Category Archives: research

Is Writing an extensive Outline a Waste of Time?


I had a conversation today on Facebook with fellow writer about NaNoWriMo and different methods of preparing for it. Plotting or pantsing it? If plotting, then how much to prepare in advance? Stuff like that. She is the ultimate pantser who doesn’t even have the vaguest idea of what her story will be about. She said she will just sit down on November 1st and write whatever pops into her head.

I must admit that I am envious of people who can pull that off. I can’t. I tried a few times and failed miserably. Those unfinished stories still gather virtual dust somewhere on my computer…

Anyway, I admitted that I need a detailed outline  as well as extensive character and world-building research in order to make the most of my NaNo writing time.

She asked me just how detailed my outline for Shadow Hunters was, and I told her that it was 20k words long.

You know what her answer was? “What a waste of time.”

Original by nord_modular on Flickr
Original by nord_modular on Flickr

I was rather speechless at first. Then I started doubting myself. I had been researching this project since the idea popped into my head in July, though I put it aside to do a new round of edits on Mists, but still, I put A LOT of effort into the prep work. Was it really a waste of time?

I guess it depends on your point of view.

Sure, I could have written 2-3 short stories in the time it took me to write that 20k words outline. And by the time I finished it, I also knew that I would change most of Part 1 anyway, because what I had written in the outline simply wasn’t working. And, judging by past experience, I tend to deviate from my outline all the time, sometimes tossing it out of the window altogether.

But you know what? If I hadn’t written such an extensive outline, I wouldn’t have noticed the problem with Part 1 until I was a good ways into my first draft. So I would have had to drudge to the end of the draft knowing that I would need to rewrite at least 1/3 of the story upon editing. When it comes to editing, I am slower than a turtle, so a full rewrite would have cost me countless hours. But since I noticed that problem at the outlining stage, I can rectify it directly in the first draft.

Another advantage of this extensive outline is that now I know exactly where the story goes and what important milestones it must hit along the way for maximum impact. And I have detailed outlines of those crucial scenes. I also know what role most of my characters play in the story and how they will react in different situations.

I know that for some writers, this knowledge will kill the creativity. After, what’s the point writing a story if most of it is already in the outline? Well, the story might be in the outline, but it’s written in a dry plan-like manner. Now I have the exciting task of taking that lifeless outline and instilling it with my character’s voices and breathing life into this world. That’s the most difficult and the most rewarding part of the writing process.

So for me, spending a month to write a 20k word outline is NOT a waste of time, but an integral part of my creative process. If fact, I wouldn’t even call it an outline anymore, but a pre-draft.

Of course, just because this method works well for me, it doesn’t mean that it would work for you as well. There are no absolutes when it comes to writing. The writing process is as unique and deeply personal as each writer’s personality. To me the pre-draft is essential to understand the story I want to tell, but to the person I spoke with, it was a waste of time. That doesn’t mean that my process is better than hers or that her story will be more interesting than mine…


So what is your writing process? How do you prepare for NaNo? Or what do you do before you start writing a brand new story? Outline or not? How extensive are your outlines?

Let your ideas rest – don’t rush in.

This blog post is sort of a follow up to last week’s post about my Worldbuilding process, as well as friendly advice to new writers. Since NaNoWriMo is right around the corner, I thought it might be a good idea to talk about why you shouldn’t rush your inspiration.


I think it happens to all of us – we get this shiny new idea, and we get so excited about it that we want to drop everything we’re doing (including current writing projects) to start working on this new gem. BAD IDEA. Let me explain why.

Finish what you start!
Finish what you start!
  1. That the surest way to never finish anything.


Writing is hard. Finishing a first draft is a long process. It can take months of slow and painful progress to get to the end of a story, and some days it feels like you are making no progress at all. Some days it feels like you have to fight for every word you put on the page. So it’s normal to get a bit tired of the story you are telling.


So when this brand new idea aka plot bunny jumps in to your head, of course you want to drop that burden you’ve been dragging for so long and run with this shiny gem. It’s new. It’s exciting. Surely, the process of writing it would be less tedious?


Well, even though it might seems so in the beginning, but once you run long enough with this new idea, it will become hard to write as well. After all, that other idea you abandoned for this one has been bright new and shiny at one point as well.


So you’ll end up with two unfinished stories that are equally difficult to write. And then another bright idea pops into your head, so you jump ship again… Well, you get my drift.


  1. An idea does not a story make.


That new plot bunny that just jumped into your head might look all fluffy and cute, but I suggest that you take a closer look. You might notice that it’s malnourished and rather worse for wear. That’s because, most of the time, it’s just a scene, or a character, or a vague idea. Yes, it makes us stop and think, “Oh, that would be so cool!” but by itself, it’s not enough to make a whole book out of. You need to put it in a nice little cage and feed it lots of carrots and other tasty foods so that it can grow and evolve.

Image courtesy
Image courtesy

Or, in other words, you need to work on that idea, ask questions, discover your world and your characters and, most importantly, the actual story you want to tell. All this takes time. Sometimes a lot of time and research before you are ready to sit down and write the first sentence of your very first draft.


  1. Write it down and put it on the backburner.


Oftentimes you can’t see the story clearly enough at first, no matter how much you want to start writing. Maybe you have a hard time seeing the characters, or maybe you have no idea where that shiny scene that came to your mind fits in the story, if it fits at all. And no matter how much you poke at it, you don’t seem to get the answers you need.


That’s when stepping away from the idea and putting it on the back burner is a good idea. Let it simmer on low heat. Let it percolate into your brain while you finish that other story, the one you have already invested so much time into. I am willing to bet that when you are finally done with it and go back to your new idea, you will be surprised at how much more information you have about the world, the characters and the story.

The attack of evil plot bunnies.
The attack of evil plot bunnies.

That’s when you can sit down and start writing it. Yes, it might be months between the time you get the idea and the moment you actually start working on it, but you would have a finished story under your belt and solid direction where your new story is going as well.

The songs that inspired my stories.

As writers, we are creative people, and everything and anything can nudge us towards the next story we absolutely have to tell. It can be a movie or TV series we saw, a video game we played, a book we just finished, or simply the way a flight of sparrows contrasted against a crimson sunset. To me, music plays a very big part in discovering new stories as well.


Let me explain. Unlike a lot of writing friends I talked to, I CANNOT write with music. Absolutely not. I don’t mind some background noise, like in a café or restaurant, or I would never be able to write on my lunch break, but as soon as there is a song with lyrics playing – it’s game over. I get distracted. I lose my train of thought and my writing session gets irrevocably derailed. I don’t know why. I would say that I start listening to the lyrics instead of writing, but then songs in a language I don’t understand (Japanese or Korean for example), still break my concentration, so that’s probably not it. Strangely enough, TV as background noise doesn’t have the same effect. Go figure.

Anyway, I don’t listen to music when I write, at least not if I want to be productive. However, music plays a huge part in the creative process anyway. All the stories I wrote so far have a particular song attached to them which acts as the soundtrack and the embodiment of that story.

Sometimes that songs comes during the writing process – I would hear it on the radio and have that “aha!” moment that tells me this song fits my story to the T. Sometimes I would find that song early in the planning and outlining stages. And sometimes I would find a song that would resonate with me for no particular reason, that I would obsess over for days if not weeks before  a story comes, and I understand that this songs belongs to it.

So today I wanted to share the songs that inspired and helped me write the stories I have written so far (and the one I’m plotting right now).


Of Broken Things:

This was the first story I’ve ever finished and it’s also the only science fiction story I have written so far. So when I heard Radioactive by Imagine Dragons, I couldn’t help but feel that it captured the mood of my story and my world perfectly. This future world where Aiden and GMS798 live in might be peaceful and prosperous on the outside, but there is still something toxic and radioactive brewing in the shadows. Because people will always remain the same, and power has a tendency to corrupt even the best of us.

“We’ll paint it red to fit right in.” That’s something GMS798 could have thought several times when he discovered that nothing really changed in the 100 years he’d been in cryo-sleep.


The Choices we make:

This story was song less for a long while, probably because I wasn’t sure where it was going when I first started writing. This is probably why I put it away for over a year and finished Of Broken Things before I dusted it off and finally managed to do an outline.

While writing my first draft, two songs stayed with me and I came to associate them with this story. It’s  Dance with the Devil by Breaking Benjamin and Demons by Imagine Dragons.

These songs both show that the characters in this story have to face some downright frightening things and uneven odds and also face their own demons in order to emerge better people on the other side, or die trying.

Shadow Hunters:

This is the latest project I’m working on. The idea came to me after watching the Korean Drama City Hunter, but it also came with a song attached to it (a song that has nothing to do with Korean dramas by the way). It’s Shatter Me by Lindsay Stirling.

This song is so perfect for this story, because it’s about young adults who still have a lot of growing up to do. They have to find their own way in this world, which takes a lot of courage, especially if that first step on the road towards the future they want means breaking with tradition or family wishes. So the fear of change that Lindsay talks about in her song is very relevant to the story.

Plus one of the characters is a gifted violin player 🙂


Still unnamed plot bunny that might be a future story:

As you can see, any story I write ends up getting at least one song associated with it. So when I happen to hear a song and it just won’t let me go, I tend to stop and think about it. Is that a story that’s trying to get to me?

This happened 3 weeks ago,  when I first heard the song Monster by BigBang.

Kpop is not something I usually listen to. First, I don’t understand the lyrics. Second, I don’t really like rap. But I kept obsessing over this particular song for some reason. I kept listening to it over and over. I even bought it on ITunes! I kept wondering why it touched me so much when I had to google the lyrics to even understand what the song was about. Then, last night, the miracle happened – the plot bunny finally hopped into my brain and made itself at home. Everything fell into place – the song and the story. So I guess I have my next project lined up after I am done with Shadow Hunters…



And now a question for my readers. Do you guys have songs that you associate with the stories you write or read? Is it just one or two songs or do you collect an entire playlist for each project?

What I love about starting a new story – worldbuilding.

Creating new worlds.
Creating new worlds.

I have taken yet another break from editing because I got bitten by a rabid plot bunny that just WOULDN’T LET ME BE! It was stomping all over my poor brain until I finally gave in and decided to work on it in preparation for NaNoWriMo 2015. On minus side – Of Broken Things are sitting in a drawer again. On the plus side, I have another exciting story to tell!

So today I want to talk about what I absolutely love in the process of developing a new story – the worldbuilding. For me, there’s nothing more exciting than grabbing the newly born story idea and pulling on it. It feels like I’m slowly unraveling a big messy ball of yarn and knitting a beautiful blanket with it… or a sweater… or a piece of art… you see the picture lol.

In the case of this new story, the premise is simple – boy meets girl. She shakes up his small and familiar world and makes him question his believes and his place in this world. It’s been done almost to death before, I know. But the important thing is not what the premise is, but how it’s presented and brought to life.

That’s where worldbuilding is so important. This boy can’t exist in a vacuum. What world does he live in? What does he believe in? What family does he come from? Who are his friends and his enemies? What does he want in life? Who is this girl and why does she challenge him so much?

All those questions need to be answered before I can even begin to think about the story itself. And all those questions bring with them even more questions, all of which serve to slowly paint the picture of a bright new and hopefully unique world. And I feel like an adventurer setting foot on virgin soil. I’m the first one looking at that world. Nobody has ever been here before! It’s a heady feeling.


I usually write up to 40k words in worldbuilding alone, and most of those will never be included in the actual story, because they are for my eyes alone. But I never consider that a waste of time. To me, it’s one of the most interesting parts of working on a story. I get to write anything that strikes my fancy.

So my protagonists are from different social backgrounds, but what exactly are those backgrounds? After a few hours of surfing the Internet and lots of writing and rewriting, I came up with a whole new caste system where the first letter of your First Name and your Surname immediately indicates which caste you belong to, whether you were born into it or joined it later  in your life, as well as what family you married into and what family you came from. So in this world people know almost everything about you social status as soon as they hear your name.

Then I got to thinking what kind of world would such a rigid set of social and naming rules exist in and that netted me another 10k words in backstory and world description alone. And it was absolutely fascinating.

It’s a world where most of the land is a wilderness that belongs to spirits and humans live on specially allocated territories with rigid borders. There are only so many roads connecting different human lands and straying from them into the wilderness without a special guide is equivalent to suicide.

The spirits in this world are not like the ghosts we have in our Western culture. They are more similar to the definition in Japanese Shinto religion. They aren’t good or bad, they just are. A bit like rain and snow, summer heat or a wild fire and a tornado. In this sense, they are very similar to the mushi from this excellent Manga. Some spirits are completely alien in their forms and their mentality, some are more similar to humans. Some are interested in human affairs and even help sometimes. Some are absolutely indifferent as long as humans don’t infringe on their lands.

The human lands each have a ruling family that derives their power and authority from the Mandate they have signed with the spirits. It’s a lot similar to the Mandate of Heaven from the Chinese mythology. Only in this world, the Mandate has a tangible confirmation in the form of a glowing Stone placed in the Temple of each Capital. As long as the Stone is unbroken, the ruler (and the country) have the spirit’s favor. But once it’s broken… let’s just say that wilderness can claim a valley in less than a day.

The Shadow Hunters are people who went through the initiation and became more than human, but not entirely spirit. They act as intermediaries between humans and spirits, since they are the only ones who can understand the spirits. They are also the only ones who can travel through the wilderness unharmed. In exchange, they act as guards, protectors and “game keepers” for both the wilderness and the human lands, striving to preserve the balance of this complex ecosystem.


That is the world in which my next story will unfold, and it’s different than anything I’ve written before. The more I find out about it, the more fascinated I get. Now I just need to sit down and figure out what story I really want to tell that would be as interesting and captivating as the world it takes place in.

That’s a work in progress, so stay tuned.

What Korean dramas can teach us about storytelling.

I went on a Korean drama bilge watching spree lately and I have learned a few interesting and surprising things along the way that will, hopefully, make me a better writer.

I admit that I approached Korean dramas with a bit of a preconception at first – the few that I had seen in previous years had been cheesy, clichéd and badly acted. I had to be talked into watching the first one by several of my internet friends and I started it after much grumbling and dragging my feet. It was City Hunter and it blew my mind and you can see in this post and gifted me with a wonderful story idea that I’m developing now.

I have since watched several more series and two more grabbed my attention – The Master’s Sun  and I Hear your Voice.

I also finally managed to put my finger on why these shows resonate with me so much while some of the American and European series leave me indifferent, despite the fact that they have a bigger budget and better-known actors. It’s because all three series are have much more depth than first meets the eye.

City Hunter

On the surface, City Hunter  is a story of revenge, pure and simple. 28 years ago, a man watched helplessly as his brothers in arms died at the hands of their own soldiers and vowed to kill the five men who knew of the mission and gave the order to shoot. If the show had been just that, I doubt that it would have grabbed my heart and dragged it over hot coals for 24 episodes.

No, it manages to raise some very deep questions, like how far is going too far and at which point the good guys become so warped up in their revenge that they end up even worse than the bad guys? Can revenge justify stealing your best friend’s infant son and bringing him up as a killing machine, sacrificing his childhood and any hopes for a normal future to fuel the fire of your obsession?

It’s also about love in all its different manifestations: romantic love between a man and a woman, fatherly love and acceptance, the love of a mother for her lost child that she never gave up on, grudging respect that morphs into friendship between two strong men… It’s also about sacrifice and the hard decisions one has to make in order to keep the people he loves safe, even if that decision is to walk away from them.

Masters sun

The Master’s Sun masquerades at your typical romantic comedy: girl can see ghosts and is terrified by them, because they haunt her endlessly, not letting her live a normal life or even get a good night’s sleep. She meets a guy who can make those ghosts go poof the moment she touches him. Of course she would stick to him no matter what. Add to that that the guys is a total jerk and you would expect lots of laughs and shenanigans…

Well, this show gives you most of that, but also so much more. All the ghosts stories are touching and serve to teach the characters and the viewer something about themselves along the way. The romantic line is not as clear-cut and one-sided as it seems either.

But most importantly, this show is about healing. The healing of physical and psychological wounds that we all carry. All the characters have to go through a lot of trials but emerge stronger at the end, beginning to accept themselves as they are instead of being ashamed of it. And Gong Sil has the biggest character growth of them all: she goes from being terrified out of her mind and unable to take a step outside of her tiny apartment to firmly standing on her own two feet and not needing anyone else to make her ghosts disappear.

I Hear your voice

I Hear Your Voice looks like a procedural drama paired with a hopeless crush a young man has on a much older woman, but in reality is the most complex of the three shows. It’s about personal growth: a boy becomes a man. A rather jaded and selfish woman learns compassion and empathy. A naïve and earnest defense lawyer learns to stand up for his clients and his decisions…

But it’s also about people, and their stories, and all the big and small reasons that make them do the things they do. It’s about the difference having even one person who listens to you when you are in your darkest most desperate moment can make for the rest of your life. It is rather scary to see how close Pak Soo-ha comes to following in the footsteps of Min Joon-gook, the man who had murdered his father. Soo-ha wants to protect the woman he loves, even if it means becoming a murderer himself. It’s rather heartbreaking to learn that Min Joon-gook was faced with the same choice all those years ago and fell off that ledge of no return. Soo-ha is saved from this decision by the presence of Jang Hye-sung in his life and her conviction that if he goes through with his plan, he just becomes a murderer and all their reasons and justifications for hating Min Joon-gook would become moot… I must admit that this idea that having even one person by your side no matter what can become the light that guides you out of the darkness resonated very deeply with me.

And also, as cheesy as that sounds, about how love can be all-encompassing and unwavering and make both you and the person you love better. It’s shown the most with Soo-ha, who starts with this one-sided crush on a girl who testified against his father’s murderer 10 years ago and that he vowed to protect no matter what. Needless to say that this crush doesn’t stand a chance and shatters into pieces when he meets a grown up Hye-sung and discovers that she is nothing like the woman of his dreams… and progressively learns to love and accept her just as she is and never gives up. But all the other characters also undergo their own transformations and learn to love in their own ways. Hye-sung finally admits that she loves Soo-ha despite the age difference and her fear that he will come to his senses and leave her, and decides to embrace the relationship and be happy.

All of those shows bring to the viewer a lot more than promised and, more importantly, make us think about some very important topics. I love the fact that it’s also done with subtlety and tact, with a lot of things just hinted and left to interpretation. I also love how all the characters turn out to be complex and “real” so much so that you end up rooting for most of them, even some of the episodic characters. Heck, by the end of I Hear your Voice I almost felt sorry for Min Joon-gook, even after everything he’d done to our main characters.


After I watched these dramas, I realized that THAT’S what I want my stories to be like. I want them complex and layered. I want not only to entertain my readers but also make them think. I want to make all my characters “real” and if not lovable, at least relatable, even the antagonists. I don’t want simple stories. I want complex tales that challenge me and make me think and feel something. So thank you, Korean dramas, for making me want to become a better writer!

Let’s go to the gun range or things we do in the name of research.


I’ve already mentioned the adage “Write what you know” in some of my other posts. I wanted to add “learn what you don’t know whenever you can” to that as well. So when all my colleagues at work decided to go to the gun range to start the new fiscal year “with a bang,” of course I jumped at the occasion!

Now I come from Europe, so I have never shot or even held a gun in my hands before. Yes, I know, for some of my American readers, that’s very hard to believe, but guys, we don’t carry guns in Europe. You can’t just walk into a convenience store and buy a hunting rifle. I’m sure there are such things as gun ranges and hunting clubs somewhere in Europe, but I would be hard pressed to point you in the general direction of one.

So for all purposes, I am a complete gun virgin. Everything I know about handling and shooting guns comes from the TV shows and movies I saw and books I read, which, as most of people familiar with guns would agree, is usually far from reality. But at least I knew the basics: always point the gun downrange, always assume the gun is loaded, put your finger on the trigger only when you are ready to shoot. If it jams, put the gun on the counter and scream for help. Okay, that last one is an Elena rule more than a real safety rule, but it worked like a charm when it happened to me!

Thankfully, most of my co-workers are retired military, so all of them own guns and are more than willing to bring them AND let others play with them as well. And are more than willing to spend some extra time with little clueless me who doesn’t even know how to load a gun, fumbles with the safety and is rather vague about how to hold a gun, how to stand and how to shoot… In the end, much fun was had by everybody, I think.

But for me, the main reason for this trip was research, even if it was a fun research. So here are a few things I learned about guns that TV and books couldn’t tell me.


1. Dang the guns are loud!

You never hear that in the movies and TV shows. I shot a 22, a 9 mil semi-automatic and revolver and several riffles, and I can tell you that those earplugs they give you at the gun range are absolutely necessary. Even the little 22 caliber sounds loud and the 9 mil is even louder, and the riffles would make your ears bleed without protection. Not to mention that you feel the “thump” of air when the gun fires like a wave in your entire body. Rather disturbing the first time it happens.

So now I wonder how people in the movies can go through a gun fight and then have a chat with each other in normal voices? Their ears would at least be ringing after all that, so they would be shouting!


  1. Either aiming is hard or I’m just challenged like that.

For a first time gun user, everything is difficult. First you need to load the gun, then you need to figure out how to hold it properly, then you need to find the safety and take it off (and the location of that safety is different on all gun models as well, to add to the stress). Then you lift the gun to eye level and try to aim it downrange to actually hit your target. I have to wear glasses to drive, because I’m nearsighted, so seeing my target had been a bit of a challenge. The whole scene went like this:

I aim very carefully and press the trigger. The 9 mil semi-automatic fires with a loud bang and the muzzle jerks upwards because I didn’t expect it to do so and hadn’t really gripped it hard enough.

“Oh wow, headshot! Not bad for your first time” my boss says. It’s his gun, so he’s been hovering behind me protectively, scared both about his possession and his office manager.

“I was aiming for center mass.”

“Erm, well… good job anyway.”


  1. Watch out for the recoil.

The characters in books and movies must have a steel grip on their guns, because the muzzle barely moves when they fire. How do they do that??? I mean, even the smallest 22 jerks upwards a bit when I fire, no matter how hard I grip it, with both hands at that. When I tried the 9 mil, my muzzle was all over the place after each shot, and I didn’t even try the “Dirty  Harry” gun one of my co-workers brought, because just looking at him shoot it I KNEW it would hurt my wrist. And I still have a bruise on my shoulder from one of the rifles.

Not to mention that after 2 hours of shooting different guns, I felt like my hands were about to fall off. They don’t tell you that in the books…


So all in all, I think my field research trip was successful indeed, and very fun at that! I actually enjoyed it, even though I wasn’t sure I would. And I certainly have a new respect for firearms. They are lethal, but also beautiful and powerful.