Profile: a serialized novel for email, web, Kindle and ePub

February 3, 2012 | Leave a comment

This is an excerpt from a new kind of project for me. Profile is a serial thriller about identity, the Internet and what happens when we trust companies to tell us what is and isn’t true. I’m going to treat the whole process – from writing through promotion – like a lean startup; more on that later.

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I huddled in the dark, under the wooden stairs leading out to the backyard, the metal of my unsheathed flash drive digging into my thigh. I could hear them in the house, opening drawers and moving furniture. They spoke to each other in a low murmur, an indistinguishable bassline while my Spotify playlists ran their course in the background, silently pushing unknown songs to my Facebook profile.

Through the clouds, an aircraft’s engines announced its descent.

I knew I would have to run. My backyard was surrounded by tall fencing on three sides, the result of neighbors jealously guarding their privacy. If I was going to make a break for it, I would need to climb over on one side, and I wasn’t sure if I could make it without drawing attention to myself.

Creaking floorboards. Inside, the men were moving from room to room. I wasn’t sure how many of them were, but it sounded like five at least: enough to keep guard while the others looked around.

From the glimpse I’d had of them when I looked through my bedroom window and seen them marching towards my house, they were police of some kind. They weren’t uniformed, as such, but each wore an identical suit, and each of them had been reaching for something as they approached my front door. It could have been phones, or documents, or anything, but I didn’t want to risk it. Particularly now as they’d forced their way into my home.

My breath caught the reflected light from the house in front of me, hot clouds of condensation reaching out into the cold of the night. I realized I was panicking.

“He’s still here,” one of them said, his voice urgent and raised enough for me to hear. “His phone’s on the network.”

The wifi! I whipped my handset out of my pocket and pushed down the power button to turn it off. Its screen lit up the yard, turning the grass and my weeds unnatural shades of blue and orange as the men ran through the house in an avalanche of heavy footsteps, down to the back door to find me.

Quickly, I set my phone on a ten second timer, and threw it over the fence to my left as hard as I could. Panting, my heart in my throat, I scrambled past the trashcans and garden debris to the alley beside my house, flung my back against the wall, and waited.


Coming soon.

Meaningless Battles (and writing in Oxford)

November 5, 2009 | Leave a comment

My flash fiction story Meaningless Battles is up on Every Day Fiction:

Rain skidded across the window, the smaller drops holding still, helpless in the path of their larger cousins, which sped forth and absorbed everything in their path. The carriage was a wasteland of raindrop-on-raindrop destruction. Alex watched for a moment and then adjusted his focus to the industrial buildings speeding past in the background, graffiti crawling up the walls only to be endlessly scrubbed off and re-painted.

Meaningless battles, Alex thought.

Click here to read the whole thing.

Meanwhile, if you’re a writer in Oxford, the third Oxford Writer’s Group meeting will take place at 8pm on November 16th, at the Magdalen Arms on Magdalen Road. Most of us will be reading an excerpt of something we’ve written, to a rough limit of a thousand words. We’d love to see you there.

Networked stories

September 7, 2009 | 6 comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about storytelling on the Internet.

I’m not completely impressed with how it’s been done so far. Not that the examples I’ve seen haven’t been beautiful, but their presence on the web has been irrelevant: they’ve essentially been multimedia presentations using web technologies, rather than a different medium that uses the Internet as an intrinsic part of its fabric. A great example of this is We Tell Stories, the digital fiction project that Six to Start built for Penguin a couple of years ago.

The Internet, as I’m so fond of pointing out, is a system of interconnected people: uniquely, the audience is an intrinsic part of the medium. I don’t think that’s been exploited to its full potential, possibly because it couldn’t be until recently.

I love the idea of a plot that reacts to how the audience is interacting with it and each other – not an alternate reality game, which has set goals and tasks, nor a virtual world like Second Life, but something that uses elements from the real world as the building blocks for a story in order to raise questions and get the audience talking with each other. The journeys of storyteller and audience would be interlinked in a kind of feedback loop, which emerging augmented reality software could potentially make more immediate and visceral. The story would use the Internet as a delivery mechanism, but it would be experienced entirely outside, in the real world.

The trick wouldn’t be to get people to forget it was fictional, but to reveal talking points about the real world – a kind of epic theater approach to storytelling as opposed to naturalism. The epic theater was a style popularized by Brecht (the German playwright who most famously wrote The Threepenny Opera), which dictated that the audience should never forget it was watching a play. As well as using particular styles of acting and stage production, the lights were often left on, and the audience was encouraged to discuss the events unfolding in front of them.

In digital, networked storytelling, this effect would almost be necessary due to the limitations of the medium, but could be exploited as a powerful feature. Never before has the audience been able to discuss a story on such a scale. It’s an opportunity.