We all love a bit of fictional cyber crime.
All that frantic keyboard tippy-tapping just flies off the page. People bark clever acronyms and codes names at each other and discuss server logs and Intrusion Detection protocols, surveillance code, and bits and bytes. If, like me, your knowledge of computing goes as far as turning on the Playstation, it’s all terribly exciting – like a portal into a secret world.
The rise of the Deep Web, cyber attacks and espionage is opening up whole new narrative frontiers. And yet, of course these cyber thrillers are written in the oldest data delivery system in the world: a story. You may hold in your hand an ebook, the words may be backlit, but it’s still a good, old-fashioned story.
Or maybe it isn’t.
Netwars: The Code is a series of six ebook episodes, described as a unique global project. As well as an ebook series, it’s an interactive web documentary and Graphic novel apps, a fusion of fact and fiction about the increasing threat of cyberwarfare.
It features characters such as the cyber avenging angel Strider – mild-mannered computer geek by day, ruthless executioner by night – and his deadly nemesis Nightshade. It features the tall, beautiful and intelligent computer whiz Rebecca MacDonald, who’s caught up in the cat-and-mouse war between the both of them. Netwars has the galloping cartoon energy of a Saturday morning cartoon serial – but updated for the 21st century.
Each of the six-episodes of Netwars: The Code is only 100-pages long, and is written by London-based author M. Sean Coleman, who also wrote the script for the graphic novel app. Here’s the link to the first ep.
It’s ambitious stuff, and I’m not sure I’ve explained it properly. Luckily, Sean has agreed to give us The Intel on the Netwars series, about the dangerous evolution of new technology, and, of course – because this is The Intel, after all – he’s got lots of fabulous thoughts about the writing process.
Tell us about The Code – what’s it about?
It’s a crime thriller set in the seedy and little known world of the Deep Web – a place where, under the cloak of anonymity you can buy drugs, weapons, porn, even order a killing, just by knowing where to look. The Code tells the story of a rogue vigilante who uses the Deep Web to find his targets – picking out those who have broken his unique code of practice, and who have escaped justice. He makes it his business to ensure that they pay properly for their crimes. To further complicate matters he is also a consultant to the National Cyber Crime Unit.
When his latest target turns out to be closely connected to the underworld bosses of the Deep Web, he realizes that he has been betrayed by the one person he thought he could trust – his mentor. And now, that same person is coming after him, and he is the most powerful and dangerous man in the Deep Web.
At least, that is how the plot kicks off. Partly, the book deals with the fact that none of us really stop to think about how almost everything we touch and interact with these days, from our cars, to our houses, to the pumps and monitors in hospitals, could actually be used to kill us if a malicious actor was that way inclined. I wanted people reading the book to think twice about getting into an elevator, or driving a car that can park itself, or allowing their smartphone to report where they are and what they are doing at every moment of the day.
Netwars is an ambitious cross-platform project – what does that mean?
I think it genuinely means that if we had ever tried to pitch the whole project as it exists now from the outset, people would have laughed us out of the room. Netwars has evolved into the beast that it is now, but it began as a slightly smaller scale project. The project now comprises a TV documentary, an interactive web documentary, a three part graphic novel series for iPads and Android Tablets, and a six-part serialized novel, which also happens to be an audiobook. And that’s not all, we are still developing extensions of the Netwars world in other formats and on other platforms.
How do the narratives of all the different platforms connect?
We had a mantra throughout the production process of all of the parts of the project which was that everything should be possible, but nothing needed to be done. Basically, what that meant was that we wanted the audience to be able to find the content on any of the platforms and fully engage with the stories there, but we didn’t want anybody to feel that they had missed something by not, for example, reading the novel, or graphic novel, or only seeing the documentary. Our other guiding principle is that nothing could happen in any of the fictional parts of the project that weren’t based in reality.
We created a character, usually known as The Salesman, who appears in all of the fictional parts of the project, including the narrative backbone of the interactive web documentary. He is the glue. For the web documentary, it is he that lures the viewer in and makes them part of his dark world. He features in the graphic novel series, as a minor but important character, and he appears in the novel as the main character’s mentor, and eventual nemesis. In each case, you are introduced to him in context, meaning that you can enjoy one part of the project in isolation without feeling that you are missing any information.
How have your own experiences prepared you for working on the Netwars project?
Well, as an assassin myself… No, I’m joking. I thought about applying to be an Mi5 agent once, but I think I am both too indiscrete and too impatient. Plus, I know it would be nothing like James Bond. In reality, the only experience I could draw on for this project was my passion for technology and my casual worries that we are allowing machines to take over too many angles of our life. There we are worrying about whether the machines will become sentient and kill us all, nobody seems to have considered what would happen if somebody wanted to turn those machines against us.
A lot of what I researched kept repeating the statement that most of the systems we rely on were designed before we had terrorism. Which sounds stupid, but I know what they mean by that. An airplane is not a weapon unless it is used by terrorists to make a political or religious statement. In the same way that a screwdriver or a hammer are not weapons unless used that way – it’s just that we have legislation for carrying hammers around the place, whereas our essential infrastructures are often running on a machine less powerful than our TV. It’s a looping answer to your question. I have always been interested in how technology helps us be more efficient. Working on Netwars has made me research, in great detail, what the risks of relying on those technologies are.
Do you think the way we are consuming narratives is changing?
Yes and no. I think, at heart, we still want to be told a bloody good story. I think audiences, readers and consumers are all less worried about where that content comes from or how they get to see or read it. Just looking at myself, I still resist watching Netflix on my iPhone, but I am more than happy to watch on my iPad. I read on a kindle now, even though I have shelves full of books which I have an almost fetishistic relationship with.
Last year I would have said that I could only read non-fiction, especially for research, in an actual paper book, but the Netwars project research changed that, as there were some books that were only available digitally. I think we all want to be swept along, excited and impressed – we want characters we can trust, characters we can fall in love with and be excited for or disappointed by. The main difference is that we expect to find them all over the place, wherever we happen to be. We are as comfortable following a character on twitter as we are watching them in a drama series.
When we read a book, we often expect to see the TV series or the film of the same story, or at least the same world. I think there is more blending between the platforms, and as our viewing and reading experiences become increasingly connected, that will continue to develop.
Do you think authors need to start thinking about new ways to get their work onto the marketplace?
I don’t know. I worry that we head into a world where the cart leads the horse. I think, as a writer, you should ask yourself what your idea would be best as: a novel, a short story, a film, a TV series, a radio play, theatre, mime, a series of magazine columns, a web series, a blog, an art installation… I think the days are gone of being able to say: I am an author, or I am a screenwriter, or I am a playwright, or whatever.
I think the boxes have changed shape, and writers limit themselves if they think only in one category. That being said, I think the dawn of self-publishing, blogging and the whole digital age opening up readership again, means that there are wider opportunities for writers to build an audience without being beholden to the publisher, commissioner and producer. I think if someone has a passion to tell the story that they have brewing inside them, they should just get on and do it, the best they can, and if no one will take it, self-publish and prove them wrong. Right?
Take us through a typical writing day for you?
I’m pretty organised about my schedule. Some people are not, and prefer to let the creativity flow as and when it hits them. For me, if I don’t trick myself with a schedule, I get nothing done.
I work at my home, I have a wonderful office there, that is only for writing and it is a place that I can shut the door on at the end of the day, which is also important. I usually hit the desk at 8.30am, when my partner leaves for work, and I spend an hour replying to emails and doing bits of admin and invoicing. I realised that, even with the greatest self-control, the Internet was too distracting so from 09.30 until 13.00 I use a cheap program called Freedom, which shuts off my router and, unless I completely restart my computer, keeps me off the web.
I have a little notepad beside my keyboard and I jot down all of the questions that come up or things I need to research as I go along – I would otherwise spend about 30 mins or so finding out which park they were running through in the scene I was writing, only to cut the whole scene later. I just put a red X in the manuscript and plough on. I’ll go back and fill it in later.
Between 13.00 and 15.00 I have lunch and walk the dog. That is usually my background thinking time – I try to clear my head of what I’m doing and just look around me. Quite often, if I’ve been wrestling with a scene or character element, I will talk to myself (or the dog) as I walk and usually by the time I get home, there is a solution. I also use that time to answer any emails that may have come in, or reply to calls that I’ve missed (I also put my phone an airplane mode while I write – all pings and beeps must be silenced!)
I am back at my desk by 15.00 and I work through with everything off again until 17.00 usually, but 18.00 on bad deadline days. I like to leave a scene unfinished so that I can pick up straight away the next day and not have to start a new scene from scratch. It always helps to knock off a few hundred words quickly at the start of a session, it makes you feel like your achieving something.
At the beginning of every project I make a soundtrack using Spotify, of about 200 songs. This is all I listen to when I’m working, and it has nothing to do with my taste in music, it is about getting into the mood of the piece you are writing straight away. My writing is not always at the computer, either – I could be on the sofa in my office with record cards, fleshing out ideas, or scribbling all over the whiteboards on the walls – the music is always on – it stops me listening to the neighbours or being distracted by the people on the street outside.
When I finish for the evening I leave my desk ready to start straight away and then I go downstairs and start cooking, which is my other passion. That is pretty much my routine. If I do it right, I shouldn’t have to work later than 18.00 and never on weekends. Life is important too.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
Writing is bloody hard. Especially, finishing is hard. Having the ideas are fine, and you’re really excited to start, but do yourself a favour and make sure you plot out what’s going to happen the whole way through. Make sure you read your plotting again and again, before you start writing. During your plotting, if you are really excited, by all means, write out the scene in your head, but don’t just dive in. Completion anxiety really freaks me out. Even when you have finished one piece, and know you can successfully do so, when you start the next one, there is always a time when you think: I don’t think I can do this. Embrace that neurosis. That’s what makes you a writer!
I think the other hard thing is finding your own voice and having confidence in it. I had help with that. My old friend and mentor, Neil Richards – an excellent writer himself – struggled with me as a young writer, some 20 years ago, to help me figure out what kind of a writer I was going to be! Through his patient, intelligent criticism, I stepped out of the shadow of those I was trying to parody, and eventually, believed that I had a voice too. It was never going to be for romantic comedy though! Or even comedy full stop. We laughed a lot at some of my early writing, but the truth was, we were laughing at how bad it was. He had the ability to make me see how bad it was, but without making me give up hope. He found the good bits and pushed them hard.
I guess the thing with finding your voice is that it has to come from you, but often, it needs someone who knows what they’re looking for, to see that spark, and help you to ignite it. Whenever I write now, I assume Neil will be the one reading it, and I try to imagine what he will think. Usually, I imagine he’ll tell me I can do better. Fortunately, these days, he’s a friend, and too polite to tell me he hated it!
How do you deal with feedback?
If it’s good, I love it. I copy and paste it and put it on my website! Feedback is tough. I learned through a lot of my producing work that you can’t get into personal conversations over feedback. There will be people who love what you do, and people who hate it. The thing about feedback is that somebody has taken the time to write a review or offer and opinion about your work, and that means a lot. Even if that opinion was negative, usually people are able to justify their feelings. If they felt a character was underdeveloped, or a theme was too uncomfortable, or the piece was badly researched, whatever, it’s a perfectly valid feeling. If we had the time and strength, we would go back and re-read and think about our work with those comments in mind, but we have to charge forward with the next thing.
The point is, readers aren’t wrong about their own opinions. I have read books by authors I love, that I didn’t enjoy on that occasion. I have read books that I loved that other people hated. The fact that people read your work and take the time to comment, whether negatively or positively is amazing. As a neurotic writer, the more positive comments the better. But then, the more pressure on the next book…
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
William Gibson, for his amazing creativity, intelligence, imagination. William Boyd for his incredible characters. I love most crime thrillers, and I really admire anyone that can create a character that returns again and again with a new adventure. Lee Child, for example, nails that with Jack Reacher – you know what you’re getting. It’s a great skill. There are some stand out books that I have just loved – like The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall. When I read it, I just thought it was such an individual and interesting concept.
I could go on, I read every day. For me, if your book is on a shelf, somewhere, you’ve made it. It’s a fantastic achievement, to have finished a story and put it out there for everybody to see. It’s a terrifying thing knowing that everybody is reading the words you wrote, and wondering whether they like them or not.
Give me some advice about writing…
If you’re going to do it, do it every day – even if it’s just a bit. Writing is like training – the more you do, the quicker, stronger, better you get.
Plan, plan, plan. Then write.
Don’t be too precious about getting it right the first time – learn to draft. I often have lines in first drafts like: ‘He says something really funny about her shoes. She doesn’t think it’s funny.’ I don’t need to know what the funny thing is there and then, because that’s not what the scene is about, it’s an emotional moment and I can come back to the detail of it. If I spend too long figuring out what the joke is, I’m out of the emotional moment anyway.
Get somebody who knows about story to read your work. If you can find other writers and offer a you-read-my-work-and-I’ll-read-yours kind of deal, that’s ideal. Your family and friends love you too much to tell you they didn’t like it, and don’t have the tools to tell you why. Unless they’re an editor, writer or agent, in which case it’s too close to home. Of course they must read it, but don’t be surprised if they are disturbed by the darkness within you…
What’s next for you?
I have an interactive storybook for pre-school children, called Milli’s Adventures on Apple-Tree Hill, coming out in the summer on iPads and Android tablets. It’s about a little snail called Milli who doesn’t know how to be a snail and has wonderful adventures trying to find out. It was created and illustrated by the wonderful Jana Schell and I am honoured to have been able to write the stories for it. I love it. Meanwhile, I have just begun writing the sequel to The Code, so keep your eyes open at the end of the year for the second book.
Once again I’m blown away by the detail authors are willing to share with us about their writing process – I hope Sean’s interview gives you as much inspiration as it did me.
By the way, Sean mentions his mentor, Neil Richards. You may recall that Neil’s already done his own fascinating interview for The Intel, and you can see that here.