. If you’ve never journaled or if you have previously, but fell off the wagon, the first thing you need to decide is what kind of journal you’re going to keep. There are basically two different types of journal mediums: analog and digital.

Analog journals, the paper and pen variety, are what we traditionally think of when we think of journals. You can use something as basic as a spiral bound notebook and a Bic pen or something as fancy as a hand bound leather journal and a fountain pen. Just do what works for you.

With the advent of computers, many people have gone digital with their journaling. The digital world offers a plethora of options to record your daily happenings and thoughts.  Here’s a list of possible desktop digital tools in which to keep your journal:

  • Word Processor. Pretty basic. Just open up MS Word or OpenOffice Writer and start clickity clackin’ away.
  • TextEditor/Notepad. Just open up the text editor for your operating system, call the file “journal.txt,” and start writing. Date each entry. If you’re using Notepad, here’s a nifty little hack to automatically insert the date into your journal entry.
  • JDarkroom. JDarkroom is a free Java-based text editor. What makes it different from other text editors is that it takes up the entire screen for distraction free writing. I’ve used it before, and it’s actually pretty nice. It works on any platform.
  • OneNote. Microsoft OneNote is a robust note taking program that can double as a journal. Just create a notebook within OneNote for your journal and start writing. With this program, you can easily drop photos and videos into your journal entries. OneNote is only available for Windows.
  • Evernote. Evernote is pretty much like Microsoft OneNote except 1) it’s free, 2) it works on any platform, and 3) you can save and access entries on the internet easily, thus giving you access to your journal everyone you go. I don’t use Evernote for my journal, but I’ve use it on a daily basis for notes and would definitely recommend it.

The internet provides several options for you to store your journal in the “cloud” and even share it with other people. A few options:

  • Blogspot. It’s free and it gives you the option of keeping your journal private or sharing it with a few people. In addition to writing text, you can easily include photos in your journal entries.
  • LiveJournal. Pretty much the same as Blogspot. It’s free and you have the option of keeping it private or you can share with others.
  • Out of all the blogging platforms, I prefer WordPress (it’s what we use for Art of Manliness). You can get a free blog and start a journal with it.
  • Use Gmail as a journal. This is an interesting idea.

Schedule a time. Starting a journal is easy enough. Sticking to it on a daily basis is more difficult. If you want to make it a habit, just pick a time in your day for journal writing and make it a non-negotiable in your life. I like doing it at night right before I go to bed. It’s a good way to decompress and review the day’s events. But some people prefer writing in the morning or jotting down thoughts throughout the day. Just do what works for you.

Some days you might not have the energy or desire to write in your journal. On those days, just write something. It can be a sentence long. It can simply be, “I’m not in the mood to write.” Just keep your commitment.

One of the most memorable journal entries I’ve come across was written by TR on the day both his wife and mother died. Instead of spending several pages outlining his grief, this is all it said:


What to Write About

This is where a lot of people get hung up on with journaling. They feel like they don’t have anything to write about so they end up not writing at all. There are hundreds of books that give you “suggestions” of what to write about in your journal. Usually they’re cheesy and inane things like, “If you were a cloud, what shape would you be.”

Just write about your day. No need to get fancy with those cute little journal prompts. Some days might be pretty routine, but other days you might be feeling philosophical or have a problem that will require you to write more in-depth entries. Just write what comes naturally to you on that day.

And as we mentioned above, while you might think your life is boring, your great grand kids won’t. They’ll be just as fascinated about you driving a car that runs on gasoline as you are about your great grandpa driving a horse and buggy.  If your life really is boring, perhaps keeping a journal will give you an incentive to take on more adventures so you have something to write about.

It’s time to get started. Your task today is to start a journal. Pick your medium and begin. If you already have a journal, but haven’t written in it in awhile, write an entry today. And if you’re one of those few consistent journalers out there, bully for you! Keep up the good work and use today’s journal entry to give yourself a pat on the back.

One App to Rule Them All: 30 Ways Evernote Can Improve Your Life(

One App to Rule Them All: 30 Ways Evernote Can Improve Your Life




Update: This article is NOT a sponsored post. We received absolutely nothing from Evernote in exchange for this post and have never communicated with anyone at Evernote. Even though we put this disclaimer below as well, we thought we’d put it up here too because some folks missed it and claimed this recommendation was paid for. Again, we’re just users of the app ourselves who sincerely think others will find it useful as well. Scout’s honor.

We don’t talk a whole lot about the specific tools of modern productivity here at AoM. We’re generally more interested in principles, skills, mindsets, etc. Every once in a while, though, we come across something so useful, we just have to share it.

Enter Evernote. It’s an app for your smartphone, tablet, computer, and even your Moleskine notebook. It’s just what the name implies: an application that serves as your notetaker, PDA, pocket notebook, to-do list, etc. The beauty of Evernote is that it syncs automatically across all your devices, and across all your operating systems. Never lose another post-it note, scrap piece of paper, or notebook that has important information on it. You’ll also streamline your desk from a jumble of notes and folders into a single digital storehouse.

The app is roughly organized into notebooks and notes. Just like in real life. You create a notebook for a particular subject/topic, then fill that notebook with notes. Besides syncing across devices and operating systems, there are some features that make Evernote really stand out:

  • The ability to share notes and whole notebooks with classmates, coworkers, family, etc.
  • The ability to take and attach pictures to a note right from within the app.
  • The ability to take and attach voice memos and audio to a note right from within the app.
  • The ability to attach files (spreadsheets, images, docs) to any note.
  • The ability to scan text in a photo using Optical Character Recognition technology.
  • The ability to set reminders for yourself for various tasks, goals, and projects from within the app.
  • The ability to create checkboxes that serve as virtual to-dos.
  • The ability to sync automatically between all devices, meaning you can access your notes even when offline. (This feature is somewhat limited in the free version.)
  • Best of all – it’s FREE! There’s a premium version that offers a few bonus features, but the freebie offers all of the above.

Evernote has been around for nearly five years now, and although the AoM team has dabbled with the app before, Brett and I have finally become full-blown evangelists for it. Before we get too far in, we should say upfront that this is not a sponsored post; we have no affiliation with Evernote whatsoever. We just really love the app and we think that every man could benefit from using it.

We don’t get into the specifics of how to set up Evernote or how to use its basic features in this post. For that, we highly recommend the bookEvernote Essentials by Brett Kelly.

Utilizing even just a few of the ideas below will make you a more productive man. And please, add your own ideas of how to use Evernote in the comments!

1. Track your time. One of the most effective productivity systems out there is the relatively simple (but not necessarily easy) task of recording how you spend your time. Checking email, working on the spreadsheet, attending your sales meeting, even the 15 minutes you wasted on Facebook. At the end of the day, you’ll often realize just how much time you wasted. There are computer programs that will track time for you, but in our experience they just aren’t effective in tracking it specifically enough to mean anything. Use Evernote to track your productivity by stopping and making a note of what you’ve just been doing every 15 or 30 minutes. It may seem like a lot of work, but after a week, you’ll have a clear understanding of how you spend your time.

2. Write a note to your significant other. Many a husband and wife like to trade instant messages, texts, or emails with each other while they’re apart. Using Evernote is another option for sending your missives. Create a shared note between you, and send notes back and forth throughout the day. It’s less interrupting than a text, and more private than an email (especially if it’s a work email address).

3. Journaling. Did you participate in our our 31-day challenge and decide that you wanted to continue this journaling habit? If so, maybe Evernote could be a good digital option for making your entries. Create a notebook for your journaling, and a new note for each day (or entry). You can even create a template (here’s the one Michael Hyatt uses) so that you can use the same daily prompt and not have to come up with new journaling ideas every day.

4. Book notes. Use Evernote to take down your favorite quotes and jot down comments and questions while doing your reading for the AoM Book Club (and for your other reading as well of course!). Create a notebook for your book notes, and use tagging to categorize between fiction, non-fiction, business, classics, hobbies, etc.

We’ve also come across a brilliant little trick for saving and cataloging any highlights you make through the Amazon Kindle devices or apps. When logged in on, you can click “Your Highlights” at the top of the page and view any highlighted passage you’ve made in any book you’ve read on any Kindle device or app. You can click a specific book title, view all the highlights and notes you made in that book, and either copy/paste them into Evernote, or even use the web clipper and do it automatically. This feature is especially handy for doing research for college papers or work projects, and even allows you to use lengthy quotes without the hassle of transcribing. You can thank us later.

5. Collaborate at work. This is how we use Evernote here at AoM. Since our team is based in two locations very far away from each other (Denver and Tulsa), we don’t have a physical whiteboard we can all see each day. That’s where Evernote comes in. We use shared notebooks primarily for blog ideas and research, but the possibilities are endless.

6. Gift ideas. If you’re like me, you’ll come up with a brilliant gift idea for a loved one, jot it down on a sticky note, and promptly lose said note less than a week later. Create a notebook, with a new note for each person in your family. Share notes for your kids with your wife, for your wife with your kids, etc. Bounce ideas off each other, and never lose a good gift idea again. As a bonus, create a list for yourself of stuff you’d like, share it with your family, and they’ll never run out of ideas for you.

7. Grocery list. Our household goes through endless scraps of paper for meal planning and grocery lists. They end up lost more often than not. Create your weekly list in Evernote, share it with your wife or roommates, and everyone will be on the same page. You can each add items to the list as you think of them instead of risking forgetting and needing to make a return trip to the market.

8. Save articles and other interesting things for later. Use the Evernote web clipper to save all the articles and fun links you want to read later, but can’t go through during the day. So you saw the latest article on AoM while at work, but don’t have the time to read it immediately? Hit a single button and save it to Evernote; you can enjoy it on your bus ride home, even when you don’t have an internet connection.

9. Keep your clothing sizes and measurements handy. I know many a man who can’t remember their clothing sizes, especially when it comes to dress clothes that have specific numbers. Get yourself properly measured, and keep the numbers in Evernote. When you’re shopping, you’ll know exactly what you need. When you find that certain brands fit your body differently, you can note that as well.

10. Track goals. Make a notebook for your 2014 goals (and beyond). Within that notebook, create a note for each goal, and use that note to create action items, next steps, and progress reports. Check it out every week (or even every day) and make sure you stay on track.

11. Digital rolodex. Take pictures of all the business cards you acquire. Evernote’s OCR (optical character recognition) will read the text of the cards, meaning you can search for names and titles when you’ve inevitably forgotten things.

12. Track finances. While other apps (like Mint or your banking app) will keep better track of the minutiae of your daily finances, you can use Evernote to take pictures of work receipts or large expenses, tag them appropriately, and not have to save shoeboxes of receipts anymore.

13. Master meal list and journal. This is a fairly creative idea, if I don’t say so myself. When my wife and I are trying to meal plan (we plan a week at a time), we often have a hard time even remembering what’s in our wheelhouse and what we like. What we need is a master list of meals we’ve made and enjoyed. Can you see where this is going? Create a master meals list in Evernote, take notes on what part of the meal went well and what didn’t, and never be stuck asking, “What should we have for dinner?” again.

14. Fitness/weight journal. Diet and exercise remain the number one New Year’s resolution year after year. And for good reason; our fair country needs a healthy dose of getting our butts off of the couch. Unfortunately, most people give up on their resolutions between 45 and 60 days from January 1 (that date is quickly approaching!). To help motivate you, keep a daily note of your weight, what you ate, and any exercise. There are numerous benefits, especially to keeping an eating journal; the first of which being that in studies on the subject, people who keep a journal lose nearly twice as much weight. And it’s free.

15. Write a book. Looking to bone up your wordsmithery by writing a book? Use Evernote! Every writer knows how the best inspiration often strikes at the most inconvenient times: in bed, on the train, while out on a run, etc. Instead of trying to remember these flashes of inspiration until you can conveniently write them down, do it instantly! While a pocket notebook can do the trick, you risk losing your notes. Also, with Evernote, you have your notes wherever you go no matter what — a definite bonus.

16. Send yourself voice memos. If you’re in the car or on a brisk walk and can’t type in a note, use Evernote’s voice note feature to record yourself a memo. You can then email it to yourself and rest assured that you won’t forget to buy flowers for your anniversary.

17. Record interviews or other important meetings. For AoM, we do quite a few interviews for articles. When they end up being phone interviews, we want a way to record them so we can go back later and transcribe and pick out the highlights. Instead of paying for an app on your phone or computer, just use Evernote’s recording tool. It works surprisingly well, and when you record on your phone (just make sure it’s on speakerphone if you’re recording a phone call), you can just open up the computer and have it waiting for you when it’s time to transcribe. If you use an Android device, Evernote can even transcribe the audio for you (this also means the feature is likely soon coming to other platforms as well).

18. Master to-do list. Instead of keeping piles of sticky notes everywhere, why not keep your to-do list all in one place? You can even create a to-do notebook, with different notes for your different roles: employee, husband, hobbyist, father, etc. Use the checkbox feature to make it even more user friendly.

19. Distraction to-do list. Related to the above, but this version of the to-do list is intended to keep you from browsing the infinite depths of the web and instead keep you focused on your work. In our post about attention exercises, we mentioned how it takes, on average, 25 minutes to get back to work after you’ve been distracted online. Keep that from happening by using Evernote as your distraction to-do list. We all know how this goes — we’re working away when all of a sudden something pops into our head (“What was that company I saw on Shark Tanklast night?”) and we immediately look it up, and then we’re lost in the rabbit hole of the world wide web. When you feel the urge to pop open a new tab to look something up, instead of doing it right away, file it in Evernote, and come back to it during one of your regularly scheduled breaks (you are using the Pomodoro Technique, aren’t you)?

20. Honey-do list. In this to-do list spirit, if you’re bold, create and share a honey-do list with your wife. She can add little things around the house she’d like you to get to, and you don’t have to worry anymore about being reprimanded because you forgot to fix the toilet. If you don’t enjoy the honey-do list (personally, I don’t mind tinkering around the house on weekends), we can keep this tip just between you and I.

21. Keep your insurance policy info and phone numbers handy. When an errant driver ran through our front yard fence a few months back, I had to scramble around the house and dig online to find our policy information and rep’s phone number. I learned my lesson, and immediately made a note in Evernote for that info. With just a policy number and phone number, you’re not storing anything too private.

22. Vacation itinerary and info. The Kayak app does a good job of this, but why not just use Evernote so all your info is in a single place? Also, Kayak just stores your reservations automatically — you can’t make notes or add comments about things like excursion or restaurant recommendations you got from a friend. Keep hotel reservations, flights numbers, car rental confirmations, etc. in a note. Also make a note for restaurants, event ideas, attractions, and other things you plan on doing with your family.

23. Bucket list. Similar to your goals notebook, but this is more of a life dreams list. Instead of checking this note every week or every day, check it every few months, or even just once a year and see how you’re coming along on any bigger things that you’d like to do or accomplish someday.

24. Class/meeting notes. In college, it seemed like everyone I knew (myself included) had experienced the dreaded hard drive fail, only to lose precious notes and papers. Protect yourself against that by using Evernote to keep your notes, and even write first drafts of a paper, so if lost, you have at least something to show for it. It’s also easily shareable for fellow classmates or coworkers if they missed a class/meeting.

25. Pocket notebook. While I still love my paperpocket notebook, I also keep a note in Evernote just titled “Notes.” This is sort of a dumping ground for anything that pops into my head when I don’t have my paper version on me. Always accessible, always synced across devices…it’s just too easy.

26. Resource organization. If you’re working on a big project, you likely have multiple different resources coming at you: papers, links, spreadsheets, meeting notes, etc. Organize it easily by keeping all this stuff in an Evernote notebook. It’s extra handy because you can share this notebook with the other folks on the team and all be on the same page at all times.

27. Remind yourself of the things you want to do.This seems a little silly at the outset; why do you need to remind yourself to do something you want to do? Well, it’s mainly because us humans are forgetful and a little lazy. Use the reminders feature to send yourself a wake-up call every morning with a nice message like, “Get off your butt and GO FOR A RUN!” or, “Sleeping in is for the weak, go work on your novel!” Pick a couple things that are most important to you, and use Evernote to help keep them a priority.

28. Record DIY projects you’d like to do. Have a DIY/Projects notebook, and take pictures of the cool things you see that you want to do. When you see a restored axe at an antique store, snap a pic, and you’ll remember to look up how to restore an axe on AoM. Or if you see something online you’d like to do, like build a shoe shine box, use the Evernote web clipper to save it for later and you’ll be full of inspiration for years to come.

29. Learn your family’s history. Evernote can become your handy genealogy notebook. You can scan in old family photos, birth/death certificates, immigration records, and even family tree charts and PDFs. You can record audio of interviews you conduct with grandparents, or even long-lost relatives over the phone. When you come across new tidbits of family info, record it all into Evernote instead of that cumbersome notebook you tote around with you.

30. Commonplace book. This is perhaps the most handy benefit of using Evernote. The commonplace book, while no longer terribly common, was something that was incredibly popular in the 17th through early 20th centuries. It was basically a physical book where you recorded all the information you didn’t want to forget. Recipes, poems, quotes you liked, pieces of literature that spoke to you, things you learned at college, quips handed down from grandpa and dad…anything that you were interested in could go in your commonplace book for later reference. While the information age has largely done away with the practice, there’s still a benefit to keeping this type of “book.” Use Evernote as your modern commonplace book. Use tags, and make your book even more searchable, so you don’t have to flip through digital pages and pages of info.

Mantra for the Novelist by Jael McHenry


Mantra For the Novelist

Jael McHenry

image by mailumes

You are a novelist.

You’ve never told anyone, not in those words. They haven’t asked. Or maybe you have said it, out loud, and gotten strange looks in return. They ask you if you’re published, and if you’re not, the expressions on their faces shift almost imperceptibly. It isn’t real to them the way it is to you. They want you to prove it.

But, published or not, you’re a novelist.

You’ve written one novel, or three, or five. They are sitting in drawers or, more likely, on the hard drives of computers that have already gone obsolete. You’ve had false starts and lousy endings. You’ve written page after page and trashed it all. You’ve wondered how it’s really done. You have been slaving over the same topic for the past 10 years or just the last three weeks. Or maybe you haven’t even started yet. Maybe you just know you have it in you.

You can be a novelist.

You’re going to try harder. You’re going to put yourself out there. Every day. You’re going to work on that book, worry it like a dog with a bone, word by word and line by line, until it can’t get any better. Until every corner is smoothed and every surface is polished. Until it’s a gem. It’s Rushmore. It’s Notre Dame. It’s a work of art.

It’s a novel, and you’re a novelist.

Success isn’t that far away. You can smell it. You can taste it. People who don’t write any better than you do are making money doing what they love. People who made the right connection. People who were in the right place at the right time. Don’t begrudge them their success; they have nothing to do with you. You are your own person, writing your own words, working toward your own goals. Don’t be bitter. Don’t be angry. Be focused. Be self-centered in that good way, in the way that means you are wholly dedicated to perfecting your own craft, executing on your own plans, diligently moving forward, ever forward.

Being your own novelist.

You’re on your own, but you’re not. You’ve got resources, you’ve got friends. You’ve got fellow writers. Those who say writing is a solitary pursuit are missing out on a hell of a lot of fun. Go to workshops. Stay up late with people you didn’t know three days ago, diligently digging into every phrase of a story to figure out what it really says and what you really want it to say. Go somewhere you’ve never been and read, really read, other people’s work. Meet up with other writers, other novelists, and listen to what they have to say about your work. Are they interested? What would it take to interest them? Learn to listen, and internalize them, their voices. Carry around a writers’ workshop inside your head. Learn not to rationalize away the weaknesses of your own work.

Be a better novelist.

You know they’re there, right, the weaknesses? The way your dialogue sometimes sounds clunky, the way your plots dash too rapidly from one year to the next. The way melodrama creeps into the relationships or the way you only describe peripheral characters by the color of their hair. The way your sentences spill over, trying to do too much between the capital letter and the period, as if commas can do it all, as if that will fix it. The way you force your reader to wonder about things you might just as well tell them up front. You have weaknesses. We all do. Weaknesses don’t make you a failure.

You’re a novelist.

Repeat it to yourself. Quietly or loudly, time after time or just once. Say it. You need to say it.

You are a novelist.

Now go write something.

(An earlier version of this piece appeared on Intrepid Media.)

About Jael McHenry

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.