Is Using an Online Generator Cheating?

“I love your story. How did you come up with the idea?”

“Where did you get your character’s name?”

“I never would have thought to write a Cthulhu love story in Ancient Egypt; how original!”

I’ve met folks who don’t want to admit that they used a generator, because they’re worried it sounds like their ideas weren’t, well, their ideas. Therefore, let me get this answer out of the way quickly:


Using an online generator, whether for characters, plot creation, or what kind of cuisine your story-world specializes in, is not cheating. Some writers may agonize over a character’s name for days or weeks. Others might use a place-holder until the right one comes to mind. And others still might hop onto their favorite generator and go with the first name spit out for the selected criteria. All options are completely viable (assuming, of course, you aren’t treading into murky waters by taking a character name from work by someone else).

Generators are a place to start. Unless you’re creating an entire novel via generator for fun, you’re not going to end up with the exact same idea you started with. Yes, a character name can be important, but that isn’t where the character ends. Okay, your basic plot might start out tasting a little prepackaged with a randomly-generated flatness. It won’t stay that way (there are editors – wink, wink – who will help make certain of this!). If a generator keeps you writing, whether you’re stretching your skills or seeking assistance for building a world, use it!

Besides, a Cthulhu love story in Ancient Egypt definitely needs to be written.

Check out a few of my personal favorites:

Seventh Sanctum

Great for all those times you need to construct a weapon or create a new species and anything in between.

Behind the Name

From Lithuanian to mythological to Transformer and more, you can get a first, three middle, and a surname.

Chaotic Shiny

For all your dungeon-crawling needs.


Three Tips to Start Editing Your Draft

“I can’t bring myself to look at an old manuscript. I’m dreading how much rewriting it’ll need.”

“Whenever I read through my draft, I want to rip up everything I’ve written. I don’t know how it could possibly be fixed.”

“I’m almost done with the first draft, but I’m dragging my feet to finish because I hate editing.”

I hear this kind of thing all the time. And I get it. Finishing a draft is monumental. That moment you sit back from that final sentence, that final word, a last bit of punctuation is worthy of a 1980’s movie montage: glowing shots of the gray days of boredom, the angsty days of self-doubt, the valiant days of punching defiant letters on a keyboard, and the triumphant days of genius. Trumpets should blare, the sun should rise, and chocolate should rain down from the ceiling.

Except . . .

There’s that nagging awareness that the next grueling phase is on the horizon. Editing. Buzz officially killed.

There are as many ways to approach editing as there are writers, but here are three to start with when that dark time of revision draws nigh:


I’m a huge advocate for sticking a draft in a drawer (literal or otherwise) for a good long time. Let yourself celebrate, bask in your awesomeness, and acknowledge the major accomplishment. Allow yourself some distance from your manuscript. Some only need a few weeks, while others take years off. You’re looking for that magical time when you’re able to read it without tearing it up or feinting at the thought of tampering with it.

However, it’s easy to get stuck there. “I’ve told my story. I proved that I could write it. Do I really need to do more?” The obvious answer, if you’re going to pursue publishing, is yes, by the power of Grayskull, you do. But if you’re on the fence about what to do with this draft, it might take some convincing to return to it. At such times, our mindset needs a reboot. Yes, the story has been told. It exists outside your brain now, but if this story deserved to be told, doesn’t it deserve to be told as well as possible? Sit down with your manuscript saying, “this story should be told and told well.”


The death-knoll of progress in the early stages of revision is persnickety editing. Your first read through will likely end in tears if each paragraph has extensive changes to three or more sentences. As tempting as it is, avoid searching for every missing comma, every weak verb, and every opportunity to enhance a description. All those things are important, but they’ll come later. If the temptation is too great, circle the offending text and tell it you’ll be back.

Start with big changes. Read the whole draft from start to finish making general notes about structure, character, pacing, and style. Identify chunks for removal or relocation. Look out for areas of the plot that were dropped or unclear. Make an outline and timeline of what came through in the draft and compare it to what outline or timeline you might have from your planning stages. This all helps a writer avoid agonizing over fine tuning a piece of text that ultimately might be extraneous to the plot.


For some of us, having someone else read our unedited work is a proposition of equal appeal to having chickenpox on our eyes or needles stuck under our toenails. However, our brains hold more about the story than what made it into the draft, which makes catching plot holes or missing exposition trickier. Enlisting another brain that is absorbing only what’s in writing forces us to focus on the big edits first. There are even editors (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) that will read your manuscript and compose a report of their reflections and suggestions, but if you don’t have editing services in your budget, pick a friend, neighbor, or relative.

Helpful hint: bartering with your reader reduces the awkwardness of asking for a favor and yet doesn’t approach the level of a contract.

Letters to My Editor: In Search of Balance

What does a working relationship between a writer and an editor look like? Author and HNE client, Jessie Clever and I have known each other for more than ten years. So in our case, it looks a little snarky.

Welcome to Letters to My Editor. She writes to me one week on her blog. I reply the next on mine. Mayhem just might ensue.

Click here to read Jessie’s most recent letter.

Letters-to-My-Editor_edited-1Dear Jessie,

It’s hard to believe that today marks the penultimate Monday of 2015 and, even weirder, my last letter to you in this series. For now, at least. I’ve enjoyed our letters so much, and I’m grateful to you and our readers for the experience. Here’s looking forward to future LTME reunions!

Over the years, I’ve been working on slowing down, being mindful, and letting go of the pressure to meet a prescribed criteria for the holiday season. It’s a work in progress. Keeping a balance between responsibilities and the break in routine presents one of the biggest challenges to this effort. Either I get caught up in doing too much and drown out every last ounce of holiday cheer, or I embrace the chance to breathe but feel a massive disconnect that derails my return to work in the new year. I want to start 2016 off feeling inspired, refreshed, and excited instead of disoriented, drained, and listless. January through March is a gray enough time in Indiana as it is; I don’t need to sabotage my productivity as well.

I have two favorite and simple tools for finding this balance when travel plans and wintertime festivities take over my schedule: a pocket-sized notebook and a watch. These two combined let me leave my electronics behind. With the time on my wrist and only pen and paper to hand, it’s a lot harder to get sucked into answering emails or checking social media.  I can jot down to-do lists, questions that bounce around my head, and especially, ideas that spring from the hilarity or crisis of the holiday dinner table (a truly terrifying thing to admit since, on occasion, a family member reads my blog). With less screen time, I’m more present with loved ones, but I also feel responsible and successfully accountable to my work by writing things down for future reference.

I’m curious: what do you do around this time of year to keep your creativity flowing in the midst of celebration and obligation? And what is 2016 bringing your way?



Subscribe to Romancing a Blog for Jessie’s latest posts and to Long Story Short for mine!

The Writer’s Companion

It’s the last Wednesday in October, and that means many brave writers out there are in final preparations for National Novel Writing Month. If you are partaking this year, may the word count be ever in your favor. But before you manacle yourself to your keyboard for 30 days, let us all take a moment to celebrate, encourage, and thank those who make the journey survivable: our trusty writing companions.

However, some folks might be new to the experience of writing using the buddy system. What does being a companion mean exactly? What could someone do to support the writer in their life? To gain some suggestions for practical application, I discussed the topic with a real life companion and just as importantly, someone who is not a writer himself: The Hubs. My guy has plied me with support (and ice cream) over the years, and now I share his efforts in solidarity with y’all.

The Planning Stage

What to Do:

  • Listen attentively. Never underestimate this!
  • Engage in conversation with your writer about his/her ideas. Ask questions.
  • Show your enthusiasm. Be the one to bring it up now and then.

What NOT to Do:

  • Lie about your thoughts and feelings. (Be sensitive, yes, but also be honest. If an idea doesn’t work for you, explain why.)
  • Be offended if your suggestions are never implemented. (Remember, this is their story, not yours.)

The First Draft

What to Do:

  • Keep listening!
  • Check-in regularly about the draft AND the writer. When in doubt, ask your writer what they need.
  • Show your curiosity and offer feedback as requested.
  • Gently remind you writer that this is the first draft, not Shakespeare (not yet, anyway).
  • Establish a schedule, but stay flexible. A routine might be a comfort for your writer, but if he/she hits their stride, be willing to ditch the plan.
  • Administer coffee, alcohol, and/or ice cream as needed. And probably some vegetables and protein, I suppose.

What NOT to Do:

  • Pester. (There’s a fine line between checking in and hovering.)
  • Shame your writer for lack of progress. (It’s one thing to keep them accountable. It’s quite another to make them experience shame, which will actually make progress unlikely.)
  • Judge your writer for their consumption of ice cream.

Editing & Revision

What to Do:

  • Offer to read your writer’s work. And of course, do actually read the darn thing, carefully and considerately.
  • Give specific feedback. A general “I really liked it” isn’t helpful. Take some time to identify moments that did and did not work for you and why.
  • Be present. Editing and revising can leave a writer in a state of exhausted doubt. Encouragement and attentive listening at this stage (and every other stage!) is crucial.
  • Share your excitement. This is an extension of feedback, but offering your experience and what resonated with you can be a real consolation to your writer.

What NOT to Do:

  • Fixate on a singular issue when asked for input. (If it’s recurring, identify it as such, but avoid dwelling on the subject.)
  • Expect the subject to never come up. (It most likely will.)
  • Get ahead of the game. (Unless your writer requests your assistance, this might not be the time to show a draft to all your nearest and dearest or make a list of every possible beta reader, editor, agent, and publishing house for your writer.)

At any time in the process, there are a few things that will always be good to keep in mind.

  • Did I mention listening? Seriously, listen. Be a safe place to vent.
  • Remember your writer’s goals for a story. Help them remember as needed too.
  • Advocate for your writer. It can be hard to explain that one is working and therefore, is not available to socialize. Having someone willing to back a writer up and even provide a cover story now and then is extremely valuable.
  • Be an escape. Take your writer’s cue, and when he/she needs a break, help make it happen. Remind your writer of his/her humanity. If they haven’t seen the sun in two weeks, it might be time to get creative with the physical location of their preferred writing apparatus.
  • Celebrate. I can’t stress this enough. Outlining a novel, slogging through a draft, and improving it through revision are all really difficult and worthy of acknowledgement. Perhaps the occasion calls for more ice cream . . .

remember to celebrate

Letters to My Editor: Gist and Tell

What does a working relationship between a writer and an editor look like? Author and HNE client, Jessie Clever and I have known each other for more than ten years. So in our case, it looks a little snarky.

Welcome to Letters to My Editor. She writes to me one week on her blog. I reply the next on mine. Mayhem just might ensue.

Click here to read Jessie’s most recent letter.

Letters-to-My-Editor_edited-1Dear Jessie,

Sometimes an author’s point can get sacrificed at the expense of marketability. In my humble opinion, this is almost always a bad thing. The author’s intent breathes passion and energy into a plot. It drives action and fuels conflict. Removing it is practically an amputation.

Keep in mind that it is possible for a certain story to be the wrong vehicle for an author’s point, but the loss of message is far more likely due to a lack in one of two areas: knowledge or communication.


Knowledge is power, right? Or at least, your greatest ally. Know your intent. Granted, awareness might not come until after you’ve written the darn thing, but be open and honest with yourself about what you’re writing. Is it personal? Is it meant to speak to a certain situation or audience? Take some time to write your point down as its own separate blurb. Make it clear, concise, and genuine. Boil it down to its essence until you could rattle off the gist to anyone. Keep it on a sticky note next to your keyboard. Tattoo it on the backs of your hands if you must (probably not the best advice I’ve given). Knowing your intent is your first and most important line of defense against unnecessary sacrifice. That sticky-note blurb will guide you when deciding whether or not to go to the mattresses in the editing process.


Share your intent with your editor and be willing to elaborate as needed. Not only should your editor be respectful of what you’re trying to say, he or she is going to help you get your point across more consistently and effectively. This does require patience, openness, and collaboration. Strengthening your message might actually require pruning it back before it becomes a Chekhov play that hits the audience over the head with symbolism and meaning every two lines. (Apologies to Chekhov lovers everywhere. His work is great, but I’ve certainly never had to ask, “Please, Anton, what did you want me to take away from this?”) If you and your editor know what’s at stake, your intention has a doubly strong chance of becoming a healthy, meaningful factor of your manuscript.

If your editor knows about your point and is still saying you should scrap it entirely, listen to their reasoning before making a decision. Ask questions. Whether or not you make the change, there might be some valuable information in what they say. On the other hand, if he/she doesn’t ponder the situation carefully, isn’t willing to explain, or doesn’t respect your attachment, get the heck outta there. It might mean waiting longer to be published, but you have the right to be heard at your best, not simply at what will sell.



Subscribe to Romancing a Blog to get Jessie’s next letter and to Long Story Short for my next reply!

Travel Plans

If you’re a planner, the image below might be a trusted and beloved friend. If you prefer to wing it in your writing, it might induce mild nausea.

plot outline
Manuscript Mountain: the author’s ultimate travel destination.

Manuscript Mountain travel posterAs November—otherwise known as National Novel Writing Month—appears on the horizon, I offer this travel advice for all brave adventurers: Whether you’re a planner or a pantser, make your peace with the noble mountain. Make your pilgrimage regularly. Planners, you’re already outlining that plot, of course, but keep a simplified itinerary near to hand to keep your daily writing on track. Pantsers, perhaps just a sticky note on the edge of your monitor would be a lovely decoration while composing.

Either way, Manuscript Mountain isn’t just for the early stages of writing. Once you have your first draft and are ready to dive into a second and third and tenth, map out the route your story is currently taking. After an initial hike, the summit might have been reached, but the journey might look a little more like . . .

plot outline oopsWhile, yes, the image shows a rather arduous slog, this information is incredibly useful. Does each scene and chapter trudge farther up the slope? Where are there plateaus and craters? Is your climax identifiable? Does your falling action and resolution satisfy without trailing on and on and on and onandonandonandon . . . ? A visual of a draft identifies the areas most in need of attention as well as prevents even the most renegade explorer from becoming entirely lost.

You’re making the journey whether you map out your path before or after you arrive, so why not make the record of your travels work for you?



Letters to My Editor: Books and Babies

What does a working relationship between a writer and an editor look like? Author and HNE client, Jessie Clever and I have known each other for more than ten years. So in our case, it looks a little snarky.

Welcome to Letters to My Editor. She writes to me one week on her blog. I reply the next on mine. Mayhem just might ensue.

Click here to read Jessie’s most recent letter.

Letters-to-My-Editor_edited-1Dear Jessie,

Books and babies: two things that bring out the best and worst unsolicited advice. Expectant parents, like unpublished writers, are especially tantalizing targets for the expertise of every other parent, or writer, in the world.

Before I address your question, I consider the plight of the adviser. Most of us have at some time or other felt socially obligated to offer a piece of wisdom to a colleague or friend. My own exceedingly generalized and unoriginal piece of unsolicited advice for the world of the written word is this: we could all benefit from approaching a writer’s manuscript as though it were the writer’s living, breathing offspring.

It’s not a huge leap, really. A manuscript is the creation and responsibility of the writer in whom he/she has invested a significant amount of time, energy, and love. So, for example, when I’m asked to comment on someone’s work, I try to think of myself as this manuscript-child’s teacher sitting down for a conference with the parent-writer. Yes, I need to be open and honest about the young’un’s progress and behavior, but I should never dismiss or usurp the vital and unique relationship between story and author. Thought and talk (in that order) about an author’s manuscript should be as considerate as if it were about their kid.

Now on to your question and the receiving end of advice:

 When do you dare to break the mold as a writer and when do you not?

Again, I find the parallel in the world of parenting. Clear rules do exist, like using a car seat or preventing your infant from chewing on electrical cords, but there are other areas that require individual discernment, like when your baby will first try ice cream or what toys you choose to introduce to your child. Lots of opinions are out there, but only you, the author/parent, should ultimately decide when to break the mold. How do you figure that out? Look at your work as a baby and consider the questions below. With your answers, hopefully you’ll be able to carefully choose which points to concede and on which proverbial hills you’re willing to make a last stand.

  • What’s your goal for your manuscript? (To be true to itself no matter what, to be published, or to sell well are all valid answers.)
  • Where’s the balance between this particular story’s individuality and the best chance it has of being read?
  • Who are you as the guardian of this story? What are your values/principles?

Raising your manuscript will require both protecting it from harm and letting its sweet baby knees get scuffed. What works for one author might not for another, and what proves to be a death knoll for one manuscript could be the elixir of life for the next.



Be sure to subscribe to Jessie’s blog at Romancing a Blog to get her next letter!

Drawing a Blank, Literally

In June, I threw some writing warm-ups into the blogosphere, including some of my favorite ways to deal with a blank page. But maybe you’re not the writing exercise type. Or maybe the ideas are even more stuck than those suggestions will dislodge. Sounds like it’s time to approach the situation from an alternate angle.

When everything seems buried deep or evading me altogether, whether it’s writing or editing, I know I need to switch it up big time. I close my laptop and grab a sketchbook. Sometimes it’s easier to get my thoughts flowing if I take the words out for a while. In that spirit, here are a few ideas for directing your creative writing energies when the writing won’t come. The experience of each form might be enough on it’s own – a break that let’s your brain balance itself out by using a different area for a while. However, in case that doesn’t cut it, I’ve included a suggestion to tie each experience back to writing.


Whether it’s making your own or listening to someone else’s, spending time engaging intentionally with music can set the right tone for your story. Start with some music that speaks to where you are mentally at present and sit with it for a while. This might be enough to open up and start work, but it might also just be a springboard.

Apply it:
Pretend you were making a movie, what music would represent each character for the soundtrack? Keep that sound with you as you work on a story to maintain continuity in your characters. How would the sound change and grow while still being recognizable as the same theme? That’s what we’re looking for in our characters, too: an identity that develops and breathes but is still the same individual at his/her core.


If you enjoy moving, mix this with the music you’re exploring and groove. If you’re not a mover and shaker, close your eyes for a minute or two and picture the style of motion in your head. Does the movement match the music or intentionally grate against it? By connecting the brain to the body, more information can be taken in from the outside world as well as from within ourselves. Expression takes on another dimension in motion.

Apply it:
Move like your characters. Develop a dance, a walk, a tick. Once you’ve got the look, experiment with a few words to describe it. What about the setting? How does the story world around these living beings move? Does it skitter through the lives in it, weigh everything down, or impose on its surroundings? Is movement in such a place free and flowing or cramped and confined? Start with sweeping generalizations and work down to details.


Put pencil, pen, or paintbrush into action. Start a line and see where it leads you. Let ink bleed through a sheet of paper and examine the results on the other side. Make splotches of pigment until you see something in it. Or pick up a camera and investigate the world around you. Find texture and shadow. Consider perspective and space. Are the images you’re drawn to connected somehow? If nothing is coming out, draw what the inside of your brain looks like as it searches for an idea. Is it brilliant white, empty, mysteriously dark, crowded?

Apply it:
Step into the world of your plot. What visual art exists there? If your characters were to find a paintbrush or a stylus in their hands, what would they create? Alternately, if you’re searching for a brand new story, find or make what represents where you are right now and tinker with the words you would choose to describe it. Would this painting, photo, or etching be an epic, thriller, or fairy tale? What if the 3D version of an abstract image were the physical world of your story?

Writing Sense

Years ago, I recorded an audio version of a manuscript for a friend. The plot was nice, but it was the description that captured me. Little was indicated as to what the characters looked like. Hair, eye color, height, complexion, distinguishing features remained a mystery. Legally blind herself, the author had described people, action, and environment in a way that was, of course, natural for her but—forgive the expression—rather eye-opening for me. The story sang and breathed. It felt and sniffed the world around it. My eyes tasted and heard and smelled the pages. As someone lucky enough to have my vision intact, the entire project has remained a friendly reminder that a reader’s experience extends beyond his/her sight.

Compelling description transforms an outline into a living, breathing story, but it becomes even richer as more senses are employed. What do your characters notice when walking into a new room? Does it feel companionable or dangerous? How are they comforted or warned? How do they experience the world around them? Do they seem to fill the space around them or go by unnoticed?

While visual clues are valuable, there’s so much more available. Practicing and developing sensory description and awareness is as simple as going about your day.

At a coffee shop or a day job, waiting in line to pick up your kid after school, from the front porch, talking a walk, or in the cereal aisle, what do know about someone just by how they sound? Listen for the speed and weight of their footsteps. Could you identify your friends and/or family members by the sound they make opening a door? Can you hear them breathe? Would you call that laugh grating, twittering, or raucous?

Smell & Taste
Breathe deeply in through your nose wherever you are. Whether you catch a familiar scent or identify nothing  specific, what’s the air like? Is it crisp, clean, stale, musty, empty, heavy, earthy, cloying, or synthetic? Next, take another deep breath through your mouth, letting the air hit your tongue. Can you taste anything? How does this place differ from another room, outside, in your car, or when you’re near another person?

Do your shoes pinch or rub? Does the paper cut on your thumb sting, burn, or scream? Is the avocado on your kitchen counter hard as a rock or about to ooze through your fingers? When your cat smacks the back your head with its tail, is it affectionately gentle or forcefully antagonistic? Is your towel scratchy or plush against your face? Do the keys under your fingers give easily or resist every letter you wish to type?

To up the ante for any of the above, scribble or mentally compose a description of someone/thing/place without looking at them/it. In five words or less, you’ll be training your brain to acknowledge the world around you with more than just your eyes.

Meet My Nemesis

Word choice can make a fledgling story sparkle or a brilliant plot twist roll by unnoticed. Upgrading a few old standbys engages the reader and drives the action forward. One specimen that could almost always use a boost is my personal nemesis.


Nothing fatigues me quite so much as miles and miles of dialogue with nothing more than a “he said,” “she said” tossed in. The most fascinating book in the world will send me snoozing if every line is delivered with this bland and eye-crossing pest.

Is the protagonist expressing herself at the same volume, with the same emotion, and with the same inflection every single time she speaks? Good gracious, I hope not.

Switching up this one verb transforms a line of dialogue into an entire character study. Let’s try it out.

She sprinted toward the exit as the crumbling building bit at her heels. In twenty feet she’d be free of the prison that had claimed so many years of her life. She could not allow it to take what little she had left.

As the sunlight and sea air beckoned through the splintered doorway a curdling scream pierced her ears from the shadows. The sound wrapped itself around her, paralyzing her feet and catapulting her face-first into the cracked stone floor.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said.

Said. Kind of anticlimactic, huh? I got next to nothing out of that exclamation thanks to that one lousy little word. How would it change what we know about this mystery character if the final line were any of the following?

  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she raged.
  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she giggled.
  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she wailed.
  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she grunted.
  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she spat.
  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she gasped.
  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she moaned.
  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she whispered.
  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she sang.

Now we know if she’s in pain, tired, or possibly not in her right mind. We know if she’s angry, exasperated, or scared. We know what state she’s in emotionally and physically. We know if she’s the kind of person to find the situation ironic and amusing or infuriating and insulting. From just one word upgrade, the reader can be sympathetic or disgusted.

“But Kate,” I hear someone cry, “what if it’s a robot? Or a computer? They wouldn’t necessarily have an emotional range to work with!”

Okay, I’ll play along. Our protagonist is now a robot-computer.

  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” it whirred.
  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” it clicked.
  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” it blipped.
  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” it ground out.
  • “You’ve got to be kidding me,” scrolled across its monitor.

Simple as that, we know if this techno-being is clockwork, droid-like, or not even vocal.

No one has to avoid using said forever, but replacing it injects a story with far more opportunity for empathetic, three-dimensional characters. And you’ll be helping keep my nemesis at bay. Fight the good fight, my friends!