“My screaming-blue mountaineering parka makes me feel like some kind of toxin.” Anne Batterson, The Black Swan
“Incense perfumed the air, a special kind she bought in Little Tokyo, without any sweetness, expensive; it smelled of wood and green tea.” Janet Fitch, White Oleander
Several years ago I began collecting examples of scintillating material from books I read. I created the collection to study techniques of authors I admire, and it has dramatically benefited my writing. Perusing those clips has furthered my understanding of effective description and my skill in writing it.
In the beginning, I couldn’t quantify what these authors were doing besides using innovative adjectives and similes — as far as I could tell, it was magic. But rubbing the lantern that held that magic began stretching my view of life and the world, challenging me to see things in new ways. Reading a concentrated collection of pure excellence continues to prime my creativity pump. It pushes me out of my perceptual ruts and expands boundaries of awareness and possibility, showing me angles I may miss on my own.
When I read a print book, I keep a pad of sticky tags at hand to flag especially delightful, succulent passages as illustrated in the photo above from Anne Lamott’s book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. When I finish reading, the book often resembles a porcupine, with a couple of dozen tags protruding from the edge.
The next step is to type the flagged passages into a jerry-rigged database consisting of a table in Word. That may take half an hour or so for an especially inspiring book, but it’s time well-spent, reinforcing the power of the examples and setting them more firmly in memory. The screenshot below shows how it works.
Notice that I usually include the page number for the passage, in case I want to refer to it later. Publication data is minimal. Amazon makes it easy to fill that in later if I need it. As I enter the material from each book, I leave the Title column blank. When I finish all entries, I type the title and author once, copy it, and paste it in each row below for that book.
The Label column can include anything that helps or interests you. If you keep it to one word, you can sort the table on the Labels column and find all the material on that particular topic quickly and easily. Since I’ve begun adding additional labels, I use the Find function to look for them.
My method is crude, and someone with more savvy could improve upon it. A database would be a better approach, but the boundaries of my geekiness don’t stretch enough to include database expertise — a gal’s got to have limits!
When eBooks entered my life, I expanded the process. I love eBooks for many reasons, and the ease of capturing examples tops the list. I currently read on an iPad, and here’s my process, adaptable for your device.
Click on the cover to buy the book.
For Kindle books, I highlight passages and occasionally add a note. When I’ve finished reading on the Kindle iPad app, I open the book on Kindle for PC. From there I work my way through the Notes & Marks list, copying highlighted passages and note contents to paste into my table. Instead of page numbers, I enter the eBook location.
For ePub books (the format used by Nook, Kobo, and other readers), I read with iBooks. I copy highlighted passages and note content and paste them into an Evernotes file where I can access it on my PC for transfer to Word. Pasting this material into a self-addressed email or a Notes page would work just as well.
Write now: start a new file with a simple table like the one in the example and purchase a stash of sticky flags so you can start your own collection of juicy examples for further study and inspiration. Your writing skills will soar as a result. If you need help creating the table, refer to the last chapter in The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing.
Meet Sharon Lippincott:
Sharon Lippincott, life writing coach and teacher, is addicted to writing, specializing in zany observations of writing and life on her blog. The Heart and Craft of Writing Compelling Description. Her mission is to encourage the global use of Story to heal lives and the world.
Amazon page: http://goo.gl/WgK6f
This blog post is Copyright Sharon Lippincott 2013. All rights are reserved Internationally. You may not reproduce it in any form, in part of whole, without the author’s prior written permission. That includes usage in forms such as print, audio and digital imaging including pdf, jpg, png etc. A fee may be requested for re-use if it is for a commercial venture.