Working on a timeline

What you see above is a low-res screenshot of a single page from the timeline software I use to map out the events in a story, the modern version of pinning cards with bits of writing on them all over the wall above your desk. The screenshot is an excerpt from the planning I've been doing for the next Shoal Sequence book, River of Light. If you look at the bottom, you'll see a long cluster of little colour-coded squares - each one of those is an element of the plot, mapped out in chronological sequence. Each line of squares down there represents a separate major character. Essentially, that little bar at the bottom allows you to see the whole thing at one go, while a small part of it is reproduced in rather larger size in the main window. The text, as you can see, is fairly crammed; it's an attempt at reducing the essence of the events of the book, and the order in which they happen, to as few words and virtual cards as possible. A map, basically, to the book before I start writing it. 

The thing I really like about software like this is that it helps you sort out potential chronological disasters before you start the actual writing. If Tim has to get to the airport at ten in the car, but the assassin you want to kill him before he gets on the plane couldn't possibly have left Moscow yet, you know you've screwed the order of events up somewhere. This kind of software helps sort that kind of problem out, And I really can't be fussed with sticking holes all over the walls of my kitchen, where I work. But with any luck I've finally managed to work out every little detail of the story (the above is separate from a several thousand words long synopsis I already had, and which the above timeline is based on).  And if you're a budding writer wanting a go at something like this for that first novel or your NaNoWriMo project, a Google search should turn up a few free alternatives - I paid for my timeline software because I was used to using a freebie version of it I already had, except that it crashed all the time. 


An Excerpt from The Thousand Emperors

As mentioned before, I've got an indirect sequel to Final Days coming out in the later summer of 2012, set a few centuries after the events in that first book. People have asked me if it's going to be a trilogy or a series, so it's worth mentioning here that it's just these two books I have in mind, so far. I could technically write more books set in the same universe,  but I'd prefer not to, since any stories I might come up with, I feel, would not necessarily be as compelling; I'd rather write two good books and leave it at that, than produce a trilogy in which the final work was something of an afterthought. On the other hand, there is going to be a fourth Shoal Sequence book, River of Light, which I've just started, but only because I came up with what I considered to be a compelling story for it.

Anyway, on to the main course. Here's a short chapter, lifted from the forthcoming The Thousand Emperors, as a taster:

Chapter 3, The Thousand Emperors.

His name was Jacob Moreland, and he was a spy.

His mission had begun seventy-four years before, when he had been placed into a one-man craft launched from a Sandoz platform in orbit around Novaya Zvezda. Along with an armada of identical craft, each carrying a lone passenger, the ship carrying Jacob had accelerated rapidly out of the system, reaching eighty per cent of light-speed within half a year. The star around which Novaya Zvezda itself orbited soon became just one more exquisitely jewel-like point of light amongst countless others.

Jacob slept unawares, his body buffered by impact-gels and cooled by onboard cryogenics.

For a very long time, Jacob Moreland was, by any objective measure, dead. The instantiation lattice within his skull had encoded much of the fleeting data that made up his conscious mind, while more specialised structures did their best to repair the unavoidable damage done to his delicate human tissues by prolonged deep-space flight.

Attrition soon took its toll, as some of the craft accompanying Jacob on his long journey were destroyed by micrometeorite impacts. It had proven necessary to provide each ship with relatively low-grade shielding, since this increased their chances of evading detection by the Coalition’s deep-space monitors. That a certain number of craft were likely to be lost had been taken into account during the mission’s planning stages. It was an unfortunate, but ultimately necessary, sacrifice.

A few other of the ships suffered fatal systems failures, victims of high-energy particle impacts that interfered with their delicate circuitry. The rest continued on their long flight across the light-years, their onboard computers communicating with each other via encrypted channels, aware within their limited intelligence that, as time progressed, their numbers were steadily dwindling, although not yet below mission-critical levels.

At the apex of their journey, the armada was moving at just a shade over ninety-seven percent of light-speed. Time-dilation slowed the pace at which the attritions of age and radiation damage wore away at their passengers. The onboard medical systems did their best but, inevitably, there were further casualties: those ships bearing the irretrievably dead automatically shut themselves down and fell behind the rest, to drift between the stars forever.

The years passed, and the ships flew on. They did not begin to decelerate until the last decade of their voyage, finally braking into the 36 Ophiuchi system, deep within Coalition territory.

Automated defences patrolling the outer worlds of 36 Ophiuchi detected a number of the approaching ships, analysing their trajectories and responding by moving hunter-killer mechants into intercept patterns. The craft came under fire from kinetic weapons that sent chunks of asteroid slag curving in towards them along gravity-assist paths.

Attrition once more took its toll as the majority of incoming craft were destroyed, and the survival rate of the spy-ships finally teetered towards mission-critical levels. The computers on board the ships risked data-bursts between each other, readjusting their shared flight plans according to decades-old algorithms: if only a few of them managed to reach their destinations, the project set in motion so very long ago might yet have a chance of succeeding.

The survivors lost themselves amidst the rubble of a dead world, long ago drawn into a belt of debris a billion kilometres beyond 36 Ophiuchi’s habitable zone. Only half a dozen of the spy-ships now remained.

Each took it in turn to accelerate towards the inner system, matching courses with cometary bodies and asteroids in order to disguise themselves, drifting sometimes for months before finally manoeuvring into new trajectories that would carry them all the way to Darwin, the system’s sole inhabited world.

It wasn’t long before Jacob’s turn came.

For the first time in several decades, he began to dream, his core body temperature slowly rising as complex cryoprotectant solutions were leached from his bloodstream. His heart began to beat, falteringly at first and then with added strength. Nutrients entered his body via a complex of hollow fibres inserted into his spine, while invisibly tiny microchines worked hard at repairing the inevitable cellular and neural damage sustained during the voyage. Some minimal damage had also been sustained by his instantiation lattice.

Jacob Moreland would live, but some of his memories were gone forever. This much, too, had been anticipated.

Networked autonomous security devices parked in libration zones, balanced between the blue-green world they guarded and the star it orbited, detected the majority of the surviving spy-ships and swiftly destroyed them. Only Jacob’s ship escaped, by wrapping itself within a hastily improvised informational cocoon that made it appear to be little more than an unmanned reconnaissance vehicle on a registered mission. It had been lucky, matching the trajectory of a cluster of supply drones, returning from the A-M refineries orbiting just inside 36 Ophiuchi’s solar corona.

Jacob Moreland drew breath and gasped, his lungs still filled to capacity with breathable nutrient gels that tasted vaguely of mint and antiseptic. A moment later, he remembered his name.


He became more fully conscious during the final stages of atmospheric re-entry. Fresh data, generated by the instantiation lattices riddling his cerebral cortex and nearly indistinguishable from his own, entirely natural thoughts, flowered in his mind.

Plasma cannons designed to destroy random garbage falling from the orbital wheel that encircled Darwin burned his craft as it dropped towards the upper layers of that world’s atmosphere. It responded by releasing a burst of chaff that fooled the cannons into thinking their target had been destroyed. The ship then dipped lower into the atmosphere, burning off its ablative surface before dropping towards the cloud level.

Jacob’s pulse began to quicken as he remembered not only who, but what, he was. Upon his request, sensors embedded in the craft’s skin relayed to him images of the night-time landscape towards which he was falling. He saw deep valleys, and ancient mountains rising above shallow seas and wide, glistening salt-flats. He saw cities like brilliant kaleidoscopes of light, dense conurbations that reached silver fingers far above the planet’s atmosphere, linking into the world-wheel dotted with countless antimatter forges and industrial complexes.

This, then, was Darwin, a world that had become the economic and cultural heart of the Coalition following the Abandonment.

His craft bucked as it passed through the turbulent layers of air at the edge of a high-pressure zone, then dropped towards a ragged and apparently unpopulated coastline, minuscule thrusters slowing the ship’s rate of descent in the last moments before it finally touched down. In the last moments before he landed, Jacob caught sight of green and violet-leaved flora growing amidst spongy-looking trees that bowed under the weight of their broad, finger-like branches.


He staggered out of the blackened shell of his craft in time to see the first fingers of dawn colouring the night sky. He coughed and retched, his lungs and throat still carrying traces of suspension fluids from his long voyage. Cold air whipped against his naked skin. Feeling weak and helpless, he sagged to his knees, pushing both hands deep into gritty soil as a deep and ravenous hunger gripped him.

His instantiation lattice fed data to his conscious mind as he kneeled. He learned that he was the only survivor out of the nearly forty men and women who had been launched from the Tian Di so many years before. He found, despite the deprivations of his voyage, that he could still remember most of their faces and names, having come to know nearly all of them over the course of the year they had spent training for this mission. They had all known how high the risks were. Even so, he was appalled to find he was the only one left.

And if he failed, the mission failed with him.

He staggered back over to the craft and quickly retrieved a one-piece combat suit, pulling it on before he could freeze to death in the chilly air. He next retrieved a case, then stepped quickly away from the craft as his lattice flashed him an alert.

He watched from a safe distance as the ship that had carried him so far immolated itself, its hull collapsing into sections that burned with a pungent smell. Flames flickered inside the craft’s interior, reaching up past bone-like spurs that would crumble away to nothing within just a few days. In time, the only evidence that there had ever been a craft here that was capable of travelling between the stars would be unusually high trace amounts of rare minerals in the soil, along with a marginally higher than normal level of background radioactivity. But one would have to look very, very carefully indeed.

Jacob stood watching for over an hour as the ship continued to crumble into gently steaming ashes that filled the night air with a scent like burning grass. Something about it filled him with a curious sense of loss, which was strange, given that he had been placed in suspension prior to being loaded aboard the craft. Nevertheless, on some deep level, a part of him recognized that this had been his home for long decades, and so it felt strange to finally leave it behind.

From this point on, there was only one way left for him to return home to the Tian Di - and doing so would constitute a major part of his mission.

When he felt ready, Jacob reached into a pocket of his combat suit, retrieving a device small enough to nestle almost invisibly in the palm of his hand: a pin-sized transceiver. He activated it, and even though there was no reason to think it might malfunction, he nonetheless felt a palpable sense of relief when it proved fully operational.

His journey across the light-years had all been just a prelude to this, the moment when his mission truly began. His first step would be to make contact with Tian Di agents who had been in place on Darwin since before he had even set out. Once their own transceivers notified them of his arrival, they would find him and aid him in fulfilling his mission.

It might have taken him decades to reach this world, but the return journey would take, quite literally, no time at all.


What's Going On

That's one of the longest whiles since I've blogged. I spent a good few weeks there on the final, pre-proofreading edits of The Thousand Emperors, which turned out to be a fairly substantial draft in and of itself. Things were moved around; large chunks of text were chucked, others introduced, background details (hopefully) more clearly aligned in relation to each other. I had someone say he thought it was the best thing I had ever written, which is cheering.

After that, I needed a break. I've been taking a couple of weeks out from writing, excepting this blog entry here, a few occasional notes when they spring to mind, and some more proofreading. this time on a chapter I contributed to Keith Brooke's latest project, a book of sf criticism called 'Strange Divisions and Alien Territories: The Sub-Genres of Science Fiction'. I've seen a PDF of the complete thing - other contributors include Justina Robson, Alistair Reynolds. Paul Di Filippo, Adam Roberts and, frankly, a whole crapload of talented writers. In a fit of potentially suicidal editing, Keith has seen fit to make my chapter the first in the whole book, barring the introduction. My piece is called 'From slide–rules to techno–mystics:
hard sf’s battle for the imagination' (try saying that after sucking on some helium).

Sometime this weekend, I'll start trying to get back in the frame of mind for writing the next book, which I strongly suspect is now called River of Light. I had thought of A River Across the Sky, which is nice, and kind of borrowed/ripped-off from a Jonathan Carroll book, but River of Light, on the other hand, feels more entirely my own thing. Also, since it's set in the Shoal universe, it's a title that fits in nicely with all the other books in the series, excepting Nova War, the name of which was an editorial decision outside of my power. But then again, I was never really able to come up with a halfway decent title for it myself.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to paint damp seal all over a stripped bathroom wall. Some things apart from writing still need to be done.