The Red Lines Page

February 27, 2009

TwitterGroups FAIL

Filed under: twitter — Peter A @ 9:37 pm


Further down Twitter GroupI have discovered TwitterGroups, but am yet to be convinced that it’s any better to look at (say) the Technical Communications tweets there rather than at hashtags or at the Twitter site itself.

For one thing, you have to scroll down past the annoying Amazon advert. If you scroll down further, the tweets are clumsily crushed into another scrollbar window (which… er… doesn’t scroll). But then a little more usefully, you can see people who’ve chosen to be members. Finally, another Amazon advert.

And then if you want to post something to the group, it requires you to “login to Twitter, Google, Yahoo, AOL, AIM or some other network”. But when you click the login button, it offers Google, AIM, Yahoo, or OpenID. Not, you will notice, Twitter. Which seems particularly obtuse for something called TwitterGroups.

There may be some steps to get around this. But in a Twitter world, with a Twitter span of patience, which of their users is going to struggle with that? I want to just walk up and tweet.

Nice idea, lame design. In Twitter lingo: FAIL.

February 26, 2009

Facebook feedback

Filed under: facebook,writing — Peter A @ 10:52 pm

Mark Zuckerberg says that Facebook wants to “help make the world more open and transparent”. So they say they’re going to run their service that way.  They’re inviting comment on two documents:

The first is the Facebook Principles, which defines your rights and will serve as the guiding framework behind any policy we’ll consider—or the reason we won’t consider others. The second document is the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, which will replace the existing Terms of Use. 

My initial thoughts about these documents are:

  • They’re written in plain(ish) English, and they’re enabling people to comment online, before soliciting a subsequent vote for or against the proposed changes. While I admire the intention, the implementation is not entirely clear.
  • What are the differences between then and now? Perhaps we have to consider them as a completely new starting point. Some commentators will be better-informed about what this implies than others. So are Facebook soliciting the wisdom of the crowd, or relying on the ignorance of the herd? 
  • Is it all or nothing on the vote? There is stuff in these documents that’s good and stuff that’s bad.
  • Good: Freedom and Openness extends to access, personal ownership of information, interface specifications, and worldwide usage.
  • Bad: Restrictions on Freedom and Openness appear to be inconsistent. What do they mean by forbidding “nudity”, while allowing the promotion of “alcohol-related or other mature content [with] appropriate age-based restrictions”?  But there is no restriction on references to drug use.  Can someone post a photo of Michael Phelps smoking a bong but not Michael Phelps in his swimming gear? And if shirtless Michael Phelps in just his Speedos is OK, what’s so dreadful about allowing pictures of breastfeeding (which is not illegal)?  I posted a comment about this, but that was pre-emptively flagged as “inappropriate”! So I reposted it as “br**stf**d*ng” and that seemed to slip past Facebook’s c*ns*rs.
  • Worse: There’s a whole section where Facebook seems to say “All your content are belong to us“. Or to use their words: “you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use, copy, publicly perform or display, distribute, modify, translate, and create derivative works of (“use”) any content you post on or in connection with Facebook.” What a cheek! Their minor concession from the more draconian previous change seems to be that they have removed the words “irrevocable” and “perpetual” from that paragraph. However…
  • Worst: If you delete the content or your account to avoid this, “information may persist in backup copies for a reasonable period of time”. Whatever “reasonable” means. So they still have it, and if they have  already chosen to “distribute, modify, translate, and create derivative works of ” the content, there’s no way to recover your rights to it. And could this apply to content provided through other services, but surfaced via Facebook (for example, Twitter feeds to the Status, or Flickr photos)?
  • If they only want to use the content to promote Facebook, why don’t they just say that in their new, simplified documents?

Several key issues to resolve, still. The conversation has only just begun on their forums. In the meantime, decide for yourself which is the most offensive of these three linked pictures: Phelps smoking, Phelps posing, or anonymous woman br**stf**d*ng.

February 25, 2009

SF (t)wittering

Filed under: drwho,Torchwood — Peter A @ 12:33 am
Tags: , ,

Using Twitter as a backchannel at tech conferences isn’t new. Twitter has been around since April 2007, and a version of the micro-blogging service was available a year earlier than that. People have been tweeting at tech conferences ever since. Certainly there’s helpful advice about setting up a Twitter feed and tweeting at a conference.  

I suggested a modest trial of Twitter at this year’s GallifreyOne Doctor Who and Torchwood convention in Los Angeles. It wasn’t hugely subscribed, and some of my hashtag tweets seemed to vanish into the ether. For a DoctorWho convention, Gally is very popular, with well over a thousand participants– though as science fiction conventions in general go, it’s still nothing like the biggest. I’d like to suggest to them ways of using Twitter at the event in 2010.

Are there good examples of Twitter use at sf conventions? I know that Star Trek‘s Wil Weaton has over 130,000 followers, for example, so do Star Trek conventions make effective use of the backchannel?  Or other sf events? Conventions sometimes use a Twitter ID to advertise up front (event timings, guests, etc) but how many use it during the event to share updates with attendees, or just let non-attendees know what they’re missing?  HurricaneWho has a static “share” link on its web page. But which sf events do you think are most inclusive and productive with their use of social networking?

Guest's-eye view of the Gally crowdWhen I spoke from the stage at the GallifreyOne opening ceremonies, I encouraged attendees to tweet comments and photos during the 2009 convention. Fellow Twitter participant James Moran (Twitter here, blog here) teased me for being a nerd. I quite like the idea that using Twitter might make me more of a nerd in the eyes of 1,000+ people in the audience than having flown to the US for a Doctor Who convention.

I thought paying the LAX Marriott $12.95 a day for wifi was a bit steep, especially as some hotels do it for free. Indeed, some people in the hotel scammed a wifi connection from the hotel across the road. However, after I forgot on Day 1 and then spent about £25 on Friday alone with my O2 roaming 3G connection to AT&T [fx: slaps forehead] I decided it would be cheaper to pay the daily Marriott fee for the remainder of my stay. So I was a bit cross to discover that the hotel wifi worked very nicely in my room but not in any of the convention suite rooms. And not in the location of the “Volcano Day” party, either, which may have been appropriate for Pompeii AD79 but a bit poor for Los Angeles 1,930 years later.

The LAX Marriott front desk staff were very pleasant when I complained, but utterly unable to help me themselves. But they gave me the contact number for the offsite IT helpdesk. I spent a cheerless half hour politely explaining to them that I didn’t think wifi was much good if it didn’t work everywhere, and would they like to tell me how to navigate their baffling website on my iPhone to get a connection wherever I happened to be in the hotel that was charging me $12.95 for the privilege.

In the end, the IT supervisor graciously assented to grant me access to the conference room wifi — though because every room down there (and there are many rooms) has its own wifi connection, they sorted out my IP address for the main ballroom, and that seemed to work nicely enough for the rest of the weekend. Though I had to keep swapping to a different IP address whenever I was back in my room or by the pool or in the bar.

I don’t know whether the GallifreyOne convention team think that wifi connectivity is all that important, and I can understand if they have higher priorities for 2010. But it may be worth them asking the hotel to ensure that attendees can get a connection in the conference suite (maybe a discounted rate). And having a Twitter maven who can tweet at sessions during the event, using a dedicated machine in the main hall — tweeting is much easier to do with a laptop computer and a browser than it is to do what I did, i.e. hunt-and-peck on my iPhone.

PS: I am already regretting choosing peteranghelides as my Twitter ID. With only 140 characters per tweet, that uses up  more than 10% of the available characters in retweets or replies. My colleague karelvredenburg mentioned this. Ha! He can talk, eh?

February 22, 2009

iPhone app

Filed under: home page — Peter A @ 10:32 pm

WordPress has an iPhone app, which seems straightforward enough. It would be nicer if it enabled photo posting, as Twitter apps like Tweetie do.

Or perhaps I should be looking for Tweetie et al. to enable blog posting, and to supersede this WordPress app?

Updated: so I have found the photo-posting. Still pondering how to handle the other stuff — allow/disallow comments, for example — without coming back and editing the post in a web browser. Too fiddly to do that in Safari on the iPhone itself (and defeats the point of the WordPress app). May repay further investigation.

I can’t see I’ll make extensive use of the iPhone for this kind of thing, any more than I can faff around with the outpost Galifrey Forum with it, until there’s an easier way of creating rich text for publication. Not all the bells’n’whistles, I suppose… maybe I mean richer text. (Guess where I typed this addendum to the blog post? Yes, through the conventional web interface.)

Books about writing

Filed under: writing — Peter A @ 7:33 pm

In my post About Writing, I said I’d recommend some books. There are loads of these to choose from. In the US, in particular, books about writing are a minor industry. And there are courses, classes, web sites, fee-paying services, free resources, and goodness knows what else. These are just the things I found most useful.

  • The Elements of StyleThe Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White (republished frequently). The classic text for simple, clear writing. A standard for anyone who wants to write well in any field.
  • The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young WritersThe Art of Fiction, by John Gardner.  This explains the basic skills, genre, common errors, techniques, plotting… It’s one of the most widely-referenced books for new writers.
  • Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative CraftWriting Fiction, by Janet Burroway. “A Guide to Narrative Craft”. Burroway is an author and teacher, and has taught a course on Narrative Technique at Florida State University. This book explains and exemplifies form, structure, showing and telling, atmosphere, point of view, comparison, and theme. She also makes the observation: “The quality of the communication is under judgement; the author’s character is not.” Bear this in mind when you get your rejection letter. And when you review people’s published books!

  • The Weekend Novelist, by Robert J. Ray. If, like me, you are not a full-time writer, you may find this staged approach to novel-writing is useful. It talks in turn about character, scene building, plotting, drafting, and rewriting.  


  • The Novelist’s Guide, by Margret Geraghty. A straightforward approach to characters, identification, dialogue, plot, symbolism, and closure from a UK-based columnist for Writer’s News. 
  • The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler. “Mythic structure for storytellers and screenwriters.” Although it has screenwriters as a large part of its target audience, this book is useful for novelists too. It’s inspired by the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell—he of “The Hero’s Journey” which has defined so much of contemporary Hollywood film making. It’s good because it explains how stories work. Vogler has also worked on scripts for Disney, Warner Bros., United Artists, Touchstone Pictures, and Twentieth Century Fox.

The books I’ve referenced here are about the basics of good writing, because that’s where at least 90% of submissions fail, and fail badly. There are other books about the legal, contractual, pitching, and marketing aspects of novel writing. Personally, I think if you’re worrying about those instead of about the basics of writing, you’re already planning to fail.

Writers' and Artists' Yearbook 2009: A Directory for Writers, Artists, Playwrights, Designers, Illustrators and Photographers (Writers' & Artists' Yearbook)The other thing that these books don’t really address is verbal criticism and analysis of other writers’ work, though that is inherent any time you read something. A good book for that, if you feel the need, is Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, an analysis of narrative from Homer to Joyce which provides examples in literary fiction of telling/showing, authorial voice, etc.

And if you want to know the current information about getting published in the UK, find a copy of the latest Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook or check out their website.

Useful websites

  • The Eclectic Writer: Well over 100 great links for writers. These include articles about presentation, setting, endings, writing synopses, overcoming writer’s block; there are genre resources (including sf and fantasy, horror, mystery); there are online journals, awards, technical writing, screenwriting; reference sites; research sites; organisations…
  • Zoetrope: Yes, that Zoetrope. Subscribe to the on-line publication that features new fiction from (among others) Francis Ford Coppola. And while you’re there, check out their writing classes.
  • Plot: Damon Knight’s excellent online summary, excerpted from his book Creating Short Fiction (this article is in public domain).
  • References, conferences, author information, etc.
  • Seven suggestions: Worth mentioning specifically from the absolutewrite site, this is John Ross’s seven suggestions for writing a novel is a succinct online summary which prints on two sheets what most writing books will tell you in at least seven chapters.

Avoid rejection

Filed under: drwho,writing — Peter A @ 7:17 pm

I’ve had a few things published professionally — novels, audios, short fiction, even a comic. All of it is commissioned as tie-ins to TV series and related spin-offs. The second-most frequent question I get in my e-mails is: “how can I get published?” The most frequent is: “how do you pronounce your name?” to which of course the answer is “Пέτρος Аγγελíδης”.

So here is a pronunciaton guide to anglicised Greek surnames.

No, on reflection, here are some random thoughts about writing. It’s informed, obviously, by my experience in writing franchise fiction for Virgin Publishing,  BBC Worldwide, Big Finish Productions, and Random House.

So, you want to write a Doctor Who novel?

Eric Saward is a former Doctor Who script editor, TV script writer, and novelist. His advice to aspiring Doctor Who writers (in a Doctor Who Magazine interview) was “don’t”. By which he meant: “don’t just want to write Doctor Who.” You have to want to be a writer first, and specifically a Doctor Who writer second.

But suppose you enjoy writing, and you do particularly want to write a Doctor Who novel. You should put this ambition in perspective:

  • BBC Worldwide was unusual, in that it sometimes commissioned unsolicited proposals for the Doctor Who range. If you don’t believe that the BBC offered an almost unique genre opportunity, read this article here by published author Roger MacBride Allen about how other media franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek handle their commissions.
  • Even so, back in the day, the BBC would receive 500 unsolicited proposals each year—that’s two for every working day. Fewer than 10% of those got past the first reader to the commissioning editor. The large majority failed the basic requirements of good writing.
  • The BBC used to publish 22 novels per year (one eighth Doctor novel and one past Doctor novel, every month except December). Most of these were by people who had already written for the series before, or who were already published writers elsewhere. We weren’t guaranteed acceptances, and we’ve all had rejections. But we’d shown in the past that we could deliver a publishable book on time. Sometimes we were commissioned directly.
  • Subsequently, the BBC announced that from September onwards it would publish only 12 Doctor Who novels each year. And after the new TV series began, in 2005 the BBC started to commission a smaller number of new Doctor Who and Torchwood novels directly from authors.
  • In 2006, the BBC Books imprint was sold to Ebury Books. They no longer consider unsolicited proposals for Doctor Who or Torchwood novels.
  • In 2007 and 2008, BBC Audio started to commission audio scripts for Torchwood, Doctor Who, and Sarah Jane Adventures CD releases. They do not consider unsolicited proposals.

Your chances of getting your BBC Doctor Who book published used to be better than any other franchise. But that never meant it was easy, and the odds were always against you. There was competition not only from the existing authors, and not only from published novelists who had not yet written for Doctor Who, but also from all those other enthusiastic would-be novelists—people like you. And today, no unsolicited proposals are considered.

Incidentally, Big Finish Productions do not consider unsolicited proposals, as they explain in their FAQ. They will return unsolicited proposals unread. They sometimes have an open competition for new writers. On the last occasion they did this, they received more than 1,000 entries, from which only 25 were published.

The only way currently to get a new Doctor Who or Torchwood novel commissioned is for the BBC to approach you directly. And that’s only going to happen if you have a track record of published fiction. And even if you’re invited to write a proposal, there’s no guarantee that the novel will be commissioned.

So let’s assume you’re writing because you enjoy it, and you’re going to submit a proposal to another publisher. The bad news is, they are…

Looking for reasons to reject you

It sounds unfair, doesn’t it? But if publishers’ readers can’t quickly reach a point where they can say perhaps without reading your entire proposal that “this won’t do”, then they’d do nothing else but read proposals all week and the other books would never get published!

A really good book to read is Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages (ISBN 0-684-85743-X). It’s subtitled “A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile”. Lukeman has worked as a literary agent, and he explains the brutal truth about unsolicited manuscripts: when publishers’ readers read them, they’re looking for a reason to reject. And if that’s not disheartening enough, Lukeman says in his Introduction (so, that’s before the book even gets going): “You’ll come to see why this book should not have been titled The First Five Pages but The First Five Sentences.”

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to prevent the publisher’s reader ever reaching “this won’t do”. Keep your proposal in that reader’s hand. Don’t put anything in your submission that will give that reader an excuse to discard it.

And Noah Lukeman’s book explains step-by-step how a publisher’s reader will look for reasons to reject your manuscript. So now you’ll know how to avoid that!

OK, now you shouldn’t be disheartened. You should see this as a challenge. Besides which, there are plenty of books about writing that can help you avoid the usual pitfalls of the first-time novelist. In my next post, I’ll mention the ones that I found most useful.

February 21, 2009

Start somewhere

Filed under: home page — Peter A @ 10:45 pm

You have to start somewhere, I suppose. The journal of a thousand blogs begins with a single keystroke.

This first post is to test whether I can update this site simply and effectively. I’ll subsequently need to link to my home page, maybe. But which is better… WordPress or Blogger? Only one way to find out… fiiiigght!

  • Blogger: Most of my pals (for example Mr Grrr and Paul and Tara) use Blogger. Karel knows a great deal more than me about visual design and ease-of-use, and tells me that Blogger is pretty much walk-up-and-use. 
  • WordPress: Rich observed that WordPress has GPL open-source software for self-hosting and the free web-based service that I’m using here for creating a customised blog. He has further useful advice here. And Helena recommended WordPress, too. 

As it happens, I stumbled upon WordPress first and had a play around, and so here we are. In two months, I’ll no doubt regret this impulse buy choice, but that assumes I bother to keep this up-to-date, anyway. So far, I like the Visual editor. The Themes (design templates) are useful, though I’d like more with flexible widths. 

I spent more time working out a title for the blog than I did actually writing it. In the end, I chose something that was (a) related to writing and (b) already had a spiffy Theme I could get immediately from WordPress. It’s “Rubric” by Hadley Wickham, “a flexible and clean two-column theme with a pen on top”. The classic red biro, in fact, beloved of writers the world over. 

For reasons I’m sure you’ll spot immediately, I was working with the following kinds of alternatives as blog titles: 

  • The Pleasing Deer: Because I had a nice 2001 photo from Tupper Ansel Blake and United States Fish and Wildlife Service  But what does that mean?
  • The Renegade Lips: Seemed appropriate, as I am speeking my branes, but in the end I decided that I’m an unlikely revolutionary, so I kissed that goodbye. Along with anything containing “anger” or “rash”
  • Three Leaden Pigs: The dullest fairy tale you ever heard.
  • Speeding Leather: I am not a Hell’s Angel.
  • Helper Designate: I liked this because of my previous work as a technical author, but decided it was too specific.
  • Earthed Peelings: A blog about compostable waste.
  • Penis Glee Thread: Well, perhaps we’ll stop at this point.

See all the alternatives for yourself at the splendiferous Internet Anagram Server.

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