Are You Using “Said” Too Frequently? Dialogue Tags and Dialogue Beats Explained


How often can you use the word “said” in one page?

Probably more than you think.

Yes, you’ve been told (by tutors, your writing group, or beta readers) to watch out for words that occur too frequently. But “said” isn’t one you need to worry about.

The word “said” can crop up quite a lot and go almost unnoticed. As a reader, you barely notice it; as a writer, it’s more obvious (since you write far more slowly than you can read, and you may be pausing to think through the dialogue as you craft it).

In fact, it’s much more problematic to keep finding alternatives for “said” in an attempt to make things more interesting. These do draw attention to themselves. They also risk becoming a bit silly:

“Sophie!” he exclaimed.

“What is it, John?” she demanded.

“You look stunning today,” he opined.

Of course, having “he said” or “she said” after every piece of dialogue will indeed start to grate on the reader. In this post, I’ll be giving you some alternatives – and explaining how to use each effectively.

First, we need to define a couple of terms: dialogue tag and dialogue beat.

Continue reading »

The Getting Things Done (GTD) System … and Why Writers Need It


Do you ever feel swamped by way too many different things to do … and to keep track of until you can actually do them?

Do you find yourself forgetting important commitments or struggling to make progress on the projects that really matter to you?

Getting Things Done could be what you need. It’s both the title of a book, Getting Things Done, and the actual system presented in the book.

I’d recommend getting hold of a copy of Getting Things Done, but if you want the in-a-nutshell version (and one with examples geared for writers), here it is!

The key principles of Getting Things Done (GTD) are:

  • Keeping everything in your head is a bad idea: it’s stressful and inefficient. If something has your attention in any way, write it down.
  • You need an “inbox” – one single place to collect all the incoming “stuff” in your life (this is NOT the same thing as your email inbox).
  • You should process this inbox on a regular basis, deciding what to do with the stuff in it.
  • Professional and personal actions all matter, and all need to be tracked in (ideally) the same system.
  • Projects often get stuck because you’ve not identified your “next action”. What do you physically need to do next in order to make progress? (This could be almost anything from “get that book from the library” to “spend 15 minutes brainstorming”.)
  • Separate your calendar and your to-do list. This was the hardest thing for me to get to grips with because I’d integrated mine years before, and was used to managing tasks by assigning them to a specific date.

Unlike some systems, GTD doesn’t begin with setting ultimate goals or objectives: David Allen feels (and I think at least somewhat rightly) that it’s very difficult to focus on your ultimate vision when your day-to-day life is in chaos.

Here’s how it works, assuming you’re implementing it from scratch.

Continue reading »

What is a Scene? Understanding and Using the Basic Unit of Story Structure


Scenes are the building blocks of your novel. When you plan (if you plan!), you’re thinking in scenes: individual little chunks of story that build on one another as they work towards the conclusion.

Like me, you probably feel you have an intuitive grasp of what a “scene” is in a short story or novel. If you feel your scenes aren’t quite working, though, or if you struggle to outline your scenes, thinking through what exactly a scene is might help.

Let’s take a quick look at a few definitions:

A scene is a sequence where a character or characters engage in some sort of action and/or dialogue. Scenes should have a beginning, middle and end (a mini-story arc), and should focus around a definite point of tension that moves the story forward.

Teach Yourself How to Write a Blockbuster, by Lee Weatherly and Helen Corner (pg 40, 2006 edition)

By “scene” we mean here all that is included in an unbroken flow of action from one incident in time to another […] The action within a scene is ‘unbroken’ in the sense that it does not include a major time lapse or a leap from one setting to another – though the characters may, of course, walk or ride from one place to another without breaking the scene, the camera, so to speak, dollying after them.

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, John Gardner (pg 59, 1991 edition)

For me, a scene is a unit of story in which something changes. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and at the end something is different than it was at the beginning. It may be a character or a situation, or just our understanding of a character or a situation, but whatever it is, it’s changed when the scene is over.

What’s a Scene (And What’s A Chapter?), Timothy Hallinan,

Some writers like to think of scenes as chapters, starting a new chapter for each new scene. There’s no reason you can’t do that – but chapters play a different role.

I sometimes end chapters mid-scene (so there’s a cliffhanger) and I only switch viewpoints when I switch chapters, even if one chapter contains multiple scenes. That’s a personal preference – yours might be different.

There’s never going to be a perfect definition of “a scene” that works for every circumstance, so don’t get too caught up in trying to decide whether a small time gap or a change of location definitely means it’s a “new” scene. If it feels to you like the same scene, treat it that way.

Continue reading »

Are You Too Old (or Too Young) to Become a Writer?


One lovely reader wrote to me a few weeks ago. The subject of her email was “Am I too old to become a writer?”

I opened it up, assuming she was in her 70s or 80s.


She was 37.

Here’s part of my reply to her:

Plenty of people wait till they’re retired — heck, I’m sure to a lot of just-getting-started writers, you’re young. Hurrah for you getting on with the novel now!

But whatever her age, my answer would’ve been the same: you’re not too old. Keep writing.

Because you’re never too old to become a writer.

Continue reading »

Six Straightforward Ways to Structure a Blog Post [With Examples]


Whatever your reasons for blogging, your blog will consist of posts: individual pieces of content, like articles in a magazine.

Your posts might be long, short, or a mixture. They might be part of an ongoing series, or they might be complete in themselves.

All of them need to have a structure. In fact, all of them will have a structure … it just might not be the structure you want.

If you don’t plan ahead, it’s easy to end up with a mess – a rambling, unfocused piece of content that isn’t really of any interest to your readers.

Here’s how to get it right:

Continue reading »

Ten Ways to Enjoy Networking With Other Writers (However Shy You Are)


I don’t think I’ve ever come across a writer who was a full-on extrovert. Most of us tend towards the introvert end of the spectrum. And many of us struggle with networking.

Let’s face it, anyone who wants to spend lots of time alone with their thoughts, and who prefers to communicate those thoughts by words on a page (or screen), is going to find social interaction at least occasionally challenging.

I’m certainly no exception. While I’m not painfully shy, I’m not a naturally outgoing person. I feel awkward about meeting new people and striking up conversations.

I get on OK with more structured situations, like speaking in front of an audience, but I find more casual one-on-one chit chat with strangers a bit of a challenge.

When I do get out and about to meet other writers, I find it enjoyable, but also tiring: I need time alone to recover.

And yet – I want to get to know lots of fellow writers! It’s great fun, and really encouraging, to chat to other people who love what I love. It’s also useful to know people to pass clients on to, people who might beta-read for me, and so on.

A quick note on “networking”: I know the word “networking” can seem cold, like you’re playing some sort of numbers game. (I think for us Brits, it can also feel a bit American.) To me, networking just means getting to know people who you can help, and people who might want to help you in return. It’s not about amassing a collection of business cards, or “working the room”.

Continue reading »

Practical Ways to Handle the Passage of Time in Fiction


Whether you’re writing a short story or an epic novel series, fictional time is going to pass during it.

Obviously enough, fictional time is not the same thing as real time (unless you’re watching 24). Your novel might take four hours to read – and cover events that take place over the course of two years.

In fact, there’s another type of time that’s easy to forget here: writing time.

That novel that takes four hours to read could take a year or more to write.

This means that before you think about how to show time passing during the story, you need one tool firmly in place.

Continue reading »

How to Fall in Love with Writing All Over Again


Quick request: I’m running a survey about the Aliventures blog and email newsletter to help me plan for the next few months (I want to make sure my posts are as useful to you as possible). I’d be really grateful if you could take a couple of minutes to fill out the survey here:

Aliventures Survey (February 2016)

All the questions are optional, most are multiple choice, and everyone who fills it in will receive an exclusive .pdf guide on whatever topic/question ends up being the most popular. Thanks!

Does writing ever (or often) feel like just another thing on your to-do list?

If you’ve been writing for years, it can sometimes be tough to remember just why you wanted to write in the first place.

Perhaps your work-in-progress has been in progress for longer than you care to admit.

Perhaps your blog seems to eat up hours of your time for very little reward.

Perhaps you’ve sent out your latest short story a dozen times – and had it rejected again and again.

If you’re tempted to quit, or if you just wish you could enjoy writing again, here’s how to fall back in love. (And, while these are writing tips, you can probably apply them to your partner or kids too…)

Continue reading »

Why You Should Be Blogging … and Why You Shouldn’t


If you’re not already blogging, you’ve probably wondered whether you should be.

If you are already blogging, you’ve probably wondered whether it’s a waste of time.

As you might guess from the very existence of the Aliventures blog, I’m a fan of blogging. But I don’t think it’s right for every writer.

Before we get into the pros and cons, let’s take a quick look at what I mean when I say “blog”.

Continue reading »